Saturday, March 18, 2006

Time's Just No Thing

Once, in the arrogance of my naivete, I asked some twenty young men -- Seniors at a Jesuit prep school where I taught briefly -- to read a selection of books, mostly in translation. It was my response to being asked to teach a class called 'World Literature.' I did not limit our reading to fiction. My expectation that they would read a book each week was quickly shown to be unrealistic. The point, so far as I was capable of forming one then or now, was to develop the verbal skills they might find useful as they passed through college into the adult world. That is, the class required a lot of talking by them with me to start and fill in the gaps. Some students excelled at this, while others sat shy and silent.

One item on the reading list was I and Thou by Martin Buber. (The young Jesuit who taught them philosophy stammered incredulously: "How did you get them to read Martin Buber?" "By assigning it," was my unintentionally flippant reply.) Early in my intro I pronounced what I assumed would be a throw away line: "There is no such thing as time." I drew breath for the next sentence but froze at the sight of a generously proportioned student, one suitable for the line in football, rising to his feet to demand "What do you mean 'there is no such thing as time'?" For the next three days the rest of the class cheered the verbal ping pong match between he and I. Neither of us convinced the other, and the match was declared a draw. That display of verbal fisticuffs, opposed to his previous silence, earned his 'A'.

But I maintain: There is no such thing as time.

Of course we have watches. Of course the factory whistle blows at certain times. But what exactly is it that these things measure? The duration of our home planet's revolution on its axis? Some portion of the orbit 'round the sun? Does this particular duration hold true for other planets? So that a day on Mars is twenty-four Terran hours? Wouldn't that waste a half hour or so of rotation? Like putting a nickel in the meter as you drive away?

There is no such thing as time.

Our species once lived as hunters and gatherers. 'Time' for them was a succession of seasons. At its most precise it was the alternation of light and dark with the boundary line being most important because that was when the waterhole was busiest.

Farmers pay closer attention to the seasons so as to catch the time to plant and do the other chores based on celestial placement. Their workers made do with 'sunup', 'noon', and 'sundown'.

The Catholic Church institutionalized their rituals into the offices of the day, each accompanied by its distinctive peal of the bells: Prime, Terce, Matins, Lauds, Evensong and Compline to divide the day and night into six parts. Or more. Or less. It depends on your source. It also depends on the historic period under discussion.

Such jobs as there were in feudal Europe -- that is work at will rather than that done as a bound serf -- were paid by the season or the job. In the 1600's a blacksmith might charge four pence for a hundred nails of a certain size -- hence 4d nails. How long it took him to make those nails was less important than that he be able to find a buyer for all he made. Materials were the major expense, labor a minor consideration. House servants in the eighteenth century might be paid by the year, in quarterly portions at each quarter day.

The Chinese divvied the planet's full rotation into twelve 'hours' named in accordance with their system of astral signs: Rat, Ox, Tiger and so on to Dog and Boar. The hour of the Rat straddled our midnight.

There is no such thing as time.

All was to be made anew! So thought the French Revolutionaries. In 1793 France reformed its calendar in line with the decimalization of other measures. "There were 10 hours in a day, 100 decimal minutes in an hour and 100 decimal seconds in a decimal minute, so 0.12345 day = 1:23:45." It gets more fun. The year has twelve months of 30 days each. The year begins with the Autumnal Equinox. Each year ends just short of this event, so there are five or six 'Festival Days" thrown in for padding. These have stirring appellations as: 'Virtue Day' (Jour de la Vertu), 'Genius Day', 'Labor Day', 'Reason Day', 'Rewards Day' and 'Revolution Day'. Each month has three weeks of ten days each. These were called, in a stunning display of Gallic imagination, Primidi, or First Day, Duodi, Tridi, Quartidi and so on. The month names show some flair. The month starting on our October 22 is called 'Fog' ("Brumaire") and is followed by one called 'Snow'. 'Rain' succeeds that. Fair warning. Thank Le Bon Dieu the year begins with 'Vintage'.

There is no such thing as time.

