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A Philosopher's View of Time

What is time? Philosophers have debated this and many other questions like it for centuries, with no definitive answers to speak of. Was there time before the Big Bang? Does time exist when nothing is changing? Is the future infinite? Clearly the answers to these questions are relative to the definition of time that is in vogue or currently accepted; hence, the various competing theories.

Some of these ideas have passed on with the passing of their creators, others have been routinely modified and updated, while still others have become rooted into society, or even woven into the traditions of an established religion. Philosophers of all eras have tackled the timeless question of man’s existence and yearned for answers to the mysteries of time itself, perhaps in an effort to comprehend humanity’s role within its sprawling realm.

Time in lines and cycles

“I never think of the future – it comes soon enough”.
Albert Einstein

The Arrow of Time
It is certainly fair to suggest that the concept of time begins within the confines of personal human consciousness. The way that people interpret time is neither universal nor cast in stone, but rather the interplay between various factors including culture and religion. In general, time is viewed in one of two ways; simply put, it can be viewed in the form of a line or in the form of a circle.

Many things in nature occur in recurring cycles. Days, tides, seasons, and years are all cyclic in nature. They happen over and over again. Perhaps because we are surrounded by such patterns, most forms of life have come to adapt to and react in cyclic ways. Molting, hibernation and mating, for example, follow distinctive patterns that repeat in the natural world year after year. It stands to reason, then, that man's habitat and lifestyle would be affected by such naturally occurring cyclic patters too. Beyond that, it is possible to conceive of the idea that there are circular rhythms happening around us right now that are simply too grandiose to measure or even comprehend in one lifetime: re-creations of the entire universe, the persistence of earthquakes, continental shift, and even life and death itself.

The concept of time as a circle is an ancient one that has been incorporated into the mythology and religion of numerous cultures, from the Mayans and Aztecs to Hindus and Christians. Though different in description, each believes in some form of continuous time, either through life after death or rebirth. Others view the endless circle of time from the perspective of the universe as a whole. “Many cosmologists continue to believe that previous universes may have existed before the Big Bang and that other universes may yet rise out of the ashes of our own.” (Aveni). Whether concerned with human life cycles or the potential life expectancy of the world as we know it, the spinning and rotating of days and millennia have been noted by people of varying religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds since the beginning of time.

The linear nature of time can be summarized by the concept of the “arrow of time,” a phrase coined in the 1930’s. It turns out that there are many obstacles to overcome when studying the arrow of time, the first of which is to figure out why it exists to begin with. Why do people recognize a past separated from a present time, which is, in turn, separated from the future? So far philosophers and physicists have not established a definite reason. Basic scientific laws, with few exceptions, are not dependent on time, but could work just as easily “backwards” as they do in our present forward-looking paradigm. In spite of that, processes like a cup breaking or milk mixing with coffee have come to be known as irreversible processes, because as far as we can tell, they only go one way. Glasses don’t generally pick themselves up off the floor and put themselves back together, and coffee doesn’t separate itself into hot coffee and cold milk after the two have been mixed. Though there is only one arrow of time, there are many different ways to look at it. The cosmological arrow of time is the one most people think of when they think of irreversible processes.

The cosmological arrow of time is the one viewed when we ponder the question of whether or not time could reverse itself. This is not the same thing as time travel. If the cosmological arrow were to reverse, we would relive the past in reverse order, not go back to the beginning and simply live it over again through to the present. It is possible that if the arrow of time were going backwards for life on another planet somewhere, they would remember what we would consider to be the future and grow younger as time goes on. If the cosmological arrow of time reversed on earth, broken glasses would indeed pick themselves up off the floor and begin the process of self-reconstruction on a regular basis.

Another way to view the arrow of time is from the perspective of thermodynamics. The thermodynamic arrow of time deals with the second law of thermodynamics, originally discovered by German physicist Rudolf Clausius in the 19th century. His version of the law stated that, “in a closed system, entropy increases,” meaning that everything has a tendency to go from order to disorder. Glasses break, but they don’t go back together again. Time moves in only one direction. Entropy, then, is essentially a measure of the advent of disorder. Ludwig Boltzmann changed the law into a question of statistics in 1872 by saying that entropy does not always increase, but it is merely most likely to. Despite general acceptance, Boltzmann ran into trouble when confronted by the Poincare cycles – a modern-day, scientific version of circular time.

