Time and Time Again

Scott McLemee reviews Truls Wyller's What Is Time? An Enquiry.

April 24, 2020

“What then is time?” asks St. Augustine in the 11th book of his Confessions. “If no one asks me I know; if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not …” Don’t you hate it when that happens? A sturdy and familiar element of reality one instant, a quicksand of baffling paradoxes the next.

For the very basic schema of dividing time into past, present and future proves, on reflection, problematic. If the past no longer exists and the future hasn’t happened, in what sense are they real? How is it possible to measure time, he asks, "seeing it hath no space? … [and] when it shall have passed, it is not measured, for there will be nothing to be measured." Yet somehow we speak of one activity taking twice as long as another -- as if comparing two lengths of rope -- with some confidence of being understood.

“My soul is on fire to know this most intricate enigma,” Augustine writes. He prays about it, which for a theologian presumably counts as research, but no solid answers are forthcoming. The perplexities multiply. He started out the 11th book contemplating eternity, which has the frank advantage of being unimaginable and incomprehensible almost by definition. But analyzing the familiar human reality of time proves much more of a conceptual swamp. By the end of the book, Augustine returns to eternity with what seems like relief.

Truls Wyller wades back into the thicket with What Is Time? An Enquiry, published in Norway in 2011 and now available in English translation from Reaktion Books (distributed by the University of Chicago Press). The question remains a conundrum to the unaided intellect and too big for any one discipline to monopolize it. Wyller, a professor emeritus of philosophy and religious studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, naturally gives a tip of the hat to Augustine, though the majority of his references are to scientists, philosophers and the occasional literary figure from the last two or three centuries.

Wyller offers a popular exposition rather than his own solution, but the ideas presented cluster and overlap, forming layers, and the author's role is to point out where they might be converging. He takes as his point of departure the distinction between human, subjective or experiential time, on the one hand, and physical, objective or experience-neutral time, on the other. They may or may not have anything to do with one another. (Therein lies the enigma.) And the categories are so broad that a range of ideas have taken shape in the effort to comprehend each of them.

Nearly everyone has some intuitive grasp of the difference -- the contrast between felt time and clock time, more or less. Some qualification is necessary here given, as the author puts it, "premodern societies that only recognize concrete action time," which is "determined when one action naturally replaces another, not when [someone] reaches a certain point." Familiar, recurring phenomena can be used to mark off parts of the day: "before the flies stir," for example, or "the sun is straight overhead," or "the buffaloes go to drink." But the intervals are qualitative -- derived from experience rather than from treating time as a continuum divisible into uniform, equivalent units.

The passing of 60 minutes equals one hour, whatever the buffalo are doing. That this seems obvious is itself the result of an extraordinary change in perspective. Quantifying time had been possible to some degree before the advent of precision-made clocks, but decoupling time from concrete experience and rendering its measurement ever more precise has had a cumulative impact almost impossible to overestimate. The author indicates that one second "is currently defined as a certain number of caesium atom vibrations" -- and the lives of some subatomic particles are measured in millions of a billionth of a second. On a wider and more familiar scale, time, once quantified, can define human activity rather than vice versa, making possible the "drastic synchronization of human life" required for industrial production. Quantification rebounds upon itself in establishing a society for which "time equals money" becomes a guiding principle.

The distinctions drawn here between quality and quantity, experience and abstraction, were basic to Henri Bergson's thinking about time at the end of the 19th century. Wyller provides a graceful overview of how his concept of duration (in Wyller's terms, human time) was further developed by other philosophers, even as Albert Einstein's work remade time's measurability into something radically counterintuitive. Subjective temporality (duration) is defined by a seemingly continuous flow of awareness and activity that is distinct from, but always oriented toward, both the remembered past and the future implicit in plans, decisions, expectations and so on. (For Martin Heidegger, that list would also include the reality, faced or otherwise, of death.) "In time," Wyller writes when discussing this line of thought, "every new present experience shapes a new whole from present and past, and this whole ensures that the past, which permeates the present, is never exactly as it once was." That may be a source of nostalgia or of relief, but it makes the live, ongoing experience of now distinct from anything quantifiable.

Approaching time with a very different set of tools, Einstein identified it as another dimension of space (something implicit in the possibility of measuring it) and the seeming simultaneity of events being relative to their position or movement and that of the observer. This is not a matter of subjective experience or interpretation on the part of the observer; it is a matter of physics and mathematics, and of understanding time not as a matter of experience but as one part of a set of coordinates.

But that distinction itself bothered Einstein considerably, to go by a conversation recalled by the philosopher Rudolf Carnap: "Once Einstein said that the problem of the Now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the Now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation … [He thought] that there is something essential about the Now which is just outside the realm of science." Bergson would have agreed -- if on different grounds -- and Augustine, as well.


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