Category Archives: Philosophy

Saying things can influence other people

It’s B.S. to declare things, like, for example, those people who declare they’re not gonna eat meat any more, or they’re gonna bike to work every day. But the attraction to doing this — I’ve felt it — is in having something bold to say. To make such a declaration is an act of artifice, of course; you don’t need to declare something like this — you can just do it. But I’m also thinking of all those writers who do stunts — The Year of Living Biblically guy, the Paper Lion project.

And this brings me back to the point about everyday living. Why not describe the normal world around you? Let’s find the words, the forms, that will convey this — the beauty of a calm world, the non-magical thereness, which is itself kinda magical, of every real thing in your there-place: the wood of the table I’m writing on, each scratch and worn spot and stain (there’s now a strawberry-colored circle-stain, apparently from where I set a tea cup on a pink Post-It note).

I put on my Byronfest “SECURITY” t-shirt and I thought of the lady at my Pensacola hotel pool who shouted “security” as a joke, but in her accent it sounded like “seh-KYER-tee,” and I thought that it’s not just that she said it that’s funny — it’s that it was really happening around me — and readers won’t have that sense if I, as I did in my 3rd hour creative writing class last Wednesday, merely repeat what I heard. I need to convey to readers something else, maybe that I was there in that real palace on an average day, and suddenly this weird event breaks thru my expectations, breaks thru my consciousness, draws my attention, disrupts my calm mind filled with expectations. And the world is so often interrupting/disrupting.

And now in these two paragraphs above, I’ve created a spectrum, a pair of opposites, a paradox, or something. I’ve talked about wanting to convey the (how to name it: the calm magic? the blunt thereness?) of the things around me, and I’ve also talked about the disruptions of these expectations. But these aren’t actually opposites at all but versions of the same thing — things that are real, are really happening, near me. That’s a terribly dull, vague way to say this exciting thing (this type of writing that excites me, anyway). I’m trying to convey to readers who aren’t present what’s so amazing about here and now — maybe what’s really amazing is my mindset when I’m looking and writing [see here and here for examples], and that mindset would not be shared by the person reading my words. That reader would be in an abstraction (words, ideas) mindset while reading, not looking around himself/herself.

All I can do thru ideas is point out that one could be looking around. Write a text where you say “stop reading this text! Take five minutes — a full five — to look around you! Then come back later” — a text that points away from the text. It’s possible to do that, sure, but it’s dull as a text?

It’s easier to say anything than do it. Saying’s still valuable, of course, as it can influence others. I write to an audience of people like myself — like my younger self. But my younger self would eventually go on to learn these things anyway (as I have done just today). Well, if I give a leg up, then that next young person could surpass my learning, and that’s kinda the goal, I guess. Each teacher, each creative artist, would, if being honest, like his/her followers (audience) to surpass his/her accomplishments? Else it’s just an ego wish to be loved.

I thought this morning, while doing my daily back-stretches, that it doesn’t matter exactly how many reps I do. It’s not like if I count to 15, then suddenly my body is triggered to, say, do some reset of all bones and muscles to perfect alignment, like resetting a computer to get back to a clean slate.

Words — no physical thing in the world responds to words. There’s no “open sesame” or “abracadabra” (though I guess there’s starting to be — you can talk to your Siri, your Echo, and it’ll do some things for you) by which things react. Words only work on other consciousnesses — people, dogs, and computers, which, OK, are not exactly conscious, but they approximate consciousness when they respond to voice commands or to keystrokes, for that matter. Printers do things in physical world when we press keys — so do computerized cutters, robots — maybe that’s not conscious awareness but it’s a form of consciousness?

Of course, conscious beings don’t need to be told what to do, either. Responding to verbal commands is only one of our handy features.

Why I normally tell stories is because the story relates something unexpected happening. So why would I tell something that’s not surprising? WEll, maybe to establish a baseline? or to be calm, convey calm? I’m not sure.

Be skeptical of stories

This is an uncertain time, and it’s scary for that reason.

People may prefer the certainty of stories from the past over the scary uncertainty of the non-story of the present.

Traditional stories — satisfying stories — are always moral. When a bad guy wins, or when a random event happens to a main character, that’s not a traditional, satisfying story. My dad’s death wasn’t a good story at all — he died in a car accident though no fault of his own. There was no lesson for me to learn from this accident, except that sometimes in real life, people get killed and it’s not their fault. Bad things happen to good people. Real life isn’t a satisfying story.

