Talking about time

By , 8 May 2009 6:40 pm

For various reasons time has been at the forefront of my thoughts quite a lot this week. One reason is that I have finished my teaching of AS students; those totally ignorant fresh-faced kids I first met in September are now slightly less ignorant and about to face their first exam on Tuesday. My, how time passes! Secondly, I have been looking through boxes of old photographic slides to try and find some images suitable for a talk. It has been slightly disconcerting to see images I had long forgotten, and very disconcerting to find, on the other end of the slide viewer, a youthful me staring back across the gulf of years. Thirdly, I got the recent Geological Society of London annual bulletin and read obituaries of people including one who I knew pretty well. I struggle with how someone who once existed in a most solidly flesh and blood fashion is now no longer with us.

Time and its passage disconcerts us for several reasons. Firstly, it is of course an ‘intimation of mortality’, a reminder that our tenure of this world is utterly temporary. Second, it is also something of a reminder of the futility of so much that human life is centred on. As I read the obituaries of some of those whose names were unknown to me, I realised that many of them had once had only the briefest and most ephemeral moments of glory. Some had been advisers to long-forgotten governments, others fashionable exponents of now discredited geological ideas, and still others finders of now exhausted oilfields. Time drains the value of most achievements.

Yet the third disconcerting aspect of time is perhaps the most subtle. It is simply this: we do not in any shape or form understand what ‘time’ is. We measure something that we call time; we are aware that time passes (but what exactly does that mean?). Yet we cannot hold time, reverse time or store, buy or sell it. Time remains an utterly alien and unfathomable substance. It is presumed to have started with the Big Bang but even that remains an uncertainty. In every sense, time remains the most remote and elusive of concepts.

And here Christian friends, I draw to your attention the fact that time is an interesting point to consider if you ever find yourself up against a wall in an argument about God. You know the sort of thing; that confident sneer ‘Where is your God? Show me him and I will believe in him. Go on! Prove his existence’. You may at this point choose to refer to time. There are innumerable questions that can be raised. What is time? Can the existence of time be demonstrated? When did time begin? In time we have a commodity whose existence everybody accepts yet which cannot be proved in the laboratory. Time demonstrates the inadequacy of the human mind. It does not to my way of thinking prove the existence of God. It is however suggestive that we ought to be very wary about confidently asserting that only those things that we can touch, see, measure and understand have a reality.

Have a good week. I hope to write again in another seven days time; whatever that really means.


One Response to “Talking about time”

  1. Boaz says:

    There is a quote I heard originally about space: Space is what keeps everything from being in the same place. (I’m not sure who said this originally, or what the original quote was. Perhaps it’s Aristotelian?) Analogously, Time is what keeps everything from happening at once. Space separates ‘here’ from ‘there’. Time separates ‘now’ from ‘then’. (And this leaves out that time and space are linked in relativistic physics into essentially the same entity, as mass and energy are.) Of course, this does not provide much more of a handle, because then the terms here, there, now, and then have to be defined.

    But that brings me to my point: you have to start from somewhere. As part of my geometry courses (collegiate, not merely secondary education), we looked into the structure of a fully axiomatic logical system. Not only do you have to take axioms on faith, you also have to take some terms, called undefined terms, on faith as well. For example, in the context of the geometry we were working with (planar geometry only, nothing 3-D or higher), the basic undefined term was point. Lines had certain characteristics based on points. The collection of all points was the plane. A line divided the plane into two half-planes. The intersection of two half-planes formed an angle.

    So we have to take choose things we take on faith, that we cannot prove, but believe to be true. And we also have to choose certain things that we cannot truly define, since they are the building blocks of all other definitions.

    What axioms do we use for Christianity? What are our terms that we must leave undefined since they are so basic that everything else is built on them?

    Blessings, Dr. Walley and fellow readers

    Boaz, who is still reading, even if not commenting as much

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