My Thoughts on Time
Since time immemorial, the concept of time has been a Gordian knot to scholars of all disciplines, especially those of astronomy, physics and philosophy. Science and philosophy texts are filled with hundreds of definitions of time and arguments on its existence.
What is time? Does it exist? When it all started? In fact, scholars are trying to catch the ‘invisible imaginary’ black cat in the dark room in vain.
Aristotle defined it well to some extent. He stated, “Time is the measure of change.” He continues to clarify his definition, “But time is not change itself, because change can be faster or slower but time is not”.
Change is the only reality which continues without any change. Change is inevitable. Neither universe nor anything in it is stable. Everything is subjected to change- some kind of progressive change. We will examine the concept of progressive changes later on.
Now, let us go back into human history, to the ages of stone tools. How the concept of time came into human mind? Of course, due to events; both cyclic and linear. Cyclic events include sunrise and sunset, day and night, repeating seasons, migration of animals and linear events are growth (birth- life- death) of plants, animals and humans themselves, and destruction of physical objects.
The early human minds conceived the cyclic events with more interest since that were more prominent in display, like sunrise and sunset, and day and night. Hence, they presumed even the linear events as cyclic. Possibly this could be the reason for the creation- preservation- destruction ‘trinity’ and birth- rebirth concept found in ancient religions. As a result, ancient religions like Hindu and Buddhism, and civilizations like Babylonian and Mayan have a cyclic concept of time called ‘wheel of time’. They all believe in the creation, preservation and final dissolution of the world, solar system, and the universe itself, followed by the continued re- creation. The cycle has no beginning and end.
Based on Bible, time is linear. Biblical time begins with the act of creation by God and is believed to end with second coming of Jesus to judge the living and dead. Still a question remains. What is after that? Majority of the Westerners still conceive time as linear with a definite beginning and an end.
Time in physics and astronomy has a finite origin, which starts with the Big Bang, some time in the past around 13.73 ± 0.12 millions of years ago. If so, what was before Big Bang and when and how it will end? Big Freeze? Or Big Crunch? Who knows? Stephen Hawking in his “A Brief History of Time” stated that time actually began with the Big Bang, and that question about what happened before the Big Bang is meaningless”.
Coming back to the early history of humans, the twenty four hour day was created by early Egyptians. The interval between similar repetitive cyclic events is considered as one unit. They considered sunrise as the beginning since humans and all life forms sleep at night and wake up with the rise of the sun. Hence the interval between one sunrise to next sunrise is considered as one day and has been divided into twenty four equal subdivisions called hours.
Measuring and counting the hours was next task. The journey of inventions of instruments for measuring and counting hours starts with shadow clock, and continue through sun clock (sun dial), water clock, sand clock (hour glass), mechanical clock, pendulum clock and now reached in atomic clock. Atomic clock defines ‘second’ based on the wave cycle of cesium atom.
While discussing about the measuring devices of time, it would be interesting to know the story of an ancient method used by a highly honored Roman prostitute. She placed small bowls with tiny holes to float in a large bowl filled with water. Water slowly leaks into the small bowl and eventually it will sink. The sound of the sinking small bowl touching the bottom of the big bowl indicates the time limit of her ‘customer’ to enjoy her. If the customer wanted to enjoy her more he had to pay again and then she would place the small bowl again.
Humans invented clock to measure time but that was suitable for periods less than a day or twenty four hours. In order to measure and count periods longer than a day he devised calendar.
Time was considered as absolute in the Newtonian school. However, time lost its absolute nature in the ‘theory of relativity’. Einstein proved that the measurement of time depends on the relative speed of the observer and time slows down at higher speeds (time dilation). According to Newtonian thought, space and time were different concepts. Space was referred by three dimensions and time with one dimension. Einstein combined the concept of space and time to form a spacetime which is referred by four dimensions: length, width, height and time as fourth dimension. He even explained the gravity based on the spacetime fabric.
What we discussed so far is physical time. There exist other types of time concepts like psychological time and biological time. Time we measured or counted with clock is physical time. Due to our continued acquaintance with the practice of measuring and counting physical time, our mind gets synchronized with it. Hence even without alarm clock one can get up in the morning. Biological clock works almost in the same way. We feel hunger at noon even without checking a watch.
Time travel is the concept of moving backward (past) and/or forward (future) to different points in time. This is not possible because time is what separates cause and effect. Time travel to the past is the violation of causality. The effect can not precede its cause. Time travel to the future will be equivalent to effect without cause.
For some scholars time appears to have a direction from past, present and then to future. According to J.W. Dunne, ‘all time- past, present and future- is eternally present. The concept of time or the feeling of “reality of time” can be explained when we are awake. When we sleep the feeling of time is lost and in sleep precognitive dreams freely roam across past, present and future’.
To suggest an example take the case of a book. The entire book exists at any moment in time, but at any given moment we can read only one page at a time. I accept, but will discuss more in the continuing paragraphs.
We have already analyzed the history of time and various historical views of scholars about time. To me time is not a reality, but a relative concept. I would like to modify the definition suggested by Aristotle as, “Time is the measure of interval between some specific events”. An event is marked by a change. Scientists are worried about the interval between the event of Big Bang and present, religious people are concerned with the interval between the act of creation by God and the second coming of Jesus, and some laymen are bothered about the interval between their birth and death. Every one has his own frame of reference for time. The frames of reference of some events are comparatively bigger than that of others. Certain frame of reference of some events occurs within the frame of reference of others. This is the true reality lies behind the “book analogy of time” detailed by J.W. Dunne. The page we read lies in a small frame of reference but the book is located in a huge frame of reference. The huge frame of reference is God’s own. So for God our past, present and future exist at any given moment in time. But for us, only one page exists at any given moment in time. God is timeless. The past, present and the future co- exist in him simultaneously. “Time is the manifestation of God.”
There are cyclic and linear events happening to the universe, in the universe and around us. All these events are directed towards a low energy ground state. The second law of thermodynamics states that energy in a closed system flows from a state of higher concentration to a state of lower concentration. That is from orderliness to randomness. This is known by the name entropy and is what happening to everything in the universe and even to universe itself.
The creation started when God activated his energy. The activated energy lies in God’s creations either in latent or apparent form. The energy will be lost one day; God will withdraw all energy back.
The energy loss and increase in degree of disorder is clearly evident from the linear events happening around us, like our growth. But it is less evident in cyclic events like sunrise- sunset or seasons because their time reference frame is very huge compared to that of humans. Time destroys everything.
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