Swans Commentary » swans.com June 14, 2010  





by Michael Doliner





(Swans - June 14, 2010)   I have argued that scientific distance is a collection of repeatable operations. What about time? Well, what is it? There is, of course, what might be called naïve time, time that flies by when you are having fun and drags endlessly when you are waiting for someone. Our sense of time is notoriously unreliable, but what is scientific time? Obviously, scientific time is measured (that word again) by clocks, and a clock is something that does something, almost anything, again and again, and counts the number of times it has done it. The watch ticks, the pendulum swings, the sands trickle away, over and over. A clock is something that does something regularly, over and over, and, conveniently, counts the number of times it does so. Since science is a collection of repeatable operations, time is the bare bones of science. It is an operation, any operation, the mere gesture of an operation, repeated over and over and over, continuously, without stopping, even for a second. Time is what it takes to do something. Clocks reveal one of the big reasons science is so successful -- we can make machines to repeat operations. Something that is done the same way again and again can usually be done by machine. Time is not an operation that we do -- it is an operation that a machine does, a machine that just keeps working, working, and working, never stopping.

So, let us ask a simple question. A clock does something, then does it again. Did it take the same amount of time in both cases? A clock ticks, then ticks again, then ticks again. Was the "duration" of the space (what?) between the first and second tick the same as that between the second and third? Naturally, we assume that it was, but why? We can't compare them, line one up against the other to see if they are the same length, for one is gone when the other arrives. Of course it feels like they are both the same, but our sense of time is notoriously unreliable. Is it an axiom of nature that a machine that does the same thing again and again takes the same amount of time to do it each time? What is it that it takes the same amount of? If time is simply the counting of repeated "doings" then how can we use it to measure the "duration" of each doing?

Well it did the same thing again! Of course it took the same amount of time to do it! We want to say this even though to say it is incoherent. Do we want to say we are not really counting the ticks, we are counting the amount of time between ticks, the duration between ticks? How does this help us? How does it get us anywhere to say we are counting the spaces between the ticks rather than the ticks themselves? Does this guarantee that they are the same "size"? What is this "time" that they both take the same amount of? I thought time was the counting of the ticks.

What if we filled the spaces between ticks with quicker ticks? Take the calendar. The calendar is really a big clock, isn't it? And since we didn't make it, doesn't its existence prove that time is really out there, independent of us? And each year is always the same length, right? After all, the year is always 365 ¼ days? Yes, but what makes us think the days are all the same? Well, they are always 24 hours, the hours 60 minutes, the minutes 60 seconds, and so on. Could something be affecting these nested clocks all in the same way? Don't Einstein's theories say just that? But if we couldn't detect it, so what? In the end there are still spaces and nothing with which to measure their duration.

Let us imagine this. Suppose nothing happened between ticks. A tick, then utter stillness, then another tick, then stillness, then a tick. Would we then be so confident that the two durations were the same? What tells us that they are? How would we know?

Well, what about this? Instead of one clock why not use two. If they tick away simultaneously wouldn't that guarantee that the spaces between the ticks were the same? For why would they vary in the same way? Of course there might be something that affects both clocks in the same way, such as increase in temperature, or an electromagnetic field, that would make them both vary together. Very well, then we must isolate them from all possible outside influences. Admittedly, this is hard to do, for there might be outside influences we do not know about. Not too long ago electromagnetism was completely unknown. Nothing guarantees that another similar, now-unknown force doesn't exist. And what makes an influence an "outside influence" if not that it disrupts this regularity?

So are we just saying that the clocks will be regular if nothing makes them irregular? For we do take it as a principle that things don't vary without a cause. I mean we do, don't we? So without any cause nothing can vary, by definition. That we can make them equal by definition shows that the question of their equality is irrelevant to any of our concerns. It seems like a real question, but it isn't. Put another way, what operations that connect up with keeping time would be affected if these spaces between ticks (we might call them) varied in ways that we couldn't detect?

If time is a rhythmic counting, then it really makes no sense to ask how much time there is between counts. The question is incoherent. Well, it just feels like they are the same! Well, what if it didn't? To be sure, some people have rhythm and some don't. But by what criterion do we say that Satchmo has rhythm and Jane doesn't? Is it, again, our sense of rhythm, nothing more? What about Jane's sense of rhythm?

So, we can conclude: with clocks, the amount of time taken up is given entirely by the counting. There is nothing in between the counts to measure. Although we think in terms of an equality of the "spaces," so to speak, all we can really do is synchronize the repeated actions of two or more clocks. The accuracy of a clock can only be measured by seeing how well it synchronizes with other clocks. How close are their counts to one another? A variation in the size of the spaces, as long as everything that might be called a clock shared it, would, of course be undetectable and of no interest to us. None of it has anything to do with anything in the world that is not a clock. Time, scientific time, is a rhythmic counting, usually by a machine whose accuracy is measured by how closely clocks of this type remain synchronized with one another. Have both clocks counted the same number of ticks? Then they are accurate. Clocks are more accurate when they synchronize with other similar clocks more exactly. But it is always all about clocks, nothing else.

But wait a minute. What about this? You bake a cake for 30 minutes, and it is always done after that amount of time. Doesn't that show that time is "out there." But is it always done after thirty minutes? Well, yeah, if everything else is held constant such as temperature, humidity, maybe altitude.

Time is a very useful tool. It allows us to keep appointments. We each have a watch or cell phone and both agree to be at the same place at the same time. In the meantime we can do whatever we want. Time is handy, though imperfect for timing cooking or similar operations that require us to do something for a period of time. The calendar assures us that winter will end, an extraordinary accomplishment. Perhaps time's most interesting use is in determining causality. An event cannot cause another event if it happened later. This last is far more complicated than it seems, but too long to discuss here.

A far longer discussion is necessary concerning "the past" and "the future," and the calendar. When we talk about the past and the future we do not use clocks. The calendar might be called a natural clock, and it would require a lengthy description to see just how it is a human operation. These are complicated topics, but the reader, if he is interested, could use these methods, namely looking at what we actually do and say, to examine them himself. But please note, it is the method I am arguing for, not my descriptions of our doings. Those are all correctable by sharper observations. I use them to illustrate my point that science is not a collection of observations of nature, but a collection of human operations.


(Next time: Mathematics.)


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About the Author

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago (1964-1970) and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 14, 2010