Last evening after dinner Kay and I went outside and sat on our front steps. The sky was powder blue and pink behind the full-blossomed Japanese plum trees that line both sides of our street. Now and again, here and there, another blossom or two would drop silently down. The carpets of fallen pink petals lay on the grass below like reflections of the trees above.
Kay remarked sadly, “What a shame that all that beauty has to age and fall away.” She looked meaningfully at me and sighed gently. “The tragedy of time.”
I grimaced a little and ran my hand over my receding hairline. After a while I remarked, “Those trees have grown tremendously since we moved here. They were only saplings, remember; not many blossoms on them then. Their trunks are ten inches thick now, and see what a fantastic show of blossoms they can put on. Time has actually brought growth to those trees and amplified their beauty. No tragedy in that.”
For a while Kay said nothing. And then, “I can hardly believe we’ve been here for more than twenty years. Where does the time go?”
“I have some ideas about that,” I responded.
“Well, you haven’t shared them with me yet. Have you written them down?”
“No. Not really. I have some notes though.”
Kay looked at me seriously. “Since I was a little girl, I’ve always wondered where time goes when it finishes doing whatever it does.” She put her hand on my arm and nudged me coaxingly. “I’d like you to have a go at that. Will you? For me?”
That was Kay’s challenge last evening. What a task though: to make sense of time on its way out. It’s hard enough to account for time’s arrival without having to deal with its departure.
Everyone has moments of wondering about what things were really like in past years. Historians make it their business to find and make sense of leftovers from the past. They try to cast a little light upon scenes that slumber in murky obscurity.
When conditions, deeds and words cease to have present and active existence, what has actually happened isn’t at all easy to grasp. Someone waves goodbye and that gesture quickly vanishes “into thin air.” Why does it disappear right away? How can an action that had full-blown effectiveness a moment ago immediately cease to exist without even going “poof”? It’s like asking what happens to the wind when it stops blowing or what happens to the image on the TV screen when the scene shifts.
Time and change
The transitory nature of time, like dying, is not pleasant to discuss. Distressing feelings of grief, loss, anger, regret, guilt and nostalgia can quickly overwhelm. Once the applause of the audience dies away, a child who has just played the piano for a festival performance can sink into disappointment, asking, “Is that all I get for all my practicing?” When the winner of a beauty contest is being congratulated by an elderly lady who won such a contest decades ago, it’s easy to understand that a few melancholy thoughts may cross her mind. If the CEO of a company is being involuntarily retired, the severance check and a framed tribute will do little to ease inner anguish. Time’s policy of giving birth to cherishable things which are doomed eventually to lose themselves in the past is painfully perplexing.
Recently, after an absence of several decades, I returned to the little town in which I grew up. Renewing friendships with former schoolmates at the 75th anniversary of our school brought back many memories. The town was no longer quite so small. The wild, wooded swamp which had lured me into daring boyhood adventures had been drained and tamed into a neat housing development with well-kept lawns. My childhood home had been tastelessly mutilated and turned into a rambling rooming house. The mighty willow tree whose enormous branches had provided impregnable support for my tree forts, lay on the ground, sprawled across the only lot on the street which was still vacant. Gone from a formerly isolated street corner was the sky-high poplar tree at whose massive trunk we kids used to gather after supper for ball games.
Uptown the rink, a landmark with its corrugated, galvanized iron roof, was also gone. Since the daily trains had long ceased to run, the railroad station was deteriorating and weeds had overgrown the right-of-way. Main Street businesses had been taken over by newcomers who had modernized many of the store fronts.
Most of the people whom I had once known were still recognizable, but it seemed to me that their true faces were hidden behind masks of fat or strange wrinkles. Some seemed to be wearing gray wigs or concealing their mouths behind grizzled mustaches or beards. I wonder how I looked to them. Children whom I had once known now had children of their own, even grandchildren. A new high school had been built out near the cemetery. On gravestones the names of my parents and other old-timers revived in me a parade of many memories. The passing of time had done some sad things to my hometown.
