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Wei Wu Wei : What is Time ?


lundi 20 novembre 2017, par Cardoso de Castro

Extrait des pages 151-154

In considering the problem of ‘time’ it should be desirable to understand what people in general mean by the word. Let me take two examples from newspapers, one French and the other English, which happen to be in front of me. The French one refers to ‘la marche objective et inexorable du temps’. That statement appears to be a typical example of the view according to which we stand apart observing the passage of time, which appears to be objective and inexorable, i.e. a force foreign to ourselves and to events, to which we and events are all subjected. The English one states ‘It (time) is not a rolling stream — for who is standing on the bank to see it ? It is we who do the rolling, not time. And all this rolling has to be related to the chance revolutions of a solar system, for convenience . . . but for whose convenience ?’ This statement takes the opposite point of view : ‘time’ does not move at all, it is we who move through a stationary ‘time’, and it distinguishes between time as duration and time as a measurement of duration. Both are intelligent and, I think, reliable examples of current attitudes towards temporality. It will be observed, however, that in both ‘time’ is regarded objectively, as some force foreign to ourselves, through which we pass or which passes through us. In both ‘we’ are seen as phenomenal individuals.

Considering the matter more generally, we in the West regard ‘time’ as beginning in the past : we speak of ‘past, present and future’ and not ‘future, present and past’. No doubt there lies at the back of our minds the concept that God created the world at some past moment of time and that it evolves towards an unknown future, and also that each of us was born in the past and grows older towards an unknown future which we imagine that we ourselves create. In the East, on the contrary, they tend to think of the future as flowing into a present and then passing into a passed time. But we do that also on occasion, and both concepts regard time as an objective factor, foreign to ourselves, to which we and events are inexorably subjected. One may note, however, [152] that if we were in the stream of time we should not be aware that it was flowing unless we had at least one foot, so to speak, on the bank or unless observable events were stationary and untouched by the stream, which concept would separate us irrevocably from events.

It seems clear from all this that our notions of ‘time’ are vague and inconsequent to say the least.

Metaphysically, even philosophically, speaking it may now be noted that no such ‘thing’ as the ‘past’ can be said to exist otherwise than as a memory, always and inevitably incomplete and distorted at that, for whatever it may have been it has gone beyond recall and has never been as a ‘past’. It might have been as a ‘present’, but what is that ? Any event that was present in a time-sequence independent of ourselves as observers, is already in the supposed ‘past’ earlier in the time-sequence than we could have become aware of it, since the complicated process of perception via retina, chemical cellular changes, nerve impulses, further chemical cellular changes in the brain-matter, and psychological interpretation requires a lapse of time which must result in a ‘time-lag’ whereby a subsequent ‘present’ will have appeared by the time the previous ‘present’ has been perceived and conceived. Therefore no present can be known to exist ; at most it might be maintained that an event which had once been present has subsequently been interpreted and recorded as having been observed. As for the future, we may imagine it, correctly or incorrectly, but we have no knowledge of it until it has become a ‘past’ which itself has been seen not to have any evidential existence.

It does not appear, therefore, that we have any evidence for the existence of such divisions as past, present and future, or that they exist at all otherwise than as conceptual interpretations of the notion of an objective ‘time’ that ‘passes’. This conclusion is hardly original : Huang Po states that ‘the past has not gone, the future has not yet come, the present is a fleeting moment’, which may be said to imply what has just been elaborated.

May we not now just accept the conclusion of philosophers, from Heraclitus to Kant, who came to understand that no such thing as ‘time’ could have any objective existence ?

[153] Clearly it is a waste of time (this precious ‘thing’ we are dealing with !) discussing ‘time’ as an objective factor in our living, for it cannot possibly be such. If we wish to understand what it is we must look for its explanation nearer home. It must in fact be an aspect of whatever we ourselves are, and as such anyone who looks in the right direction, which is within, with a fasting mind, will immediately see that so it must be. Its aspect as a measurement of duration, based on astronomical factors, is artificial and secondary, and can henceforth be neglected, for that is entirely conceptual, as is also what is called ‘psychological’ or personal‘time’, so that we are only concerned here with time as a synonym for duration.

As such it can readily be apprehended as the active counterpart of ‘space’ which is static, as a measurement thereof, that direction of measurement which measures volume in terms of duration.

As for ‘space’, that also is a concept based on measurement, on measurement in three directions — length, breadth, and height or depth, the three constituting volume. Volume is nothing but that, and ‘space’ is nothing but volume. Without volume ‘space’ is a term which can only imply vacuity, but vacuity as such is nothing but potential volume. The term as applied to a concept for that in which volume appears is a synonym for vacuity. Space, then, is also form, and form is nothing but three directions of measurement or volume, and we are incapable of cognising any further directions of measurement than the three which together constitute volume.

Therefore the perceptible universe, as far as we are concerned, is composed of nothing but the concepts which together appear to produce volume, which is space. But in order to perceive them at all, and so in order to perceive anything whatever, they must have duration. We also must have duration in order to perceive them, but what then is duration ? We have just seen that duration is itself the active counterpart of space. Otherwise expressed, duration can be seen as a further spatial measurement, one that as such cannot be spatially interpreted by our senses, but only represented in the form of duration. This also is not original, for the concept of ‘time’ as the ‘fourth dimension of space’ [154] has been played with by advanced physicists for nearly a generation. Physicists, the very eminent ones at least, have for some time been paddling on the borders of metaphysics, somewhat like children building sand-castles on the shores of the ocean. One day, no doubt, the in-coming tide will overtake them at their play, and they will be carried out to sea, where a few will drown and the others swim back triumphantly on the crest of the waves.

We must now ask ourselves whence come these measurements, the three which create the phenomenal universe which is composed of volume, and the fourth which is interpreted as duration. There can only be one answer, and that one very simple and very obvious. They come from the eye that is measuring. That eye is the centre of infinity, and infinity being in-finite, its centre is everywhere. In short that eye is just ‘I’, wherever, whenever, and whatever such ‘I’ may be.

I think it would be a pity to say any more : to draw conclusions is to force, or seek to force, an exposition down the throats of its hapless readers. What they may perchance seek has been offered, and they should be left to develop their own understanding of its significance. For such as may seek further indications, and without doing their thinking for them, one might add that the origin of ‘time’ has been brought right home to where it belongs. What then is ‘time’ and, to give it its conceptual totality, ‘space-time’ ? ‘What’ ? No, ‘who’, then, is space-time ? Who, indeed.

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