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The Meaning of Time

Author, Alan R Graham, discusses how we perceive time and debates the notion that our present moment is just an illusion, in this introduction to his book, Time's Paradigm.

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Time has a wider meaning than its pitiful, dictionary definition that often vaguely states: "A measurable period between the past and the future." So let's give credit where it's due. Time is hugely significant to our lives. It is the life-blood of existence, the very chalice in which creation is served. Here's a little introduction to this long and exiting journey -- buckle up.

Time flows, they say, and we are at the mercy of its relentless passage. To quote Shakespeare: "Injurious shifting time, be guilty of my death, since of my crime." A reference to our insignificance in the face of destiny and inability to do much about it.

But, as Einstein pointed out, our clocks don't all tick along at the same speed, so that kind of says "poof" to the whole notion of us flowing along together under the directive of time. Indeed, it begs the question: Does time really exist, at all?

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As you will gather, the meaning of time is far from conclusive, which is why its existence is still very much up for debate. While being defined as a measure between episodes, as a human aid, time at the very best leaves most of us dumbfounded and arguably dismissive of its reality, concluding that it must be just an illusion. But that is an unfair assessment.

Time has been described by some philosophers as a vast ocean stretching out from the shores of a distant past, through our present situation and on into the future: as if a giant, living tapestry. Other academics will argue that time has nothing to do with the past and the future -- which, they say, do not exist -- time is merely this moment of existential awareness we call "Now".

Many scientists believe the passage of time is a solid, tenseless and predetermined block; some think we will one day be able to travel back into the past, while a few theorists think that time is akin to a giant, revolving wheel in never-ending cycles. With so much meaning to be had offered by so many brilliant minds, time should be deserving of our utmost attention.

Time's Arrow, entropy, is a thorough measure of energy's thermodynamic process but it is not a definition of time. Nor is space-time, for the purposes of meaning. Quantum Mechanics has some colourful analogies concerning time, however they are just that, analogies. Leaving physics wanting in this area.

In simple terms, the meaning of time can be expressed as progress, based on our subjective notion of movement through the universe in an ethereal context where consciousness is the driving force. We do not need to move physically to experience time, although obviously we all are. However, scientifically speaking, time is often stated as a consequence of space and, as such, is irrelevant due to its relative variance dependent on velocity. In fact, further chapters will reveal just how closely these two references are related.

On the whole, we see time existing in an abstract form, so the meaning of time is elusive. And yet we don't ask: "Does Space Exist?"

Surely, space is an equally intangible manifestation. Nevertheless, we are fine with space, we can visualize movement from one place to the next and accept its purpose and relevance. But moving through time throws up a paradox. We cannot perceive either the past or the future so the void in between moments does not exist in our minds.

Moreover, we are apparently not in control of our passage through time, a very important incentive for concluding relevance. It is far easier to assert that time has no meaning other than for aesthetic value; time has no function within reality..!

Indeed, "Time is merely a concept we made up for the purpose of measuring," many argue. They have a point, time is a necessary tool for aiding in navigation, farming, trading and the drying of paint... that appears to be all. However, the sun rises and sets, the space between those two events having a continuum of presence of which we are conscious. Just because we can't see it does not mean it doesn't exist. We can't see in the dark..? So time may be tricky but it certainly has relevance to our lives.

Time is the measure of all existence, whereas our present moment, which simply defines the past and the future by separation, is the illusion that sometimes steals the show. What we mean by time is all of it.

The growth of a giant acacia tree, captioned: testament to the passage of time.

Defining Time's Purpose

Fundamentally, time is about change. There is a difference between the past and the future. From one minute to the next, things are altering their position, their form and their state, be they great celestial bodies or tiny atomic particles. Without change there is no need for time. In other words, if the past and the future are identical, existence does not occur, because there is no purpose nor reason for it being, and no place for it to be.

... Time means existence.

Space, it seems, is a prerequisite for time, because motion needs a playground in which to roam. These three phenomena are the cornerstones of existence; like our three physical dimensions, one cannot exist without the other two. But that does not mean they should not be deserving of their own identities.

Time can be defined as the measure of necessary separation between one episode and another in a continuous evolution of moments with positive flow. The meaning of time (above) can then be expanded to include: the energy of existence, a force that binds physicality and extends individuality.

Time does not exist by itself, nor can it exist for a single moment -- though this rather obvious statement implies a lot more than it says. Time needs a past and a future to propagate, so every moment must be preceded by and followed by another... and another, eternally. A single moment with a past but no future, would not exist, creating a cascading domino effect where time would unwind.

Everything you ever wanted to know About Time!

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Time can have neither a beginning nor an end, everything must be connected to something else.

To get something started requires purpose, potential and impetus. However, in a state of non-existence, 'before time', it is unlikely these three players could have operated. Change is energetic, and to suggest that energy magically starts or suddenly stops is a tad far fetched; it goes against the very fundamentals of our Laws of Physics.