Of course not all the changes were sad. The homes in the new subdivisions looked fresh and clean. The new stores were definitely an improvement over the dingy old shops. Dusty and bumpy gravel roads had been paved. New industries were making possible a higher standard of living. The new recreation center was a credit to the community. But still…
Older people, I think, would much prefer to live in a stable world. In that world everything would keep on behaving in long familiar, satisfactory ways; all that seniors deem precious would stay just as it was, accessible and responsive.
Dreamers who yearn to live in a perfect world usually forget that, in an already perfect world, any activity or change whatsoever would have to be a change for the worse. A world in which nothing ever changed would be insufferably boring, unknowable, pointless and definitely dead. No delightful surprises or freedom anywhere. Without changes no one would be alive to care. But when you think about it, the manifold changes which do contribute to life and joy in this world also eventually end in death. We have to decide whether it was better to have lived, loved and died or never to have lived at all.
If someone possessed the power to make a perfect world, ought they to introduce time into the scheme of things? That question poses a difficult dilemma. Whether things were kept forever the same or kept changing with time, there would always be someone who would deplore that choice.
Change and differences
Change can be defined as the occurrence of different differences at different times. Difference is the secret of life and knowledge. If an organism is to survive, it must be able to keep itself substantially distinct from its environment. To continue living it must be aware of the difference between what is good to accept, assimilate or tolerate, and what should be ignored, avoided, excluded and eliminated.
In the mystery of the mind, the ability to distinguish between what is the same and what is different is absolutely basic. All of our sensory systems are set up so as to make us aware of the occurrence of differences. No object, sound, odor, taste or pressure can be clearly discerned unless it is perceptibly different from its background and surroundings. Unless something makes some difference to us, we cannot know anything about it. If heads or eyes don’t keep moving, a sight begins to dim out. The endless repetition of an identical sound or symbol will not transmit any useful new information. Symbols which are distinguishable from each other are necessary for genuine communication and learning.
Perceptible differences make our environment intelligible. When physical differentials exist, such as those of pressure, tension, temperature, momentum, leverage and voltage, things tend to move or change. A world which was entirely homogeneous and always in equilibrium would be completely uninteresting and stagnant. All changes and transformations are fundamentally the successive occurrence of different differences. Time is synonymous with the creation of differences; without time nothing can move, change or differ. The occurrence of a change means that what was once a present state of things has become a past state. The transition from present to past is of the essence of time.
Time and information
Things differ in hardness, mass, speed, elasticity, etc. When they bump into, tug at or bear down upon each other, something has to give. Under the application of external forces, all bodies will deform to a certain extent. When a hammer blow misses a nail or drives it too far into a wooden surface – a change which a good carpenter deplores – afterwards that regrettable imprint serves as information that a poorly controlled hammer blow had once occurred at that spot. When a mother notices colored scribbling on the wall of a young child’s bedroom, that information is sufficient to incriminate a small offender of having recently indulged in a forbidden activity with crayons.
In the Middle Ages, as I have mentioned before, when the shape of something was being changed by the form of something else, people used to say that it was being “in-formed” – for instance, when a blow from a hammer head leaves its mark in the otherwise flat form of soft wood. The impression made by any aggressive agent upon a more malleable form was known as “in-formation.”
Any activity which makes a difference to an existing form by imposing something of a new form upon it or into it can still be usefully understood in the mediaeval way. During recent decades when intense attention has been paid to communication theory, this old approach has been revived. In the old days information arose from close encounters. Today symbolic forms – text, architectural plans, drawings, pictures – can be transmitted electronically from one person to another, to a machine, or from one machine to another. The media, advertisers, propagandists, governments, educators and parents are all in the information business. They all try to inform, transform or reform – i.e., change – the way people understand themselves and their world and how they perform in it.
In their research, historians seek to recover and reassemble information from the past. What they glean enables them to reconstruct and account for the ways in which humans and/or creatures of a previous era interacted with one another and their world.
Long before humans appeared on this planet, however, time was informing, transforming and deforming – that is, changing – the relations of things on Earth and in the rest of the universe. Impact craters which are observable on planets and moons in our solar system were formed long, long ago. Radiation which originated in primeval explosions and impacts of stellar bodies is still informing astronomers and their instruments about celestial events which happened aeons ago.
