Subjective and Objective Time

The most direct knowledge we have of time is subjective.  It involves a sense of passage - an unbroken flow of experience.  Time is a continuous process.  Back before TV, the news was shown at movies before the main feature.  They used to drum the inexorable movement or passage of time home to the audience with the blast of bugles and all sorts of fanfare.  A picture of the revolving earth appeared on the screen with a lion’s roar and then came the ear-ringing, mind-boggling assertion, as if it was a really big thought: TIME MARCHES ON!  Without the bugles and fanfare we should recognize this as a blatant truism.  “Time waits for no one,” goes the line of a gentler song,  “It passes you by like the flowers at springtime or the clouds in the sky.”  Hopefully the examples above can sensitize us to the fact, that the very essence of time as most directly, most concretely experienced, is the continuous unbroken passage of existence.  Time stops for no one.

Time may not stop, but it can surely slow to a crawl or fly by before we know it.  The way we experience this continuous passage varies from person to person and within the singular person.  This variation depends on our changing moods and interests.  This means that our concrete actual experience of this passage is subjective and private rather than shared and public.  In class, time inevitably flies by for me, but I do sometimes note that it is dragging by in a tortuously “slow and petty pace until the end of recorded time” for some of my students!  It can fly by with the bittersweet swiftness as lovers part at train stations, airports and seaways, wishing so to stop time - and let this moment go on forever.  But this is the one thing they cannot do.  Time marches on.  In contrast, three minutes in a boxing ring can be forever, especially when you are up against a giant, or, as a friend of mine at a fair - one finds himself in a ring with an Ape!  It is one of the perversities of life that activities we do not like drag on and splendid events make time fly by before we know it.

It is just this quintessential, subjective character of time that is completely ignored by what we refer to as measured time.  And even though measured time removes us totally from the subjective variability of time as directly experienced, we refer to measured time as objective, real time.  This totally abstract, objective version of time breaks down the continuos flow of its immediate experience and separates it into artificial, purely imaginable entities - micro seconds, seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, decades, centuries, ages, eons on infintium.  Our mind can conceive of no smallest unit that can’t be divided more, or it can range up on to an eternity.  It takes hard thought to understand the very strange sense in which time - the essence of which is unstoppable - is nonetheless stopped by the human mind.  This understanding assumes the ability to be self-conscious enough to focus on our mentality as distinct from simple experience.

We say we will meet class at 11:00 A.M.  Regardless of our own mood changes and regardless of the differences between people’s moods, 11:00 A.M. stays fixed.  It transcends our inner, subjective excitement and boredoms.  It is totally impervious to personal idiosyncrasies within one person or between a plurality of persons.  This fixity is what I mean when I say we stop the unstoppable passage  - the continuous change-that characterizes our immediate sense of time.  We can never really go back in time - our movie stories notwithstanding.  Time is change subjectively, but objectively we render it fixed, and even though the split second after 11:00 A.M. it is gone forever, it has not gone from our minds.  We carry it around in memory.  Our minds enable us to bring it back or to anticipate the very same time in the future.  Twelve thousand years later we can say at 11:00 A.M., June 10, 1988 students were allowed to choose their own textbooks in Dr. Franks’ classes.  We can project 11:00 A.M. into the unseen future one hundred years from now and predict the appearance of a comet.  In all these cases, our particular unit of time remains unchanged.  This is what we mean when we say that time has stopped - 11:00 A.M. June 10, 1988 remains fixed forever in the timeless realm of mathematical measurement.  By completely ignoring the fact that one hour can fly or creep by depending on inter or intra personal differences, we are able to plan and routinely meet.  This greatly enhances our human capacity for social coordination even if it does not remain true to subjective time - even though, that is, it does not copy so-called, immediately sensed reality.

