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Time and Its Role in the History of Thought and Action

Nature and definition of time

Time appears to be more puzzling than space because it seems to flow or pass or else people seem to advance through it. But the passage or advance seems to be unintelligible. The question of how many seconds per second time flows (or one advances through it) is obviously an absurd one, for it suggests that the flow or advance comprises a rate of change with respect to something else—to a sort of hypertime. But if this hypertime itself flows, then a hyper-hypertime is required, and so on, ad infinitum. Again, if the world is thought of as spread out in space–time, it might be asked whether human consciousness advances up a timelike direction of this world and, if so, how fast; whether future events pop into existence as the “now” reaches them or are there all along; and how such changes in space–time can be represented, since time is already within the picture. (Ordinary change can, of course, be represented in a space–time picture: for example, a particle at rest is represented by a straight line and an oscillating particle by a wavy line.)

In the face of these difficulties, philosophers tend to divide into two sorts: the “process philosophers” and the “philosophers of the manifold.” Process philosophers—such as Alfred North Whitehead, an Anglo-American metaphysician who died in 1947—hold that the flow of time (or human advance through it) is an important metaphysical fact. Like the French intuitionist Henri Bergson, they may hold that this flow can be grasped only by nonrational intuition. Bergson even held that the scientific concept of time as a dimension actually misrepresents reality. Philosophers of the manifold hold that the flow of time or human advance through time is an illusion. They argue, for example, that words such as past, future, and now, as well as the tenses of verbs, are indexical expressions that refer to the act of their own utterance. Hence, the alleged change of an event from being future to being past is an illusion. To say that the event is future is to assert that it is later than this utterance; then later yet, when one says that it is in the past, he or she asserts that it is earlier than that other utterance. Past and future are not real predicates of events in this view; and change in respect of them is not a genuine change.

Again, although process philosophers think of the future as somehow open or indeterminate, whereas the past is unchangeable, fixed, determinate, philosophers of the manifold hold that it is as much nonsense to talk of changing the future as it is to talk of changing the past. If a person decides to point left rather than to point right, then pointing left is what the future was. Moreover, this thesis of the determinateness of the future, they argue, must not be confused with determinism, the theory that there are laws whereby later states of the universe may be deduced from earlier states (or vice versa). The philosophy of the manifold is neutral about this issue. Future events may well exist and yet not be connected in a sufficiently lawlike way with earlier ones.

One of the features of time that puzzled the Platonist Augustine, in the 5th century AD, was the difficulty of defining it. In contemporary philosophy of language, however (influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, a Cambridge philosopher), no mystery is seen in this task. Learning to handle the word time involves a multiplicity of verbal skills, including the ability to handle such connected words as earlier, later, now, second, and hour. These verbal skills have to be picked up in very complex ways (partly by ostension), and it is not surprising that the meaning of the word time cannot be distilled into a neat verbal definition. (It is not, for example, an abbreviating word like bachelor.)

The philosophy of time bears powerfully on human emotions. Not only do individuals regret the past, they also fear the future, not least because the alleged flow of time seems to be sweeping them toward their deaths, as swimmers are swept toward a waterfall.