Religious reasoning seems to fill the role of explaining the inexplicable for some people. I’m thinking here of those religious leaders who say natural disasters are caused by God’s displeasure with human behavior. That’s a cop-out, of course. Why do random and bad things, and randomly bad things, happen? Well, God’s either not all-good, or not all-powerful (which would include not existing).

These times feel uncertain. Of course, every time, every present moment, is uncertain. There’s certainty only in looking back at stories of the past. But stories can be told only about the past! We tell stories mainly to teach each other for the benefit of the future.

But stories don’t serve us well in a time where we can’t really figure out what’s going on, and where the old stories, the old expectations, don’t seem to apply. What I learned from watching the first episodes of the Vietnam War last week was that stories — the stories the U.S. war leaders told themselves — can be bullshit.

I used to think that “be skeptical of stories” was a content-belief, but last night I thought that being skeptical isn’t a content statement but a process statement.

We may not need stories. We use them to guide (in some sense) our actions, our behaviors — don’t do what bad guys do.

Being skeptical of stories is a valid process, a valid orientation to the world, a useful way to live, it seems. If you hold on too tight to any belief, you’ll be let down, led astray.

Dogs take the world as they find it: The week in pocket pages

Even when national politics seem troubling, I’m gonna keep enjoying writing my journals, driving my morning commute (it’s pretty, and it’s a chance to think), and walking my dog. 14 Nov. 2016

Ginko tree, 4 Nov. 2016

Ginko tree, 4 Nov. 2016

This morning I saw a pile of ginko leaves along a rural roadside. It seems funny that someone would go through all the trouble of moving leaves from his or her yard to this random spot. Why not just cut down the tree?

“I like doing stuff when people are talking,” said a teacher colleague in a meeting where the rest of us were discussing curriculum choices. The stuff she was doing was stickering plastic bags with “Education Week” stickers.

Sun and rainbow spot to its right. 15 Nov.

Sun and rainbow spot to its right. 15 Nov.

Passion is everything, I read today in an article in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune that was left in the in-school suspension room.

I don’t need the world to match my expectations of/for it in order for me to be content. (How fragile an orientation that would be.)

Teaching: In explaining to others, I also get to hear it myself. I’m thinking here of talking philosophy in class recently. We were talking about the idea that what we can name is real, leading me to think that we can define our own realities. If we don’t have a name for something, if we haven’t distinguished it, we probably won’t recognize it as a distinct thing, like how radioactive minerals weren’t recognized before scientists discovered radioactivity, though of course the radioactive minerals were always there. 15 Nov. 2016.

Even to define real is to make it abstract, not present — not real. Real is not here, and here is a word that means consciousness at present.

We can think only ideas. So anything you can think isn’t real. Ideas aren’t necessary. But of course, we can teach through ideas, through talking, and we can also amuse each other through ideas.

Looking at news sites tells me what’s going on elsewhere.

On the calculus teacher's desk. 14 Nov.

On the calculus teacher’s desk. 14 Nov.

I take notes on my reality — my particulars (things I hear, things I see, etc.)

Options as I try to take in less media: get the news from poetry (as William Carlos Williams suggested)? Eh, I may not need news at all.

Gutter leaves. 19 Nov.

Gutter leaves. 19 Nov.

I’m not interested in publishing some one-off essay, the kind of essay that gets edited into “Best American Essays” books. I prefer a more holistic approach. I don’t want applause, I don’t just want to be a performer. My unit of communication is not the formal essay. 16 Nov.

The Story of Now that I constructed from news I heard and read. This isn’t one story but a subdivided set of stories about what’s going on in the world–in the environment, the economy, arts, education, all the many topics. And I may not need to know most or any of this. Maybe I’m feeling disappointed that my Story of Now seems to have so little overlap with some people’s stories of now. Not saying I despair, but I wonder if there’s better use for my time than taking in news. 17 Nov.

I’m not just a role-player writer, a topic-writer. I write from and in my life, my living. I try to keep an open-mind, not holding onto a particular idea as an answer. If I’m alive, I keep thinking, writing — I’m not done! It’s ongoing! And the most-important topic/idea remains (even if it’s in the background), how do I live — how to be alive, how to accept the challenge and opportunity of being conscious!

