Monday 26 August 2019

A Sense of Time

A piece of artwork Melissa Taylor says that she made using newspaper and 
charcoal, when inspired by the song ‘Time’ by Pink Floyd
Posted by Andrew Porter* 

Plato calls time the ‘moving image of eternity’. Most likely because time and eternity are all tied up together or because time and eternity are a dialectic, yet concurrently an organic whole.

Perhaps that esoteric word ‘eternity’ means exactly this: the melding of ‘time’ and ‘timelessness’ – a covenant, as it were, to let freedom/order live, to let rationality have process and identity, to let life have its optimal day, to sustain a universe that is true to the good and the beautiful.

Actual time, meaning time in the full sense, is local mixed with non-local, only seeming simply local. This non-locality that is very much a part of time is like non-locality and entanglement in quantum physics. Space-time reveals that distance and no-distance are both true. Time is not change, as such. It is constancy as much as change, identity as much as process. And the best way to express this is to say that actual time is a thorough union of the concepts of ‘time’ and ‘timelessness’.

In this view, God would be time/timelessness, or some less awkward term, such as ‘time-full-ness’. No wait, that's still awkward. God would not see all time as a single view, frozen and fixed, but would, as it were, take something else seriously: the thorough integration of ‘time’ aspects and ones of ‘timelessness’—to create an attainment in accord with His values. The Divine may be or see neither time as discrete moments in sequence nor timelessness described as an atemporal block.

One of the biggest conundrums in thought has been the relationship or presumed relationship between time and timelessness. Scientists, theologians, philosophers, and perhaps your next-door neighbour wrestle with the complexities therein. It seems to be relevant to today's world as people try to sort out a balance between doing and being, between stress or contentment. Are they gripped by time or actually freed from it?

The philosophical issue closely relates to what we consider, if anything, Becoming and Being. We tend to like these categories because we think it makes things clear. But our real problem is likely that we assume what ‘time’ and ‘timelessness’ are – and then run off in the wrong direction.
Timelessness seems to have the advantage of being free from plodding pace as a chain of moments, but what could timelessness be without the duration and dovetailing of one phase with another?

Time is physicality; this is a claim that can be clearly made. But we have too many presumptions about timelessness. Current thinking tends to relegate the 'timeless' to a ‘block universe’. If it can’t move it must be a frozen reality and a view, say, by God that sees the big whole all at once. I think this block universe—an atemporality ‘fixed’ as much as space is, and relative one ‘place’ to another, is an untenable view. It only arises as a counterpoint to what we experience as time-passage.

The core of the, I think, wrongheaded, distinction is that temporal and atemporal seem to compete, to diverge, be some kind of opposite. But this is what I encourage us to reconsider. Nature actually shows a contrary impetus: not a separation of time and timelessness, but a convergence. We see clues that nature appears determined to be a composition, of what would otherwise be a non-unity; that is, a consolidation of time's openness and newness, of timelessness' freedom from measure as movement.

All reality—physicality, laws, energy, dark matter, spiritual reality—gives strong indications that it, rather than a bifurcation, is an amalgam, a mix, of what are only conceptually time-as-sequence and timelessness as a vision of the entirety. A further argument would point out that reality is the way it is precisely because it is a threading of the needle between ‘time’ and ‘timelessness’. The emergence of the Lesser Grass Blue butterfly in Hawaii is a fact that supports the idea that there is a synthesis of continuity and newness, a kind of absolute blend of becoming and being, process and consistent identity. The species is replete with aspects that require time; in one and the same species, there is an equal requirement for a flexibility of action across time, or regardless of time.

This melding of what would otherwise be ‘time’ and ‘timelessness’ (a singularity which everything is) both frees you and orders. You are neither wholly beholden to time as change nor locked in a space–time block that shatters choice in the moment. You are, rather, free to make decisions in an open present, and ordered to optimise those choices or ways of life by the transcendence of time that is inherent in real, actual existence. With a newfound time sense, we can be more in the swing of things. 

