From Isaac Newton to The Shining: Notes on the Philosophy of Time

(This post offers assorted notes on the philosophy of time, time travel and related.)


A longtime debate has been whether time, at least as we humans conceptualize it, is an actual, absolute thing independent to us, or is it merely a human conception.

Isaac Newton believed that time as we commonly think of it as an absolute thing independent to humans, just as dirt, rocks, trees, weight and geography exist in concrete forms independent to us and our minds.  However, philosophers Leibniz and Kant felt that time, at least as we humans commonly think of it, is a human concept, something we observe and imagine through our myopic, limited human view.

* * * *

Newton, and for that matter Leibniz and Kant, didn’t know about Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which likely would have made them think differently.  (Read the past post ‘A Simple Explanation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity’).  Newton likely would have not viewed time as so absolute and rigid.  Amongst other things, Einstein’s theory showed that time can be different and there can be dual (different) times going on simultaneously.  It’s also impossible to determine which of the time is the ‘correct’ time.

Also note that there are things (if not humans) that move at the speed of light, such as light and subatomic particles.  So Einstein’s duality of time exits, if not for humans.

* * * *

Also, where we stand on earth is not stationary.  Beyond that the earth spins and rotates, we do not know the speed of our cosmos and space as a whole.  Our space could be changing in speed for all we know– speeding up and/or slowing down–, which would change our relative time.

All of the above bring into question of our perception and marking of time as an absolute.

* * * *

The common human conception and perception of time is a product our subjective and very limited conscious view of things.  Humans commonly perceive the now (what is in front of us) as the real, and the past and future as somehow unreal.  However, this is a product of our myopic, limited animal conscious ‘in the moment’ view of things.

There is no question that our perception of time is limited to our experience and limited view and mental abilities.  We proverbially watch from the side of the tracks as the bullet train of time goes by.  And that time even goes by in a line like a train is up to debate.  As with most things, including the universe and reality and even our own minds, time is something larger and possibly different than what our small minds and senses perceive.  Our perception of time is merely a limited and perhaps deluded view.

* * * *

Other animals have narrower and shallower consciousnesses and perception of time— they perceive reality and time and existence in a shorter in the moment window than humans.  A dog and cat consciously exist in the moment and has no concept of their births or deaths.  However, humans perception is still very similar to other animals. It is just a broader version and with memory and intellectual speculation.  Our view is myopic just not as myopic as other animals’.

* * * *

If you think time can be represented by an axis line just as distance can be represented by an axis, then standing in your current point in time and saying other points of time past and future are unreal is the geographical equivalent to standing in Toledo Ohio and saying Los Angeles and London don’t exist.

Clearly, Paris and Los Angeles are real no matter where you are standing, and so are the past and future. Sure you cannot be in the past, present and future at the same time, but neither can you stand in different geographical places at the same time.

If you are looking straight ahead in front of you at the center of a plank of wood, you don’t say the points to the left and the right of the plank don’t exist. The whole plank exits. In the same sense, all of time is real. A second, a year later, a specific point in time is the same as when it was when it was now. It is the same event, place, involves people and temperature. It hasn’t changed in any way.

* * * *

Time and now is viewed differently at different points in time. If you consider the now as real and 11am July 2 1755 as not real, realize that a man back in July 2 1755 would have considered that moment as real and your current now as unreal. Was that person less right than you. Is his reality less real than yours? To him your now is unreal, doesn’t exist– but it does– at least to you right now. Is his past or the future real any less real? How can it be? Your perception of now, called specious time, is a matter only on your place (in time) and consciousness. It subjective to where you are in time.

In the big picture– moving away from a human’s biological myopic conscious view, and seeing a broad view of things– all past and future points are equally real and exist.

Also, realize that that current and future events are formed by previous events. They aren’t separate, working isolated to each other. Events in the past influence the now and events in the past and now influence the future.   You are a product of your past experiences and education and physical happenings.  In that sense the past exists in the now.

* * * *

Every moment doesn’t exist at every moment, just as every geographical point doesn’t exist at any geographical point. But that doesn’t make every time moment outside your time moment or every other place outside of the place you stand unreal.




Physical time versus psychological time

Time is sometimes categorized as physical versus psychological time.

Physical time is time as it is marked by a clock– it keeps marching along at a steady rate, whether it is observed or not, whether you are awake or asleep.

Psychological time is how it is subjectively viewed by a person or persons. The perceived speed of time changes due to psychological and physiological factors. Time can drag when you are bored, while it can “fly while having fun.” Sleep makes time pass quickly psychologically. Drugs and illness can make appear to time slow or speed up. After taking a nap we can be surprised at how late is the time.




