1. the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.
2. a point of time as measured in hours and minutes past midnight or noon.
1. plan, schedule, or arrange when (something) should happen or be done.
2. measure the time taken by (a process or activity, or a person doing it).
Time is a funny old thing. Or not that old – depending on how you choose to perceive it. Physicists believe the universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old. They calculate this estimate by examining the oldest stars in the universe and measuring the rate at which the universe is expanding. I’m 36 years old in 2019. When I think about my life 10 years ago, it is quite amazing to recall all the big changes I’ve experienced and moments that have had a profound impact on shaping my existence – FINALLY passing my driving test (I failed three times aged 17/18), splitting up with a girlfriend of six years, messing up another relationship after that, meeting my wife and (of course) marrying her, bringing my son Sammy into the world and buying a house. I went from sports editor at a local newspaper to working on The Times sports desk to working as primary school supply teacher to working at Match of the Day magazine.
And that’s not to mention all the global events, new technologies and other births, marriages and deaths that have had a telling influence on how I live my life. The last decade alone has featured various wars and barbaric acts of terrorism, my nephew and nieces (two sets of twins) coming into the world, my Nan passing away, David Bowie dying, both of my parents remarrying, and my father’s descent into dementia. Ten years ago my dad still recognised me. Ten years ago is almost a third of my entire life on Earth. And yet, despite all those major life events and developments, those ten years have flown by. Certainly compared to the previous ten – age 16-26. And remarkably quickly compared to 0-16. I don’t know about you, but when I think of how long the six weeks of summer holidays felt as a kid, I find it rather sad when the summer seems to go by in a flash with each passing year.
But that’s time for you – it waits for no one. Time is not sentimental. It marches on incessantly. And the way we feel about time seems to be both universal and entirely subjective. Ten years of human life would be measured in exactly the same way and thus count for exactly the same amount for both my infant self and adult self, but my appreciation of those passages of time couldn’t be more different. Temporality, defined as “the state of existing within or having some relationship with time” by oxforddictionaries.com is clearly a complex subject. At least, it is if one is prepared to open their mind to the possibility that time isn’t what it appears to be – superficially anyway. Perhaps we need to start thinking about time in a way that transcends the linear appreciation of time that we have become attuned to since birth. Perhaps time and temporality aren’t as straightforward as they seem to be.
Heidegger’s ecstasies of temporality
Which brings us on to Martin Heidegger and his wonderful ontological masterpiece Being and Time. As you can probably tell from the title of the book, he attempts a thorough philosophical examination of time and temporality in the second half of this great text. As he points out, it is impossible to think of being without time, but like many other great minds before and after him, what we really need to do is actually rethink the way we appreciate time. And with his ecstasies of temporality, Heidegger plays with and reforms our “vulgar conception of time” in quite a beautiful manner. Allow me to refer back to a definition I fleshed out in an earlier blog in this series to explain what I mean.
ECSTASIES OF TEMPORALITY
This is one of my favourite ideas in Being and Time – the idea that time, or temporality, is less linear, and not such a succession of nows, as it is an interplay between different “horizonal ecstasies of temporality”. Rather than think about our experience of “vulgar time” as static things in the past, the nows of the present and what might be of the future, Heidegger makes temporality a more fluid entity with the having-been, making-present and futural nature of time. When we come across a Roman pot, it is an antiquity from the past, but its being is not consigned to history – it still exists now, as a relic and a memory, but also a physical object which, for all intents and purposes, could actually still be used today.
This brings historicity to life in a way that feels different from our usual ideas of the ‘past’. Similarly, when one considers the futural nature of Heidegger’s Dasein, it can be quite an eye-opener to how simple our vulgar understanding of past, present and future is. Constantly, in the present, we plan ahead – we visualise what we will do that day, that week, that month, that year. We anticipate what we might do; we hope certain things might happen and we make sure that others do. We essentially live in the future – we exist in the what-we-want-to-be.
Now, of course, the random contingency of existence constantly intervenes; there is much in our lives that we cannot plan ahead for. But, equally, our lives don’t simply unfurl in front of us as if by accident or complete chance. We have a direct and telling influence on what occurs – and that is often based on what we anticipate happening for ourselves. Heidegger uses the term potentiality-of-being a lot to explain this futural manner of existing, and so I have included my interpretation of this too, just for a little added temporal spice.
