Years ago a big up-to-date supermarket opened not far away from where we lived. Checking out the new store turned out to be a somewhat uncanny experience for me. When I stepped up to its glass door, “something” seemed to know that I was there and intended to enter. A slightly weird twinge rippled up my spine as an unseen presence swung that door wide open and waited for me to come in. When I had gone inside, that “something” silently closed the door behind me.
Many years have passed since that strange little episode. Electrically operated doors have become so commonplace that scarcely anyone seriously wonders how they work. People accept time in much the same way. Occasionally they glance at their watch or a clock, then get on with their business. They never ask what it is that their timepieces are alleged to be measuring. For them, time is merely a mundane matter of fact. In this book however you will find that careful contemplation of the most ordinary features of time can stir up a surge of wonder and awe.
When I take on a project that will occupy me for months, I have to confront the impenetrable future. As effectually as a solid storefront, something imponderable blocks my immediate access to the rest of today, to tomorrow and all the days ahead. But without my doing anything, a time-door called Now always opens for me. Moment after moment, door after door, as it were, opens for me and always, when I have moved on, the door through which I have just passed closes silently behind me. Just as there is no way to hasten the opening up of the Future, there is no way back through the barrier to the Past.
So I inevitably ask, “Who is in charge here?”
Although time goes on everywhere and always, it is still the world’s most baffling mystery. Time is utterly unlike anything else we may encounter in this world. The whence, what and wherefore of time defy both reason and imagination. There is no existence without activity and activity takes time. Things may “last,” appearing to “remain the same,” but even “lasting” and “remaining” imply that time has actually been going on during their apparent permanence. “Becoming” refers to the changing of things, and “being,” far from signifying “standing still,” means an active, continuing to be – an ongoing occurrence, a sequential persistence. So wherever anything moves, changes or lasts, time is at work. Time is basic to everything that is. Even space’s continued existence and apparent expanding depend on time.
During the last two centuries time has taken a leading role in developing the modern Western view of the world. The deep time of geological ages was uncovered and now every school child knows about dinosaurs and fossils. Some biologists tell us that inconceivably long epochs of time apparently allowed biological change or evolution to happen. Astronomy has shown that the universe has been around for billions of years. Archaeology and history have been tracing out the distant past of humanity, its races, nations and personages. Engineering and economics have been devising ways to “save time” and speed up transportation and communication. Manufacturers keep marketing new inventions and “instant” foods. Many marketeers would go out of business were it not for model changes, fashion fads and planned obsolescence. The media warn us that we must face the problems of an increasingly aging population. Labor and management never cease to struggle over working hours, retirement ages and pension schemes.
Despite the importance of time in the current worldview, few people have much of thoughtful significance to say about its nature. Unable to analyze time, science can only accept it and move on. Traditional logic deals only with concepts which are definite and unchanging, but the essence of time is motion and change. Although all reasoning takes time, even when done by computer, reason cannot get a firm hold on the nature of time. No wonder comments of any depth on the subject are scarce.
Common expressions involving time employ all sorts of contradictory and paradoxical metaphors. The extraordinarily large number of these analogies reveals the confusion which bubbles all through this subject. We can “lose time” and “find time”; we can arrive “in time” and “run out of time.” Tedious activities are “time-consuming” but, not to worry, we can “make time.” We can be “on time” or take “time off.” We can “pass the time” although time itself is always “passing.” Sometimes “time is up,” but then there is “down time.” Sometimes “time hangs heavy” although usually “time is on the wing.” Time is a “flowing stream” except for the occasional “solid hour,” etc. This medley of notions is hard to sort out so as to make sense of what time really is.
Writers of science fiction novels like to play around with quirky, outlandish time realms. They take delight in tweaking our ignorance about time with phrases which are high-sounding but whose meaning, if any, is uncertain. The book you are about to read, however, portrays the intriguing peculiarities of the most ordinary time – perplexing aspects which are usually overlooked.
