A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Time as Abstraction

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on August 21, 2006

When I look around me, I see two types of change.
Either things which are undergoing mechanical changes, or acting agents. I never see or am aware of such thing as a moment. Further I remember what has happened, and see possibilities of what can happen (which opens possibility for phenomenological alternative to folk psychology as a theory). I don’t see any such thing as time, except as abstraction based on my awareness of aforementioned changes, remembering what was, and awareness of possibilities open in what I see. In such way time is not something basic in our cognition, it is abstraction from those “wealthier” concepts.

If we put attention at the concept of change as we are aware of it, it contains the identity of thing, and the change of something about the thing. Things change only within their identity – their identity is necessarily connected to their change – they are not some kind of pure non-changing essence, but their essence is to change.

Anyway, I think usual mistake in metaphysics is that time is seen not as abstraction, but as ontologically primary, as something which is outside of the things themselves. This is usually combined with the view that the things themselves are some unchanging essence that changes only because some sort of universal clock makes them change. But this view, ignoring that time is merely abstraction, and positing it as ontologically primary, necessarily gets into problems…

1. Because such view imagines things as static states of affairs, some kind of disconnected moments in universal or local (in point in space?) time, it has problems with the notion of identity when it needs to transcend this imagined time. As how can this philosophy say that the same person has lived so many years? Instead of taking the thing as ontologically fundamental, and taking time-slices as abstractions; it wants to do it the other way around, to start from the (imagined, nowhere to be seen) slices and reconstruct the identity of the thing through time. However whatever “glue” is added from outside, as something external to those slices, it can never provide the ontological basis for things, it will only provide some for of conceptual/theoretical framework in which thingness will be seen as matter of definition. That definition won’t come from our understanding of the things, but it will be added just to (somewhat) satisfy intuitions that those time-slices can’t work. It is no wonder that this kind of thinking gets lost in it own, and wonders about questions if we should define thing as a four dimensional entity in which all those slices exist in some sense, or is it just the time-slice in now which exists. What is here argued, that those are unnecessary complications, which disappear if we accept time as abstraction.

2. A theory which takes on itself the task of explaining away change by what is abstracted from change, namely the time and the different values of the property that changes, will get into the kind of paradoxes as those presented by Zeno. No matter how you try to connect those abstractions mechanically from outside, you can never succeed to construct change from them,as those are not parts which are there by themselves merely connected in notion of change. For a particular change – a movement which can be described by the s=v*t formula, that mathematical description is merely an abstraction of how the potential measurements in some given framework happen, but the theory about time and values separate from change, about time and position separate from movement, will try to say that what is first is t and x. That there are ontologically existing positions, and ontologically existent times. And in the moment t1, it is in position x1; in moment t2 in position x2 etc… And in such theory there is no movement, just sequence of position in sequence of times, and there the movement appears as a merely nominal concept.

It is also imagined that the difficulty of Zeno’s paradoxes can be overcome by adding infinitesimals to the story. But often it is the “bad” notion of infinitesimals which is used, the one where the infinitesimals are something ontologically primary – again the abstract moments of time are imagined, but now which are infinitely close, i.e. where the distance between two moments is smaller then any given “distance”, but yet it is not zero. But this infinitesimals understood this way are yet another contradiction. And while it is true that calculus gives good way to solve the Zeno’s paradoxes, it is not through this contradictory interpretation of infinitesimals connected to the contradictory notion of change as aggregate of moments.

The mind left within the confusion created by combining those two notions (or interpretations), each contradictory in itself, is hoping that there is something about putting two things which mind can’t comprehend together, and through that – the magic of change comes about. And what the mind does in such situation is to blame the reality and our limited power of understanding for this weird state of affairs, as if the best we can do is to catch the pieces which reality throws to us. And while our minds are really to blame, it is not because our comprehension is limited, but for wanting to make our abstractions the basis of reality, instead of seeing them for what they are.

3.This view where time is taken as absolute basis, and on other side the values of some variable (e.g. space), are also taken as separate, is the picture of Newtonian physics. And the revolution in physics produced by special and general relativity was motivated by comprehension that they are not absolute, but are abstractions.


8 Responses to “Time as Abstraction”

  1. Mark Butler said

    Newtonian “proper time” isn’t on nearly as shaky a foundation as many suggest. Sure clocks speed up and slow down, but the experimental evidence against Newtonian concepts such as simultaneity simply isn’t there.

    Einstein’s brand of relativity has not been demonstrated to the degree necessary to establish what too many keep quoting as scientific fact.

    Conventional relativity and quantum mechanics aren’t even compatible, and the latter has much more detailed evidence in the areas where they conflict than the former. The Alain Aspect experiment, for example.

  2. Thanks for the comment Mark,
    Isn’t it the case that even in quantum mechanics, the time is reduced to a level of observable, and not something absolute? As far as I know, in case of QM one can’t speak of e.g. the pair of time and energy as a potential values of wave function as they are pair of conjugate quantities.

  3. Danni said

    this is a true vision of someone that not only looks at what is right infront of them, but looks beyond what the eye can see and takes into account all the possibilities…

  4. NooProcess said

    I don’t get it.

  5. Hey NooProcess,

    Can you point to something more specific that you have problems with?

  6. Sam said

    Quantum physics really makes what I was taught in school obsolete. Imagine the measurement theory…if you try to measure 2 atoms from one to another it will always be were you’re though places it the 2 points. Let your imagination run wild….!

  7. Sam, thanks for the comment, but seems that the quantum indeterminacy has affected your sentence.

  8. Brad said

    I too think of time as an abstraction. Nice to think I’m not alone, at least in that. I sort of follow your logic, but basically, it just seems apparent that it’s always now.

    Other seemingly related thoughts (well, at least to me):

    It occurs to me that a non-temporal now must be constantly/instantaneously generated.

    Apparently, we even have a bit of fairly local control over this generation. The predominate structure of now seems to be the abstract past which we are constantly, if ever so slightly, changing by appending it with our abstract future.

    I suppose the “big bang” could be the un-appended structure of now.

    Ah well, just thoughts.

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