Another revolution occurred at about the same time. John Harrison set about solving the greatest scientific challenge of his day by looking where nobody else looked.
With no formal education or apprenticeship to any watchmaker, Harrison nevertheless constructed a series of virtually friction-free clocks that required no lubrication and no cleaning, that were made from materials impervious to rust, and that kept their moving parts perfectly balanced in relation to one another, regardless of how the world pitched or tossed about them. He did away with the pendulum, and he combined different metals inside his works in such a way that when one component expanded or contracted with the temperature, the other counteracted the change and kept the clock's rate constant. -- Longitude by Dava Sobel page 9

While the Astronomer Royal, The Fellows of the Royal Academy, Admirals of varied colors and Gentlemen Scholars vied with one another to create tables and formularies that would allow navigators to determine longitude, Harrison's solution was two of his chronometers. One faithfully maintained the time at Greenwich's Naval Observatory, the other was reset each day to local noon, this being the best time to take a sighting of the sun which by means of trigonometry could yield the current latitude. So important was this 'nooning' that Noon was the start of the Royal Navy's day. By noting the difference between Greenwich and local noon the distance east or west, plus or minus., was found. For the first time a sailor out of land's view could know where he was.

Still, there is no such thing as time.

The industrial revolution made time a commodity. Rather than pay craftsmen by the work, which gets into a just valuation of quality, Capitalists made a deal with yokels just off the farm to show up for so many hours a day to do as bid for so much an hour. The yokels said the vernacular equivalent of: "hot dam! I get paid real money just to show up." The capitalists moaned about how "We wuz robbed!" while building another villa in the country with their savings. Of course, the yokels sang a different tune when the landlord came for the rent -- another new concept for refugees from the villein economy. Productivity -- doing more in the same time -- was invented to improve the bosses' take. Unions were created to try to even the odds a little bit. The bosses had an answer to that: inflation. Inflation is charging more for the same thing today than you did yesterday. Bill Mauldin showed the relationship between wages and prices by depicting a worker reaching for a basket of food suspended over his head, labeled 'Prices'. The next panel showed the same worker on a small ladder marked "Wages". But the basket was still just out of reach. A third panel showed a taller ladder with the basket still just out of reach. Prices rise as wages rise.

The Economist (of March 5th, 1994, page 15 of the Manufacturing Technology Survey: 'The Uses of Time".) summarizes it as:
In the modern world, everyone can know the time exactly and carry it with them anywhere. In the pre-industrial world, only precise observation of the heavens could provide accuracy, and time was encased in all-but immovable clocks. The difference was brought about and necessitated by industrialisation. Greenwich mean time was taken from London to the provinces by clocks on steam engines, the better to synchronize the rhythms of the nation's work. Time's unmeasured flow became controlled, paid for, subdivided. Factory whistles punctuated it, Frederick Taylor and his stop-watches measured it exactly, punching the clock gave it value.

The comoditization of time led to our preoccupation with time. We now divide seconds into thousands and millionths in a futile effort to gain -- what, exactly? More money? More Time? More knowledge?

Yet there is no such thing as time.

You are tired of the refrain? A thousand pardons. But we are so conditioned to think of time as what it is not that repetition is a needful corrective. What is time? Ah. That moves us forward. Tic. Tock.
Tic. Tock.
Tic. Tock.
Time is not.
Rhythm is.
Times' an idea: Use a rhythm to measure duration.
Understand that and you control it.
If your life is too busy, too harried, too little time: Change the rhythm to one that suits.
By determining what is important to you and concentrating on that.
By using your I to engage thou. Rather than things.
Easy -- Not?
Who said it would be?
-- ml


  1. Now that was a lovely piece of work. How long did it take you? Ha ha ha.

    I really enjoyed this:
    The young Jesuit who taught them philosophy stammered incredulously: "How did you get them to read Martin Buber?" "By assigning it," was my unintentionally flippant reply.

    Not mentioned because I thought the young Jesuit was he, but do you know that Joe Gerics is now headmaster at St. Francis Xavier here in New York? It seems like only yesterday...

