The Consequences of Time
How the ideas of past, present and future affect how we think and act is discussed here as well as seeing time merely as an idea and a perception.
It has always been my goal to challenge our understanding of reality because it is our understanding that dictates how we react to it. But let us first lay down the objective of this article. The goal is not to present an alternative scientific explanation of time or a novel philosophical discussion of the same. But we will draw upon relevant scientific theories and philosophies because they are themselves unique perspectives that may help us develop a different appreciation of time. Hopefully, a more useful and practical understanding of time should emerge.
The Idea of Time
The apparent human need to name and define things and concepts is universal. Doing so allows us to react appropriately to what we have defined 1. It makes the unknown known. And having a working understanding of what we have named and defined allows us to effectively navigate our world in order to aid in our survival.
It has been that way since the dawn of human history. Being social creatures, everything that human beings see and experience must have a name in order that we may identify them and communicate about them effectively to others. A common understanding of a concept or an idea is thus achieved.
I believe that the same is true for our notion of time. We named it and defined it in order to react appropriately to it. And having done so, we now possess a shared understanding of this particular concept to facilitate communication. The notion of time evolved into a convention around which to possibly schedule the daily human activities necessary for survival.
But what is time exactly? Has our understanding of time changed since human beings began to exist? I believe that it has.
We became accustomed to everyone’s notion of time because we were born in a world that already possesses a prior agreed upon understanding of it. Our consciousness grew around this widely held and commonly defined idea. But is our understanding of it exact?
Imagine being born into a world where everyone believes that the earth was flat 2. And there is no way of proving otherwise. Then all our ideas and actions will be based on this common notion. We would live and die knowing that the world was flat. And perhaps it would not have even mattered if we knew the truth or not.
Having considered this, is it then possible that time only exists because we think that it does? We have named it, measured it and our daily routine revolves around it. But what if our understanding of time is not accurate? What if we have gone about defining it the wrong way?
Perhaps just like the philosophers of ancient times, we may have initially approached this particular concept based upon an inaccurate assumption. When people who lived during the ancient periods believed that the earth was flat, the consequence was that they could only navigate their ships in a limited manner. Is it conceivable then that our understanding of time has in fact limited us in some way as well?
How Do We Perceive Time?
We must initially concede that our understanding of time is limited by our ability to perceive it.
This argument is also true for reality in general. Our actions are based on our beliefs of how reality works. But these beliefs are unfortunately founded on our limited perception and understanding of the world around us. For practical purposes, we will attempt to approach the idea of time given the limitations of the human mind and the senses we possess.
Everything around us changes. And we detect these changes because of the continuity of our consciousness 3. We are able to sense time because of a constant flow of changing stimuli. But when the stimulus is constant, doesn’t it feel that time has stopped? Once again, our goal is not to develop an objective conception of time. But rather, we are attempting to explore our perception of time. And I believe that how our minds interpret what we observe may hold the key. It was Aristotle who perhaps first forwarded the connection between change and time 4. But what if no connection exists because time does not exist? It was Ernst Mach who suggested that time is an abstraction that merely resulted from observed changes 5. Based on the aforementioned, I propose an alternative idea. Time is change perceived.
Awareness of time is made possible by our memory and attention 6. The mind functioning in a wakeful state is able to perceive this apparent flow of time because we continuously sense the changes occurring around us and to us.
In contrast, consider cases of people with amnesia, or those afflicted with the inability to form long term memories, or individuals with dissociative identity disorder. In all these cases, a person’s awareness of reality is disrupted because of a discontinuity in memory.
We can perceive the totality of an experience because our consciousness creates a complete picture by connecting all stimuli together and interpreting them. Take the case of our idea of music. Music is nothing more than a sequence of different and varying auditory stimuli. Yet it is only our consciousness that puts these stimuli together in order that we may identify the pattern of a song 7.
Human Beings and Time
Can animals perceive time? They appear as though they can. But without the analytical thought processes that human beings possess, animals cannot perceive it the way we do.
Consider how a dog reacts to a moving car. A dog can perceive the car’s motion because its senses receive the signals that it is changing its position 8. As the dog chases the car, it appears to anticipate where the car is headed. But perhaps it does this because of the unique anatomy of its senses as well as the inherent programming of its brain to perceive motion. But does the dog know the car’s past or will it be able to contemplate the car’s future?
