Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
(A)MUSINGS ON TIME
Still from the reveal of Jody Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor in the longrunning series (whether or not the hiatus from 1989 to 2004 is considered) Doctor Who. Image courtesy of course, of bbc media.
Time has always struck me as one of the strangest things humans experience, despite being an ordinary and universal one (like puberty). I might never have given it any real thought, except for the original Doctor Who and its conceit of a time travelling alien who could run back and forth in time and space as if it were a city with an excellent transit system. I then spent some time trying to figure out from my physics classes whether there was a real possibility of making a time machine, and having been disappointed, one day it dawned on me to wonder about the nature of time, and how it could have properties for us so different from those of space. That said, I am anything but the first person to wonder about this or even write something down about it, as you would expect. A pre-Socratic philosopher named Parmenides worked on the question of time around 550 BCE or so, and philosophers from older cultures such as the Chinese or the Egyptians had probably done so even earlier. But in general, since we experience time as a given, a thing "created together and experienced singly" as Julian Thomas has noted (1996: 137) we usually have no reason to think much about it. When our attention is drawn to time, we can be reasonably sure the process of "creating together" has been disrupted or contested in some way, and that matters to us whether or not we are philosophers (or science fiction fans) for at least four reasons:
- a shared sense of time is necessary for us to communicate successfully
- shared beliefs about time are potent tools for social control
- what a society believes about the nature of time affects what that society chooses to do with its resources
- the ability to experience time as separate from ourselves is a key element, possibly even the source, of our self-awareness
These four strike me as the most inclusive without being dependent on particular beliefs about or valuations of time apart from what I understand to be a true human universal: that we all experience time as something that happens to us, that passes in a manner we cannot control. Before getting into the arguments for these reasons in particular though, I need to lay a bit more groundwork about time itself and what I mean by it.
UPDATE 2022-04-22 - Just today I saw a new article by the authors of a book arguing that time "might not actually exist," Out of Time: A Philosophical Study of Timelessness (oxford university press) by Samuel Baron, Kristie Miller, and Jonathan Tallant. The book sounds genuinely interesting, and from the look of it Baron et alia are inclined to argue that what we call "time" is an emergent phenomenon not appropriately projected into quantum scales. Whether they would agree with me that the notion of an "absolute time that can be defined for the universe" is itself nonsense I couldn't say based on the marketing blurbage in the essay. The subsection on "Time and Agency" is frankly, foolish, and a kindly editor would have warned them to delete it or seriously rewrite it, because the reductio ad absurdum is insulting to the reader at best and suggests their book is not serious. That is quite obviously not what was intended, and I am sure since they are making a philosophical study they took care to properly separate the shared time of human existence and direct human observation versus highly abstracted models of time suggesting it must exist at all scales because supposedly it is necessary for everything to make sense. I suppose they didn't expect enough people to recognize the parallel belief in the luminiferous aether, once believed absolutely necessary because otherwise electromagnetic waves couldn't get anywhere. Part of what went awry with that belief was an accidental overextension of other types of waves that do indeed need to travel through a medium of some kind. It was a reasonable possibility to test for, and completely understandable that the luminiferous aether seemed so intensely plausible and necessary. Yet it turned out to be unnecessary after all.
I suspect that time is so hard to define and speak coherently about in the abstract because it is genuinely something we personally experience as within ourselves but beyond our control. We are able to agree with other people that everyone has this experience of time (as internal and uncontrollable), practically speaking. Yet we have trouble agreeing that we necessarily experience the same time. If we or something beyond ourselves didn't change, such as weather cycles or astronomical phenomena, "time" would stop. There would be no way to measure "time" or enforce it. The fact that we do change, i.e. we age, we get hungry, some day we die, drives us to find a means of measuring time, because our personal time is limited as far as we can tell. I am not convinced that there is such a thing as "absolute time", the stuff that Isaac Newton considered a necessity for existence to make sense. In fact, I think that the developments in physics since the early 1900s show that such a thing simply doesn't exist. Einstein's theory of relativity shows that time is not absolute, though it may approximate "absoluteness" within a frame of reference that is not travelling at speeds close to that of light. If our experience of "time" is in fact the experience of change, then what we experience is the ongoing transformations of energy within our own bodies and the rest of the world that we can sense. Since we are in an energy environment where the second law of thermodynamics applies – disorder always increases – this is what gives our experience of time its apparent direction.
