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If I Could Just Borrow a Minute of Your Time…

Written by Jeff Drake
8 · 20 · 21

I have to say, with a wink, that I enjoy taking the time to read, talk and write about time and that I’m happy to do so pretty much… anytime.

Which makes me wonder: Have you ever been in a situation where…

  • You felt that time was working against you?
  • Where time appears to be moving so fast you think, “OMG, time is just flying!” Or alternatively, where time is just barely advancing, creeping along so slow it drives you crazy, as you think “Will this never end”?
  • You feel that you are just wasting time?
  • You’re in the mood to kill some time?
  • You’re in a quandary over having so much time on your hands?
  • You’re feeling confident that time is on your side (shout out to the Rolling Stones)?
  • You’re angry because you just don’t have time for this shit?
  • You feel that the “times, they are a changin’” (shout out to Bob Dylan)?

Everyone has, right?

So many different uses for the word, “time”. Perhaps this explains why time is the most commonly used noun in the English language. And believe me I could go on and on with examples of the varied ways we refer to time every single day. And yet, when pressed, we struggle to come up with a single solid definition of what the hell time is. Try it yourself. Try to tell someone what you think time is. It’s hard.

For some, time is believed to be an actual milieu of sorts, which exists on its own. In other words, if you were to remove all the physical objects in the universe i.e., all matter, every little spec, time would still exist.[i] In this sense, time, like space itself, becomes an all-encompassing backdrop to our lives, yet remains something we can only discern by observing the movement, or effect, of actors upon it. This idea is often referred to as “absolute time,” and we can thank Newton (of course), for coming up with this concept. Einstein would later smash this absolute time theory to pieces with a hammer made from his theory of special relativity.

So lets see what ordinary folks think time is.

According to Merriam-Webster, “time” is:

  1. the measured or measurable period during which an action, process, or condition exists or continues.
  2. a nonspatial continuum that is measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past through present to future.
  3. the point or period when something occurs.
  4. an appointed, fixed, or customary moment or hour for something to happen, begin, or end.
  5. a moment, hour, day, or year as indicated by a clock or calendar.
  6. And a number of other definitions as well!

So, you see, even good ol’ Merriam-Webster can’t decide on a single definition of what time is. Lurking in the background, I believe, is the one appropriate (yet always irritating) answer to the question, “what is time?” It’s one that any consultant is familiar with, as it is the pat response to many questions their customers ask i.e., “Well, that depends…”

Indeed. Small wonder then that the one thing most everyone can agree on is that time is a mystery. Science also agrees and that is the reason why figuring out just what time is sits at the top of the list of the most important scientific problems left to solve in the 21st century.

At least some concepts of time are not foreign to many people, due to the role time has come to play in our daily entertainment. My first book about time was as a child. It was a science fiction book called, “The Time machine,” by HG Wells. You’ve probably seen the movie by the same name, or one of many other movies having to do with time travel. Certainly Star Trek made time travel a topic for casual discussion at the dinner table. Thus, while books and movies make the topic of time a common discussion point among children and adults with good imaginations, what time is exactly remains the stuff of fiction, and together with space, it can be a subject that appears both enigmatic and remote.

Complicating efforts further to come up with a consistent definition of time is the fact that time has specific features that affect us personally and significantly. For example, try these tasks:

  • Take a fresh egg and drop it on the floor. Now, reassemble the egg as if it were new. LOL! Sorry. Grab a mop!
  • Pour cream into your cup of hot coffee and give it a stir. Now unstir the coffee and return the cream to the bottle. Ha, not even!
  • Sit there and concentrate. Now remember what you did next week. Not last week, next week. Good luck with that!
  • Do something today that changes the clothes you decided to wear and put on yesterday. Fat chance!

Lessons in futility, right?

In this physical universe that you and I occupy, there is one rule that is immutable – you can only remember the past, not the future, no matter how hard you try.

The reason for this is that time, as experienced by you and me, only moves in one direction… forward. Never backward. Time marches on! It does not go in reverse. The reason for this is due to the 2nd law of thermodynamics which describes entropy, het another topic I’ll get into later and try to make interesting. For now, you can noodle on this – the 2nd law of thermodynamics is not technically a law at all. It’s a rule. And rules can be broken… if given enough time. Ha! All I can say at this point is that entropy is killing me! Indeed, it is killing you too, and everything else in the universe.

