If it is the case that time never makes its appearance out in the world but only motion is in evidence, then either time is not or it is in the only other venue of which I can think, inside our soul.
Let me first explain my odd-sounding title. It is a variation on the most famous question-and-answer about time ever posed. It comes from the eleventh book of Augustine’s Confessions, published about 400 C.E.: This is his question: “What, then, is time?” And this is his preliminary answer: “If nobody asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to him who asks me, I don’t know.” But that’s only the beginning. What follows is, to my mind, the deepest and most persuasive positive solution to the perplexity.
I. In modern times the most sophisticated and detailed answer is given by Edmund Husserl in his book The Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, finished in 1917. It is essentially an elaborated version of Augustine’s solution. Its title tells why I have substituted “where” for “what” in Augustine’s famous question: Time is, in both works, understood primarily as an event within our soul (or, as it is called for the sake of scientific respectability, the psyche). I might say here by way of clarification that “soul” is traditionally used for the power from which emanate all the activities of life, from sense perception through all kinds of thinking to the intuition of supra-sensory being, while “consciousness” applies only to the part of life that is aware or self-aware.
Now I hope you’ll forgive me if I do some more name-dropping. It’s for distinguishing a second answer to the question “Where is time,” namely outside, in the world, in nature. Three great names—apparently—stand for this location: Plato, Newton, and Einstein.
Plato’s dialogue called Timaeus (circa 360 B.C.E.) is, into modern times, the classical astronomer’s very own work. The reason is that it provides one set of conditions under which it is plausible to make finite models of the world. That condition is that there be a uni-verse, a well-ordered cosmos consisting of an encompassing starry sphere, an inner array of closed, non-intersecting planetary orbits, including that of the sun, and a stable center for the human observer, the earth. Of this world it is possible to produce a moving mathematical model called an orrery. And the reason we can model the world is that it is, itself, the incarnation of a timeless ideal model, a mathematical paradigm for an incarnation that is the work of a divine craftsman.
Time is built into this cosmic universe by the god, who, upon having “thought of making a certain movable image of eternity,” at once so ordered the heavens that they were “an eternal image going according to number, which we have given the name Time.” In other words, the whole cosmos is a clock, whose starry sphere is a moving dial at night and the tip of whose hand is the planet Sun, marking out the hours of the day by its positions in the sky or by the shadows it causes the style of a sundial to cast.
Next, Newton, who states very definitively in his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy of 1687, his Principia, that there is an “Absolute, true and mathematical time,” an equable, independent flux, distinct from that relative time which is only the measure of some, presumably reliable, even motion.
And finally, in his introduction of special relativity, the 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” Einstein says boldly that for local time, the definition of time can simply be “the position of the small hand of my watch.”(I, para 1) In other words, time is what the clock tells.
These three understandings of time seem certainly to place it squarely outside of consciousness, into nature, namely as the divinely made heavens themselves, or as a universal stream within them, or as a humanly made artifact, a clock.
However, the externality really only works for Einstein, for whom time, local or astronomical, is operationally defined in terms of a theory of measurement based on the postulates of relativity, a measurement by which astronomically remote clock time can be compared with local time. But even in that case it isn’t clear whether time so defined is established as external or rather abolished altogether, being a mere designation for locations on an analogue dial or a digital register.
One more name here, actually the earliest to do away with time: Aristotle, in the fourth book of his Physics (after 335 B.C.E.), defines time as the counted number of a locomotion according to before and after. In other words, time is no visible or sensed something, such as a designated heavenly appearance or a pervasive flux, but just an activity of counting passages. And, as I said, it seems to me that Einstein’s positivist, boldly practical understanding has the same effect: It’s not time but stations of movement, the position of mobiles like clock hands, that is real. So if time is outside, it’s just one unit motion measuring out or counting up another motion. What’s more, counting is ultimately a psychic activity; if we didn’t have the experience of counting up moments internally, we couldn’t interpret a digitally displayed aggregate as time that has passed.
It’s even worse with Plato’s and Newton’s view of time. Consider this: Some of the greatest works at the beginning of the sciences of nature are theologies. Certainly the Timaeus introduces a divinity, a divine artificer. But above all, so does Newton’s Principia. He devotes its final pages to an exposition of God in Nature which ends with the words: “And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.”
