Column on A Brief on Time

A Brief on Time

Tibor R. Machan

I consider much of common sense to be correct about the world, not always muddled or, let alone, wrong. This is a position associated with the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reed and, also, with Aristotle. So I wish to briefly defend the view that time is real.

By “time” I mean, among other aspects of the world, what we record for departure and arrival of planes and trains, what we learn from our clocks and watches, etc., etc, what we aim to save as we go about doing our various tasks, what we complain that we have so little of while others have too much of it on hand. Time is measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries and millennia. And the motion of things in the world, including even the speed of light, is, in turn, measured in periods or spans of time.

Some, however, would have it that time is not real but it is unclear to me what this could mean. Others are “looking into the notion that time might flow backward, allowing the future to influence the past….” But that concept “might” is very slippery—it could mean nothing more than that there is no explicit formal, logical contradiction in thinking that time flows backward, which is very far from its being possible. Nor is it clear what “flow” means here, since what is supposed to be flowing isn’t at all like the water in a river, the paradigm flowing thing.

As to the idea that time is not real, this also poses puzzles and isn’t at all very clear. The claim being made is itself usually written down in a computer or on a piece of paper, either of which takes time or involves duration, starting at T1, proceeding to T2, and on to Tn. Then there is usually a deadline at the publication to which scientific or scholarly papers that advance these sorts of arguments are submitted, and that, too, involves very real time.

Time then appears ubiquitous in our lives, at least at the level at which one considers it in a discussion such as ours. The very length of writing or one’s entire life is measured in time. Then again the idea that “time might flow backward, allowing the future to influence the past,” to quote Discover magazine writer Zeeya Merali, seems to suppose that time is some kind of object or entity instead, as more naturally supposed, a kind of measurement of the duration of something.

Paradoxically, even in the act of denying the reality of time that same reality is clearly manifest—it takes a bit of time to deny that time exists, whatever time is exactly. It doesn’t seem to be unreal or fictional—that appears to be evident all over. Why some think time isn’t real has to do with how often theorists will fail to appreciate the different contexts within which their theories hold or apply. It’s possible that at the subatomic or astrophysical levels what time is ordinarily—on the earth human beings need to deal with—is not recognizable because the context is so different. But this doesn’t support the denial of the reality of time.

Take as an analogy the claim that the earth’s entire surface is curved, so “plane surfaces aren’t real”. And then consider the tables on which the games of pool and billiards are played which, to all rational appearances, are flat. Does the former claim contradict the latter? Not necessarily since the contexts are markedly different. Yes, the earth is mostly curved but, also, the pool table is normally flat. No contradiction here, only a change of context.

The same holds with denials of time: in certain spheres of inquiry or observation time is real but in some circumstances, say at the subatomic or, going in the opposite direction the cosmic level, perhaps time, in the sense in which it is familiar to us and very real indeed in our daily lives, is entirely absent. The view that because in some contexts time could be dispensed with it can be dispensed with entirely in all contexts seems to be false.

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