Time. So familiar, yet such a mystery. Google time and you will see a lot of discussion. You’ll see references to material discussing various definitions of time, questions as to whether time even exists, or has a beginning or an end, the various ways we experience time, etc. We talk about moving through time, or time passing, but how can time flow, and if it does, how fast is it flowing?

Here is where I should point out that there are different kinds of time! Ugh! I had hoped I was going to be able to delve into my books and papers that deal with time and simply find some fun, interesting and perhaps even useful things to parrot back to you via my blog. But I am finding out that time is friggin’ complicated. So, I’m struggling some and am not sure I’ll be able to do what I set out to do with this topic. Will I succeed? Time will tell. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. In the meantime, here are three basic types of time we are all aware of, although you’ve probably never put a title to them:

  • Physical time. This is sometimes called “objective time.” Think of it as public time, the kind of time wall clocks are meant to measure.
  • Biological time. By contrast, biological time is indicated by an organism’s various internal clocks (or cyclic processes) such as its heartbeats, repeated breathing, and its sleep/wake cycle (circadian rhythm). It is also indicated by signs of aging.
  • Psychological time. This is different from both physical time and biological time. Psychological time is private time. It is also called subjective or phenomenological time, and it is best understood not as a kind of time but rather as our awareness of physical time. An example could be a dream where you experience the passage of what seems like hours, but in reality was just a moment.

Scoffing at different time theories is not unusual, of course. To warp an old off-color adage, “Theories about time are like assholes, everyone’s got one!” So, it’s okay to be skeptical. You may have read how our military leaders reacted when the GPS satellite system was being developed. The scientists working on the system came to them and warned that they need to consider the fact that time runs faster in space than it does on earth. Wait, what? You can imagine a smoke-filled room full of generals slapping their knees and guffawing at the claim. So, the scientists did what they do best and applied the scientific method by experiment! They sent a satellite with a clock into space and compared it to a similar clock here one on earth. Sure enough, time runs faster in orbit than it does on earth. Seeing the results, the generals became convinced the scientists knew what they were talking about. And Google Maps was born! LOL!

The field of physics is dealing with the revelations about time in the macro universe discovered by Einstein, a place where time and space are merged to become spacetime, while quantum mechanics has to deal with the fact that time seems does not seem to exist, or matter at all, at the quantum level. Yikes! I hope to deal with these and all the issues mentioned in this post.

Other fields are getting into the act, too. Cognitive science is delving into how we perceive time, psychology is studying our awareness of time, cosmology is trying to deal with the direction of time and determining what, if anything preceded the Big Bang. Did time even exist then? Is that even a meaningful question?

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one other field that is pursuing the subject of time in earnest and with, I dare say, some amount of passion, and that is the field of philosophy. Leave it to philosophers to plumb the depths of this mysterious thing called time.

Within philosophy you will now find a field of study called the philosophy of time, or at least you used to. Now, this has been transformed into the philosophy of space and time and probably should be called the philosophy of spacetime, if you want to make a point of it (with a nod to Einstein).

In the past, the philosophy of time was relegated to the study of something called metaphysics[ii] and was considered somewhat esoteric. Analytical philosophy is now also jumping onto the bandwagon to study time and so we now hear people talking about the phenomenology of time, which is the study of how we experience time, which encompasses philosophy, psychology and cognitive science. It truly is an exciting time to study time! LOL!

Philosophers, who like to get deep down into the roots of the subjects they study, struggle with trying to untangle the nature of time (i.e., what time is) from the features that we associate with it. This is another way of saying that they have a hard time analyzing time objectively, when so much of what we think of time, hell, even how we talk about time, is subjective. It’s not easy! This is also why the subject of time has to be pursued from both the scientific and philosophical perspective. We really need to have a firm grasp of time both experientially and the science of time to arrive at some sound conclusions.

[i] This is also a concept called “absolute time.”  Sir Isaac Newton was the first to define absolute time.

[ii] Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space. (Wiki).

Let us know what you think…



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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.