I wrote something here called “What is Time?” in which I didn’t answer the question. Well I did. But I really didn’t. The question “what is time?” is a trick question. It is also a question that permeates everything.
Time is not science, exactly. I does not fully belong to the arts. It is not the province of religion, not really. None of these things are true, nor are they false. Look at what academia does with time, or rather what they haven’t done. There is no department of chronosophy (nor should there be). I could list disciplines, sub-disciplines, academic specialities and subspecialties, fracturing and proliferating fractal-like into increasing specificity all referring back to itself and say time is not this nor is it that. Take it all away and what you have left is time.
Why? Think of time as an idea occupying a different level of scale from our customary divisions of knowledge. The temporal nature of the world appears on all levels at which we perceive reality and belongs to no one system of meaning more than to any other. Time is everything and nothing. Time is everywhere and nowhere.
But look, this is this and now is now. I’m speaking to you as a literary chronosopher — I study time through language, through literature, through written words. Via whatever territories of discipline and specialization we must traverse to arrive together at the same place, no matter where my carpetbaggery might take me, this is the country from which I begin.
Travel brochures of these nations of knowledge, all with overlapping borders and territorial disputes: we can start on the continent of reason and look at Dynamic systems theory. Chaos Theory. This system of knowledge takes a rationalistic approach to temporality, using mathematics to model disorder over time. The idea was born from atmospheric sciences but migrated to physics to great effect. It describes any system undergoing temporal change, whether it is a biological entity, the patterns of traffic, changes in the stock market, the flow of water. You find it’s application everywhere. On the porous border between science, mathematics, and history lives Cliodynamics, which studies the dynamics of historical patterns across the longue duree (extremes in temporal duration). We’ll visit this place again. According to Cliodynamics, we can expect dark days just ahead.
Intuition: another continent containing many countries. Here we find Henri Bergson, a French philosopher of temporal change. Henri Bergson took a leading role in the philosophical reaction to relativity theory, another occupant of reason. Einstein’s theory tells us that temporality itself is the fixed mechanical clockwork we thought it was. Elements of temporality once understood in absolute terms, like simultaneity — now have no such fixity. Imagine two lightning bolts. What appears to strike at the same time to a person equidistant from them both, happens in sequence to the person being struck by one of them. That is, it takes time for the light from the second strike to travel to the scorched person unfortunately sheltering under the metal tree. Simultaneity is relative depending on position.
Time is also acted upon by gravity and motion. Henri Bergson felt that these new ideas introduced by Einstein’s theories made chronological time merely a symbol of space and that time itself is something distinct from sequential duration. This is the experience you have of one thing happening now, you read this word, and now you read this word, and this word is next, and then the next, and then the next. He thought of duration in sequence as a continuity of mutually interpenetrating moments that we can only know through intuition (our ability to transcend pure reason and perceive metaphysical reality) and intuition alone. In his view, by this understanding of temporality, time involves a world of discrete moments cut off from one another and only made different by their spatial connections. For Bergson, time meant an emptiness and sameness, a possibility that horrified many however honed their intuitive skills.
But intuition is not a valid form of knowledge in our scientific world. On continent has far greater land mass than the other on this particular globe. As the reigning superpower, reason requires we touch time (we cannot), quantify time (we cannot), and reproduce time (nope) so we might know it. If we must have scientific proof of time’s reality or of our own knowledge of it, then we would have to provide such proof according to the rigors of the scientific method. We would then base our knowledge of time upon specific stimuli that will produce standardized results under controlled conditions. The nature of temporality does not conform to these practices.
Perhaps this is why the knowledge of time has traditionally been a religious or mystical experience — the territory of faith. In his popular book A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking says that the triumph of human reason would be to know the mind of God. I love reading what physicists have to say about God; God is frequently invoked in the study of time whenever science finds its limit. It is in these moments physicists become poets. Einstein delayed publishing his General Theory of Relativity because of God. God and free will, which Einstein’s theory disproves. Free will that is, not God — proof cannot know faith. Despite the human effort to know time through rational means, this is why reason can ever have its triumph. Proof and faith are mutually exclusive routes to knowledge, and time exists outside the realm of both.
Einstein’s theory arrived during an era when the common experience of temporality was being shaped by invention. Take for example this New York Times story, “Wireless Crowns a Remarkable Record as Life-saver,” which appeared in their Sunday magazine section on April 21, 1912. It begins:
Night and day all the year round the millions upon the earth and the thousands upon the sea now reach out and grasp the thin air and use it as a thing more potent for human aid than any strand of wire or cable that was ever spun or woven. Last week 745 human lives were saved from perishing by the wireless. But for the almost magic use of the air the Titanic tragedy would have been shrouded in the secrecy that not so long ago was the power of the sea. All that would have been left to the world would have been bits of furniture adrift on the ocean, a sliver of wood here and there, perhaps a human body or an upturned or crushed lifeboat. . . . Readers of The Times are, of course, thoroughly familiar with the use of wireless to news getting, and The Times’s transatlantic Marconi service is perhaps one of the most striking marks of the advancement of invention in practical usage. But few New Yorkers realize that all through the roar of the big city there are constantly speeding messages between people separated by vast distances, and that over housetops and even through the walls of buildings and in the very air one breathes are words written by electricity and carrying sometimes tokens of gladness and sometimes tokens of sorrow. . . . There was never such an opportunity in the world for long-distance eavesdropping.
We could now have the impression of a new idea of simultaneity with occurrences happening far afield. What I am doing now, I can imagine you could also be doing now — wherever on this planet you may be. (I’ll explain another time why this impression of temporal simultaneity cannot be reality.) Einstein’s chronosophical revolution, coming at a time when technological advancement brought extreme and seemingly sudden changes in speed and ideas of simultaneity, also came about in a society that was beginning to think that eternity is no longer necessarily akin to deity. It was new for eternity to be anything but an aspect of the realm of God. In a short amount of time at the start of the previous century, everything about how we think about temporality, our world, our place in the world, changed. We are still reeling from Einstein’s ideas, which have yet to fully emerge in our culture.
What has emerged, is the realization that chronosophical inquiry belongs everywhere, lives in every location. The study of time requires a sui generis communication between systems of knowledge unused to speaking with one another. Time can never be an acceptable topic of study for any one discipline working on a private island, alone.