For me, this mode of being, which is basically one of the driving forces of Dasein (human existence), appears to be strongly linked to the ecstasy of temporality that I have just fleshed out, and which Heidegger termed futural. Not only does simply existing basically endow us with possibility of potentialities, we also live in a way where we anticipate and plan ahead in such a way that we enact our own potentialities. Thus, the potentiality-of-being is not just the fact being alive means we are open to living out different potential pathways, but also the fact that we can choose and decide what happens to us, to some extent, in a manner more appropriate to Kierkegaardian/Sartrean existentialism.
The illusion of time
Anyone who has read any of my Science, Silliness and the Nucleus of Niceness blog series might’ve come across these ideas before, but for those of you who haven’t, here’s a recap. Time, as we know and experience it, is essentially an illusion. Physicist Carlo Rovelli tackles this notion with great precision and clarity (even though I can’t get my head around it!) when referring to the undulating, vibrating nature of space in his excellent book Reality Is Not What It Seems. “As we abandon the idea of space as an inert container, similarly, we must abandon the idea of time as an inert flow along which reality unfurls,” he writes. “Just as the idea of the space continuum containing these things disappears, so too does the idea of a flowing continuum ‘time’ during the course of which phenomena happen.”
Things change only in relation to each other – time is only valid for our macroscopic scale of experience; it is a localised phenomenon based on the gravitational field near to each object. With the quantum nature of the field, time ceases to exist. Change still happens – but change is universal; it’s happening all the time, everywhere. Our intuition of how time passes and flows is no longer useful in a world in which we have quantum mechanics as a tool for understanding. The world still changes, but using time as a measure to explain it is only relevant in our localised schema. And, as Albert Einstein showed us in two of his groundbreaking papers for Annalen der Physik, time is relative.
There are of course two definitions of relativity that Einstein uncovered in those famous papers to which I just referred – Special and General. Special Relativity reveals that space and time are linked for objects moving at a consistent speed in a straight line. The laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers. Time appears to flow slower for a person who is stationary from the perspective of another person who is on the move. It shows us that the speed of light is always the same, independent of the motion of the observer, and that the movement of someone driving a car is relative to the movement of the planet on which it is driving.
Special Relativity shows us that we are living in an extended present, and that there is no absolute simultaneity in the universe. Things aren’t happening in a ‘now’ all across the universe – spacetime doesn’t work like that. As Rovelli explains, the duration of the extended present in the Andromeda Galaxy in respect to us is two million years! Time passes differently in different places. We have our own intuitive idea of what time is – but it’s essentially an illusion. The present is only what we perceive it to be.
With his theory of General Relativity, Einstein took Newton’s work on gravity (his mysterious space) and the gravitational field, and realised they were the same thing. Einstein discovered that spacetime is curved – like a giant mollusc. It has its own physics – and this is why planets move they way do, on curved trajectories. Light curves around planets – matter distorts spacetime and slows time down. One of my favourite examples of this phenomena is the realisation that if you took a pair of twins and placed one at the top of a mountain and one at ground level, the twin further away from the Earth’s gravitational pull would age faster than the other – because time is moving more quickly at a higher altitude. The gravitational pull slows time down. The higher you are, the faster you age! The gravity of a massive body warps the spacetime around it – and the flow of time is thus affected.
The perfect blend
The founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, famously illuminated the fluid nature of time when considering the musical approach of Mozart. The idea was that our consciousness of time is like a gathering together of retention, attention and protection. When thinking of a piece of music, one has to recall constantly what the next note should be – the primal impression of each note – while at the same time maintain the expectation of what is coming. This mash-up of ideas becomes a sort of ‘non-linear flow of consciousness’ – when Mozart writes or plays a piece of music, it is like he is experiencing time ‘all at once’. It is not a series of separate intervals – the music blends into a temporal mix.
This blending of temporality makes me think of the shared experiences we have with others when we recall things like TV shows or films we have all seen. I feel like I have watched Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s cult comedy The Office about a thousand times, but I actually think I’ve watched the series in its entirety only a handful of times. This is because people at my workplace continuously reference it week after week, just as my close friends from school do, as well as other people I have regular contact with. I relive the events, mishaps and jokes from The Office on a daily basis and so its historicity is continually brought back to the present day.
