Running Out of Time

dali persistence of memory
Image: Dali’s Persistence of Memory

(This is a thought piece. I lay no claim to expertise in theoretical mathematics, physics or anthropology. It is just a line of thinking based on some recent reading that led to an extraordinary thesis about the nature of time.)

The other day there was yet another report by anthropologists of discovery of a tribe of indigenous people who have no words for, or sense of, time. There is now a whole school of thought that asserts that:

1. Wild creatures spend most of their lives in “Now Time”, a multidimensional recursive eternal Present.

The exception is when they are stressed, usually by a predator, in which case they briefly and instinctively enter “Clock Time” (what we humans think of as “real” time) until the danger has passed. The theory holds that therefore they have no enduring feeling that their time or life is short, or is running short, and hence no conceptual fear of death. There is a group of mathematicians and scientists working to develop a model of how Now Time is perceived by those creatures (and perhaps by the aforementioned aboriginal peoples), so that perhaps we could (re-)learn how to live in Now Time too.

2. Through meditation, self-awareness and/or practice we can live “in the Now”.

And, in so doing, we can free ourselves from:

  • the negative emotions we feel (anger, grief, fear etc.)
  • the often traumatizing stories we tell ourselves (about how awful or how much better the past was, about how the future might be much better, or will be much worse), and
  • the worldviews and belief systems about what we and others “should have done” in the past and “should” do with the rest of our lives.

Writers like Eckhart Tolle and Richard Moss say we can learn to live “in the Now”. It was their inspiration that caused me to aspire to be “just the space through which stuff passes, a part of the unfathomably complex, connected dance of all-life-on-Earth, learning which of that passing-through stuff to touch, and how, and which to just let go.”

3. What caused us to lose this ability to live in Now Time is a combination of our large brains and our culture.

We “learned” to appreciate and live in unnatural Clock Time the same way we “learned” human-invented languages: through constant exposure to them, and through reinforcement from the enculturating behaviour of others, until Clock Time just became part of our unquestioned perception of reality, of what really “is”. To the extent we learn this at a young age, this understanding of Clock Time as real co-developed with our learning of language and with the development of our brains, so that now it is almost impossible for us to imagine that time is not indisputably real.

4. As we learn more about our universe, the whole concept of time becomes more and more suspect.

Latest scientific thinking is that there was in fact no Big Bang, no “beginning of time”, and also that to develop a model of reality that more precisely approximates our real universe, we will have to jettison the entire concept of time, because it just doesn’t “fit” into any viable model at either the macro or micro scale. The concept or existence of time is unnecessary to explaining the universe and how it works. Time, it appears, is not a dimension like space. It is, according to a growing scientific consensus, nothing more than “what clocks measure”. It is, in short, a human invention, for our convenience, an invention of some limited use, and nothing more.

So what are we to make of all this? We have created this figment of our imagination that now tyrannizes us, makes us fearful, causes us to create convoluted theories of the universe to incorporate it (which we defend as fiercely as pre-Copernican theorists defended their bizarre models that supported the “obvious” reality that the Earth was the centre of the universe). Time obsesses us. We suffer from a perceived constant shortage of it. We spend, many of us, much of our lives studying and practicing how to free ourselves from its hold — how to forget about it. We invent stories that define us, as individuals and as peoples, which are inextricably rooted in it. We teach our children how important and valuable it is, how to measure it, and how to focus our life’s energies on the things that are “urgent” — things that must be done before too much more of it “elapses”. And yet this thing that so controls and defines and drives us is nothing but an invention, a fiction. How can this be?

Try to imagine what it would be like if we didn’t perceive of time at all. Would we, perhaps, spend almost none of our lives doing anything, just being? Instead of being motivated by the need to prepare for the future, to look after the future needs of ourselves and our loved one, would we be motivated just to be present, to be happy, to love? And if so, would we just accept the death of our loved ones, and ourselves, as nature rebalanced our numbers through natural predators (predators that we would never have any inclination to kill, or kill off), or, in rare cases when/where* this was insufficient to keep our numbers in balance, through outbreaks of disease? (*Isn’t it interesting that we often use the words “when” and “where” interchangeably when talking about “what if” conjectures in time and space?)

