It was breakfast time. Kay put down her cup. “Something wrong?”
My head was in my hands, my elbows on the table. I straightened up and looked at her with a despairing grimace.
“Marie’s idea that I should use a diary format to write about time did help me to get started. But I soon found that I was writing more about myself and my own feelings than I was about the nature of time. I’m not sure I should continue with the ‘diary’ theme.
“I suppose I could tell how, as a teenager, I tried to build a perpetual motion machine with weights flopping on rods attached to the rim of a bicycle wheel. Or how I used to roam the countryside looking for relics of past geological ages: glacial deposits, fossils and such. Or how, by working at my teenage jobs – grading eggs and washing milk bottles – I learned that I could exchange my time for money and what I did with my time for what tailors and barbers did with theirs.”
“Well, wouldn’t those be good things to write about?” Kay asked.
I shook my head. “Everybody knows that generating perpetual motion is impossible. Lots of good books about prehistoric times are already available. And surely enough has already been written about the economic value of time. I don’t have anything especially new to say on any of those subjects. What I really want to do is to probe into time territory which other writers haven’t explored.”
Kay responded, “Most people think they already know everything they need to know about time – what time of day it is, what day of the week and what month. They care too about their working hours, holidays and appointments. If that level of thinking about time is satisfactory enough for them, why are you so intent on trying to persuade people to think more deeply?”
My tone in replying betrayed deep dissatisfaction. “I just can’t understand people who take for granted the ultimate secret of their very existence. They are alive. Because of time they keep on existing. Aren’t they ever curious about what that means? Don’t they ever wonder where the life they live comes from or what happens to it after they’ve lived it? Maybe they do – sometimes – but no reasonable answers being available, they simply shrug their shoulders and carry on.
“As for me, I am simply unable to let the vital, intimately personal mystery of time sweep me along without trying to understand what’s going on. Maybe I’m an oddball, but I feel – uh – constrained to make sense of whatever it is that keeps my life surging onward. What I am, my view of the world and the worth of what I’m doing are all at stake.”
Kay’s eyes lit up with hopeful encouragement. “Maybe some younger people will be curious enough to become interested in your kind of questions. Marie was telling me yesterday morning that she had been wondering whether her little grandson could tell the time yet. She asked him, ‘David, do you know what time it is?’ He answered her simply, ‘Yes.’ ‘Then tell me, what time is it?’ ‘Aw, Grandma,’ he said, ‘you know what time it is. It’s now. It’s always now.’
“Marie thought that was pretty smart for a child so young. But then she remembered that, when his father wasn’t much older than David is now, he had once asked, ‘Mommy, why doesn’t tomorrow ever come?’ Say, have you ever considered writing something about time for children?”
“Yesss!” I exclaimed, slapping the table and rising from my chair. “Kay, you just hit my start button! Not with the idea of writing for kids, but with young David’s logical insight: Since it’s always now, it’s now now! For me that raises a really big question: Why is it always now? That, dearie, goes right to the heart of the whole subject! Thank you!” And I kissed her upturned cheek as I passed by.
Why is it always Now?
Why don’t I ever find myself in the past or the future? Why is it that asking someone over the phone, “Where are you?” is quite okay, but asking “When are you?” would likely produce only an uncomprehending “Huh?”
For a starter, Now is a state of affairs which is neither before nor after itself. This defines Now by what it is not. The present moment is not the past and not the future. To put it positively: Now is that juncture of time in which the trailing edge of the past and the leading edge of the future meet and meld into something different and real. The negative definition, however, seems clearer and more precise. By excluding every other moment of time that ever has existed, as well as all possible moments that have not yet existed, it selects and focuses on the only specific moment that is left after that almost-total exclusive decision. In short, the negative definition implies that the moment which we call “now” is definitely different from every other moment which we might refer to as “time.”