A dog is driven only by current drives 9. It will not plan. And it cannot regret.
Why is it that human beings are able to develop this notion of time but other creatures cannot? What purpose does an understanding of time serve?
Is it to be able to see cause and effect connection of our actions in order that we may learn what is beneficial and what is harmful? But animals are also able to learn cause and effect through conditioning 10.
The necessity to define time arose from man’s need to synchronize his actions with respect to the actions of other individuals in order that human interaction and transaction can occur without chaos. People who are alive today have grown accustomed to how we see and measure the passage of time. The practicality of setting a universal method of measuring time has grown since the invention of the sundial. All human activity now revolves around this idea of time.
A Chronicle of Time
We are aware of events that occurred before because of our memory. But what of events that happened prior to our own existence. We cannot possibly have any recollection of things that have occurred prior to the birth of our own awareness. This is where our idea of history comes in. And yet history is nothing more than a record of past events written by those who came before us 11.
Is history then a valid representation of what we now call as the past? And if there were no record of events that have gone by, does it mean that the past ceases to exist? I cannot help but be reminded of the philosophy of Immaterialism which asserts that objects only exist if we conceive of them in our minds 12.
But then again, this definition of history and the past are but offshoots of a commonly-held understanding of time. I propose that the past is not about time, but it is rather about change. The past is change remembered. History could therefore be seen as a chronicle of changes that occurred prior to our awareness of them.
What is the future? We possess an idea of it because we expect that we will still be alive tomorrow, next month or even next year. We create mental expectations of what we will do and what will occur later. And these expectations become a cycle that repeats itself.
But since the future has not happened yet, all we have is an idea of it. We cannot say that the future exists precisely because it is merely an idea. I reassert the argument that time is not at all about time. It is about change. And if time is change perceived, then I propose that the future is change anticipated.
Since the beginning of humanity, prophets, oracles and seers have appeared claiming that they can predict the future. The obsession with what the future holds exists even today. Businesses wish to project earnings. Politicians desire to do well in coming elections. And students hope that they will choose the career that is right for them. But I believe that wanting to know the future is not really about the future per se. It is about control.
Man’s desire for control is about the certainty of his continued survival. And knowing what the future holds and how to secure it are perhaps man’s greatest and most elusive goals.
The Flow of Time
It would appear that the common notion of time is that of an interconnection of events that occur in sequence. And once these events have happened, we begin to perceive an apparent flow of time. This is made apparent when one prior event affects a subsequent event. The idea of action and reaction comes into play. And this interconnection of events is what we begin to perceive as that movement of time.
But does time cause these events? Or do these events happen independently of time? I propose that events occur without the intervention of time, because as we have attempted to demonstrate, our idea of time may not be accurate. We only perceive the events as they occur 13.
If time is merely an idea formed from our perception of events occurring around us, then it cannot affect these events or cause them since it is merely an idea. It is just a perception that we have named and defined, perhaps even erroneously.
How This Idea of Time Seems to Affect Us
Because we believe that time exists as it has been defined for us by clocks and calendars, we are able to visualize the past as well as the future. A calendar can show us the months or the years that have gone by and we conclude that this is the past. We look at our watches and see that a particular appointment we have will happen five hours from now, and so we believe that this appointment will occur in the future. These devices ultimately allow us to create a mental picture of time. But again, clocks and calendars are mere inventions that serve as a means to schedule our routines. The hectic pace of modern life necessitates such agreed upon measurements of minutes, hours, days and months.
Let us recall the assertion that the idea of time is made possible because of our ability to remember what has happened and our ability to anticipate what may happen. And it is the continuity of our consciousness that permits the connection of what we remember, what we perceive is happening currently and what we think may happen later. Based on this, we can plainly see that the idea of time is made possible by our ability to perceive the continuity of events. Time can be seen therefore as an intangible abstraction that allows us to make sense of events happening around us.
Yet how does time seem to affect us? My use of the word ‘seem’ will become apparent in the succeeding illustrations.
One undeniable aspect of human existence is emotion. Let us consider sadness. We can say that a person experiences sadness because of loss. But this loss once it happens becomes an event that has already occurred. And because we remember the sad event, the sadness appears to persist.