Inherited folk-sayings about time are believed to embody the superior wisdom of respected ancestors and famous thinkers. These common adages are usually accepted unquestioningly because they are almost sacrosanct. Everyone knows that, like a turning wheel, “history repeats itself.” Just as a pendulum swings from side to side, social opinions will likely “swing from one extreme to the other.” No use worrying about the future, for “what is to be, will be.” On solemn memorial occasions it is appropriate to sing about “time’s ever-flowing stream.” Idealistic propagandists confidently believe that the world will inevitably “progress” toward an eventual realization of the glorious future which they envision. Scientists are little better than the general populace when it comes to examining critically their accepted notions of time.
Due to the strong feelings which are bound up with time in people’s lives, a discussion of issues involving beliefs about time can quickly become complicated by strong emotions. Through culturally transmitted stories, children used to learn how to understand their existence, their experiences and their world. They heard how the world came to be; how their people’s heroes lived out important personal and social ideals; what consequences followed wrong behavior; what rewards followed right behavior; what happened to deceased loved ones and what is to become of themselves when they die. Those time-saturated stories gave – and still give – some people highly prized, personal significance, security and satisfaction. Because their understanding of time is so emotionally loaded, when a different conception is proposed, it can be disturbing enough to provoke a hostile reaction. Time concepts are deeply woven into people’s cosmology, theology and history. Time also enters into their moral, legal, political and financial activities, as well as their past, present and future behavior. Each person’s past behavior, personal identity and future plans are matters of concern. The date a certain document was actually signed and when a certain law came into effect is important. When an election could be called and when a new government could take power will affect certain decisions. The precise period to which a published rate of interest applies makes a big difference. “Time is money.” What kind of life will dear Uncle Joe, lately deceased, be leading now – if any? No wonder any suggestion a radically alternative conception of time will have serious personal implications.
Between the very large and the very small levels of this world there are many “layers” of motion: the universe’s rate of expansion, galactic evolution, geological periods, historical periods, seasonal changes, weather cycles, life spans, aging, daily routines, travel plans, processing times, chemical reactions, vibrational frequencies, speeding and spinning electrons, nuclear jiggles – no listing could be complete. To arrive at a credible approach to time in general it is necessary to knit together the timescales of all these levels of motion and change – no easy task.
Modern physicists believe that matter consists of separate particles such as electrons, protons and neutrons. They believe that the four fundamental physical forces and light itself are functions of special particles. Occasionally a prominent physicist will publicly wonder whether space and time – long considered to be smoothly continuous – might also prove to be as structurally complex as matter. What if space actually consists of an ordered array of distinct locations at each of which a sequence of different events could occur? What if time actually comes in regular blips – discrete, unitary, successive moments – not in a continuous flow? What would those radical conceptions do to our understanding of the world? That’s what this book works through and toward.
The literary style of this book is unusual. It is a personal statement, not an academic textbook, but I believe that it can hold its own under academic examination. I am familiar with both the academic approach to the world as well as with the interests of people who have not entered the milieu of “higher learning.” Whoever you are, your existence and activities depend upon time, so there is something in this book for you.
Many of the following chapters begin with a conversation. The characters who are introduced in the narrative portions must ultimately considered to be fictional, even those who bear my wife’s name and my own. Naturally settings and experiences of the book’s author are often transferred to a person who speaks in the dialogues. None of the details or individuals which I have introduced, however, are intended to convey authentic or literal historical accuracy.
After many years of reading and thinking, I am no longer certain about exactly where most of my thoughts originally came from. I do know, however, that the way in which they have been organized is completely my own. I have not included a bibliography simply because it would have been much the same as the bibliographies in the reputable academic books about time. One good thing can be said on behalf of this my delinquency is that at least the reader will not have to push on through an annoying underbrush of references.
No subject which a writer could undertake to write about could be much more abstract than this subject of time. Academic treatments of the subject tend to be beyond the comprehension of the average reader. I have made an earnest effort to explain as concretely as I could concepts which are seldom intelligible to anyone but specialists. I hope that I have succeeded in setting forth with sufficient clarity enough original and radical thoughts about time to make the reading of this book worthwhile.
Read on, brave heart.
John A. Ross
Chilliwack, B.C., Canada
John Ross died in February 2003 before he was able to complete the final revision of his manuscript. His family have provided (light) editing in order to enable his thoughts on the nature of time –the fruit of years of research and reflection – to be made available to the wider public.