Trying to understand time
By Parson Thru
Ok, let’s start with the antithesis.
If the material that makes up the universe were in a stable state, nothing would happen; nothing would change; there would be no time.
Because if you could uninvent “time”, the construct, what you’d be left with is a whole load of stuff just happening, within you, without you: everything in flux, a constant state of change.
The material that makes up the universe is unstable – in a constant state of change. We can look at it at any level that we know – sub-atomically, cosmologically; we don’t have a single theory of the physical universe, but we know it’s in constant flux.
We exist in the midst of it because we are it. Uniquely amongst all the living things that we know, we have the problem of curiosity: we are sentient and inquisitive. We seek to understand and control our environment. Or perhaps we are simply baffled by it.
Because our capacity to understand is vastly inferior to the scale and complexity of the task, we invent our own ways to explain it: constructs.
One of these is “time”. We apply that to natural changes in the material of the universe (we might call those “events”) and to the scales we invent to allow us to measure those events against our construct, or simply to synchronise our own actions to the scale.
Lightbulb: the events don’t occur within a thing called time. The events don’t need time. Time is the events themselves (continuous, contiguous, in parallel, singular and combined). It’s humans that need time in which to locate the events.
We evolved through a thread of linked material events to walk and think upon an object that formed within the gravitational field of a star. That object (a planet) or the material that comprises it, acquired energy during those events. The energy causes it to be in motion, rotational and linear. The gravity of the star has trapped its linear motion in an orbit around the star.
So all living things that formed from the material of the planet (changing / evolving) did so in a context of exposure to the light energy of the star and an absence of it. They evolved in the context of changing climatic conditions as the planet travels through its orbit around the star.
Being sentient, we notice these changes. We evolved to rest during the absence of light (special conditions apply for nocturnal animals, which evolved to exploit the conditions of darkness). We evolved, or adapted, to the climatic variations and learned to predict them, noticing that they occur rhythmically. We can talk about how many of these seasons passed, for example, during the span of a particular human life. Astrologers, astronomers and mathematicians worked out the patterns and allowed us to predict the changes. They gave us the calendar.
Another human propensity, religion, synchronised its activities to these events: the point at which the light energy of the star strikes a point on the surface of the planet; the point at which it moves away; the mid-point. Not satisfied with this – or perhaps in the absence of reliable visibility of the star – at least one religion devised a mechanical means of tracking this motion, slowly and painstakingly improving the accuracy of its machine to match those events. The machine itself uses the instability of the universe, characterised by gravity and mass, potential energy and so on. The machine, or clock, is a part of the universal events that it tracks.
The desire of human beings to move around their environment drove the development of more accurate clocks to permit reliable longitudinal navigation, not possible through observation of natural or astronomical events. Clocks became miniaturised for portability, for example for use in one of humanity’s most sophisticated activities: war. Artillery barrages and infantry assaults are timed in the chaos of battle by watches.
Time becomes more about the clock or calendar itself and the organisation of human activities around it, and less about continuous universal flux. It becomes easy to forget what time really is, until our physical body reminds us that it’s lunchtime, or time we went to the toilet, or bedtime.
Oh pity the human being, for hanging above such daily routine is the awareness that our part in this thing is temporary and brief. We are not exempt.
Forget, for a few moments, about what time it is.
Have a think about what time is.
Trying to understand time
When I watch the waves roll in from the sea, what am I seeing?
When smoke ascends in the summer sky, what am I seeing?
When a beautiful girl crosses the patio, what am I seeing?
When I enter the classroom each Friday morning, what is occurring?
When my grandchildren grow between Christmas and summer,
When my mother's increasingly frail, what am I seeing?