The substance of time

Evoking the meaningful in the minutiae.

 9 minutes read in tao
Ephemeral clock-time has its counterpoint in an inner duration—that which we experience, our past, present, and future. This article attempts to define what time is through a retrospective of past ideas, from the Ancient Greeks to classic and contemporary science and philosophy. Towards a new paradigm of understanding of time itself
The substance of time
Sketch by author

Time does not really exist without unrest; it does not exist for dumb animals who are absolutely without anxiety. Kierkegaard

Deep in the heart of the Sierra Diablo Mountains in northwestern Texas, a small team of scientists, engineers, and spelunkers is creating the 100-year antechamber that will house the clockwork mechanism of the 10,000-year clock. The idea, conceived by the Long Now foundation “hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.” That hope is well articulated by Michael Chabon1: “Ten thousand years from now: can you imagine that day? … What about five thousand years from now, or even five hundred? Can you extend the horizon of your expectations for our world, for our complex of civilisations and cultures, beyond the lifetime of your own children, of the next two or three generations? Can you even imagine the survival of the world beyond the present presidential administration?” For the way that we have come to perceive and be governed by time is in part the product of our intellect, which has a proclivity towards solid conceptions and static symbols. It is as Bergson says, an “illusion deeply rooted in our mind” for man is “fettered by habits of mind more useful to life than gaining an intuition of his own self”. We always work towards a goal; we perceive movement as a sequence of contiguous points in space, connecting the source with the goal2. Time serves as a means of representation for movement and all objects and phenomena are chronicled by it. According to Maryanne Wolf3, we have an innate need to arrest the motion of objects in our environment in order to apprehend reality. Delay neurons regulate signal transmission. The delay they create lasts only milliseconds, but it facilitates a certain sequence and order in our apprehension of reality. Biological time is not just a fanciful metaphor. The mind conceptualises the inner life as a clockwork mechanism whose tiny cogs mesh together with the large pinions of the universe around us, the complex cosmological movement being governed by the tiny escapement within our heart. Chronobiology4 attributes this endogenously constructed temporality to the body’s natural circadian rhythms. Time permeates and governs manmade things. Our notions of “new”, “improved”, “limited”, “advanced”, used to lure our consumerist desires are governed by time. Development, growth and progress are entirely time-driven. Measurements, the bedrock of the sciences, are derived from and subordinate to time. We chronicle time itself as history — a relating of incidents (which may be true or false) — a practice first initiated by Herodotus and Thucydides5. In Being and Time, Heidegger says that we understand and interpret the present through an co-understanding of the past and future and knowledge itself is located in time, arrived at by a confluence of ideas from the past present and future (Heidegger, 1927, pp. 35). The most basic unit of the present is the now.

In every “now” is now; in every “now” it is already vanishing. In every “now” the “now” is now and therefore it constantly has presence as something selfsame, even though in every “now” another may be vanishing as it comes along. Yet as this thing which changes, it simultaneously shows its own constant presence.Heidegger, Being and Time (Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson), 1962

When perceived this way, the now seems to be tending towards infinity. For when we perceive time as a stream of nows, or an infinitely stretching line, dividing it up into its smallest unit only gives us a now. And because the now is always supplanted with another now which is ostensibly similar to its predecessors, the now seems to stretch infinitely and is an eternity of sorts. Heidegger seems to share the Christian view promulgated by Saint Augustine, that the present and eternity are one and the same. For Saint Augustine, eternity is experienced when we forestall all interpolations of the mind, when the mind is “seized and held steady”. Eternity is at odds with time, which “derives its length only from a great number of movements constantly following one another into the past, because they cannot all continue at once. But in eternity, nothing moves into the past: all is present.” Thus eternity must reside outside of time, for if the present “were always present, and would not pass into the past, it would no longer be time, but eternity.” In order to sidestep these theological associations and to reclaim an eternal notion within time, western philosophy denoted an infinite duration of time as sempiternity — an endless succession of moments. “Nunc stans”, or the eternal now, is a standing still of time rather than an endless succession of time, and according to John Locke, was a concept used to define eternity by the christian theologians so that they “should not be able to render a reason how God’s will, and Preordaining of things to come, should not be before his Prescience of the same, as the Efficient Cause before the Effect, or the Agent before the Action; nor of many other their bold opinions concerning the Incomprehensible Nature of God” (Leviathan, Pt. 4, chp. 46). In the early twentieth century, Henri Bergson6, then one of the most pre-eminent philosophers, adapted the eternal now into his novel concept of “duration”.

