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Sunday, June 01, 2008

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 no
space, because it passeth away in a moment?"
Indeed,time hath so space in that it is infinitely divisible.

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?

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. "
I would suggest that physicists might be less vexed if they quit using metaphors.

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.

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14 Comments:

Blogger SusieQ said...

I tend to agree with you about time being a human construct. But maybe you and I are not thinking clearly about it. For instance, I'm no physicist.

But if it is true that time does not really exist per se, then why do I feel, now and then, that I need more of it? That I have run out of time. Or that I have time on my hands. If time does not exist, then how can we think in terms of "buying time?" How can time be of the essence if it does not exist?

If you have the time, I wish you would use it to write more frequently. I enjoy visiting your blog.

12:25 AM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

We have all sorts of words that refer to nonexistent entities, such as God, angels, the Devil, unicorn, etc. What you are speaking of time as if it were in some container that you feel you do not think is filled up high enough or has become almost empty etc. Though it may seem revealing, using metaphors to talk about time isn't going to illuminate the subject.

7:03 AM

 
Blogger ahmad wiyono said...

i love this blog! keep up good works...its to be nice if we can know each other, do you think so?

1:43 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Well, I have looked up your location on Google Earth and discovered that their satellite images need to be improved. Bangli is fairly fuzzy. I have been drinking coffee from your region for a very long time. I now invariably get what my roaster calls "Java Estate." I am not exactly sure what "estate" means in this context. So, yes, knowing each other is surely possible. Sadly I don't have the money to go to Indonesia.

5:26 PM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

Oh, that we could put time in a container and set it on a shelf for later use!

After I read your post I decided to look up the definition of time. I learned that time is much easier to measure than to define especially to the satisfaction of philosophers and scientists alike. In most cases that I ran across, time was defined as a measured or measurable period during which something exists or continues or the intervals in between.

Philosophers tend to think of time as unreal. Modern physicists think of time as real as space. Space is much easier to define though.

One interesting feature about time is that humans seem unable to survive without it.

Although I was being a little playful by using them, I think the metaphors served to show that time is significantly important to us socially, economically, and personally.

5:31 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

I should perhaps add that space per se doesn't exist. Objects exist in space and we have measures of their dimensions. The situation is pretty much the same for space as time.

Susie Q, getting definitions as a clue to understanding a concept would be useful if you had no clue what it meant. After that you are forced to do a conceptual analysis, which is a totally other thing.

6:18 AM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

Conceptual Analysis is a formal way of thinking about time then.

If time (and space too) does not exist per se then talking about time as if it could flow is incorrect. But I have trouble imagining that talking about time this way would cause scientists to be confused about the subject itself.

What makes me uncomfortable and have some doubt about your conclusions is that modern physicists see time differently. I wish one would come on board here and explain their point of view.

In his book about black holes, Stephen Hawking said that traveling back in time is impossible due to the laws of physics. He said that one proof it isn’t possible is that we have had no one from the future come back to visit us yet.

Einstein supposedly said this about the subject: Time is what prevents everything from happening at once. :-)

6:06 PM

 
Blogger Aaron said...

I've been a lurking fan of your blog for some time now, and I'm so glad that your write it.

My two cents is that I completely agree that time is an invented concept, but I also think there is a need to disambiguate the term 'time,' because it seems that your definition shifts as you talk about it in the post. I suppose I might make a distinction between measured time, space-time and psychological time, which is a lot of what Husserl's conception of internal time consciousness is all about. Clearly measured time is invented in the same way numbers can be considered metaphors. Space-time I'm not so sure about, and I think this might be what gets the physicists sweating. Psychological time is I think where the crux might be. I love how you put it, and I think this is the dying problem.

1:33 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Nice comments. There is what we might call "ordinary clock time" and certainly our perception of the passage of time. I suspect you mean by "space-time" the "t" that appears in physics formulae, the time that is both wave like and particle like. Its hard to believe that that conundrum existed when I was 21 and still does at 69. This is what I love about science -- you never get finished understanding your subject. Every answer raises a new question or forces a revision of old answers.

Please comment in the future.

2:39 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

I agree with your view of time. The context in which I have most often discussed the question was in debates on the nature of God, but physics is a good category too.

The questions which have concerned me are the concept of predestination (which troubles me deeply) and the omniscience of God. I think the confusion caused by many theologians (and lay thinkers) arises from this erroneous view of time, which I agree with you is just a construct. Even if God knows everything, the future is not a thing susceptible of knowledge. There is only now.

The same problems arise with the concept of omnipotence, but only because language makes things appear to be possible which aren't (God can do anything which is possible). For example, someone once asked me whether God could make a mountain so big even He couldn't move it. The correct answer is, this is a question which makes no sense. You might as well ask whether black can become white. If all black things became white, then those things have changed, but black cannot change, as "black" describes a particular property of a thing. As another example, you may just as well ask whether God can fuzzwubblefluff. It's just gibberish.

So, I guess the point, as it would concern an avowed atheist such as yourself, is the tendency of language to imply things about reality which are deceiving, and the fact we should be able to step back to see this problem. Parmenides and Zeno would have done well to realize this.

5:25 PM

 
Blogger frigophobe said...

Time (and space) do exist per se. How we choose to divide it is what's arbitrary, because, as you mention, it is infinitely divisible. But time exists per se, as evidenced by the fact that there is a past which cannot intrude upon the present, however finely you slice it.

12:33 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

The past does NOT exist. Time is simply our way of experiencing events, but there is no time. The past is a construct, it's our way of describing what already happened. It's a useful way to think about things, but it has no independent reality.

1:31 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

Kelly, the past certainly exists though we shall never have a fully accurate picture of it either from first hand memories or newspapers or any other source. The future doesn't. Yet.

Frig, time does not exist. Processes and states exist. Time is the construct we use to help keep track of processes and states and state change (processes).

6:19 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

LG, I'm not sure I agree or disagree with you. From everything else discussed, I believe I agree with your view of time; our dispute as to whether the past exists is, I believe, a matter of semantics. I believe it's more useful to say the past does not exist. It certainly did exist, but only as it was happening. Objectively, things either did or did not happen, and whether or not they did is not open to interpretation. But I don't believe the past exists in the same sense as anything else we talk about existing.

I'm also not sure processes exist, so much as they simply happen. A "process" is a way of describing a sequence of events, but events also do not exist. They happen in time.

At the most basic level, only matter and energy exist (from a scientific standpoint). How they interact and change is not something which exists, but rather it happens.

8:35 AM

 

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