What is Time?
“The time has come, the Walrus said…”. Yes, but what IS time?! Here is an absolutely fundamental question, one that still has us wondering and working to find an answer. Two major viewpoints are that 1) it is a part of the structure of the universe and 2) it is a construct of awareness. Let’s take a minute (A minute? What’s that?!) to look at both of these.
Time as part of the structure of the universe is often described as a dimension, similar to length, width and height. This kind of discussion always reminds me of the story Flatland, by Edwin Abbott. If you have read it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t read it, you really should. It isn’t very long, and is available to purchase (search Amazon), or you canread it online here for free. And yes, I know the work is a satirical social commentary, but it also does provide a glimpse at the process of trying to think about something you can’t really comprehend.
For the Flatlanders, their awareness of higher dimensions never could fully encompass the reality of the higher dimensions, because they had neither the conceptual framework in which to understand it, nor the physical ability to comprehend those higher dimensions, and of course, that is our situation with time. We can’t hold it, measure it with a ruler or weigh it on a scale. Those are things we can do with objects that are inside of time, like us. We can see a 12 inch ruler and fully apprehend and experience the “12 inchness” of it all at once but we can’t experience the entirety of a span of time the same way, in one instant.
Another way to consider how time, for us, is different from the other commonly experienced dimensions is that we can see the full effect of a ruler being 12 inches long, that is, we can see it, and recognize it is 12 inches long, instantly. We can’t, however, see a block of time. We can’t experience in an encompassing way the “hour longness” of an hour, we can only experience the effect of an hour passing, whether by watching the hands of a clock move or by watching the shadows shift across the floor.
To fully understand that thing we are inside of is something I don’t believe we have the capacity for. If your entire existence was within an enclosed space, you would only be able to know about what is inside that space, although you may be able to infer some things about what the enclosure was made of, and what is outside of the enclosure. That enclosed space might be in the heart of a pyramid or in an opaque bubble floating in space. The inside of the space might be covered with bubble wrap, the outside coated with gold. You couldn’t know what’s outside of your space. This is one of the characteristics of our relationship with time. We are inside time, we can’t envision what it is, or what is outside of it(That’s part of why I’m sure our concepts of God must, perforce, fall far, far short of the reality.)
Imagine you were a particle submerged in a river. You would experience effects of the motion of the river, and those effects might be different at different places in the river, but without being able to rise above the river, to come out of the river, you can’t get the full view of what the river really is. So it is with time. We experience it in some ways, we are affected by it, but we can’t fully know it and understand what it is.
All this addresses the idea that time is an actual part of the universe, an external attribute of existence. There is another school of thought that believes time is an intellectual construct, an ordering system the mind creates and imposes on experience to give order and meaning to existence. The idea is that everything exists in one gigantic “NOW” moment, what is formally called a block universe, in which everything and all time exists simultaneously. But there’s no way our minds could comprehend such a system and the mind creates the phenomenon (some would say the illusion) of time so we can line things up in a cause-and-effect way, in a way that lets us process our reality so it makes some sense.
I’m not sure which of these two views I’m more inclined to adhere to. To me, time existing as an independent value seems more instinctively acceptable, but many people smarter than me accept the block universe view of reality. For the sake of this discussion, let’s go with these two views of time, that it is either an attribute of existence, external from and independent of us, or it is an intellectual construct that our minds create to help us make sense of existence. In either case, as we live our lives here on this planet, we are either in, or affected by, time. Time provides a framework in which the experience of life can be meaningfully processed and understood by the human mind (and I suppose non-human minds, too. I can fully agree that creatures other than us also have some experience of time.)
God, on the other hand, doesn’t need time. In fact, He made time, or He made the systems in which time is inferred. Humans, however, do need time, and since God deals with humans, sometimes He has to interact with time. It’s like, I don’t need the water in an aquarium, but if I’m going to have an aquarium, I’m going to put water in it so the fish have the proper medium in which to exist. I’m not bound by that water, it has no effect on me, it is for the benefit of the fish, but sometimes I will interact with the fish, and so I will interact with the water.
Wrapping this up, I say that time, whether it is objective or subjective in ultimate nature, is that thing which allows humans to establish a ‘now’, ‘past’ and ‘future’. God, as a being very different from us, is not locked into time. He is outside of time, beyond it, but is able to interact with us, where we are (or were, or will be), in time.
In my next post, I’ll bring together all three elements: God, Christians, and time. Stay tuned.
- Asynchronous existence – life out of time (part 2)
- Asynchronous existence – life out of time (part 4)