Experiments with Time


Salvador Dali: ‘The persistence of Memory’

 ‘An Experiment with Time’ is a book I have mentioned before by that interesting Irish inventor and pioneer aeronaut, JW Dunne. It was very popular once and for a time you could almost guarantee that you would find at least one copy in any second-hand book shop you cared to visit – in the days when there were second-hand book shops.

Dunne’s basic premise is that our experience of time in everyday consciousness disguises its true nature from us: whereas we perceive it as a succession, with the future to come, the present here now and the past now gone, in reality all time is simultaneous: it is all present. Only in dreaming are we able to free ourselves from the limits of our consciousness and this makes precognition possible – in fact, the experiment in Dunne’s book involves recording dreams, sifting them for any content that might be construed as precognitive, then watching for any possible confirmation in coming events.

Dunne is far from the first to find Time a puzzle, and indeed I would hazard that anyone who has made any effort to think about it has found it so. (There is an International Society for the Study of Time – its first president was GJ Whitrow, author of a fascinating book, The Natural Philosophy of Time, a scholarly examination of the many diverse concepts of time that we actually use)

For me, Time is chief among the ‘mind-forged manacles’ I considered in my recent post – although ‘manacles’ is not quite the proper image, as it puts all the emphasis on restraint: we should not overlook the fact that our invention of time gives us a great deal of freedom and room for manoeuvre. Time is more like a great edifice we have erected around us, and like any building, it has a dual nature: it gives us shelter and protection, leaving us free to move within its confines; but at the same time, it interposes a barrier between us and the outside world. Whether we feel it to be a palace or a prison-house depends on our outlook.

Though we identify ‘living in the moment’ as an ideal to be aspired to, and relish the quality of timeless absorption that we experience when wholly engaged in some activity (I have experienced this myself in using a jeweller’s piercing saw to cut a complex shape from copper, and in drawing) the time-structure that we have created, with hours, days, months and years, is of great practical value in day-to-day living, which is why it has become so ingrained in us that it seems a natural thing rather than a mental construct.

With our genius for measurement we have evolved a calendar that we have now refined to the point of being accurate within fractions of a second, and that sort of precision (based on atomic clocks) strengthens the illusion that we are refining something real and independently existing rather than an invention of our ingenious imagination.

The conventional, man-made character of calendar time was more obvious before the coming of the railways, which did a great deal to standardise time, hitherto a local affair related to sunrise and sunset, which vary with your place on the earth’s surface. It was more obvious still in the early seventeenth century, when Europe was divided on which calendar it used, with some retaining the Julian while others had opted for the Gregorian, giving rise to the anomaly that, though Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date (23 April 1616) about 820 miles apart, it might  have been possible (with fast horses and a fair wind) for the same person to attend the deathbeds of both, since the events were eleven days apart.

As a further reminder of the conventional nature of calendar time we have the various attempts – some more successful than others – to mark a new era with a new dating system: the infamous Pol Pot declared 1975 to be Year Zero in Cambodia, in imitation of the similarly bloody-handed National Convention in France, who declared Year One from the abolition of the monarchy in 1792 (they also renamed the months and decimalised the week (10 days) and the day (10 hours of 100 minutes each of 100 seconds). They retained 12 as the number of months (each three decimal weeks or 30 days long) but started them at different times (about three weeks into the traditional months) adding the balance of five or six days between one year and the next. This arrangement operated for some twelve years (variously modified – decimal time was shortest lived, being officially suspended in 1795, though some kept it till 1801; the traditional days of the week were restored in 1802) till Napoleon abolished it at the start of 1806; it was revived briefly during the Paris Commune in 1871.

The Islamic dating system takes the Hejira (622 AD) as its starting point, and was brought into use about 17 years after that event, unlike the Christian reckoning of Anno Domini, widely used throughout the world, which was not devised till the 6th century AD, by Dionysius Exiguus or Denis the Small, and is basically inaccurate – it is now generally agreed that Jesus was born some years earlier than 1 AD. In Denis’s day the Julian Calendar was used, but years were reckoned from the reign of the Consul, though an Anno Mundi (year of the world) calendar had been calculated using the Old Testament, which gave the time from the Creation to Jesus’s birth as 5500 years.

It is easy to ridicule that figure now, given our knowledge of geological time, but to do so is to overlook the fact that we have very little natural sense of time as a quantity at all – I remember thinking as a child that the First World War was an impossibly distant event; yet 1964 – as distant now as 1914 was then – falls easily within the compass of my memory – I am more inclined to think ‘that was never fifty years ago, surely?’ than to reckon it a long time ago. In actual fact, we have difficulty reckoning much shorter lengths of time without the aid of watches or the like – has an hour passed since we did that? or thirty minutes? or ninety? it will depend very much on how we have been occupied (or not).

