Last night’s pub philosophy meeting (of the Tintern Philosophy Circle) was a talk on ‘A brief history of thought on the subject of Time’ by Prof. Bob Clarke of the National Physics Laboratory.

For the first time, I left a philosophy meet with the same opinion I had when I arrived.

And that is: time is merely a tool we have created to comprehend space.

Moreover, accuracy in measurement is no reason to believe time exists in itself – it is merely an articulation of something else; it does not mean that it is a thing of its own. What IS, are events. We measure the motion of events with something we have called time.

Events occur in space. The space exists and events occur in the space. As I offered in the meeting  – when someone mentioned sub-conscious time and the necessity of a viewer to create time –  that Tintern existed before any of us did, was there with the dinosaurs and pre-organic life. We might measure the time from those events and we can do this by digging into the ground with archaeology, but the events exists nonetheless, it didn’t need us to observe time for it to happen.

Similarly, the space Tintern takes up – albeit currently on Earth – will experience events forever, event after Tintern and the Earth is gone. (Here I allude to the premise and my opinion that space is still space, not vacuum, at sub-atomic level there is still something, even if in our language and science we measure that something as something akin to nothing).

Space is measured in  three dimensions (H x W x L) – these together can form a fourth dimension; you can do this on a scrap of paper by drawing a line for height, then a connected line for width and finally its length. Join all these together and you end up with a 4th dimension – the cube. IMO space is a bite out of an area where events take place. We didn’t have, um, time to go too much into space and time, focusing on the history of thought on time, but certainly when quantum mechanics came into being, I was starting to wish Ockham was in the room, to shout ‘time’ as a landlord does, not as a quantum mechanical physicist might.

Indeed, Bob offered us a bit of Kant which worked for me and that was that our rational understanding of the world is very limited, and often we stretch it beyond our capabilities (and reality perhaps?) and then Schrodinger’s equation in quantum mechanics appeared. The spirit of Ockham sighed with me and we took a long slurp of our Abbots Ale. But lo, along came the Wheeler-DeWitt equation to save us…

This supposition declares that the state of the universe does NOT evolve with time – time is absent (=0 instead of Schrodinger’s t at the end of his equation in quantum mechanics) from the equation; the universe never changes, as Parmenides stated a very, um, long time ago.

Great; this seems to add intellectual weight to my hunch that time is not fundamental to the universe and that, rather it is an emergent characteristic of it – something we have created to articulate a series of events. As much as there is no present (because it has gone before we’re able to place a flag on it) – it is just an articulation of the zeitgeist at best, something for our simple minds to cope with (and that works, which is fine, if untrue) – time itself is a fabrication.

As usual the questions segment started slowly. Because I agreed with what I think Bob felt was true about time not really being anything other that a handy tool for measurement, I decided to offer a question which backed up my opinion.

‘So, Bob – and I think we’re of one mind here on the topic of time as a useful means of measuring things – if we put aside that for one minute, that is, we accept that, what OTHER use is it?’

Bob’s answer wandered around measurements and sat navs for a while and trailed off to a place that seemed to acknowledge there was none. I thought this re-stated the case that it is nothing more than a means of measuring events.

Some of our number, however, were – as Bob pointed out with his remark about ‘time’ being the most commonly-written noun in the English language (with ‘year’ and ‘day’ being 3rd and 5th) – still struggling with the claim that seemed to be arising that time did not exist. Marie (I think it was) said that she saw it every morning when she looked in the mirror.

I responded that what you see is the events that make up the rush to death, not time. Time is what we measure it in (years), the events occur irrespective of the measure. Bob cited Newton and that time and space is immense and eternal and that it was God that created it (or did he say that was/is God? He lost me there as neither God nor time are concepts which exist to me). I agree that events will occur eternally and that space is endless (Buzz Lightyear’s ‘To infinity and beyond!’ comes to mind)  and that, again, it is our need to cope with that mind-bending reality which, as Kant suggest, is actually so beyond us, we create a language (in words, mathematical theory, cosmology and physics) to comprehend it. And we do so in error.

Furthermore, Bob suggested that, ironically, the more physicists knew about time, the more fuzzy and elusive it became. Which it naturally would do, if it doesn’t actually exist.  For example, his reading of the 2008 competition for the world’s leading theoretical physicists on ‘The Nature of Time’ saw a plurality of interesting possibilities, rather than a synergy of evidence and consolidation of post-Einsteinian theory.

Indeed, the most impressive opinion that Bob had all night, I thought, was when he said ‘Science (physics) needs philosophy.’ It might just give us cause to ponder the nature of the question, rather than seek purely the answer.

Ps. The next Tintern Philosophy Circle (pub philosophy) is on 19th July (always the 3rd Tuesday, except in August, when there’s a garden party) and is on ‘The meaning of ought (and on what authority do we say it and what do we mean?)’ with Prof. Ray Billington at 7.30pm. See you there.
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