People often have crazy ideas about time.
They may think time controls their lives.
Or the past determines what is happening to them today.
Maybe time is a dimension and people can travel to the past and change reality.
In this article, I will explain why people become confused about time.
Then I provide a simple but useful definition of what time is.
After you understand what time is, confusion will disappear and you can think logically to improve your life.
Can you put time in a bottle?
You can't hold five minutes in your hand. You can't put five minutes in a bottle. Nor can you send a gift of five minutes to a friend.
Five minutes doesn't have a location, shape, or weight.
Time doesn't have a color, taste, or sound. You can't sense five minutes as an object.
This thing called time seems to lack physical properties.
Maybe clocks can help us feel the physical realities of time.
Does a clock show you time?
People look at clocks to see time and how it passes. So, how do you see time in a clock?
When you look at a mechanical clock, you see the clock arms move.
There are water clocks, sand clocks, pendulum clocks, spinning weights, sun dials, atomic clocks, laser clocks and many more.
What you see in these clocks is motion.
The original clock was the Sun moving in the sky. One complete cycle is a day. Then a day is divided into hours, minutes, and seconds.
Any motion or event can mark time. For instance, I could say, “I'll meet you in the bar when the horse race is over.”
The motions and events of clocks are physically real. You can see, feel, and hear the movements and events of clocks.
Movement is the only real physical quality of time.
You create mental concepts about time by interpreting the movement of clocks. Your thoughts are not physically real.
You can give a clock to a friend, but that will not give them any time.
If time is not a physical object, then is time a dimension?
Can you travel to the past or the future?
Most people have such a strong conviction that time is real, they believe the past and future exist physically and you can visit and live there.
But this would have ridiculous consequences as explained next.
If you traveled back in time, you could walk, talk and do everything you could do in your original world. It must be a parallel universe.
Because you could travel back in time to any moment, there must be a parallel universe for each moment in time for the entire life of the Universe.
Since each world must be fully functional and coherent with all the others, all universes would move forward in lock-step as time passed.
Whenever a time traveler alters reality, they would create a new branch of universes. A clone of the time traveler would exist in each new branch. The number of branches and time travelers could increase geometrically.
If one person can travel back in time, then why not two, three, or thousands?
When thousands of time travelers exist in parallel universes and alter history, they would create an explosion of new universes. The number of parallel universes with time travelers would quickly approach infinity.
Then, worlds would change so frequently that every world would deteriorate into random nonsense.
Time travel is much too complex to exist and if it ever occurred, it would self destruct.
Or, do you think there is a single past, present, and future?
Does the past determine the present?
Some people believe the past, present, and future exist as one continuous reality which never changes. They call this Determinism.
Imagine yourself as paralyzed but wide awake. Then as time passes, all your experiences and thoughts are force fed into your mind.
You have no free choice and no free will.
I can't think of a more frightening nightmare.
But my purpose is not to scare you. So, let's consider a more likely reality.
Physicists named the beginning of our Universe the “Big Bang” because it was so chaotic. There were no objects, not even atoms or subatomic particles. There was only energy similar to light. Even the four fundamental forces of Physics did not exist. The Universe was evolving and its final nature was chosen by a method similar to throwing trillions of dice.
If the Universe is not determined from the beginning, then when could it become determined?
Our current laws of Quantum Mechanics say that in every moment of time an infinite number of events happen that are nearly impossible. The article, "Quantum Tunnelling," explains one example. While physicists can calculate the probability of tunnelling, they have no way of knowing exactly when it will happen.
Another example of indeterminism is that all subatomic particles can act as waves and when they do, they do not have an exact position but can be anywhere in a probability distribution.
The scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows our Universe is not determined.
The real problem facing humans is not determinism but the randomness of the physical world. We must overcome our inherited chaotic nature by organizing our thoughts, actions, and lives.
People can organize against all the chaos, randomness, and improbabilities of the physical world. They proved this when men landed on the Moon and came back alive.
And we have this present moment in which to determine our future.
Or do we?
Does the present moment exist?
People like to talk about “The present moment.” But I have never found a clear definition of what that is. Most people assume they know what it means and that everyone else has exactly the same concept.
Or they make some circular definition such as the present is between the past and the future.
I said earlier that time is an abstraction of motion.
Motion never stops.
You can see, feel, and hear motion.
In fact, sensing requires motions. Light waves move so we can see. Sound waves move so we can hear. Gases move so we can sense fragrances. Objects move so we can feel force.
Even our senses require motion. Chemicals and electrical signals move in our sensors and neurons to send data to the brain. Then the brain uses the motion of chemicals and electrical signals to analyze the sensory information.
The present moment is not an object. You can't hold it in your hand or put it in a bottle.
Reality is a continuous and never ending flow of motions. That's what all physical things are.
Actually, the phrase “continuous motions” are just words that we humans interpret into thoughts. But at least these words refer to something physically real and so are closer to reality than mental models. That is the best we can do when using words to communicate.
You can read the article "The problems with symbolic representations," to find out more about words.
So, should you never use the concept called time?
How to think logically about time
Time is an idea. Time only exists in the minds of humans.
That is why you can't hold five minutes in your hand, or put five minutes in a bottle.
Humans create models of how the physical world moves. These models are called time. But these mental representations are simple compared to the real world. They are abstractions.
Our ability to create time in our minds makes humans superior to animals. Modeling how our world changes over time is one of our most useful mental tools.
But using models of time can become so automatic that we often forget they are not real. Then we extend the model too far and create crazy ideas like those mentioned in the sections above.
To detect and eliminate crazy concepts of time, you need to be aware of when you are working with abstractions and not reality.
Why you need awareness of abstraction
When humans believe their mental models of time are real physical things, they create crazy concepts.
It's the same as believing in Santa Claus. Just imagine all the crazy ideas you would create if you believed Santa Claus was real. How would you explain where he lives and why no one visits him? How does Santa deliver all those gifts? How do reindeers fly?
To avoid these problems, you need to be aware of when you are working with imaginary mental models and when you are working with real physical objects.
Albert Korzybski said you need to have an awareness of abstraction. In his book, “Science and Sanity,” he explained that the most accurate description of a real thing is to point to it.
We must show with our hand, by pointing our finger to the object, and by being silent outwardly as well as inwardly, which silence we may indicate by closing our lips with the other hand (2, page 416).
Mental models can never represent the real world exactly.
You can read the article, "Why you are making big mistakes and how to fix it," for a complete explanation of the limitations of mental models.
Now for your next step.
Go from crazy to constructive thinking about time
Now you know that time is a mental model.
Time is not a physical reality like objects and motions.
But, now that you know what time is, you can use this mental model appropriately.
You can avoid confusing your models of time with reality.
You can make long-term plans and consciously manage your plans as flexible but powerful ideas.
You can become an expert at planning and achieving your goals because you understand that these mental constructs are totally under your control.
Now you can achieve your goals faster and easier.
References and Notes
Writing of this article would not be possible without the information in the following publications and others from these authors.
1. HALL, L. MICHAEL. (2018). EXECUTIVE THINKING: Activating Your Highest Executive Thinking Potentials. Clifton, Co., Neuro-Semantic Publications.
2. Korzybski, Alfred. (1933). Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. 5th ed., Fort Worth, Tx., Institute of General Semantics, 1994.