Should one not view the division of time into distinct moments – past, present, future – as artificial? Would not the reality of time be contained in the value of the continuous flow of duration? Then time would no longer consist in instants but in an uninterrupted flow of events. A process of Becoming. Then the question is to know how to interpret the flow of time.
Could one understand it, as we sometimes do, as a torrential stream of things outside consciousness? Are we caught in a time which always precedes us?
The metaphor of time as a river points to the course of Becoming, which sweeps everything away. What we need to determine is if the course of time is within us or outside us. In other words: is time subjective or objective?
A. The Time of the Natural Attitude
In daily vigilance the answer is ready and waiting. Before any reflection, our natural attitude tends to “realise” all objects and turn them into “things in themselves”. We posit at the start that space “exists”, that time “exists”, or that causation in the world “exists”. Reality is there in front of us, it was there before us and we are thrown in its midst. It is the nature of the natural attitude to think of time as objective. It is not necessary to turn to science in order to think with objectivity. The ek-stasis of vigilance comes with a dereliction in time, a feeling of dereliction in space, or a fall into the world of causation. In the feeling of having-been-thrown into the world that we sometimes experience upon awakening, there is the idea that we are caught in the continuous flux of time passing.
What form does this representation of time adopt? Our ordinary reasoning assumes there is a given standard time, common to all phenomena and to all events that we perceive, a standard time which carries everything away. The assassination of Cesar at the ides of March, the war in Yugoslavia, the electoral campaign in France or the US, the extravaganza of Madonna, or the results of the horse race, they are all contained within the frame of time, a time perceived by us as unique and universal. In the same way we find it natural to think of space as “existing”, as one and the same for all objects and as universal as time. In the same way once again, causation seems self-evident, a universal and real procedure. In other words, just as there is a standard time, there are also a standard space and a standard causality. This is what we spontaneously believe in the natural attitude. Then, the universe appears to us as a “big box” in which “things” reside, and these things are those we find on earth and the moving celestial bodies; these things are in space and caught in the flux of time and moved by causes.
The natural attitude founds its expression in a number of typical patterns of behaviour. It is from the natural attitude that stems our need for social points of reference with respect to time. We need to give duration a certain number of stationary milestones: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, Halloween and Easter and so on. Time appears as embodied in specific moments. Each culture has its own calendar. We need these conventions relating to time in order to make it more familiar. Yet all this is relative. It is rather artificial to say that we are in 1994; we might just as well have said that we are in the year 4000 or in 250. It is only a cultural convention that sets a date, but this convention is indispensable to the collective consciousness of a people that is aware of its History. It is also essential to action. We need to represent time as a reality valid for everyone and for all phenomena. Without these references we would be totally lost. Alone on his island Robinson Crusoe quickly gets hold of a wooden plank and traces marks on it to represent each day! He recovers the social points of reference of time that connect him in a virtual way to the community of mankind. A speleologist locked inside his cave for a long time suffers from the absence of nights and days. He needs some marks to tell him the time of the day. We are unable to directly confront the pure fluidity of passing time; we must supplement it with some landmarks in order not to get lost in it.
However the very fact of creating landmarks equates time to space. This is what the calendar does, whence its ability to make us feel that we can plan our time. We need this space to position our appointments or remember events. Space is a dimension in which we experience the full force of our capacity to act; it is natural to us to represent time in terms of the ego’s willpower. The ego’s power to will demands to control time. The calendar gives us a royal feeling of power, the feeling that we are extended over a huge duration, possess it, as if we were, as men of action, beyond the passing of time, masters of duration.
Isn’t it rather strange that we consider time as God would consider it, from outside, from the point of view of eternity? And our ordinary representation tells us the opposite, that we are cast in time. This is a contradiction. This position above time is purely imaginary, because we cannot circumvent time. It is only in abstraction that I can position myself in the future, in the same way that it is only in my imagination that I can return to the past. In the real World I need the patience to wait. Here I place myself in a contradiction, if on the one hand I feel subjected to Time’s perpetual traction, and on the other hand I try to abolish it and pretend it doesn’t exist. In fact, the only real point on the calendar page in front of me is a tiny one, it is the point of today at this very hour. Here and now. Viewed as an abstraction, time does not belong to me. Yet I make “as if” when viewing it a space, I act “as if” it could belong to me. It is much easier for the ego to master space than to master time. This confusion of time and space is so common that in daily life we regard space as equivalent to duration. To say that the Panthéon is 500 yards from here or five minutes walk by foot amounts to the same thing. We do “as if” time were a kind of space, yet this is only a convenient stratagem, it is not true Time.