Now consider fear. Fear exists because of a perceived present threat 14. Fear is useful because it aids us in survival in order that we may avoid imminent harm. Anxiety and fear are related but not quite the same. Anxiety is characterized by worrying about an anticipated harmful event that may or may not happen 15.
Sadness and anxiety appear to be products of our perception of time. Sadness can be said to be a product of a past event, while anxiety is the distressful anticipation of a possible future event. It can be argued therefore that sadness and anxiety exist because of our common notion of past and future.
But imagine a situation in which a person can choose not to dwell on a past loss and also not think about the likelihood of a future harmful event. If that person were to focus only on what is presently happening, then is it conceivable that he will no longer succumb to sadness or anxiety?
Let us consider guilt. This is a state of mind that if left unchecked can cause a person to become dysfunctional. Guilt is a product of regret. And regret is the act of blaming yourself for a past mistake. But I believe that if an individual can let go of the significance of such regrettable memories, then perhaps he would no longer be affected by such guilt.
I wish to argue that many of the distressful experiences that people face arise out of this idea of past and future. People sometimes become prisoners of their past. People can also become too afraid of the future. In both cases, judgment and decision making are adversely affected, which may lead people to make more problematic choices.
The Modern World and Time
The fast pace of modern civilization has been placing more and more importance to the value of this notion of time. Schedules, meetings, deadlines and such create this sense that there is so little time to do everything. This is why the concept of time management arose.
Business, trade and industry revolve around this notion of time. Transactions are all based on how we have defined and measured time using accepted conventions.
But imagine an era that had a more primitive way of life. Consider the period when there was no electricity and people’s professions were far simpler and less diverse. Could we say that the pace of life was slower then?
Is it safe to claim that life may have been less stressful during those periods? And has our present idea of time made life more stressful now? Based upon this, I would like to make the assertion that many of the problems that people face today are products of how we view time.
Is Time an Illusion?
Philosophers and even scientists have argued that time could very well be an illusion 16.
To state that time does exist is to assert that there is a distinction between past, present and future. But when the future comes isn’t it just a new present? And isn’t the past just a memory of a former present?
As we have thus far mentioned, we are able to perceive the flow of time because of the continuity of our consciousness. But even one’s consciousness can change. And depending on say our state of wakefulness or alertness, our perception of time will also vary 17.
Is it then possible that two people will perceive time differently? The answer is yes, because of the fluctuating states of consciousness that people have.
If we accept this new idea that time is change perceived, then it is how we perceive these changes that varies depending upon our state of wakefulness or consciousness.
The Fantasy of Time Travel
A considerable number of books and movies have been devoted to the possibility of time travel. Some fantasy writers portray time somewhat like a physical road where one can navigate forward and backward. Theoretical physicists believe that given the right technology, a person may traverse time and visit the past or the future 18.
But the idea of being able to move through time assumes that it operates like space. The physical position of objects can be determined using coordinates, distances and such. We are able to travel to a specific location because we have measured distances relative to other fixed points.
The idea that time operates like space may end up as another erroneous philosophical assumption. The nature of time may not at all be like how we understand distances and locations in space.
Learned readers may become skeptical at this point and perhaps recall how time and space were theoretically interwoven together by Einstein 19. He did this by asserting that as an object approaches the speed of light, time slows down for that object relative to other objects. Thus, he concluded that there is a so-called space-time continuum.
But it must be pointed out that our discussion is not concerned with the physics of time and space but rather of our perception of time itself. All theories and equations that have been developed explaining the behavior of our reality are meant to be used as means for prediction and control. They do not deal purely with perception.
The beauty of science is its never-ending quest to lay down an objective understanding of reality using an empirical approach. But science also has another principle that it follows and that is self-correction 20. Theories have come and gone. Old ones are replaced by the new. And this is because, theories are themselves developed based on certain assumptions. But if we are to consider the history of science, assumptions have often been proven wrong. And even Einstein erred when he came face to face with quantum mechanics 21.
Let us then challenge this long-accepted concept of time this way. What if we are not moving through time, but rather time flows through us? Again this is based on the assumption that time is merely change perceived. And if this is the case, then perhaps time as we know it does not exist. Only change does. And we are merely measuring the speed of change as we perceive it. We are not actually measuring time.
