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Time: a brief introduction

Time seems to control every aspect of our existence - but what exactly is it and why has it become so important?




If someone asked you “what’s the time” you’d probably look at your watch (if you still wear one) or take a phone out of your pocket if you don’t. And that would be it. You’d know the time. 

Perhaps, if asked to think a little more about time, you might say that you never have enough. You could talk about how your diary is sliced and diced up into half hour chunks and say that you need to be a better time manager or use your day more productively. You may add that you are “cash rich and time poor” and perhaps even hark back to your younger days when the reverse was true and you had “all the time in the world.” You might start to think about the extent to which time dominates and rules our lives and wonder why this is.

But go any deeper and you quickly start to get into brain-straining physics and philosophy. In his book From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, the Caltech theoretical physicist Sean M Carroll poses questions like “Why can’t you unscramble an egg?” and “Why can’t you remember the future?” Such head-scratchers stem from the “Arrow of Time Problem”, first posed by the British astronomer Arthur Eddington in 1927, which looks at the asymmetry of time and why events don’t make sense backwards. All of that is before we even get into the subject of relativity, which means that the rate at which you experience the passage of time depends on how fast you are moving.

Why can’t you unscramble an egg? Why can’t you remember the future?

The illusion of time

To make things even more complicated, many modern thinkers are unsure whether time exists at all. They believe it may just be an illusion. The Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli believes that the entire universe is just an enormous system of events onto which we project our unsophisticated, childlike notions of past, present and future.  Rovelli has said, “Time travel is just what we do every day.”

Then there are the different ontological approaches. Do we go for eternalism (the past, present and future all exist) or presenteeism (only the present exists) or the Growing Block View which states that both the present and the past exist but the future does not – rather it is constantly being made. But how is that possible when we do not know that now is now?

It is all very confusing. Perhaps, then, we should concentrate less on what time is and more on our relationship with it. Over the last few centuries, our relationship with time has changed dramatically, most noticeably when it comes to short and medium time. Hundreds of years ago, our lives were ruled by the seasons in the medium term and by day and night in the short term. That changed because of industrialised society and technology.

Perhaps we should concentrate less on what time is and more on our relationship with it.

The times they are a-changing

Now, for the majority of the world, the seasons (medium time) still affect our lives in some ways (for example in how we dress) but far less than they once did. Our relationship with short time, however, has changed more significantly. Daylight is no longer much of a constraint and the clock rules our every waking moment. What’s more, ubiquitous smartphones-phones now mean we’re all on exactly the same time, rather than the slight variability that individual watches and clocks allowed.

The way we spend our time has changed too. Today, people see busyness as a status symbol and fill their “spare” time with productive activities. The idea of “killing time” seems like a relic from a long ago past – like the late 1990s. The life-hacking industry encourages us to press ever more time into productive use, by telling us we should ape successful CEOs and get up at 4am and start adding value before we eat breakfast.

Small wonder that Bodil Jönsson, a professor at Lund University in Sweden and the author of Ten Thoughts About Time says we are becoming more time stressed. “When I was a child, people did not experience a lack of time in the way we do today. They were focused on their lives and earning their living….they did not suffer from abstract feelings of time stress.”

A lifetime of questions

But all this may be about change. Many of our problems with time come from not having enough. But what if we had far more? What if our lifespans were not tens of years but hundreds? Or even forever. Might we be able to recalibrate our relationship with time? Might we even the time to finally answer questions like “Does the present really exist?”

Perhaps. But all this lies some time in the future. Until then we might heed the words of the philosopher Augustine of Hippo. Writing a very long, long time ago (around  400AD) he asked, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

Vision Magazine
This article was originally published in Julius Baer’s Vision Magazine.
> Contact us to request a copy.