Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Problem of Time by Jason Paul Seaux

Jason Paul Seaux
Fr. Tom Gwozdz, SDB, Ph. D.
PHI 302 Metaphysics
22 April 2008

The Problem of Time: “Of What Nature Is It?”

Since the ancient Greek philosophers, ‘time’ has been a problem for the human intellect. As humans we have an insatiable desire to know the ‘being’ of things which we experience in the world, going beyond the question of merely “what is it?” to the questions of “how and why it is at all?”, so too have we desired to know time. For the ancient Greeks, time was based in the relationship of change to the Whole. Plato, for example, held that time is merely a moving image of Eternity – an Eternity which in reality was conceived by him to be timeless (Gunn 180). Aristotle goes on to define time as “number of motion in respect to ‘before’ and ‘after’” (The Physics, 219b.1). Professor J. Alexander Gunn, in his article entitled The Problem of Time, says, “[Aristotle] failed to distinguish the use of the term ‘time’ as concept from its use as percept” (Gunn 180). In like manner, Professor Gunn, critiquing the ancients, believes that the concept of time did not receive sufficient attention until the 20th century. However, science, in the 20th and 21st centuries, has attempted to define time in terms of a radical objectivity, and so has tried to make into an object something which, in fact, is more properly a subject (Zemach 144). And so the philosophical question, “what is time?” still persists today. As metaphysicians we see that the question which needs must be asked is even more fundamental – “What is the ‘being’ of time?” The problem in answering this question is that we are contiually trying to make time into that which it is not, namely a real being. To properly answer this question we must move beyond this tendency, which may be proported by many as merely a semantic choice, and realize that what is real in ‘time’ is the changing of real existent things.

Time it seems, since the very beginning of its philosophical discussion by the Greeks, has been divided into both subjective and objective aspects. This division of time into these two aspects, which various philosophers call by different names, such as: subject and object, concept and percept, mental and real, psychological and physical has often been done in ways which either radically separate the two aspects (destroying one of them) or radically unify them (making them one and indistinguishable from the other) (Gunn 182). Fr. W. Norris Clarke, S.J., in his book The One and the Many, defines the being of time as “a synthesis of real and mental being, founded in reality, existing formally in the mind” (Clarke 162). This definition of time will be taken as the standard by which the other definitions will be measured, because as we have admitted in class, Clarke’s definition seems to be the most holistic, seeing ‘time’ in its two aspects without their destruction or radical unification.

As said above, time, as it has come to be known today, has two aspects, which we discuss under various names that indicate the same aspects. Use of different terms is merely meant to accentuate particular understandings of the dual nature of time (Gunn 180-181). The definition of time’s duality as subjective and objective, for example, is meant to highlight its relative inaccessibility through the human senses. Time is seen to be subjective, insomuch as it is an issue of the ‘inner sense’, where judgments of time are made through intuition “of the relation of the order of our perceptions to the order of objective events” (Gunn 181). Time, defined in terms of concept and percept, views ‘time’ from an epistemological standpoint. On an epistemological basis, Gunn commenting on Bosanquet says, “the time problem [is] the meeting ground for extremes of thought, both realist and idealists” (Gunn 182). As found in Clarke’s own definition, time is a synthesis of mental and real being (Clarke 162). When Clarke writes, “Real change by itself is not enough to generate time”, he hints at the fact that time exists formally in the mind – in the consciousness, and seemingly removes the possibility that time can extist as something real (162-163).
As if the problems that philosophy had discovered regarding time were not sufficient, the late 19th and 20th centuries ushered in two new aspects: time as psychological and time as scientific, with each aspect proposing its own mutually incompatible definition of what is supposed by most people to be the same thing. The problem is that they are not. Psychological time is disinct from physiological time, in that psychological time is the experience of the passing of time or more precisely the experience of change which is relative to a mental state. In various mental states inidividuals may experience time as passing faster or slower (Clarke 166). W. Norris Clarke gives several examples of such altered mental states. Two such states include “dream time” and “mystical states”. In “dream time”, much change seems to happen in very small periods of “clock time”.1 In mystical experiences, Clarke says, “[we] even transcend time entirely into a kind of intense timeless presence” (166). In this it is clear that although our perception of time is “founded in reality” it is only so loosely, in that at least in the present ‘duration’ there is an awareness of the events which are happening therein and they are experienced in the order in which they are happening in reality. This looseness is in the perception thereof by individuals, who indeed experience similar durations dissimilarly, in regards to the rate at which each experiences change therein.