If one could take an ultra-swift snapshot of the universe on an ultra-fast film, no doubt each single thing that exists would appear to occupy a definite position in space relative to every other thing. But in actuality on any level – galactic, subatomic or in-between – all physical things are always on the move with respect to each other. They may be moving at different rates or in different directions, or changing in any of the different ways in which things can change.
It’s much easier on the nerves to live and work in an orderly environment than in an unpredictably changing situation. The ideal would be “a place for everything and everything in its place.” In the old days the adult vision of the ideal school was a roomful of children stuck in orderly rows of fixed desks. Every pupil doing the same thing at the same time. Only one person talking at a time. Strangely enough, the kids however naturally preferred the playground scene. Nobody still for a moment. Running, yelling, chasing, shrieking, falling, forming pairs or groups, chatting, playing catch, skipping rope or poking each other. The universe resembles the playground more than the schoolroom.
Throughout the universe nothing is fixed forever in one place and in all respects. From one moment to the next the universe keeps moving from one configuration to another. No overall “snapshot” of things-in-their-momentary-places ever gets repeated in exact detail. Never before in history has the pattern of relationships between all things in the universe been exactly the way it is right now.
It may be objected that from moment to moment, say, a tombstone is unchanging. Its form seems to be quite permanent. It will probably last for centuries. Nevertheless as the weather digs away at the stone, its outward shape does change bit by bit. Its external relations with the surrounding turf and the day-to-day weather conditions obviously keep changing. Meanwhile the stone’s inner molecular structure is always vibrating, as well as responding to incoming cosmic radiation. Within its crystals atomic electrons keep orbiting and nuclear protons keep spinning. Thus the interrelationships of invisibles inside the stone actually do not remain exactly the same from moment to moment. Moreover this planet Earth, stone of stones that it is, is always on the move with respect to the sun, the other planets and “fixed” stars. All tombstones go along on the ride.
If the internal and external relationships of even a tombstone are always changing, so also are those of every other seemingly permanent physical thing. As time goes on, objects and persons are always transforming spatially, qualitatively and quantitatively. Things may be reshaped, rearranged and moved about. People’s inner conditions, as well as their postures, gestures and expressions, are extremely variable. So are their concepts, perspectives, feelings, plans, decisions and actions. They gather in various groups and organize themselves in all sorts of ways.
From moment to moment on every level throughout the whole universe the relationships between all of the world’s components keep changing. One configuration immediately gives way to another.
I regard this universal, ongoing change-process – this perpetual differing of the relations between all things on every level of the material universe, from subatomic to galactic – as one with, and the same as, cosmic time.
Cosmic time consists of Now-states
In order to specify where in its path a moving body actually is at a given time, science uses differential calculus and analytic geometry. The location of an object at rest with respect to a certain reference point can be described by means of a graph of its distances from two imposed perpendicular axes which cross at that reference point. If the object is moving, one axis is marked off in units of distance and the other axis is marked to represent units of time. The known positions of the object at particular times can then be accurately specified and “mapped” onto a graph paper. When the shape of the object’s path has been traced across the two-dimensional plane of the paper, its probable location between any of its known positions at a specific times can be determined. The paths of two objects moving at the same time can similarly be individually traced on the same graph paper. It then becomes possible to describe the way the relation between the pair had been changing throughout their journey. While the two objects were actually moving, the position of each with respect to the other at a particular “Now” could have been observed as “frozen” by a high-speed “snapshot.” That kind of instantaneous “picture” is what scientists would call a state of the two-body system.
This “snapshot” procedure is fairly simple to imagine when one is dealing with only two or a few objects which are moving in a two-dimensional plane. To imagine a momentary state of the relations between several objects which are moving with respect to each other in three-dimensional space, however, is much more difficult. The locations of the various objects in a “many-body” dynamic configuration at any particular moment can be viewed from many different angles. No two “snapshots” which were taken from different viewpoints at the same moment could be identical. Specifying exactly the state of a multitude of objects which are moving in various directions in three-dimensional space at any given moment is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Nevertheless at any particular moment the relations between those objects are what they are, regardless of the diversity of possible viewpoints. What is actually unspecifiable is nevertheless imaginable in principle. What one can know about relational states in a small-scale process helps in imagining the changing states of our vast universe in terms of the shifting relations between all of its innumerable objects as they move in different directions.