The ancient Greeks understood and accepted the impermanence and perpetual flux of reality, as opposed to the fixed and eternal character of ideas. Kronos is clock time—the man-made referential system that uses a standard measure to measure the passage of time. In theory, any regular motion could serve as that standard measure (for example, the pulsation of a caesium atom).

Kairos is the time of opportunity. It is the right time for us; a time when our past experiences coalesce with the present moment. During such moments, we see, think, feel, and act in a way that is in harmony with the scene at play. Dr. Kia Lindroos says that the “cairologic approach neither searches for means of measuring or understanding movement through temporal continuity, nor attempts to control the dynamics of time and action through freezing them. Instead, this approach emphasises breaks, ruptures, non-synchronised moments and multiple temporal dimensions.”7 Cairological time is the time of the body and it is, as psychologist Sam Keen explains that “typically a girl became a woman at first menstruation. A boy became a man in chronos, social time; a girl became a woman in kairos, body time, natural time, moon time. This critical difference became the basis of men’s and women’s different sense of time, their views of death, their experience of their bodies, and their personality structures8. If natural time is moon time, then chronological time, or social time, is governed by the sun’s movement. In fact, the study of the body’s natural circadian rhythms is called chronobiology.

Now time is pure time, time that “flows equably”.

Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year. Newton’s Scholium to the Definitions in Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica

Instead of some reference quantity, what is more immediate than the now?

In this respect, Heidegger shares Saint Augustine’s view that there is no distinction between the present and eternity.

Thy changest not, neither in Thee doth this present day come to an end… And since Thy years have no end, Thy years are an ever present day… Thou art the same and all things of tomorrow… and all of yesterday… Thou wilt do today, Thou hast done today. Saint Augustine, Confessions

Aion is the time of experience and personal transformation.

Duration is what we experience and retain. It cannot be measured and counted, at least not in the western conceptualisation of time.

Beyond these representational systems, our metaphorical models dictate how we perceive time at a personal level.

According to Henri Bergson, intuition alone can help us apprehend duration. Bergson developed his theory on contemplating Zeno of Elea’s paradox of the race between Achilles and the tortoise. The tortoise claims to be able to defeat Achilles, the great athlete, were he given a head start of a metre. By dividing the progress of both into infinite segments, the slow-moving tortoise convinces Achilles that he would win the race. Since Achilles at a particular segment of time must first reach the point from which the tortoise simultaneously departs, the tortoise will always be ahead. Achilles, thus deflated, concedes the race to the tortoise as a fait accompli. Bergson used this story to illustrate the absurdity of trying to apprehend time using the intellect, for to the intellect, motion is but a series of positions in space. Bergsonian duration is that constant dimension of motion.

Our mind has an irresistible tendency to consider that idea clearest which is most often useful to it. That is why immobility seems to it clearer than mobility, and rest anterior to movement. Henri Bergson, Time

According to Bergson, the stationary points do not constitute a movement. “Even with an infinite number of these positions, we will never make a movement.” Since we can only understand in terms of arrested images the actual reality—snapshots in time—we cannot actually conceive of duration. We can only get an intuitive understanding of duration by the convergence of many diverse images “borrowed from many different orders of things”. What Bergson is saying then is that we should not try to understand duration and movement using the intellect as this will only confuse us. We must seek other ways to apprehend the flow of time. Intellect is the product of our evolution, a survival mechanism that enables us to manipulate the material world around us.

For our duration is not merely one instant replacing another; if it were, there would never be anything but the present—no prolonging of the past into the actual, no evolution, no concrete duration. Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances. Henri Bergson, Time

Bergson’s Duration thus bears a striking resemblance to Augustine’s Eternity. Duration is the confluence of our growth and the passing of time.