  2. this post is a hunk of junk.

    we extend in the dimension of time just like we extend in the dimensions of height width and depth. and that will not be changed by any number of hunks of junk.

    "change the rhythm [of time] by concentrating on one that suits you and concentrating on what's important"

    let's say that what is important to me is far away from me, separated from me in space, and she wants to meet me in a certain space and actually coincide with me.

    only a damned fool would listen to your nonsense.

    you see, thinking that Time is not precious will make nothing but a waste of you.

    farewell with your willed eternity of all that is only ephemeral (and occasionally sobering in that regard, when we're in a certain mood) to the rest of us.


  3. To I am dali:
    Indeed our rhythms are precious.
    We dissipate them by forcing them into thingness.
    I am not selling a philosophy.
    Are you?
    You remind me of a high school senior I once taught.

  4. no i'm not selling anything. except pain.

  5. and i didn't mean that you were a hunk of junk or anything.

    i didn't even mean the post was a hunk of junk.

    it was just a rhetorical trick to lend a certain kind of mania to my words.

  6. I am dali:
    Rhetoric is, frequently, double edged in the hands of any but masters.
    I do not claim 'master' status.
    The cutting edge is where the bleeding occurs.
    I wish you well in your quest to find "she who is far away."
    Thank you for commenting at Dum Luk's. Good night.
    -- ml
    (perhaps next time, maybe, try Luis Bunuel?, or not.:-))

  7. hey! no! it wasn't rhetoric, it was a rhetorical trick!

    that sword i swung at you was made of dull rubber!

    the thing wasn't a hunk of junk.

    i mean you're all right kid.

  8. As I am Dali and Dum Luk are amply demonstrating, it is possible to waste time, in spite of there being no such thing.

    The Scientific American Special Issue on Time was very interesting, and served up a series of fine gems, among which we find numerous in this blog entry.

    There is consciousness - consciousness orders itself according to "something" which we have decided to term Time. Consciousness reflects upon causation, and likes Time to flow in a specific direction, in order for causation to make sense, to our consciousness(es).

    Whether there is an extrarational entity we can term Time is a very interesting subject for study. And in that statement lies a paradox.

  9. Love this stuff. Some physicist - maybe that Einstein fellow - said that time was the real mystery. Another physicist, Julian Barnes, wrote a difficult but exciting book titled The End of Time, in which he makes the argument that time is a fiction. It is so easy to make fun of the idea, since language itself can't really be used without the notion of time embedded. hmm. I think my toes are just barely touching the sand down there. Careful, careful. Anyhoo, he says that the universe can be seen as a configuration space which contains all possible moments. And that what we perceive as the flow of time is merely the result of consciousness (now we're in trouble!) experiencing adjacency of those "Instants of time" that are most likely to be experienced by consciousness. The book is filled with drawings and equations and stuff that make me think it's real science. It might be! thanks again.

  10. I half expected I am dali to command you to repent, Harlequin.

  11. From E.E. Cummings

    there are so many tictoc
    clocks everywhere telling people
    what toctic time it is for
    tictic instance five toc minutes toc
    past six tic

    Spring is not regulated and does
    not get out of order nor do
    its hands a little jerking move
    over numbers slowly

    we do not
    wind it up it has no weights
    spring wheels inside of
    its slender self no indeed dear
    nothing of the kind.

    (So,when kiss Spring comes
    we'll kiss each other on kiss the kiss
    lips because tic clocks toc don't make
    a toctic difference
    to kisskiss you and to
    kiss me)

  12. Seems like I'm not the first, nor the last who came to the idea, that "there is no such thing as time", but rather some relatively absolute rhythms of certain events in certain spaces. From the Universe's point of view the speed of a planet's movement is relative, but its inhabitants see it as relatively absolute. That speed seems to them constant, they cannot change it. But they can change the speed at which they change some things which are in their power; that is called rhythm of life.