Leaves outside the gutter on a windy morning. 19 Nov.

Leaves at the curb outside the diner on a windy morning. 19 Nov.

The society/culture may already value performances (of music, acting, etc., but also I’m thinking of poems, novels, and other texts written for others as performances). But I see also an opening for honest non-performances — such as those journals and notes written mainly for oneself. Every experience doesn’t need to be (because it can be) made into a lesson. Not every experience needs to be abstracted into a lesson — sometimes a particular can stay a particular. 18 Nov.

Dogs take the world as they find it. When we go to a local forest preserve prairie, my dog doesn’t ask if it’s true wilderness — he just starts sniffing what’s there to sniff. It’s a reminder to me to attend to what is with me, around me. 19 Nov.

Planter bowl group-portrait. 19 Nov.

Planter bowl group-portrait at the diner. 19 Nov.

Link: ‘The Mind: Less Puzzling in Chinese?’

In an essay at The New York Review of Books, writer Perry Link questions whether Western languages’ emphasis on using nouns over using verbs perhaps contributes to, or even creates, philosophical problems.

Link begins by explaining that:

Indo-European languages tend to prefer nouns, even when talking about things for which verbs might seem more appropriate. The English noun inflation, for example, refers to complex processes that were not a “thing” until language made them so. Things like inflation can even become animate, as when we say “we need to combat inflation” or “inflation is killing us at the check-out counter.” Modern cognitive linguists like George Lakoff at Berkeley call inflation an “ontological metaphor.” (The inflation example is Lakoff’s.)

When I studied Chinese, though, I began to notice a preference for verbs. Modern Chinese does use ontological metaphors, such as fāzhăn (literally “emit and unfold”) to mean “development” or xὶnxīn (“believe mind”) for “confidence.” But these are modern words that derive from Western languages (mostly via Japanese) and carry a Western flavor with them. “I firmly believe that…” is a natural phrase in Chinese; you can also say “I have a lot of confidence that…” but the use of a noun in such a phrase is a borrowing from the West.

Link points out that how we talk about things can shape our thinking. If we label something with a noun, that might lend some sort of existence to that something:

Ancient Chinese philosophers did discuss “being,” but to do it they used the words you, “there is,” and wu, “there is not,” both of which are fundamentally verbs. By contrast ancient Greek thinkers often conceived their puzzles in terms of nouns: What is “justice”? “Beauty”? “The good”? And so on.

I wanted to see whether “assuming that things exist just because nouns that refer to them exist” might cause problems for serious Western philosophers. I read Colin McGinn’s book The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World about the “mind-body problem”—which, briefly put, is the problem of how “mental substance” and “physical substance” can affect each other. Although a major problem in Western philosophy since Descartes, the question has scarcely been noticed in the history of Chinese philosophy. I much admire McGinn’s writing; I chose him purposefully as a powerful representative for the West.

At one point in his book, McGinn focuses on the curious fact that our perceptions of the world are often perceptions of things in space, and yet the perceptions themselves occupy no space. He writes:

Consider the visual experience of seeing a red sphere two feet away with a six-inch diameter. The object of this experience is of course a spatial object with spatial properties, but the experience itself does not have these properties: it is not two feet away from you and six inches in diameter. …When we reflect on the experience itself, we can see that it lacks spatial properties altogether.

For me, the crucial phrase here is “the experience itself.” Is there such a thing? The noun “experience” exists, but that is not the question. Does the experience exist? We might feel intuitively that it does. But does that intuition arise, in part, from the grammatical habit of using nouns like “experience” and assuming that they refer to things? Classical Chinese poets see, hear, and feel in all sorts of ways—they have no trouble “experiencing.” But they find no need to talk about “experience” as a noun. The modern Chinese word jīngyàn, “experience,” was invented to accommodate Western language.

Link also points out something that I’m often arguing to my students, that numbers and ideas — “mental things” — don’t need to exist:

McGinn goes on to point out that numbers, like the experience of red spots, do not occupy space. “We cannot sensibly ask how much space the number 2 takes up relative to the number 37,” he writes. “It is hardly true that the bigger the number the more space it occupies.” Then he writes:

To attribute spatial properties to numbers is an instance of what philosophers call a category-mistake, trying to talk about something as if it belonged to a category it does not belong to. Only concrete things have spatial properties, not abstract things like numbers or mental things like experiences of red.

