The Elusive Notion of Time

For most of my adult life I have been fascinated by the notion of time. Time, and how we experience it, has many quandaries which science seems unable to satisfactorily explain.

Einstein taught us that time was one of the four dimensions required to explain the physical universe.

Whilst scientists insist that time is a cogent physical dimension of the universe, we tend to experience it differently. Very young children have no perception of a past or a future but (just as the Buddhist sages advise us to do) live in the eternal “now”. But after three or four years they (probably because they have now experienced a past) can begin to envision a limited future Some anecdotal evidence I have read suggests initially they might be able to envisage a year or two forward (perhaps going to school next year or some such) but not much beyond that.. Maybe when they are seven or eight they might imagine what it could be like to be a teenager but they are bereft of any idea of what it is like to be an adult.

In adulthood we have a far more expansive view of the future (except for politicians of course who can’t see beyond the three or four year electoral cycle).

Time as a concept is always relative both in an objective and a subjective way. Objectively we know through the Theory of Relativity that the dimension of time is enmeshed physically with the dimensions of space. Consequently it is subject to the relative effects of velocity and gravity. We know, for example, that astronauts returning to earth from periods in space have not aged as much as their earthbound contemporaries (but only by tiny amounts).

In a previous essay I talked about our subjective experience of time. This is what I wrote:

The dentist says, “This might hurt a little, but it will only take a minute.”

I lie back in agony, my every muscle tensed. Then after an age he says, “Nearly done.”

What does he mean, “nearly done”? He continues the torture, the pace of his progress being something like the rate of tectonic drift.

Finally he says, “All done! Have a rinse now.”

While bending over to get a glass of water, I surreptitiously glance at my watch. Barely a few minutes have gone since I last looked at it. So there was a lot of time here that I have experienced that my watch hasn’t measured. Where did it go?

On another day I go fishing. It is a lovely day with the sun shining, the winds light and the tide running gently. I pull my little tinny up alongside the rock bar and throw out the anchor. I look at my watch and it is almost 7:00am. My wife needs the car later in the day and I promised to be home by 11:00am.

You could hardly say the fishing is electric but I am getting a few bites. Occasionally a fish grabs the bait and whilst I have the baitcasting reel on free spool I allow the fish to take a few metres of line before I strike. Without much effort I catch a half dozen nice bream. When I land the last one I look down at my watch. Good God! It’s now just after ten. I need to up anchor and head off home in a hurry if I am to get there in time for my wife to meet her commitments. As I motor back to the boat ramp I shake my head in dismay. Surely I couldn’t have been there for three hours? This time my watch seems to have measured more time than I experienced. Where did it find it?

Many of the scientific observations about time seem to me to be quite unsatisfactory. They convey partial truths without getting to the foundation.

For example neuro-scientists James Ashbrook and Carol Albright told us our experience of time was a function of our frontal lobes. They asserted that because of this evolutionary development of the brain:

….we humans know that past, present and future do exist, and that human life is finite, In other words, people have a sense of time – of limits and endings and of death itself. People need to remember a past in order to imagine a future.

But this begs the question whether in some sense the frontal lobes sense time or somehow create a notion of time.

Biologists have conjectured that, because they don’t have the frontal lobe development of humans. most animals live in the present without a sense of ongoing time. Robert Sapolsky wrote a fabulous book titled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. His book covered a myriad of topics but when it came to the topic of zebras he had something profound to say. Life would appear to be quite stressful for a zebra on the plains of Africa. They are one of the preferred preys of lions. As a result zebras have an instinctual fear of lions. Consequentially if zebras see or sense lions in their near vicinity they are indeed nervous and wary. But when lions are absent, because zebras don’t have the capacity to imagine future confrontations with lions they remain relaxed and unconcerned.

Compare this with human beings who are able to envisage possible futures. Most of us have great anxieties as a result of these imagined futures even when they are unlikely to eventuate.

The great Hungarian Professor of Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, gave me pause to think. You might recall he created the notion of “flow”. In this state people function very effectively whilst experiencing a sustained sense of well-being. In a lecture I attended that he gave in Sydney in 1999 he described how it feels for someone to experience this state of peak performance. Some of the characteristics of this state included:

  1. Completely involved, focused, concentrating
  2. Sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality
  3. Sense of serenity – no worries about self, feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego – afterwards feeling of transcending ego in ways not thought possible
  4. Timeliness – thoroughly focused on present, don’t notice time passing
  5. Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces “flow” becomes its own reward

In many ways this suggests that those experiencing “flow’ to be standing outside of time, accessing somehow, eternity.

It is interesting that he refers to ecstasy.

He compared those in “flow” with artists. He stated those in “flow” were similar to those engrossed in “creating meaning”. Many described an “ecstatic state” or a feeling of being outside of what they were creating with their hands. Of course, “ecstatic” comes from the Latin for “to stand to the side”. Csikszentmihalyi accounted for this feeling of being consciously outside of time as due to the psychological limits of consciousness. He proposed that at higher levels of consciousness, the more mundane aspects of human experience become subconscious in order to restrict conscious attention to the number of items it can manage and devote undivided attention to those things that really matter.. So a pianist described not noticing the room, his hands, the keys, the score, but rather being conscious of only “being one with the music and expressing emotion”.

Such a person seems to me to be standing outside of time – perhaps being momentarily in eternity. (I can’t avoid the ambiguity of again referring to time – “momentarily”. It is a damned nuisance this time!)

The thirteenth century theologian and mystic, St Thomas Aquinas wrote in Summa Contra Gentiles:

God does not move at all, and so cannot be measured by time; neither does He exist “before or after” or no longer exist after having existed, nor can any succession be found in Him … but has the whole of his existence simultaneously.