Human time travel

Time travel is a topic that doesn’t overly interest me because I think the actual (rather than speculative) practice of a human actually traveling through time in a time machine like Doctor Who is far fetched if not impossible. In particular, I think a human being going backward in time might well be impossible, even at the theoretical level.

The ‘time machine’ is a useful plot device and metaphor for fiction, and it does bring up some interesting philosophical ideas and reflects on human nature, psychology and the nature of being. However, while there are potential physics laboratory experiments and theories involving subatomic atomic particles jumping back a mili fraction of a second, I do not take Doctor Who-ish time travel as anything more serious than speculation.

* * * *

We all travel through time. I experienced 1975 and 1987 and will be around for the future.

‘Time travel’ as most people conceive of it involves traveling highly abnormally, beyond the normal human limits. This can include experiencing the distant beyond normal lifespan future, skipping back and forth through time and experience time at abnormal speeds.

* * * *

While the theory of going backward in time is filled with major problems and likely impossible, people do and can experience foreword time in abnormal ways. People use drugs, take long sleeps to skip periods of time (psychological time). People who are unconscious wake up in the future and consciously miss periods of time. People take care of themselves to live longer lives. The life expectancy of modern humans is much longer than long ago, so humans today experience more time in their lives. The story of Rip Van Winkle is about a man who falls asleep and wakes up years later. This isn’t so far fetched as modern medicine progresses, though some would claim it isn’t time travel in the ‘traditional’ sense.

* * * *

Einstein’s theory of relativity shows how it is theoretically possible to experience time differently Though the chance of a human riding in a spaceship traveling at the speed of light is very, very far fetched.

* * * *

If they don’t experience time travel directly, people experience echoes or artifacts of time. Reading history, visiting an ancient building, reading an old diary or looking at photos or mementos allows us to, in a way, experience the past. Visiting a boyhood room in the same physical state can give a rush to the past, allow you to experience again old emotions.

We can and do get new insight and knowledge about the past that effects are current and future. We can’t change the past, but can change our perception and knowledge of it and that can change our current and future.

* * * *

Predictions, including scientific predictions, can sometimes show the future. Computer programs showing how humans will age or show the progression of a disease. Financial calculations and schedules can show how much money you will have and what you can buy. Learning our relatives’ and our medical histories can predict, to a degree, our medical future. Though these predictions aren’t first hand experienced at the time of prediction which makes it different than actual experience.

* * * *

We can think about the past, learn more about the past. We can also think of all the different possibilities in the past— the different forks, trails that could have been taken, the paths and really things that could have happened but didn’t. And these thoughts can change our now and future, how we act and what we do now and in the future.

The highest human thought involves such types of contemplation and speculation. Great inventions are the product of intellectual speculation.

* * * *

There are many paradoxes with time travel, in particular backward time travel, paradoxes that make many conclude that backward human time travel is impossible.

On the face of it it’s impossible to go back before you were born. How can you exist before you were born? Is it even philosophically possible?

There is a famous time travel paradox where you are supposed to go back in time to assassinate your grandfather. Clearly, you can’t do this, because if you did you’d never be born and exist to go back in time to kill your grandfather.

There’s also the problem of duality. If you could go back before you were born, would, as time passed, there be two yous? Is this possible?  Some propose the idea of parallel universes, often with different times. Theory of course, though we all can look at the past and see how real different things could have happened, different real paths could have been taken.

How can you go back to an earlier time and not affect the future? Unless you lose all future memory of the past? The latter would be a changing of the future and possibly change your desire to go back to the past to change the past.

We often want to go back in time to change past hurts, but changing those hurts would change our future motivation to go back in time to change those hurts.

If you want to go back to change an event in the past and you change it you change the desire in the future to go back and change it. It is the future that changes the past. The change in the past is dependent on the future and if you change the past to change the future you won’t change the past.  The change in the past is dependent on the future which you have changed.  Some would say that the past being dependent on the future is an impossibility– that backward causality is impossible.

If in the future you can invent a time machine to take you back to your current past and change all those bad things, then why haven’t those bad things been changed? Is it because you never invent the machine, because you do but decide not to?

And if you say you’re lazy and must work and study harder to invent that time machine, then why haven’t your past bad things been fixed?

These endless paradoxes and paradoxes within paradoxes point to the impossibility of time travel or our delusory perception of time.

There’s no question time is something our limited myopic minds can’t grasp, much less master.