Henry Poincare’s theorem introduced the idea that the hypothetical coffee would in fact eventually split back into hot coffee and cold milk. Even though that would take a very, very long time, he argued that that does not change the fact that it would ultimately happen.

A Poincare cycle is the amount of time that it takes for an object to go back to the way it was before it started changing in the first place. How long would it take for coffee to re-split itself into its most basic components? These cycles essentially conclude that after enough time has passed, entropy stays the same. Because of Poincare, the thermodynamic law was once again changed to say that, “in a closed system, entropy is likely to increase for any period of time short compared to the Poincare period for that system.” Until the millions and millions of years necessary for the coffee to split up have passed and the cycle completes itself, it is going to remain un-split up, moving along, not in circular time, but in linear time.

Another way to view the arrow of time is from a primarily psychological perspective. This “mental line” can be related to the second law of thermodynamics quite easily. As time goes by, more stuff happens and we acquire more memories. The idea that the amount of memories we have increases as we head toward the future can be equated to the concept of ever increasing entropy; the cup cannot be put back together – we can not undo what has been done in our lifetime. The fact that the future is anticipated causes us to continually live our lives moving linearly forward.

Linear time places the recorded past behind us to be remembered while we move forward, toward the unknown and what is yet to come. This makes past events unchangeable in the mind’s eye, while entire lives are spent preparing to edit the future.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
-George Santayana

The future ain’t what it used to be.
-Yogi Berra

Philosopher's view of time - Creatures of the Night

“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”
Vincent Van Gogh

Not everything that roams the earth shares man's preference for daylight and daylight activities. Our eyesight has adapted itself to light-saturated environments, making it natural and practical for humans to be active primarily during the day. Many people struggle with fears of the dark – perhaps due to the difficulties we have seeing well in it. Such fears can usually be traced back to a fear of the unknown, or, sometimes, a fear of the creatures that dwell in it. To us, “creatures of the night” often seem foreign and we develop inaccurate, derogatory stereotypes often due to the fact that we don’t spend enough time trying to truly understand them.

Advancements in technology have played the biggest role in allaying some of these fears by allowing us to probe deeper into the darkness than ever before. Even something as simple as sound recording equipment has made the discovery of ultrasonic communication primarily among small mammals possible. It has also made echolocation, also called bio-sonar, possible in animals such as dolphins and bats. Echolocation is the equivalent of listening for echoes from sound waves the animal emits and then analyzing them. Ultrasonic, on the other hand, refers to anything outside of the range of audible sound. Animals that utilize it can hear very high frequencies and use it for various things such as calling their mates or locating prey.

Humans are diurnal. That means that by nature, we are active during the day and sleep at night. Animals that do the opposite by adapting to the dark are nocturnal. These animals generally have superior sensory abilities, and can hear and see much better than humans can. Most rodents, fish, some types of birds, and deer, are neither diurnal nor nocturnal, but rather do the majority of their hunting or feeding at the twilight hours. Animals with behaviors like this are known as crepuscular and are most active at dawn and dusk.

Nocturnal tendencies are not restricted to a given set of environments either. Everything from European tawny owls to fungus that can grow up to 8 cm (3 in) in half an hour as darkness approaches can be found in the same peaceful woodland. Various kinds of insects, Roe deer, Nightingales, fox, long-eared bats, European badgers, raccoons, and weasels inhabit deciduous forests, all the while wolverines, European polecats, wolves, and snowshoe hares take over coniferous forests at night. In open land areas, Red Deer, European harvest mice, European brown hares, common shrews, moles, the common toad and various kinds of spiders thrive in the darkness. Cats control bird populations in cities, herons stalk goldfish in garden ponds, and rats scurry through garbage, all under the protective shield of night. Swans, crayfish and eels make fresh water areas bustle after the sun goes down, and grey seals, most crustaceans, violet jellyfish, and some dolphins make the depths of the sea active when we are in our world of sleep.