The relations between all the objects in the universe are perpetually changing. I shall call each actual momentary state of this total cosmic change-process a “Now-state” of the universe. Cosmic time is thus the sequence of cosmic Now-states by which the universe is ever being born anew. This definition of cosmic time can mean nothing less than: Time is the ongoing creation of the universe from moment to moment. The particular differings, changes and motions which we are able to observe around us are but minuscule portions of this great cosmic change-process which I have identified as “cosmic time.”
Any momentary Now-state is as far-reaching as the whole universe. A Now-state includes and consists of all things that exist anywhere at a single moment, as well as all of their relationships.
Who could measure the spread of a cosmic Now-state or detail completely its total contents? Even a single object has multiple levels and aspects – atomic, molecular, thermal, mechanical, chemical, electrical, gravitational, metrical, etc., more than one can tell. The world is so richly complex that no single, whole, momentary situation or Now-state could ever be grasped entirely or described more than partially.
All things that exist simultaneously inhabit the same Now-state. Each particular thing occupies a unique position in that Now-state with respect to all of its contemporaries. Its being where it is guarantees that at that moment nothing else can occupy that place. If any individual thing has changed or moved in any way, that indicates that it has become part of a subsequent Now-state. Astoundingly enough, that change or movement will have shifted ever so slightly the relationships between it and everything else in the whole universe.
Change and relations
A change which occurs here will always make a difference elsewhere. That’s what we mean when we say that things are related. Material objects relate to each other spatially, mechanically, gravitationally, chemically, electromagnetically, metrically and qualitatively. All changes in relations take time. Our senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, temperature, pressure, balance, etc. – together with our emotions, enable us to detect some of the differences which things and people make to us. Making a difference means changing a relationship or a complex of relationships.
Each entity in a Now-state is accompanied in that same moment by a vast environment of contemporaries. While we are watching a movie on TV, the folks next door may be having a late dinner and the boy across the street may be surfing the Net. Whatever activities may be in progress just now in our neighborhood, a huge number of other activities will also be going on contemporaneously elsewhere throughout the world. The occurrence of a certain event in any one of the processes which are under way at the same time will inevitably and always coincide timewise with the occurrence of some event in each of the other current processes. Coincidings in time, whether observed or not, must necessarily be happening moment after moment throughout the whole universe. It makes sense therefore to consider each set of such momentary, simultaneously occurring events, wherever they may be happening, as contemporaries in one and the same Now-state.
Albert Einstein pointed out that two distant celestial events which an observer perceives as having occurred at the same time may not actually have occurred simultaneously. Rays of light which arrive at the same time at an observer’s eye may have originated at vastly different distances and have been traveling through space for light-years of difference in time. This realization, however, does not mean that it is meaningless to speak of simultaneity. Surely no one will deny that, whether or not the positions of events are exactly known, an immense number of them could be, indeed must be occurring simultaneously at any particular moment throughout the universe.
My field of vision will give me an instantaneous view of a landscape which consists of many things at various distances. Their variance in distance does not abolish the simultaneity of my apprehension of them all in one united picture. I know of no cogent reason why the occurrence of simultaneities should be restricted to my personal consciousness and local neighborhood and not considered to be but a tiny sector of a vastly extensive momentary Now-state of the whole universe. At any moment of cosmic time the whole universe is what it is.
Certain sequences of Now-states can be considered collectively to compose an event which people who were experiencing it would loosely call “Now.” Such a concept of Now as a definite portion of the universal change-process is useful for specifying when in history things were at a certain stage of ongoing development. Any past Now-event which was extremely important to a society could be used as a reference marker for telling the time. Starting from that recorded “Now,” by means of clock and calendar, a numerical name – time or date – may be given theoretically to any earthly Now of interest before or after it.
