Time is a sneaky thing. It looks like it’s real, but when you try and pin down exactly what it is, it all gets a bit fuzzy. Scientists for example tell us that the physical world operates within four dimensions – three of space (height, width and length say), and the dimension of time. Now we can take out a measuring rod and measure the three space dimensions, and once we have measured an object in this way, it is pretty well fully defined from the point of view of extension in space. On the other hand we use a clock to measure time. But nowhere in the clock can we find time, in the same way we can see distance in the measuring rod. What we find is the hands of the clock moving over its face. So in reality this type of clock is measuring a distance – the distance the clock hand moves. All clocks depend on some measure of distance. Even atomic clocks, counting the vibrations of an atom are in effect measuring distance – since the atom is moving a certain distance during some fixed number of vibrations.
So we don’t really know what time is – primarily because it is nothing but a figment of our imagination – but more on that shortly. When we measure an athlete against a stopwatch, we are just comparing two processes. One is the progress of the athlete on the track, and the other is the progress of the hand of the clock. When the athlete completes the distance we say that it took so many seconds – each second being some measure of distance on the clock face. Time doesn’t really come into it – all we ever do is compare distances.
Now I mentioned that time doesn’t really exist, and that we live under the illusion of time. We can’t put it in a bottle, weigh it, smell it, touch it, or indeed sense it in any way whatsoever. If we had no memory we would not be aware of anything resembling time. Memory allows us to compare various stages in a process, and as such gives us the impression of movement through time. It all gets a bit subtle, but we see something moving because our immediate memory allows the brain to compare. If something is going too fast (a bullet say), then we don’t see it at all. Same if it is moving too slow (the growth of a tree over the space of a day or so). So there is a band of processes that support our memory in processing motion – the movement of a car, and even that of a snail.
Let’s quote a few people just to reinforce what we’ve said so far:
Spinoza, the 17th century philosopher said – “Further, no one doubts that we imagine time.” So for Spinoza time is a product of our imagination. In reality of course we live in a constant ‘now’. But our neurological and psychological make up requires we cognize processes. Without memory we wouldn’t see a car coming – if we saw it we’d forget as soon as we looked the other way.
Marcus Aurelius the Roman Emperor said – “Life for each of us is a mere moment.” Meaning that we only ever know this moment as a hard reality – everything else is a construction of the imagination.
Now we could go deeper down the rabbit hole. For example, Einstein’s relativity shows that for two people moving at a high speed relative to each other, so time will move at a different pace. In other words the clock slows down for one person, relative to the clock of another. It all gets a bit fraught, and so we won’t go there.
The most important implication of all of this is the realization that here and now is our only reality, and everything else is just memory and imagination. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use memory and imagination, but we should do it consciously – which is typically how we don’t do it. Usually we day dream and get lost in our imagining – taking us away from the real. Some people even indulge in negative imagination – conjuring up images of painful and traumatic situations, or they might pine for days when memories indicate they were happier. Either way we are not in reality when we indulge these things, but in our own dream world, part of our own corporeal fantasy.
If everything in the imagination and memory is pleasant, then it would appear there is no reason to snap out of our daydreams. However this does mean that we give scant attention to the people around us, to the obligations we have to fulfill and so on. As such our life is probably going to suffer. But used wisely the imagination can bring pleasure and cushion the harsh realities of life somewhat. More often however people get lost in imagination and it takes control of them. This is when the fantasy becomes destructive, and breaking the addiction is difficult. There is only one real cure – the realization that it is all an illusion created by our ability to retain images in the mind – the illusion of time. Practicing being in the present will reduce the hold that imagination has over us, and the power of the fantasy.