This shared mix of temporalities that we engage in with others gives time a fluid, unfixed nature. We relive experiences through others and my experience of time is thus altered. History, the present and the future becomes merely a blend of temporalities, just like Heidegger noted with his horizonal ecstasies of temporality. And what’s more, we take comfort in our ability to recall – in repetition. I have written about repetition and obsessive compulsion disorder in relation to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory in this blog on the TV show Friends. And Heidegger also makes reference to the significance of repetition in what he calls Anticipatory Resoluteness. You can read more about that here in the first blog post from this series.
The time of Pooh
Any regular readers of this blog (I love you all, by the way!) will know how highly I treasure The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. He explicates the philosophy of Taoism so beautifully using A. A. Milne’s wonderful Winnie The Pooh books as a guide. And one of the key tenets of Taoism that Hoff uncovers (using Pooh’s exploits) is the notion of spending time versus saving time. He writes about the way modern man and woman go rushing through life, desperate for quick fixes, more answers and increasing haste. Yet, as this quote used by Hoff from the American essayist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau tells us: “We are determined to starve before we are hungry.” Hoff cities the farmers who fill the soil with chemicals rather than work with nature to get the best results.
He shows us that when it comes to the Taoist Way, real progress involves changing inside, growing and developing. It takes time and flexibility. Rushing around, fighting and trying to overcome and master nature only brings misery and mistakes. Busy modern man has an urge to grow and develop which becomes perverted into a constant struggle for change – an interference with things that don’t need to be tampered with. Hoff uses the examples of cosmetic surgery and make-up as tools with which we to try to arrest the inevitable march of time – but these attempts to retain a sense of youthfulness are always flawed; this unnatural, false, superficial front has no real depth.
That’s not to say one can’t go around looking trying to look their best. Or just how they feel comfortable. It is more a reflection of our hopeless desire to try to beat or defy time – to ‘save’ it; to work against nature and the natural order. Hoff gives the examples of supermarkets, microwaves and nuclear plants as creations of ‘time-saving’ devices. Is the supermarket really superior to the local greengrocer, whose stock arrived fresh that morning from a local farmer, rather than on a boat from another country covered in pesticides to (yep, you’ve guessed it) save time actually caring for them?
Does the microwave meal taste any better than the meals we cook ourselves? I would suggest that they’re almost always worse, that one doesn’t get the pleasure of actually crafting something (and I hate cooking!) and that there can’t be anything positive about cooking with electromagnetic radiation. As for nuclear plants – well, I think it’s pretty obvious that nuclear power is almost certainly always going to be more trouble than it’s worth. We have the capacity to launch thousands of rockets into space to explore our universe, just as we have the capability to detonate bombs to kill thousands of innocent human beings. Give me a good wind farm any day.
Hoff’s Taoist point is this – you CAN’T save time. You can only SPEND it. Don’t waste time trying to save it – instead spend it wisely. And enjoy the time you spend doing things. I have written a lot on the ‘journey versus the goal’ in this post on The Wizard of Oz film, which celebrates its 80th birthday this year. And the message is simple – life isn’t all about achieving goals. Almost always, it is actually the journey towards the goal itself that brings you the most joy. Don’t go rushing around trying to find answers to questions that don’t need asking. Don’t endlessly move from one goal to another without appreciating the process of achieving that goal. Enjoy the time you spend living your life. Appreciate every moment as much as you can. Because, before you know it, your time will be up.
Time gentleman, please
And so that’s it for this fleeting inquiry into time and temporality. It seems that, in many ways, time is what we choose to make of it. We are limited by our mental faculties to experience time as a flow, but we know from the work of several great minds that there is more to it than meets the eye. With heat, we move forward. This is what thermodynamics teaches us. With heat, we continue in a direction from which we can never go back. Things change. But time itself is only linear in terms of the way we burn through it – certainly in a corporeal sense – and the way we cannot change the physical affects of it. In so many other senses, we go back and forward in time constantly.
What we cannot reverse is heat. We can crack an egg but we can never uncrack it. We can smash a glass, but it can never be unsmashed. We can burn a candle but it cannot be unburned. And yet, we can think about the past just as we can plan ahead. And we know that time is relative. We know that the present isn’t how it seems to be – we are living in an extended present. I’m going to pick up some beers on the way home. I am currently on the train as I write this and I am now visualising exactly what I am going to do. At some point this evening, when my beer bottles are empty and I’m on the sofa watching TV, I might think about how I wrote this passage earlier today. And take a step into the past. Time is fluid. Time is relative. Time is not just an infinite succession of nows.
Thanks for spending some of your time reading this.