Time

23 Jan

Years ago, as a student zoologist I was friendly with a young physicist – a fundamentalist Christian. I was pretty stuck on Darwin and Wallace’s evolutionary theory and a confirmed agnostic so we had lots of pithy arguments over a pint or three of Boddingtons best bitter in the Barnes Wallace Building – UMIST student union. Our watering hole in the late 70’s.

God, the Nature of the Universe, beer and girls – a great combination.

The evening would always end with us both a bit the worse for wear and with him a little upset.  I was, in his view, going straight to hell and he was going to heaven.

My friend believed in celibacy before marriage, I believed I urgently needed to get laid.

On one subject we did find common ground. We were both fascinated by the Nature of Time and whether it could be perceived.

I argued that because living creatures lack an organ for sensing time, we could, therefore not perceive it directly. Thus a vertebrate or cephalopod eye, in conjunction with the central nervous system converts the electromagnetic energy patterns of light, via chemical reactions and tiny electromagnetic impulses fueled by membrane biochemistry into what we understand to be visual cognition in the cortex. We sense light changes directly.

My friend argued that we could measure time and that it was a fundamental property of the physical Universe. No argument there then.

He agreed that it was changes in the physical world: heat loss, radioactive decay, senescence, rot – governed by the laws of Thermodynamics, that we measure time by. We cannot perceive Time directly, only the changes affected by it.

Of course we are able to deduce that time passes because living things are born, grow old and die, rock formations are generated through chemistry and igneous processes and then are eroded, or transformed under pressure or, again, chemistry. Everything is changing in the universe.

Although we lack a time sensitive organ, we possess a very powerful tool of perception – our imagination.


The thought experiment I used to play with when drinking with my pal was a model I called Flatland.

Consider: we organisms live in a four dimensional universe: 3 cardinal perpendicular axes X, Y and Z of movement and all under the influence of time (the fourth dimension). We can see and feel up, down, left, right, fore and back and around, but we do not ‘see’ or ‘feel’ time – we just know it is there because of constant change to the physical, chemical and biological domains.

In Flatland creatures move and grow in two dimensions – as if restricted to a sheet of paper. Flatpeople would only ever perceive the perimeter of another Flatperson as they bump into each other, and move around them. They would be able to deduce each other’s general shape by moving all around each other. They might even have primitive light sensitive organs that recognise Flatpeople edges.

Consider a three dimensional sphere moving perpendicularly through Flatland. A Flatperson would perceive a point expanding to a circular perimeter and contracting back to a dot before disappearing. They would not be able to perceive that a third dimension exists from this, they know about Time because Flatpeople die eventually. A smart Flatperson might observe that an unusual Flatnomenon had occurred – a body had spontaneously appeared, expanded, shrunk and then disappeared – what could have caused this?

You see the problem? We in our three dimensional physical world are very aware of changes, but we cannot grasp the Nature of Time itself. But although the Flatperson cannot deduce the existence of spheres – they might be able to imagine their theoretical existence and build a 2-D model.

So might we be able to model time as it actually is in 3 dimensions?

As I spend time with my Dad in his 86th year I am aware of great changes. And yet I am also deeply aware that, because I share many of his characteristics, Time itself connects us. I can see the changes I will endure in him.

This awareness is tempered by deep love and affection between us. This I can feel, this I know.

I would be prepared to consider the possibility that Time itself is the best evidence of a God. It is universal, unknowable and connects all living and non-living things.

In the end, Time, like Love heals all.

2 Responses to “Time”

  1. Ian January 23, 2016 at 10:47 pm #

    Interestingly I remember having some similar discussions with you Henk- I also now know that it is possible to expand the consciousness beyond the limits of space & time, which allows you to know that time itself has limits, and only arises in the universe when the self identifies with the mind/personality. As you rightly say the normal self that is our everyday identity can never grasp the nature of time, but some of time’s mysteries can be revealed by the “higher self” which knows that its true nature is beyond the limits of the physical universe, time and indeed the mind.

    • woodenhenk January 24, 2016 at 8:02 am #

      I’ve experienced full blown psychoses in which time and perception of time appear to shift. I find the repetitive nature of woodwork meditative and can put me in a very receptive state too.

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