In his Opticks Newton says, moreover, that these appearances betoken an incorporeal Being “who in infinite Space, as it were in his sensorium, sees the things themselves intimately.” He means that space is that part of God’s soul in which he receives sensory impressions—presumably including primarily the temporal flux, which could, perhaps, be understood as his stream of consciousness.
So also does Plato in the Timaeus ultimately put time inside the soul, an encompassing world soul: For his divine craftsman wraps the cosmos with bands of soul-stuff, structured by musical ratios so as to impart rationality and beautifully proportioned motion to the world within. In this strange and wonderful cosmology, the soul is the cincture, the sash of the world’s body.
The point I’m making is that if you ask the question: “Is time internal or external?,” there appear to be some great scientists who believe the latter, but if you ask it differently: “Is time in the world or in consciousness?,” the number of such believers is reduced, because they think that the world itself is comprehended, activated, by a sort of soul. And, as I said, there are those who reduce going time to the counting of passage and told time to the number pointed at on a dial (which is itself a motionless imitation of a celestial circuit) or displayed on a screen (which is a lifeless imitation of a soul seen counting). In effect, they too do away with time as a distinctive “something.” It is nothing but one motion used to measure another.
II. The questions “What or where is time” now seem to need to become ultimate, to demand: “Is there time at all?” Perhaps a version of more immediate interest to you is: Is the dimension “t” really needed in formulas of physics? I have tried to read books like Barbour’s The End of Time (2000), whose high level arguments for the abolition of time from physics I am not competent to understand. But there is a very elementary consideration along the same lines: Diagrams in elementary kinematics tend to get loci of paths by plotting distance against time, but time itself is represented by distance, the t-axis (Galileo, Two New Sciences, Book IV, Th. 1). Now most objects we symbolize, we re-present in the dimension in which they actually exist, be they visual, that is spatial, or auditory or tactile. For example, the eight-sided sign that verbally says “Stop,” or crosses out motion with the cross-symbol X, is itself in the plane dimension of space, and that, in turn, is the dimensionality of the viewing plane of our vision—for the third dimension is an experiential inference from the two-dimensional picture plane onto which sight-lines from the depths of space are projected—ultimately our retina. But when an item is not representable in its own physical dimension (because it has none), be it an idea, an actual angel, or infinity, we are alerted that something about it is not, so to speak, kosher. And all the images of time I know of are indeed either spatial extensions marked by selected now-points or registered counts of sensory pulses from heart beats down to atomic periods.
And if that’s the only way to get hold of time, then time has, as I said, been nullified: It’s just a way of measuring something, say, life lived or ground covered, by means of the continuous motion of some uniformly moving mobile or the continual accumulation of some equably occurring events.
Are these notions a scientist needs to worry about? Well, no, the realm in which questions of Being or Non-being are at home is not a venue for result-oriented research. It’s a place to park questions that need to be bypassed when you have engaging and preoccupying research to do. They’ll keep there for the time when you can’t help yourself because you really want to understand the postulated conditions of science, which cannot themselves be science.
The American psychologist William James knew as much about the human soul as about the scientific psyche. I mentioned “Phenomenology” before, when I cited Husserl’s work on internal time. Phenomenology is the careful description of the constitution of consciousness. I believe that James was actually the transatlantic founder of this European movement, because I cannot think of a more acute analysis of our internal life than he presents in his short Psychology of 1892. In the Epilogue to this classic he says plainly and candidly what we all need to hear. He regards himself as a natural scientist and takes that to involve two postulates: 1. Determinism—that all events are rigidly constrained by the laws of nature, and 2. Atomism—that the stuff participating in these events consists of massy elementary particles, which are in force relations to each other. These claims applied to psychology make it a science and the psyche a naturally constrained entity. In effect this means that our physiology determines our psychology.
Ethics, James then says, makes a counterclaim: Our wills are free. Scientists do not concern themselves with spontaneity and freedom. Then he goes on: “The forum where they hold [such] discussions is metaphysics. Metaphysics means only an unusually obstinate attempt to think clearly and consistently.” He continues: A specialized scientist’s “purposes fall short of understanding Time itself…and as soon as one’s purpose is the attainment of the maximum of insight into the world, the metaphysical puzzles become the most urgent of all.”
