Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Philosophy, Time & Poetry

Greek primordial deity Χρόνος (Chronos) strikes the hours on this pocket watch.

Time is a tricky thing to grasp. Intellectually, I mean. It seems to be easily measured in objective terms, but hard to nail down philosophically. (Do keep in mind that I am ignorant of quantum physics, which questions whether time exists at all). Because the present is, as St Augustine, described, following Greek philosophers of nearly a thousand years earlier, on the knife-edge between the past and present. He wrote "in te, anime meus, tempora metior" (in you, my mind, I measure time). He meant that the present was something that could not be grasped, and that his mind measured his impression of any moment: "I do not measure the things themselves whose passage occasioned the impression; it is the impression that I measure when I measure times. This therefore is either what times are, or I do not measure them" (as quoted in Augustine and the limits of virtue by James Wetzel, Cambridge Univ Press).

There are objective means of measuring time, of course, such as the movement of planets, or today, the movement of electrons. But this knowledge does not change that our perception affects our experience of time.

My father-in-law has written about the nature of exponential versus linear change, and uses our perception of time as an example:

Consider a very simple example – our perception of time. “A second is a second is a second”, we say. So time must be “linear”, that is, it is not accelerating. A second when we are 65 is the same as a second when we are 5. There is no acceleration there.

If that is true, then why do we feel that time is moving faster as we get older? “I can’t believe another year has gone by”, we say, as we get older. Have you ever heard a child say that? Most of us pass that off as “one of those funny things in life”.

When I am 5, one year is one year, but it is 20% of my life. When I am 50, one year is still one year, but now it is only 2% of my life. So, for me, at age 50, time has sped up. Time itself may not have sped up, but, time, for me, is accelerating.


That interests me because it accepts the objective nature of time but shows how it is inherent to our nature (as beings who live in time) to perceive the passage of time differently over the course of our lives. This shows itself in many ways, such as the clarity of my memory of certain events, or the existence of dozens of musical albums from adolesence but few since then.

What benefit is there to realizing the passage of time is "felt" differently over the course of our lives? I suppose that as we age, we get the slightest glimpse of what it is to have eternity as our experience. To have plans come to fruition over centuries rather than years, or quarters as the financial markets demand.

The Bible recognizes that God's eternal nature gives him a different view of time than his limited creatures, so Psalm 90:
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.

What do you think, dear reader? How has your experience of time changed over the years? Had you in mind what your life would be in 2010? What poet captures the subjective experience of time best? Do tell.

Philosophy, Time & Poetry

Time is a tricky thing to grasp.

Intellectually, I mean. It is easily measured in objective terms, but hard to nail down philosophically. A simple example is how tricky it is to define the present, because time, as the hymn says, "like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away". That is, it moves forward so that there is, in a sense, never any "now" that can be pinpointed.

Experientially, time is trickier still.

A philosophy professor of mine noted how time "slows down" when an athlete is in the zone. That's an experience most athletes have experienced, how the intensity of the sport (particularly competition) puts a focus on that time. I think I remember the six minutes of rowing races more than the sixty hours of practice that preceded those.

People remember their wedding day, the birth of a child, intense experiences of joy as well as grief (particularly violence) in a special way. So while we know time is linear, we don't quite experience that way. Wasn't it Poe who called sleep "little slices of death"?

Another poet, the subject of recent postings, has some great insights to offer. Again, here is Richard Wilbur, this time in the recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, a subscription of which my most excellent sister gave as a welcome to Manhattan gift:


by Richard Wilbur (New Yorker, January 5, 2009)

Out of the snowdrift

Which covered it, this pillared

Sundial starts to lift,

Able now at last

To let its frozen hours

Melt into the past

In bright, ticking drops.

Time so often hastens by,

Time so often stops—

Still, it strains belief

How an instant can dilate,

Or long years be brief.

Dreams, which interweave

All our times and tenses, are

What we can believe:

Dark they are, yet plain,

Coming to us now as if

Through a cobwebbed pane

Where, before our eyes,

All the living and the dead

Meet without surprise.

What has your experience been -- has an instant ever dilated for you? Or long years been brief?

Maybe we'll look again at this poem from another angle. But what he says about time has a lot of truth. On the theme of heaven and infinite time (or eternity beyond linear time), I have always been amazed to ponder the last verse of Amazing Grace: "When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise, then when we first begun."