The objective time that the natural attitude demands as the condition of representation of vigilance is merely a convenient concept. The correlation between this concept and real Time is not clarified by the simple act of “positing” a unique time, universal, the same for all phenomena. This does not say what Time is. It is not given that that sort of time would have any reality. However, what is clear is that it is above all psychological.
B. The objective Time of classical Physics.
Would it help our progress towards a more adequate understanding of time if we referred to a scientific representation of time? Who says scientific representation says objective representation and who says objectivity says measure. The first scientific representation of time we have at our disposal is in front of us in the form of the clock. I hold it that my watch measures time. The needles move on the dial and this motion give me the seconds, which multiplied by 60 give the minutes, which multiplied by 60 give the hours and so on… I look at my watch and tell myself that I have been waiting to be picked up at the station for 15 minutes; this is an objective figure, it is the same figure as the one given by the station clock, as the one given on the radio and the luminescent clock on the advertising panel. It is not “subjective”, these 15 minutes are valid for you and me, for the newsagent or the man in the ticket office. Here we have something real and objective: an hour is an hour, if you please! It is objective! Scientific!!
Very well. However, let us try to be more precise. What exactly is this time? Can we really say that the clock really measures time? Let us take an example. A runner is at the stadium, on the starting line. His trainer is nearby with the stopwatch and says “go”! The runner runs 10m, 20, 30, 80 m and once he crosses the line the trainer stops the watch: 10 secs 30. The motion of the runner is of course not regular. There has been acceleration from the start. On the contrary the motion of the stopwatch is regular; that is why it serves as reference.
A B C D
t1 t2 t3 t4
There are two motions that we connect. At point A the needle of the stopwatch is at nought. The runner is at the starting block. At point B, 35 meters further away, the needle has moved to another point, the graduation on the dial says 6 secs, at point C that needle indicates 12 secs 30. What we therefore are measuring is the breakdown into a certain number of simultaneous events, for instance event A (the runner’s position) and event t1 (the position of the needle on the stopwatch). We are counting spaces covered. All measures are done in space. Since the motion of the stopwatch is regular, it serves to measure another irregular motion, that of the runner. What is a watch? It is an apparatus which maintains a regular motion, a graduated motion, subdivided into spaces in which measure can be made. It can have a mechanical engine, or an electrical or an atomic one, but it is always the same principle: maintain a regular motion. The best watch is the one that displays the greatest regularity (the atomic clock in fact). The result will always be a count of simultaneous events regarded as participating in a unique standard time. Whether we count in seconds, minutes, days, years or centuries, it is always the same principle at work in the mathematical measuring of time, and this measure is always a spatial one.
We see that this representation owes something to the transformation of time into space. Effectively the idea of measure refers to the idea of a gradation in space. Does this mean that what we are measuring are spaces, intervals between events? If this is the case then we do not measure time. Bergson makes the following hypothesis: suppose that time accelerated, that it passed much more quickly. What would this affect? Would it appear in our measurements? No. Time is the rhythm of change, of the flow of all events. If it goes faster, this means that everything in time will go faster too. The runner will go faster and so will the needle of the stopwatch and this at the same rate. The number of simultaneities will be exactly the same! In objective measuring nothing will strictly speaking have changed. However Bergson does estimate that a change in the flow of time would be experienced by consciousness, here the runner.
The conclusion is that in reality the scientific representation does not exactly measure Time. It only considers it as a variable t that corresponds to a number of simultaneities. It adopts as its frame of reference an apparatus which possesses a regular motion in order to measure change. This could be the motion of the needle of the clock, but it would be exactly the same if we used as reference the rotation of the earth on its axis, or the moon in its function as a reference for social events. The scientific representation gives us a concept of time which has a mathematical precision. It gives a better form to objectivity than does the natural attitude. Let’s be clear: it would be more accurate to say that classical science does not directly run into the problem of time. It turns time into a prerequisite, merely replacing it with a simple abstraction, the variable t. The challenge offered by an interrogation on the nature of Time and the part it plays has really only been met by the most recent developments in Physics.