Throughout the ages internal and external forces have spasmodically shifted plates of Earth’s crust, heaving up mountain ranges and setting off volcanic eruptions. Heat from the sun warmed masses of land, air and water. The resulting winds, currents, waves, rains and streams acted as land-sculpturing agents which transformed all continental land masses by erosion. With time, gravitation carried eroded material down-slope from high-lying places and left it spread out in layers on low land and the sea bottom. Dead life-forms became fossils embedded in successive layers of transported materials, providing what amounts to a calendar of “deep time.” The information in these strata roughly logs the sequence of an area’s geological, climatic and biological transformations through the ages. Presently existing information consists of leftovers – the remains and effects of what once were full-blown present events.
Moving and changing
Changes in forms may range from the macroscopic, large-scale and slow, to the microscopic, exceedingly small and extremely fast. Some changes alter things in an allover fashion, as in an explosion; others proceed gradually in a single direction, as in a lengthening vine.
When we see the second hand of a watch making little jumps ahead around the dial, each leaving behind it a new contribution to the lengthening sum total of previously occupied positions, we may imagine that we are watching the past history of that hand growing by accretion. Each fresh jump indicates that one more second has been added to the past. Any physical motion from one place to another can be understood as an object leaving behind it the position which it occupied immediately before it moved. In the very same moment that its being at a new position becomes a present fact, its having been where it was becomes information about its past. The emptiness of its former position in space is information about the former occupation of that position. The change from being occupied to being empty took time. The existence of information depends upon time.
If the space which was once occupied by an object is no longer occupied by it, and if the object is now occupying space which it previously did not occupy, we say that the object has moved. Alternatively we could say that two portions of space changed character at the same moment, the one by subtraction and the other by addition. In just such a way time, in changing the whole universe, moves it from present to past in one and the same moment. In this ongoing co-occurrence of new presences and new absences, time keeps making all things new as well as old.
Motion and change always have both negative and positive aspects. Motion is a process of evacuating space and occupying space. Change is both a coming to be and a passing away.
The contents of a certain place must be removed before it can be filled with something else.
Motions may reverse their direction regularly like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. When a tiny movement to and fro keeps repeating rapidly in alternately opposite directions, it is called a vibration. When we hear a sound, air and eardrums have been vibrating. Visible light brings information that some hot source has been oscillating with an unimaginable frequency.
Vibrations are a function of time. Switching back and forth with time, swift, reversing displacements can create information, patterns and structures. Vibrating vocal cords can produce sound patterns which, as language, can transmit knowledge. If fine sand is scattered on a metal plate and the surface is struck, the sand will form into one of a variety of fascinating patterns, depending on where and how the plate was tapped. Rapidly orbiting electrons and vibrating atoms produce the seemingly solid forms of molecules and materials. Rapid oscillations of heated materials produce frequencies which our eyes perceive as colors and our radios interpret as sounds.
The word “rate” is used to specify the quantity of change which occurs per unit of something else, for example, cents per dollar, strides per mile, heartbeats per minute or miles per hour.
For a musical performance, the particular rate at which the sounds and silences are to be produced has to be set by someone: the soloist or the conductor. Although the selected rate could be determined by the regular mechanical clicks of a metronome, the musical tempo is seldom so maintained. The rate chosen depends upon the leader’s interpretation, taste, mood and inner feel for timing. The tempo may be changed at will in order to create certain effects. Cues may be given by the rate of hand swings, foot taps or head nods.
We must not however identify the musical tempo with observable physical movements. During a performance, close your eyes and focus your attention upon the ongoing development of the music itself. This is the closest one can get to a transparent embodiment of time. Sometimes an intentional interval of silence may be prescribed in the score. During that soundless period you can still feel the beats of musical time and inaudibly count them off in imagination. That driving pace of pulsation which we call “tempo” functions as an underlying “spiritually created” background medium upon which various patterns of successive sounds and silences can be superimposed to produce musical information.
A complete description of the role of timing in music could fill an entire book. Just think: pitch, harmonic and melodic intervals, beats, rhythms, bars, repetitions with variations and phrases at various levels. Although musical styles and sources change from century to century and differ from culture to culture, it is nevertheless impossible to produce music without the involvement of time.