III. So let me launch into one account of time that I find both in accord with experience and elegant in its presentation. It is that of Augustine with which I began. I am not quite sure if his understanding is metaphysical or theological. I’ve never read a great theologian about whom I was clear whether he was more metaphysician or more believer—probably each for the sake of the other: “I believe so I may understand” says Anselm in his Proslogion of the later eleventh century—and, though he denies it, perhaps the converse is true as well. Allow me to point out that scientists do just the same: They accept postulates on faith so that they may do research, and they do research so that they may find a truth.
If it is the case that time never makes its appearance out in the world but only motion is in evidence, then either time is not or it is in the only other venue of which I can think, inside our soul. As one of our seniors (Maxwell Dakin) put it to me when I took him to lunch: “We aren’t in time, but time is in us.” For Augustine time is internal psychologically but also external theologically. When physical time has been shown to lack all physical evidence and therefore to be scientifically void, it might still be theologically real.
Augustine’s manuscripts contain no diagrams, as far as I know. Yet his exposition of time seems eminently diagrammable, and that’s how I’ll present it—to be internally imagined rather than externally projected.
Inscribe, then, in the mental field of your imagination an upright line. Make it finite in length, for it is to stand for your mortal soul, but also indefinite, for it is to represent that expansible storage, the part of the soul called the memory—and also those forward-projected images termed expectations. That is to say, points on it are moments of memory, long ago or recent, and also hopes and fears, near or far off.
Now set this perpendicular across a horizontal straight line. That line will be quite definitely finite, for it represents the world moving from the week of its creation to the last judgment and the somewhat less well-defined end-time: Solvet saeclum in favilla, “Secular time will dissolve into ashes,” as goes the sacred text, the Requiem. The crossing, it would be the “origin,” the zero point, if we were to think of this picture anachronistically as a diagram of Cartesian x and y axes, represents the location where we, our aware soul or consciousness, take place, so to speak, where we are actually present in and to the ongoing world as its participating eye-witnesses. The part of the psychic upright below the world-line represents the past, all the memories left by the passing present that have been pushed down, point by memory-point, into the deeper past, way back to earliest childhood. The part of the upright above the world-line represents what we might call “future-memory” or expectations, our projection of images, drawn from modified memory, onto the future motions of the world. The closer to the origin, the present, the sooner and more likely are our predictions to come about and the more effective are our anticipatory decisions.
So far this is a plane figure, but there is also a line through the origin into the third dimension. Augustine calls this z-axis extensio, which means roughly “outreach.” It represents the access we have to unmoving timeless realms, such as mathematics, eternal verities, and, above all, to the Divinity, whose time is the so-called “standing now” (nunc stans) of theology, within which our moving world is an infinitesimal interlude. “Extension” is thus our stretching toward immortality, and it has no definable extent.
The upright soul-axis, on the other hand, he calls “distention.” By the z-axis we reach out beyond ourselves; by the x-axis, our consciousness, we are distended, prolonged, so to speak, within ourselves. Though we live in zero-time, within the present moment, on the cusp of now, we carry above and below this crossing of world and awareness all our past in memory and our future in expectant imagination. Though pointillistic beings in actual world-presence, we are all there in temporally ordered memory and expectation. We contain all the time there is for us individually, all our past and all our future, present within us. So I will quote Augustine’s famous formulation of exclusively internal time. He says:
Such three [past, present, future] are indeed in our soul and elsewhere I do not see them. The present of what has gone by is memory, the present of what is present, eyewitness, the present of what is future, expectation. (XI 20)
The future, therefore, is not a long time, for it is not, but the long future is merely a long expectation of the future. Nor is the time past a long time, for it is not, but a long time past is merely a long memory of past time. (XI 28)
In my youth I was an archaeologist, digging up the past in Greece. You astronomers are, similarly, the archaeologists of the universe, the experts of experts in pastness—Nothing comes to your eyes but what is aeons in the past.