Hence classical science does not break away from the natural attitude. It rests on realistic postulates already present in the natural attitude. It is in fact for this reason that we are not taken aback by the Newton’s representation of time. The Newtonian universe is like a huge box whose sides would be the vectors of space: length, width and depth, and to this box we add the dimension of time. Physical “things” reside in this original space, which according to Newton is an absolute, an attribute of the mind of God. Similarly, things are caught in absolute time, the unique time which is objective time, this one too an attribute of the mind of God. Things possess a localising order which is their position in space. They also possess their order of appearance which is their succession in time. Logically causality ought to be a divine attribute too. No connexion appears between space and time.
“…times & spaces have no other place than themselves, & they are the place of all things. Everything is in time, as to the order of succession: everything is in space, as to the order of situation. This is what determines their essence, & it would be absurd that primordial places were in motion. These places are therefore absolute places, & the sole translation from these places makes the absolute movements.”
It is striking to notice this character of absolute reality given to time and space, to the point that they nearly end up as things in themselves, elements that exist independently of all objects caught in their net, and even independently of consciousness. If one took away the planets and the constellations, there would still be this great box that is the universe. And on the level of our daily lives, in the natural attitude, we share this point of view. We see ourselves as an individual cast in a time and space that have the characteristic of being “absolute”. The realism of the natural attitude goes with the prescription of scientific objectivity in order turn time into a real thing independent of the observer or consciousness living in time.
Two questions remain latent:
1) Does Physics itself necessarily adhere to this interpretation of time as standard, unique and universal?
2) What then is time, beyond the convenient simplifications that we use, beyond scientific abstractions?
If there is one area that contemporary Physics has radically questioned it is that of time. In classical mechanics time is considered as identical to itself at all its points and in all directions in space. Hence, in the XIXth century one had this three dimensional representation of space, absolute, independent of the material objects it contained, subjected to the laws of Euclid’s Geometry. On the other hand one thought of time as belonging to another, totally distinct dimension.
1. Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity demolishes these concepts. It shows first of all that the measuring of time is always relative, and this to an observer who takes himself to be the system of reference. Nothing can be referential save with respect to a conscious mind, the observer. And the measure is dependent upon the motion of the observer. Two observers in motion the one with respect to the other will not lay out the events they perceive in the same way. Two events occurring in the universe will not appear to both observers as separated by the same time interval and by the same distance. There is no way one can be absolutely certain that two events are simultaneous. Of course in daily life these differences are not perceived. The constant and exceedingly fast velocity of light c gives us the impression that we always see the same thing happening at the same time. Yet this is a mere approximation corresponding to our scale. In reality we have no hold on absolute time, but only on a time relative to a previously chosen system of reference.
This is something that we are perfectly able to understand when it comes to space. Let us imagine two observers floating in space while observing an umbrella. A sees the umbrella to the left and inclined. B sees it to the right, with its utmost extremity at the far end from himself. If you think of a three-dimensional framework, it becomes clear that the spatial characteristics “left”, “right”, “above”, “inclined”, are relative to the observer. This is well known in the case of space. However as regards time, the position of classical mechanics was different. One thought that the specifications “before”, “after”, “simultaneously” had an absolute meaning, independently of the system of coordinates.
Two observers, A and B, observing an umbrella.
What Einstein showed was that temporal specifications are they too relative and dependent on the observer. We have to do the same mental gymnastics that we just did for space. “Before”, “after”, “at the same time” are only meaningful with respect to an observer. If in daily life we think of events taking place in the same sequence; this is so because the speed of light is so high that that we assume we observe the events at the very instant they take place. Yet when the observer is moving at high speed the time lapse between the appearance of the event and its observation plays a decisive role in determining the order of events. Observers moving at different speeds will sort the events in different ways.
Our representations are more or less relevant on different scales. On our scale the differences are minimal, but at the subatomic level they more important because of some particles with zero mass reaching near-light velocity. The theory of relativity shows that measures involving time and space lose their absolute value: there is neither space nor time independently of an observer.