So instead, we ended up many centuries ago with a conclusion that the universe must have been around for an infinitely long time and will go on indefinitely. This view was refuted by Emmanuel Kant and other philosophers of the era in favour of Finitism. 20th century physicists, for their part, have added that if the universe has existed forever it would logically have ended an infinite time ago.

Animated meme reading: NOW, The Great Debate of our Time.

The "Big Bang" has since been adopted and the majority of scientists now agree that both Time and Space began in that explosive instance; existence was thus born and the meaning of time became apparent. But there is another scenario that only rarely surfaces for debate: Time defined as a Cyclical Progression; a giant, revolving process that has no beginning and no end. It satisfies both parties in this debate while upholding thermodynamic principles. Scientist, Sir Roger Penrose, is a leading proponent of such theories.

Einstein, himself, also contemplated for a while the concept of a cosmological cycle for time, citing that a contracting universe would be unequivocally the same as his theories of Relativity.

Ever wondered why clocks and compasses are round? Cycles: Nature's little engines... whether powered by fluid dynamics, gravity or chemistry; they are contained and independent entities with perpetual drive.

Our Perception of Existence

Is the present moment just an illusion? Well, yes, of course. That's what our brains do. They interpret the world around us using senses -- eyes, ears, nose, etc -- and make up a scene for us in which to act. We have evolved to function within the constraints imposed upon us, and our perception of existence is likewise constrained by such idiosyncrasies.

Here we are in "The Present", which we define as our moment of awareness, our sense of change. If conscious, living beings such as ourselves were absent from this universe, time would still exist, would it not? But would the present? If we consider the implications of that last question, there could be many 'nows'.

Meme of cartoon mouse on raft going over a waterfall.

A big hurdle when considering the meaning of time is objectivity! We are too involved in the illusion to come to an informed decision. Why do choices in life exist if our destiny is already predetermined? What if, as some argue, there is no past or future, we in this present moment are merely a raft adrift on an ocean of emptiness..? apparently, with no oars!

Another nuance is mental mayhem. We make stuff up, so trying to sieve through the lies and misconceptions in order to find a truth or two somewhere at the bottom of the bowl is reserved for the likes of those with enormous patience and optimism -- gold prospectors and fishermen come to mind.

So not surprising then that we can happily amble our way through life thinking we are flowing downstream aboard a life raft called "the present" (that doesn't really exist)... on a mighty river called Time (that's going nowhere)... no worries!

The present moment may be a clever illusion, because we are simple organisms with limitations, but that doesn't mean time in its entirety does not exist.


There Was A Time
by the same author - read here on line

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--> The Meaning of Time.

--> Does_Time_Exist?

--> What Is Time?

--> How We Perceive Time.

The question of whether time cycles as in a giant, revolving story whose constitution is thus an intimate ensemble; whether time is a solid block of cheese that exists all at once and this movement malarkey is just an illusion; or whether, adversely, time is an infinite, one dimensional journey that began nowhere, exists only in the present moment and disappears into forever, is at the heart of this book's debacle.

Unless the disciplines of psychology, physics and philosophy come together we will never fully comprehend the meaning of time, its precise definition will always allude us. Time is about more than maths, it is about cognitive awareness and our perception, be it real or illusory, that somehow we make progress.

We have created a landscape for time, with past and future camps and a path between them upon which we allegedly travel. Clocks glare at us from toasters, televisions, towers and smart phones, reminding us constantly that we are aware -- of what, exactly, no one is quite sure!

Alan R Graham

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TIME'S PARADIGM, the ebook
now available free to view
or download from this site
Revised edition, 2020.
for desktops, Kindles, readers.

book cover, Time's Paradigm, and our perception of time unraveled.

chapters and summaries below

Part 1. Destiny is a light, philosophical debate between the theories of 'Presentism' and 'The Block Model', where the romanticism of Free Will is questioned, as is our ability to decide our own fate if the future already exists. Schrödinger's Cat cat emoji also makes a brief appearance.

Part 2. Time lays the foundation for the argument that time is a cyclical, contained progression, rather than a meandering voyage into infinity. It tackles existential perception, acausality, and asks whether the present moment is a cosmological standard for all conscious beings.

Part 3. Infinity argues that defined points in time and space prohibit progress in linear models. Thus Zeno's Paradox is resolved and the speed of light held to account. Temporal awareness, it concludes, is the result of uncertain horizons -- our perception of 'now' thus given freedom.

Part 4. Dimensions takes the bold step of asking us to consider a tangible dimension of time, represented by a fractal collapse through our three, known spatial dimensions. Chaos theory and the Nth Dimension draw us to conclude that time can only flow as one ensemble.

Part 5. Velocity asks whether our universe is expanding or contracting. It considers the simple physics of bodies contracting in a fourth dimension of time, and how that marries with standard scientific models such as Relativity.

Part 6. Travel involves us in the more complex aspects of relativistic velocities, the conundrum of Zero Velocity, a universal clock caused by time dilation and, ultimately, astronauts in the future with the prospect of superluminal, time dislocation.

Part 7. Nutshell to wrap up, succinctly crams everything above into just a few pages, and does not cover arguments in any great detail. A heavy read served up at blistering pace.

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