Saturday, June 9, 2018
written 4 June 2018
published 9 June 2018
It is impossible to think, write, or talk, without temporal implication, since our language uses verbs with tense conjugation, assuming a linearity of time flowing from past through the present into the future.
Philosophers have long grappled with time. Sophists declared time is a concept or a measure. Parmenides maintained time was an illusion. The Kabbala considers time a paradox, where the future and past are simultaneously present. Leibnitz and Kant felt time did not exist in and of itself because we can only know objects as they appear to us. Modern Presentism holds that only the present is tangible, as past and future are human-mind interpretations of movement. The illusion of time is a common theme in Buddhism.
Newton's mechanistic physics describes objective reality as three spatial dimensions, and a separate temporal dimension. Einstein's physics of relativity consists of four dimensions, one of which is temporal, but different frames of reference have a different axis for time, depending on the relative motion between the frames of reference. In relativity, time contracts and mass increases approaching the speed of light. Massless photons, traveling at the speed of light, experience no time, arriving at their destination without duration. Experience of time is a property of the velocity of the perceiver, and some consider time to be a poorly perceived fourth spatial dimension. Einstein said "time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once".
Psychological time is known to be flexible compared with the mechanical time of clocks. A boring event seems to take forever, while enjoyment is over in a flash. In very intense experiences, time can seem to slow down, allowing detailed perception and response.
The left brain processes differences and distinctions of sequence, which is fundamental to the concept of linear time. This seat of the ego keeps track of our life story, giving temporal continuity. We "remember" the past, and plan for the future based on that past. The present moment seems no more than an intersection between the past and future, but all action and experience happen in the present moment, which is eternal; past and future are just stories. Our memory of an experience is limited and filtered, which is why "eye witness" accounts can be so varied.
Since our "story" is a large part of the ego's structure, it has a stake in preserving the apparent reality of that story. When we experience a present event, the ego immediately provides an interpretation in terms of stories from the past. If we aren't careful with our attention, we accept these interpretations as an accurate perception of the moment, and act in response to the past story rather than the actual event. Thus, the future becomes a consequence of the past, the present is not considered at all, and the ego's story of life feels continuous and whole.
Our awareness of reality is not limited to the left brain ego story. The right brain does not interpret experience in the same way, as it processes whole systems, not differences, so the present moment is its natural domain. One function of mindfulness meditation is training attention to notice when left brain stories are running. Our culture encourages the primacy of these stories as descriptions of reality, but practice allows one to shift away from automatic engagement with these stories and sit in awareness of the actual moment, uncolored by narration from the past. Each moment then becomes an opportunity for change. All action happens in the present, so we begin to evolve an ability to respond to current events, rather than automatically repeating the past, and our future shifts from being determined by the past, to being determined by the present moment.
In times of economic and environmental stability, endlessly repeating the past can help society endure. But when conditions are turbulent and changing, this is a recipe for social collapse, like trying to drive looking only in the rearview mirror. One doesn't have to look far to see that these are times of change, requiring new responses to old problems.