Measured Time and Experienced Time

Philosophy has traditionally two views concerning time, namely, the ‘static view of time’ and the ‘dynamic view of time’. The static view of time as embraced by philosophers like Parmenides and Zeno of Elea held that the appearance of temporal change is a mere illusion. This means that events deemed ‘past’ in one frame of reference must be deemed as the ‘future’ in other frames; thus hinting that the difference between the past and the future might be just one that is subjective to experience rather than a real ontological divide. The dynamic view of time chosen by philosophers like Heraclitus and Aristotle, maintained that the future lacks the certainty of the past and the present therefore reality is continually being added to as time passes. This implies a ‘movement of time from the past into the future’ as ‘future events become present before finally receding into the past’.

Both views of time are true to a certain degree. In fact, both views seem to complement each other and produce a more complete picture of our understanding of time. More importantly, both views show us a fundamental principle in philosophy, that is; some things change and some things do not change. Coming to this point, the task of the philosopher is to determine to a certain degree of accuracy the things that change with time and the things do not. We all know that some laws of nature and physics do not change relative to time. For example, as long as certain conditions are met, water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. If this law of physics do not hold true, no corporation would dare manufacture electrical stoves and kettles! Besides physics, other concepts and principles especially those found in mathematics are constant regardless of the flow of time. We can always with utmost certainty answer that 5 + 7 = 12 since we cannot conceive a world where the answer to such a question would be any different than the one we already know.

These unchanging laws in reality lead us to examine two kinds of propositional knowledge which philosophers call a priori and a posteriori. Knowledge is said to be a priori when it is a necessary truth, independent of the sense-experience. The most cited example of this kind of knowledge is again mathematics because the authority and validity of mathematical knowledge do not depend upon evidence obtained through experience. On the other hand, knowledge is said to be a posteriori when it refers to a contingent truth that is authenticated and justified only through the sense-experience. But what can we say about the concept of time? Is it a priori or a posteriori knowledge?

A posteriori A priori
Propositional knowledge/truth Propositional knowledge/truth
Contingent truth Necessary truth
Knowledge based upon the sense-experience Knowledge not based upon the sense experience
Reasoning from observed facts to general conclusion Reasoning from general propositions to particular conclusion

The presence of time, I believe, is one that we can know both a priori and a posteriori. The truth that all life is subjected to time is known through the sense-experience or a posteriori when we see things change either in position or in age. We infer that the changes that one goes through as one ages, for example the increase in wrinkled skin, is time’s effect on human beings. From a different perspective, we can also know time a priori true because we cannot imagine a world where life exist without motion and subsequently; that motion exist without time. I admit the validity of the argument that time is simply an artificially man-made concept is not one that can be logically refuted. But I also believe that it is just measured time that is a man-made concept and not experienced time.

By dividing the concept of time into two, namely, measured time and experienced time we are able to solve the riddle that so puzzle us. The way we measure time is by treating time as a homogeneous medium that can be divided at will into periods of equal lengths. For example, we divide one day into twenty-four hours with each hour sharing a similar property in time as in every other hour, specifically, 60 minutes. When we experience time however, we know that time is not homogeneous but heterogeneous; ever-changing without repeating itself. Therefore time as experienced by our consciousness cannot be divided into instances the same way we divide one day into twenty-four hours. This we know because experienced time is a continuous flow that is both irreversible and unrepeatable. According to Henri Bergson (1859-1941) in his essay Time and Free Will (1913), we do not experience the world moment by moment but rather through a continuous stream of consciousness.

Experienced time, according to Professor Bergson’s definition, is an accumulation, a growth, a real duration. A real duration in the sense that experienced time is a ‘continuous process of the past that gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances’. As time moves in one direction, we see that the past is preserved in its entirety while incorporating the present into its ever-growing body. The future, due to this accumulation, would always be different as compared to the past. In contrast, the duration between two events when we measure time is not a continuous process but a disjointed, discrete, and isolated state. When we measure the interval between two separate events, we start our stopwatch at the beginning of the first event and stop it at the end of the second event. This is different when one experience time because the stopping of one’s heart or one’s biological clock would mean certain death and the end to time as experienced by that unfortunate individual. Hence, the static view of time is really more of less measured time because it assumes that time can be divided into instances like how we can divide moving bodies in a video recording into separate static images. This we know can never happen in real life because we simply cannot pause experienced time in its tracks.

Measured Time Experienced Time
Similar to the Static View of Time

  • Parmenides
  • Zeno of Elea
Similar to the Dynamic View of Time

  • Heraclitus
  • Aristotle

  • Can be measured using numbers

  • Can only be felt and not measured

  • Can be separated into instances
  • A video recording can be divided into static images

  • Cannot be separated into instances
  • Life is a dynamic development that cannot be divided into static images

  • One hour is treated as the same as every other hour because the same measured time has lapsed

  • Each experience in time is different, irreversible, and unrepeatable

The difference between measured and experienced time provides us with the solution to the paradoxes of the Zeno of Elea.

The first paradox is known as ‘the Achilles’:

‘Achilles running to overtake a crawling tortoise ahead of him can never overtake it, because he must first reach the place from which the tortoise started; when Achilles reaches that place, the tortoise has departed and so is still ahead. Repeating the argument we easily see that the tortoise is always ahead’.

The second paradox is ‘the Arrow’:

‘A moving arrow at any instant 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’.

Both the Achilles and the Arrow assumes time to be only as measured time which is homogeneous and therefore infinitely divisible. If this assumption is true, Achilles can never beat the tortoise in a race because he is forced to match his steps with the steps of the tortoise. Using the same principle, the arrow that is moving would always be at rest because motion is impossible. Both situations can never happen in a dynamic and continuous reality of experienced time. Because the steps of Achilles are not infinitely divisible, he would sooner or later beat the tortoise in a race regardless of his initial handicap. Similarly, a moving arrow cannot be at rest because time is not made up of infinitely divisible instances but a continuous movement from the past into the present and from the present into the future.

For practical purposes, we still inevitably use measured time as a way to relatively determine experienced time for an individual. We also use measured time to synchronise events to enable joint efforts of human collaboration. Our civilised society would be in total chaos should people arrive at different times for work or finish the construction of the roof before the foundations. But just as the number three can be used to denote three imaginary homogeneous individuals (three human beings), we know in reality that each individual is distinctively different (James, Jack, and Jill).  In the same way, measured time can mislead us to think to that time is homogeneous and not heterogeneous. Measured time should be taken as a simplification and a generalisation that possesses a man-made quantitative property. Experienced time on the other hand, must be understood as having a qualitative property that can only be understood through experience. We would do well not to confuse ourselves between; the watch, a human invention that measures time and the watchmaker, the human being that experiences time.

4 Responses to “Measured Time and Experienced Time”
  1. pochp says:

    It’s reposted now James but I didn’t do it full -too long.
    Don’t worry, I gave it a backlink.
    Got to go. I’ll comment later.

  2. pochp says:

    I think I’m convinced about the reality of the PAST (not present or future)
    which is just being muddled by the prejudice of some historians.
    And our perception of the present or future can possibly be distorted or wrong.

  3. jamesesz says:

    Thanks! Needed some views on this piece..

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