Time, Where Philosophy Meets Science

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Time is a contradiction. The notion of time parades itself as the key constituent of life and universe. But in history of thought almost nothing has been explicated about it. Very few philosophers have locked their horns with the explanation of time directly. There is a good chance that a writer who attempts it will either end up writing something woolly or abandon the inquiry for a subject more suitable to his aptitude.

St Augustine wrote that Time is one of the most lucid concepts he has ever thought about but as soon as he puts his pen to paper he does not know where to begin. That is a simple truth about explicating any concept.

If a philosopher does not begin his inquiry at the right place he is bound to confuse himself as well as his audience. Kant for instance, wrote his Prolegomena to any future metaphysics after putting his own views on the metaphysics down first. Kant has a commendable reputation for being a perfectionist. It is said that when his doctor had come to visit him on his deathbed Kant felt duty bound to be suitably dressed and receive his visitor with full propriety.

Kant in his metaphysics had undertaken an unthinkable task. In his Prolegomena, he explains that his task was comparable to the Copernican revolution. The way Copernicus revolutionised human understanding of planetary systems, Kant revolutionised our understanding of ourselves. In a nutshell, he said that it does not matter if the universe is a reality or a dream it is still possible to have valid knowledge of the universe.  

Kant is also one of the few philosophers who picked the courage to write about Time.  He approaches the matter in two ways. First, he says that Time and Space are the two sensibilities of man. Man’s perceptions are constructed in space and time. It is not possible to have a perception of objects without continuity and location. We see the world as a world governed by laws of time and space.

Heraclitus, before Socrates had already observed that the universe is most comparable to a river: a reality that is always in flux. But Zeno more or less from the same pre-Socratic period sees great contradictions in our attempts to understand time. He says that we know time best because we can measure it. But unfortunately, our methods of measurement are not infallible. This is relevant for the inquiry of time in two ways.

If we ask the question ‘what is Time’ the most common reply would be to show a clock and point at the second hand and say – ‘that movement is a representation of Time.’ And it was against this Zeno argued that to have a unit for the measurement of time or space is a contradiction in terms. Zeno showed that any unit of space or time must be constituted of two half units.

These, in turn, will have within them more half’s ad infinitum. So measurement is therefore not the best way to explicate time or space. Kant himself follows this line. He proves his point by disproving it. He uses the most common sense of Time, as a linear sequence and he asks us to imagine the greatest Time we can think about. He says that you can add as many more ahead of it and behind it and the concept of time could not have been explicated. It is in fact, impossible to talk about time because it is not something that exists in the universe.

Time is only a manner in which the universe is presented to us. It is through the ‘sensibilities’ of space and time that we can perceive the universe. Kant is giving us a treatise of ‘knowing’ and ‘perceiving’ a universe. The highlight of his study is knowledge. And concepts such as ‘time’ are only used as jargon. Time, therefore, does have great significance in Kant, but his metaphysics dismisses the ‘problem’ of time. In another argument, Kant says of Time, that it is not possible to imagine that time has a beginning or an end. To argue that there is a beginning to time or that it is beginning-less would be a meaningless argument. Kant was so certain of his metaphysics that he had created a system that could prove or disprove even the most rigorous scientific hypothesis.

There are two basic kinds of truths. One is the truths which are true because of their inherent logic or their set of rules like in geometry. A triangle will always have three sides and the sum of its angles will always add up to two right angles. Anybody who makes a triangle cannot break these rules. Second, there are truths which are based on our observation and abilities of critical thinking. For instance, the idea that the earth is flat is a matter of observation, but to posit that the earth is spherical is based on observation as well as critical thinking.

Any hypothesis which does not meet these two criteria can be simply rejected by a calculative metaphysics. To build a calculus for validating knowledge is an idea that only a confident genius would pursue. And Kant was that philosopher. But he was not only a genius philosopher he was also a very clever philosopher. Zeno is probably the earliest of clever philosophers, even though Thales, the first recognised philosopher was full of wit too. Kant had an uncanny ability to pull concepts out of thin air. These concepts fit so well into his inquiries that for a long time nobody had even noticed the trick.

Logic treats all scientific and philosophic statements as premises in a larger argument. Kant takes this idea of premise to be a judgment made by the scientist. A judgment is not merely a sentence in a book but it is a cognitive action of the brain. When a brain makes a judgment about the world or self it is a cognitive act, an intuition. For instance, by seeing dark clouds we may have an intuition that it is going to rain.

If ‘judgment’ is an act then it has to occur in a context, this context Kant simply states is the faculty of ‘judgment.’ The manner in which Kant posits that humans have a faculty of judgment is a problematic area. For instance, we believe that our inwardly worlds are somehow held in our brains or our minds. And things like perception and thinking thus happen in our head. On this commonsense possibility, Kant suggests that the judgment occurs in our faculty of judgment. Obviously, Kant did not say where inside the head, this faculty or others like it may be located.

Before we can continue with Kant’s expositions we should return to time, the subject of our main inquiry. Some of the main players in the expositions of time are concepts like causality, continuity or sequences. Causality presupposes the existence of time. The concept of cause and effect assumes that a cause and effect are connected in time, rather than space. Causality, however, does not need to presuppose space.