These things said, please bear in mind that I am not saying that "time" isn't a real thing we experience. Rather, I am denying any claim that time is some ineffable substance that exists apart from ourselves and the universe we inhabit, a sort of luminiferous aether for the mind.
The point that shared time is necessary for successful communication is a point made by Johannes Fabian (1983: 30-31) in the course of his discussion of how anthropologists remake other cultures into objects of study. Fabian is discussing a small subset of the population, but the points he makes apply more broadly. By shared time Fabian does not mean merely the sorts of agreements about time we make every day, the ones pertaining to when it is appropriate to sleep, eat, work, perform rituals and the like. He is also referring to those types of agreements in the more complex situations we face when meeting and living with people whose cultural mores are different from ours. We can put in the work to make those agreements happen and keep them in place, thereby bringing our culture and theirs together. Or we can refuse to make those agreements at all, thereby keeping those others firmly separated from us. In the case of anthropologists, Fabian notes that "Exotic otherness may be not so much the result as the prerequisite of anthropological inquiry. We don't 'find' the savagery of the savage, or the primitivity of the primitive, we posit them... anthropology has managed to maintain distance, mostly by manipulating temporal existence through the denial of coexistence." (1983: 121). Coexistence is not denied only by anthropologists. Right now in the mainstream media it is standard practice to refer to people living in countries where Islam is the official or majority religion as "medieval" or in some way estranged from "modernity." Africa does not have civil wars, it has "tribal conflicts" which plays on a racist pseudo-model of "social progression" invented in the mid to late 1800s. This technique is used locally too; people who resist the outsourcing of their jobs overseas or the imposition of unpaid overtime are regularly denounced in the mainstream media as "resisting the future."
If I agree with the claim that a person who resists the outsourcing of their job is resisting the coming and inevitable future, then the likelihood that I will listen to their concerns with respect drops to precisely zero. How could it be otherwise, if I effectively believe that they are inherently unreasonable? Conversely, if a person expects me to believe such a thing about them, even if I don't, their desire to communicate with me drops to zero. Again, how could it be otherwise, if that person expects me to deny their ability to reason? Denial of coevalness is potentially one of the most insidious aspects of racism, because of the way that certain features are stereotyped as "primitive," "savage," or "barbarian." I realize you may find this contention hard to believe, so here is one more example that may be more surprising, at the least: in mainstream canadian society, children are presented across the mainstream media as peculiar denizens of a strange shadow world in which no one has responsibilities or challenges, and they can be expected to act in the most anti-social and criminal ways possible without unremitting deletion of their spare – or more accurately self-directed – time. If you read the descriptions carefully, you will find uncanny parallels between the way children are described, and the descriptions of imagined "savages" in the victorian era.
Chances are, every culture has its own set of internally consistent beliefs about time. Take for example the beliefs evidenced by the time metaphors in mainstream canadian english, starting from the fact that time is apparently limited. My discussion here is inspired by Lakoff and Johnson (1980).
- time is limited, therefore it is like other limited things
- time is money; you can spend, waste or lose time, just as you can money
- time is a moving object; it flies, escapes our grasp, runs away, or less characteristically, drags
- time is like a marathon; it can be gained or lost like distance run during a race
The concept of time as limited and therefore something that should not be wasted is overriding in mainstream canadian culture. Overriding to the point that it is a full subscriber to time management devices and methods: daytimers, calendars, software, classes and all. Harking back to the old claim by christian preachers that "idle hands do the devil's work" there is a pervasive sense that if not a sin, it is at least an egregious character flaw to waste time. Unstructured time is pathologized to the point that today even children in elementary school may have daytimers chock-a-block with extracurricular lessons and sports. And parents frustrated that their children seem to need constant direction. Many of my colleagues are aggrieved (I use the passive advisedly here) by how incessantly busy they are outside of work when they are supposed to have "free time." Just from day to day, many people apparently feel that there aren't enough hours in the day to get things done, to the point that I have seen entire articles written on the phenomenon of people working on their vacations. In light of how busy these folks feel, they don't have time to follow leisure activities they value, ranging from bowling to playing a musical instrument, let alone following political events or writing essays like this one. This sounds to me like a very good way to persuade people they are too busy to be active citizens, or that if they are too busy to participate in the arts, that the arts shouldn't be publicly funded. After all, by this logic, who has time for them anyway? Alas, if only this were a caricature!
