Who knows where the time goes?

Sandy asked:

Who knows where the time goes?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The late Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention was just a teenager when she wrote this amazing song. (You’ll find the lyrics on Google.) I would bet anything that she had seen, and maybe studied, the metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631) and his poem, ‘Song’:

    Go and catch a falling star
    Get with child a mandrake root
    Tell me where all past years are
    Or who cleft the devil’s foot
    Teach me to hear mermaids singing
    Or to keep off envy’s stinging
    And find
    What wind
    Serves to advance an honest mind
    
    If thou be’st born to strange sights
    Things invisible to see
    Ride ten thousand days and nights
    Till age snow white hairs on thee
    Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me
    All strange wonders that befell thee
    And swear
    No where
    Lives a woman true, and fair
    
    If thou find’st one, let me know
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet
    Yet do not, I would not go
    Though at next door we might meet
    Though she were true, when you met her
    And last, till you write your letter
    Yet she
    Will be
    False, ere I come, to two, or three

There’s a beautiful rendition of this on guitarist John Renbourne’s first album.

The main difference in theme is that John Donne is writing about his bewildered feelings after (one assumes) he has been deserted by a woman he loved, while Sandy vows, ‘I am not alone while my love is near me.’

The key line for me in Donne’s Song is, ‘Tell me where all past years are’, which for him is one of many ‘metaphysical’ perplexities, while for Sandy it is the main theme. Where does the time go? There are of course two ways of hearing this, ‘How come the time has passed so quickly?’, or, ‘Where is the past now? What has happened to it? Does it only exist in memory, or is it somehow a fact that exists for all time, whether we remember it or not?’

It’s the later question that perplexes and bewilders me. The philosophy of time travel is an interest of mine I wrote an Afterword to David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself where I described one of the several ways of avoiding the time travel (‘Grandfather’) paradoxes, which Gerrold applies — and takes to extreme — in his novel. Every time you time travel to the past or to the future you literally create a new world, a new universe. As I wrote in my Postscript, you cannot travel back in time to save the Twin Towers, you can only create a world where the Twin Towers were saved.

But is there an indelible ‘fact of the matter’ whether or not we remember, or ‘know’ in some other way, say, from indubitable historical evidence? I just smoked a cigar, and there, in the ashtray, is the still warm stub. Even if I suffered a sudden attack of amnesia, I would surely know for certain why the stub was there.

There is no Recording Angel. And even if there were (or recording angels, plural) their testimony would only be more or less reliable evidence. They could be lying (a possibility which I explore in my short story, The Good Witness.) Does the past exist at all?.

I don’t know.

Academic philosophers love theories. There are two theories going around at the present time, ‘Presentism’ and ‘Indexicalism’ (you can look these up) which take a ‘position’ (how academic philosophers love positions!) on this question. How do they know? Of course they don’t, it’s only a theory!

But there is a fact of the matter. Regardless of theories. Regardless of what we are tempted, or feel compelled, to believe or disbelieve.

I will not listen to thinkers who declare (more ‘theory’) that this is a question that cannot be coherently stated, or which is somehow ‘disguised nonsense’. I understand exactly what Sandy Denny and John Donne are asking. The question is clear, precise. And we, you and I, don’t know the answer, and — and, I believe, although one can never be sure or rule out every possibility — we never will.

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