There is an obvious arbitrariness in how these units of time are separated.  Does nature divide the week into seven days?  Does nature determine that a decade will be ten years?  To the sophisticated modern mentality the answer is, that these units are humanly created, more specifically mind created distinctions.  Once created in history they take on the taken for granted authority of tradition.  To think that our measures are inherent in nature is to confuse nature and society - a not altogether rare error even today.  Certainly our objective sense of measured time is not something concrete that impacts on our senses like the objects of nature.  Nature’s objects are associated with stimuli that evoke human sensations.  It is ridiculous to seriously ask what a minute looks like, tastes like, feels like or sounds like.  Minutes are human creations.  They only seem natural to us because we have grown accustomed to thinking in terms of them as members of our culture and because they are assumed by consensus, not discussed and debated.  From this point of view, units of time are not real distinctions.  They are purely mental.  As man-made, non-real separations we say they merely analytical, man-made distinctions.  They are not out there in nature.  We impose them on our views of nature, but their source is in society and social history.  Certainly the seasons are given by nature and the regular overflowing of the Nile is created by nature, but the ability to split up time and to break it into fixed units takes a human mental capacity.

I have used segmented, measured time as an example of a purely analytical, that is, a mind-formed series of distinctions.  Analytic means to break down and distinguish.  That, as we have seen, is essence of the modernization process.  We can even get so analytic that we can never fully fuse with the world in self-less activity, to be fully engaged.  Yet, it is crucial to see that our purely analytic mind-made entities take on an immutable quality.  They become reified by our social existence and though from the point of view of non-human nature they are arbitrary, they are hardly arbitrary socially.  They exist as apart of what we self-conscious moderns refer to as socially created reality.  They, like nature, exist and external to anyone of us, just like nature.  Since we have been familiar with them ever since we learned to be aware at all, they are experienced as natural.  They may make up only the social part of our environment but we can’t know that as little children.  Many adults can’t understand such a sophisticated separation.  These pure thought-objects, our man-made but customary mental creations, become experienced as non-human.  They take on an immutable reified quality because we as individuals did not create them and their human authorship is lost in history.  Just because we create something does not mean it is not real.  Indeed the societies that human beings create are real.  Their reality is simply different from nature.  We hide this from each other, as in the case of measured time, by simply presenting it as if it were real time.  We do this by calling it objective.  The immediate, fluid sense of time - the sense of duration that changes dependent on our mood or interpersonal differences - we call “subjective,” and regulate it to a less important, less “real” realm.  From the non-partisan viewpoint of gaining systematic knowledge, we will benefit from differentiating between the subjective reality of time as privately experienced, and the objective reality of time that is shared and public.  You may experience a fifty-minute class time differently from your professor, that is subjectivity.  But without objective time we wouldn’t be able to know we had different experiences of the same (public) time.  Those that think objective knowledge draws us close to nature are misguided.  Objectivity rests on gaining distance.  This distance removes us from the possibility of mirroring the world or fusing with the world.  Our minds separate us from it.  The natural function of human mentality seems to control by detachment, not to fuse to oneness.

On the Cultural Variability of Intangible Thought and Cognition

We have seen that senses normally result from tangible objects that in some way resist our push and exist in their own measurable location in time and space.  Cognitions, however are not so locatable.  The word cognition developed out of the Greek word for thinking, to cogitate is to think.  A crucial characteristic of thought or idea is that they are not so locatable in time and space. Let us return to the notion of  “space”. As the post enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant understood, when I look out of my window I do not perceive “space”.  I see grass and an embarrassing amount of leaves. Down the hill I see trees and my cat. All these objects are substantial and locatable, they have color and smell and even tastes. They have their own feel. But where is space in all of this? What color is it?  What does it smell like? Every tangible thing has some kind of smell.  How does space feel when you touch it? Indeed, can you touch it?  Are these appropriate questions to ask in the first place?  Kant knew they were not. Space is of a different order than the perception of substantial things.  It is a way of putting organization on all these stimuli, but it is not of the same order of these stimuli.  Space is a concept, a cognition, not a sensation.