2) Furthermore you cannot separate time and space. They have to be taken together. One has to consider a whole, that of the space-time continuum. The concepts of space and time as absolute and independent entities are abolished. The General Theory of Relativity takes this a step further: not only are the measurements of time and space relative, but the structure of time-space as such is linked to the distribution of matter. The universe is space-time-matter. From there the idea that time flows at a different speed at different points in the universe. The analysis of gravity has effectively shown that it is capable of bending space-time. In the vicinity of stars of enormous masses, space-time is like distorted. Thus one can observe that a ray of light arriving from a faraway star appears to bend near the sun. In reality light always travel in a straight line; it is space itself that bends. The same goes for time. Time does not pass in the same way at all the points in the universe; it is connected to the mass and motion of physical bodies.
Hence Langevin’s famous paradox of the twins: if two individuals of the same age were placed one on Earth and the other in a very rapid space ship, the one would necessarily age much more rapidly than the other. While A travelled for 10 years his brother on Earth would age 20 years. When A and B met again, B would be ten years older than his twin brother. It is a little as if, in the river of time, one of them were in the middle of a stream and the other near the shore; the flow would not be the same. The temporal Becoming does of course not cease, but time is more elastic, less rigid than we had thought. On Earth this is of course not perceptible, since we all have the same frame of references. The differences are infinitesimal. A Tibetan and a Dutchman do not perceive any difference in the flow of time. Mark as well that the twin on board the spaceship would not notice any difference either, since all the watches in the ship would also have accelerated and the flow of time concerns everything. Nevertheless general relativity shows that the speeds of the flow of time vary locally as a function of the mass and the speed. In conditions like those of a high velocity low mass spaceship, there will be differences. It is possible to verify this experimentally. Two atomic clocks A and B set at the same time and placed in different systems of reference will have different temporal flows. A clock A inside an airplane going in the opposite sense of the Earth’s rotation will end up marking a difference with a clock B on Earth. This has been verified.
The elasticity of time has some remarkable consequences. In cosmology this theory allows for the existence of black holes, which result from a star collapsing on itself. Gravity can be connected to velocity in such a way that space-time bends locally to the point of closing up on itself.  There are therefore two regions: the global time of the universe in which we are, and another time in the black hole, opening up on another universe. Hence all the speculations on parallel worlds.
To sum up: the result of the relativist questioning of time is first of all to create a gap between the natural attitude and that of science.
1. We realise that what we call “absolute” from the point of view of the natural attitude only means “relative to the human scale” in the experience of vigilance. In the infinitely small and infinitely big, the classical representation of time loses its meaning. The truth of the classical representation of time cannot be separated from the experience of time in daily vigilance.
2. In addition if space-time is related to the distribution of matter, then it is logical to think that in the absence of any manifestation of matter, there can be neither time nor space. The universe could have a beginning and an end in an initial singularity; it is by nature finite. During its own evolution it produces its own space and its own time. At the point of the initial singularity of the birth of the universe, there are neither time, nor space, nor causality. Space and time unfold with the explosion and expansion of manifestation. Contemporary cosmology attempts to think the initial singularity in a representation founded on the quantum mechanical theory of the unified field and to represent the unfoldment of the universe through the theory of relativity. As soon as matter unfolds in the Big Bang, the relativist laws begin to take effect and are maintained during the whole evolution of the universe. It seems probable that the Big Bang will be followed by a Big Crunch in which the Universe collapses on itself and returns to its original singularity. The potential of the universe will be resorbed in its source, time and space annihilated, and then the cycle of time will start again, with a new manifestation, meaning a new unfoldment of time-space-matter and so on. This may just as well signify that Nature has in fact neither end nor beginning, that it moves in a cyclical fashion from creation, to conservation and then destruction.
D. Inner Flow and Totality
However, and this may seem paradoxical, one idea could be sustained in the context of relativity: that of the universe as one block. In the determinist representation of classical mechanics the equations of dynamics trace trajectories of all objects such that the totality of the history of the universe is somehow already written. According to the mathematician Laplace, a superhuman intellect, that of God, could foresee everything that will take place from the present state of the universe and its laws. The future is as determined as the past, and after all the distinction between the two is not really meaningful. Equations are in any case indifferent to time. The mind must therefore accept the idea that the present instant is like the cursor on the screen, moving from on point to another on a text which is already written. The universe is like a book and we are merely turning the pages. It is not because we have arrived at page 108 that those that follow would not be written; they have been written just as much as the pages going from 1 to 107. we are sensitive to just a very thin slice of duration in a universe that is one block in which all events co-exist at the same time in eternity.