Andrew Porter is a philosopher and educator who lives near Boston in the United States.
He can be contacted via email at <>


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I really like this post.

I myself would relate this to the bifurcation of things and relations, as reflected in our language. Francis Bacon wrote that there is an ‘evil’ in dealing with natural and material things. As soon as we seek to define them, ‘definitions themselves consist of words, and those words beget others’. It is an infinite regress. That regress, when we look more closely, is composed of things and relations. And there is an infinite regress of both things and relations. There are things within things, and relations within relations. It all vanishes into infinity.

The paradoxes of Zeno play with the problem of existence and change. Suppose I try to run a mile. This is impossible, he wrote. I must always reach a half-mile first, then half of the next half, and half of that, and so on ad infinitum. Therefore I shall never reach the finish. Zeno was speaking of a world which, on the one hand, seems fixed before us in ‘snapshots’, yet on the other hand moves and changes in time. Reality seems real (the snapshots), yet my mind deals only with elusive things and relations, always moving and changing, an infinite regress.

So there is, I think, something behind the bifurcation of timelessness and time, rooted in the way our language works. And tour language offers some insight into ourselves and our reality.

Keith said...

I enjoyed your take on time, Andrew.

There clearly are sundry ways to describe time, as your post reveals. One point that especially caught my eye is your suggestion that ‘Time is not change’. Perhaps; but maybe time *is* change. Last year, my Pi essay on time advocated that point: correlating change with time (‘Is Time What It Appears to Be?’, ).

One of the interesting dimensions of time you touched on entails ‘entanglement’ and ‘nonlocality’ as they relate to quantum theory. That is, a change to one particle instantaneously resulting in a change to the states of another (entangled) particle. Startlingly even if across the galaxy. This quantum feature seems to defy (though probably not really) the upper bound on velocity. What’s going on with entanglement, in relation to space and time, is one of quantum theory’s more-head-scratching curiosities.

Speaking of philosophy and science, I, like you, have little faith in the concept of a ‘block universe’ (space-time block) and what it supposedly does to time — its past, present, and future. What caught my attention was your saying, therefore, that ‘You are … free to make decisions in an open present’. The statement raises the old saw of free will, and the search for credible evidence of whether we’ve got it or not.

By the way, just curious: does your reference to ‘eternity’ — tethered to what you refer to as the ‘singularity’ formed by ‘time’ and ‘timelessness’ melding — equate to what might otherwise be called infinity? Or do you see the product of that ‘melding’ as something entirely different? In this same vein, the essay’s relating time and timelessness to ‘creat[ing] an attainment in accord to His [God’s] values’ is intriguingly suggestive. But I do wonder where tugging on the thread of that thought might lead philosophically and theologically.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Reminds me, I had a question about the Lesser Grass Blue butterfly: 'In one and the same species, there is an equal requirement for a flexibility of action across time, or regardless of time.' I didn't understand this, and would like to know more.

Andrew Porter said...

Your questions are good ones, Keith and Thomas. It may be that any individual time-manifestation is not isolated, but rather is suffused with and a portion of the "time" of the Whole (more than a sum of things in the universe). This Whole (what Plotinus calls the 'total unity', elaborating that "the unembodied is the free"), I surmise, has a Special Flexibility to be the smallest iota of time or all time. This freedom may come from a will to see its values flourish. Everyday things, I think, are a different kind of measure than we commonly assign them with 'time'. It could be that they are infused with the wholeness of which they are a part. Everyday things, perhaps, are less a fixed time-measure and more a fusion of bound and unbound.

docmartincohen said...

i was intrigued by the opening comments on eternity. Surely eternity is to time as infinity is to distance, evoking, as Thomas says, the hare racing Achilles.. And nowadays we talk of different levels of infinity, not all infinities are equal. So too perhaps there are different levels of time and eternity, that is, time unrolls at different rates depending on not just some relativistic measure, but some more profound cosmological one.

Keith said...

By way of brief clarification, Andrew, of an earlier comment, one way in which I think of time and change as the same is how the arrow of time and entropy seem to tightly correlate.

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