What was it that caused our ancestors to wander from their natural rainforest habitat, and struggle to survive in terrifying new places where, just to eke out a bare existence, they needed to invent/discover arrowheads and spears, and then agriculture and languages, and then civilization? Did we invent time, like we invented languages and other recent abstract human artifacts, because without it we could not have survived the ice ages and climates hostile to our weak, slow, unarmoured bodies?

There is much conjecture about whether whales, elephants, and the smarter bird species “think” in some ways as we humans do. My sense is that they do not, for the simple reason that do not need to. I would guess that whales and ravens live in Now Time because, for the most part, they can. They have no need of Clock Time except for the fleeting moments in which they are threatened with imminent death, and even in those moments their reactions are instinctive and lightning-fast, faster perhaps than a thought, so that they can return with a shake to Now Time, the only real time, the place where they live. Because Now Time is, it would seem, a place, a “where” that one dwells rather than a “when”.

If you accept that we invented Clock Time because we needed to do so to survive as a species, do we still need it now? I would say so. Our civilization culture is dependent on Clock Time, and on our willingness to participate in a society that values time above almost everything else. Our currencies are substantially based on the value of human labour, the value of our time. Our society puts enormous personal and collective responsibility on us to make use of our time to create an ever-“better” future.

What if we “irresponsibly” walked away from Clock Time? What if we refused to use clocks, to adhere to any schedule, or to make any plans or provisions for the future? We would have to walk away from our civilization culture to do this. If just a few of us did so, we would most likely quickly become homeless, residents of the streets or the jails. But if enough of us did it, civilization culture would collapse, and a new human culture would emerge. This New Culture would be neo-primitive, a naked vegan gatherer culture. Assuming its members didn’t starve, or die of exposure, I suspect this culture would abandon language, and abandon the use of their hands for anything other than foraging and artistic expression, because these tools of civilization would no longer be necessary. In time, if they were successful, this culture would resemble that of our cousins the chimps or bonobos (hopefully the latter).

They would become what we were long before the emergence of indigenous human cultures, with their evolved sense of time. They would stop doing anything that wasn’t immediately necessary, and simply be.

My guess would be that, once our civilization culture collapses, the succeeding human cultures will repeat civilization’s failures, because they will have inherited the tools — languages, technologies, and time — on which that civilization was based — these tools will have informed the structure of their brains and hence their thoughts and imaginations. It will probably take a series of failures, on increasingly smaller scales, before young humans will no longer be entrained with these propagandist tools, and will instead be allowed to just be. By this time we will probably have returned, in tiny numbers, to the recovered rainforests of the planet, the lands from which humans first emerged, where these tools are not needed.

By then humans’ natural predators will also have returned to the rainforest. Our survival as a species, then, will no longer depend on our brains or on our ferocity, but on our true “fitness” within the jungle ecosystem — the degree to which we fit within and add to the diversity and balance of that lush and astonishing land of abundance.

I think we’ll do just fine, living in Now Time, an eternal, joyful Present. At least until something tempts us, or forces us, out of that garden and back into Clock Time. And when that happens, without the abundance of large, slow mammals, cheap energy and stable climate that facilitated our global civilization, we will disappear once and for all from the planet. Life will go on, in Now Time, not in ours.

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8 Responses to Running Out of Time

  1. Mike says:

    Interesting piece! Clock time is definitely a concept created by humans that now traps us. This is the nature of living in a conceptual reality – you get a layer of thoughts between the world and your awareness. This layer is a warped mirror that distorts the outside reality and therefore our inner realities as well.

    It is possible to escape from the concept-trap our egos and culture have created for us, but it is not easy to do. Historically, maybe one person in a million achieves this level of “enlightenment”. I however am optimistic that we can consciously change our culture to increase the chances of this happening.

  2. John Graham says:

    I find it reassuring that we’ve come up against a fundamental aspect of reality that we can’t separate out from, objectify enough to definitively say “it exists”, measure as a quantity and plot on a Cartesian axis unproblematically.