In my imagination an ancient Chinese philosopher might well accept McGinn’s point, but then ask him: why do you talk about “mental things”? Is that not also a category-mistake? If I see a red spot, do I not simply see a red spot? The red spot, yes, is a thing, but “I see” is not a thing. I see is I see. If you change it into “my sight” or “my experience of seeing,” you are performing a grammatical act, but that grammatical act has no power to change the way the world is. Your perplexity about how two “things” relate comes only from your grammar.

Link concludes thus, focusing on language contexts of philosophical problems:

Once one enters an Indo-European language, the mind-body problem indeed is hard, and I had not been trying to solve it on that turf. At most, I have discovered only a question: are people who think in Indo-European languages better off because their languages lead them to clear conceptualization of an important puzzle, or are thinkers in Chinese better off because their language gets them through life equally well without the puzzle?

After reading this, I wonder whether Link’s point applies not just to philosophy but also to Buddhist ideas about seeing what things are real.

Ideas aren’t real: A classroom discussion


The paint doesn't know why it's peeling, nor does it seem to care.

The paint doesn’t know why it’s peeling, nor does it seem to care.

My students are trying to figure out what’s real.

I challenged my class of high school writers, as part of our study of argument, to define the word “real.” After a couple days of discussion, we came up with a tentative definition: something is real if it can be seen or touched or proved to be present.

So, physical material is real. If it’s something I wouldn’t want to hit against my head, it’s real. But ideas, which can’t been seen, are not real.

Someone said that the desk she was sitting at seemed real. I said, the materials are real, but the idea of that object being a “desk” is just an idea. My dog, which can’t understand language as we do, still goes around objects rather than through them, but he doesn’t know what an object is named or how it can be used.

One student asked, if I have an idea to make a desk, and then I make a desk, how did that thought become real? Two things, I said: 1. How ideas in the mind cross over to the body, nobody can yet explain, but 2., what she built was still not a “desk” — it’s a new arrangement of physical things.

Another student asked whether atoms were real. We defined atoms as particles that make up all objects. They are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. We discussed the parts of this definition, including that the size of an atom is to an orange as an orange is to planet Earth. (An idea contained in this video. See also this post.) But such an explanation requires us to use our imaginations, which is a turn away from the physical world itself. We also discussed what a proton is, and how it’s got “positive charge,” and how this charge is a “fundamental property,” which is another way of saying, scientists can’t yet explain how or where this charge arises. 

And so, atoms are not real things that can be seen or touched. Atoms, rather, are explanatory ideas, and ideas are not real. Atoms are part of a scientific story, an interpretation, of how the world works. Physical matter itself doesn’t need to understand itself. Things don’t think. Only people think, and what we think are ideas, and ideas are not physical things.

Now, it can be useful to have science ideas about the world. If we want to alter the physical world — say, to build a house from wood or undergo surgery to fix a disease — it’d be nice to have the most useful ideas possible about how the house-building or body-repairing should go. Where early doctors would prescribe bloodletting to cure a variety of illnesses, modern doctors don’t. We like modern medicine because its ideas seem more successful at getting cures.

But, of course, modern medicine isn’t perfect. Much remains to be explained, to be mentally modeled. I suggested that there could be fictional ideas (which we don’t care if they are realistic), like how Greek mythology says Zeus turned into a bull, and nonfictional ideas (which we’d like to be as realistic as possible), like scientific interpretations, that atoms have parts called protons, electrons, and neutrons. And the nonfiction ideas are never perfect, are never worthy of being called “The Truth,” because they must remain open to revision, as new ideas are learned. The story of science remains imperfect.


So, why do we care about science? Our ancestors got by without it. The fact that we’re here means our ancestors knew enough to survive in the world (get food, form shelter, make babies, raise ‘em). However, science ideas are now taught in school because it’s important for citizens now to know these so as to be able to “join society,” as one student said. And we’d like the people we trust to do physical things — like engineers and doctors — to agree amongst themselves as to the best ideas for doing things. I don’t want the person designing the bridges I drive on to choose a different idea for gravity than what’s commonly accepted (unless his ideas are shows, through argument and evidence, to be better, the way science is supposed to proceed). 

