The Neverending Story: Navigating The Mysteries of Time

It is out of laziness that the world is the same day after day. (Jean-Paul Sartre)

The “ship of Theseus” was an ancient philosophical dilemma that arose out of the quest to define human identity. According to Plutarch, the Athenians “took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers … one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” Similarly, our body is made of cells, most of which are continuously replaced with new ones. Since everything about us — physical matter, appearance, beliefs, habits, and preferences — remains in perpetual flux, what differentiates the amorphous entity that travels through our life from the ship of Theseus?

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Imagine that you started a diary as soon as you learned to write. Instead of a matter-of-factly recount of events, you have been meticulously capturing your experience of them. Every time you go over your diary, you revisit your life through the eyes of a naïve child, a tormented adolescent, a reckless teenager, an ambitious young adult… And you often find it hard to believe that the entire diary was written by the same person.

When considering our identity, we are unlikely to simply list our defining attributes, as if describing a vacuum cleaner. Rather, we would probably arrange the mundane facts (and fantasies) of our life into a coherent narrative. While our stories may appear superficially different in content and style, all of them have the protagonist in the spotlight — the author of our imaginary diary, the immutable entity projected from the present into the past and the future. Both our personal identities and our social systems have been built on top of increasingly complex stories. Some of them are so fundamental to our individual and collective existence, suggests Yuval Harari, that deconstructing them could trigger a personal or even societal collapse.

It may feel natural to be proud of our achievements, struggle to imitate our role models, take pains to prove ourselves — and then instill the burden of self-judgment in our children. High self-esteem may act as a powerful motivator boosting our ambition, instilling perseverance, and raising confidence in our ability to meet future challenges. However, to take credit for our successes, we need to attribute them to our intrinsic virtues. And if no interpretation of our story makes us feel good about ourselves, we can usually find one that glorifies the real or imaginary successes of others. Although we may not end up following the example of Salieri literally (or even metaphorically, since the allegations of his role in Mozart’s death have been widely discredited), we may still poison our relationships with those who could otherwise offer genuine encouragement and support.

To remain inspirational, our high-maintenance life story must be written and rewritten, told and retold, day after day, keeping up with our inconsistent views and changing preferences. Our spontaneous (and often ill-conceived) decisions don’t always fit neatly into the story. It might be tempting to entertain fantasies about what we could’ve done “if only…” While counterfactuals are indispensable in learning from experience (and come in handy for running thought experiments), they could torture us with regret over “the road not taken” and the numerous missteps on the one we took. To escape the self-recriminating refrain, “How could I have …?”, we may end up reinterpreting and revising past events, denying or rationalizing our actions, and blaming others for our perceived mistakes. Meanwhile, we continue missing the ever-present opportunity to learn from them, make amends, and move on. With every hopeless effort to change the imaginary past, we face the growing challenge of defending an increasingly patchy story riddled with gaps and inconsistencies.

However, even these formidable practical inconveniences pale in comparison with the existential predicament of a vulnerable self-conscious organism apparently trapped inside a perishing vehicle on its brief journey across the meaningless universe. While experiencing itself as a separate fragment “looking out at an alien and threatening world,” says Joan Tollifson, this organism is hopelessly struggling to survive and succeed, get somewhere and be someone special. As we are faced with the impossible challenge of imbuing a temporary entity with persistent meanings, a soothing story that justifies our existence may be a preferable alternative to drowning our angst in stimulations and distractions.

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It is unnecessary to quote Kant and Heidegger to underscore the essential role of time in our experience of being in the world. We are asking for time, saving time, killing time, keeping time, tracking time, buying time, and sometimes, serving time. While it may not be physically tangible outside of our minds, observes Dean Buonomano, we perceive the passage of time much in the same way as we perceive the color of objects. In contrast with other perceptions, however, time doesn’t have a corresponding physical sense (such as color, sound, or temperature). Instead, we experience time as the quality of change.

Time first comes to animal and human minds through classical conditioning. Delayed reinforcement has proven much less effective than immediate reinforcement. If a rat isn’t rewarded in the first few seconds after having pressed the lever, it will fail to learn the behavior. Instead, it may develop curious superstitions by linking the reinforcement with whatever behavior it happened to perform during the delay, such as running around or scratching walls. And while our mental models may be more forgiving of delays when it comes to events with simple, unambiguous causes, delays also make it very hard for us to understand the behavior of complex systems.

The brains of all organisms, argues Buonomano, come equipped with abilities to navigate, sense, and represent space rather than time. When describing time, we therefore tend to fall back on spatial adjectives and adverbs. “The movie was too long”; “I’m looking forward to your reply”; “Christmas is close to New Year”. The connection makes intuitive sense, as the temporal and spatial intervals are strongly correlated. In fact, we can only learn to observe the latter. At school, we tend to use spatial metaphors (such as the timeline) for teaching time to kids. However, the learning of time starts much earlier, suggests Marc Wittmann, when a crawling baby experiences the duration it takes to cross the gap between herself and the toy. This experience creates the concept of a time interval, and more generally, the idea of the future.

When imagining time, we place the past behind us and the future in front of us. Time is passing us by, and events are approaching. But what is moving and what is standing still: Time, events, or us? It turns out, that depends on who you ask. For example, native Aymara speakers point forward when speaking about the past and gesture behind them when referring to the future. The idea of walking backward into the future appears, on reflection, to be most logical. After all, just as we can see what is in front of us, our memory reveals what happened in the past — it is the future that is invisible until we have passed it by.

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How exactly does the brain understand and track time? Physical processes unfold over time, and as a highly complex system, the brain may use its internal dynamics as a clock. But whatever the mechanism, it is clearly imprecise. Time flies when we’re having fun and slows down when we find ourselves in danger (or watch the pot that never boils). Some people are also much better than others at tracking the passage of time.

The present is no less of a construction than the future. According to Shaun Gallagher’s summary of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological analysis, “a succession of isolated, punctual, conscious states does not add up to a consciousness of succession.” The flow and duration of time are born between memory and anticipation. Listening to a melody never involves hearing each note separately. What was the present only a moment ago, points out Wittmann, belongs to the past in the next moment. Any conscious instant blends the immediately preceding experience with an openness to what is happening now and the anticipation of the experience that is about to happen. Just as the “middle” only makes sense in relation to the beginning and the end, observes Stephen Batchelor, the “present” only makes sense in relation to what has already gone and what is still to come. As soon as you discard the past and future, the idea of the present evaporates as well.

Similarly, our intuition about the moment-to-moment awareness appears inaccurate. We are only conscious of the time segments that capture meaningful events. As magic tricks demonstrate so clearly, our raw visual experience is edited by the brain to fit the most likely interpretation of the unfolding events. Contrary to the popular image, the stream of consciousness may be more like music than a movie. There are no static images comprising the film of our awareness. Rather, it evolves over time, discarding experiential “misfits” and promoting the sensory “evidence” (no matter how questionable) that fits seamlessly into the emerging narrative.

And to become personally meaningful, even the simplest experience must pass through the narrowest prism — its relationship to our self.

This story is best enjoyed as part of the The Uncharted Present series of articles, starting with an intro. If that’s how you got here, please continue to the next one.

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