Philosophies of Time

In historical studies much is presently being made of “presence” and efforts are being made to define it, which inevitably involves some grasping with the philosophies of time. In this spirit, I would like to ask what some of you think about time and how it might be defined.

Some starting points might perhaps include “clock time”, or measured time, which separates into years, days, minutes, seconds, etc. - and, I am dimly aware (please correct me if I am wrong here, I am no scientist), has important links with physical measurments at the thermodynamic and atomic levels. I am intrigued here by the potential interaction between organic and social conceptions and systems of measurement.

Another approach might be to consider a more abstract, philosophical conception of time, like Bergson’s “duration”, which, I think, can be seen as a flow of time, a never-ending experience of change.

We might also want to think about a classification of time into periods, ages or epochs, for example, which allow us to conceptualise and pigeon-hole lengths of time for the purposes of historical, anthropological and paleontological understanding.

There will, I am sure, also be many more philosophies of time, drawing on chemistry, psychology, economics or mathematics, to name just a few potential sources of interest. I await your response with interest!


I don’t know about all that. But time from a subjective experience is interesting, how and why does time fly when you’re having fun?

Perhaps fun is something which can only be had in a fleeting way - it “comes and goes”. Also, perhaps we could say fun is a kind of lightness (hence its ephemerality) that is constantly “flitting around”, like an insect or a bird. Alternatively, fun might be something which “lifts you up” or “sweeps you off your feet”.

I suppose the point of these observations is that they hint at time as something which happens to us, by which we are affected, rather than something we can master or control. They are also rhetorical devices, which suggests that time is very difficult (if not impossible) to grasp and explain in itself.

I don’t know, what do you think?

Interesting, I like the idea of something happening to us. What is happening when I am “having fun”? What is fun? I don’t know. Compare watching a film 2 hours long and watching paint dry for 2 hours. The film time flies by, why? I am engaged with the film, the medium, can I be equally engaged with the paint? Is it possible to be engaged with the paint? The only way I can see it being possible to be engaged with the paint is to be able to put my mind in some form of meditative stance, would it be equally as fun as the film? I suppose this depends on one’s mentality. (Does time fly when one meditates?). Consider your metaphor of ‘lightness’, if lightness is the state of fun i.e. being less aware of time (?) then heaviness, our general state is being aware of time. Are we less aware when we’re having fun? Less conscious? Fun might be similar to narcotics in a way, yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if similar neurochemicals were active. When one is drunk or stoned the ego loses its grip, are the two occurrences similar?

I assume that when you are watching paint dry you are not engaging your brain in the way you do when watching a film, hence the need to meditate as a means of “engaging” with the paint. From this perspective perhaps fun should be defined as an active rather than passive process and time might be the experience of doing, but I am not too sure.

As for narcotics, I know that serotonin is one of the principle “mood” neurotransmitters and, having had my share of encounters with MDMA, can vouch for the fact that it induces a heightened sense of awareness that includes altered perception of time (although not necessarily of time flying).

I also remember reading a news story recently (although I can’t remember where exactly) about how researchers had undertaken studies on people’s perception and memories in heightened circumstances, such as a car crash, in order to assess the claim that time slows down at these moments. The conclusion was that, rather than there being evidence perceptions of time being altered, in fact what happens is that the brain stores more memories, which thereby gives the impression of elongated presence. In normal situations, apparently, we tend to “junk” a lot of our perceptions because they are deemed unimportant.

I watched a documentary series awhile ago now, I should watch it again actually I’d probably get more out of it this time around but lo and behold it was called Time presented Michio Kaku, if you search on youtube or google video you’ll probably find it. You’ll enjoy it, he does a bunch of experiments on how we perceive time in various situations and whatnot :sunglasses:

I like to break time down into its experiential components. Time, as an experience, can be broken down into:

  1. motion (or change)

  2. memory

  3. the concept of time itself

  4. gives way to a sense of time flowing by in the present.

  5. gives way to a sense of time extending into the past.

  6. gives way to a sense of time extending into the future (in addition to making possible a conception of present and past).

Contemplating 1) is interesting in itself. We perceive motion. But how is this possible unless the ‘present’ is something that is already elongated. What I mean is that if we take the rather niave perspective of consciousness being aware of reality only at single points in time (so that it has no extension into future or past), then how could the perception of motion be possible? The fact that we see motion now suggests that we are consciously aware of the moment in such a way as to be simultaneously aware of a small cluster of points in time that center around the absolute ‘now’ of the present. So we are consciously aware of the the ever-so-near future as well as the just-came-to-pass past as though they were both happening right now.

Well, this is my intuitive response to this (so not particularly well thought out :smiley:) But I don’t think the perception of movement proves elongated consciousness. Seeing as our perception is an interpretation of events by our brain that we can, for example, fool into perceiving motion by showing still images at twenty frames per second, I think it could be equally said that the perception is nothing more than the perception and proves nothing. On the last line, I’m not sure ‘aware’ necessarily translates to ‘perceiving’ in this context.