These unique species of animals don’t chose to be active at night, but rather their internal clocks have allowed them to evolve in this way. These clocks can be better described as circadian rhythms, stemming from the Latin “circa diem,” or, “about a day.”

Some studies have shown that when mice are kept in a laboratory where the temperature is kept constant and the light is controlled, the mice's internal temperature, metabolic rate, and hormone levels increase when it is darker, while they remain at rest throughout the artificial “day” that the technician's create for them. Amazingly enough however, is that even if a dim light is kept on continuously, or the mouse is kept in total darkness at all times, this pattern of activity and rest persists. Not only that, but it persists in roughly a twenty-four hour cycle, sometimes rising to 22 hours or dipping to 25 hours, depending on the animal. The two most important factors affecting all of this is time and the animal's circadian rhythm.

The cycle seen here in the case of the mouse applies to all animals, including humans, and is in fact the reason we experience jet lag. The mouse could adjust to a new schedule if the twelve-hour light and dark periods were slowly modified over a period of weeks. With jet lag, however, people are expected to make this adjustment instantly as they cross over time zones, often resulting in negative side effects. Plants too experience this cycle: some look old and wilted after nightfall, while others seem to suddenly appear full-grown. Any change in day length may also alter the frequency at which plants flower, or alter other of their photoperiodic responses.

Aside from circadian rhythms, there are other life patterns that also effect plants and animals, including annual rhythms, continuously consulted clocks, and internal timers. Yearly clocks persist no matter what other conditions may arise, allowing some forms of water fowl to molt at ten month intervals, signaling many kinds of marine animals to breed at the same time each year, and indicating the appropriate time for migratory birds to take flight. Due to another kind of clock known as the “continuously consulted clock,” animals such as honeybees know when flowers are open and ready for them, and only visit them at certain times throughout the day. Yet another type of internal clock controls hibernation. The starting and end points of such dormancy are known ahead of time by a sort of mechanism working within the animal. More so than with humans, perhaps, the natural cycles of time influence nearly all aspects of the lifestyles of wild life.

The Time Is Now

Of these three divisions of time [past, present, and future], then how can two, the past and the future, be, when the past no longer is and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time but eternity. If, therefore, the present time is time only by reason of the fact that it moves on to become the past, how can we say that even the present is, when the reason why it is that it is not to be? In other words, we cannot rightly say that time is, except by reason of its impending state of not being. – St. Augustine; The Confessions, Book XI

The word ‘now’ is often used to denote the present. It also implies that whatever is being referred to in the “now” can be seen or experienced by the person doing the referring. Since the word ‘now’ is such a commonly accepted word, why is it that when you look below the surface, there is still so much controversy and misunderstanding surrounding the word? Even St. Augustine, after giving such detailed accounts of what his contemplative efforts led him to believe the nature of time was, said “I know well enough what time is, provided that nobody asks me.” The question of whether time is even real, and if it is, how to define it, is a question that has not yet been settled.

It is often argued that the present does not even exist, because by the time an instant is experienced or thought about, it is already over. Therefore everything is either past or future. This is the question of the “now.” According to this theory, whenever things are changing, the present becomes the past as soon as it has happened, and whatever is happening at the present moment is the only “now” that exists; everything that has already happened is no longer real. And if the past is the keeper of change, and the past is no longer real, then nothing is changing. If nothing is changing, then time is not passing and so it no longer exists. St. Augustine’s opinion that the present is merely a “knife-edge” between the past and future, and that it is incapable of containing any duration of time, illustrates this view. Any possibility for time travel is essentially erased, because if the past and future do not exist, then there is no possible way to get there.

Other arguments advocate that the present is the only thing that exists. This is the presentist standpoint, that the past cannot be real, because having already happened it is no longer accessible and therefore no longer a part of reality. The future, as well, is not real, for if it were real it would be unchangeable, but in reality no one knows what the future is going to bring. In opposition to Saint Augustine’s knife-edge theory are Buddhists of the Indian tradition. Stcherbatsky, a scholar of Buddhist philosophy, explains that according to their presentist ideas, "Everything past is unreal, everything future is unreal, everything imagined, absent, or mental is unreal. Ultimately real is only the present moment of physical efficiency.”