Musical time is not identical with clock time but, like clock time, it draws its existence from cosmic creation time. If musical time so obviously shapes musical performances, where does all that time go? It enters the consciousness of listeners and awakens in them stirring and profound emotions. It becomes a memory trace in the minds of both the audience and the performers. People who have been impressed by melodies, songs, choirs, bands, musicals, symphonies and operas which they have heard will sometimes find themselves, whether awake or asleep, mentally or audibly, humming or singing a certain tune. Rhymes, choruses and taunt songs heard frequently in childhood stay with people forever.
Past is present in people
My sister-in-law remembers turning pages for her young son, a student violinist who was sight-reading a newly assigned piece of classical music. Once when she was having trouble getting a page turned (it was stuck to the next one) she was amazed to hear her son carry right on, playing bars that were still hidden from sight. It was as if he were reading them directly. He somehow knew how that next passage should go.
Later she remembered that when she was pregnant, carrying that baby boy, she had often played a recording of that piece. She suspects that the child in her womb must have heard that music and prenatally learned it by heart.
Her son is now an accomplished professional violinist. When he was first learning to play, coordinating arm, wrist, hand and finger movements with eye and brain was quite difficult. Producing subtly beautiful tonal variations has now become “second nature” to him. His skillful performance today is what happened to the countless hours he spent in learning to perform tasks which at first seemed almost impossible. The time he is spending today teaching violin students will someday likewise become part of their bodily skills, their musical sensitivity, and perhaps even the basis of some successful musical careers.
Time can turn into bodily preserved information. How memorable was the first time I found I could swim freely with my feet off the bottom. From that day on, if I ever have to or want to, I can swim. The time spent learning how to skate or to ride a bicycle likewise turns into skills that bodies never forget.
If I were to find myself tonight back in the house where I grew up (as it was then), without a moment’s hesitation I could still find my way in the dark from the kitchen door to the privy at the far end of the long woodshed. My right hand would unfailingly find the latch of the door between the lengthy sun porch and the shed. In complete confidence my feet would find all three steps down into the shed. As I passed by, I could reach with my left hand and accurately touch any stud, shelf or projecting nail all along the wall. Walking that route so many times as a child and youth indelibly inscribed its map into my muscles and brain.
My fingers still bear the unique fingerprints with which I was born and their cells still carry my original genetic inheritance. The scar on my left thumb will always remind me to keep my fingers out of the moving cogs of a clothes wringer or other machinery. That I have had many birthdays is revealed by the wrinkles, enlarged veins and brown blotches in the thin skin on the back of my hands. Concealed by my golden wedding band, a lighter-colored strip of skin around the fourth finger of my left hand testifies to the high value I have always placed on my marriage. The wrist watch which covers a band of light-colored skin around my wrist indicates that I hope to follow time schedules. Building stone walls during many summer holidays has also built strength into the bones and muscles of my hands. The fact that my hands today are much larger than they were when I was a child shows that my body’s system of systems was able to enlarge then by manufacturing the food which I ate at many meals. Substances which once were not me were somehow assimilated and became integrated with me. I am a living repository of accumulating information.
What I am right now includes all sorts of elements from my past. I am not simply the self-same soul which has persisted unchanged through the years since I was born. Time has pushed, pulled, prodded, perplexed and provided for me – a process which produced a complex person whose present characteristics have been largely derived from past experiences. I still am what I have been, but I am neither quite the same as what I once was, nor am I altogether different.
Something of the past, of course, lingers in our memories. Any event happens at a time which follows certain previous events, coincides with other happenings and precedes later incidents. As each Now-state of the world comes into being, its relational makeup and place in the sequence of time is unique. This uniqueness in time is reflected in our experience. Memories of our experiences are automatically filed in our minds according to the order in which those events occurred, along with their relational context, the order in which concomitant events had occurred. This indexing of memories turns a series of universal Now-states into many life stories with integral personal significance for different individuals. No one else has experienced in the same way the particularities of interactions and events which shaped each person’s personality. For one’s memory, the past is not just the past – it is one’s own personal past.
Our personal experience of the past profoundly influences both what we presently believe and what we expect in the future. Something from our past experiences always remains in our personality. Before we have taken thought about how to do a familiar task, our inheritance from the past will, unless it is deliberately checked, direct our course of action automatically. The present influence of our past is a major factor in establishing our probable reactions – our disposition to act in characteristic ways. Passed time turns into habits, skills and conscience. Bodily memory is not just something we have; it’s something we are.
