The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. 

One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone. 

—all quotes from Albert Einstein

We've been having doubts in the Lounge. Doubts of the worst kind: the existential kind. It all started some months ago when we read in Science News that time, as we know it, may not exist.

Such high-flown notions are not rare in the minds of theoretical physicists but they are rarely presented in language that less developed earthlings can grasp, and so it is easy to just not let your mind go there. Once you do let your mind go there, you find that it's not easy to wrap it around ideas that attempt to loosen our firm grip on the past, present and future.

Space, it turns out, is just as much up for grabs as time in the minds of some physicists. The article we read states that

Many physicists now believe that at its roots, nature is built from elements more basic, that space and time emerge from something messier, and then merge into the mirage that human inquiry is able to access.

What we find, however, as we've pondered these weighty questions fleetingly over the past months, is that language itself entraps us in a notion of time from which we may find it nearly impossible to escape. Here's what we mean.

Most folks who got through elementary physics have some notion of space-time, the four-dimensional continuum in which all that we do (or so we think) unfolds. Space, it seems to us, is the easy dimensional thing to parse: although we do it with language (with words like long, deep, wide, distance, near, far and so forth), space has qualities that seem verifiable independently of language: we can test it and experience it with two other senses: sight and touch. Creatures less endowed with intelligence than ourselves negotiate space very successfully, just as we learn to do — pretty much in the prelinguistic phase of our lives, as nearly all mobile creatures do.

Our experience of time, on the other hand, is mediated conceptually, learned via language, and communicated almost exclusively via language. Think of your experience of trying to learn another language: until you get a grip on the way to distinguish the past, present, and future with verbs, and master the relations that English deals with via words like ago, since, until, and later, you don't feel at all conversant. During this learning process, it's also likely that you do a bit of grappling because each language has developed its own time reporting system, none of them being a perfect overlay for the system in another language.

If you've had experience of talking with young children, or mentally impaired adults, you see pretty quickly that there are ways in which they don't get time: they have either not learned, or have lost their connection to the consensus version of time that we all accede to via language. A look at creatures less endowed with intelligence than ourselves suggests that they hardly bother with time at all: they seem content to live in an eternal present that doesn't compartmentalize the time aspect of space-time.

So it seems as if we have to some degree "spatialized" time: we've taken the easy bit of space-time (the space part) and grafted it onto our understanding of time. We've given time graspable dimensions, laid it out on a line that runs in one direction, from past to future, where we are conveniently located in a place we call the present. Many English prepositions that we think of as temporal also have a spatial aspect (after, at, before, until, for example) and in fact most of these started out their careers referring to spatial, and not temporal relations. So it's arguable that, whatever "messier" foundation exists in nature,  we have simply kludged a workable idea of time, a consensus reality about it. Our time is a specialized metaphor of space, but it's the only metaphor you can use if you want to be part of the adult discourse club. The price you pay for admission to that club, however, pretty much locks you into it. And so we wonder: is there another way? Could language develop to interpret our "temporal" experience in a way that isn't so bound to the rigid matrix that we've agreed is time, and perhaps closer to the messier substrate that physicists say exists in nature?

What if events do not occur in the specific temporal sequence that we assign to them but that in fact, reality is (in the words of the thought-provoking article)

a four-dimensional realm consisting of everything, with all "events" occupying points distributed throughout an eternal spacetime continuum.

In other words, that time is just a handy rubric we use for organizing events that we have learned to identify as discrete?

One approach to answering that "what if" is "who cares?" Evolution, after all this time, has not endowed us with any more refined sense organs that could penetrate these mysteries: it only asks of us that we reproduce successfully, and you don't need a very sophisticated understanding of space or time, or their underpinnings, to do that. So really, who needs to know whether space and time exist or not?

We have made peace with space, such as it is, because all of our sense organs limit our practical exploitation of it. In this respect, we don't differ much from other sentient creatures. But if time is really our own invention, humans' working hypothesis for dealing with everything in our minds that won't fit into "now," there will always be that question: is there some other way that we could try to fit it all together, and could we develop language that would articulate and communicate that understanding?

