Philosophical Musings on Time

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.


There was also reference to Father Time and Shakespeare’s sonnets (see, for example, Sonnet 123 – No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change, and Sonnet 60), in which time is a major theme.


Q4. Do you think of time as linear or cyclical?

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!

Exploring the Divided Brain – Time, Space and Reality

20th August 2016 am – A 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 2 (am)

This is the third in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my first two posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment


Time and Space (What can the hemispheres tell us about the basic structure of reality in relation to time and space?)

This is one of the topics that Iain is currently working on (see my last post for the others). Iain had so much to say about this that ultimately this session was about ‘time’ – there was very little time or space for ‘space’ 😉

Time is full of paradoxes, but we shouldn’t be afraid of them. Iain thinks they illuminate the view of the two hemispheres. These time paradoxes were first noticed by the Ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC when they started to use more analytical tools which conflicted with other sources of reality.

Some examples of paradoxes of time are (see also p.137-140, The Master and his Emissary):

The Sorites Paradox

If one grain of sand is not a heap of sand, and two grains of sand do not make a heap of sand, but thousands of grains of sand make up a heap, which grain of sand determines that the grains of sand now make a heap? For the right hemisphere the heap is not a sharply defined category, but a matter of degree; it is a process rather than a thing.

Theseus’ Paradox

If Theseus’ ship is frequently repaired, each time restoring rotten wood with new timbers, then when the ship no longer has any of the original timbers, is it still the same ship? If you think of the ship as a sum of its parts then it isn’t the original ship. But if you think of the ship as a whole, then it is.

Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles, which is very well explained in this website . See also William James’ explanation (p.52)

Leave Achilles and the tortoise out of the account altogether, he [Bergson] would have said—they complicate the case unnecessarily. Take any single process of change whatever, take the twenty seconds themselves elapsing. If time be infinitely divisible, and it must be so on intellectualist principles, they simply cannot elapse, their end cannot be reached; for no matter how much of them has already elapsed, before the remainder, however minute, can have wholly elapsed, the earlier half of it must first have elapsed. And this ever re−arising need of making the earlier half elapse first leaves time with always something to do before the last thing is done, so that the last thing never gets done.

Zeno’s arrow paradox

‘An arrow fired at a target cannot move, because, at any one moment, the arrow is either where it is, or it is where it is not. If it remains where it is, then it must be standing still, but if it moves where it is not, it can’t be there. So it cannot move at all.‘ (p.138. The Master and his Emissary).

William Blake wrote

William Blake

Source of image

These paradoxes illustrate how the left hemisphere’s take on reality conflicts with the right hemisphere’s take.

Iain’s talk then moved to Parmenides and Heraclitus. Parmenides in the 5th century BC thought that reality is an illusion, motionless and changeless. (I find this a helpful site – The Timeless Infinite Universe  – for more information on Parmenides). But for Iain, it is Heraclitus, one of his ‘favourite’ philosophers, who seems to ‘have grasped the essence of the balance between the hemispheres, while remaining aware of the primacy of the right hemisphere’ (p.270, The Master and his Emissary). For Heraclitus everything changes and everything flows; ‘all is in the process of change and eternal flux, rather than stasis and completion’ (p.270-271, The Master and his Emissary). ‘One cannot step twice into the same river’. This of course relates to the left and right hemispheres’ views of the world.

Failure to take into account context, inability to understand Gestalt forms, an inappropriate demand for precision where none can be found, an ignorance of process, which becomes a never-ending series of static moments: these are signs of left hemisphere predominance.’ (p.139, The Master and his Emissary)

The left hemisphere orders points in time and tries to fix it, but our sense of time as duration is entirely dependent on the right hemisphere. Henri Bergson (1859-1941) pointed out that there are two words for time in French – temps and durer – fixed time and duration. Time can be conceived and represented as something that has points in it, and it can be measured, but only retrospectively. Alternatively time flows. In this conception you can’t capture or measure it. You can’t capture movement or motion, you can only capture still frames. The projector gives you the motion.

moving hand

Image from Iain McGilchrist slide presentation

At this point Iain also talked about extension in space. He lost me on this and even looking it up and with a one-to-one explanation from Iain himself, I do not fully understand it, but I think that the The Timeless Infinite Universe site is helpful with this too. The bit I understand better is about ‘infinite divisibility’ because I remember doing a maths problem based on this when on a 20 day maths course for teachers, which just goes to show the value of embodied experience in learning.

