The Language of Time
Once in grad school at Rice, I read Husserl's "Phenomenology of Time Consciousness" in German because it had not been translated and I was interested in Husserl's philosophy and in the concept of time. I don't remember a word. whether German or English, but I have remembered some other things philosophers have side about time. I have been most fond of St. Augustine's claim that
"who denieth the present time hath noIndeed,time hath so space in that it is infinitely divisible.
space, because it passeth away in a moment?"
Grocho Marx is famous for saying in a movie
"“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”"Thus was a legendary linguistic ambiguity born. I heard the first clause from Noam Chomsky in a lecture who used it as an illustration of syntactic ambiguity. Since some seem to find it difficult to grasp the ambiguity, note that were there such things as "time flies" then perhaps such flies could like an arrow. Why not? Now, the syntactic issue is whether "time" is functioning as an unmodified noun and "flies like an arrow" ascribes a property of time or "time" is modifying the noun "flies." Of course, time would have to bend, which is, if I may be forgiven a digression, may explain why fruit is said to fly like a banana. However it is to ask too much of any comedian to make total sense.
I am drawn to make these not always sensible remarks about time because I was listening on NPR this afternoon (Sunday) in which a man was describing a contest his father had suckered him into as to who could make the best photographs of his dying grandfather. The young man, a teenager, didn't realize that the point of this competition was to get the kid to attend to his grandfather during his last days. Interestingly his buddies, with whom he worked at a restaurant thought that this was very cool and they followed him home each night where they drank beer, helped him lift his grandfather off his soiled sheets so his hideous bedsores would be less painful, and clean him off and sheets changed -- all things one does not often think of young men being willing to do. It ended with someone saying
"its just a matter of time now"This is a very interesting use of time for it seems somehow to attribute a certain causal efficacy to time.
Indeed, at the point this referred to there was nothing medicine nor nursing care could do for the old man. He was going to die soon. Of course, we also ascribe the opposite causal efficacy to time as when we say that time heals all wounds (except, of course, the ones that kill you.) People mourning the loss of someone to death or a break up of some romantic relationship are invariably told by others that they just need to give themselves some time to recover. Time kills and time heals. Can it do anything else?
I am inclined to think that there is really no such thing as time. Saint Augustine made it quite clear that time can be infinitely divisible. So far as i know, physicists have not discovered any infinitesimally small particles. Perhaps, instead time flows, another time dishonored metaphor/cliche. Amazingly in a press release from the University of Chicago headlined "Scientists zero in on why time flows in one direction" we have not just the "flow" of time, we get the arrow as well." And flowing of all things!
[Sean] Carroll and [Jennifer] Chen's research addresses two ambitious questions: why does time flow in only one direction, and could the big bang have arisen from an energy fluctuation in empty space that conforms to the known laws of physics?I would suggest that physicists might be less vexed if they quit using metaphors.
The question about the arrow of time has vexed physicists for a century because "for the most part the fundamental laws of physics don't distinguish between past and future. They're time-symmetric," Carroll said. "
The fact is that time per se does not exist. It is simply a means by which we keep track of processes and events. It is no less an instrument of measurement than is a ruler. Now, if physicists are vexed that their formulae can be run forward or backward with respect to time then they need only recognize that what is not reversible are processes and event sequences. If they were, then our dying grandfather could, at least in principle, be deaged with his bed sores going away and his good health recovered. Even if that were made possible, what would stop the man from being an infant and then a fetus and then a spermatozoon and an egg and then a gleam in daddy's eye and ... This way of thinking lies madness. Thinking of time going backward somehow is not a problem since, not existing, who cares whether physicists use a construct that allows for the possibility that once the big bang is spent, the universe might collapse in on itself, and form a very tiny, very heavy mass and blow up again. Of course, if that happened, it would not deexpand in the exact reverse of how it expanded because that would mean processes could be reversed and that is not possible. So, physicists, relax. Your problem is not a time problem. It is a dying problem. I suspect the universe's way of dying is to expand forever until gravity ceases to exist.