We use one word, “infinity”, to describe that which encompasses all space and another word, “eternity”, to describe that which encompasses all time. But the sages tell us that both these concepts are a product of dualism and that really all of infinity exists at every point of space and that eternity is completely present at every point in time.

Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth century Catholic theologian proclaimed:

The Now-moment in which God made the first man and the Now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the Now-moment in which I am speaking, are all one in God, in whom there is only one Now. Look! The person who lives in the light of God is conscious neither of time past nor of time to come but only of one eternity.

Such concepts are not exclusively Christian but seem embedded in most of the major belief systems. For example one could say that the primary aim of all Buddhist practice is simply to awaken to the Eternal Present.

The ninth century master of Zen Buddhism, Huang Po said:

Beginningless time and the present moment are the same …You have only to understand that time has no real existence.

In D T Suzuki’s translation of the  Gandavyhu Sutra (which is the last chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra, one of the most influential scriptures in East Asian Buddhism, written some 500 years after the death of Buddha) he writes:

In the spiritual world there are no time divisions such as the past, present or future; for they have contracted themselves into a single moment of the present where life quivers in its true sense.

In the Awakening of Faith, which is a text of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism it is written that:

The realisation that Mind is Eternal is called Final Enlightenment.

The Indian, Ramana Maharshi, who was a twentieth century Vedantic sage stated:

Apart from us, where is time and where is space? If we are bodies, we are involved in time and space, but are we? We are one and identical Now, then, forever, here and there and everywhere. Therefore we, timeless and spaceless Beings, alone are (the underpinnings of the universe). … What I say is that the Self is here and now and alone.

So then is time just another device of dualism which differentiates one from another using a temporal illusion? I think so. I stated before in another blog that two of the primary devices of duality are ego and time. I believe that is true.

I have referenced many poets, mystics and sages in this blog. It is time now to provide a scientific reference or two for the more rational of my readers!

Albert Einstein had this to say in capturing the essence of dualism:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison.

Louis De Broglie, the French Physicist and pioneer of quantum mechanics also wrote about time:

In spacetime, everything which for each of us constitutes the past, the present and the future is given en bloc …. Each observer, as his time passes, discovers, so to speak, new slices of spacetime which to him appear as successive aspects of the material world, though in reality the ensemble of events constituting spacetime exist prior to his knowledge of them.

Our notion of time is confused by the common assumption about the “arrow of time”. We have come to believe that time is unidirectional, moving from the past to the present and thence to the future. In his book, The Intelligent Universe, Fred Hoyle, the eminent English astronomer, showed that electromagnetic waves can be reversed in time. (In quantum physics there are many phenomena that are not dependent on the forward passage of time,)

Hoyle asked:

Is it conceivable that the possibility of a reversed time-sense future to past, is an exception, pretty well the only exception to this general rule of natural parsimony (the arrow of time)?

He then gives his own answer:

I have long considered that the answer to this question must surely be no, and I have for long puzzled about what the consequence of such an answer might be.

Hoyle’s dilemma would have been solved had he understood that time is everywhere, all at once!

If this sounds implausible to you, here is what Nobel Prize winning, Quantum Physicist, Erwin Schrodinger had to say:

Inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you – and all other conscious beings as such – are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence but it is, in a certain sense the whole.                  This is the sacred, mystic formula which is so clear: ‘I am in the east and in the west, I am above and below, I am this whole world.’(Emphasis added.)

So both the mystics and the scientists would have us believe that the conventional view of time is wrong. Perhaps a useful analogy of time is to look at the experience of going to the movies decades ago. In those days the movie arrived in a canister containing a roll of photographic film which contained a film of the scenes of the movie with an audio track laid down alongside.  The film comprised tens of thousands of frames that were projected onto the cinema screen via a movie projector.

As we watched the movie the frames were shown on the screen sequentially but at sufficient speed to appear to us as not being discrete little bits but as being continuous in time. What’s more the film reel could be projected by running the film either forwards or backwards.

When we took the film reel out of the projector the whole movie lay in front of us rolled up on the film reel. But we could not experience it all at once; we could only experience it by running it through frame by frame.

That seems to be the problem with time. As the mystics and the physicists would have us believe. It is quite likely it exists everywhere and everywhen all at once. But we just don’t have the physical capacity to experience it like that.

Human sensory mechanisms attenuate our physical experiences in order that the mind should not be overwhelmed. For example we can only see the visible spectrum of light and are unable to see the vast array of electromagnetic waves that exist in the universe. We can only hear the audible range of pressure waves in the atmosphere. Dogs and bats, for example can hear much higher frequencies than we do. And so perhaps it is with time. We seem to be able to experience it only (using the above analogy) one frame at a time.

As I have written in previous essays both the laws of mathematics and the laws of physics conclude that the human mind does not have the capacity to understand the universe in its entirety. It would seem that that is why the phenomenon of time will always remain beyond our ken.

4 Replies to “The Elusive Notion of Time”

  1. Entropy is supposed to be an explanation of time, from the scientific method of thinking.

    Happy Christmas to you Ted.

    1. Entropy is another pointer to the “arrow of time”. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics entropy must, of necessity, increase with time.

      Thanks Matt. Good to hear from you. My best wishes for the festive season.

  2. Very good Ted, the last bit where you essentially say that the natural ipso facto cannot comprehend the supernatural is a concise summary. I would normally say “quite”. For ndeed the supernatural world has a completely different yardstick in pi than we do with our base 10 system and the two systems are not mutually coherent. St John puts it nicely in the opening lines of his gospel when he writes “… lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt….” (translating as the light
    shines in the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it)……. May I respectfully point out that your assertion early in the essay that we know something because of the theory is a contradiction in terms of course…. Merry Christmas Ted!….Yours Jack

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