Time – The Critical Dimension

I have been thinking about the concept of time a bit recently. Even though we get exposed to it from an early age, it is not an easy concept to internalize. While I am still learning what time really is, I understood it a bit better after my mother fell victim to cancer. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean by understanding time.

I implemented a few systems in the past and although my work was done in months, the result of my work has remained in use for many years. In some cases, the system manager has spent the last decade working with the result of what I created in months. If we translate that time into a new unit called “lifetime” (1 lifetime = 80 years), s/he has spent 1/8th lifetime with something I created in 0.00625 lifetime. To parallel this, a senator can make enough changes in 0.025 lifetime to affect 4 lifetime or more. Multiply that by the number of people affected and you have the true impact of a change. Time is the key ingredient that every life shares on this earth.

father time by ~classic-syndrome
father time by AJ Frena

While driving around a few days ago, an old colonial house caught my eye. I think it was built sometime in the mid-19th century. How many children has that house seen? How many happy and unhappy couples have lived in it? I wonder if hundred eighty years from now someone will similarly wonder what we must have gone through when building our house. They would have no idea how we thought through every last detail. They would have discussions about our intentions. What if the third owner abused this house and the fourth owner added a new room and got an electrician to rewire the whole house. Would the fifth owner even be able to see beyond the two prior owners? Would the electrician consider the impact of his work on generations and families? Would anything remain from our original design? Would they question our intentions? Would they be slaves to the house or would they make the house a slave to them? Sometimes I see America as that house from years gone by.

A 30-year mortgage is paid off in 37.5% of 1 lifetime. First 25% of 1 lifetime is spent in early basic education. 33% of 1 lifetime is spent sleeping. These affected me much less when I thought lifetime was an eternity. We often hear that what we are about to decide depends on our time horizon. Or we hear that we have plenty of time to get to something. Or we have warranties or guarantees for life (whose life?). Any time a comment is made about time, I convert it into this new unit called lifetime and get a different perspective of the issue.

On the opposite end of a lifetime, we find seconds (milliseconds, microseconds…). Our brains can detect delays of microseconds to localize sound in space (triangulate the location of the sound based on the distance between our two ears). It takes little time for us to respond to someone else. Although the brain can process at such amazing speeds, that does not mean we always avoid making mistakes of a lifetime in a split second? Why is it sometimes difficult for us to insert a time lag between stimulus and response when needed and respond immediately in situations requiring quick action? It takes a second to ruin trust built over a lifetime (consider the recent financial criminal’s split second decisions converted to lifetime impact on victims). On the scale of eternity (or from God’s perspective) 1 lifetime is only a microsecond but that we cannot understand. Second by second, we must fill up our lifetime with the choices we make.

There is a lot to talk about when it comes to time but one more point for now is reference to it in analysis. How long is a century and can we really understand what it represents if we haven’t experienced it? Or when we hear that something has a particular attribute (“Joe is a nice guy.”, “Toyota makes good cars.”, “Lehman is a solid company.”), do we remember the time dimension? How long has this been the case? How has the definition of the attribute changed over time? Based on these changes over time, is the initial statement still valid? It was fascinating to hear all kinds of analysis and predictions flying around about presidential elections not too long ago based on past elections. It is also funny to hear all kinds of predictions about the current recession, the prices of gold, and the status of the dollar as a reserve currency.

Time is that constant companion of ours that either gets no attention or the wrong attention. Perhaps our perspective, our decisions and, as a result, our lives would improve from a simple recognition of the place of everything along that critical time dimension. I’ll finish with a quote from Ecclesiastes 3:

“1 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: 2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, 3 a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, 4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, 5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, 6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, 7 a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, 8 a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. “


  1. Your blogs are consistently thought provoking. This particular post has implications in so many different areas of life. Thanks for waking my brain up this morning.

  2. Sam – You’re absolutely right. The implications are so vast I couldn’t even scratch the surface with this post. Here’s another example that may be of interest. The time series charts usually use fixed time increments to determine when to cut over to a new bar (perhaps historical pre-computer reasons). An entire industry operates around making fun pictures and derived statistics around these charts and bars. Imagine a conveyor belt that has equal size bins (time bins). Orders are placed into the bins with a couple numbers written on the label of the bin (high price, low, first, last, and # of units) and the bins goes off to be processed by this industry to “predict” what might show up in the next bin or the bins coming down the belt tomorrow or a month from now. 🙂 Time is a very complex concept yet because we get to recognize it early on, we often feel we know “everything” there’s to know about it.

  3. I appreciate your imagery of discretizing time into bins (and this a very judicious application of -I’m guessing- your background/training in ‘systems’ science 🙂 ).
    And indeed, this treatment lies at the centre of most ‘modern’ (western?) conceptualization of time, departing from the Newtonian consideration of time as an absolute.

