This U3A (University of the Third Age) philosophy group meeting, which about 40 people attended, was presented by one of the members, Terry, who gave an interesting talk on the nature of time (as opposed to the measurement of time), in which he raised eight questions for us to discuss. On the table at which I was seated, we didn’t get very far with any of the questions and were all, I think it would be fair to say, completely out of our depth when it came to knowledge of Stephen Hawking’s work and Einstein’s theory of relativity. We therefore tried to confine our discussion to those questions where we could draw on some personal experience to contribute to the discussion.
I share these questions and some of our discussion with the health warning that I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any of the facts, but hopefully the questions will stimulate further curiosity and thought, as they did for us.
Q1. To what extent does time rule our lives and were we happier before we had clocks?
This was discussed in terms of always having had clocks if we consider the sun to be a clock, day and night, the seasons and so on. The general opinion was that over time we have become more and more obsessed with time, such that we now seek antidotes to the pressure of time, such as mindfulness and meditation, and we have to ‘dare ourselves to be still’. It was suggested that small children are not aware of time (I’m not sure about that), and the relationship between time and longitude was briefly mentioned.
Q2. In your opinion – is time real?
Here reference was made to Kant’s questions about time and space, Julian Barbour’s controversial view that time is an illusion, and McTaggart’s work on the unreality of time. Some philosophers think that time is no more than change. Raymond Tallis discusses the relationship between Time and Change in Philosophy Now magazine. The group acknowledged that our limited lives make time seem real, and we think of it as a commodity which we save, spend, waste etc. On our table we got into deep water discussing what ‘real’ means and whether time exists independently of our perceptions of it. Needless to say, we didn’t come to any conclusions.
Q3. Have you experienced Time seeming to speed up or slow down? How do you account for this?
Given that the U3A is for people who have retired, most people shared the experience of time seeming to speed up with age. There is a psychological element. As Einstein said:
Time seems to move forward. Here reference was made to the physicist Arthur Eddington, with some pride, since he was born in Kendal, Cumbria, where our meeting was taking place. Eddington developed the concept of Time’s Arrow (The Arrow of Time) – the one-way direction of time, which gives us the impression of time passing. Stephen Hawking posited 3 arrows of time; psychological time (human perception of time, the past and the future); entropic time (the universe moves from a state of order to disorder but not the reverse); cosmological time (the arrow moves forward and backward when the universe is in an inflationary and deflationary state respectively). I have no idea what that means! These arrows prove (according to Hawking) the existence of a one-way flow of time in the universe.
The cyclical nature of time is mentioned in Shakespeare’s work and the wheel of time is a concept found in some religions; Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism. Many patterns and rhythms in nature suggest that time is cyclical – the seasons, day and night, elliptical patterns.
But we tend to think of time as linear. Some philosophers believe that past and future don’t exist, only the present. Einstein believed that the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, and that the present is unique to the individual; it depends on the reference frame of the observer. Einstein worried that science can’t explain ‘the now’.
Q5. How much is memory and anticipation involved in the appreciation of music? Is there a way this is similar to our experience of Time?
It was suggested that Time must include a little memory. Think of this in terms of music. We hear a succession of sounds as a flowing melody, but to do this we must be hearing a little bit before and a little bit after the given sound/note. It was suggested that Time flows in a similar way. Edmund Husserl was mentioned in relation to how time can flow, but we didn’t discuss Husserl further. I have yet to find out what Husserl contributed to this topic. Newton also thought that time flows and wrote: “absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external” (see Absolute Time). Einstein turned the idea of Absolute Time on its head. Time, he said is relative and flexible (see Relativistic Time).
Q6. The Block Universe Theory sounds bizarre, and also rather undermines the idea of Free Will. What’s your opinion?
At this point everyone I was speaking to was beginning to get a bit lost, even those who had read Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’. Presentism, Eternalism and Block Theory of Time were all mentioned. Presentism is the view that neither the future nor the past exists, only the present exists, but Eternalists believe that past, present and future are all equally real. In this latter view, which is supported by relativity theory, there is no flow of time. According to Block Theory, the past and present exist, but the future does not. This undermines the theory of free will.
Q7. If Time travel was available to you where would you go and why?
We didn’t answer this question, discussing instead some of the implications of light speed for what we see and understand of the universe – time dilation and the idea that astronauts age more slowly than people on earth – and whether time travel will ever be a possibility. Stephen Hawking considered this .
Time travel used to be thought of as just science fiction, but Einstein’s general theory of relativity allows for the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that you could go off in a rocket and return before you set out. (Stephen Hawking)
If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future? (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)
Q8. How do you spend your leisure time?
This final question was raised because it was assumed that given that this discussion group consists of people who have retired, they have more leisure time. Evidently the Greeks craved leisure to live a life of the mind.
This U3A philosophy group consists of as many men as women, but this didn’t stop one woman quipping: ‘Leisure is a male concept’.
A comment of our time!