The social control aspect of beliefs about time and what is appropriate to "do" with it needn't be as corrosive as this, of course. Sensible beliefs based on observation and instruction about the right time to carry out agricultural activities have certainly been helpful. In many non-mainstream spiritual systems, beliefs about time are used to maintain a sense of direct connection to the universe at large. This can be done through such simple methods as breathing practices such as defining time increments by the length of a human breath or as complex as multi-level calendars or systematic travel cycles over a landscape. However, it is very easy for such techniques to shade into more problematic applications. The use of alarm clocks and bell/whistle signals to move people from one task to another began in religious institutions where monks were trying to perform prayers at the right times each day. It is no coincidence that monasteries developed into the first factories, and that eventually the same techniques were used to retrain agrarian workers into factory workers. The difference between negative and positive social controls lies, as you would expect, in whom the control is vested. The results of a more democratic negotiation and implementation of beliefs about time tend to have different applications and results than those deriving from rigid hierarchies. Returning to the description I gave above of my colleagues, aggrieved by their lack of free time, it is clear that what aggrieves them most about it is that they feel they do not have a choice about their situation.
"What a society believes about the nature of time affects what that society chooses to do with its resources." We underestimate the reality of this statement at our peril, and Europe in particular has already passed through such a time which is astonishingly well documented despite what was happening. I am referring of course, to the so-called "Dark Age" a period that began during the fall of the Roman Empire and continued full-blast until the 1400s BCE and even later in some countries. In that period, the increasingly politically powerful christian church declared that the end times were just around the corner, signalled by such things as the spread of literacy, diverse opinions, and other systems of thought and religion than christianity. On one hand, this was supposed to be a good thing for the saved, who were going to escape this vale of tears for good, and both humanity and the vale of tears itself would end. On the other, quite a few fervent believers in this seemed to have contradictory feelings about this prospect. They wanted to hurry things along by forcing people to become "pious christians" by destroying all other options. Yet by getting rid of those options, logically they would be forestalling the conditions that would otherwise bring the end of days. From such a perspective, the world must have felt like a waking nightmare, with all the non sequiturs of the dreaming world that implies. Under these conditions, the ability of European societies to apply their energy and resources to such basic needs as food, clothing, shelter and bodily security basically collapsed. So many people believed it wasn't worth the effort because things were about to end that they dragged down the others who disagreed or had no opportunity to form an opinion one way or the other with them.
Right now "western" societies are passing through an analogous period, precisely because the belief that this world will be meeting its end sooner rather than later is held by a significant portion of the population again. It's the same "end of the world and rapture" story as before, with a few key variants. The same christian variants that featured in the original Dark Age are at large, including many of the same "signs" (which comes of reusing old documents). The new variants are secularized yet still come to the same thing. The "apocalypse of the nerds" proclaims the impending end of the biological world as the few truly progressive humans upload themselves into computers and immortality, leaving their brain-dead bodies behind. Conversely there are environmental catastrophists, who believe that humanity is fundamentally a parasitic disease that will kill the Earth and therefore itself, or be killed by the Earth in the immediate future. A variant on the same theme is that the Earth will become uninhabitable, and so a select band of humans will escape the Earth altogether to colonize some other hapless planet. With this kind of fatalism going on, it is proving difficult indeed to get serious resources and human energy devoted to sensibly dealing with anthropogenic climate change. We already know what we have to do, and much of what we have to do would have positive effects if we did them just because, let alone with alarming climate change going on (which isn't going to be fatal in any case, though I realize it's going to be uncomfortable for a good while). It is a logical and dangerous correlate to a belief that humanity in general is out of time that on average we have a world economic system that is busy trashing the Earth as quickly as possible so that certain people can get what they can before the party is over. Worse yet, this type of belief easily spurs a self-destructive positive feedback loop.
