Meditation XII, Khronos – The Philosophy of Time and its Implications

Big Ben – Clock Tower of London

~ Our meeting today, my dear reader, is not one of coincidence, luck or blind chance. That we have met today means that we were meant to meet and our meeting could not have happened in any other way. It is inevitable that the past must be as it has been before the future can unfold. We may forget in the near future that this meeting has ever happened but we cannot change the fact that this encounter has already taken place.


I stare at my mechanical wristwatch silently and intently. It appears alive as every second is accompanied by a small and fast movement while every minute accompanied by a larger and slower one. From the transparent back of the watch, I see parts of the escapement, a number of its 21 jewels and the movements of its spring that goes back and forth like a human heart. The human heart is the organ so akin to a mechanical wristwatch. Although our heartbeat does not beat as accurately as the ticking of a watch, its movements tell us that we are subject to time and more importantly, that we are alive.

Philosophy is the one thing that is unavoidable for every thinking and sentient being. This I have stated concisely with certainty in Philosophos – The Inescapable Philosophy of Philosophy. Due to the importance and imperativeness of philosophy in our present day as well as in all foreseeable future, our approach to philosophy should be systematic rather than a clumsy effort of grasping the wind (Systēma – Approaching Systematic Philosophy). In the last two essays entitled, Logos – The Building Blocks of Philosophy and Paradoxos – The Philosophy of Paradoxes, I have stated the limitations of human language as a form of communication and the dangers that philosophers face when using it to express ideas. In this essay, I will put forth the other leg (the first leg being language) which firm and systematic philosophy should stand on.

Everything and anything save perhaps God alone, requires and is subject to time. Nothing conceivable by the human mind escapes this principle and nothing will. Even if time-travel become one day a possibility, the interval needed for this travel from present to past or present to future shows that we can never ever escape the chains of time. Like many other things, of which we cannot live without, time is one of the most commonly misunderstood concepts. For many of us, time is conceived as an absolute and constant flow from the past to future that is independent of the observer. In stating so, all good clocks, being both accurate and precise would agree on the time interval between two particular and distinct events. This in reality is false.

Einstein’s theory of relativity shows that time is not independent of the observer and that different clocks would not agree on the interval between two events. Suppose one clock stays stationary while the other clock flies in an aeroplane around the world during the interval of two events, the time registered on both clocks would differ in the future when they are compared. Since Einstein’s discovery, the concept of time linked with distance in space (space-time) has connected time with the relative velocities of those perceiving it. The proof of relativity is simple as it is certain. A car moving in the opposite direction of your own would appear to be moving very much faster while a car moving side by side of your own with the same speed would appear rather stationary. In both cases, the theory of relativity is justified.

Philosophy however, requires more than just the formal definitions of physics. In philosophy, time is regarded as the perception of a sequential order of all experience, the sole fundamental quantity that allows the laws of causality (cause and effect, action and reaction) to hold. Along with numbers and space, time can be considered a priori as its existence transcends that of experiences and instead is the sole element that makes experiences even possible. Hence, if there is one thing that everyone can agree upon with the concept of time, it would be its direction. While many of the fundamental laws of physics are time-reversible (for example, ice can turn into water and water into ice), many things that are subject to time are not. The growth of a tree or the breaking of a glass cannot happen in reverse as surely as one can remember the past but not the future.

Time flows in a continuous passage of existence in which events pass from a state of potentiality in the future, through the present, to a state of finality in the past. This dynamic view of time can be traced back to Aristotle that stated that the future lacks the reality of the past and present as reality is continually being added to as time passes. In other words, the reality that we know of both directly and indirectly continues to grow as time flows from past to future. Our understanding of reality is then not a static state but a dynamic movement which increases as we and the universe age. This distinguishes time, the dimension of change from the three dimensions of space.

According to Bertrand Russell, our belief in time is due to our perception of change and memory. We see the second-hand of our watch move and remember in memory that the last position of the second-hand is different from its new position. However, some people belief to this very day that time is a mere illusion created by the human mind. People like Parmenides and Zeno have adopted a static view of time of which events are deemed past in one frame of reference must be deemed future in other frames. Both philosophers held that temporal change is an illusion and therefore time is also an illusion. In the paradox of the arrow, Zeno of Elea stated that:  a moving arrow at any instant is either at rest or not at rest, that is, moving. If the instant is indivisible, the arrow cannot move, for if it did the instant would immediately be divided. But time is made up of instants. As the arrow cannot move in any one instant, it cannot move in any time. Hence it always remains at rest.

At this point, we must clearly divide measured time and experienced time. Measured time like those we see when we record, with a video camera, runners of a race can be divided into instances (in other words photos of the run). However, experienced time during which a runner runs cannot be similarly divided into instances. According to Henri Bergson, experienced time is time as experienced by consciousness which is heterogeneous, ever-changing without repeating itself and not experienced moment by moment but continuously. Illustrating his point, we cannot hear a melody by hearing a succession of disjointed notes. In other words, we cannot stop ourselves from experiencing time in the same way we can pause a video recording. In relation to the paradox of the arrow, although we can split the video recording of an arrow into individual photos of the arrow in flight so as to make it seemingly appear at rest, this cannot happen in a reality where time cannot be stopped.

The truth as we know it changes as time changes. For Aristotle, the earth was stationary and the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars moved in circular orbits about the earth. Earth was the centre of the universe. For Nicholas Copernicus, the sun was stationary at the centre and that the earth and planets moved in circular movements around the sun. It was not until Galileo with his invention of the telescope that the Copernican theory was proven. And it was not until Sir Isaac Newton’s invention of calculus that we can analyze the motions of how bodies move in space and time. Then Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted a slightly different motion than Newton and although the difference was small Einstein’s theory is considered to be the more accurate of the two.

Although the Earth was never really the centre of the universe, Aristotle lacked the apparatus needed to study the position and movements of celestial bodies. The invention of the telescope changed all this by giving man the tool to which we could observe the stars and conclude with certainty that the Earth is not the centre of the universe and that the planets rotate around the sun. Time changes not the truth that is independent of the experience but changes the truth as we know it when further data is available for the mind to analyze. Our philosophy must then not be a static state but a dynamic development where continuous re-examination of pass knowledge should be done in order to ensure that they stand the test of time.

~ Ee Suen Zheng


Please Proceed to the Next Meditation: Meditation XIII, Historia – The Philosophy of History and History in Philosophy

Or Go Back to the Meditations Page

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