Frequently what holds for space ends up holding for time. Start thinking about one and you will end up thinking about the other if you are on target.   One summer just after I had been teaching about the social nature of human cognition, a most unlikely event happened that gave me a poignant example of the purely conceptual nature of time.  It was around 1969 and a very different time in our social history.  The American Sociological Meetings were being held where we lived looking out on the Rocky Mountains.  That evening we were hosting a big party and looked forward to seeing old friends from our graduate days in the Midwest. The first knock on the door however was some one I only faintly knew.  He was a friend of the son of one of our professors.   At his side was a guitar as well as his side-kick who we did not know at all.  The acquaintance announced himself as renamed “Captain Zibitch,” an Angelized label he had gleaned from the Polish Beer that he had given away to members of the audience attending one of his concerts.  He said he had come as a troubadour of peace.  He mentioned that he intended to play his bongos on the top of Long’s Peak which loomed on the horizon behind him.  Before I knew it, they were in the door tuning their guitars.  Soon others trickled in, each guest receiving great celebration and supplied immediately with liquid refreshment.  It wasn’t long until we had a  “force ten” party going.  His singing and guitar filled the room and our hearts.  One song stood out in my mind that I will never forget.  “Put a minute in front of me” he sang to a haunting, whimsical tune. “Put a minute in front of me so I can taste it, smell it, hear it and feel it.”   Sensitized, as I was to these words, I remember thinking to myself, “Well, either this guy is an unrequited poet longing for the impossible, or he’s schizophrenic.” Around thirty minutes later I decided he was both; but we had a memorial party and I had carried away a means to portray the difference between cognition and sensation.

Every one knows you can’t touch time. We grasp it with our minds, not our hands.  We give it material form in various ways, like the dots to which hands on round clocks point, or digital watches that show only numbers, or even sundials.  There are countless ways to portray time in visible form, but these are perceptual vehicles for conveying extra sensory time. These are not time itself. Time per se can only be grasped cognitively.  The different sensed expressions of time are different ways of communicating the same extra-sensory, intangible principal. Again, if we are to understand the cultural variability in emotions we must understand the cultural variability in the thought that makes up these emotions. As with all cognitions, we should not be surprised at all to find that many societies have quite different notions of time.  In contrast to our sensory windows to the world whose origins are in material nature, the origins of cognition is at least largely in society and their particular languages. Cognitions are culturally variable. If cognition is a part of emotion, then many emotions can differ from culture to culture (see Averill and Nunley for the constitutive rules of emotions).  Of course, it appears that common sense is just common sense, everywhere the same, but some cultures see the observable fact that night follows day as proof that time is a continuous line and others see it that time is forever cyclical—that is repeating its self.

If different cultures explain nature’s observable recurrences differently, so do those in the advanced level of science.  Experts disagree about how to conceive time. Einstein’s understandings, which formed the foundation of nuclear technology, eliminates the notion of time as being constant in its passage.  According to him, once you go beyond the speed of light things that are true about our everyday world changes.  The faster you go, the slower time passes.  If you traveled in a space ship nearly as fast as the speed of light, you might come back to earth to find your friends much older than you despite the fact that they were your age when you left.  If you go faster than the speed of light what happens to your reflection?  How could it keep up with you?   These are all ways of showing that our common sense notions do not explain everything and are not as unquestionably sound as we think.

Persons that lived in the mind like Einstein, sometimes crack atoms and have very impressive practical results to show for their cogitations.  These practical results of thinking are sometimes referred to as the pragmatic criteria of proof.  If it works, something about it must be right.  But one can always be “right” for the wrong reasons.  And maybe we are only just right enough to make certain things work.  In the medieval ages, so the story goes, people wore garlic around their neck so they would not get colds.  They assumed the devil gave them colds and he hated garlic. As we know today it was hardly the devil that it kept colds at bay; it was other people and their germs.  Thought is always, at least potentially, open to change.

Preceptors as Transducers

In what follows I will get down to the “nitty gritty” of why we can never literally copy reality in our minds. The distinctiveness of each animal’s perceptual world is more clearly illustrated by understanding how senses operate as transducers.  This will also pave the way for an understanding of how emotion and other brain processes transform  “objective” nature into a peculiarly human and individual perceptual world.  A transducer takes information from one system and changes it to “fit”, or accommodate to another system.  Your word processor does this when it changes text from Word Perfect 5 to WinWord.   Chlorophyll changes light rays from the sun into nourishment for plants. All of our senses are transducers. The eye, for example, takes light waves (certain electro-magnetic intensities) and transforms them into what we experience as color.  With color-blind people, the same light-wave is changed a little differently than the majority of other people. If one happened to see green as what most of us see as red, the color- blind person would learn to stop on the majority’s experience of green and to go on what the majority experience as red. Since they would reverse the names and call their subjective green “red” no one, including the afflicted person, would necessarily know there was a difference in the subjective and private stage of perception (number three in the figure on p.5).  However that may be, without the transformer that we call the eye, electromagnetic energy states would be just that-energy states, not color.  Pause and think of that difference between electro-magnetic waves and color. To have the experience of color, you need a human eye and brain.  The stimuli alone are not enough.