    About the now-time. What animals don’t seem to need is the awareness that they are living in an historical world/universe. Trying to go back to this pre-conscious “garden” could be seen as an abdication of our existential responsibility – it would be comforting if (like the concentration camps and tar sands) the world’s evolution had nothing to do with us, if how we decided to spend our time here didn’t matter. I think this historical sense is a gift and a privilege. Enjoy learning to dance!

    Mechanical clock-driven society is quite a different issue. I look forward with interest to the future of that post-cheap oil.

  3. I like the idea of thinking about how animals view time.

  4. John Banfill says:

    Time is circular but we measure it using numbers which are linear. It is hard to understand because we have no true measure of it. Each of us can only complete one cycle which is our lifetime. Everyone needs to live according to which part of the cycle they are currently in – which has little to do with the past or the future. You will then be in Now Time. You have never been here before and you will never be here again. We are headed to the exact starting point or condition where we started. Live now now.

  5. barbara says:

    Hmm — lots to think about. Time — the mechanical timepiece became important to fit in with the industrial revolution — get those workers to work. Animals knowing time? Yes. Only it is measured in a different way — maybe energy forces of light. The Carolina wren in my woods stops singing about the same time every night (I keep track of their time). The toads in my fields start croaking about the same time every evening. The fireflies come out and flicker and leave around the same time every night now. I could go on. Of course my dogs over the years knew when to expect me. Time is similar yet measured differently within the animal groups which of course we are one — barbara

  6. An interesting and thought provoking article.

    I would sum up the essence like this: “Time is built on memories and projections. The rest is just life.”

    Now whether we *should* go back to having no conception of time, is quite a question. Perhaps we are living a challenge, a test.

    Can a society develop and prosper that has a linear conception of time? What can become of such a society?

    As such, perhaps we are an experiment the universe is engaging in…

  7. terrapraeta says:

    Hey Dave —

    Couple things. First off, quantum theory, cosmology, etc is one of my “pet” studies. Love it. So some clarification on the science… When they are saying that time doesn’t exist, in *most* of the cases mentioned in the articles they are saying that time does not exist as an absolute, nor as a force within which the universe exists. Entropy (the breakdown of the universe(s) from order to chaos, or… from hot to cold) defines the arrow of time — or, movement. When something(a person, a plant or a subatomic particle) moves there is a direction in space.. and therefore in space-time. Make sense? The most important thing about time *not* existing is that it is not absolute and it is not separate from space.

    So all that being said…. I do not think that humans are unique in our perception of time. Plants respond to cyclical changes in their environment — and somehow are “smart” enough that seeds don’t sprout (generally) in the midst of a January thaw. Animals of all sorts follow seasonal migrations and exhibit other behaviors that are cyclical in nature. Our “primitive” ancestors understood the nature of passing seasons, as well as generational cycles of change in their environment. All of these are “good” things in that they “allowed” evolution to take place.

    Now (heh), look at our current cultures obsession with clocks. “Clock time” is an absolute, independent of natural rhythms. It is “noon” because the clock says so, not because the sun is directly overhead (and except for a couple times each year it is NOT directly overhead at noon). It is spring because the calendar says March 21 — rather than because seeds are once more spouting. This conception of time is *definitely* something I think we could do without. Or more specifically, reconnecting with the actual *movement* that underlies our “natural” conception of time is something I think we will need to be able to do if we are arrive beyond civ.

    Now to connect back to “now-time” — I see this as nothing more, nor less, than being connected to the *actual* movement occurring around oneself. We civilized humans have a tendency to concern ourselves with what *did* happen and what *will* happen while being almost oblivious to what *is* happening. If we reconnect with what is happening as a matter of course, then simple pattern recognition will eventually allow us to understand the cycles of time without having to consciously break it down or ever worry about it — which are the very things that keep us out of the now.


  8. Jon Husband says:

    Have you ever read Heidegger’s Being and Time ?

    Pertinent to your points above, and to your most recent post as well.

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