Monday, January 4, 2010

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.