Observations of time

Time is especially peculiar. Mathematically, it’s a dimension just like space. But time is perceived far differently. There is no direct evidence for the past or future, for instance. They cannot be observed. There is also the unexplained ‘velocity’ of time. It passes all on its own. What accounts for these profound differences between time and space?

Is time an illusion?
Plato argued that time is constant – it’s life that’s the illusion. Galileo shrugged over the philosophy of time and figured out how to plot it on a graph so he could get on with the important physics. Albert Einstein said that time is just another dimension, a fourth one to go along with the up-down, side-side, forward-back we move through every day. Our understanding of time, Einstein said, is based on its relationship to our environment. Weirdly, the faster you travel, the slower time moves. The most radical interpretation of his theory: Past, present, and future are merely figments of our imagination, constructs built by our brains so that everything doesn’t seem to happen at once.

Einstein’s conception of unified spacetime works better on graph paper than in the real world. Time isn’t like those other dimensions – for one thing, we move only one way within it. “What’s needed is not to make the notion of time and general relativity work or to go back to the notion of absolute time, but to invent something radically new,” says Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario. Somebody is going to get it right eventually. It’ll just take time.
– Erin Biba, San Francisco-based writer



12 thoughts on “Observations of time

  1. That was very helpful. Thank you. But I think you’re wrong. Only material events are empirically verifiable. There’s much debate among physicists and philosophers as to the nature of space and time.

    I’m just thinking out loud with this post. I see a strange connection between time and consciousness, something to do with perceiving the rate at which time elapses.

    Or maybe my intuition’s misfiring.

  2. Hm. Well, the past is definitely observable through books, periodicals, film, photographs so there is evidence that time passes. Future is certain because past experience (and above evidence of the passage of time) shows us that time continues to move forward. I could be misunderstanding you, probably am, but …. what were you smokin when you posted this?? ;)

  3. Hey now, I’m drug free ;)

    The past isn’t directly observable in the sense that you can’t point to it and say, “There’s the past!” The present moment is all that exists to us. Past and future are psychological constructs that we use to make sense of time’s apparent ‘flow’, just as physicists use the mathematical model of space-time to understand material events. Models have utility. We can use our understanding of the past to predict the future. But understanding something psychologically or mathematically doesn’t necessarily tell you about it’s reality.

    Science relies on observation to produce truth. If only the present moment of time is observable, what does that tell us about time? I’m not saying that the past and future aren’t real. I’m saying that there’s a vast difference between them and the present. The moment has a special quality to it since it’s the only slice of time that’s experiential. Why is that? Why are we confined to a point on the time-line that moves on its own accord, yet we’re free to explore space in any direction?

    This hurts my brain. But I swear there’s something in there that’s making sense. I’m just unable to put it to words…

  4. I apologize—I didn’t realize you desired help, and I wasn’t certain that the question was not intended to be rhetorical, so I did not wish to write a long reply.

    Yes, there is certainly something different about time, though as you suggest, it could perhaps simply be a construct by our brain to help us understand the universe. Perhaps other beings might not experience time from moment to moment like we do.

    Science deals with a great deal of material that is not directly observable; that alone is insufficient to disqualify it. When I was responding to your question, I assumed it meant can in the sense of what is possible, not what science is currently able to do.

    Space and time were originally part of the untouchable background framework, but recent scientific theories increasingly make them active players. Einstein’s relativity showed that space and time are different aspects of the same entity. Quantum mechanics suggests that the smooth substance of space and time break down at very small scales. And string theory predicts a specific number of spatial dimensions, the first major theory I know of which predicts these rather taking them as givens.

    However, these theories are still a long way from explaining the origin of space and time, though I do believe that it will one day be possible, even exploring the asymmetry between space and time.

    But as to why we perceive space and time in such different manners, I don’t know. And how much of this reflects an actual space-time asymmetry and how much of it is peculiar to our brains, I don’t know either.

  5. I have little to say on this.. i think the best answer was given by augustine: I know what it is as long as you don’t ask me!

    Perhaps Seal had it right in one of his songs (which I paraphrase ): “time is the space between me and You.”