Now is complex
The easiest way to answer the question “What is Now?” is to tell the time as registered on a watch or clock. But few people who would offer that response realize all that is involved in specifying a moment of time as “Now.”
I don’t need to list reasons why we use watches and clocks. They offer us a way to relate our own states and activities to those in the lives of other persons and changing circumstances. Clocks help us to recount the order of past events, to measure current motions and to plan for future interactions.
In short, clocks help us to relate different motions. They enable us to compare each motion with a common standard motion – the daily rotation of the earth with respect to the sun. Astronomers imagine a plane called a meridian (meaning a “day-divider”) which passes through the Earth’s poles as well as the zenith directly above a certain place on the surface of Earth.
Beginning with a meridian in western Europe, Earth’s circumference is conventionally considered to be divided into 24 equal portions. In one day’s rotation, Earth turns its 24 portions successively toward the sun. A common clock mechanically generates a series of regular uniform movements which are automatically counted and registered by the position of “hands” on the clock’s dial. The circumference of that dial is conventionally divided into 12 equal portions which therefore can be related to 12 equal portions of Earth’s moving circumference. While Earth rotates through 12 of its portions, the clock moves one of its hands through 12 of the successively numbered divisions on its dial. Each of these is called an hour. The motion of the clock in a sense thus mimics the motion of Earth, except that the hour hand moves in obvious little jerks, whereas the earth’s rotational movement proceeds without perceptible jerks. Having registered half of Earth’s rotation, the clock counts on through the other 12 hours while Earth completes the other half of its rotation. Meanwhile its “minute” hand has been moving through 60 portions of the dial, each portion of which is called a “minute.” A minute may be further divided into sixty portions called “seconds” and each of these may be divided into even smaller portions.
Although the rotation of the earth provides the standard unit by which other motions are measured, clocks provide a more conveniently visible set of corresponding units of motion, which are commonly called “standard time.”
The motions of other objects can be compared with motions which are being recorded on the clock. If the coincidence of the start and finish of some particular motion with certain registered positions of the clock’s motion have been properly noted, it is possible to describe with a numbered ratio how the measured motion compares with the clock’s motion. The coincidence between the start of the measured motion and a certain clock reading is a “Now” in terms of “clock-time,” as is the coincidence of the finish of the motion with a clock reading.
The above tedious and superficial account must be supplemented by a number of very important points which have escaped mention.
- Suppose a motion in which we might be interested were taking place all by itself in absolutely empty space. Due to the complete absence of observers and other motions or things to which it could have been related, that motion could neither be perceived nor described. Our knowledge is knowledge of relations. Without relations there will be no knowledge. That’s why the rotational motion of Earth is meaningful only with respect to the sun and why the motion of clocks is meaningful only in a correspondence relation with Earth’s rotation.
- Apart from its beginning or ending, a steady motion is only a blur of displacement from one definite position to another. The human mind cannot comprehend what is continuous unless it is broken into different sections which can then be related to each other. The numbered divisions on the face of a clock are actually an attempt to divide a smoothly continuous rotation of the earth into standard units, in terms of which the duration of any other motion can be described mathematically.
- Some motions stop and start repeatedly, proceeding by jerks. Not all motions are steady – some portions may accelerate and others may decelerate. Motions which are thus obviously divisible into portions can be rationally comprehended. Treating a steady continuous motion as if it were an accretion of units of motion, however, is a purely intellectual device, not an existential reality.
- When a motion has been perceived to consist of different actual portions, the various portions are perceived as being really related. That certain portion actually took place before the portion which followed it. One portion came first, another came after it. This orderly relating of motion portions, or successive events, is an actual existential relating, not an artificial intellectual device which was subjectively invented to make motion intelligible. All things are always in motion, and we give the name “events” to discernible portions of discernible motions.
