Our rigid concept of time

I just finished reading E=MC2 by David Bodanis. It’s a fascinating book, and for the first time, I feel as if I can grasp some of the importance of this formula and its history.

One subject the book touches upon, though only in passing, is the relativity of time and its status as a dimension. This reminded me of how I used to struggle with the concept of “eternity” as a child. I wish I could have all that wasted time back, for it turns out that it’s one of those things that do not actually exist, but for which words were invented anyway. It’s cruel when that happens.

Many years ago, I studied at a Lubavitcher yeshiva (a Jewish religious school). The rabbi was teaching a class on the main esoteric book of the Lubavitcher Hassidic sect, the “Tanya.” At one point, while trying to emphasize a difficult concept (one that seemingly made no sense), he kept repeating, “It’s THERE, but it’s NOT THERE!” as he gestured dramatically. I thought to myself, “Wow. This is really deep.” Later I realized that the deepest concepts are the ones that are false. The reason we can’t understand them is that they really don’t make any sense. Sometimes, our most primal, instinctive gut reactions are the correct ones.

Sometimes science, though well-meaning, takes us on wild intellectual rides – that end up exactly where we started. For many generations, it was Greek philosophy that was considered cutting-edge science. This was the case in ancient Greek and Roman times, when Hebrew (representing a more primitive mode of thought) clashed with Hellenistic thought. Though traditional Jews were successful in holding back imperial Hellenistic forces, during the wars of the Maccabees (celebrated through the holiday of Hannukah), Judaism and Hebrew were transformed through their contact with Greek and Greek thought.

Hebrew took on many loan-words from Greek. The Talmud, with its overly analytical methodology, was clearly influenced by Greek philosophy.

As for the Hebrew language, it was fundamentally changed. Before Greek influence, there was no clear-cut concept of tenses. I’ll quote ulpan.net:

there was no such thing in Hebrew as “Past Tense” or “Future Tense”. These are modern Israeli Hebrew terms. Originally it rather was “Perfect” and “Imperfect” aspects. It is the Perfect which gradually developed itself to be used as “Past Tense”, and that’s Imperfect which we treat today as “Future”.

This is well-known to scholars. Classical Arabic is the same way, and I’m told the same is true of classical Mandarin Chinese. It’s possible that ancient Semites didn’t perceive time the same way most of us perceive it today. Something that was to take place in the future was simply something that IS meant to be. “Yiqtol” now means “he WILL kill”, but in ancient times it meant “he is one who kills” or something to that effect. His status is the same today as it will be when he actually does the killing. As to the concept of eternity, Hebrew has no such word. The word that serves as a proxy, in classical Hebrew, is “le’Olam,” which literally means “for the world,” or “for a world.” In other words, for as long as it matters for those in the world.

The human mind is easily molded, and once we get used to thinking about things a certain way, it becomes extremely difficult to think outside of these terms.

Perhaps, through Einstein’s revolutionary grasp of time, as being relative, we have come full circle. The ancients (and even not-so-ancients) viewed time as simply an extended “present,” with the past and future holding no special status in everyday life. The Greeks, and modern Europeans (and those under their influence) enhanced the past and present into a rigid time hierarchy. This was useful for them, and helped facilitate modern society. Those who embrace this hierarchy most fully are those who can be more successful in modern life. The future is more real to them; they have less time-preference. Those who exist in an extended present are held back.

So, for all practical purposes, there is a rigid past-present-future procession. But, as a purely academic question, we can still ask: In the wider reality, outside of ourselves, does it really exist? If we do acknowledge its existence, does this not force us to confront impossible concepts – such as eternity?

Perhaps we can view the rigid procession of time as a human invention. One that is useful to us. As soon as we disappear, so does time. In that case, “eternity” exists only as long as humans exist. As soon as we’re gone, time disappears, and so does “eternity.”

About jewamongyou

I am a paleolibertarian Jew who is also a race-realist. My opinions are often out of the mainstream and often considered "odd" but are they incorrect? Feel free to set me right if you believe so!
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16 Responses to Our rigid concept of time

  1. Quantum physics has shown us that time is malleable as well. It baffles the senses because time is the only “large” dimension that is not directly perceivable by any of our human senses. We can’t smell time, we can’t touch it, hear it, taste it, and our only sight of it are time pieces which only measure the movement of celestial objects. In some re respects time is like those additional 11 or 13 quantum dimensions that elude human perception. Still, as a dimension, time makes itself known as the ribbon that ties our world together, and the ribbon which spaces it out, as well.

    I’ve often wondered if time exists, as one, as a complete whole, and the culmination of other physical reactions serve to “stretch” it out and give it a sensory flavor we can partly comprehend. Our evolution was structured around the major dimensions and our bodies have likewise evolved physiological adaptations to perceive them; there are many other dimensions which, not having a direct influence on our earthly survival, did not elicit evolutionary physiological response.

  2. countenance says:

    Outside of ourselves, does it really exist?

    If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is there to hear it, of course it makes a sound, it’s just that no organisms with eardrums are within range of the sound it makes. Likewise, we use the concept of time for our own organizational benefit, but it would exist without us for one simple reason: Because a necessary prerequisite of time is the motion of two or more objects relative to each other. If there was only ever one object in the universe, there would be no such thing as time, even if the object was rotating. A day comes from the rotation of the Earth relative to the sun. A month comes from the synodic orbit of the moon around the Earth. A year comes from a complete tropical revolution of the Earth around the Sun. So, if we weren’t here, the non-sentient species left on Earth would still have the concept of time, because they would be involved in the motion that defines it. It’s just that they wouldn’t benefit from it to the same degree we do, much less wax philosophically about it.

