Thursday, January 17, 2013

It's about Time

It’s about time for another reflection about time. Time, after all, is a very peculiar notion. It was peculiar when Kant declared it to be an a priori inner sense, rather than an actual attribute of the external world. It’s peculiarity continued unabated, when Einstein declared that it was relative – it passes at different rates for different people, travelling at different velocities. But then, what on earth does the phrase “time passes” actually mean?

Is time moving? Hmmmm. We can tell that a thing is moving when we look at it over a period of time and see that it change position. So to detect whether or not time is moving we would have to watch it for a period of time. OK, I feel another of those headaches coming on.

If it makes no sense to consider time moving, as in passing, perhaps it is we who move through time. So time is a “river” and we swim upstream – not, apparently, ever downstream. Or maybe it’s the other way around – who can say. Except that if time is flowing downhill, and I am being swept along with it, that means that time and I are moving together, and that it is always, therefore, the same time, where – er, when – I am. It’s a migraine now.

And then there is the fact that we often say, “Time passes really slowly when I...” or “Time passes really quickly when I...” Here we are thrust into a more psychological concept of time, which apparently, again, is both relative and more to do with us than it is to do with external reality. Objectively, we know that the hands of the clock have not slowed or speeded up – note that, even if they had, this would not mean that time had done any such thing. And yet we experience the acceleration or slowing down of time. Rather, what we mean is that, what was actually a day, felt more like an hour, or what was actually an hour felt more like a day. By this I think we mean to express the idea that more – or less – happened during that time than is normally the case. There seems to be something that “fills” time, and when time is full, an hour seems like a week... and so on.

Time and space, if I understand modern physics correctly, are inseparable. So when the universe occupied no space, during the instant "before" the Big Bang, there was also no time. So, of course, it is pointless to ask what preceded the Big Bang. I know this makes no “sense”. But that is because time is an a priori category that precedes all our thinking; and timelessness is, by definition, inconceivable. Or something like that.

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