If you like diving off at the deep end of the precipice on which we now stand, here's a great book that explores some of these questions (including the one of the dodgy relationship between what goes on in our minds and what's really out there):

Wholeness and the Implicate Order, by David Bohm

On the other hand, there seems to be pretty good evidence that humans have already achieved maximum exploitation of space-time, and so perhaps we need go no further:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Dbf1R8pZQI


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 1st 2009, 7:15 AM
Comment by: Stephen M. (Elmira, NY)
Finding,subscribing and using the visual thesaurus has been a perfect experience. Thank you
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 7:16 AM
Comment by: Christine B.
Thank you for a perfect ending to an interesting article. Fred regularly defied gravity and as you just proved, he remains in this space-time via film.
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 7:42 AM
Comment by: Eric B. (Pittsford, NY)
Gee, my brain hurts. Sometimes I think I'm a fairly smart guy and other times I don't.
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Barbara S.
After a total brain stretching article-I found myself totally caught up in each second of Fred Astaire and Virginia Dale's beautifully synchronized dance. I find myself also replaying the dance presentation in the end of the movie Step Up--to see classical dance paired with hip hop-creating another mesmerizing display of synchronized movement. Thanks for this article to help us reflect on our own being.
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 10:39 AM
Comment by: Robert H. (Scottsdale,, AZ)
The article simply blows apart our 'linear' perception of time. And space? Well that's a whole 'nother' idea shot down. Fun thinking with you.
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 10:45 AM
Comment by: Keith (Shoreline, WA)
These are really awesome thoughts. I have too found myself limited by language while attempting to express my own meandering thoughts and while presenting and teaching others. It seems extremely interesting that the dialogue that you have started in this article is actually a conversation that people have been having for thousands of years in most religious circles. Being a Christian myself and often thinking thoughts of God being in a perfect and eternal state outside of the control of time and space, I have often wished I could understand these thoughts with more clarity.
This article has actually helped my own mysterious wonderment. May I suggest you think in terms of the spiritual instead of terms of evolution. Could it possibly be that we were created by an intelligent designer on the outside of time and space and the prison-like entrapment of language?
Thank you for the thoughts on this fantastic subject. Keep writing.
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 10:49 AM
Comment by: 03stories (Atlanta, GA)
Bravo! This is a thoughtful article. If you would like to learn more about 'Time Perspective', watch this: http://www.ted.com/talks/philip_zimbardo_prescribes_a_healthy_take_on_time.html

Of course, Zimbardo is rehashing a very old story found in Ecclesiastes.

Put your perspective on time to use! I believe, as people can more readily comprehend the unreality of time and learn to live in 'now' to the unselfish fullest, our lives will be changed the greatest.
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 11:04 AM
Comment by: paul A. (Torrance, CA)
The human organism us essentialy a time machine,so there must be a differentiation between physical time,i.e.object transformation time,and emotional timei.e.attention expressed by humans to achieve transformation
of objects,when we seek to understand words like procastination and unravel why and how it exists the first thing we understand is that language should be three dimensional,so that when we think of a word like procastination we should also see the cause,disconnected emotion
between two people working together and the effect the inability to create completion of a particular event,this process is called triangulation,which I have applied to combat misunderstanding and time wasting,language must be vectored and dynamic in order to create cognitive traction.
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 11:52 AM
Comment by: LHS101
You started with Einstein quotes, so let me say E = MxC(squared) is so simiplified that it is actually incorrect. There are two parts to knowledge, comprehension and understanding. When I took physics, there were only 6 people in the world whom were known to comprehend Einstein; and one whould have to depend on those six to judge as was believed that 2 or maybe 3 had complete understanding.

People can comprehend a subject, be a teacher all their life, and yet never really understand. Because it takes understanding (obvious Einstein 1st in line) to reverse the concept and explain per your quote: "Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone." So, some only repeat the explanation for comprehension, and seem smart.

"Most folks who got through elementary physics have some notion of space-time,..." This still holds true for Newtonian Physics, and relativity being unmeasuable until we consider cases near the speed of light makes no difference. Explain why takes understanding.

