Time for some more writing

8 Jun

The other week I wrote about the troubling concept of Time.

There was a lot of stuff I didn’t put in to it (partly for length reasons, partly for relevance reasons and partly because I forgot) but I was going to leave it be, since, in the words of E from The Incredibles, ‘I never look back, darling, it distracts from the ‘now’’.

However, I was just casually browsing the interwebz, as one does (my browsing tends to focus on news websites of various provenance) when I came across this Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/06/time-reborn-lee-smolin-review

It’s a review of a book by the popular physicist Lee Smolin. The book is called ‘Time Reborn’ and in it, so it would seem, he argues against the accepted orthodoxy in the physics world that time is simply an invention of the human mind. Time is real, he claims. It has real consequences and real effects. The argument put forward in the book (and therefore, the review) is that physicists have become bewitched by mathematical timelessness. In a mathematical model, there is no reason for time to exist (it only distorts results, after all). 2 + 2 = 4 is a timeless truth. A square is always a square. These words are a bit clunky (what does ‘always’ mean when there is no time?) but you get the idea, I hope. Time isn’t relevant in a world of numbers, curves and models.

But this model world is not the real world. Physics is the study of what is real. Brief etymology lesson here: mathematics comes from the Greek ‘mathemata’ (μαθηματα), or ‘things which are knowable’. Physics comes from the Greek ‘physis/phusis’ (φυσις) or ‘things which are naturally’. It’s easy to apply the mathematical models that are increasingly being found for ‘natural’ phenomena and to forget that these natural phenomena do not exist in a vacuum. To quote from the article: ‘in reality, in the domain of things that do exist, time is inescapable’. Mathematical rules carry ‘the trace of the metaphysical fantasy of transcendence from our earthly world’. We’re so busy thinking about numbers we forget that we’ve grown old doing so.

In my last post I was talking about the concept of Time because as far as I could see, a ‘timeline’ was (/is?) a self-imposed restriction designed to allow for reminiscence in one direction and forward planning in the other. I hadn’t realised I’d gone all ‘mathematical’ about it. I was deriving most of my arguments from Plato, if I’m honest, with all his chat about Forms and timeless constants and stuff. There’s probably an extremely interesting point to be made there about the influence of Platonic philosophy on all further schools of Western learning, but that’s not really my field, so I’ll leave it to others.

Anyway. I concluded that Time is itself timeless, but our passage through it is what ages and ruins us. Sort of like walking through a barren desert which seems to stretch on and on forever, on all sides. Which is, I suppose, a sort of curious half-way house between this mathematical ‘timeless’ scenario and the physical ‘reality of time’ one. I don’t quite know how I managed that, but there you go.

This timeless/not timeless fandango is a bit of a headache. But here I’m going to wave my Herodotus at you again, because actually, this is a good example of how time interacts with theoretical space and proves how damn real it really is.

So. Herodotus. A Persian deserter has come to the Lydian king with information about the Persian palace and the immense wealth contained inside. The Lydian king is, natch, quite excited about the prospect of raiding this. He asks where the Persian palace is located and how long it will take him and his army to get there. The Persian deserter draws a map.

Using the map, the Persian explains that it will take X many days to get the army from point A (current location) to point B (treasure).

This is a massive deal. A map, remember, is a timeless constant, because it shows a fixed space. But a map which you can use to indicate a potential passage of time – whoah, man. Hold the skutale[1]. That is one crazy idea. You can work out a timeframe from a picture? What kind of oracular fumes have you been inhaling, dude? Etc. Time isn’t just a thing, here. Time is a reality as demonstrated by a physical (that word again) model. This is basically the exact antithesis of all those pesky mathematical models later put forward by Newton et al, which take time back out of the equation and make space exist on its own.

Anyway, I think I’m creeping towards the conclusion that space can’t exist on its own for us to have any real understanding of it. Time makes sense of things, on a theoretical as well as a physical level. So while I’m still a big fan of the idea that Time is an entity that exists to move through us, rather than the other way around, I’m also pretty convinced that we wouldn’t get far without it.

[1] Spartan cipher stick. You’re welcome.


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