Time is a Hard Nut to Crack

Diamond Thunderbolt
Diamond Thunderbolt




From Groundhog Days – Intercourse on Time

By Melina Costello & David Arthur Walters

August 17, 2101



Time is a hard nut to crack. Some thinkers who are far more advanced than I am insist that time does not exist; which leaves me to wonder yet again, What I am talking about? Why bother investigating what does not exist? Still the word ‘time’ has meaning. Why cannot we just accept the notion of time as an absolute presupposition like some people accept the existence of god or that A=A, and let the scientists work out the details? Sometimes I think we have ulterior motives for pressing our different opinions on the subject.

For example, what difference does it make to anyone if time is prior to sense experience, or if it is contingent on experience? Would the belief in one or the other make a big difference in anyone’s behavior, say, in a teacher’s approach to teaching the notion of time to her students? Metaphysically speaking, is this not another, “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?”

Kant says time is prior to experience because it is a condition of experience, a form of experience. He insists that we can take away experience and that time will remain, but not vice versa. That seems to make sense. But does not the opposite argument makes as much sense that, if we take away experience, there is no time, that time is a conception we have derived from simple experiences after a lot of hard thought, something we have learned?

I think so. I think it takes two at the same time to tango, but who am I to question the giants of philosophy on this subject? I’m an ignorant man who does not understand the titans unless I question them.

Take William Whewell, the philosopher of science who invented the word ‘scientist.’ He too says time is prior to experience. I don’t know if he pondered at length on this subject, agonized over it as I am doing now. He seems to be simply repeating Kant almost verbatim:

“Respecting the idea of Time, we may make several of the same remarks which we made concerning the idea of space, in order to shew that it is not borrowed from experience, but is a bond of connexion among the impressions of sense, derived from the peculiar activity of the mind, and forming a foundation both of our experience and of our speculative knowledge.”

Experience is not solely derived from the mind in my opinion. Experience is what mind and body as a unity undergoes during the course of time. Whewell said that time is an idea. What is an idea? It is an object of thought. Where do we get our ideas? From experience. What is experience? What we undergo in the course of time. If we keep up this circular course of thinking, we will wind up experiencing a tautology.

Of course we are born with faculties such as the ability to walk upright on two legs. We are born with the peculiar faculty of thinking, and at the same time we are born with the faculty of sensation, from which we have perception, a judgment on sensation. We are born with abilities, not after abilities. We do not find the idea of walking and the more basic idea of change having a drink together prior to someone’s birth. Nor is there anything in our experience proving that we were born with an “innate idea” of time. The idea of time I think is learned from experience undergone in course of time, particularly the experience of motion.

We know from reports of the experiences of ‘primitive’ peoples that some of them do not count past three – four is “many.” They do not have our general concept of time or our concept of universal space, yet they can name hundreds of plants and places individually and find their way across forest and jungle. If time were an innate idea universal to humankind, we would expect everyone to have a very similar experience of time. But they do not. Time is another notion abstracted from experience. Infants across cultures may have a similar experience of motion, but the notion of time diverges as they develop within their respective cultures. Our culture has imposed a standard of uniform time on society, and that imposition is, at least in my opinion, derived from reflection on observed natural phenomena, from experience. Don’t you think so?

Whewell reiterates:

“Time is not a notion obtained by experience. Experience, that is, the impressions of sense and our consciousness of thoughts, gives us various perceptions; and different successive perceptions exemplify the notion of change. But this very connexion of different perceptions, – this successiveness – presupposes that the perceptions exist in time….”

The experience of the succession of perceptions also presupposes that perceptions exist, and perceptions are judgments of the mind on sensation. Absent that experience there would be no ‘notion’ of time. Whewell is presupposing that the notion of time, which in itself is an experience, is prior to the experience of time. One might just as reasonably presuppose the opposite, but might be better off presupposing that time is a developed experience, the idea of which, in our culture, has become increasingly abstract.

“Thus time is a necessary condition in the presentation of all occurences in our minds. We cannot conceive this condition to be taken away….”

Neither can we conceive of time without the experience of time.

“It is clear from this that time is not an impression derived from experience….”

It is not clear at all to me, but I am a slow learner.

“Thus time is something distinct from the matter of substance of our experience, and may be considered as a necessary form which that matter (the experience of change) must assume, in order to be an object of contemplation of mind….”

I suspect that Whewell is insisting on the priority of time to experience because his way of thinking places mind over matter and thereby man has his dignity by virtue of his “peculiar activity of mind.” If so, I do not blame him, but still the priority of mind is merely a formal distinction, since an investigator can begin with matter and proceed along the continuum to mind, or vice versa. Note that Marx is wrongly scoffed at for being a gross materialist who turned Hegel the idealist upside down on his head: Marx spoke highly of the dignity or spiritual aspect of man, knowing full well that the elevation of mind over matter was convenient to humankind’s purpose and his form or mode of action.

But what do I know about the true nature of time? I am an ignorant amateur. Now I just stumbled over a text that coincidentally supports my impudence if I understand the author rightly: Geza Szamosi’s The Twin Dimensions, Inventing Time and Space. The title gives his position up front. He opines that Galileo invented time because Galileo’s approach implied a uniform flow of mathematically regulated time: in Szamosi’s words, “Galileo saw that time is the independent variable in the description of motion.”

Before that, there was no such thing as time, not as this author defines it. But I will take up Szamosi’s thesis later after I have a better understanding of Einstein’s concept that time is relative to the speed of light, the absolute standard. Now here is what Szamosi said about Jean Piaget’s study of children:

“When Jean Piaget investigated the evolution of time perception in young children, he found that even in our industrial society it requires considerable maturity for a child to be able to disentangle the perception of the flow of time from the environment and from the more fundamental perceptions of speed and distance. The latter two dominate the perception of all young children at first. At an early age, reports Piaget, ‘All temporal judgements are… actually disguised spatial judgements. The temporal order of events is confused with the spatial order of points of the paths, duration with space covered and so forth.’ Piaget also concluded from these experiments that, at first, the perception of time is always derived from the perception of motion. The passage of time is perceived not in the abstract but through the motion of bodies. If, for example, an experimenter moves different bodies at different speeds, young children cannot say which body moved for the longest time or whether they stopped spontaneously. ‘We merely have to make all speed unequal for all temporal intuition to be falsified,’ wrote Piaget. Only at a later age can children conceive of the abstract passing of time independent of events in the environment.”

“The perception of time is always derived from the perception of motion” makes sense. Which is to say that time is derived from experience.

Madame, I beg your pardon for quibbling over something that makes no difference one way or the other, but you raised the subject. Please respond if you have any time to waste—I hope you do!

Your Sincere Groundhog

2 thoughts on “Time is a Hard Nut to Crack

  1. But perhaps it does make a difference! Like Copernicus’s discovery that it is Earth that revolves around Sun rather than the other way around. It makes no difference to daily life of people as anyway they will see the Sun arising in the East every morning. But in sending a man to the Moon it makes a great difference. Similarly the yet unexplored implications of Kantian epistemology may show the practical utility of it.


    • Well, everything may turn around Earth, but the mathematical calculations would be too complex to be useful. But that analogy is as you know false. Rockets do not fly between the subjects of our perhaps false dichotomy.


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