Some reflections on time

Sarma 1 Aug 1999English

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Contextual note
This text was first published on Sarma on the occasion of its colloquium 'Unfolding the Critical' (March 2003), where Alexander Baervoets took part in a dialogue.
test : try to measure one minute

although we measure time very often in daily life,
nobody can tell with exactitude how long is one minute without watching a clock
how do we measure time?

before we can answer this question,
we have to define time:
what is time?

in science, there is a long tradition in avoiding this question
the temporal aspect has in most theories been subordinated to the spatial aspect
time was commonly seen as the fourth dimension which adds nothing essential to the nature of
things: it is simply a matter of duration, and is visualised as a geometrical straight line

to the Greek philosopher Aristotle though, nature was “a principle of movement and change” that could not be understood without an analysis of time
his more holistic view on reality has only recently gained more consideration and now we are seeming to learn that to understand the nature of things we must be able to examine processes at work
to examine processes, we will not try to eliminate any “disturbing” factors to come to a laboratory situation, but, on the contrary, we will try to take into consideration the maximum of information

weather for instance is a process - if you know that water evaporates, forms clouds and eventually pours down, you still don’t know anything about how to predict the weather
until recently, weather was regarded as a series of events with a random character
now we see weather as a very complicated process, so complicated we call it ‘chaos’

so, in our time we have come to understand time as a relevant factor in nature - and if we hear choreographers these days say that they prefer process oriented work to product oriented work (and I am one of them) we could say that these choreographers share the same insights as the scientists these days
(artists these days are not very often scientists - maybe that is why the exchange with the sciences takes such a long time to establish itself nowadays)

we still haven’t defined time

when I was a young child, I often lay in bed wondering when time had started
there had to be a beginning, but if it had started at some point, then what was there before it started?

the old philosophers sort of were puzzled in the same, be it more articulated way
many of them eventually turned to God as the final solution
God had created the universe and that was when time had begun

now I would say that time has started with man
and that time as such does not exist
time is a matter of perception
time is a concept, an idea, not a thing
time is about relations between things, or events, or maybe even things
(I’ll come back to this)

in fact, the best way to visualise time is to see it in terms of space
time is space
I don’t say this with any scientific pretension
I am not a scientist
I am just trying to be practical
if time is a matter of perception
we have to consider that we can only know space through perception too
our understanding of both time and space has to do with perception
perception is always coloured, we cannot perceive in an abstract or absolute way
it is only because we can actually ‘see’ space, that we think we have a better understanding of it than is the case with time which we can only kind of sense
in fact, our perception of space is as limited as that of time

we can never imagine the totality of space
and we can never imagine the totality of time

if we cannot imagine the totality of time
should we bother with it being absolute or not?
again, we can only know time through perception
so, our understanding of time will always be relative

if, for practical reasons, we have come to measure time (clocks)
this doesn’t mean that absolute time actually exists
clock time is only a convention
(and even having experienced it for a whole lifetime, we are unable to estimate the duration of one minute)
we experience time quite differently when asleep or awake
or when we are waiting for somebody against to having fun
or when we are ill or well
or when we are young or old

everybody experiences time differently all the time
and it can change from one minute to the next
- so, do we care about absolute time?
does it help us (apart from catching the train)? -
all these islands of time or fields of time
can exist simultaneously
when we look at people passing by in the street,
they all have different speeds, different energies, different heartbeats
they live in different time fields
this therefore does not necessarily result in clashes
it does not avoid people to meet
isn’t that wonderful?

I was saying that you could compare time to space
well, for instance, if somebody is sitting close to you (in space)
it takes little time to reach him or her
if somebody is further away
it takes more time to meet
this is a very simple image

when we look at this on a larger scale, the universe,
we notice that to measure great distances (in space)
we use the speed of light as a standard (light years)
meaning, we speak in terms of time
- so, yes we can measure the distance between things in terms of time

when we look at the stars, I am told,
many of them already died out billions of earth years ago
so, in fact, this means that looking in space is looking in time

this is all very complicated, I know
still, here is another one
if you cannot be in two different spaces at the same time,
then you cannot be at two different times in the same space
- I probably would have to put a question mark here -

we always imagine space from our earth base
we always imagine walls and a floor
I think we live in a rather extraordinary situation
if you would imagine being in ‘outer’ space
you could not possibly tell where you are
unless you relate it to one specific heavenly body
as Einstein said, there are no fixed points in space
there are no limits, there is no centre
the whole universe is moving continuously

our perception of time and space on earth have no absolute value
they are specific to the situation on earth

now it is about time to come to the point
we have spoken about absolute time, the relativity of time
and our perception of time

our perception of time is so flexible
that man has imagined ways of fooling one another with time
in ancient Greek theatre it was a rule that a dramatic action
would take place in the range of 24 hours
people would attend to a play that maybe lasted for two hours
and imagined the action taken place there to have lasted for a whole day
we call this symbolic time
you could compare it to the sensation of time in a dream

in movement however, you cannot fake time
movement is essentially dealing with duration
you cannot reduce or extend the duration of a movement
you can have symbolic gesture, but not symbolic movement
a movement is a movement
a movement does not refer as such
to become symbolic, it has to be filled with meaning
still, when the movement is left to refer only to itself
it speaks about time and space
a step is a step in space
and a step is a step in time
we call this real time
and we know it has only relative value

still, we have not defined time