Modern science throws a curveball into this idea of ‘looseness’. There can be no temporal differential in a single spatio-temporal event. This flows from the principle of Physics in which two tangible objects cannot occupy the same point in space-time (Van Flandern). Again here in science, the problem of time as mental vs. real being rears it head. Most scientists hold that ‘time’ is a measure of change, simple and not a problem. However, the physics of the 20th century, beginning with Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, who published an Nobel Prize winning paper explaining the dialtion of time in relation to mass and velocity, sought to make time into a real thing such as the other forces of nature. Most hold that this is a problem of semantics rather than a problem of metaphysics on the part of the physicist who hold to the Lorentzian Theory of Relativity, in that their metaphysics is developed out of faulty semantic, namely they treat change and time as one and the same.

Yet in this plethora of distinctions, each of these sets of terms aims at a single definition of time, namely that time is a conscious awareness of a continuum of change in real things, “not merely the perception that things have changed, but a distinct perception of their changing”, in which we are able to distinguish between past and present and anticipate the future (Gunn 182; Leighton 561). In this there is yet another problem created for time, namely “What are past, present, and future?”, “How do we know them?”, “Where do they exist?”. Joseph A. Leighton in his article entitled Time, Change, and Time-Transcendence defines past, present, and future as durations within the continuum of time (Leighton 562). He goes on to define each of these temporal durations individually, beginning with the present. For Leighton, the present is always a specific duration “filled with a definite content of feelings, ideas, movements of attention,” and perceptions which serve to define the present moment as distinct from the rest of the temporal continuum, known as such by distiction from the “no-longer” and the “not yet” (Leighton 562; Gunn 183). Although the present must be of a specific duration, there need not be a definite awareness of such duration in the actually experienced present. “In truth,” Leighton writes, “in the actual present the self transcends change or mutually external time-lapses, through the act of synthesis by which it grasps a succession as one and continuous” (562). Yet, the present remains known only by intuition, in that as soon as it moves into the intellect it is in fact no longer present but past.

In the next section of his article Leighton goes on to define that temporal duration which we call ‘the past’. For him the past exists in the “living ‘now’ of experience” as a “reconstruction made by a thinking self ” (563). Therefore the present reality of the past depends on a filiation of interest and meaning in and with the present synthetic activity of a self. Any reconstruction of the past is dependent on the necessary assumption of a persistence of process or continuity of movement. The past, therefore, now lacks real being, in that it exists only in the mind as a reconstruction of former real actually happened events in continuity with the present.
If the past exists in the mind only as a recocstruction of former events, what exactly is future, if it is not the mere opposite of past? Leighton defines future as “the present forward-reaching”, which depends on the present in the same way as the present depends on the past. (564). “It is the incipient tension of developing, and as yet unsatisfied, interests, desires, [and] meanings” (564). He uses the analogy of a classically trained musician sight-reading a piece of music. The musician knows the melody (a continuity of notes) by his remembering the past notes, measures, and phrases, now hearing the present note, and, by means of anticpation, the note that is to follow. As he continues to play the pieice of music, his ability to accuratly anticipate future notes increases, he may even reach a point at which he can accuratly anticipate whole measures or even phrases of music, yet this skill remains anticipation and not knowledge, for that which he anticipates he has not yet encountered. Therefore the future is an anticipation of what is to be, founded in the present duration, in continuity with the past.

In summation, suffice it to say that as we develop a metaphysics, we must tackle time in such a way that we do not simply end in saying that it does not exist at all. For example, science and physics often end in either trying to make ‘time’ a real being or denying that it can exist all together. Rather we must seek a median approach similar to that of St. Thomas Aquinas as echoed by Fr. W. Norris Clarke, S.J., seeking to give it the clarity that Professor Joseph A. Leighton gives it. Time becomes a problem for metaphysics, science, and physics only when we try to force it to fit into a nature which is not its own. So long as we allow time to be “a synthesis of real and mental being, founded in reality, existing formally in the mind” time can be a meeting ground for First Philosophy and the Natural Sciences (Clarke 162).

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