    Einstein defined Time as an interval between two sequential events in space, observed by an observer who does not change with time – two simultaneous events define space and two sequential events define time. At the heart of his thoughts on temporality, lies the concept of simultaneity relative to a frame of reference.

    And yet a long ‘time’ before Einstein and even way before Newton, Plotinus was speaking of how in the interior contemplation of our thinking, the subjective time in which it is articulated is more ‘real’ than the exterior world of physical bodies acted upon by a linear, chronological time – his ‘eternal now’.
    (Consider time seemingly suspended in a thought, a reflexive action, in dreaming; as in your thoughts of stimulus/response and time lag…)

    In Husserlian phenomenology, the bracketing (like your bins) of the transcendental consciousness of outer/inner events is the very origin of temporality/time. Husserl describes it as a flux, and characterizes time as being both streaming(linear) and standing(eternal).

    This leads naturally to Heidegger’s ‘Augenblick’ or ‘blinking of the eye’, which has been described as: “a decisive moment in time that is both fleeting yet momentously eventful, even epoch-makingly significant.”

    Of course, an examination of the German ‘Augenblick’ (and its predecessor, Kierkegaard’s ‘Øieblik’ or ‘moment’) cannot be complete without including the Indian Vedic concept of ‘ksana’/moment:
    Vedanta defines time more subjectively, where the subject cannot be divorced from the perception of time itself. By bringing the experiencer and the mind associated with it to observe and record the experience, time is reduced to a concept in the mind. Hence the perception of time depends on the mind.

    At this point, perhaps we may move beyond the mind… and return to Plotinus, where he says that Time is to be found in the activity of the Soul, but that the Soul itself is eternal. Being in Time is to be distinguished from Being in Eternity. Time is a changing reality, while eternity is an unchanging reality.

    Here, your musings above on a house (as symbol) and its lingering memories and intentions are very provocative.
    Derrida, in dealing with this, questioned both the German ‘Augenblick’ and Indian ‘ksana’, as to whether they refer to an indivisible unit/moment (and we both know Gandhi’s thoughts on this 🙂 ) or whether they include both the “presence of the present and the absence of the absent”.
    Derrida maintains that there is no pure present moment, and all that we find is absence and the “mere trace (lingering) of the vanishing moment” – his “Différance”.

    Indeed, “1 There is a time for everything…”; consequently, might there not be ‘not-a-time’ for ‘no-thing’? That is, God’s omniscient eternal now…?

    Alas, we cannot know this empirically. And what we do know of man capturing their ‘moment in time’ with God (essentially ‘testaments’ from scripture), seems to be describing their attempts to grasp at the lingering trace of God’s presence/absence:
    -Abraham, not seeing His face, but only His vanishing back;
    -Jacob, struggling and clinging vainly onto God for a blessing;
    -Moses, blessed indeed with a glowing transfiguration, but which eventually has to fade away into a very human rage…

  4. Don – Thank you for taking the time to add so much to my humble thoughts. The two key events are our birth and our death with the interval between these being the lifetime unit above. The “bins” seem arbitrary (satisfying a need for a unit of measure similar to currency being a unit of account) and perhaps ought to be less relevant. The only observer that I know of who does not change with time is the Almighty God. While I can imagine many frames of reference (I should not have dared to imagine God’s own in the post), the only real frame of reference I have is my own (and we know that’s distorted 🙂 ).

    The concept of “eternal now” is precisely how I try to live my life but again was hoping to bring forward the perspective of now being the lifetime rather than the popular (second, hour, or day).

    The perception of time depending on the mind is fascinating to watch in my son’s development. Here I don’t mean something like time perception in relation to pulse rate (insufficient correlation) but rather what is described by patience.

    While we cannot know everything empirically (especially when it comes to understanding the Creator), we can nonetheless observe quite a bit in other lifetimes when it comes to time. I would hope that the individuals in charge (called governments collectively) would consider their consequences in greater time scales than what seems to happen recently.

  5. Yes, the unchanging immutable God – only He shall remain the same, and His years will have no end. And whether it be the laying of the foundations of the earth and heavens, or the dancing of tiny excited electrons between energy levels, all are the work of His hands…

    In the course of Life, you are right that time seems to undergo mysterious compressions and dilations at various junctures, both good and the not so good. We all have to take our lumps, and pass through those too long moments when time, far from being light and ephemeral, seems as heavy and burdensome as the weight of the world.

    That you are now watching your child grow through patience-tinted lenses, is a wonderful and blessed thing indeed.

  6. Jeff – Thank you for the indeed interesting and related post.

    Don – The weight of the world is a concept very familiar to me yet I struggle daily to carry my own cross.