    I think there are degrees of time and they depend on the level of being: this goes back to the famous Quranic saying that the world was created in an instant, the blinking of an eye, but that it is also occurs over six ‘yawm’ (periods). The time of a stone is not that of a butterfly and both differ from that of man.

    We have a subjective sense of time pasing, time’s arrow. In the end , I think donnie Darko had it about right when he said that destiny is an arrow, a direction, not a fixed state. From one angle time and space will appear fixed, as in a Parmenedian universe, but from another it is a dymamic process that is ‘free’ in its unfolding: being and becoming, an instant and a process.

    And yes, you won’t be surprised to hear me say that I don’t think science will understand this. To the extent that it does it will become religion or apporach the insight of the mystics. Until then, it will always be at the outer skirts of the mystics’ garments…

  6. Darmok and Khalid, I appreciate your thoughts. I’m leaning now more towards the subjective experience of time, and consequently I’ve changed the title of this post. Darmok mentioned that perhaps there are beings who experience time differently than we do. That suggests perception somehow has temporal constraints. What, then, can be said about why we humans experience time the way we do? That’s not so much a question about the nature of time, but of the relationship between time and its observer.

    I think one of the main reasons I want to see what science has to say about this is to compare its ideas with the philosophical and mystical equivalents found in Buddhism, Taoism, and contemporary teachings of enlightenment. The latter practices are quick to point out that only the present moment exists to us, which is undeniably true (and then, of course, going on to propose how to live or be based on that axiom). But none of them have been able to explain why that is.

    Khalid, maybe you were right with your first quote. Analysis can sometimes obscure what one’s analyzing. Our intuitive understanding of time might be closer to the truth than any questioning can reveal. And perhaps the truth of it really isn’t that significant.

  7. JA:
    “What, then, can be said about why we humans experience time the way we do?”

    Is that a legitimate question given that the observer himself is in time? would we have to be in some sense ‘out’ of time to answer that? Doesn’t philosophy stop there: we can only know the limits of appearance , not the thing-in-itself?

    yes, I think you make a profound point about the Enlightenment..it is , i believe, one reason for the nihilsim in much of modern culture (Just been leafing through Rieff’s Sacred order/Social order and so am probably unduly negative here). It seems like that part of it was a pure disdain for the past, a reaction to it; the other half-the neglect of the future- is implicit in some readings of capitalism (certainly Daniel Bell reads this as athe fundamental cultural contradiction of capitalism).

    What would it mean to live only a moment, unconnected to the past or the future, memory or hope? Perhaps such a fragmentariness is a vision of hell. Of course, there is the mysics’ “Now” but let’s not get into that…

    I look forward to your musings on what you’ve been reading. My personal experience-for what it’s worth-was that the
    more I thought about it the more it did my head in.

  8. Interesting observations here (from both author and readers), though albeit too scientific for my liking.

    Mind you, I suscribe to the notion that science, like religion, may just be another “lie” we have been brainwashed with.

    Because science is but the opinion of its founders.

    Abstracts are merely ideas to me. :)

    I was once bemused about the notion of Time too, in mid 2006. I blogged about it, then took it down. Because that very post inspired me to write something for an essay competition.

    Now that the competition is over, and after reading this post, I think it’s time for that piece of musing to show up again.

    Cheers to your mind. :o)

    P.s. Heaven&Heck introduced this post in the comments of this post:


  9. Pardon my defensiveness, but I don’t understand how anyone can think science is opinion, much less a lie. If I hold an object in my hand, I can know in advance that the object will fall when I let it go. That’s a fact. And I can know that fact because of scientific method, which is essentially our understanding of the predictability of the material world, including the most basic instances of cause and effect. It’s the reason we know the sun will rise again tomorrow, that lifting weights builds muscle, and that sex can lead to pregnancy. Even common sense relies on a loose form of scientific method.

  10. I understand your concern.

    Let’s just say that science is a production of experiments done by scientists who want to prove their theories right.

    Same goes for organized religion. Minus the experiment part.

    They both hold strong beliefs. Only science seems more…objective. Because of “facts”.

    Whether they hold the ultimate truth or not, that’s nobody’s say.

    Pre-concieved notions are often not original. Society can shape wonders.

    Heck, nothing’s really original in this world anymore, since a long time ago.

    I still stand by the idea that what you experience yourself is what truly matters in the end.

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