Monday, March 25, 2019

Time: Genealogy of a Concept

It surrounds us, yet we only observe its effects. It shapes every aspect of our lives, but we don’t interact with it directly. 

We make it, measure it, save it, waste it, compress it, bend it, extend it; we can’t even hold it in our hands. And when we’re asked to define it, every description seems ephemeral and contingent, as if it’s beyond words to explain. 

It is time

What is it? How to explicate time? By a moment, which - whether experienced subjectively or intersubjectively – seems to flow, like a river, from the past to the future? Perhaps time can be quantified by the metrics of cause and effect, and the laws of thermodynamics? 

Will we know time by its absence, when we contemplate eternity? Can we even posit, with intellectual honesty, what time is when we’re always inside of it, three-dimensional beings embedded in the fourth dimension?   

To unpack these questions, it’s useful to think about time’s conceptual evolution like a genealogy, one that’s been mapped onto Western scientific and cultural paradigms of the past two-and-a-half millennia. 

There exists a limited interval in which to complete this genealogy, so some aspects of temporality (used here as a variant of the word time) – its practical relevance in relation to duration, measurement and technological invention, for example - will remain unaddressed so metaphysical issues can be investigated. 

Here, as in all things, time is against us…or is it? 

As we survey perspectives on temporality, a case can be made that there is an inherited prejudice in relation to time, or - to be precise – an inherited prejudice in relation to certain ideas about time. 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise since, next to knowledge of death, temporal awareness is the most persistent reminder that humanity – for all its civilized progress – will never be fully emancipated from nature’s dominion. 

From an evolutionary perspective, modern humans aren’t far from the savannas of Africa where our prehistoric ancestors are thought to have wandered for many centuries, unprotected from nature in the form of sickness and disease, changing weather conditions, and violent or accidental death.

When our ancestors began living in cities and developing written alphabets, ambivalence towards problematic aspects of nature – including time – found its way into language, which informed the way temporality was thought about and discussed. 

Like civilizations before and after them, the Greeks mythologized their relationship with nature, the psyche and society using a pantheon of gods. 

Multiple deities became associated with various concepts of time, but one of the most revered was the titan Chronos. He was also the most feared, having been believed to have eaten his own newborn children to prevent them from taking his place as king of the world. 

By the earliest decades of the Common Era, ambivalence towards time had been sublimated into numerous philosophical and religious systems. 

Plato’s Theory of Forms and the Christian belief in an afterlife were just two of the Western ontologies that established transcendent orders which biased the absolute, the eternal and the everlasting over the transitory, the temporary and the temporal. 

Mathematics and geometry, too, with the stress on fixed shapes and formulas, represented a transcendent reality untainted the vagaries of time.

An example of the ongoing ambivalence towards all things temporal can be found in the beliefs of the ancient Gnostics. This early Christian cult taught the initial descent from the divine state – the primeval fall – didn’t take place in the Garden of Eden, or even when Lucifer was cast from Heaven. 

The first fall occurred when the universe was created, when time itself began. 

For a Gnostic initiate, matter, the material world, and all that proceeded from it – including time - was corrupt. Their goal was a return to a region of light called the Pleroma.

Elements of this doctrine have been articulated in our era, reformulated by physicist David Bohm, who once enigmatically suggested that all matter is light, frozen in time

Of course, to a Gnostic living two millennia ago, the inverse to that viewpoint seems the truer statement; that without time, everything is light

It’s here, reasoning by negation - via negativa - that we intimate what remains in the absence of time; an opportunity to recognize, like Michelangelo seeing a statue in a block of marble, what pieces of stone must be removed to reveal the figure within.  

Maybe Saint Augustine of Hippo used his own sort of negation when he famously uttered, “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know.” 

Had he been more forthcoming on the subject, Augustine might have said something like, it is the eternal in us that allows us to perceive time, the eternal part referring to the human soul. 

Like time, the concept of soul is larger than a single religion or philosophy; in the 21st century, scientists call soul consciousness, and seek to know its laws. 

Most of humanity believes soul to be their birthright. This eternal essence of a person, thought to consist of subtle numinous energy, is a wide, soaring arch in the metaphysical lattices of countless worldviews, both ancient and modern. 

Soul was a powerful idea to humanity’s prehistoric ancestors, offering existential certainty alongside a communally acknowledged mortality. 

The idea serves the same function today, even though the focus of the drama is now the soul’s redemption from suffering, death, and the ravages of time by adherence to religious tenets or – more recently – faith in immortality technologies.

The 17th century European Enlightenment traded the transcendent religious abstractions of time and eternity for the transcendent mathematical abstractions of science and the cosmic clock. 

The cosmic clock was invisible and operated perfectly, in perpetuity. Time became an axis on a graph; one of the innovations that allowed the physics of the emerging scientific paradigm to operate with unprecedented predictive power over the natural world. 

This predictive power led, incrementally, to the Industrial Revolution and ultimately made Western modernity possible.  

But the idea that time could be measured the same way - no matter where a person was in the universe - only lasted until 1905, when Albert Einstein married the spatial and the temporal in his Special Theory of Relativity and exploded the cosmic clock forever

After that, it was impractical to think of time in the same absolute terms as people in previous eras had. Temporality – in applied and conceptual considerations - became an area of interest for many fields of inquiry.  

Questions about time, and its relationship to memory, sentience and aging; to society, technology and the physics of gravity, continue to shape our lives in the 21st century. 

Yet even in our high-tech civilization, the temporal prejudice persists, not least in the fact that there never seems to be enough time

Is there a way to mitigate this bias so that a renewed appreciation of time may be affected?    

Human perception was shaped by pressures of natural selection, and senses that ensured better opportunities for reproduction were favored by evolution. We might conjecture this included spatial and temporal awareness, which can be thought to have developed alongside one another. 

The parallel yet differing progression of these two streams of awareness are envisioned by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine:  

“There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.” 
Infants learn to navigate the spatial dimension from the moment of birth. For each of us, it is perhaps as close to innate knowledge as we might truly be able to claim; the inner pedagogy that taught our kind to walk upright, with heads raised. 

Perhaps temporal awareness is another sort of innate knowledge, one that develops similarly to the spatial, but more gradually - over a lifetime - so that elders appreciate the folds and creases of temporality in a way that isn’t experientially accessible to the young. 

That, much like infants learning to walk, we embark on a sort of fourth-dimensional ambulation throughout our lives, and it’s only in maturity that an advanced understanding of time becomes possible. Might we call this sort of temporal sense wisdom, if it didn’t undo the nuance of the description just provided…?

With this wisdom comes deeper knowledge of time as a generative force of nature, a force that makes manifest all possibilities - creatio ex tempore, tempore ex creatio – the creative essence from which the world emerges. 

This is the antidote to the prejudice observed in the temporal genealogy; the insistence that time devours all

To this valuation is put the notion of a prolific temporality, and the wisdom to know that when the universe speaks to us, it speaks in time.