1. This kind of vision does not allow for the self-transformation of Duration, a creative and unforeseeable Becoming. Strangest of all is that relativity, although it has crushed so many of Physics’ taboos on space and time, has not ventured to the ultimate consequences of its own reasoning in considering the in its entirety as process of Becoming. Newton was the first to be frightened by the instability of his own representation of the universe. He did not go as far as admitting that his own equations forbade a globally static universe, as well as a universe conceived as one block. However, when Einstein himself realised that the equations of General Relativity took him straight to the idea of an unstable universe either expanding or contracting, his first reaction was to add a term of repulsion, the cosmological constant, to balance universal attraction. My life’s mistake, he would call it later. This attempt to salvage the universe as a block fail when confronted with the discoveries of Edwin Hubble. Einstein missed one prediction that he could have made, that of the expansion of the universe. This would have implied one step further in the direction of conceiving the universe as a universal Becoming. One thing is to represent time, another to grasp Becoming in its full radicalness! Could the physical representation of time include the metaphysical intuition of Becoming? Could science, by virtue of its method, understand anything other than a block-universe and consider instead a Universe in the process of becoming?
This would require science to incorporate the element missing in its representation, the idea of the arrow of time. Prigogine’s thermodynamics tries to meet the challenge. Although the current laws of Physics are reversible, it is necessary all the same to modify them so that they take into account the irreversibility manifest in Nature. To do this, one can posit several arrows of time:
a) first of all, one must acknowledge the idea that the Universe is expanding. It is larger today than it was before. Both its temperature and density are decreasing. Hence we have a cosmological arrow of time.
b) The second law of thermodynamics stipulates that the entropy (disorder) of an isolated system can only increase to the point when maximum disorder is reached. The statue left in the garden decomposes by losing its order. Mountains are worn down. The tendency to disorder increases with heat. Time, in matter, flows in the sense of increasing disorder. This is the thermodynamic arrow of time.
c) There is also in Physics a mathematical arrow of time in the probabilistic theory. The odds are greater that you get a pack of cards in disorder that in order of increasing value and sorted by colour as clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds.
d) Finally Prigogine suggests that we should take Bergson’s analysis of our experienced Duration very seriously. Experiences flow only one way. We only remember the past, not the future. Psychological time is irreversible. This arrow of psychological time is the most important.
2. According to Bergson: “This duration which science eliminates, how hard it is to think it and imagine it; we feel it, we see it…how would it seem to a mind who would only see it without measuring it, who would only follow it without arresting it…?” Let’s take away the artificial points of reference we have placed in Duration and try to imagine the flow of Becoming. We see that the world is incessantly changing, and that nothing remains as it is, yet grasping time from outside in this way quickly generates a very abstract conception of time. It is in the intimacy of our experience that we must capture the movement of duration. The world changes, my body constantly changes. My thoughts changes all the time. Time rolls forward without a halt, it spares no one, nothing. This cannot, as I am concerned, be reduced to a stream of clearly separate experiences. The idea of a stream is insufficient, because it inserts a break where there is only a constant self-transformation. There is sadness, then see how it melts into the peaceful perception of a landscape and then the landscapes becomes the thought that I must go get my friend at the station. Our mind flows away in a continuous flux, experiences coiling up around it, like the diameter of the snowball increases with everything it picks up as it comes down the mountain. The self is this flux of consciousness. There are no separate “things” called experiences. Let’s keep the concept of thing for the field of vigilance and its corresponding description of matter. If we really experience the flux of time we shall witness “instead of a discontinuous chain of moments that would replace one another in an endlessly divisible time … the fluidity of real time flowing, its indivisibility”. To render the most intimate value of time, we must use metaphors, and in particular, musical metaphors. Duration is “the indivisible and indestructible continuity of a melody in which the past enters the present and forms with it an undivided whole”. The melody that once was the past still chants in the present, because a point of arrest is to be found only as a pause which does not abolish continuity. We carry our whole past in our memory, because it is in the nature of experience to be time-bound, to embed itself in the seams of memory as time goes by.