Infinite divisibility refers to the idea that extension, or quantity, when divided and further divided infinitely, cannot reach the point of zero quantity. It can be divided into very small or negligible quantity but not zero or no quantity at all. Using a mathematical approach, specifically geometric models, Gottfried Leibniz and Descartes discussed the infinite divisibility of extension. Actual divisibility may be limited due to unavailability of cutting instruments, but its possibility of breaking into smaller pieces is infinite.

I also found this fun website – Why you can’t divide by zero.

I think the point that Iain was making is that this type of breaking down and analysis is a retrograde step. You can’t have motion without time and space and vice versa. Time and change and space are all bound together.

Iain then talked at some length about the experiences of time and space of people with right or left hemisphere damage. People with right hemisphere stroke will, when having a shower, see not a flow of water but separate drops of water with extreme clarity. People with left hemisphere stroke will see the water flowing more powerfully than before. Jason Padgett describes this experience of seeing parts rather than the whole and losing the fluidity of motion after his own brain damage.

We need both types of hemisphere vision to see something. The left hemisphere vision effect is to slow things down, but in reality there is no ceasing of motion and continuity cannot be composed of discrete objects even if there is an infinity of them. Precision is always an approximation. At what point do you see something precisely? We spatialise time in the left hemisphere and put points on it, but in reality there are no points. As soon as you say ‘now’ it’s no longer ‘now’. The past and future take place in your ‘now’.

Life is a narrative but you can lose this with right hemisphere damage. If you don’t have an understanding of flow, then you don’t have a narrative. Narrative is how we make sense of evidence and the right hemisphere needs to be involved. All living things and inanimate things flow. Flow is an unpredictable, generative force which when obstructed gives incredible patterns. Interestingly I recently heard this talked about in a seminar about the Shape of Air by Bronislaw Szerszynski, Reader in Sociology, Lancaster University, who wrote …..

The air is at once familiar and mysterious, and we can explore the intertwining of these two characteristics by thinking about the ‘shape’ of the air. There are many reasons why it is hard to conceive of air as having shape: because the air is more or less invisible to our eyes; because it is not a discrete object that we can stand alongside but a continuous medium that we inhabit; and because it is a constantly moving fluid that fills space and seems to have no external or internal boundaries of its own.

…. and showed us some amazing images of the patterns that air can make when obstructed.

Flow cannot and does not separate out parts. There are no slices of experience, time or space. Analytic thought can drive out intuitive observation. In flow you don’t notice time passing, you are flowing with time at the same speed.

Schizophrenia and autism, although there are many types, are conditions of right hemisphere damage. Iain suggested that autism is primarily a disorder of time, bound up with a sense of reality, flow and self. Absence of flow through right hemisphere damage can also be manifest in the body and patients with right hemisphere damage may lose fluid motion and become jerky in their physical movement and thought. Schizophrenics sometimes speak of themselves as being machines or robots. Interestingly more men than women tend to be on the extreme ends of the autism spectrum and many great analytical philosophers have been on the autism spectrum.

And for those of us in the latter years of our lives, why does time speed up as we get older? Iain suggested some reasons for this. Affect may be one reason; affect associated with the past and the future. For older people the past may be highly charged with meaning and we may be fearful of the future, so we want to hold on to the past. When we are older we are less good at allowing ourselves to be absorbed because we keep an eye on time passing. Ideally we would sustain a position of being in flow, when we would not notice time passing, but would be flowing with time at the same speed.

Personal reflection

A look in the index of the Master and his Emissary to find references to time and space reveals that there is a lot more to the relationship between time and space and the hemispheres than we discussed on the course. This was a difficult session to follow and it has been hard to make sense of my notes. I don’t have a background in metaphysics and many of the ideas and language were completely new to me. But at a basic level, I can see that an understanding of time and space as flow or fixed points must affect our perception of reality.

