The Thinking Poet


Does Time Flow 1998?


Pooh-sticks Analogy

The question presupposes a metaphor:that of a stream of water.Sunrise is followed by sunset, a fact which perhaps suggests a game of Pooh-sticks.Participants drop sticks from a bridge on the command "go!", then race to the other side to watch them emerge.Each stick represents a single event, and one event is seen to follow anotherin the race.The sticks are carried by the stream which seems to offer itself as an analogy for "time".Our demand for something to be the bearer of passing events is satisfied.

The stream flows irrespective of sticks.Water is swept along in ceaseless flow, thus providing a vehicle for events like the flow of floating sticks.

Is the stream, then, a good analogy for time? Consider the implications.Because the stream flows continually it has the capacity to carry "events" along with it provided the "events" are engaged with the water.

But do all physical phenomena inevitably become engaged with time? Our observation of the macroscopic seems to answer, "yes", sunsets follow sun-risesw like floating Pooh-sticks.The microscopic is less predictable.Surely though the analogy fails because both the stream and that which floats on it are physical phenomena, whereas"time" is not.Time is an abstraction, the conjectured medium for physical events.As such it cannot itself be physical.

In the analogy:

(1) The stream floats whether there are floating bodies on it or not.

(2) Any floating object is subject to movement by virtue of the stream's flow.But if "time" is non-physical how can it be said to flow or to give motion to physical objects? In what sense could a non-physical abstraction be said to flow?

Our planet spins on its axis.Tides change.Eclipses of the sun and moon are predictable.We tabulate change on calendars, tide-tables, and almanacs.But do these changes depend upon a supporting medium, or are they simply changes that are quantified by an arbitrarily chosen physical standard? Michael Shallis (1) has no hesitation in stating that:

"Time flows and many timekeeping devices demonstrate this flow."

As an illustration he cites the unidirectional flow of sand in an hour-glass.This, he says, models the flow of time.

We quantify "time", an abstraction, by means of phenomena ranging from the earth's passage round the sun to that of atomic pulsations.

A musical example

Orchestral music may perhaps shed light on the question.Music is composed of sequential patterns of sound.Its performance is in both the spatial and time domain: spatially, since different simultaneous sounds are distributed amongst the performers; in time, since the flow of sound must be controlled by a conductor.The flow of music is prescribed by a metronome-marking.In other words it is the music that flows (subject to rallentandos and accelerandos) in synchronism with a clock.It is the music that flows, not time.


The counter argument to Leibniz's reductionist position

In the case of time, the counter argument goes, it follows that there can be no time without change.If we seek to treat a period of time as a collection of events, we could not have a temporal vacuum.It would be a contradiction to speak of an interval containing no events if an interval is just a certain collection of events.

With reference to this counter argument, consider the musical analogy of "a temporal vacuum"; namely "the rest".The "rest" in music is pregnant with meaning (ref. Ted Hughes' poem:"Fern"), and is an essential part of the whole.A musical "rest" is an interval containing no musical events as such.Yet the interval of a "rest" is timed in the minds of musicians (particularly in that of the conductor) by an indicated metronome marking.It can truly be said that bars of rest have the potential for musical notes.

"Time" in music might therefore be defined as a succession of bars whose duration is synchronised to a clock, the contents of each bar being either actual or potential sound-events.The beat is implicit in each successive bar whether of "rest" or content.

Time an abstraction

From this analogy time is seen to be a descriptive word; "time is flow", rather than "time flows".The word "time" is an abstraction used to designate any situation in which an actual or implicit beat exists.It is used to extract from phenomena the idea of events in juxtaposition with an explicit or implied regularity.Widely differing examples of regularities are the cyclic movement of the heavenly bodies, the earth's spin, a drum-beat, or a metronome.An hour-glass or burning candle have to be calibrated by means of a clock.They are therefore secondary manifestations of regularity.

The Cambridge neo-Platonists persuaded Newton to believe that space and time have existence independently of the contents of space and time.These are systems of spatial and temporal items which cannot be treated reductionistically.We do not directly observe the properties of space and time but infer them in the course of developing theories.

In physics we frequently infer the existence of unobservables, e.g. fields and quarks.A quark is born of logical necessity as revealed by mathematics.