It is a fact of experience that things last. It is a fact of experience that I consciously experience this flow in me, insofar as I pay some attention to it. Time is not given at the start with all its possibilities. It goes by and enables the maturation of things caught up in an eternal cycle of creation and destruction, in which possibilities manifest. Human consciousness cannot compress this rhythm of duration. Therefore what matters in understanding Time is not its quantity (in hours, minutes and seconds), but its quality and above what is unforeseeable and novel about it. What experience gives us is the life present in the value of feeling and that cannot be quantified. There is not way to measure love. Love like Duration is all intensity, quality, fluid motion and the joy of the loving consciousness. Every instant in duration is this pure motion, and thus radically novel and irreducible to the mere repetition of what has already been. Each moment is one of creation. To live by intuition this duration in motion is to enter inside this creation and make of one’s own life a creation of oneself by oneself. it is insofar as life endlessly recreates itself that life is truly lived. Bergson asks us to recover the intuition of time inside of us and to abandon any abstract conception of time. We can sum up these distinctions in a table:
|Abstract Time||Concrete Duration|
|Thought and acquired||Experienced and innate|
|External to objects and to consciousness||Internal to objects and to consciousness|
|Can be measured||Cannot be measured|
|Described by the simultaneity of two instants||Experienced in a flow without artificial points of reference|
|Undefined and discontinuous medium||Defined and continuous medium|
|Time in which everything is given in advance – predictability||Time with varying rhythm and shades – novelty, unpredictability|
Bergson demands a clear break with the old paradigm. This one is not easy since what it ultimately requires is that we bracket our our vigilant apprehension of time as real. This implies a letting go of which we are unable during vigilance. Yet duration is “the form that the succession of our states of consciousness adopts when our self allows itself to live”, and therefore it is unacquainted with all these incessant breaks, these comings and goings that we insert inside agony of abstract time that is our superficial consciousness: this is what Bergson calls the superficial ego. It is also possible that we are afraid of confronting the reality of Becoming in its crudest form. To those who are afraid Bergson says:
“whether we talk of outside or inside, of ourselves or of things, reality is motion. This is what I meant when I said that there is change, but there are no changing things. Witnessing this universal motion, some of us might feel dizzy. They are accustomed to standing on firm ground; they cannot get used to rolling and tossing. They need “stationary” points on which to pin thought and existence. They think that if everything is passing, then nothing exists; and that if reality is motion, then it is no more at the very moment we are thinking of it, thought cannot capture it. The material world, they say, will dissolve and the mind drown in the torrential flux of things. May they be reassured! Change, if they agree to look at it directly, behind any veil, will soon appear as what the world has of most substantial and enduring. Its solidity is infinitely superior to that of some fixity, which would only be a short-lived arrangement in between mobility”.
No one can so invite you to apprehend the reality of the relative world in its infinite dynamism than can Bergson. We must add that this is not just a psychological description. It is about universal Time and its formula is everything changes and changes ever. Paradoxically it is in the radical awareness of change that we also encounter non-change, the ever-lasting! If there is one thing in this relative world that is forever stable it is its ever-changing nature!
Hence Time is at once subjective and objective, according to what we are aiming at in the time phenomenon, but it is objective only because of its relativity to a conscious observer.
We can distinguish psychological time, called Duration, from objective time which is the time we measure. We have seen the classical and relativist interpretation of objective time. Through the change that takes place in the world we think a time which is the time of Nature, different from conventional time which is the time we use for daily action and representation in history.
Nevertheless the objective apprehension of time does not affect time as the process of Becoming. An intuitive and metaphysical approach can alone help us discover the truth of Time perceived as a continuous flow into infinity.
 Newton Principia Mathematica vol. 1
 See Fritjof Capra The Tao of Physics
 See Hubert Reeves Atoms of Silence: an Exploration of Cosmic Evolution
 See Stephen Hawking A Brief History of Time
 See I. Prigogine and I. Stengers The New Alliance
 Bergson La Pensée et le Mouvant, translated into English as Mind Energy
 Bergson Mind Energy
 Bergson Creative Evolution
 Bergson Mind Energy
 Bergson Mind Energy