I should have been returning today from completing the Camino Primitivo. It had taken months of planning and not a little training to get ready. Like so many of us, my plans were thwarted. However, I can still get out for some local walks with my family, in that time in the day when we are allowed to break out of our houses and stroll out into the woods to take our prescribed exercise. Today my twelve year daughter and I had started talking about the idea of time.
It takes a while for her to get into her conversational stride on these walks, but when she has taken off her headphones, and then petered out on her discussion about friendships and school, she tends to throw in something quite profound. It is such a wonderful time in life for her I often feel, to start questioning how things are, to have the first glimpses of wonder. I was not sure however, if I could explain what I thought about this topic to a twelve year old.
Time, for many of us, will have taken on a new perspective over the course of the lock-down. For some, time will be going very slowly indeed. If you are in an apartment in a city centre with three young children, it probably can’t go quick enough. But the introverts amongst you, being isolated for a few weeks is simply heaven.
Time, then, appears to us to be subjective. It is.
Time appears to be a mental construct. It is.
Time is not a duration, not a continuation of events, not past, present and future, as we have traditionally thought.
The first thing we need to note about time is that is is ‘localised’. There is no universal time ‘T’ that we can measure our own time against to check if my time is correct over someone else’s time. We cannot compare both our times. I cannot say that me writing now has a corresponding time ‘now’ in Alpha Centuri (over 4 light years away). There is no ‘now’ that we can both say is the ‘Actual Time’. Time is only relevant to a localised space around us. ‘Now’ has no meaning outside of our own ‘locality’ and is confined to the the speed of light. That is to say, it makes sense if I am talking to you face to face as the distance of space and time is so small, but not if you are on the moon. Equally, time is not the same for someone who is even living just a few metres above us. The time difference is less obvious, indeed negligible to our perception, but it is different nonetheless. We can measure that time difference over mere centimetres. We have known this since Einstein wrote his theory of General Relativity.
The second thing that we should note about time, is that it isn’t real! That is to say that the in the world itself, Time is not there in the way that we normally understand it. The fact that we have various ways of capturing the passing of time, is a red-herring. As above, it is only localised time we are capturing, but also it is misleading to think that we are capturing the passing of time itself. Essentially, time is our perspective of the ‘entropy’. Entropy is the fact that everything in the universe moves towards disorder. Entropy means that our bodies start breaking down, it means that the energy in stars will fizzle out, and that the fate of the universe will be dark place with no life. Entropy is irreversible, that is what we perceive as history. As with so many things, our mind is constructing a reality for us so that we can comprehend our world. It is not a perfect system of course (evident by the fact that we have blind spots). We are simply observing that phenomenon of entropy, and our minds are constructing that as time, as the passing of events.
Time then is real enough for us, our mind makes sense of the world itself. Our memories, our context, produces meaning for us, from what strangeness is the physics of time.
Time is subjective, and time is a mental construct. Interestingly, Immanuel Kant had a very similar view in his idea of time being a construct but that the world is really there, a sort of compromise between the 17th Century views on Rationalism and Empiricism.
We are important as part of the equations, and this is significant. In the book Jack’s Path, Jack is pulled between these two ideas, can we have a purely reductionist view of the universe, or can we just ignore the science. For a satisfactory understanding of life, we have to aim at a synthesis of the two.
All of this might be little consolation to you in what is for many a difficult time. But the lock-down has given us a chance to take a deep breath, and ponder things away from the usual concerns that take up our time. To go for a walk, and ponder the nature of reality itself. I can’t think of a better way to use that time.
My twelve year old daughter said that she understood, and that we had walked for too long. I did not think we had walked for that long and told her so. She protested, that is only your perspective. ‘Can we go home now’.