In the social milieu, time settles in to become traditional attitudes, customary techniques and legal precedents, as well as the cultural beliefs and prejudices of a society’s more or less consensual worldview.
Past is still present
We are used to the idea that human minds retain information from the past, but we seldom comment on the fact that physical things also retain information. It takes only a moment to flip an on-off electric switch, but when it has been flipped it will stay where it has been set. When a chair has been placed at a table, both chair and table will stay right there until someone moves them elsewhere. Drive a billiard ball in a certain direction and it will continue going in that direction along the table until it hits something which deflects it off course. When a mechanic has bolted the components of a washing machine into place, the frame of the machine holds those components in a planned, systemic, interactive arrangement which enables them to keep working together harmoniously.
“Cause and effect” simply means that when a time-consuming process has been completed, the information which emerged during that now-passed time-fueled change process has been stored up, absorbed in the effect. In the usual active push-pull conception of causation, a present activity just dies in becoming part of the past. When an effective agency ceases to be active, so does its interacting. When a candle’s flame has been snuffed out, its heat and light go too; however the resultant smoke, a blackened wick, congealing wax, an odor and darkness remain as information about its demise. Although dead bodies can no longer speak, they can still “tell tales” to a coroner. When what has happened has become past, it has not entirely ceased to exist. Some fossil information always remains in the consequent set of relations.
If the effectual force of past agents terminates with their departure, some contemporary agent must now be sustaining the effectuality of information from that past. Few people ever ask what carries over information from the past so that it can subsequently “influence” the form of the present and future.
The past does influence the present, but does not determine it completely. No present state of affairs was completely derived from past events for it was not totally contained in them. Uniquely novel relationships always appear with each new moment and in every interaction. The notion of causation by “forces” and “energy” falls short of providing an adequate explanation of this world’s “consequentiality.” The mere absence of something crucial can profoundly influence the character and course of the future as much as the presence of applied energetic forces. If past events had not happened in the way they did, however, the present situation would not be altogether what it is.
Whether we are equipped to discern it or not, evidence about everything which ever happened is still recorded in the present condition of the universe. We commonly account for the way things are presently arranged by describing past conditions and by relating the relevant purposes and forces which have operated on them. What else is “explanation”?
For ages, systems of writing and printing have enabled information in symbolic form to be preserved in libraries, archives and private storage. Now we also have photography and recording equipment. A vocalist can now sing a trio by recording her voice three times and merging the recordings to produce three-part harmony. A programmed computer can perform marvelous feats with information which has been stored in its memory and in the vast resources of the Internet. Without the process of time, however, none of these wonders could happen. Computers may process information fantastically swiftly, but time is still their “lifeblood.”
The past provides the foundation upon which the new is formed. The new wood which will enlarge each tree in the growing season will be laid upon older wood, clothing it and extending it, not replacing it. By depositing layer after layer of new material over former deposits around the doorway of its dwelling, a resident mollusk may increase the length of its spiral shell. But when a organism grows from within, what is added is not simply attached to an outside surface. Food and other substances must be absorbed into and incorporated within the anatomical structure of what is growing.
Today I am alive. Tomorrow what I am and what I say, write or do today will be part of the past. To defeat temporarily the transitoriness of time I am making an effort to preserve my thoughts in writing. My thoughts today may eventually make a significant difference to the worldview of some reader somewhere sometime. Where my lifetime’s information goes and what effect it will have is not in my control. This is not my world. I did not bring myself into being. The options from which I made my life-choices were offered to me moment by moment by my Creator. Those options were largely shaped by choices which were made in the past by many other people as well as by creatures on many levels of the subhuman world.
The past is not an inaccessible catacomb where all former things have been inexplicably, entirely and forever laid to rest. The past is not a sealed-over cosmic dump of uncertain location within which everything that previously flourished has been steadily disintegrating. Nor is it the case, as has been so often asserted, that the past no longer exists at all. Most definitely, the past is not entirely out of this world. It still remains, participating in the form of what is presently present. I hope that Kay will find acceptable these thoughts about where time goes