Friday, August 8

Are we measuring time, or defining it?

On the morning of the first of January of this year, around five thirty AM to be more precise, I was on my way home, from the New Year's party, when it struck me how artificial the delimitation of days is and how this perception breaks the actual continuity of our existence (it's a perception I have relatively often, when I remain awake through night fall and am not terribly busy with something specific).

I wrote this thought down, and came back to it from time to time. Nowadays (that is, after thinking about it some more), I see a clear distinction between the natural delimitation, a delimitation that doesn't break continuity (like light and shadow cast by the Sun) and the artificial delimitations we all make: instead of seeing our continuous existence, "flowing" from one "present moment" to the next "present moment", we see ourselves having a discrete existence, composed of different episodes, disconnected, discontinuous.

Instead of seeing the continuity, we see "day", "week", "Monday", "last year", "during lunch break", "when I exited the office building last evening", et caetera.

It's a useful abstraction, enabling everything from business contracts to most technology, to weekend plans, to cookie recipes.

It's still an abstraction though, and as useful as it is, it can be equally useful to look behind it.

When you try switching back from a discrete perception to a continuous one (that is, if you actually do try), you start seeing lots of other illusions you cling to, constructs relying of other constructs, things we all accept as "in the nature of things" ...

Lets take age as an example.
We have a minimal age for legally drinking, you can be too old or too young to behave in a certain way and your rights vary depending on what age-group you happen to find yourself in.

Age as a measure though, is not telling you something specific about a person. If anything, it's actually telling you how many times the Earth rotated around the Sun, since that person was born. Thus, age is an affirmation about the Earth's movement, giving that person's existence as a reference point, and not an affirmation about that person itself.

Further more, it seems that time itself is an illusion.
Clocks don't measure time; they measure themselves.
        hairy university professor with young girlfriend, The Man from Earth


To that regard, I found an interesting article on the nature of time itself, that directed my thoughts to a different perspective: the article argued that time, in a scientific context, cannot be perceived as an orthogonal dimension but is in fact, always expressing a measure of movement (one second being, for example defined as the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom).

It's an interesting read, if you have the time for it (pun intended).

So in the end, do we measure time, or define it and cling to our definition?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You might want to take a look at this related ideeas:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Bergson#Duration

utnapistim said...

It's an interesting read (the few paragraphs that I've read on the net that is).

Thanks for that.

As far as I'm concerned, I tend to go in a direction more along the lines of that of eastern mysticism: I believe that time is a matter of movement, not a linear dimension (or nonlinear, as the theory of relativity states), a perceived measure of "intensity of movement", instead of an orthogonal dimension of "objective reality".

In my view (as incomplete as it may be) I see imprints upon the universe as past and projections of outcomes as future, all of them happening in "this moment", a "this moment" that keeps on changing, in the present.

In that view, only the present is real.

I am more interested in the perception of time than in the nature of time itself, in how we define time only as a matter of what that definition gives us to work with.

In this regard, one could say I'm more focused on the subjective than the objective.