Monday, February 10, 2014

Some thoughts on time

Way out, way back

Time is sometimes considered as the fourth dimension of nature, alongside length, width and height. Yet, if we see it that way, there is something strange with it. We can go up and we can go down. We can make a step forward and we can make a step backward. We can go right and we can go left. And we can stay at the same place. But how about time? Time develops continuously and never stands still. Moreover, time develops always in one direction. It goes always forward. We can’t go back in time and we can’t stop the time for a moment. Always forward? There is also a recurrent vision on time possible in the sense that things come back after some time. That time develops in a circle, or maybe in a spiral. In some cultures people have a recurrent vision on time based on the yearly return of the seasons. One can call it a circular vision of time, but I think it is better to call it spiral, for things come never back in exactly the same way as before. In this sense time is a kind of ongoing development, also in the recurrent vision.
Time does not develop with a constant speed. It is even perspectival. In physics − so from a third person’s point of view in philosophical terms − the theory of relativity says that the speed with which time develops is dependent on the speed and position of the observer. So when you make a trip to the moon and come back to the earth, your watch has lost a few seconds (or maybe minutes; I don’t know) by comparison with the watches of the terrestrials who welcome you after your return. You have spent a bit less clock time on the trip than the terrestrials on earth “during the same time”, so to speak, when you were absent. From a first person’s point of view − the way you experience and feel what is happening − the phenomenon of unequal development of time is well known. The subjective length of time seems to depend on the number of new experiences you happen upon. Therefore you have the feeling that the way out lasts longer than the way back, for on your way back you know already what is behind the next corner. It explains also why during your life time seems gradually to go faster. When you are old, time flies by comparison with time in your youth. It is because when you are young lots of things happen that are new to you, while when you have get on in years the number of new experiences becomes increasingly smaller. You have become an old stager who cannot be surprised any longer. And when nothing happens at all, time seems to last an eternity, as my instance of the prisoner lonely in his cell shows (see my last blog).
My example of the way out and the way back seems to suggest that time is independent of distance, for, of course, both are equal when measured in metres. I think that it shows that we must discriminate between subjective time (duration as it is experienced) and objective time (duration as it is measured with a clock). From the subjective (first person’s) point of view time is nothing but a certain experience. It’s merely phenomenological and it can pass quickly or slowly, depending on the occasion. However, the difference between subjective time and objective time (time seen from the third person’s point of view) is not as big as it might seem at first sight. That time passes quickly or slowly as it happens is also a bit true for objective time, where duration depends on position in a world of moving objects (including the position itself). Maybe it is not that the speed of an object depends on how this object is experienced, but it does depend on how it is perceived. One step further would be to say that time depends on the presence of consciousness. It would imply that time did not exist before the appearance of creatures with consciousness like man and some (higher) animals in this universe, and that it only exists there in the cosmos where consciousness exists. The ancient Greek would have called having such an idea “hubris”.

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