“What is Time?”


(Place & Date unknown)

That depends on what sort of time you mean. The meanings of words are always contextual, right? Compare the usage of “cool” in “The wind is cool” and in “That guy is cool.”

Now read these two sentences:

1. The time is 9 p.m.
2. Time is an illusion.

In the first sentence, the word “time” refers to the measurement of change on a machine (a clock). This meaning occurs only in context (it’s 9 p.m. in Texas but it’s 4 a.m. in Prague, for example). If we all use the same kind of measuring machine (clock) and coordinate them, we can agree what time it is. With atomic clocks we can measure time to a billionth of a second. This meaning of time is arbitrary but consensual; it’s a human construction.

But without the consensual-making machines, would there be something called time?

In the second sentence, the word “time” has a different usage because the context is different (and more complicated). Here, the meaning refers to time as a reality independent of human perception and thought. Does time exist or is it an illusion? We humans perceive the past (in memory), the present (in sensation), and future (in imagination), and we call that apparent linear movement “time.” But we know that the world exists beyond what we can perceive (a dog hears sounds we can’t; we know light waves exist that we can’t see; etc.). We also know that the world can be perceived in ways we don’t (a cow, for example, has an eye on each side of its head, so it sees the world differently than we do because both our eyes are on the front of our heads; similarly, a bat’s “picture” of the world is completely auditory, built from auditory echoes). So maybe what we humans perceive as “time” could be perceived completely differently, as well. Does a mosquito have imagination? can it conceive of the future, or the past? Does “time” exist for a mosquito at all?

Consider: Perhaps what we call the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously… but we humans can only experience a small part of it at any given moment (just as we can only experience a small part of space, or a narrow range of sound and light). Just as space might have many dimensions (but we can perceive only three of them), maybe time has many dimensions (but we can perceive only linear past-present-future). If these things are true, then time as we experience it isn’t merely an illusion, but it’s not the whole picture, either. It’s just a partial picture, because in an infinite universe, everything exists at once, right now, including all of what we call time (past, present, future).




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