No Time for Time

No Time for TimeI think people, including myself, easily get confused by thinking of time as an actual thing. I suspect that time is no more an actual thing than the number 3 is an actual thing. The number 3 is simply an abstraction that helps us represent a quantity (usually) of one thing or another. But the number 3 isn’t really a thing, in and of itself.

Time is similar. It’s nowhere to be found. Yet we can measure a quantity of changes within physical space by comparing them with other quantities of change within physical space, and we call that time.

For example, this crystal will vibrate 2,000 times before this ball arrives to hit me upside the head. Time isn’t anywhere in there, unless we want to say that 2,000 vibrations of that crystal is 2 seconds. Just keep in mind, though, we’ve made that up.

Now, suppose I’m next to a black hole, which isn’t far from the truth. My crystal will be vibrating slower if you’re looking from the outside, because space is so much more densely packed where I’m sitting – or rather gravity is stronger. My crystal will vibrate a different number of times before the ball smacks me upside the head. But is that necessarily something called time, or is it just a characteristic of more densely-packed space, behaving as it “ought”?

Preconceptions are buggery gremlins which often lead us easily astray. We can measure stuff, and compare it against other stuff, and even accurately predict what those measurements will be. But we’re just saying that stuff happening at seemingly constant intervals is time, and stuff happening to those same things, when the intervals change, are alterations to time.

Always remember, though, that a thing called time doesn’t need to exist — any more than the number three. It just helps when we’re counting.

  • “Saussure believed that language constructs rather than reflects reality. For example, time passes in all cultures but, unless and until a community agrees signifiers for “yesterday, “today”, and “tomorrow”, there is no conceptual framework within which to discuss the passage of time.” 

  •  I think that really does get at the issue – time being our construction rather than being something itself.