Monday, November 4, 2013

How to Think about Time

Somewhere in Time

Ah, Daylight Savings Time: all the fun of a mild case of jet lag without the hassle of actual travel.

Am I right?

The hunger cramps at weird hours of the day, the extra daylight or darkness at unexpected times, the general crankiness....

The question of why we still observe Daylight Savings Time is hotly debated, but perhaps more interesting would be the questions associated with how and why we mark time the way that we do.

How We Mark Time:

Perhaps you're one of the lucky souls who has never given too much thought to the nature of how we count time. If so, I'm almost sorry to bring it up.

Let me distill the discussion as simply as I can. Basically, there are two schools of thought regarding how we mark time. 

(There are actually way more than two schools of thought, but unless you're feeling up to debating the duality of quantum field theories, the structure of the space time continuum, and the basic tenets of existentialism, -- not to mention the underlying questions of ontology, epistemology, and the possible existence of the Time Lords -- you're just going to have to cool your jets and settle for these two basic ones.)

The first school of thought is easily grasped: in this system, there are a past, a present, and a future, through which you are constantly moving. Whether you see yourself as moving forward through time toward approaching dates or whether you see yourself as standing still as time moves toward you supposedly says something important about you and how you perceive your place in the universe. But we won't bother with that just now. 

In the second school of thought, the way in which we count time is merely a social construct which helps us make sense of our experiences. (This concept tends to make my brain feel a bit wibbly if I think about it for too long.) Within this system, we merely exist (in the present, to borrow from the vocabulary of the first school). The past and the future do not actually exist as such, but are mere philosophical constructs developed to help us make sense of what is going on.

But let's face it: unless you work in the field of quantum mechanics, this argument is of little practical value; and if you are working in quantum mechanics, you're unlikely to be reading this blog. 

So let's move on, shall we? 

Because the question of why we count time is much more interesting.

Why We Count Time: 

In order for something to merit being counted in the first place, it has to meet certain criteria:
  • We take a head count before leaving a theme park because no matter how irritating they might have become throughout the day, each child in our care carries great value and is irreplaceable. 
  • We work a monthly budget in order to know ahead of time how to allocate our limited resources. After all, we can't spend that we don't have. (At least... we shouldn't.)
  • We check a recipe against the stores in our cupboard before cooking because each ingredient is important. You may be able to bake cookies if you're low on sprinkles, but without flour or eggs, you might as well give up.
Basically, we count time because of its value, limit, and importance.

Time is money. You've heard that cliche, of course, and you no doubt attest to its truth. But it's only true to a point. An investment of cash will often pay dividends down the road, earning you more money in the long run.  But no matter how you choose to spend your time, you'll never earn any more of it.

I suppose a case could be made here for a healthy lifestyle. It's true that time invested in exercise and relaxation could prolong your life in the long run, theoretically earning you more time. There are, of course, exceptions. 

But I have little need to convince you of of the value of time. Most of us clearly demonstrate by our actions that we pay infinitely more attention to our time than we do to money. Think of how many times throughout the day you check your bank account versus how often you check a clock, and you'll see what I mean.

No matter what we do or what we believe, we can all agree that our time is limited.

Hence the counting.

Because of the sheer limits of time, we wrestle against everything that attempts to suck our allotment away from us. We hoard the minutes, clutching at them even as they drip through our fingers. We resent anything that wastes an instant of our time, knowing that once lost, those silver drops can never be recaptured.

"But wait," the Christian might argue. "What about the eternality of the soul? How does that mesh with your statements regarding the limits of time, hmmmm?"

I'm really glad that you brought that up, actually, because it allows me to acknowledge the ongoing theological debate regarding whether or not we will actually count time during the eternal state. After all, due to the radiance of God's glory, there will be no need for a sun or moon (Rev. 7:16), meaning that our external stimuli for counting time will be absent. Furthermore, in the eternal state, the limits on time will be removed. What, then, would be the point in counting time? 

I feel it important to note that there will, however, be music in heaven, and it's hard to imagine music without some sort of counting involved.

So there's that.

And since heaven is, at any rate, another dimension of reality entirely, perhaps it does not do for us to spin theories based solely on our (admittedly imperfect) working knowledge of the operation of elements and laws within this dimension.

So there's also that.

So rather than losing ourselves in these intriguing but impractical debates regarding the eternal state, let's consider the more immediate implications.

Let us choose instead to focus on making our time count now.

* * * * *

This post bubbled forth as the result of having read the following books and spent way too much time contemplating the nature of time. Each of these in some way played a part in the development of this post.

I commend them to you with great enthusiasm.

Recommended Reading:

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