What constitutes ‘a long time’? Twenty centuries takes us back to Roman times, when Herod was Tetrarch in Galilee and Augustus was Emperor in Rome; another three or four takes us to the golden age of Greece, with Plato and Aristotle; ten more takes us to Homeric Troy; the Pyramids are as far before the start of the Christian era as we are after it; yet in the tale of years, that is a mere 4000 or so. 100 centuries is reckoned the sum of civilisation, yet the earliest known paintings (thought to be by our Neanderthal cousins) are four times that, 40,000 years ago…

Four hundred centuries! It sounds a lot, till we consider the dinosaurs, lords of the earth for more than a million centuries (which puts our own hundred-century civilisation in perspective) – and their time ended more than half a million centuries ago.

Yet all this is mere mental trickery, substituting arithmetic relations for temporal ones, and treating time itself as if it were length – we imagine a line drawn out with various events marked on it, though we would have the greatest difficulty drawing it to scale – at a millimetre per century, it would have to be 2.314 kilometres (nearly a mile and a half) long to take us back to when the dinosaurs started, and our own period of civilisation would take up only ten centimetres (about four inches) of that.

But the flaw in such reckoning is that we do not experience time as a constant quantity at all: one minute is not as long as another minute; an hour can pass slowly or quickly; in sleep we may have no sense of time at all (we can wake with no idea of how long we have slept – minutes or hours) though in dreaming we can experience what seems (in recollection, at least) great tracts of time, far in excess of the actual time spent dreaming it.

At the heart of this is the difficulty we have in describing consciousness – a strange thing, when you think of it, since we all experience it. St Augustine sensed the difficulty sixteen centuries ago – if the future is yet to be, and the past is no longer, what is the present?

‘For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. Those two times, therefore, past and future, how are they, when even the past now is not; and the future is not as yet? But should the present be always present, and should it not pass into time past, time truly it could not be, but eternity. If, then, time present — if it be time — only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be — namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to be?’ (Augustine of Hippo, Confessiones lib xi, cap xiv, sec 170)

Augustine’s solution is interesting. He was struck by the fact that such things as music and the spoken word are, literally, comprehended  – i.e. ‘seized together’ or taken as a whole, despite the fact that logic tells us they must be experienced sequentially, with each note or word passing away before the next is heard. He proposes that time is (a) subjective and (b) has a threefold structure, consisting of expectation, consideration and memory:

‘But how is that future diminished or consumed which as yet is not? Or how does the past, which is no longer, increase, unless in the mind which enacts this there are three things done? For it both expects, and considers, and remembers, that that which it expects, through that which it considers, may pass into that which it remembers. Who, therefore, denies that future things as yet are not? But yet there is already in the mind the expectation of things future. And who denies that past things are now no longer? But, however, there is still in the mind the memory of things past. And who denies that time present wants space, because it passes away in a moment? But yet our consideration endures, through which that which may be present may proceed to become absent. Future time, which is not, is not therefore long; but a long future is a long expectation of the future. Nor is time past, which is now no longer, long; but a long past is a long memory of the past.

I am about to repeat a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my attention is extended to the whole; but when I have begun, as much of it as becomes past by my saying it is extended in my memory; and the life of this action of mine is divided between my memory, on account of what I have repeated, and my expectation, on account of what I am about to repeat; yet my consideration is present with me, through which that which was future may be carried over so that it may become past. Which the more it is done and repeated, by so much (expectation being shortened) the memory is enlarged, until the whole expectation be exhausted, when that whole action being ended shall have passed into memory.’

I think that the inclusion of memory as a crucial aspect of time – or our experience of it (insofar as we experience anything at all) – is illuminating. It explains why the fifty years that take me back to my childhood strike me as wholly different from the fifty years that ‘stretched’ between my childhood and the start of the First World War. I have an actual (if mysterious) relation with my younger self of 1964 – there is some sort of continuity that connects us, that makes me able to say ‘I remember thinking then that 1914 was impossibly long ago’. My father, who was born in 1913, remembered witnessing the launch of HMS Hood, which took place on 22 August 1918; for him there was a connection with that time that did not exist for me.

Thinking of that brings out the real sense of the expression ‘time out of mind’: we can go so far back on our own recollection, then a little further using the recollection of the oldest people we know; after that we are into what others have written, and even – in the remote past – what our ancestors have painted. Up to that point there is still a connection: we know that those distant Neanderthal painters were conscious as we are, and must have felt something of the same puzzlement we still feel now when thinking of what was, what is, and what is to come. Beyond that is ‘time out of mind’: it has length, maybe, but no duration.



Filed under philosophy

3 responses to “Experiments with Time

  1. CORRECTION: I have amended my dinosaurs’ timeline, which I had mistakenly said would be 1350Km long if it stretched from now to the start of their reign, reckoning a millimetre per century; it is now a more modest (but still impressive) 2.3Km. Arithmetic never was my strongest suit! In terms of years, the first dinosaurs are reckoned to have been 231.4 million years ago (=2.3 million centuries). They were around for 135 million years (1.35 million centuries)

  2. I think Augustine got it right,….I know what time is, but if you asked me to explain it in my own words I would not be able to…. very interesting post, even if it has thwarted my brain as I ponder it.

  3. And as you add your correction re dinosaurs years, My brain becomes more baffled….

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