It’s about Time.

Field of Stars The Hubble Space Telescope captured a crowd of stars that looks rather like a stadium darkened before a show, lit only by the flashbulbs of the audience’s cameras. Yet the many stars of this object, known as Messier 107, are not a fleeting phenomenon, at least by human reckoning of time – these ancient stars have gleamed for many billions of years. Image Source:

Well, isn’t it? Time is one of those concepts that I can’t get my head wrapped around. It appears that even in physics, time is one of those peculiar entities that we all take for granted, but as a concept it is almost intrinsically non-intuitive. To get an idea of how weird time really is, listening to a discussion on this very topic by some of the world’s smartest people is both fascinating and unsettling. Let us analyse the facts at hand and try to see if we can get any insight into what we really mean by time. Now, let’s start with something simple that we tend to use to represent time. A clock. A clock is any device that is able to keep track of moments that have passed in a systematic way. Well, at least that’s my definition of what a clock is. And I sincerely hope that you, my dear reader, will accept this definition.

So from my definition, we can come up with a thought experiment that will shed some light on the matter. Let’s assume that we never invented clocks. In this fantasy world, we can’t really measure time. All we really see are changes. A person living in this world is never late for anything, nor are they early. All they see is a world that is changing. They recognise certain cycles such as the sunrise and sunset. They notice seasons and the slow changing constellations. We may be tempted to imagine that a person living in such a world will use these changes as measures of time. As long as there is a consistent and repeatable change, then that can be used as a clock. But if we assume that those changes are simply recognized as changes and not used to keep track of the months, years, seasons etc, then something interesting happens. Life becomes single continuous moment.

If we all were to stop measuring and noting down all the moments that pass, then we might be able to break the illusion of time that we are spellbound by. I mean, think about it. We can take any moment, and break it down to seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, centuries and millennia. In the world of science we measure things down to milliseconds (a thousandth of a second) or microsecond (a millionth of a second) and so on. We can also measure immensely large time scales, millions, billions and even trillions of years. The problem with all these measurements, or rather the implicit assumption, is that these represent what is actually real. But of course, a second doesn’t actually exist. I mean, a second is an SI unit defined as (found here):

“the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom”

This definition is used because it is a very accurate and consistent way of defining the unit. In the past it has been defined to be “1/86,400 of a mean solar day”. So we know that these measurements are arbitrary. In fact, any measurement is arbitrary. It is an abstraction of the way we perceive reality. Now, I am not saying it is not a useful abstraction, but it does not mean it is actually part of what is. So where are we now? Well, it’s in the sentence. It is always now. This concept is very well described in a lecture given by Sam Harris, and he is exactly right. The past does not exist; it is only a thought that appears in your mind. The future is an anticipation, also a thought that appears in your mind. The measurement of time is only arbitrary, and not absolute. It is an abstraction and only exists in our minds.

This understanding is very important to dwell upon. It is important because your view of what time is and how it relates to your life will shape the way you view the world. If life is only a continuous single moment, and time is something that we create for its usefulness, then we need to make sure that we recognize it for what it really is, and let it go when we are not using it. There is no use that you my lovely reader is obsessed about the past or the future, as they don’t exist. There is no use in worrying about growing old or staying young, because these things are simply changes in the world. You are a brief change in the world. You change with relation to other objects in the universe and get scared when the changes happen. But that fear is of course unfounded, because change is what you are in the first place. I hope you are not taking these words as my way of colouring reality, but rather as conclusions that come from what we understand (and more importantly, what you understand) about the world.

The understanding that time is not a concrete concept based on reality can be inferred from Einstein’s general relativity. Now, as a disclaimer, I have to say that I am not a physicist and don’t pretend to understand the theory fully. But certain facts have been confirmed and fairly easily understood for those who care to think about them. According to general relativity, the apparent measurement of time changes depending on the frame of reference of the observer. This idea can get pretty involved, but the gist is that when the frame of reference of one observer is different than another, time appears different for both observers and both times are valid. If I was looking at my watch while sitting in a car driving at 30mph, my clock would go slightly slower than an observer who is standing on the side of the road. In fact, if I were going close to the speed of light, my clock will have almost stopped completely, while the other observers clock will go super fast (relative to each other). In fact, he will age much faster than me. This effect is not just noticeable at such large speeds, but even at relatively normal speeds. GPS satellites move fast enough that this effect is substantial, and needs to be taken into account when we use their data here on earth.

The point I am trying to make with the whole spiel about relativity, is that time is not a straightforward concept. And the key word to emphasize here is that it is a concept. In the same way that electrons and photons (light particles) are concepts. They are more like an analogy of the way reality is, than the way it actually is. Again, it does not mean that any of these concepts are unimportant or not accurate. They are very important and from what we have seen, extremely useful depictions of what reality is. But just like any analogy, they break down.

As you’re mulling over these thoughts, try to think about all the ways in which you thought the world was one way, and found out that you were wrong. Like when you were young and found out how children are born. Or what sex is, or how Santa Claus is not real. All the things you were told were not really true. They were useful and formed a coherent story about the world. They were illusions that were cast upon you until you came to realise that they were not real. The same understanding and illusion breaking can be carried out further. Some people choose to stop at religion and others at science. It is of course up to you my patient reader, where you feel like stopping. It is not always pleasant to find out that Santa Claus is not real, but if you choose to break the spell, then other vistas of beauty can unfold. You can ask questions that you simply did not consider or took for granted previously. If time is not real and life is a moment then what does this mean to you? I can’t really answer that for you, but at least to me, it means that I can look at the world in a way that makes it all the more fun and interesting. If time is not real then I don’t need to stress about what has happened or will happen. I can just be, and so can you.


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