How then can Augustine say to us that the past that is not specifically ours as memory has passed away? Well, if I dig up, say, an Attic cooking pot, rough, undecorated, and with a blackened bottom, that pot is not past but present. The same for the stars of which you capture evidence in your observatory. What makes the pot a survival of the past, the kind called “historical evidence,” is what might be called external memory. The fact that the pot is deep beneath the earth’s surface, buried in strata that are analogous to the soul’s memory stratification doesn’t help to make it past; its thereness is still now. But the fact that there are written epics and histories and other transmitted memories of the “glory that was Greece,” together with some common sense which tells me that they too boiled their beans—those circumstances make me infer a past beyond my own birth, a past-pot, so to speak, made 2,500 years before I was born.
I think it must be the same for you: You have ways of calculating the distance of the starry objects you focus on and you know the traveling speed of the signals they emit, and so you calculate your way back into a past that is, in fact, over: That past is now for you or it is not at all. There is an argument that world time must be real because it has different configurations. The orbital times of classical Newtonian dynamics are cyclical and reversible. You can run the heavenly clock backwards without damage to the laws of nature. And there is the so-called “arrow of time” for a thermodynamic understanding of the world as progressing, or rather deteriorating, into disorder in the absence of shots of energy. And there is the theological view I just referred to, in which the universe occupies a stretch of time inserted into an atemporal eternity with a dramatic first week and a less clear-cut end. This theological time-line is mirrored in cosmology by the claim that time has a spectacular beginning but a fizzling end, if any. I should add here quickly that I am not pretending to understand these temporal possibilities. I just read about them. But this I do see: All these theories are actually about the measurements of motions and in them time may be a convenient symbolic dimension, but it’s not a substantial being; the present alone, our being there, is real. It is not time that displays diverse qualities but particles of matter that obey different laws of motion. Augustine, it seems to me, saves our sense that we ourselves are temporal in the absence of any evidence that nature, the world of bodies in motion, is so.
Let me, finally, speak of a culminating clarification Augustine has accomplished. He has explained why time is naturally thought of as having three phases. The explanation is in terms of three psychic capacities: In our memory we store away in a time-generating order reproducible moments of the world’s motions and events that have come to our attention. Those observations yield a past with a chronological structure. Through sensory awareness we live now, in an actual presence. That is our present, our now. And in our imagination, which is memory in its transfiguring mode, we prefigure, expectantly, in hope, fear, or resignation, things that might come to be. That’s the future.
IV. Allow me to end with a particular preoccupation of mine. When I say that only the now is real, I may seem to claim that life in the “just now” is the life there is. The Latin word for “just now” is modo, from which comes our word “modernity.” Living in the “just now,” in expectation of the next “just now,” does seem to be a primary feature of modern life with its obsession for the short-term, for speed and novelty. In fact, the adverb “now” is etymologically related to “new” (Indo-European: newo). I’m all for making the most of our moments, but not so much insofar as they confront us with that hard-edged brash factuality, called reality. I have more faith in actuality, which I think of as bringing vibrant significance to our lives. But that’s a long story not for today, so let me dwell instead for a moment on the comparative residual powers of the past and the future.
The past has passed away; we say “it was.” But the verb was is a tensed form of is. For my part, I do not believe that anyone can succeed in recalling the past into the present, as a German historian (Leopold von Ranke) famously demanded of history: It should render the past “as it really, effectively had been” (wie es wirklich [or eigenlich] gewesen ist). That is impossible for two reasons: First, because, since a human day has 24 x 60 = 1440 minutes, called “specious presents,” meaning lived moments, an adequately real history would have to take account of and pass judgement on each of these moments, both psychic and physical, of every dead human being as well as every resultant group activity—which would be a practically infinite task even if the material were actually accessible. And second, it is impossible because I believe that a thoughtful person coming to grips with the past will have to go schizophrenic, that is, “split-minded,” in order to entertain the following, unavoidable dual persuasion: On the one hand, it is simply not determinable that there is a past that has actually happened, because the conduct of human individuals, like the behaviors of electrons, may be terminally uncertain for an observer in a way analogous to the Uncertainty Principle of physics: The historian’s observational perspective cannot help but suppress one feature of a situation in focusing on another. Or even worse: Perhaps human life is just not ultimately determinable because of our incurable inability to penetrate people’s interior or, yet worse, because human beings are in themselves indeterminable, perhaps more radically than electrons.