    • CanSpeccy says:

      “If there was only ever one object in the universe, there would be no such thing as time even if the object were rotating.”

      If there were only one oject in the universe, could it rotate, and if so, how would one know? In relation towhat would it rotate?

      • countenance says:

        I’m speaking only in theory, because I know it could never rotate because there’s not another object from which it can feed centrifugal energy.

    • Can anything ever be the only object in the universe unless it was the most elemental particle in existence? Any other object would be composed of multiple subatomic particles, hence, not the only.

      In order for something to be the only object in the universe, it would need to be completely indivisible.

      • countenance says:

        You’re right, but remember, I’m speaking purely in hypo. Time exists even if there are only two objects in motion and a Keplerian orbit in some way, the only hitch is if there are sentient beings on one of the objects who can make use of it.

  3. Casey Phyle says:

    Eternity most certainly exists, inside or outside ourselves, whether we perceive it or not. The earth revolves around the sun, whether we perceive and know it or not. A tree that falls in the forest without anybody witnessing it is reality. The power of our perception has no influence on what happens every second in reality. We are only aware of what happens in our immediate environment and nothing more. Of all the other stuff that happens in the whole universe, we know virtually nothing. 0.000….1% (insert a million zeroes) of everything that happens is still far higher than what we know about it. So how can we know about eternity?
    If you had a 2-dimensional being that can only go forward backward, left and right, and you put him on top of the earth or a smaller sphere, he would move around and round forever, and for him that sphere would be eternity. We are probably stuck in a similar conundrum, except we are one dimension higher. That may not explain eternity, but it helps understanding why we can’t grasp it. We are still far too small for those who created our world and have a lot of evolving to do… but not with money parasites in charge that keep our spiritual development arrested.

  4. Casey Phyle says:

    In other words, for as long as it matters for those in the world.
    That got me thinking. Many Jews are said to live only for the here and now, and considering what you said, possibly as a consequence of how their brains are wired. Do they have limited understanding of reality because of that? Is it responsible for their supremacism… only they count and nothing else… because they can’t perceive time and space?

    • Zimriel says:

      Katzenelson proposed that Ashkenazim do perceive time, but view space as fluid and untrustworthy. Land is no different from ocean, basically.

  5. Zimriel says:

    I’d read the opposite.

    It *is* true that Semitic languages lack a grounding of time in their grammars. I also agree, from what I’ve seen of those Semites who have maintained the old nomadic way of life – the Beduin culture – that they live in an aboriginal dreamtime.

    But I think that the Babylonians had a notion that time had a start, a Creation event in which the gods smote the Leviathan, also called Tiamat. The Hebrew Bible also starts with a Creation event, in which the elohim (plural? singular?) organise the chaos (rather than slaying it).

    So I’d not credit the Greeks with the Jewish (and Qur’anic) notion of Beginning-And-End. I think it’s older than that, likely Sumerian. The Zorastrians (Indo-European, like Greeks) contributed too.

    • jewamongyou says:

      Yes, but “past” and “future” were not concepts that had great significance in everyday life among Semites, mythology notwithstanding. Perhaps this is because there was little in the way of progress, just a progression from one king to other, or one judge to another.

  6. ad84 says:

    “The destruction of any sense of the past, and of the importance of the past, serves the ends of those people who believe that humanity, unsatisfactory as it is, requires remoulding by them, so that it will take better shape in the future. (…) Humanity, then, should be regarded as a tabula rasa, the blank slate upon which Mao Tse-Tung said that such beautiful characters could be written. Insofar as any awareness of the past is to be permitted, it should be as a terrible prelude to the present…” –Theodore Dalrymple, “Litter: The Remains of Our Culture”

    “Just as it was impossible to go broke underestimating the taste of the American public, so it is impossible to overstate the abysmal educational dephths to which a large proportion of the English have now sunk (…)
    The name Stalin means nothing to these young people and does not even evoke the faint ringing of a bell, as the name Shakespeare (sometimes) does. To them, 1066 is more likely to mean a price than a date.
    Thus are the young condemned to live in an eternal present, a present that merely exists, without connection to a past that might explain it or to a future that might develop from it. Theirs is truly a life of one damned thing after another.” –Theodore Dalrymple, “Life At The Bottom”

    • ad84 says:

      “The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.” –Eric Hobsbawm

      That awkward feeling when the right and the left wing alike agree that something’s rotten.

  7. panjoomby says:

    “…the deepest concepts are the ones that are false. The reason we can’t understand them is that they really don’t make any sense” —

    yay! thank you – i agree! amen, brother! & welcome to academia :) well meaning authors take us down rabbit holes – & all that time & effort studying them when young is intellectually masturbatory.

    e.g., contrary to viktor frankl, we search for meaning b/c that’s what our biological brain does.
    some people survive horrible things b/c they’re more biologically predisposed to live.
    i.e., the data fit that idea better, rather than suggesting hope & spirit & meaning help us triumph over cancer.

    many deep philosophical ideas pale in comparison to the occam’s razor solution of “well, it’s mainly biology, dude” :)

  8. oogenhand says:

    Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    Slavic languages have aspects as well. Modern Hebrew (Ivrit) took its tense system from Esperanto. The morphology was copied from Arabic vernaculars.

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