In my 20s, after I had made a career shift from philosophy to law (and became a criminal defense attorney for the Legal Aid Society), I took a trip to Boston to visit my old philosophy professor and mentor, Dr. Robert Neville.
At the time, he was teaching philosophy at Boston University. He invited me to an “end of the course party,” which his graduate class on “Philosophy of Time” was throwing. At that point of my life, the issue of “time” was a matter of the length of incarceration that my clients were facing. The idea that time’s meaning posed a philosophical question seemed almost silly to me. I was wrong.
Almost a half-century later, I am much wiser (I hope). I now appreciate the fact that the essence of life is time. Yet what it is can best be described as maddeningly ambiguous.
How important is it? R.M. MacIver described it this way, “Time affects us in many ways. We use it; we abuse it; we enjoy it; we fear it. The way we respond to the challenges of time is a test of what we are, of what we are becoming. We grow older day by day, older in the calendar. Does that fact disturb us greatly, little, sometimes, often? How else are we growing in the same time? How much of our time do we really enjoy doing what? Do we frequently or seldom feel that the time was well spent? The answers we would give to these questions reveal our philosophy of time. We all acquire one, though we rarely, if ever, venture to spell it out.”
Following up on R. M. MacIver’s challenge to articulate a philosophy of time, I would suggest that time represents three distinct phenomena even though we often confuse them in our minds:
1) Clock or chronological time. Oddly, the ticking of a clock has nothing to do with time. Clocks really measure space. One hour of chronological time is the movement of the sun from any particular point to 15 degrees along its orbital path. The clock on the wall is set to correlate with the sun’s motion. Although we constantly refer to, concentrate on, and run our lives in connection with what our watches or clocks indicate, this is perhaps the least significant of our concepts of time.
2) Subjective, psychological or experiential time. This comprises our individual experience of the continuum of our consciousness. Consciousness and time are, in this view, one. When we are asleep or unconscious, time is frozen. But the minute we awake it continues once again.
This subjective view of time allows us to appreciate an insight we have long had about time’s pace. Yes, time flies. More specifically, when we are children it seems to move at a snail’s pace as we eagerly anticipate life’s experiences. As an adult it accelerates to a pace of almost demonic speed. Psychological time varies with our body temperature: the higher it is, the slower time passes, if lowered time speeds up. The same is true about our metabolic rate. Illness and disease can produce extreme variations in how we experience time. So, too, drug use can induce extreme alterations in time experience. Under many of these conditions, “clock time” may seem to pass incredibly slowly.
We often say that time “slows down” or “speeds up.” But in relation to what? What we mean is that our experience of chronological time (ticks of our clock) has been altered one way or the other.
3) Real time or matter in motion. This consists of the sequence of events in the real world. The sun rises, clouds gather, it rains, night falls. While we calibrate these changes in the real world with our clock time and our subjective time this view posits time running independent of our perception or calibration. Newton introduced this concept of “absolute time.” He believed that time is a universal medium, unaffected by the events that occur inside it. This analysis dominated western scientific thought until Albert Einstein’s work demonstrated it to be an obsolete if not also incomplete concept.
OK, so these are moderately interesting visions of time but let’s talk about us. How do we experience time? The nature of our experience of time is our personal fusion of past present and future in a constant and sometimes dizzying experiential carousal. Many of us find that our ideas of the past, present and future run incoherently together. An entire cottage industry of self-help books, courses and even cults have thrived on the notion that our obsession with the past and concerns over the future have caused us to miss the present. All of these self-help efforts can be gleefully jettisoned if we merely embrace a healthy philosophy of time.
To develop such a philosophy, we start by narrowing our focus. For starters, I would like to define time as the duration of our consciousness. In my view, the present is the perceptual time span of that duration. How long the duration is depends upon the nature of the perceived events that make up the perceived present. So, our experiences (and memory of them) vary depending on the amount of sense stimuli that are perceived at each juncture. A series of stimuli-say the melody of a song-is usually perceived as a unitary event.
The truth is that our attitude about and perception of time is fundamentally linked to personality. For example, although there is nothing wrong with reliving happy moments of one’s life, it becomes self-defeating when it results in our inability to savor the present. In such cases, the past has become much more that a memory of experienced events. It has taken on the function of a nostalgically distorted blend of fact and fiction providing a comforting mirage, but in the process blurring our ability to see our present reality. In this scenario the future also serves as a confused mélange of possible events and impossible “castles in the air.” The result is that any ability to experience the present is lost.
So, what are we to do? I suggest we look to a branch of philosophy we have talked about several times in past columns, Existentialism. Perhaps the greatest contribution of Existentialism is its insightful view of our experience of time. This branch of philosophy is itself basically a philosophy of time. It instructs us to value our immediate consciousness and it counsels us to exist as fully as possible in the “now.” For the existentialist the past is only something that is to be utilized in the service of the present while the future, rather than controlling, is but a set of dreams to give our lives direction and purpose. Sounds good to me.
I would like to share more, but I’ve run out of time.