If we borrow Einstein’s idea that time slows down for an object as it moves faster, then can we not look at this phenomenon this way, that what varies is the rate at which we perceive the position of the object changes? We might be able to do away with the concept of time altogether if we can prove that all we perceive is the rate with which change occurs.
Dealing with Time as a Mere Idea
If we are to accept the reasoning that perhaps time is merely an abstract idea that represents our perception of a changing reality, then what are the implications?
In doing away with this erroneous idea of time, we can choose to let go of the past and not be affected by our mistakes and whatever we have lost. We can also choose not to be anxious about the future. Man’s obsession with control often leads him to over thinking and over planning for an imagined future that may never even happen. Instead, we focus only on the present.
This would appear similar to what Perls was attempting to propose in his Gestalt Therapy 22. But the difference is that Perls’ idea is not founded upon the premise that time is an illusion. He acknowledges the existence of time because he adheres to the concepts of past and future. I propose that we focus only on the present because it would seem that based on the foregoing reasoning the present is all that exists.
Even mindfulness is an approach that is based on focusing one’s attention on a moment by moment basis 23. And in effect, it appears to acknowledge the importance of being in the present.
I therefore propose that in order for us to approach life in perhaps a healthier manner is to let go of these commonly held notions of past and future and how they affect us. It does not mean that we no longer attempt to learn from what was occurred or that we do not prepare for what may come. Instead, we can choose to live in the present and savor the moment because it is what we have now. We can learn to free ourselves of the never-ending regret and worry and just focus on whatever current engagement in which we find ourselves. Our freedom to think and act lies not in what we believe to be the past or in what we conceive of as the future, but rather in the present moment. What has occurred can no longer be changed and what will occur is often beyond our control. It would therefore be healthier to focus on the present moment in which change is occurring because our power to change anything exists only in the present.
If we concede that time is merely a representation of perceived changes, then what if we did not change? Let us imagine that we are unaffected by change. And then consider seeing something that changed continually.
And because we are unchanging, our constant selves would be unaffected by this changing phenomenon. A new awareness is also a change. Therefore, our awareness of this changing thing before us would instantly be complete. Our unchanging and eternal selves would see its past, present and future simultaneously.
To illustrate in more concrete terms, imagine an eternal and unchanging consciousness being presented with a changing object. Regardless of how long this object would exist, the eternal consciousness would outlast it. And therefore this eternal consciousness would have been able to see all the changes that have affected it as well as all the changes that will affect it in the future. For an eternal and unchanging being, it may appear that the past, present and future are one and the same.
Basing it on this hypothetical reality, then it would follow that our concepts of past and future only exist because of the changes we perceive.
Imagine watching the changing world from afar. You observe everyone and everything in motion, while you yourself remain unchanged and unaffected. But suddenly you are thrust into that changing world. And the world changes you as well. Then it would seem like you have been caught in an apparent flow of time because you now experience change within and without.
God and Time
If something eternal and unchanging does exist, such as our idea of an all powerful God, then can we claim that He has seen everything that has occurred and will occur? And if this eternal consciousness does exist, does that mean that there is no past, present and future because this consciousness has already witnessed it all?
If we are to base our understanding of God on the Bible, then let us consider the following verses which may provide us with a glimpse of how God sees time.
Jesus states, “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself” (Matthew 6:34, UCSSB) 24. It is clear that Jesus places emphasis on the present day and not on a uncertain future.
And let us take note of the changeless and eternal nature of God in the following:
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years* and a thousand years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8, UCSSB).
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8, UCSSB).
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6, UCSSB).
Let me add an idea I arrived at concerning emotions. Why is it that among all emotions, love appears to be the most impervious to the passage of time? Anger and hatred, sadness and fear may all fade. But love, if it is true appears to persist. To illustrate, when you meet an old friend after years or even decades, the bond of love between you feels unchanged.
I believe that it has something to do with God. If God is eternal, and “…God is love” (1 John 4:8, UCSSB), then love like God, does not change.
Let me end by stating a paradox. That for me, it took time to realize that time does not exist.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Frederick Edward Fabella, Ph.D. is a research director, a dean and a graduate school professor in the Philippines. He is the author of War of Ascension fantasy novel trilogy available on Amazon.com. Download a complimentary copy here