The main message for me has been the reminder of the importance of the state of flow, where we are not distracted by constant interruptions, where time is not broken into points. In my life ‘flow’ free of distractions is a luxury I don’t often experience!

Authors/people referred to during the session

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

William James (1909) – A Pluralistic Universe

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Information overload and connectivity

On one side we are urged to increase our connectivity – we are told that all learning starts with a connection, to learn we need to be well connected, to keep up in a fast moving digital age we need to know how to filter, select, aggregate, remix, repurpose, feed forward. We are urged to be open and connected, and to become involved in global networks.  It is not enough to simply join these networks and observe – this is regarded as ‘taking’ – we must share, create for the benefit of others and reciprocate.

On the other side, when people stop to think about it, such as over the Christmas break, there is a realisation that all this connectivity can very easily get out of control and become an unbearable burden.  Blog posts by Will Richardson and Beth Kanter both discuss this from different perspectives. There has been a discussion on Quora to which George Siemens contributed and we have been reminded in some posts of Clay Shirky’s suggestion that information overload is a consequence of filter failure.

Of course, as soon as people have a break – such as we have just had with Christmas and New Year – it suddenly hits us that there must be more to life than …… whatever it is that puts our life out of balance – such as has been perceived in recent online discussions and posts as an imbalance between connectivity and information overload.

But I’m wondering whether it is information overload that is the problem. Isn’t it more a lack of understanding about what we mean by connectivity and what role connectivity should play in our lives and learning? It seems that it is often interpreted that more connectivity is better – more connectivity means more learning, more connectivity means being able to keep up. But is this true? Would an answer to this question sort out the information overload problem?

A 10 minute post

Having just  read 10 Web 2.0 things you can do in 10 minutes, which has been posted by Stephen on today’s Daily, I am tesing this out to see if I can make anything like a respectable post in 10 minutes. Time is a real issue with connectivism, as exemplified by this course, as I’m sure many people are finding.

Earlier in the course Stephen posted that the course should take about 8 hours per week, but to do this course justice you would need to spend far more. Carmen’s post today, which I have only skim read, must have taken her a considerable amount of time and there are many others on the course who make deeply reflective and what must be time-consuming posts.

Connectivism seems to demand constant interaction and ‘fast’ connections, whereas deep and critical thinking and reflective learning takes time. This seems to be a tension for me in connectivism. Do we want to listen to multiple interactions, all fast firing, on twitter, on blogs, in Second Life, on Facebook, etc, etc. – the list seems endless (how do people do it!), or do we want to/need to take more time and listen to more thoughtful posts?

I am really struggling with time. I haven’t even read last week’s reading’s yet and I haven’t responded to other people’s blogs as much as I wanted to. I have watched George’s video introduction to this week today, which provides an excellent overview of where we are up to. How does he manage to be so concise? But doesn’t he look exhausted.

Is this what connectivism means? That we are so busy keeping up our connections that we are permanently exhausted? If George is looking tired, then there is absolutely no hope for me. It has taken me 20 minutes, going like the clappers and not saying anything much to write this post!

Connectivity/life balance

I have just read Steve Sorden’s post about the difficulty of keeping the balance right in relation to how much time we spend on this course.

This reminded me that I wanted to make a note of Stephen’s post (or was it George?) on how many hours we should be spending on this course. 8 hours a week.

From what I have read I expect people have spent more than I hour on their assignment – probably much more. 

Some additional time that might be needed depending on your prior experience would be for setting up your blog, or other aspects of your personal learning environment. This could take quite a lot of time

Beyond this, what is needed are the skills to save time – so multi-tasking skills, ability to skim read and so on will all save time. I think Stephen or George said on the Ustream call that it was expected that people signing up for this course would have the basic technical skills, but as Stephen also said, typical internet behaviour is to sign up and then wonder if it’s the right course for you after signing up. A pre-course skills/technical skills/computer spec type of checklist might help to prevent people just jumping on the bandwagon – but on the other hand if I’d completed a checklist I probably wouldn’t be here now 😉

The course does seem to be all consuming though. If I’m not actually online, I am thinking about it and relating it all the time to other areas of my work. I can see that it will leave a hug gap once it is ended, but I think this is a common experience with online courses.