    What is time then? Time is space at speed. AFAIK, first there was space, then it started to move at certain directions and speeds. And only then time came into being as a result of interaction between mother's space and father's speed ;) So Time is a virtual child of mother Space and father Speed. It is not independent from its parents. They are all as one, as trinity. Speed of father's logic in spiritual mother's space reflects in the fleshy heartbeat rhythm of their son. Directions, trajectories, patterns -- the fashion of father's logic called the law -- are limited by the space of the spirit and reflected in the living flesh of their child. Loving and faithful child does nothing on its own, but only reflects its parents' interaction. IMHO...

    If you want to be with your faraway loved one, you drop everything and run that direction as fast as you can. The faster is the rhythm and/or larger is the space of your steps, the sooner you get there. If your top rhythm is still too slow and/or your largest step is still too small, you can buy a faster rhythm and/or a larger step: ride a horse, a bike, a rocket, an angel. The more you love, the straighter is your path, the faster is your rhythm and the larger is your step.

    IMHO, time is as symbolic as paper cash. But speed is as real as gold. Monetary systems crash and so crash their cash, but gold always remains valuable. This world will end and so its time, but spiritual values will remain forever. So, having hope in new world and new flesh, let's speedily spend this our limited and symbolic cash for what we love, for what has eternal value. For this is how people become truly happy and rich.

  13. the issue is really that if you want to arrive at a space with a person, and actually coincide, a clock comes in real handy.

    you specify an ordinate in the dimension of time, and your clock is the map that tells you when you're there.

    "Spring is not regulated and does
    not get out of order"

    does not get out of order. --that's great news for anybody concerned about the planet's climate, isn't it. like, hey, wellhey, spring is like a perhaps hand that magically comes fixing everything that gets fucked up. great.

    i mean: great. hey.


  14. > I Am Dali said... the issue is really that if you want to arrive at a space with a person, and actually coincide, a clock comes in real handy. <

    Relatively yes, but absolutely no. Clock is good for measuring the present, but poor for setting the future. If you arrive at the time set by you, you are just lucky, because there always are lots of circumstances ready to disrupt your timetable.

    > you specify an ordinate in the dimension of time, and your clock is the map that tells you when you're there. <

    If you buy a ticket for a plane, but because of bad weather it delays, do you still trust your clock-map? Clock is not a map, rather it's an unreliable compass, because it's unable to detect circumstantially changing arrival times. More reliable but often lost compass is so called intuition. Real map is a true prophecy. Plan is just a more or less realistic dream. And I am a fool trying to talk wisely :) Nevertheless, it's not a clock nor a map that tells me when I'm here, but rather my senses, interpreted by my consciousness. For I feel when I coincide with a person.

    > [Spring] does not get out of order. --that's great news for anybody concerned about the planet's climate, isn't it. <

    Good point, but not in your favor. Spring rarely comes on the 1st of March. Spring is more an event between winter's and summer's events, rather than time. And that event occurs at various times, depending on various circumstances, including climate's changes. In Europe now spring is about to occur, but what about Australia? Isn't there about autumn? Isn't there March or April, too? So artificial calendars and clocks fail when they are out of their "time zones".

    To think that time is something absolute is like to think that Earth is flat. It is relatively true, but absolutely wrong. But, does it really matter? For a natural way of life -- I think no.

  15. Some philosopher (I can't remember who) said "time is a function of agreement." The agreement serves us in ways, so we have solidified it into, as you say, a thing. I thought (and you say something similar) that time is a counting of waves. We could agree on different waves, or wave cycles, then solidify that and time would be something else entirely.

    We have a noun based language, therefore things are most important to us, and we tend to make ideas into things. There have been societies who had verb based languages (I think the early Navajo were such a society, could be wrong, it's been a long time since I studied the philosophy of language) and in those societies, ideas become movement, and movement is what is important. Movement does not mean going forward, in time or anything else, that is a noun based way of looking at it. I have often wondered what we (I) would be like had I (we) developed in a verb based language.

    And you can't waste time. You can use it unwisely given certain parameters agreed upon about what you should be doing, but the time isn't really wasted. (Especially since, as you say, it is a made up concept that is dynamic and fluid.)

    How fun. Thanks for directing me here! I had a great time pontificating. :-)