Regardless of what Mick said, it is not on your side.
I’ve been in the position to observe a number of significant transitions of late – from which there will be no coming back – and the thought of time is once again on my mind. Saint Augustine – a fairly bright fellow, for a psychotic authoritarian – mused in his Confessions something to the effect (I quote from memory, so this is only analogously correct) that, “As long as no one asks me, I know what time is; as soon as anyone asks, I have no idea.”
Time is something like THE fundamental mystery. “Intention” is right up there with it, except that intention is a logical/semantical category, whereas time is more about ontology – what genuinely IS (ontology), rather than what must be taken into account for the rational possibility of inquiry and discourse (logic/semantics). Moreover, it is not clear that intentionality (which includes things like “meaning,” “believing,” “interpreting,” “intending,” “wanting,” and so on) has any logical – much less ontological – possibility, that is not already thoroughly infused with time and temporality. Certainly this seems true in the human world; perhaps gods, devils, and their associated helpmates suffer no such limitations. I should add here that persons involved with phenomenological philosophy would require 200 pages of densely packed and, often enough, uninterpretable obfuscation and hand-wringing to ask the above question; but I am not a phenomenologist, and as such I labor under no such constraints.
As a first stab at the subject, we might break out time in three broadly drawn categories: Time as experienced, time as measured, and time as recorded. These terms are all my own; there are probably better one’s out there, if you care to dig deep enough. But this is merely a blog post, and not an essay submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.
“Time as experienced” is mostly self-explanatory. It is the phenomenologically immediate fact of our temporal embeddedness in the world. Where care is required is around the term “immediate.” Some persons (who, as a rule, are not phenomenologists) take that “immediate” to mean an infinitesimal point of the “Absolute Now.” This “punctiform” interpretation is the – bad – habit of an excessively mathematized understanding of reality that imagines the real-number line is an adequate representation of continuity (even within mathematics, this is open to dispute), and thinks that the world is composed of infinitesimal points that enjoy various measurable qualities. But, in “point” of fact, infinitesimal points are high abstractions, lacking any contact with either experience or reality beyond their utilitarian function in constructing highly simplified, but equally abstract, models of certain narrowly defined physical aspects of the world. Such models are variously useful in the sciences, but they enjoy no connection to real experience beyond the experienced inquiry that manufactured these high abstractions in the first place. There is nothing in experience that corresponds to any punctiform structure, whether of time or of space. Space always comes in extensions, time always comes in durations; experience, in general, always comes in chunks. And these “chunks” are wholes or “atoms” in the original Greek sense of atomos: “uncut,” “undivided.” (“Chunky style.”)
“Time as measured” is the time of physical science. It is also insinuating itself into social sciences, and even every day life (looked at your watch, or cellphone, recently?) But this is not time as an ontological reality; this is time as a desiccated abstraction, of variously utilitarian value. This concept of time – I repeat, concept, because it is an abstraction from what is ontologically real – is reductionistic, wildly abstract (often to the point of being grossly recondite), and, despite all of that, often useful. But it is “real” in only the most loosely comprehended, honorific sense of the word “real.” Punctiform based science, where integration and differentiation shine, is not the Image of the Real that reductionistic ideologues like Hawking and Greene would have us believe. Rather it is the image of our own minds carrying out a process of “extensive abstraction” (in Whitehead‘s terms) that simplifies the overwhelming tsunami of empirical fact that would swallow our intelligence and consciousness whole, were we not able to selectively abstract from that sea-tide of fact salient factors and characters upon which we could effectively apply our useful abstractions. But our models do not stand in a one-to-one correspondence with the reality being modeled. I’ve frequently criticized the pseudo-scientific attitude that valorizes a mathematical model over falsifying evidence, so I’ll not rehearse those criticisms here.
“Time as recorded” is historical time. We live in an age thoroughly embedded not only in, but with, history. Things were not always such: some 2,000+ years of effort went into the construction, disambiguation, and refinement of what we now understand as historical inquiry to be. And this only occurred after the idea finally arose that something vaguely like “history” occurred to anyone in the first place. The time in which we’ve come to understand ourselves and our world historically is only a vanishingly small part of the latest period of human civilization, to say nothing about our tens of thousands of years as neolithic and paleolithic nomads. It is a healthy exercise to alienate ourselves from our too casual assumptions about time as recorded. There are a few thinkers that help with such a project: Michel Foucault, and his “archaeological” approaches to knowledge and the sciences; yet another is Paul Ricoeur and his monumental works on time and history. As is made evident by the previously mentioned authors and their works, time as history, time “as recorded,” is an entirely different dimension from the ontological concreteness of time as experienced, and the utilitarian abstractions of time as measured. Achieving such alienation from our inherited assumptions about what historical time is, is no mean feat. Even those who attempt it in earnest aren’t guaranteed anything like success.
Turning back to the notion of time as experienced, it needs to be recognized that this is the basis for all other concepts of time. The “time as measured” people want to explicitly deny this fact, while the “time as recorded” people do not (in general) worry about it one way or another. (The second Paul Ricoeur link above is to his very thorough discussion of the connections between experienced and recorded.) Insofar as our models of the world are one’s that ought be taken seriously (especially by those who value genuine logic over mere mathematical cleverness), then it is essential that those models be robustly grounded in actual experience. Any theory of Nature that does not begin from such a grounding has no ground at all; it is simply very clever things that may (or may not) have been said very cleverly. Brian Greene dismisses experience as a basis, comparing it to looking at a Van Gogh through the bottom of a Coke bottle. But what, then, are we supposed to imagine that we are using to look at the world, if experience is not the ineliminable basis of such looking? (Greene, like Hawking, has no answer to such questions, since only someone who took philosophy seriously would be able to even attempt such an answer. This is why Greene and Hawking are model-centrists – why bother with logic or data when you have a clever model to promote?)
Whitehead’s approach begins with the radically empirical totality of experience, which constitutes Nature in that holistic totality that Whitehead calls “fact.” This overwhelming relationally connected tsunami of data is then refinable into generically identifiable sub-totalities of relational “factors,” and from these factors we are able to abstract out characters of Nature that are real characters, but whose isolation, qua “characters,” is an abstractive product of human intelligence. There are many other, equally real characters of Nature, they just aren’t (presently) worthy of our interest. Upon these abstractively identified characters, we then apply the method of extensive abstraction, to create those idealized, punctiform models of reality that have proven so useful in science. Notice that the only point at which we might abandon reality is when the models become more important than the reality.
And the reality is, that time as real, time as experienced, is never punctiform. Only our abstract models treat it as such.