If the present does exist, the question then becomes “How long does it last?” The idea that it is extended, and not already in the past before a person realizes it, gives rise to the modern idea of a “fourth dimension” of time where people at different locations can possibly disagree about whether or not two events occurred at the same time. This view of time, commonly known as the eternalist perspective, is essentially synonymous with the “Block Universe” view, which gets most of its support from physicists. Unlike the common man’s idea that the past is gone and the future is yet to come, the Block Universe theory does not include a flow or passing of time, but rather insinuates that all events are equally happening all the time. It is similar to looking at time as if it were a painting, seeing dinosaurs, the Renaissance, and cell phones all in the same picture.

Such theories, though they might seem to be irrelevant in terms of a person’s every day life, actually hold within them vast consequence. If the Block Universe theory were to be the globally accepted truth, that would mean that each individual would still exist after death, making any fear of death completely irrational. Such thoughts would drastically affect the standing of religion, invariably causing unpredictable change in world dynamics.

Time To Think About It

“Time is the wisest counselor.”

The concept of time has been evolving over time. This is one of the main reasons why today, we have a broader understanding of time and can study it from a number of open-minded perspectives. Intuition and cultural influence, though they have their place in any area of study, must be thought of as secondary to scientific evidence and research. Putting aside long-held beliefs and rigid predispositions, if only temporarily to examine the unknown is a surefire recipe for generating new ideas and growth in the scientific community. Though each of us has the ability and responsibility to inquire and evolve independently, it is the philosophers' take on time that prods us to continually look at this concept under new light.

Aristotle's (384-322 BC) keen interest in the relationship between motion and time certify him as being a fair representative of ancient viewpoints on time. He realized that the motion of two objects could be compared by comparing the amount of time that elapsed while the objects were moving.

He developed theories addressing the world and its constant state of flux and supported his theories using physics and its relationship to time. Though he theorized about change before he theorized about time, that did not mean that he found time to be dependent on change (that without change, there would be no time). Quite to the contrary, he did not see change as possible without time (so that without time, there would be no change). Time, in the Aristotelian view, was continuous and the number of moments in between moments was infinite. This is similar to the way it is on a number line: there are an infinite number of points between any two points on a given line. However, this view of time also envisions time to be an entity that is countable or measurable, whereas change does not possess either quality; change is merely seen over time. By attempting to count the number of instants that occur, humans essentially decide how time is going to be split up; it is not inherently in the nature of time to be split into seconds or minutes or years.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) rationalized that anything that existed had to have spatial extension (length, width, and height) but not temporal endurance (it only existed in the present, not the past, nor the future). Therefore, for us to exist, we had to be divinely recreated on a continuous basis. Time was therefore nothing more than a divine process of re-creation and since it was divine, it was limitless.

He is also credited with a very well known statement in the study of philosophy: "I think, therefore I am". With that statement, he was proclaiming that the mind was separate from the brain and therefore the body. He rationalized that the mind (which did not have spatial extension) was an extension of the body in space and tried to explain the relationship geometrically via his extended Cartesian plane.

Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) believed that without events, time would not exist. He believed that time was simply the way things were ordered. On earth, no matter how boring a day may seem or how quiet a place may get, something is always happening somewhere, generally even in the quietest of places, and so the results of absolute nothingness are still unknown. This is a part of the reason that scientists are weary of what might happen if a particle was ever made to reach absolute zero, or zero degrees Kelvin, because is it at that point that all movement would stop and consequently, so might time.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) simply found human comprehension of time itself to be impossible. He felt however, that even though we could not define time, we could experience things in time. We would view time the way our mind envisioned it sliced into past, present, and future, thereby establishing what is simultaneous and what takes “a long time.” To him, there was no beginning to time nor could time ever end.

These famous philosophers are but a few in a long list of those who have hypothesized about the true nature of time. Many others have offered unique insights into the nature of time. Some theorize that we do not really exist. Others hypothesize that we have existed forever and always will. As with any subject matter, some theories have more support than others, and all of them have been modified and extended over the years. Our incessant and often fascinating attempts to study and address the issue of time is an indication of its importance to the world today and to future generations. Without time, there would be no seasons, no years, no hope of change, and perhaps, no existence at all.