So even though what schools teach are just imperfect stories, mere ideas, and not reality itself [ I wonder what a school that didn’t teach ideas would look like], these imperfect ideas are what we have to tie each other together into a society. If each individual had his/her own ideas about what’s real, that might be chaotic, a student said.

So we take part in civil, communal society by sharing some ideas about the best ways to think about physical reality.  And yet, of course, we shouldn’t take these ideas too seriously. I think it’s useful to form an idea about ideas. I told students that the reason we’re talking about ideas and reality is that it can be useful for them to have a theory of knowledge, and to question how it is that ideas are accepted or revised. When one student said he’d question his other teachers about how things are known in those classes, I said he could, but to remember that when Socrates asked too many questions, he got killed. Sometimes, people who like to believe that their ideas are real don’t like to have their ideas questioned.

Some students said it got them upset to think about these things, to ask these questions, to think of reality this way. I said I wasn’t trying to upset them, but that I like to think that ideas aren’t real because then it lets me think of new ideas. I also said, maybe it’s helpful to think that ideas aren’t real — real physical things themselves don’t give us ideas for how to change the things. Only ideas can direct us to change the physical things — change comes from the unreal.

A student asked if students’ grades merely tell how well they learn the unreal stories.  Yeah, I said. And I said that that’s why I like having discussions, so I can provoke students to ask these questions. Another student asked at the end of class yesterday: so schools brainwash us? And I said, well, kinda, but I’m having this discussion to help you unbrainwash yourself — unless that’s just a different kind of brainwash!


Limits of storytelling: Notes from 17 to 27 August 2015

A housecat as a fascist or socialist realist hero.

A housecat as a fascist or socialist realist hero.

So many stories, fiction and non-, seem to take a moral stance, to teach a lesson, as if character or person gets what one deserves. But when my dad’s life story ends with his being killed as a passenger in a car accident, it doesn’t seem like there was anything he did to deserve that outcome. Perhaps what some stories teach is that the world is an arbitrary place. Perhaps what I learned from my dad’s story is that stories fail to explain real events. [17 August]

Why should I get the fun and satisfaction of writing and then hope/expect others to do the less-satisfying reading of what I’ve written? Maybe the reason one writes is just to write, and readers are missing out on that fun. And what if readers don’t want all the stories writers might want to tell them? [18 August]

Narratives could be conceived as a way of picking pieces out of experience in order to find a bigger pattern. But that pattern itself has little connection to physical reality, or perhaps there’s no connection. At its core, a narrative is a cause-effect relationship (an effect without a cause, like my Dad’s death by car accident, isn’t a satisfying story), but so many aspects of one’s life-experience aren’t cause-effect. [19 August]

In the first page or two of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the clause “[the] hill curves up.” But this is a metaphorical verb, because the hill isn’t doing anything. The only one doing anything is the human narrator whose mind is perceiving the a curve — which is a noun — but the mind interprets that visual as an action, “curving.” Perhaps many — or all? — verbs are metaphors, or are, at least, interpretations by the observer or storyteller. Even to say “See Dick run” is to gloss over the particular muscle contractions, body movements, and forward motions that are what running physically is. [19 August]

After school, as the cross-country squad at the school where I teach got on its bus to a meet, I heard the coach say to a student, “No, you can’t go with us ‘cuz you’re not on our team.” [19 August]

Reading parts of a Tomas Tranströmer poetry book (I think it was The Great Enigma), I’m almost a little angry that these poems are so vague and dull, going nowhere — maybe they sound cooler in Swedish and I can just blame the translator. But why would any poem need to be so ponderous? Why wait until there’s some intersect with Meaning to elevate some lived experience? Why not just write our concretenesses? At least Charles Olson’s “Maximus Volume 3” is weird. [20 Aug.]

To use (refer to, etc.) Hemingway as some ur-writer, as some model of The Writer, is to flatten down what he was into a role we in culture at large need to be filled. “Hemingway,” then, becomes a common shorthand (in that it may seem clever to use a particular name) for The Writer: the most-respected, well-known, etc., writer. I recently read someone say that something similar is happening to the reputation of David Foster Wallace, that who he was is losing nuance as his name starts to refer to him as an icon. [20 Aug.]