- A clock simply numbers the portions of its own motion. Since the portions come in a sequence, first this, then that, before and after, those relations justify our calling clocked motion by a special name: time. Although motion is intimately connected with time, motion should never be confused entirely with time. The conception of time implies the successive relation of portions of motion, not a numbering of the portions, nor a ceaseless continuity of motion in space.
- Events themselves are seen to have discernible portions which occur in a sequence of time. How small or brief can a portion of motion be? Some portions last longer than others. While some events are changing rapidly, an adjacent event may appear to remain quite the same. The phenomenon of relative rest – existence without change – must be accounted for as well as the duration of motion. Nothing in this world is absolutely at rest with respect to the rest of a totally moving universe.
Most nations have decided that a day’s rotation of Earth should be taken as the basic unit for numbering portions of motion and understanding their sequential relation as time. Other planets, however, rotate faster or slower than earth. If there were or are any inhabitants on such a planet, the value of their units of time would not be the same as our hours, minutes and seconds. If each diverse unit were actually a multiple of the duration of an infinitesimally brief Now-state of the universe, or the sum of a number of such Now-states, these sets of disparate values could fit nicely with each other.
An absolutely precise clock-reading would be able to assign a definite numerical name to each Now-state as it occurred. Our best clocks however simply tally up elapsing Now-states in convenient but gross units which are multiples or sums. Although a single momentary Now-state is of uncertain duration, the overall effect of a succession of them is observable from the amount of change which has taken place. Time itself is the actual universal change process, not clock-assigned units, calculated periods, or graphic representations such as timelines.
Merely being conscious of the situation in a single Now would not yield a sense of time. How things were different in previous Nows must also be known and remembered. Our brain is good at detecting sensory differences which occur from moment to moment. We quickly notice changes in things around us – off/on, up/down, bright/dim, rough/smooth, lighter/heavier, louder/softer, warmer/colder, and so on. If for a long time no perceptible change occurs in our surroundings or our condition, our senses dull. We soon cease to be conscious of the clothing or glasses which we have been wearing all along.
In order to perceive the differing that goes on around us and within us, we must not only be alive and alert, but also possess a memory. Our brain is capable of storing in memory all sorts of information derived from our previous experiences. Somehow it not only registers the occurrence of experienced events, but also the “before-and-after” time-order of such events, as well as the “first this, then that” within any given episode. Our brain utilizes time-order for filing in memory successive arrivals of incoming sensory data. Because filed information from the past, whether old or recent, has been tagged with time, the content of certain scenes and incidents can be readily retrieved and once more presented in orderly fashion to our consciousness. Since our brain can reactivate and represent several “mental structures” in quick succession, we can compare them and discern differences between them. We can compare the way things were in a previous but remembered Now with the way things have come to be in the current Now. Whether deliberate or automatic, this comparing of past with present is of the essence of consciousness. From this awareness that things are now different from what they once were, we derive our apprehension of time’s moving picture.
Nevertheless we should not identify time entirely with our personal consciousness of Now-changing. The great cosmic change-process keeps going even while we are sleeping, lying in a coma or unconscious under anesthetic.
We cannot glean everything we would like to know about an interesting process from taking a mere peep at it. A momentary glance will not yield much information about that process’s startup conditions, its elements, phases, directional tendency, duration or end results. A single musical sound is not a “melody.” A single Now-state by itself, apart from any reference to past Now-states, has little if any meaning. Inability to compare a present experience with a remembered past would be a severe mental disaster.
The fact that memories of past experiences linger on could imply that something within us, or perhaps beyond us, survives transitions from Now-state to Now-state, bearing along with it much of what we experienced in previous Now-states. If each newly arriving moment is different from all previous moments, one might wonder what holds each person’s multifarious memories together in such a way that she or he can call them “mine”. Our ability to recollect in a quick sweep so many different past experiences may be what gives an impression of continuity to what would otherwise have seemed a succession of meaningless Now-states. This continuing function of memory enables our consciousness to refer collectively and abstractly to all of our past experiences as our “lifetime.” Consciousness of possessing a uniquely personal set of remembered experiences – memories which are quite different from anyone else’s – is what enables each human being to say, “I am me and I have a continuous identity.”