* * * *

You can’t change the past. The closest you can do to changing the past is to change the right now, which, a moment later, is the past. By changing the current you also change the future. These are the powers you have, not going back in a time machine.

As traveling to and changing the past is at the very least near impossible, it makes practical sense to put one’s time and energy in changing the now and future. That’s where the best bet is, the best use of one’s time.

* * * *

The discussion of time travel is a look at the psychological wants and needs and aspirations of humans that they can’t achieve. Humans want to live forever, never grow old, are haunted by the past, past choices. The contemplation of time travel is a contemplation of the conundrums and limitations of being human, the human condition. Our wants exceed our capabilities. The more we study time travel, the more it haunts us, damages us. Humans long for the impossible.

Contemplating time travel is about confronting the paradoxes and impossibilities and limitations of our existence and our understanding. And there are many things we don’t know, can’t know, including about time.

* * * *

Time travel is often used in fiction. Often it’s pure science fantasy for fun and games, but other times is a metaphor or a device to delve into the human condition and psyche. Picasso said “Art is a lie that shows us the truth.” Similarly, time travel in fiction is a lie, but it reveals much about humans, including their psychology and hopes and inner dreams and aches and yearnings.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol involves back and forth time travel, but the scenes are more visions with Scrooge only shown scenes.  He watches them impassively from the outside. He is shown the past, as one would be shown the past through pictures or a diary or stories told others. The future scenes can simply be credible predictions. This time travel is a metaphorical device, a symbol of memory and contemplation and how self-awareness can change our future.  Notice that his visions/contemplations of the past (and future) change his actions and, it would seem, his future.

Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is an early story about time travel, involving moving back in time and show how changes in the past change the future. However, the story is couched in the fact that the protagonist has been hit in the head and is unconscious and that it is very much possible that the time travel story is nothing more than his brain damaged dream.

To me, Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shinning is a particularly interesting story about time travel. In the movie, the family is staying over winter at an isolated hotel and the little boy, Danny, has psychic visions of the past and future. The black cook Hallorann has the same secret psychic ability and recognizes it the Danny. Hallorann explains to Danny that they don’t see the past and future but traces of it. He says, “Well, you know … when something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind. Say like, if someone burns toast. Well, maybe things that happen leave other kinds of traces behind. Not things that anyone can notice, but things that people who “shine” can see. Just like they can see things that haven’t happened yet. They aren’t so much traveling through time as seeing artifacts and mementos left behind. As shiners, they have better abilities to see the details that are there but others miss.

The movie is even more complex and ambiguous in that the movie involves numerous geographical and narrative impossibilities.  Some believe the entire story is the dream of Danny’s mentally ill dad played Jack Nicholson. They believe the movie is really about mental illness.

It’s also notable that it is debatable that Danny’s visions of impending horror and violence are accurate, or any more accurate and detailed than anyone normal person’s intuitions. His father knew there had been a years earlier horrible murder at the hotel, perhaps information Danny got, and Danny’s premonitions of violence may have been insights into his dad’s volatile nature. It is alluded to that his dad had previously done something violent to Danny. The premonitions may be similar to anyone’s bad dreams based on unsettling experiences and insight. Further, Danny and his mother escape their homicidal dad. His attempt at murder of his wife and son never materialize.  The ‘Redrum’ never happens.

It’s also notable that the last image of Jack Nicholson (or a look-alike) is in an old photo from decades earlier– an artifact or literary symbol of time. The smell of burnt toast left behind.

The movie involves riddles within riddles

The curious, out-of-place ending to Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver is interpreted by some as Travis Bickle’s deathbed dream. A speculative reality.

* * * *

A major limitation of humans is speed. We don’t have enough time because we are slow. It takes us time to do things. We can’t write a novel in a day or go from Los Angeles to Paris in a minute. “There are not enough hours in the day” people often lament. Our errors in judgment are magnified because we are slow. Computers are more accurate because they can make many computations in a short period of time. They are ‘high speed.’

People can’t be in two places at the same time, but with technology, we shorten the gap– communication, faster travel. In the 1850s, most people lived their entire lives within a short radius of their birth. Today, people fly across the country and world regularly. You can have a real-time video chat with a friend on the other side of the world, while 300 years ago you would have written by rare letter. We know more about other places than we used to. The world is smaller, we can do more in our lives, in our week than we used to.

As technology and knowledge improve, we won’t slow time but will speed up what we can do in that time.  And our science and knowledge will teach us more about our past and help better predict the future.