Defining Time ~ What Is Time?!

~ Time Transfixed by Rene Magritte

If you ask a passerby, “what is the time?” you would probably get an answer down to the minute. If you ask a geeky or nerdy person, you would probably get an answer down to the seconds. But ask someone, “what is time?” and you will probably get weird stares even from your close friends. Most people think they know what is time until you ask them, point blank, to explain what time really is in a proper sentence?

In fact, time means different things to different people. If you ask a physicists, he will tell you that time is one of the basic building blocks of the universe. Ask a watchmaker and he will point you to his most expensive watch. For a H.G. Wells fan, time is the fourth dimension that is available for traveling (more on time travel later). A banker will say time is money. For a historian, time is the devourer of civilizations. Someone about to be married will say time is love. A farmer will point to his crops. A gardener will point to his flowers. A Hindu or Buddhist will say time is just superficial, as all reality will repeat itself infinitely in cycles for all of eternity.

So what is time?

‘Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once,’ according to a graffito on the wall in Texas (Boslough, 1990). Perhaps that statement is accurate. Defining time has always been a problem to even to philosophers and physicists. According to the English philosopher John Locke: “The answer of a great man, to one who asked what time was, ‘Si non rogas intelligo’, (which amount to this; the more I set myself to think of it, the less I understand it,) might perhaps persuade one, that time, which reveals all other things, is itself not to be discovered (Locke, 2004).”

Nobel Prize winner, Richard P. Feynman, had this to say about time: ““What is time? We physicists work with it every day, but don’t ask me what it is. It’s just too difficult to think about (Boslough, 1990).” The difficulty in defining time lies with the fact that time is a totally abstract concept. It has no tangible form. Hence, we find ourselves at a lost for precise and accurate adjectives to describe it, forcing us to rely on more abstract ideas and terminology.

Nevertheless, we will attempt to form a definition of time simple enough for the majority of us to get a basic idea of what time is all about.

Time is more than the numbers on the face of your watch. Those are numbers, or Western Arabic numerals to be exact. The way that we read and record time is in a way that involves cycles. One minute has 60 seconds, one hour has 60 minutes, one day has 24 hours, so on and so forth. This method that we use to denote time is cyclical. Everyday, we can have lunch at 1 o’clock sharp and we know that everyday has a 1 o’clock. But when we look into the mirror after a year, we notice that we only grow older and not younger. Time has a direction and it is not cyclical like the way we read our watch.

According to the Collins English Dictionary (Collins English Dictionary: Complete and Unabridged, 2003), time is the 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. The keyword here is ‘continuous’. The Oxford encyclopaedia on the other hand, states that time is the ‘perception of a sequential order in all experience; also the interval perceived between two events’.

John Locke defines time as such:

“There is another sort of distance, or length, the idea whereof we get not from the permanent parts of space, but from the fleeting and perpetually perishing parts of succession. This we call duration, the simple modes whereof are any different lengths of it, whereof we have distinct ideas, as hours, days, years, etc. time, and eternity (Locke, 2004).”

~ John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XIV, 1.

The passage above sees Locke looking at time in terms of length. At its core, Locke views time as the distance between two events. Like Locke, we often think of time in terms of space. What we actually perceive is change. More accurately, we perceive the change in space. When we see the something from one point to another, we register the movement with our sense of sight and we perceived that a movement in time has occurred.

What in effect is actually happening is that we see a change in an object and remember it. Stated more comprehensively by Bertrand Russell: “There are two sources of our belief in time; the first is the perception of change within one specious present, the other is memory…..When you look at your watch, you can see the second-hand moving, but only memory tells you that the minute-hand and hour-hand has moved (Russell, 2009).”

To illustrate further, imagine a world without time. There can no movements without time. Everything will be still. Life will cease to be possible without movements. Everything will be like a picture, set in stone for all eternity. Time is said to be one of the building blocks of the universe. Without time, the universe as we know it will cease to exist.  

Lastly, Kant has the following to say about the crucial presence of time:

“Time is a necessary representation that underlies all intuitions. We cannot remove time itself from appearances in general, though we can quite well take away appearances from time. Time, there, is given a priori. In time alone is the actuality of appearances impossible. All appearances may vanish, but time itself (as the universal condition of their possibility) cannot be removed.”

~ Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Transcendental Aesthetic Section II Of Time

Comments
7 Responses to “Defining Time ~ What Is Time?!”
  1. Abandon TV says:

    ‘Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once’

    But everything *is* happening at once.
    The universe is like a vinyl record the size of infinity. All the information is already there.
    Everyday consciousness is to be like a needle tracing a single groove with the feeling of going in a straight line (linear time)…
    …expanded consciousness is to sink back down into the vinyl and become aware of the groove in a non linear and even non circular fashion.

    Everything just is.

    • I don’t agree with that quote either. I just find it really amusing. ^^

      And I agree with your non-linear definition of time.

      ~ E

      • Abandon TV says:

        But I shouldn’t have dismissed that quote really, because time is BOTH linear and non linear (and much more besides) depending on our current mode of perception.

        IOW time is what we make of it. (By golly that’s it – time is a cliche!)

        And so to argue which view of time is ‘correct’ is like arguing which view of a mountain is correct.

        Maybe we can only talk about which view of time is the most encompassing.

        Or better yet, we should all just shut up and learn to meditate LOL

      • Imagine, even a Noble Prize winner said he can’t define time. Tough luck if we can!

        But regardless, I think that it is important for everyone to know a little about the nature of time and its implications on us (that is for my next essay ^^)

        ~ E

  2. jungleintherumble says:

    Good stuff!

  3. Tafacory says:

    Time. What a fascinating and ridiculously complex subject of study. I wish I had more time for reading. I’d love to explore the B-Theory of Time. Also, we must not forget that part of time exists within our brains. Neuroscientists have shown that time, as it is perceived, slows whenever a person is inebriated due to drugs or alcohol. I believe one neuroscientist who does such research is David Eagleman. I’m not sure about his last name but I know he’s a professor at Baylor University. You should check out some of his work.

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