Quid est ergo tempus?

Sergio asked:

My name is Sergio, I’m from Italy and I like spending time reading your page. During my studies I’ve got stuck in a real big problem:


It might look simple to answer but it isn’t for me, that’s why I need your help.

In Italian (and maybe in English too) we talk about time like if we are the owner of it (sorry I don’t have time for you, I don’t want waste my time, etc.)

Sometime we talk about time like if it’s negative for us (the time was bad with that girl, she is 30 but she looks like she was 40).

Or like the time is something far away from us, for example when we have a problem and we can’t find a solution (the time will bring the answers).

Or we talk about the relation between time and space.

Those things mean the we use the time, it’s our, but doesn’t really say QUID EST ERGO TEMPUS?

May you help me to find a solution?

P.S. I’m not really looking for Husserl or Kant or St. Augustine or what the other people say about time, I’d like to know what do you think about time.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You have to get away from the notion that time is something that exists independently of you. I am aware that this is widely believed, and the argument goes, ‘we can measure time, so there must be something that exists’. This argument is feeble. We do not measure time; but an arbitrary regularization of the various periodicities found in nature.

Time is the rhythm of events that you experience. Your heartbeat, the succession of day and night; the changes of weather patterns; the growth of your body; the passage of the seasons; the wobble of the earth as it rotates around the Sun, etc. This experience we have always wished throughout history to ‘objectify’, to regularize. Since day/ night alternation is the major influence on this pattern of experience, we subdivide it into convenient segments. But since days are longer in summer than in winter, we average these segments out and disregard the changing lengths of days. You know yourself that your personal sense of time is quite often at variance with clock time, depending on the intensity with which you experience an event. Waiting for a train that’s running late makes time slow down; enjoying yourself on holiday seems to make the days rush by. And so on.

So there is no objective time. Time is not a word that picks out a fact of the universe: it denotes a concept made by humans for humans and their convenience. The reduction of time segments to minutes, seconds, milliseconds is governed by the circumstances of our observations of nature’s rhythms. If you are a physicist, you need smaller and smaller segments; if you are an astronomer, you need bigger ones.

I hope you can see from this that ‘measuring time’ is not measuring time, but something else. Namely the duration of some fact in relation to your experience of events. The simplest way of doing this is to use a device that travels a distance–e.g. the finger of a clock. When the minute hand of your clocks has travelled (e.g.) 1 cm, 1 minute has passed. Or: 255 pulses of your electronic watch define 1 minute. Other devices are equally good: An egg timer gives you 4 minutes. So time here is a quantity of sand.

In short, forget the hypersophisticated philosophical and scientific arguments about time, as though time was some thing or process. It is always a rhythm, the periodical recurrence of some phenomenon. Our best current timekeeper is the beating of a Caesium atom–in a word, a recurrent regular pulse. All you need to conclude from this is that ‘time is a pulse’, according to present-day definition, the caesium’s pulse. And that’s all there is to it.

Answer by Helier Robinson

First of all the examples you give (‘Sorry I don’t have time for you, I don’t want waste my time, etc.’) are from ordinary language, which is a bad place to look for truth because ordinary language is geared to common sense. Common sense is fine for everyday activities but misleading when seeking to understand the Universe: just consider how un-common-sensical relativity and quantum mechanics are.

The nearest I can get to understanding time is that it is relational: it consists of relations between events, so that one event is earlier than another, which latter is later than the former. Relations give philosophers trouble for several reasons. One is that they are ephemeral: they come into existence and go out again very easily: if you put your hat on your head the on just pops into existence, and if you take your hat off again the on ceases to exist. Another reason is that we have difficulty explaining how we perceive relations, since they have no colours, tangible properties, or any other concrete properties. For example, we can see that this colour is brighter than that colour, but brighter than has no colour; or we can hear that this note is higher than that note, but higher than makes no sound; or this surface is rougher than, and warmer than, and harder than, that surface, but these relations cannot be felt. So how do we perceive them? Yet another difficulty with relations is their extravagant multiplication. If relations really exist then they are entities and as such may be terms of other relations. So if we take two relations of similarity we find that they are similar to each other, so that we now have a new similarity, and this third similarity is similar to each of the first two, so that we have two more similarities, and so on to infinity. These difficulties have led many philosophers to declare that relations are unreal, mere things of the mind. But it is very difficult to maintain this when considering space and time (or, better, space-time), causation, similarity and dissimilarity, logical necessity, and the like, all of which we want to say are real. So that is part of your trouble with time.

If you are interested, I have written a book on relations, called Relation Philosophy of Mathematics, Science, and Mind. It is somewhat technical, but may be of help to you. It is obtainable from SharebooksPublishing.com.

One thought on “Quid est ergo tempus?

  1. Time is a subjective perception.
    Two people standing side by side perceive time differently.
    Women’s bodies have a twenty eight day cycle, men a thirty five day cycle.
    Time passes, as a measure of the Earth’s spin and orbit around the Sun,
    and the Moon’s orbit around the Earth ( and Sun).
    Some cultures believe time as a phenomenon does not exist,
    there are only sequences of phenomenon, one after the other.
    There are sundials which cast a shadow.
    There are devices which work at a predictable rate
    to measure time.
    Gears in older watches and clocks spin at a predictable rate,
    Timing chips in modern watches and clocks count at a predictable rate.
    Atomic clocks count atomic decay at a known rate.
    All operate at known rates, none measure per se.

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