OF A CHRONOPHOBE
ROBERT J. LEWIS
To think is to confine yourself
to a single thought
that one day stands still like a star in the world's sky.
We ask: what is
time? The question of all questions for which we have never
had so much time. One could argue that since St. Augustine’s
brilliant 4th century treatise, The Confessions,
Book 11, Chapters 14-29 -- which remains unsurpassed -- we
haven’t gotten any closer to understanding what is meant
by time passing, or to be in time.
publication of The Confessions, only the hardiest
of metaphysicians has done battle with the concept –
and with good reason: our timepieces tell us next to nothing
about it, the subject is invisible, and the more we interrogate
it the more it seems to resist our best efforts. Like the
wind, we are always in its midst but can’t get a grip
on it and yet everything that exists is enfolded within it.
Hobbes describes time as “perpetually perishing parts
of succession:” we admire the locution and then admit
to frustration. Or do we? I suspect for most of us, the time
question isn’t a priority because it’s like the
sky, always in surplus, ‘here, there and everywhere.’
we are mortal, time will ineluctably reveal itself as something
that can no longer be taken for granted. We know that the
past is fixed for all time, and the future is unknowable,
and the future must pass through the present to get to the
past, but what about the present, which is always here and
now, and how are we implicated in it? We are often accused
of spending too much time thinking about the future or living
in the past, as if it were possible not to be in the present.
And yet our experience tells us we’re always in present
time, even when recalling the past or anticipating the future,
because our bodies are anchored in the present, and, pace
Merleau-Ponty, there’s no escaping the body.
that doesn’t tell us much about the present. Consider
the sentence: Martin lives in Montreal. When we speak it out
loud, as soon as we begin to verbalize the ‘tin’
(2nd syllable in Martin), the first syllable, ‘Mar,’
is already in the past, just as the ‘lives in Montreal’
doesn’t exist yet because it hasn’t been said. When
we speak the ‘a’ in Martin, the ‘m’
is in the past, and the same again for the first part of the
letter ‘m’ when the latter part is spoken. In other
words the present is continuously disappearing into the past
and seems to have no duration. So what is the status of anything
that has no duration? Or, since the present is so brief, of
quantum duration, what can we say about entities (rocks, plants,
porcupines) that exist only in the present, that have no conception
of a future or past?
We say an animal
exists because ‘we know’ it exists over time,
but the animal -- from the point of view of the present where
it always is, where its continuously unfolding present is
always disappearing or being replaced by a succeeding present
-- doesn’t experience meaningful existence as we know
it because it doesn’t have access to the traces of itself
it leaves in the past. From its sole (disad)vantage point,
which is the pure, unmediated present, the animal, at every
instant of its existence, is disappearing or losing itself,
which is why it doesn’t have a self -- not unlike the
unfortunate protagonist in the film Memento.
Does this mean
the present doesn’t exist, or if it does, is so short-lived
as to have no practical significance? If we were to represent
the present numerically, we would, by default, assign it the
number zero, whose zero value is redeemed by the important
place it occupies between the future and past, (between positive
and negative integers). But we do not buy into the proposition
that the present doesn’t or hardly exists or has the
value of zero because we all know and feel that we exist in
the present, even though we have just logically demonstrated
that as soon as the present arrives it immediately becomes
part of the past. Therefore, since we don’t accept what
reason tells us about the present, (that it almost doesn’t
exist) it must mean that reason alone cannot account for what
we mean by the present, and beyond that, what makes it meaningful.
We all share in
the certainty that we are in the world and are constantly
providing ourselves future projects: tomorrow I plan to go
cross country skiing, on Monday I have to go to work. Even
the person who claims he’s doing absolutely nothing
is still projecting, however minimally, into some nominal
future, if only to feed himself and perform his bodily functions.