Duration is that depth phenomenon we associate with reverie.

Speed triggers the release of two chemicals—epinephrine and norepinephrine—that also course through the body during sex.

It was not until the late ninteenth century that standard time was first introduced and then gradually adopted.

Animals, unlike inanimate objects, derive their stability and form from their motion. According to Guy Claxton, if you “pull an animal to bits, whether literally or conceptually, it dies. It loses the integrity, the interwovenness that is its central defining characteristic. And it loses the form that only emerges as a result of this interwovenness.”

Another view of time is that it is cyclical (rather than linear). Nietzsche also sided with this argument, and that events may be repeated. “From this point of view precognition is not so much a glimpse into the future as seeing what happened in the past, in another cycle.”

Kant conceived time as a means of organising perception—not something “given” by the world.

It is utterly beyond our power to measure things in time. Quite contrary, time is an abstraction, at which we arrive means of the changes of things.

++Plato’s paradigm or paradigma++ In Plato’s Timaeus, he says that all living things are created by the father/demiurge in the image of the living creature that was the paradigm. Though the living creature that is the paradigm is eternal, the image (that is us and all living things) is a semblance of eternity as “it is impossible to confer eternity upon that which is generated.”

Abiding and eternity in unity

Is Aionic time Duration? William James illustrates how experiential and individual is Aionic time when he quotes a passage from Richard Jefferies’s book The Story of my Heart. The author, lying down in a field experiences an “intense communion” with the earth, the sun and sky, the stars, and the ocean, which fills him with “a rapture, an”

  1. (//media.longnow.org/files/2/Michael_Chabon_-_The_Omega_Glory.pdf) 

  2. The source-goal hypothesis has been put forward by Mark Johnson in The Body in the Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1987). 

  3. In her book Proust and the Squid (Harper Lee, 2008), Maryanne Wolf traces the neurology and evolution of the reading brain. The written alphabet and our ability to read occurred relatively recently in our evolution. The Greek historian Barry Powell believes that the Greek alphabet was created around 800 BC to transcribe the poetic verses of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey (Oxford University Press, 2014). Wolf starts off with the premise that reading is not an innate ability and that each of us must learn, sometimes slowly and painfully, to recognise the repetitive shapes of the written language by forming the neurological pathways in the brain that enable reading. 

  4. Chronobiologists believe that each individual has a unique chronotype that controls the machinery of the body, from sleep and repose to its peak active state. Circadian rhythms which govern the sleep-wake cycle are affected by light, particularly that of the sun and the moon, which serve as time cues to the 20,000 neurons that make up the so-called biological clock in the hypothalamus. Overlapping these natural cycles are the man-made cycles in which we are embedded. To take one of the simplest examples—the weekday-weekend demarcation, although socially and culturally imposed upon time in the name of business, politics, or religion, we cannot break away from or reorganise them. When in the decade from 1930-40, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Stalin, imposed a five-day week and axed the weekend, the results proved disastrous. The nepreryvka, or “continuous working week”, meant that and what Eviatar Zerubavel called temporal symmetry (Zerubavel, 1985, pp. 86) was lost as families and friends had no common days of rest and leisure. Recently, a town in Germany called Bad Kissingen has become the seat of a temporal revolution. Dubbed a “ChronoCity”, the town’s government is making changes to support its residents’ natural chronobiology. 

  5. Herodotus (c. 484 – 425/413 BCE) is credited with inventing the field of study now known as history. His magnum opus The Histories is an account of the Greco-Persian Wars (499–479 BCE). An avid storyteller, his account of the origins and historical analysis of the wars was felt to have taken a liberal attitude with the truth. So, while Cicero praised him as the “Father of History”, others derided him as the “Mater of Lies”. 

  6. Henri Bergson (18 October 1859 – 4 January 1941) 

  7. Lindroos, K. (1998). Now-time image-space: temporalization of politics in Walter Benjamins philosophy of history and art. Jyväskylä, Finland: University of Jyväskylä. 

  8. Keen, S. (1996). Fire in the belly: on being a man. London: Piatkus. 

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