Our long experience of an ever-changing procession of Nows in the “past” easily develops into a projected belief in and an expectation of a “future” beyond the “present.” Out of our background of remembered experience we can imagine future Now-situations, plan toward a desirable state of affairs, anticipate undesirable interference and take purposeful action accordingly.
In the past, Nows have always kept coming steadily. For that reason we feel entitled to expect that the time-process will continue. But no one can demonstrate with certainty that there must always be a future.
Now – actual and perceived
“Now” is an ambiguous word. Sometimes I use it with reference to an actual present state, that is, a present configuration of things and their relations throughout the whole universe. On other occasions my “now” refers to my personal consciousness of the way things within and around me appear to be arrayed or behaving at this particular moment. This ambiguity requires clarification.
Our consciousness is always consciousness of something. That something may lie either outside us or within us. If we see something at a distance, we tend to assume that it is in the same present moment as we are and that its present condition is exactly the same now as the way we are now seeing it to be. When we are perceiving something, we tend to think that we are in an immediate relationship with it as a present reality.
Despite our belief that we are experiencing the world out there as it is at this moment, we are actually seeing it the way it was a while ago, for light takes time to travel to our eyes from any object at any distance. The information brought to us by that light can therefore be about only some past state of that object. The changes which the arrival of that light has induced in our eyes have to be transmitted by nerve impulses to various portions of our brain, then integrated and interpreted before we can comprehend what we have seen. All that traveling, transmission and interpretation of information also takes time. Hence our present perception is always of an outside object’s past rather than its present state.
Light and nerve impulses travel so swiftly that we may be only minimally mistaken when we assume that we are seeing nearby things as they are right now. In an approximate sense the word “now” may be acceptably used when the information has traveled only a short distance. But that car which we just saw coming out of the driveway at the end of the block by now is actually a tiny bit farther on its way out than where it was when the light which was reflected off it reached us. Lightning may strike several miles away. Its flash will come to us in a microsecond, while the thunder which accompanied the lightning strike will take a number of seconds to travel the same distance.
My eye may receive light rays simultaneously from the evening star, the setting sun, the crescent moon, snow on a distant mountain and waves breaking at my feet. Light-rays from each of those different sources started their journey toward my eye not only from different places but also at different times, from different Now-states. During their approach to my eye each of the several rays participated successively in a different number of Now-states. Only when all the rays arrive on the retina of my eye do all of them become fellow participants in the Now-state in which I am presently existing. When the information which they brought to me has been processed by my brain, I can enjoy in one view all of those diverse features which the evening was displaying.
Strictly speaking I can never have direct and immediate experience of any actual presence other than that of my own being. My perception will inevitably lag behind the actual Now-state of a near-at-hand body or event by a tiny fraction of a millisecond. On the other hand, information from an edge-of-the-universe quasar may have taken millions of light-years to reach me. In fact some star which I gaze upon tonight could conceivably have already burned itself out.
Although belatedly conscious of external things and events, we can be immediately self-aware, directly experiencing our own presence and existence. Conscious experience in itself is always and undeniably present experience. Whatever we may be seeing, at that moment we are aware that we are seeing it. Whenever we are remembering something, we are conscious that we are now remembering. When we are expecting something, we are conscious that we are now expecting it. If we are feeling a jab of pain, there is no mistaking its strident shriek of nowness. Little David was right. We can have an experience of things within us or around us only when we are actually experiencing them – that is, now. Marie had expected the boy to tell her the clock time – a certain number of elapsed hours and minutes since the sun was directly overhead. By cosmic creation time, however, it is always Now, which is the only actually existing Now-state as of this moment.