For instance, early Buddhists posited that the world was dissolving and recreating every moment. It is in this relation that when a cause dissolves, the effect is recreated. The fact of causality plays a great role in Buddhist philosophy. Man suffers eternally due to causality, and it is this infinite chain of events which has to be ultimately broken. Here we have two methods of thinking about time. One that time persists across infinite time-periods and that at the very personal/existential level it is as subtle as the universe being eternally recreated.  While logically the Buddhist theory also makes sense it does not, however, explain the logistics of the recreation process.

photo: livescience

Time cannot be called a concept or an idea. Nor is it an object of perception or critical thinking. A useful way to think about time is that it is the way in which the ‘universe’ as an idea and object exists. The understanding of a universe is something that is cultivated over time. Knowledge illuminates the world. And this knowledge is embedded in languages and cognitive abilities of man. Time illuminates the universe to man. And it also plays a role in the manner in which the cognitive abilities of man are designed. Life is a time-space presentation. The mind too is present to the person as a temporality.

Logically what is implied here is that if there is an inner soul or essence, it manifests as a mind of a person or living beings through the existence of time. Without time our concepts about the world are mere fragmentations and dreams. The mind and the universe as structures are constructed with an ‘understanding’ of Time. Knowledge of the world and mind has developed over millenniums of inquiry. This knowledge has had to redirect itself, especially in the times of Copernicus and Kant, who ‘revolutionised’ the understanding of the universe and knowledge. According to the greatest wishes of Kant man need not fear dreaming anymore, because even the most fantastic idea can be critically judged by his metaphysical calculus.

Man fears false knowledge as he fears death. The sceptics have through times attacked every philosophy on logical grounds. Even the best knowledge of man has proven itself to be greatly false. Metaphysics of man will always be open to error in structure and accuracy in depicting the universe. An understanding of the universe is not the same as the universe itself. The Zen Buddhists explain this fact very simply. When a person walks in a garden he only has a partial view of the garden.

Even though he may have seen every part of it and knows every tree and flower, he can never view the garden as a whole. As a whole, the garden only exists in his mind. Our understanding of the universe is like that. When we speak about a universe, we speak about a universe which is illuminated by human knowledge and understanding, a universe that only exists in our minds or time. But it is a universe which can be rigorously tested.

The understanding of the universe is a stable universe it does not change unless human understanding of it changes. The real universe, however, does not follow natural laws perfectly or consistently, and the reason is not because it is imperfect, but man understands that his understanding of the universe is imperfect and erroneous.

Hume, the sceptic Scot, due to whom Kant embarked on such a grand plan, had based his scepticism on one idea. He writes that perceiving the world and order in it, is not a good argument to prove that the world is governed by natural laws. For instance, he says that regardless of how many times he observes that the sun rises in the east does not prove that it will not rise in the west tomorrow.

photo: resonance.is

Hume says that our understanding of the universe is built upon our perception of universe, but natural laws are not something that can be perceived. If we cannot perceive natural laws then how do we know that they exist? Hume had created great doubt in the human enterprise of knowledge. It looked as if that there was no foundation for concepts like natural laws or causality. It was Kant who returned hope to the scientific mind. And this task of knowledge could not have succeeded unless Kant grants Time an unassailable place in his metaphysics.

Others who have spoken about time have done worse. Wittgenstein says of time it is something that always keeps us enclosed in our present. Hegel has similar ideas about it and like the Buddhists many more ideas. But the most fascinating account is probably Heidegger’s who creates a plurality of time zones relating to the human mind and bases his study in trying to fit all together like a puzzle. The greatest factor in our misunderstanding of time is that we think we know it, because we can measure it.

The problem with measuring it is that our methods of measurement assume that there is a beginning or a point zero of the object being measured. However, it seems that this may not be applicable to time. It is with time that we measure ourselves or our universe, but to measure a measuring scale is by itself an oxymoron task. Thus, time is immeasurable.

It may not be possible to illuminate time. We can know certain things about it, but by itself, it is a very slippery concept. A study of time is necessarily a study of man and universe. By occupying ourselves with the latter we may shine some light back at time, but as the object of any study, time is evasive. But that should not be a good reason to not contemplate time. Man is a temporal creature. He creates things in time and space. The mind switches to either time or space or binds them together to present the universe. Many of man’s tasks are tasks that manifest themselves in time or space or both. Music or novel or a poem can only be constructed in a temporal framework, while architecture or sculptor can only be constructed in spatial frame work.

Time is a contradiction because it does not give clear marks for us to investigate. The manners in which it presents itself to us, is according to our own rules of knowledge, paradoxical and elusive. And yet it pervades the human mind in all its aspects. Time is like a constituent of mind and universe. Without time, there can be no structure to the universe or our knowledge of it. We cannot know time, but know things because of time. Man’s claims about Time will always remain open to doubt and revision, however strongly he may believe in them.


Jashraman Grewal

Jashraman Grewal

Jasraman is a comic book creator and entrepreneur from India. His first book Borges Illustrated is available at Amazon India and online at drawmeincomics.com.He reads philosophy in his spare time.
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