December 4, 2006    Philosophy

Time: Scientific or Semantic Problem?

Reading this article in New Scientist reveals to me that scientific study of time is hampered by a language (semantic) problem. Wittgenstein incidentally used the concept of “time” to explain what he called “family resemblance.” The gist of it is that when we try to define what “time” is (or any word for that matter), we tend to look for what is common to all the phenomena we call “time”. This is a mental habit that has no logical basis. There is no reason why there must be something in common to all the phenomena we call “time”. Phenomenon A might share something in common with phenomenon B, and B might share something in common with C, but this does not mean that A must share something in common with C. So any attempt at abstracting a concept until you find something in common to all, is a futile exercise. I think some of the problems associated with time perception fall in this category.

Ever since I had my daughter 2 years ago, time has been flying, but when I look back and think about the day she was born it seems like 10 years ago. I’ve always used the metaphor of a motion picture camera to describe my theory of time. What we commonly call “slow motion” in movies is technically called “high-speed photography.” This is because you roll the film very fast in order to slow down the movement in playback. As the experiments in the New Scientist article show, when we are waiting in a lobby, time passes very slowly, but when we look back and think about how long it was, it seems shorter than it actually was. This is because when we look back, we are measuring how many frames of film we exposed. In other words, we are measuring the absolute number of frames we exposed, regardless of the speed at which they were recorded (i.e. frames per second, FPS).

Senior citizens, as described in the article, experience each day as slow, but the whole year as fast. Again, these are two separate things that they are describing. What they are describing as “slow” is the frame rate, whereas what they are describing as “fast” is the total number of frames recorded in a year (technically, it should be described as “short”). It is misleading to use the same word “time” to describe both, because they are referring to two separate phenomena. Because of this confusion, it appears as contradiction or “paradox”, when in fact there is no contradiction or paradox at all.

Since I had my daughter, every day goes by very fast, because I have so much I need to process with my brain. The average frame rate in a day has probably gone up since I had my daughter. We can feel a frame rate as we experience it, but this feeling is not recorded in our long-term memory, so shortly afterwards, we forget. In our long-term memory, all we have left are the actual frames that we exposed. When we recall those memories, we look at the absolute number of frames regardless of the rate at which they were recorded.

When we are waiting in a lobby with nothing to see or read, even if we wanted to increase the frame rate, there is not enough information to record or process. Most of us cannot increase our frame rate arbitrarily. We are dependent on the external stimuli to control our time-perception. If I have something cooking in my oven, I might go watch television for a while to pass the time, instead of standing in front of the oven. But there is nothing in the nature of television itself that increases our frame rate. The film “Armageddon” mentioned in the New Scientist article, may be painfully boring to someone (say the assistant editor of the film who saw it million times before), and to him, waiting in the lobby might actually be better in terms of passing the time faster.

I believe recreational drugs can alter our perceptions in such a way that things we would not ordinarily find interesting (say the pattern of the carpet in the lobby) can suddenly seem interesting, which allows us to increase the frame rate.

But this contradicts what Dalai Lama said. It makes sense that time slows down during meditation, because what true meditation does is to slow down, or stop, your thought. In other words, those who have mastered meditation can slow down their frame rate at will. But, if you slow down your frame rate, “when you surface from meditation,” you would think less time has passed than actually has. Because, when you examine the frames you recorded, there aren’t many. But in the article it says that Dalai Lama feels that more time has passed than actually has.

Now, this can be confusing because depending on what one considers “meditation”, it could be the exact opposite of what true meditation is. The masters of meditation sometimes speak of experiencing eternity. This is because time comes to a complete stop, because they stop their thought completely. So, authentic meditation is a process of slowing down time-perception (frame rate). But, for many people, meditation can trigger all sorts of thoughts, and the frame rate ends up going up, not down. If this happens, when you come out of the meditation, you would feel that more time has passed than actually has, because a lot of frames have been recorded during the meditation. And, for some people, meditation can have an almost hallucinogenic effect, equivalent to taking recreational drugs. This too would increase the frame rate.

I believe that the average frame rate decreases in the course of our lives. Babies have very high frame rates, and seniors have very low frame rates. This would explain why kids can learn things much faster, and why a year felt such a long time when we were kids. When we look back on our own lives, we are looking at the absolute number of frames recorded in our lives. So, a huge part of that lies in our childhood. I would think that the halfway point of our lives in terms of the number of frames recorded, would be about 20 years (or even less).

It is interesting to note that, even though time is a critical concept in science, we don’t quite understand what it is scientifically in terms of our relationship to it. Given the fundamentally indeterminate nature of language (that is, if you agree with Derrida), ultimately any scientific topic could become a problem of language, but it becomes particularly pronounced when dealing with elusive concepts like time. We are forced to pretend that we actually agree on the definition of it to some degree, in order to pursue any scientific research.