Some Thoughts on the Problem of Time

Our lives are dominated by time. I was stuck in traffic this morning and was fearful that I would be late for my first appointment. When I was nineteen I was too young to be accepted for certain jobs and now I am too old to be accepted for certain other jobs. We all have our personal histories that we might put into our cvs or find in our photograph albums. There are many different kinds of example that could be given. Of course, this domination by time is a feature of the society in which we  live, an advanced industrial society with a high degree of complexity in its institutions and a high degree of specialisation in its workforce. We are, as the popular formulation goes, “cash rich and time poor”. In pre-industrial societies time is less pressing and in pre-agricultural societies it is something different altogether.

It is perhaps not obvious that our concept time is intimately connected with our consciousness – that time and consciousness are inseparable. Time is like the air we breathe: so ever-present, so much a part of us that we don’t question its nature in the ordinary course of things. Time is such a core concern that we see it as a dimension of the physical world that we inhabit and we speak of time as the ‘fourth dimension’. And yet our perception of time is bound up with the social construction of consciousness. People exist in time whereas things do not.

Take for example, my computer. Of course it exists in time, look there is the digital clock on the right hand side of the task bar. It is telling me that it is nearly lunchtime and that there is barely enough time left for my current task. However, if I go into my spreadsheet and enter the formula for current date and time so that it is displayed in the spreadsheet cell and then reformat it as a number, the shocking truth is revealed: the date is just a number of days since an arbitrary start date and the time is just a fraction of a day. The computer has no knowledge of time at all: time is just another number format.

You might object that things exist in time because they have a history. There was a time before my computer existed and there will be a time when it doesn’t exist anymore. This cycle is true of all things, including ourselves. Yet without consciousness this cycle has no meaning and no significance. My computer knows nothing of its creation, of its destruction or of its existence. It is only in time because it is in my consciousness.

Consciousness is created from our dialogue with ourselves which is shaped by our dialogue with others. It is the dialogues between people and within people that reflexively creates our language, our ideas, our preoccupations and the society in which we live. In another society, these things are structured differently so consciousness in a different society is different and its perception of time is different.

When we come to observe the physical world the matter is no easier. I am always troubled when I hear some populariser of science saying something to the effect that when an astronomer looks through a powerful telescope he sees stars that are so far away that he is seeing them as they were millions of years ago because that is how long it has taken the light from them to reach us. This kind of talk is fascinating, but it is nonsense. Our consciousness is a feature of the human organism and our conception of time along with it. It is perfectly fitted for dealing with situations where our dialogue is with someone a few yards away or, with the wonders of modern telecommunications, a few thousand miles away. It is meaningful in the situations we are familiar with to treat ‘now’ as though it were common property and the same for all of us. But, when we deal with a larger scale it becomes meaningless. How can we say that we are seeing an object as it was in the past just because it is a long distance away? Surely we are seeing it as it is now, in our present. There is no related consciousness perceiving the object where it is and there is no guarantee that the two nows have a simple relationship with each other. In other words ‘now’ is just a concept that people have created to help them get along with each other and time is not such a simple matter as it first appears.

1 thought on “Some Thoughts on the Problem of Time

  1. I think you should explore the intersection between this post and the one on intentionality and responsibility. In the same way we see only a star now, and not the origins of the universe, we judge the effects of actions now, in our present, instead of the original intentions of the actor. Indeed, an actor’s own view of his intentions is warped and blurred by the passage of time and by the on-going effects of the action. We see only through a glass darkly, whether looking backward, forward, or at the present. “I meant well” is, in my mind, the weakest of excuses in the real world precisely because time is implacable and corrosive.

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