I don’t think the book I’m teaching to sophomores, Of Mice and Men, is racist and sexist — though of course, the racist and sexist words and descriptions the book uses to show certain characters’ racism and sexism are racist and sexist. But my question is, why make a book with such bad characters? Why would I want to spend time with these rude idiots? I suppose the book could be said to be depicting conditions of certain people in a particular setting, but how are readers to react to this? If a book is claiming that these particular characters represent people generally, that claim can’t be believed, and if a book is claiming that these particular characters are just reprehensible, then why would I bother? There’s no doubt ugliness and beauty that could be found anywhere, so why choose to prioritize the ugly? In other words, why would a read a book with a sad ending? I tend not to enjoy crying. [21 Aug.]

Of Mice and Men is like a snow globe: when we start reading, there’s a past already in place, then the author repeats it (Lennie grabbed a woman in Weed, then in the story he grabs Curley’s wife), like shaking a snow globe and letting the snow fall once again. It’s a closed world, with the setting of a ranch that seems closed off from the world once George and Lennie arrive. George reacts to what Lennie does, but never really tries to intervene to try to get Lennie some appropriate mental health treatment. So it seems that George and the other characters are content to let the set-up play itself out. And so it goes. Perhaps a fiction like this book recreates a scene so as to relive it, to study it, so as to make meaning? In real life, whenever I’ve had to make a tough decision, as George does at the end of Of Mice and Men, (though I’ll admit that I’ve decided to shoot a man in the back of the head), I don’t go back to dwell on that moment as being special. But I might tell a brief story about the decision afterward. [21 Aug.]

The value and fun of having one’s own ideas rather than reading someone else’s ideas! How strong and fresh seem the ideas we ourselves come up with! [21 Aug.]

I’m skeptical of any text assigned in a class. I feel a need to not-affirm, to question, any claim asserted by Of Mice and Men. Today I told my students that it’s a “weird book”: Curley’s keeping his hand soft for sexing up his wife, George praising whorehouses, Curley’s wife not even getting a name, Crooks being called the n-word, all these brusk, brute characters. I hope I’m teaching my students to be skeptical. It’s even valuable to be skeptical of my own ideas, as fun as it is to have new ideas. [21 Aug.]

Maybe it’s kinda weird that teachers direct students to read books that the students may not care about. I’ve told my students that we have to read the books in the curriculum, but that I hope my students question the claims that these assigned texts make. Maybe the skills students learn from analyzing literature can also be applied to analyzing any claims they hear in their lives. [24 Aug.]

I wouldn’t want Joan Didion’s career (not that anyone’s offering it to me). It’s lame to write about other people (and by “lame,” I don’t mean only “uncool,” but also “lame” in the sense of “not whole, not in working order”). All definitions of others, fiction or nonfiction, are, at least potentially, condescending — maybe in the basic idea of thinking that any person can be adequately represented by another person. Fiction writers can imagine and describe characters that are very unlike the writers themselves — but as a reader, I’m under no obligation to accept these characters as real or as representative of real people. Joan — well, all nonfiction writers who propose and try to defend theses, claims about the world, do something that may not need doing. Even scientists, who try to model the physical world in concepts, are doing something that seems too limited to me. Can’t there be a writing that’s not judged merely on the correspondence of its claims? Why does fiction, an endeavor defined as factually false, need to have realistic characters? Not all fiction is, of course, but why is “I don’t believe a real person would act like these characters” a legitimate criticism of fiction? Can there be fiction without characters acting like they have human consciousness? Or do we readers tend to equate willful agents with humans? A counter example would be the novel Wild Season, where animals are doing animal things rather than doing human things. [26 Aug. and 27 Aug.]

Why tell stories portraying other people (who aren’t like you) when you could tell your own stories with new forms? [27 Aug.]

There’s so much repetition in Of Mice and Men, as if Steinbeck were trying to teach something instead of just telling a story. Steinbeck is treating us as if we’re simple, or as if he’s giving us a speech and we’ll quickly forget what he’s said, with this repetition. Perhaps, like patterns in music, repetition (motifs, symbols, foreshadowing) in fiction is satisfying, but in this book, at least, it’s too simple to be deeply satisfying or intriguing. [27 Aug.]

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.