Perpetuating Reality: Time is not real

Two students in my Rhet. & Comp. class claimed on Friday that time does not exist. I’m writing this now, describing a memory as an idea, and if you’re reading this now, you’re constructing these words and sentences into your own abstract ideas.

One of my students said she’d like to discuss time’s reality for her assignment to craft a philosophical argument. So we start by defining time as that which flows along, carrying all existing things in its current (the current moment). Clocks don’t measure this time, because clocks just measure events — electric clocks measure AC cycles or quartz crystal movements; atomic clocks measure the behavior of certain atoms — and clocks do not measure time itself.

We talked about how objects degrade over time — metal left outside rusts, wood breaks down. But this “wearing down” of physical objects isn’t caused by time but by the action of other physical things on this objects — chemical reactions cause rusting, mechanical erosion causes scratches, etc.

Physical objects can only be affected by materials and energy — time, being neither of these, does not exist physically.

So perhaps time exists only in our ideas, our minds, our conscious understanding. We can look at an old building and see the rust on the door hinge and the softening brick and think that this house is old. But then, we can think anything.

But objects exist in a perpetual now — there is no past, no future, for an object. (And even this description threatens to fall into thinking of objects as having their own form of consciousness — it’s hard not to think this way.) A homeowner might look at a rusting hinge and think that it should be replaced, because the hinge no longer lives up to the homeowner’s expectation of what should be. But someone, like an artist or scientist, who just wants to see what is might just see the object in the present moment without regard to what it was or could be.

As an artist myself, I can enjoy looking at dilapidated barns, for example, and appreciate their falling-down-ness, whereas if I owned those barns, I’d see trouble and expense and a physical world that wasn’t matching my expectations. (I can recognize that feeling, though, when I have a certain class session that isn’t happening the way I’d like it to be happening.)

It’s such a part of my consciousness, of my way of understanding reality, to think of time as being an ongoing thread (or flowing river) connecting all my experiences throughout my life. I suspect that this is one of the features of the cultural software that was constructed as a framework for thinking as I grew up.

I developed the late 1970s/early 1980s version of this software, in which certain things — TV, microwaves, nuclear arms race — already existed, and in which certain values — divorce is normal, women have careers, and it’s OK for boys to cry — were normal. I suspect that the 1930s-era software my grandparents grew up with (during which time the metaphor would not have been “software,” of course — but player piano rolls? timing gears?) had different technology and different values and so they no doubt have trouble understanding things like the satellite television remote and the value of racial and ethnic diversity. No doubt I myself will find it difficult to understand change as my system-software ages. But this is also why it’s pointless for old people to say “In MY day, we didn’t do that” — as long as one is still alive, one might as well adapt.

So, yeah — there may be no time at all. It’s so easy for me to think of the past as these experiences I remember, and the future as things I will do, that it’s easy to overlook that the only time I’m really alive is right now (see also here). I’ve got 20 years of journals — but “years of” anything is an empty idea. What I should say is that I have notebooks and print-outs (and computer files, even) that are marked with dates from 20 years ago, but these notebooks, etc., still exist now, and when I read them, I’m reading them now. I’ve long tried to figure out how to understand the writer of these past writings, which writer’s handwriting looked like mine, and some of what the writer said sounded like something I’d say, but which I don’t remember saying it. Was it Younger-Me? But Younger-Me is not Now-Me, so then, is it a different person? Well, maybe it might as well be. My old writings are just ink on paper that exists in that form today. My memory of having written a certain page (or my not-having such a memory) doesn’t really matter. Without memory, there is no past, anyway.

And probably there is no “reality,” either, other than whatever “reality”-image we construct in our minds, our mental models of the world. Even terms like “reality” and “the world” are abstractions, and what really seems to exist — matter and energy, physical things — exist without the names of “matter” and “energy” or “atoms” or any science label. We can think about the physical world — that’s what science is, thoughts about the physical world — but we don’t really know what’s there. We perpetuate reality only by perpetuating the idea of reality.

And if there’s no time-river, and no time-thread, then there’s no place for events or experiences to be saved, and so there’s no such thing as “truth” that any statement or story could correspond to. So in a criminal court, the verdict of any trial is the constructed story that the jury finds most realistic.

And if there’s no time-river, no time-thread, then there’s no time in which one could jump (it’s so easy to think of time-as-distance this way), and so there can be no time travel. Time might be how we explain change, or we extrapolate from perceiving change (which perception requires memory), but time itself doesn’t need to exist. (Though, of course, some abstract explanations for how matter-and-energy work invoke the idea of time, such as space-time).

It’s so hard for a conscious, abstracting mind to escape abstraction. Abstracting is its habit, its process; abstracting is what the mind does. It’s exhausting, sometimes. Yet, I live in a world of abstractions — following rules and curricula, teaching theories and ideas — those are what keep the physical roof over my head and the physical food coming to my body. But no ideas are real in the same way that anything I can touch is real.  That may be why I so desperately enjoy, at certain moments, letting go of thinking and lying down flat on my back and just not-abstracting (which can’t be directed by thinking but can seem to be allowed to happen) — some people might call this mediation, but I often just fall asleep. This not-thinking allows me to just be now and not think about anything else.

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