A wrinkle in the concept of time

We may try to measure time, but we truly experience it.
December 12, 2012

Our concept of time, to this day, is constantly being discussed and amended. Physics tries to explain time as another dimension, one that is also dependent on space. This space-time concept has been adopted and revised since its arrival to the human thought process. It describes how time can be looked at and measured through distances of space, thus showing how the universe works on large and small scales. Physicists have accounted for the measurements of a billionth of a nanosecond.

But these are only measurements of a thing that no one can quite define. If you learned that a photon — a particle of light — can move from one point to another in “zero time,” you used the concept of the speed of light. This photon, however, does not experience time, and because of that, it does not experience distance. We can still see that light, though. In the instant of that photon’s seemingly timeless life, it manifested itself to us. The energy, wavelength and gravity that are carried by a photon are all made timeless by the speed of light.

So, if the energy handed over by photons has no time, the photons themselves are timeless and gravity is also theoretically timeless, then how does time exist?

Are we measuring units of consistency, or are we determining something else, something dependent on our perceived recordings of progressing events?

Maybe our definition of time is only becoming more warped because we try to apply an objective scale of measurement. Our measurements of time are no more than our own definition of time itself. In essence, we apply our own meaning to time.

If time is ultimately measured by human consciousness, what meaning have we given to it?

The human brain experiences time but does not fully perceive it. Our minds are able to take sensory stimuli and apply it to our remembered consciousness. This “taking in” isn’t constant, however.

Instead, it’s like many frames per second, where we take in images and sounds, and our brains put those images and sounds together. We are never experiencing the past. We can only bring that up as an abstract notion; we can only live in the present. This is called “cognitive assumption,” and it is the main way we experience that passage of time.

Perhaps this cognitive subjectivity of time is comparable to that of language. It is something we have created, which in turn has helped us further define and create things based on our definition of time.

Does humanity have universal standards for experiencing time? Delving into the realm of temporariness may be a sound basis of gauging time.

Since humankind has been able to think consciously, it has pursued the concept of an “end.” Death is a central component to most religions, and even those who are not theists have focused on the implications of mortality.

A foreseeable end, what many would simply consider “death,” is what gives meaning to the being of time. Philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that one’s sense of being was time itself. That is, the essence of being is to live in a temporary existence. Life is finite, which means time is also finite. Death, then, is the completion of being.

Carl Sagan once said that we are the universe experiencing itself. Since the beginning of this potentially infinite universe, time has been warped by space and distance, making it unpredictable as a set of data that can be observed. Instead, time is experienced relatively and, by human standards, only stops when we do.

Comment Policy

The Minnesota Daily welcomes thoughtful discussion on all of our stories, but please keep comments civil and on-topic. Read our full guidelines here.
Minnesota Daily Serving the University of Minnesota Community since 1900