What is time?

Debra asked:

What is time? Does it exist outside the human experience, and can we prove it exists at all?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

There is no question that time is not a matter of experience. We don’t possess time sensors. People who are locked into solitary confinement lose all sense of time after a while, especially if they can’t see the light outside. For example, Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo marked the wall with the passing of days for 14 years, so as to keep a hold on the time he was locked up. But he had a little hole in his prison to see the light changing.

So you see that time is our creation. Without light, and its constant rhythmical cycle, there is no time.

Another way we observe time is when things age and decay. But this is not time. It is things changing, and we associate those changes with something moving along which we call time. But of course nothing is moving except the processes which cause those changes.

So time does not exist for any object that does not move. We could not measure time except that we can observe things changing. So all our definitions of time refer to the motions of things and their cycling and their ageing.

Time is for us a way of locating ourselves in a present, and we call what went before ‘the past’ and what may still happen ‘the future’. But strictly speaking this is just a convention. When you think about it, there is never a ‘present’. What you experience now has already gone, at least a split second before you experience it.

You might be interested in how philosophers like Parmenides arrived at their paradoxical notion of a block universe, or how religions teach us that all time is one for God. It is a tacit acknowledgement by us that time is a purely human phenomenon. So the Bible and the Greek philosophers (or some of them) knew this. Parmenides made the correct observation that we humans can only experience phenomena. But the gods in their heavens see everything at once.

The gods don’t experience time because there is no time when you take away the phenomena. This explains why they got bored stiff with their unchanging world and decided, every so often, to transform themselves into creatures and cause problems for us humans. Where else could they find their entertainment?

But we humans have more than enough entertainment, and every civilisation that goes beyond the struggle for survival becomes a kindergarten. Everything we do is play, of course some of it not very pleasant. No wonder the gods are jealous of us. Not because we have time, but because we have feelings, and feelings can’t exist in an eternity without time or space to play.

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