  7. Ah… Jeff’s (as well as the accompanying comments) very delightful post on circularity.

    Yes, that so many human constructs ‘exist’ only by recurvsive referencing (like many house-of-cards) is intriguing.
    But this is perhaps telling of the fact of just how limited/localized human consciousness is; and an undeniable but silent pointer to the unimaginable Other…

    But still we plod on.

    … …

    Apologies for picking up this thread again, but the circular injection has turned it in an interesting direction (or in truth, no -unitary- direction at all?).

    Aristotle in his conceptualization of Time, reasonably compared time to space and therefore, eluted the classical linear representation of time as a straight line progressing to infinity.
    However, for Aristotle, Time as a continuous series of similar discrete points extending in regularity ad nauseam, is problematic. Considering time as points on a line introduces a boundary (of-the-now) problem, ie an unavoidable pause – a gap in time(line).

    To resolve this, Aristotle turned to the very interesting ideas of Potentiality and Actuality. If one treats the point as potentiality and the line as actuality, the now as a point is never really here – it is always waiting for actuality, for presence.
    And taking the spatial consideration of Time a step further, a point (in Time) becomes a line becoming a circle. The line as actuality, as presence, is a tracing that erases its own traces – it can only keep going in circles. [paraphrasing Derrida]

    Whether it be applied to time, space or any other construct, the concept of self-referencing circularity has captured Man’s imagination through the ages across diverse cultures and disciplines:

    [Ouroboros/greek, serpent/indian, dragon/chinese]

    But perhaps the most eloquent and dramatic portrayal of Time belongs rightly, to the Bard:

    “Enter Time, the Chorus:

    I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
    Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error,
    Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
    To use my wings. Impute it not a crime
    To me or my swift passage, that I slide
    O’er sixteen years and leave the growth untried
    Of that wide gap, since it is in my power
    To o’erthrow law and in one self-born hour
    To plant and o’erwhelm custom. Let me pass
    The same I am, ere ancient’st order was
    Or what is now received: I witness to
    The times that brought them in; so shall I do
    To the freshest things now reigning and make stale
    The glistering of this present, as my tale
    Now seems to it.

    If ever you have spent time worse ere now;
    If never, yet that Time himself doth say
    He wishes earnestly you never may.”

    -Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale.

  8. Don – Please explain some more how “a point (in Time) becomes a line becoming a circle” when taking a single life to be the smallest unit of time. Our current definition of time essentially brings all “lives” to a common denominator (relative comparable foundation). In other words, consider life not to be a line but rather a point infinitely small (or infinitely large). 🙂

  9. ld,

    For Aristotle, the spatial (ie movement) conceptualization of time is paramount:
    “We apprehend time only when we have marked motion, marking it by before and after”
    Next, to preserve the sanctity of time (ie Time is sacrosanct from the variabilities of past/future/history), Aristotle labeled time by calling it ‘number’:
    “Time is not motion, but number of motion”

    We now have the relation of Movement (kinesis) to Time (kronos) through Number (arithmos). And with this, Aristotle has neatly allowed for time to be at once continuous and divisible – with Number as the dividing continuity that counts and measures motion (the movement of before and after).
    And the reference ‘unit’ of Aristotle’s Time is the Now (nun):
    “time is both made continuous… and divided” by the now.

    From all the above then, Aristotle’s Now-points in Time, neatly labeled by Number (ie continuously multiplicable and divisible), gives continuity to the Movement of before and after, and also limits the before and after – successive now-points then give rise to the linear representation of points in relation to a line.

    And as for extending the concept of a line into a circle, this final step as a full consummation of the spatial conceptualization, was undertaken by Derrida as mentioned previously.

    [The Now can be considered as a kind of boundary, which leads to Aristotle’s idea of Place:
    “the boundary of the containing body at which it is in contact with the contained body”
    In a way, it can be thought of as a special kind of ‘place-holder’ with special limit/boundary properties (a super bin?) 🙂

    For me, the most interesting aspect of Aristotle’s time is the boundary conditions from the perspective of his Potentiality and Actuality. It seems to be almost a kind of probability density function.]

    What you said: “but rather a point infinitely small (or infinitely large)”, reminds me of a sci-fi short story about a crew member of a spaceship who started to expand in ‘size’, growing larger and beyond his ship and eventually filling up the entire universe, at which point he went bang and shrank to an infinitesimally small point.

    On a cautionary note ld, while “trying to consider the smallest unit of time to be a single life”, one has to be careful not to slip in between the tiny cracks and end up here

    (And perhaps for those with an interest in time-altering chemical compounds, like ‘thiotimoline’: please note this.)

    [I regret my verbiage…

    I can just imagine that great and acerbic Witt, brandishing his red-hot poker popper-ingly, and saying:
    Come on, that of which you cannot speak, leave to silence.

    And strangely, these other sagacious words pop to mind:
    “Oh no, I’ve said too much
    (I haven’t said enough)”

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