In 1993, scholar Judy Grahn published her book Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World, in which she argued that what drew humanity into self-awareness was the observation of cycles in nature apart from ourselves, cycles that made us aware of time. From what I have observed, mainstream scholars refuse to take this idea seriously because a lesbian, non-anthropologist, scholar who is also a poet developed it. Yet practically speaking,it doesn't seem such an unreasonable idea. We humans invest an incredible amount of energy and yes, time, in manifesting and handling our self-awareness. It doesn't matter whether we label a given society "complex" or "simple", the fact of that investment still holds. If, as Grahn postulates, and again I think this makes sense, awareness of the body as separate from wider natural cycles played a key role in developing an awareness of self, the drive towards loss of self in many religions and social practices takes on a whole new aspect. Grahn's point is that many religious and social practices force a person to remain aware of their individual body. Menstrual restrictions in "non-western" cultures form the core of Grahn's examples, but we can start from something as banal as not going naked to make the same point. Isn't it a fascinating thought, that sacred practice may have begun as an exercise in separation yet now is focussed on re-integration because so may human cultures have become too separated? On the other hand, it strikes me as extraordinary that there are whole ideologies predicated on throwing back the extraordinary gift of self-awareness altogether, rather than seeking a rebalancing. I think it is no accident that the judaeo-christian "myth of the fall" hinges on Eve becoming self-aware, conveniently conflating self-awareness, a positive, with self-consciousness, a negative. That feeling self-conscious is unpleasant doesn't require self-awareness to be so. And as those of us lucky enough to survive puberty know, self-consciousness really is a temporary state.
Whether or not you find Grahn's hypothesis convincing, it is a fact that the various -isms devoted to remaking humans into industrial and post-industrial workers are themselves intended to blank out self-awareness for at least the duration of a work shift. Workers are encouraged to "maximize efficiency" by using only the most exact and least energy using movements or methods possible. One stream of -isms attempts to break down types of work into the simplest possible components so that no skills are required to carry out the job at all as such. Another stream attempts to expand types of work where people work continuously on a limited number of tasks using computers. Yet another stream derogates the body and encourages a sort of melding with computers all together via computer programming. In each case, people are encouraged to "lose track of time" unless and until the work shift is over, which will be signalled by a bell or whistle. Here we have officially secular ideologies extolling a total loss of self-awareness as the means to achieve maximum efficiency, however that is ultimately measured. Here we have yet another manifestation of the assumption that time is absolutely limited, because if ever "maximum efficiency" is reached, there is nowhere and nowhen else to go. After all, what is left if we jeopardize a feature of our minds that makes us human?
- "Time, Culture, and Identity: An Interpretive Archaeology" by Julian Thomas; Routledge, London 1996.
- "Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Other" by Johannes Fabian; Columbia University Press, New York 1983.
- A "pseudo-model" because it wasn't based on what anyone had observed happening but on what certain white upper middle class men wanted to believe happened.
- "Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson; University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1980.
- By no means am I some sort of superior being who is immune to this, Indigenous lesbian that I am. In fact I do suffer bouts of this sort of thing and actively work against it because earlier in my life I subscribed to it wholeheartedly – and keeled over with stress-related illnesses coming out of my ears, and thereby learned my lesson the hard way.
- "A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science" by Michael S. Schneider; Harper Collins, New York, 1983. Pages 209-210.
It is well worth taking some of Schneider's statements with a grain of salt, but his presentation is readable and a good example of following a lateral path through a topic.
- Good examples of multi-level, multi-cycle calendars include the Mayan and Hindu calendars, while systemic travel cycles were common on the prairies and plains of Turtle Island until very recently. There have been recent studies of those of the Blackfoot and Nehinyaw Nations in particular.
- Barbara G. Walker's description of the European Dark Age in The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets still can't be beat to this day. It is scathing and compassionate at the same time.
- I can't help but wonder if beliefs of this kind are actually addictive in some way. They are difficult to break out of even when the person holding them realizes they are being destroyed them, and may be easily reverted to if the person doesn't take ongoing care. Yet while the belief is in place, the person may feel freed from certain types of responsibility that can be difficult to bear, though this requires regular reassertions of the belief.
- At which point, as many people have discovered to their cost, they are replaced by machines because the sub-tasks can be automated.
- These are not necessary results of trying to "maximize efficiency." A great deal depends on how we measure efficiency and what we consider necessary for a balanced and good human life.