Time, Time, Time….

“Time, time, time, see what’s become of me,” sang Simon and Garfunkel. Our concern with time is an interesting aspect of civilization. Here are some random thoughts.  

The secular order of time has been greatly disrupted by the virus. School and popular holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving have been canceled or curtailed. It’s a major loss for sports fans, I think, that they can’t share (in person or vicariously) with thousands of others who normally attend major sporting events. 

What are we measuring when we measure time? That’s not at all clear. We have included time as a factor in physical calculations since the time of Galileo (speed defined as change in position divided by change in time) and of course time plays an enigmatic role in relativistic physics. But the fact that we can manipulate time quantities mathematically does not necessarily show that time is “real” in some relevant sense.  

The philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested that time (and space) are unavoidable forms of consciousness. That is, that we can’t have experience of objects or events unless we order them in space and time. Whether or not time exists in the “real” world, independent of our consciousness was, for Kant, unknowable. Thus for Kant it would not be proper to ask “What is time?” Time is not a thing in the world that we can study, our experience of objects and events in space and time is a precondition for any study or analysis. 

The Chinese and Persians kept careful records of astronomical events and saw patterns that played out over periods longer than a normal lifetime. We just had one of those, a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus that reportedly happens only every 800 years or so. Something like this may have been the basis for the “star of Bethlehem” story. It must have puzzled the ancient astronomers: why should there be such long-term regularities? The rise and set of the sun makes sense: it defines our day and separates sleep and rest. The phases of the moon make sense: they define our seasons and our agricultural activities. But what utility do we get from an astronomical cycle that takes hundreds of years to complete? What message are the heavens trying to convey? And what about those comets? 

We are in one of the most active parts of the Church year. We have finished Advent and are into Christmas (five gold rings and all), with Epiphany and then Lent to come. This contrasts with the long stretch of “ordinary time” we have had since Pentecost. It is comforting to know that many Christians around the world are following along in the same general pattern of observance, whether they are allowed to gather in person or not. 

The end of one (secular) year and the beginning of another, New Year’s Day, has a curious importance in our culture. There are business reasons to get certain deals done by the end of the year, but the idea that New Year’s provides a “fresh start” so that we can make new “resolutions” is a strange one, particularly given the failure of nearly all such resolution. In Christianity, of course, every day is an opportunity for a new beginning. 

— Karl Oles

By Karl Oles

Seattle attorney, teacher of philosophy

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