WHAT IS TIME?
(WHAT IS ITS ESSENTIAL NATURE AND WHAT IS ITS CAUSE?)
In modern times Physicists have been inclined to define time as follows: Time is what clocks measure. While this may not be false it is not really very illuminating, any more than it would be illuminating to define space as 'what rulers measure'. Clocks are instruments which have to do with the measurement of time, but here I want to ask: what is Time itself - what is it that is being measured by a clock? Is there anything we can say about this?
One way to begin to consider this is to examine what is happening within the context of real things as time is passing. Something that is very noticeable is the occurrence of change. Change itself causes the development of a distinction between what is called the present, in which change is occurring, and the past, in which change has occurred. Once a change has occurred, the fact that it occurred remains a fact forever. This fact can never be altered. If I gave you a gift, it remains forever true that I gave it to you. If you later returned it to me, that will not alter the fact that I gave it to you. One can always add to the past, but never obliterate any historical fact.
Might not this be of great significance? I say, here, that it is. It fundamentally distinguishes the past from the present. The present is changing, the past cannot change. This has nothing to do with clocks, which merely measure relative rates of change. This distinction between past and present is ontological in nature.
A similar distinction can be identified between the past and the future. The present configuration of changes in real things are such as to predict what will happen. The orbit of the Earth predicts that the Sun will rise tomorrow. A driverless truck rolling down a
hill predicts that much of the house at the bottom of the hill will be reduced to rubble. So, in this sense, the future already exists, just as the past exists. The difference is that the future can be changed, whereas the past cannot. Any change to the future occurs only via the present. If someone jumps into the cab of the runaway truck, and succeeds in putting on the brakes, then the house at the bottom of the hill will not be destroyed. So no reality that belongs to the future is a fact, but every reality that belongs to the past is an unalterable fact. We can say that the present is the point of transition from the future to the past. If the future was as unalterable as the past there would be no distinction between them, and hence there would be no present, since no change of any kind could occur. This, in fact, is another way of saying that there would be no such thing as time. So the existence of time depends on the difference between the future and the past.
There are two possible implications that follow from this. We might try to say that time is a distinct reality that is the cause of the distinction between the future and the past. But we might also try to say that it is the distinction between the future and the past that is the actual cause of time. In either case, the action of the cause is expressed via the laws of physics that operate in the present, and connect the future with the past.
The above causal dilemma cannot be resolved here, because there is a third possibility - that something else is the cause of both time and the distinction between the future and the past. Because this additional reality that might be seen to be the cause of time will turn out to be so unexpected, the matter must be considered in a separate article.
© Alen, October 2015
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