Philosophical skill ●●●○○
Your daughter walks in and asks ‘What exactly is time?’ and you may want to answer ‘Time is duration’ or ‘Time is how long something lasts.’
But that is circular; that is like saying ‘Time is how much time has passed.’ It does not make much sense to use words like ‘duration’ and ‘how long it lasts’ before we have explained what time is, and we cannot explain what time is without using such words. It certainly does seem hard to explain time.
But we can say that time is what the moving cars show, and what the flying birds show, and what the withering flowers show. Because time seems to be a word invented for change.
Time is that which a clock shows.Common saying1
There are many types of change:
- We can have a change in temperature when something heats up,
- a change in position when something moves,
- a change in size when something deforms etc.
What all such examples have in common is that the old and new situations are “separated”. The ‘before’ and the ‘after’ do not overlap; they are not there simultaneously. We are able to distinguish between ‘before’ and ‘after’.
This “separation”, this distinguishing, is mysterious. Why does the world behave in such a way that situations are distinguishable? As difficult as it is to imagine a world where this is not the case, it is just as difficult to explain why it is the case.
If we cannot explain why, we can at least invent a name for this odd behaviour: time.
Note that not only can we distinguish between ‘before’ and ‘after’, we also obviously know that ‘before’ happens before ‘after’. Always. There is no turning back time. Time apparently has a fixed “direction”, in contrast to e.g. position. You can go back to where you started but not to when you started.
We could call the “direction” an arrow of time. That arrow can be imagined as pointing from frame to frame in a movie. While each individual frame is a still and static image, change happens when flicking from frame to frame continuously.
- ‘How do I sum up speed through space and time to obtain c (in terms of units)?’ (web page, answer to forum post), user CuriousOne, Physics Stack Exchange, 2015, physics.stackexchange.com/a/193057/4962 (accessed May 1st, 2019)
- ‘What is Time?’ (web page), Chanakaya, Society and You, 2019, www.societyandyou.co/what-is-time (accessed Sep. 15th, 2020)
- ‘The Arrow of Time’ (web page), Luke Mastin, Exactly what is time?, 2014, www.exactlywhatistime.com/physics-of-time/the-arrow-of-time (accessed May 1st, 2019)