[I wrote this (slightly edited) post in 2017, a couple of years before I was diagnosed with myeloma. Time is a subject that has been on my mind for a very long time. I wrote my dissertation about the work of Harold Adams Innis (1894-1952). He was very much preoccupied with time and wrote extensively about it late in his career (and life it turns out). So have been hundreds of other philosophers, social theorists, physicists, biologists, etcetera. We think about time on many levels of analysis, from cosmic time to microseconds in productive processes. We think about it in social as well as personal terms. We are especially concerned with it when it begins to run out. Read on]
How do you experience the passage of time?
Time is a big subject and has been the focus of many philosophical and scientific ponderings and is, of course, a major preoccupation of the world’s religions and cultures. There is also the individual, institutional and cultural projects around time and its importance to our lives. We mark (as distinguished from experience) time in many ways. We use clocks and calendars. (The Maya had two calendars, that’s how important time was to them.) We carefully note the passage of the seasons with special celebrations, and we celebrate our birth days every year. We don’t celebrate the day we die, of course, we let others do that in the form of wakes, funerals, and these days, celebrations of life because we are no longer in any shape to celebrate anything ourselves. We ask: “What time is it?” and we expect to get an answer: “Why, it’s two thirty in the afternoon.” We don’t expect “the anthropocene” as an answer although it would be technically correct.
But this blog post is not about any of this. It’s about how we experience time. In many ways, time and life are synonymous. As individuals we need to be conscious to experience time. In our dreams time is irrelevant or, at least, it can take on bizarre aspects, but we aren’t aware of that until we wake up and can reflect on our dream and its bizarre depiction of time. Writers, novelists in particular, distort time as a regular practice.
We experience time as past, present, and future although we live only in the present. The past and future are cultural constructs that have only the reality we give them. Our memories and our recollections of events are highly selective. There is no such thing as an objective past. We select events, actions, people, names, places, etc. and construct a cognitive map of them into a coherent picture, a picture that is congruent with our life as we experience it and build a store of impressions by which we then judge our actions and those of others. Recall is impressionistic, not realistic. It deceives us all the time as we ‘fit’ the past into our current views of things.
We are most often not even aware that that’s what we’re doing. We drive, we brush our teeth, we pay taxes, we get on airplanes, we go to libraries, we bank, we vote and most often we don’t question these actions or even consider them a part of a consistent set of habits of life and thought that we learn from others as we live out our lives in networks of interdependencies. As Norbert Elias argues we are less individuals than interdependencies and interweavings. Our daily thoughts and desires, as they join collectively to express themselves as consciousness, make us more Borg than anything. Magically, however, we learn to believe that we control all aspects of our lives as individuals and sadly, people who have shitty lives can only blame themselves for that. That’s the classical economic view of things. Classical economics, according to Thorstein Veblen, uses what he calls the hedonistic calculus to describe how we make decisions in our lives. For him, classical economists (and I would add more contemporary trickle-down ones like Milton Friedman) think of us as ‘globules of desire’ who everywhere seek to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. Of course, life just doesn’t work that way. We do not judge every situation or opportunity we encounter in life as a calculation of pleasure or pain. There are numerous capacities and propensities we bring to our daily lives that have everything to do with the need to delay pleasure, accept pain or make decisions clearly not in our own interests.
We interpret the past, the present and the future based on our ideologically constructed maps of how the world works. And, boy, do we love our maps. We hang on to them for dear life. Those ideas we cherish, those beliefs we idealize are created in a cauldron of the past, a past we had no hand in making and that starts presenting itself to us the moment we drop out of the womb. Of course, the ideas we pick up early in life we often reject later as we join more and more interdependencies and interweavings, some of which will have more appeal and relevance as the world changes around and in us.
Christians and adherents to many other religions accept time as a concept, but deny its existence after death when, for them, eternal life kicks in. How could we experience time in a state of eternity? Time is change. What would happen in a place of eternity? I’m no theologian, but I’d be curious as to how a theologian would deal with the question of time in eternity.
Merry Christmas, all, and Happy New Year.