…I say this as I stare at my hands, asking myself whether I am just perceiving their movement or am conscious of it, and realise this is probably a worthless avenue of discussion since they are definitely moving otherwise I wouldn’t be typing… anyway, moving on…

Plus, I have only a very basic grasp of neurochemistry so…

On ‘time’ more generally (and again this is my first reaction) I think it only exists at the level of perception. There is change, there is an order of events and possibly event cause and effect but ‘time’ as a concept is about our interpretation and attempts to grasp at the world around us. That is not to say it is unimportant, just unreal. Nor is it arbitrary other than in its creation.


P.S. Woo 50th post!

You know, I’ve always wondered about pigeons. Apparently they see the world at 120 fps… or so (honestly the number escapes me right now but it is unimportant, all that is important is that it is significantly more than humans) taking that as a given… I wonder if they perceive time slower than us? Or if the perception of more events in the same time frame just means they see more at the same speed… hmm…

Is there a good answer as to why time only moves in the forward direction?

Off of the cuff, I would reason that it is because everything is moving from one state to the other and that time isn’t moving forward, per-say, but that we are capable of remembering the first state and conceiving of returning to the previous state which thereby presents a quandary of time direction that otherwise simply doesn’t exist as it isn’t actually a function to reverse the transition of one state to the next as in so doing you would simply be causing another instance of “time” as the thing again changes from one state to the next, this time being the previous second state to the previous first state.

In a metaphor, when I breath in, my lungs inhale. Now if we wish to go back in “time” for my lungs, then one would assume that we take back that state of inhale, but to do so would simply be to exhale, as the state of removing an inhale is an exhale whether you conceive of this in a “forward” type of reality or a “backward” type of reality. So, in this metaphor, if I wanted to “make time go backwards”, then I would simply exhale; which causes the state of my lungs to move from the previous second state (inhale) to the previous first state (exhale).

I believe this perception is why “time moves forward” even though I do not hold that time moves at all.

Time moves forward?

Does this mean that physical length, heighth, or depth move forward too?

Where are the physical dimensions going???


I think you meant to say: why does time seem to be moving forward? Well, it is the seeming that is the problem…

Yes, but even if it was “just perception”, wouldn’t it require an elongated interval of time in order to be perceived? How can motion be seen in an instant?

I agree with this, and I’ll do you one better. I think the ultimate form of the universe is such that it’s more like a set of events all staticly coinciding with each other (the word ‘coinciding’ being used informally - really, I think time as we perceive it doesn’t exist in the ultimate state of things). I think these events have a certain order to them, and human consciousness, or probably any consciousness, decyphers this order and renders it experientially as time as we know it. It does so by giving rise to the experiences of motion (or change in general), memory, and the concept of time itself.

Not necessarily, the point I was trying to make was that the perception of motion could be a mental event where the brain interprets several near identical snapshots occurring consecutively as movement. I’m not sure I agree with this I was just trying to point out that pointing to a perception is not necessarily sufficient for an example of what actually is, if you see what I mean.

I generally agree with you here. The only thing I’d say is that the certain order of the universe is as much created as it is decyphered by consciousness, but that’s because I’m a pedant :smiley:

Yes, I understand what you mean. I don’t know if you understood my meaning though. Suppose we replicated the sense of motion artificially (this can be done by a number of techniques) - so you only perceive motion even though there is none there. What I’m point out is that this perception would still require a small interval of time. You couldn’t perceive motion in a single instant in time. You could argue that the brain is simply piecing together successive snapshots, each one acquired at a single instant in time, and then in the last instant of time concluding that there must be motion going on, but I don’t know how this could translate into the perception of motion as we’re familiar with. The way we perceive motion (i.e. motion as we’re familiar with) seems to require an elongated interval of time - this wouldn’t just be for the accumulation of successive snapshots because we don’t perceive motion at the end of such an accumulation, but throughout the whole process.

Created? As though the universe is a hodge-podge of randomly scattered events with no causal link between one and another? I don’t know about that. How would you explain our survival? In order to survive, we have to depend on some ordering to the world, something to make the future predictable.

Ah hah, okay I see what you meant now. I think you’re largely right…

The only thing that’s bugging me is a definition of time, since I tend towards the definition that time is a unit of perception, does that mean that what one means when you say ‘time’ is elongated is that ‘thought’ is elongated?

I agree, but I don’t think that the ordering is anything inherent, or, if it is inherent it is present at anything more than the basic level and any interpretation we make is free from the prejudices we have when we attempt to find meaning. It’s this line here I disagree with:

“I think these events have a certain order to them, and human consciousness, or probably any consciousness, decyphers this order and renders it experientially as time as we know it.”

My intuitive response is that the universe has no such order independent of the order we impose upon it. Or more that concepts such as order and chaos don’t make sense when examined as a quality of the universe but only as a quality of perception. If you see what I mean.

Time is the measurement of motion, or change. It’s a measurement - that’s all it is. It’s not something that is, it’s something we do. We measure.

This is incorrect. It is a whole dimension of thought, according to male-logic.

It’s not a simplification of mind. It is a whole way-of-being, to imagine space-time-reality as a temporal state of existence.

Well, sure - I can’t argue with your imagination - nor with the idea that time is somehow involved with a temporal way of being. Time is pretty temporal, all right. Yep.

Far be it from me to try.

Then it is not simply a “measurement”. That doesn’t even make sense. What are people measuring exactly?

As I said, they are measuring change, or movement. “Day” is a measurement of the change in the position of a point on the Earth’s equator vis-a-vis the Sun.