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Flow of time: reality or illusion?

Real time of space-time is one of the dimensions on which we comprehend and describe reality. Time neither flows, nor flies, or drags on; it doesn’t run out and is not a commodity that can be wasted. But human feelings and sensations of the passage of time are diametrically different: human time flows, speeds up or slows down. We can also be short of it, or we can be called time-wasters. So, human time does not appear to be in the least like physicist’s time. And yet they are intimately related: the first emerged from the latter, together with humans, their consciousness, societies they built, and languages they speak.

But what exactly is this flow of time? And what do different languages tell us about the nature of human time? What theories can we plausibly put forward in philosophy, psychology, anthropology, or linguistics (to name a few) to explain this phenomenon? Does it even exist in the first place, or, perhaps, as many philosophers argue, the feeling of time passing is merely an illusion? Perhaps it is not a sensation of time flow but instead a sensation of something else, like the experienced change of events that we describe to ourselves erroneously as the flow of something we just call “time,” to give this big unknown a helpful label. Time becomes that thing that we (think we) experience, and an entrenched concept in our beliefs (say, that time passes quickly or slowly), knowledge (that death is inevitable), or fears (that I am going to be late).

Speaking about time

In order to understand human time, we have to ask not only how we think and speak about time but also what it is that makes us think and speak about it in a certain way. We have to look into the experience of time passing, the relation between time and emotions, or the role of time in understanding the evolving (and ageing) self. An important source of information is expressions we use for locating events in time. This can be done through grammar (grammatical tense, such as past, present or future), aspect (such as an activity being in progress or being completed), and modality (such as certainty or the mere possibility of an event); the repository of “time words” a language has (yesterday; in September; within six hours); and through the implied, suggested meanings where the sentence does not contain any of the above overt devices because the specification of the location in time would feel redundant, as in:

A: Shall we watch Netflix?

B: I’m doing my homework.

What languages reveal and hide

Languages do fascinating things with time. In some, like English, a sentence clearly indicates whether an event has already happened, is happening, or will happen. Other languages do no such thing: they have no grammatical tenses. And these are not just flukes of human invention—examples are ample: Yucatec Maya, Mandarin Chinese, Paraguayan Guaraní, Burmese (Sino-Tibetan), Dyirbal (Australian Aboriginal, Pama-Nyungan), West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut, Eskimo-Aleut), Hopi (Uto-Aztecan), or Hausa (Chadic, Afroasiatic), to name a few. Yet others, like Thai, use their tenses sparingly. This opens up the possibility to draw attention to different aspects of the same reality through different ways of speaking about it—perhaps focusing not on when, but on how exactly, to what extent; or whether what the speaker is saying is reliable or just hearsay. Or perhaps whether the event is desired or not.

The latter can be exemplified in Yucatec Maya. For example:

Tàak in               xok-ik                le         periyòodiko-o’

DES 1Sg            read-INC(3Sg)  DEF      newspaper

“I want/wanted/will want to read the paper.”

Adapted from Bohnemeyer, Jürgen, 2002. The Grammar of Time Reference in Yukatek Maya. München: Lincom Europa, p. 6

“DES” is a marker of desiderative aspect-mood. It shows that the grammar of Yucatec Maya foregrounds the fact that reading the newspaper is the speaker’s wish. This information takes precedence over information as to whether the object of the wish was, is, or will be the case, which remains unspecified. “INC” stands for a grammatical marker of the incomplete status of the activity of reading a newspaper, “1/3Sg” for the grammatical person and number (compare English “I” and “it”), and “DEF” for a marker of definiteness (compare English “the”).

Moreover, the human understanding of time can follow the “time stays we go” way or the “time flows” way, as in examples (1) and (2) respectively, both using the metaphorical schema of time as space.

  1. We are approaching the New Year.
  2. The New Year is approaching.

This can be done by viewing the future as lying ahead of us, as in English, or as being behind us, unknown, and as such still hidden from view, as in Māori. And yet, most linguists and philosophers agree that what lurks under the surface of this immense cross-linguistic variation is something universally human—something imposed on our conceptualization of reality by the very fact that we are human and share the human way of perceiving and processing reality; we are born and then endure through life, stringing along everything that happens as part of one story: a life story.

Once we have reached this level of understanding of human time—time as weaving life stories by humans, on the level of reality on which human consciousness emerged—we can go so much further. We can begin to understand that, ultimately, the universe may not have any “past” or “future” written into them; or it may not even have an “arrow of time,” but instead be symmetrical, directionless. And then we can go back and ask again: If the universe does not have flowing time, or even is directionless, then how is the experience of flowing time possible? Perhaps it itself is an illusion? And how can we get to the bottom of this feeling of time passing? At that point, possible answers are beginning to emerge.

Getting together

The sensation that we call the passage of time and the concept of time itself are still big unknowns. But chipping at human time from the direction of the nature of the universe on the one hand and human nature on the other has recently produced important dents in this unknown. For example, we are beginning to understand how free will can be reconciled with the tenet that it emerged from the universe where the past and the future might be equally determined in that the universe itself might be symmetrical. We are also beginning to understand how the immense diversity with which we express temporal thoughts in different languages and cultures is only a patina on something universal. We are also getting better at scientific accounts of the incorrect judgements of time intervals and their causes—that is, time “speeding up” or “slowing down,” say, under the influence of emotions. But all this takes dedicated, concerted, inter- and cross-disciplinary efforts to tackle this big unknown, to understand human time—serious conceptual and experimental work but generating lots of excitement and fun in the process!

Featured image via Unsplash (public domain)

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