Why it’s time we abandoned the notion we live in the present, have a past and are heading for the future

Time is one of the most complex and paradoxical of subjects that one can discuss.

Some scientists say there’s no such thing as time, only change, clock time being a human construct or artifice, what we call ‘time’ being an illusion — just a method for measuring perpetual change, or the rate of change.

But aren’t time and change the same thing? Can there be one without the other? Do we need a concept of time as well as of change? Well, the word ‘time’ comes from the Old English tīma which has Proto-Germanic origins cognate with ‘tide’, strongly suggesting synonymity with change.

Ronald Green’s position, in his new book Time to Tell: A look at how we tick (Iff Books, UK £16.99 / US $27.95, November 2018), is that there is no time in a universal sense, only personal, subjective time, and that that’s dependent upon where you are — that, following Einstein, time is relative. Clocks do not tick time at different (subjective) rates; they do so only in relation to each other.

Time to Tell is one of those few books that has the potential to change the way you look at the world. Carefully reasoned and rewardingly insightful in its contribution to a ‘timely’ debate, it embodies a remarkable depth of discussion and argument, and is fearless in dismantling taken-for-granted perceptions. Eminently readable, with a plethora of allusions from literature, science and popular culture, it’s a valuable contribution to the long-running debate.

University lecturer Green comments on the ‘presupposition’ that there is no time without change: ‘nothing passes for the person who is unconscious. Time is relevant only for a conscious person’. But if the person dreams, there is a sense of time passing. In meditation or a drug-induced state time might seem to stand still, but it doesn’t. Consensus time does pass.

There are different ideas about the nature of temporal awareness, as there are contrasting conceptions of the nature and macrocosmic structure and composition of time itself, for example, regarding the time of the universe as a whole.

Arrow of time

But there’s no doubt, as Green says, that we feel the strength and reality of our perceptions that time passes, that we feel ‘now’ to be a fact. Not only does everyone experience things happening — change — but that cause and effect is universal. The ‘arrow of time’, in the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington’s phrase, is progressive change from the past through our perceptions of the present to the future.

Green maintains, though, that time exists not merely because people think it does. Time is as much qualitative as it is quantitative. We should not confuse measurement of time, a human invention, with time itself, ‘an intrinsic part of human nature’.

It’s our behaviour and reactions within time that determine its speed for us. It doesn’t matter that the same length of time, according to the clock, will have passed for a person having fun as for another person being bored. Perception of time is personal and subjective.

Green is particularly convincing when debunking the New Age and Buddhist blandishments — such as those by the spiritual author Eckhart Tolle — to live in the ‘eternal now’. He points out that ‘now’ is actually a non-event that one never actually alights on because, instantaneously, it moves back to the past, with ones expanding past and contracting future a natural consequence. This is an important change in thinking, a new way of looking at time and life.

Rather than looking to ‘now’, he says, and the present as the ‘intuitive hook’ on which to hang our well-being, it is the instantly moving ‘now’ that affords stability within the relativity of everything in nature. It doesn’t mean things in the world ‘out there’ don’t exist, but that we begin to see them differently.

‘The beauty of the moving now is that it gives an explanation of how things work in time — in fact, how time works. It is a logical description of the impossibility of now and the present as a part of time, and that its untouchability, immeasurability and indefiniteness are the reason for the vicissitudes of the past and future, and the continuously changing self,’ he writes.

Ever-sliding now

‘It is, surely, time to overturn the common perception that we are creatures with a past, who move through a present and have a future that makes available to us a series of possibilities. It is not that we are creatures with a past, but rather that we are creatures in a past that is constantly moving as part of what we think we are.’ So, always marooned in the ever-sliding now, subjectively we project the past and the future.

But whether time flows forward, or moves in other ways, our subjective experience would surely always be the same. We would always find ourselves in that ubiquitous but elusive ‘now’ extending seamlessly backwards in memory and forwards in imagination.

Crucially, Green asserts, it is the phenomenon of not observing change as it happens that creates the feeling of ‘living in the moment’, the so-called present, while actually, we experience change only after it has happened. Therefore, in the absence, the impossibility, of the present — more of a mirage than a fact — it is the past that is the anchor of our existence. The past moves continuously back into memory.

He says: ‘There is no such thing as ‘a road not taken’ when it refers to the past. Both free will and fate are always about the road that was taken. Faced with a decision about the future, all roads are not yet taken … Whether we call it fate, predestination, destiny, determinism, foreknowledge, prescience, preordination or pre determination, the results are unknown until they happen.’

Nearly a third of the book is taken up with an exhaustive, and exhausting, discussion of memory and history. One of the reasons why time seems to pass is founded on the way our memories accumulate.

Sense of self

But the whole issue of memory is a minefield, Green warns, with doubt surrounding the accuracy of our memories, and even the genuineness of some of them — with all the implications that has for the existence of a ‘true self’, our memories being so integral to the sense of self. The further we move away from individual memories, the less distinct they become and the more susceptible to alteration.

Language, of course, is problematised when referring to ‘time’. As the computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup suggests, ‘space’ and ‘time’ are ‘language ghosts’ — they seem to exist as independent entities only because we conceptualise them in words. They can’t be defined without reference to themselves.

Time is a paradox, Green agrees, ‘a moving dissonance within itself, fragmented and approximate’. Things are never what they seem. What they really are we might never know; ‘time’ will tell.

* Born in London, now living in Israel, Ronald Green (author also of Nothing Matters: A book about nothing, O-Books, 2011) has an MA in linguistics with post-graduate studies in linguistics and philosophy at Oxford University. As a lecturer and ESL teacher, he has lectured and given workshops in Europe, North and South America and the Middle East on linguistics, ESL and the use of the internet in education. He has had 13 ESL books published. He has published short stories and has completed a philosophical novel, and co-authored a psychological thriller which has strong philosophical underpinnings.