On the other hand—and here’s what splits the mind—who can avoid believing that there really was one way it had actually been in the past, that some things were the case and others not? Thus when some revisionists were arguing that the Germans had not indisputably initiated the First World War, the French statesman Clemenceau said something to this effect: “At least no one will claim that on the night of August 3, 1914 the Belgians invaded Germany.”
So, all that said, whether the established past is always a tiny selection of the real past, or the real past is itself in principle uncertain, either within clear limits or with large latitude, it seems extreme to say that the past is totally not. There is a roughly recoverable past, especially by means of written works. And—I want to say this briefly but emphatically—the depth and coherence of the present depends on being mindful of this past. That too is a subject for a different lecture.
So I come to my concluding expression of personal opinion. Just as it seems to me essential to coherent living to ascribe actuality to the past, so it seems to me essential to effective action to deny it to the future: The future is far more not than the past. In fact it is a big Nothing—at least the human future is just a nonbeing.
I am an amateur reader of anthropology, and here’s a pertinent anthropological discovery from the Andes.(Rafael Nuñez et al., “With the Future Behind Them…” 2005) In most cultures the future is thought of as confronting us, coming toward us, existing ahead of us. In the Andes of South America there is, however, a language, Ayamaran, and its speakers for which the future comes up from behind. These people use the Ayamaran word for “back” to refer to future events and gesture behind them to indicate its coming. This way is highly unusual, but to me it makes perfect sense. There is a future that is fixed from the past, that future which is predictable because past events are determinately causative. Thus having a bad drought in the summer just behind you makes a poor harvest in fall to come a practical certainty. Above all, celestial motions, which are fixed by natural law, are highly predictable; thus an Ephemeris gives the coordinates of celestial bodies way into the future. That’s a way of saying that the future is determined from behind us, since prior causes determine posterior effects—certainly in large-scale nature.
There’s a huge “but.” Determinists will argue that we human beings are also bits of nature and entirely determined by brain action. If we only knew the brain’s condition in every detail we could entirely predict a human being’s action. Never mind the practical impossibility of complete information; if we are altogether parts of nature, absolute prediction is in logical principle possible, and impracticable only in mere fact. Then there is indeed a future, though not one coming at us but one issuing from our circumstances.
But it is possible that we have a capacity for spontaneity of action based on liberty of choice and freedom of decision. If that is the case, then the human aspect of the future is indeed a great big Nothing until we, here and now, decide to give it the shape we choose. It may be that the antecedent causes of choice, which are trains of thought, are even more exigently binding than the laws of nature, but they include an element of weighing and judging that is inviolably ours. If there is this parallel track of free choice, then this is what those future-gurus deserve who undertake to tell us what the future holds and sends at us, “like it or not,” and who advise us to prepare for and accommodate to these futuristic advents, even if we judge them to be bad—on pain of being overrun by them. They deserve to be told that they are trying to invade the realm of our expectations and intending to high-jack our imaginations. In other words they are attempting to curtail our freedom, and their bid to have us bow to their inevitabilities should be met with a counter-bid for them to butt out. For to the question “where is time?” the answer is: For sure not in the future; the human future is nonexistent until we imagine it and act accordingly—and by then it’s already the present.
Let me hasten to say as my final point: Our free choice, which is, as I’ve said, sure to be ultimately quite constrained by the demands of truth-seeking thought, has at least an initial moment of spontaneity, when we focus our attention on a subject and commit ourselves to thinking it through—on its terms. This spontaneity, this freedom, seems to me to be anchored in two, somewhat iffy facts. One is the powerful, personal experience of being my-self, my own mistress, unavoidably in charge. The other is the powerful public sense of not belonging entirely to myself but of willingly surrendering part of me to my community—and that this is a particularly telling practice of freedom.
This essay was originally published here in January 2016, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It was first given as a speech at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington D.C., December 2015 and is published here with permission of the author.
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The featured image is a detail from”The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.