OF A CHRONOPHOBE
ROBERT J. LEWIS
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.
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.’
since 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?
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.
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.
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.
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 past.
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 the
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.
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.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
what is time? It’s shovelling snow and remembering how
good it felt, how cold it was and how much taller were the snow
banks than you and me.