So when we ask
ourselves what best describes the time we’re in when
we find ourselves performing or answering to our future projects,
we always describe the activity in terms of a ‘now’
time. What is he doing (now)? He’s shopping for groceries
(now). Whatever it is we’re doing in what we feel is
the present is in fact taking place in the ‘now,’
which, unlike the present, endures until what we’re
doing is completed. True, in any given ‘now,’
as delimited by a particular activity, there are an infinite
number of infinitesimal presents flowing into the past, but
this only highlights the distinction that ‘the present’
is merely a scientific indicator while ‘the now’
is an existential one, the former referring to an infinite
succession of nano-presents, the latter to human endeavor.
If I am shopping at a supermarket, what I am doing 'now,'
for as long as it takes, is shopping. True, the apples I have
placed in the cart is an activity that already belongs to
the past, and the oranges I am planning to purchase haven't
yet been bagged, but all of these gestures, united in sequence
and purpose, fall within the purview of 'now' time. Only when
I have selected the food items on the list, paid for them
at the cash, driven home and shelved them, and then begun
another activity (there is always another activity) can the
act of shopping be said to be done and belong wholly to the
In other words,
it isn’t present-time but now-time that provides for
the sum of human activity that underlies the basic notion
that we are intentionally in the world, constantly projecting
ourselves into the future. Time is not a grid or background
where our existence unfolds: it is our manner of being in
the world. Time is the defining gesture of ourselves in the
world which includes other selves and all that which constitutes
When we are without
a project, as in sleep, which takes place in pure present
time, we do not meaningfully exist because we have no access
to any past or future. Like animals, we exist in a present
which has no duration -- until we wake.
Humans are uniquely
empowered to survive the pure, unmediated present disappearing
into the past, which is what happens at every instant of existence,
because we are endowed with the means to access the past,
as well as project into the future. This ability to access
the past is an essential attribute of now-time, without which
it would be impossible to meaningfully exist in time.
* * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * *
So what is time?
It’s shovelling snow and remembering how good it felt,
how cold it was and that the banks were higher than my head.
id-entity via /r/philosophy/reddit
True, in any given “now,” as delimited by a particular
activity, there are an infinite number of infinitesimal presents
slipping into the past, but this only highlights the distinction
that “the present” is merely a scientific indicator
while “the now” is an existential one, the former
referring to an infinite succession of nano-presents, the
latter to human endeavor.
Yep, applying real line as "time" and infinitesimal
points as present, is a physicalist concept of time, but as
such anti-empirical in relation to time-experience. Bergson's
empirical philosophy of time speaks of durations, which are
neither unities nor multiplicities. Nice meditation, going
to the essence of Einstein-Bergson debate.
Durations are indefinite continua, continuous open ended
processes. Indefinite character can connect with the undecidability
of Halting problem. It doesn't prevent mereological embedding
etc. of durations, on the contrary. Mereology of durations
is not limited to uni-directional view of time, durations
can expand towards both past and future, in fractal dimensions
etc. Hence, empirical meditation on time, which can also deeply
connect with quantum theory notions of time, is not anti-mathematical,
but leads to different mathematical foundation from point-reductionism
of Hilbert geometry.
breadandbuttercreek via /r/philosophy/reddit
"the present is continuously disappearing into the past
and seems to have no duration."
There is a quantum theory of time that proposes there is
a discrete quanta of time, 6.27×10-24 seconds for an
I strongly dispute that animals don't have any connection
to the past, any organism with a central nervous system has
some memory which can be used to connect animals to the past
via memory. I think that is the main purpose of consciousness,
to allow animals to operate within time by constantly storing
a record of events. i don't think we know enough to definitively
say whether plants have any consciousness of the passage of
Animals also project their consciousness into the future
via statistical analysis of past events, so that our sense
of "now" starts a few milliseconds in the future
and extends probably a few seconds into the past.
Sleep and dreams are very interesting in terms of time. In
dreams our consciousness is no longer in the physical universe,
so the passage of time is no longer bound by physical phenomena.
Dreams that seem to have a duration of hours can happen in
a few seconds or minutes, because dreams are only bound by
the speed of our mental activity. Dreams can be formed in
your mind as whole readymade "memories" which then
unspool to give us the experience of living the events.