Likewise, different compressions of air are not actual noise until they hit an ear drum and cause the kind of vibration that the ear can change into noise (Rivlin and Gravelle, 1984:12-13; Christian, 1977).   At the point of this vibration it is not yet noise. A number of things have to happen before the final stage of awareness.  Three small bones pick up the movements of the eardrum. One bone rests on a membrane at one end of a spiral-shaped organ.  Inside this organ are hair cells with bristles surrounded by fluid. As the bones to the bristles relay the sound wave (compressed air), a wave activity develops just like the wave generator used in a marine science lab. or museum.  But it still is not sound. These waves brush the tips of hair cells against another membrane that creates an electrical spike. As a consequence, positively charged chemicals carry  these spikes to the brain. Notice the vast difference in the three stages from objective stimuli to its complete transformation to human subjective sensation. We have gone from compressed air in the first case, to bristles touching membranes to electrical charges. Even the electrical charge is not noise.  That vast transformation happens in the brain.  The tree may fall in the forest and it certainly makes compressions in the surrounding air.  But without some ear to change compressions into sound, it is not yet noise.  We need the objective compressions of air, but just as important is the transducer process that our bodies supply.  As we have seen, ignoring the critical part our senses play in this process is referred to as the stimulus error.

Our language completely ignores this transformation of nature into a distinctively human perceptual world and routinely commits the error above.  Since language dictates “commonsense” we may see why we need to go beyond it.  We say that the apple is red or the music is lovely, or the lemon is sour. The part our own biology plays in the process is totally ignored.  These sensations are results of the determinate relationships between the senses and these happenings; they do not belong to the objects themselves. Colors, smells and tastes are just the way objects effect us.  We can see that what sensation gives us is by no means a direct reflection of what the world itself is like. Our perception does not give a mirror image of independent, non-human, “objective” reality.  Perception does, indeed, correlate with it, and our ears and eyes change as it changes.  Indeed, they are linked in the objective and necessary manner of all cause and effect relations.  But all this gives in terms of knowledge, is how the world appears to our distinctively human preceptors, not how the world is  “objectively”.    It tells us how the world effects our particular umwelt or awareness.  It tells us only about this relationship.  It tells us how the world affects our perceptors, brains and consciousness, not how the world, itself is.  The emotional quality of experience adds an even more distinctive and critical dimension to how the world appears to us.  But as we shall see, it is an absolutely essential dimension for human existence.

The following quote by Hanna Arendt uses the words of the leading astrophysicists of this century to summarize how our scientific knowledge does not produce any mirror image of the world as it is, independent of how our senses change it.  It will help in understanding the quote to view scientific instruments as extensions of our senses.
The modern astrophysical world which began with Galileo and its challenge to the adequacy of the sense to reveal reality have left us a universe of whose qualities we know no more than the way they affect our measuring instruments and in the words of Eddington- “The former have as much to do with the latter as a telephone number has to a subscriber."
Instead of objective qualities in other words, we find instruments, instead of nature or the universe in the words of Heisenburg, “man encounters only himself”.

As to Heisenburg’s quote, I take it with poetic license.  Our knowledge is still a result of the relationship between the knower and the known: it involves both.  However, as the above implies, humans perceive a very human world caste in particular ways by their own senses, and as we shall see, by their own languages.  But we must think carefully here.  If we are looking to our senses to give us pictures of the way things are, we are simply asking too much of them.  Sensations do not copy the world in any pictorial way.  They do however, reflect changes in stimuli independent of our wills and desires. That is, they give correlations.  As any beginning statistics student learns, correlations by themselves do not establish cause or reliable understandings.  Like sensation, correlation by itself is blind; it must be brought into the light through cognitive interpretations. Thus, what man encounters is not literally only himself, Heisenburg notwithstanding, but his limited, and peculiarly human relationship with the world.  The senses and our instruments do after all, respond to regularities we do not control, and are in that sense objective.

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