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Is it time you thought about time? Like all concepts it dissolves when you examine it. Behind time lurks something much more real, but unlike time, we cannot explain it.
We use time to measure and organise the present so we can get things done. But actually we spend more time planning the future, and remembering the past, than we spend experiencing the present. As George Carlin puts it: “The future will soon be a thing of the past”. The whole vagueness of time is captured by Carlin here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaR3sVpTB98.
So what exactly are we measuring and organising? We tell ourselves, “Look ahead!”, then confuse ourselves by saying “Be in the present!” Where the hell are we again? As another wit (called anon.) said: “Today is a gift; that’s why we call it the present”. It’s confusing to realise that the past and the future are both in the present, but they are. We don’t time travel when we plan or remember. So do we really need time?
I think time is not really there at all. It is just a measurement, like working out what’s number one on the Hot 100 or how Tiger Woods’ handicap fluctuates. It must be just a convention, because everyone measures differently, and no-one measures accurately.
We measure time using clocks for hours, and calendars for days, months and years, and these two tools can give us a clue as to what we are talking about when we talk of time. “It’s time!”. Is that ‘now’, or ‘then’? Now it seems is really all we’ve got. It’s now or never.
Calendars date from the Bronze age, about 1200 BC, when large groups of people starting moving about, invading and destroying other cultures. I can imagine it might have been interesting to see how long that took.
What calendars measured then was the sky, the place we can’t see for smog, and the motion of the sun or the moon in the sky. Some cultures based their calculations on observation of the sky, others on pure mathematical theory. In Egypt there were three seasons that dominated the life of every Egyptian: flood, growth and harvest, and they were measured by the rising of the star Sirius. If there was a miscalculation, the people could die of starvation, or experience a lean year.
Calendars have varying starting dates. The Islamic calendar starts from the Hijrah, July 16, 622 AD in our notation, so it is the year 1437 for Muslims. For Jews it is the year 5776, starting from the Creation, 3760 BC. For Hindus, who date the calendar from the death of Krishna in 3102 BC, it is the year 5118. The Romans began things in 713 BC at the founding of Rome, so if any were around today it would be the year 2729. The ancient Greeks dated things from 776 BC, the date of the first pan Hellenic Games in honour of Zeus at Olympia (though Athenians dated years by archons as well) so if any had survived, it would be the year 2792 for them. These starting dates have one thing in common. They are all imaginary except the Hijrah. Put representatives of each of these groups on a committee for calendar reform and you would have to wait a long time for results.
The ways the day was eventually divided up into hours, and the chronometer developed to make sure Europeans were not late in despoiling less advanced cultures, coincided with the birth of modern science; until we invented the atomic clock and became more precise (but still inaccurate). And the divisions of the year into weeks and months in different cultures were various and ingenious. But it was all, and is, a security blanket.
Accuracy was a hopeless aim, so the gods were called in. Observation was inexact because of lack of magnifying tools; mathematics was far from sophisticated in most places; and historical calculations of important dates were based on legends. The units measured – the motion of sun and moon – changed, though imperceptibly to humans, as the solar system, and the universe, evolved and changed along with mankind. We still have that problem, and despite our science, are still behind the 8-ball.
But it doesn’t matter. Nobody in earlier periods was really telling time (as Carlin says, time tells us), just modulating agricultural or religious rites. It was a vital procedure to prevent people from dying ,or angering the gods. It was not measuring time really, but measuring change in the earth as indicated by the sky. And now, today, we just mark time.
We live in a universe dominated not by time but by the element of change, comprehended by us as motion and interaction through space. As far as we know change was unprecedented, and everything before the universe began was one, motionless and eternal or changeless. Was change an imperfection? Is the universe a healing process? Did god err and did he fall, and correct his fault through the creation of the universe? Maybe that was why he was so hard on Adam?
Of course we can’t answer such questions. They reveal the barriers we have to comprehension of our being. But we do know that every microbe, animal, tree, stone, sun, galaxy and the universe is going through this process of change. When we celebrate a birthday or look anxiously in the mirror at the line that has appeared below our eyes we are facing one of the great mysteries of the universe: change.
Almost all matter examined by scientists consists of rotational fields. Elements of various kinds rotate around a centre of complementary particles. This is true throughout the universe, from molecules to galaxies. The fields of particles interact with one another, and this interaction modifies their fields and produces new combinations of particles. This is change.
This is why we can never travel to the real, as distinct from the remembered, past. We can never undo the millions of changes at the atomic level going on all over the universe.
And this is how we respond to change, we measure it. Change consists of many things: life, death, mutation, evolution, precipitation, erosion, atomic half-life and many others. And the change is first and foremost for us in our own bodies, only to a lesser degree in the sky and the seasons (which in any case we measured for our self preservation). We live in, and are part of, a kaleidoscope.
Overwhelmingly, we are conscious of change. We are born, and develop an awareness, we grow, we mature and we age. And we don’t know why, and wish to. Within us we hold the mystery of change, a mystery which makes us part of the whole universe. Together with the universe, we started from we know not what, for reasons we also don’t know, and are engaged on a journey we know not when, where or why.
Time is limited, time ‘runs out’. “You cannot step into the same river twice” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. It is always renewed. So we must ‘manage’ time. Time waits for no man. “Seek not to ask for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee” said John Donne. Time became the basis for morality. A life well lived was a life where time was well managed. Prayers and feast days were observed in due course, and when the final hour falls the faithful will be judged accordingly.
The mysterious thing about time is that no matter how we measure it, no matter how developed the planning and memory parts of our brain are, we experience only the present. It is always now. It is now we feel the change working in and on our bodies and on our minds, having conveniently ignored this awareness all the days of our youth. It is now we experience the past and the future. The older we get the more we seem anchored in this present, this now. As we age, change becomes more and more real. We gather the past and the future to us.
Time becomes a concept useful to sort this barrage of impressions of many nows. We invented chronology, which orders events in time.
Religions first came up with this idea as a way of persuading god to answer prayers (‘god’ comes from a root for that which is prayed to or invoked). There is linear chronology, which accents the creative power of the beginning, and the judgmental power of the end; and cyclic chronology, which emphasises the huge temporal scope of the divine compared to the human. Chronology was praise of god. Chronology also helps us grasp the growth of the universe, the earth, and our own selves.
Time is a useful construct of the brain, but it is not real. It is an organisational tool that lets us negotiate experience. Change is real, but although it seems to exist in time, it doesn’t. It exists in the nature of the universe. Time is relative. Relative time is a common experience: waiting for something occupies different lengths of time depending on hopes and fears of the one who waits. It’s subjective, no matter how you measure it, or how exactly. On the other hand change is a mystery we’ve never understood. Like chronology, it appears to be both linear and cyclical. Life in the universe evolves and changes, not because of time passing, but by the nature of its changing components.
And yet, despite:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo, the Bird is on the wing,
as Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam has it. It is still literally true, that there is no time like the present.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.