Representational understanding, says Reginald Kapp (2), is associated with one's own personal, subjective capacity for experience.The physicist's aim is to find aspects of reality that cannot be thus associated.Objectivity, in the physicist's sense of the word, and representational understanding are irreconcilable.Attempts at representational understanding are therefore not so much misplaced as misleading.They are efforts at replacing true concepts by false ones.

Herbert Dingle (3) makes a similar distinction between what Kapp refers to as "deductive" and "representational" understanding.As an example Dingle chooses the concept of "light" which is a "clip" employed to connect in our understanding an object like a star to an observing astronomer."But now", says Dingle, "mark what happens.Since independent existence is being distributed, light demands its quota thereof, and no sooner is it invented for the purpose of revealing the object to the subject than it is accredited with all the qualities of an object itself.It is something existing in the external world, and the fact that, in acquiring that status, it has destroyed its right to exist at all, is overlooked."

Dingle's conclusion is that something whose basic function it is to reveal material objects cannot itself be a material object, or we should want another something to reveal it, and so on ad infinitum.

The conclusion is , I believe, equally applicable to the concepts of space and time.They assist us in our deductive understanding of the behaviour of material objects but unlike them they have no material existence.This conclusion may well relate to those reached by W.H.Newton-Smith (4) and Michael Shallis (5) :-

Whether the General Theory of Relativity favours reductionism or substantialism or is neutralbetween them is an open question.The only conclusion that can be drawn with confidence is that there will be no purely philosophical nor purely physical resolution of this controversy. (Newton-Smith)

"If I had to encapsulate what we have learned about time from our cosmology it would be to say that we appear to have abstracted time, to have lost it or simply that we have passed time by." (Shallis)

Physical time is what Berdyaev (6) calls objectification.The formulated concepts of science which result from objectification impose a continual demand for explanation upon the analytic mind.What Berdyaev terms the "not-I" assumes the dominant role over the inner "Thou".The participating observer is replaced by a detached observer for whom all experience becomes a "thing", a concrete abstraction."Time" becomes a quantified reality.

There is a certain innateness or "feeling" associated with time and duration which defies explanation on a purely semantic level.They possess a basic or axiomatic meaning from which all other meaning is derived.To demand meaning of axiomatic meaning is regressive.

The clock of brain

Not only do we perceive change in the phenomenal world but we have the innate sense to quantify that change.Perhaps this is not surprising since physiological and psychological investigations reveal that we possess an awareness of time as measured by an anatomical clock. Biological time appears to be correlated with the finite space occupied by the neural network of the brain.Neural activity is limited to some part of this whole net, and it is the localised activity which becomes for us present consciousness.Neural activity appears to proceed sequentially, and it is this flow of activity with which, possibly, we associate the notion of "flow of events" in time.

There is a parallel between the flux-structure of a computer and that of the brain.Each instruction-time of a computer may be sub-divided into sub-events, and each sub-event is defined by the computer's bit-time, the smallest increment of time possible within the operations of the machine.In the brain we may speak of "a neuron firing" as a sub-event.The interval between such sub-events is governed by the transmission-time of the nerve fibres, and the brain rhythms."Time", then, is translated into neural activity.

Michael Lockwood (7) seems to endorse the idea of an anatomical clock and its relation to our perception of time.All contrived clocks invented by man are correlated with states of ourselves, so that:-

"We ourselves parceive the world as changing, only because we refer the states of things to certain preferred states of ourselves.And these preferred states both contain, and are ordered on the basis of "clock readings" of our brains."

The idea being presented is that it is the clock-like nature of our central nervous system that establishes the ground of our subjective being.It is this that makes "time" conceptually axiomatic, and which endows our experience with that quality we call flow in the context of "streams of consciousness".


Ron Cretchley 4.11.98



(1) (5) Michael Shallis: "Time and Cosmology" "The Nature of Time" Ed. Flood and Lockwood Blackwell

(2) Reginald O.Kapp: "Towards a Unified Cosmology" Hutchinson 1960

(3) Herbert Dingle: "The Scientific Adventure" Philosophical Library NY

(4) W.H.Newton-Smith: "Space, Time and Space-Time;A Philosopher's View "The Nature of Time" Ed. Flood and Lockwood Blackwell

(6) Nicolas Berdyaev: "The Beginning and the End" Geoffrey Bles 1952

(7) Michael lockwood: "Mind, Brain and the Quantum-The Compound 'I`" Blackwell 1989