You don't have senses for radio waves, but TV and radios have brought the concept into your world; and helps to better understand one's refection in water.
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 1:15 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
Thanks for your thought-provoking article, and for its very satisfying denouement: Astaire always did seem to defy most "rules" of nature!

In recent years, I have been intrigued and excited watching as the people of science and of spirituality have begun to have similar thoughts, ideas, and conversations. As I grow older, meditate more often, and spend more time simply watching and pondering time and space, I begin to believe nearly anything is possible.

I look forward to more of your writing, and checking out the articles or books you and others recommend.
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 1:28 PM
Comment by: Old Steve (Arcadia, CA)
I eagerly await my new word daily. And sometimes have two or three days to catch up on, which I also find very satisfying. I wouldnot midd hem for the world.
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 1:37 PM
Comment by: James M.
Good, thought-provoking piece. Let me add that there are a few (post-?)modern novelists who have tried to deal directly with the ambiguities of our time-sense. The potential is great, and it would seem to me that this is specifically a field for serious fiction . . .
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 2:26 PM
Comment by: Scott L. (Yellowknife Canada)
Modern philosopher/scientists, like Lee Smolin and Julian Barbour, would remind us that our angst about the nature of time is not a recent phenomenon. It might surprise us to learn that philosophical thinking about time begins, as so many philosophical and scientific pursuits do, with Aristotle. His comment that time is “the numberer of things” and perhaps more to the point, “the numbering of motion” seems to be the starting point.
For Aristotle, it was enough to think of time arising out of individual motions making up part of a sequence of events. It is as if an observer, feeling the need to order his reality, begins to number the events in order of their occurrence. Hence, time. As a result, Aristotle argues that time is strictly a human construct.
So, we have suspected that time is a subjective concept since Aristotle. How does this fact inform the current discussion?
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 2:34 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
I reckon Ishiguro's The Unconsoled is one such book, James M.

I passed an exam in Calculus when I was 16 without understanding a thing. I suppose we *mostly* know stuff without understanding. Our physics teacher used to start every lesson by throwing his keys in the air (sometimes the waste paper basket) and letting them hit the floor. Then he'd exclaim, 'You see? It still works!' proving that our knowledge is merely the repetition of experience - and trust in that experience.

Who can truly understand love? If we are lucky enough to know it, we have touched eternity without even realising it. Perhaps that is the purpose of this life, simply to trust *without* understanding - suffer the children, and out of the mouths of babes, etc. But it's hard because we (some of us) so desperately want to understand what we know.

Can one say that 'knowing' is of the moment, whereas 'understanding' is of eternity?

GA
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 5:11 PM
Comment by: Lynne S.
Cogito ergo sum. Failing that: Bibo ergo sum.
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 11:24 PM
Comment by: Nancy T. (Metuchen, NJ)
1) Lynne's comment is more than appropriate.
2) My brain hurts.
3) Just kidding. Julian of Norwich some 600 years ago, had a vision of God holding the whole business, all the universe, in his hand, like a hazelnut: everything, everytime, past, present, future. She's the one who wrote the famous "all will be well" quote.
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 7:11 AM
Comment by: LHS101
Mr. Hargraves asks, "...is there some other way that we could try to fit it all together, and could we develop language that would articulate and communicate that understanding?"

When Edison tried to explain his new telephone invention, the world had some prept for comprehension with telegraph, so he said it was like a cat with a very long tail, (the caller) steps on the tail and the cat meow comes out.

The inventions coming from this new Physics will help people believe in the concepts taught for comprehension. Everyone does not need to have understanding of the mathmatical proof. (America mass media raised folks is filled with people who think if they can repeat a 2 line or less comment that it means they are smart and understand every subject.)

You are closer with your physics, Orin, than you are with your Evolution. Suggest you watch a recent History Channel special that reviews the differences of Apes and Humans.
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 1:43 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Many thanks to all for your comments. I am intrigued that so many people introduced a spiritual component into the discussion – a facet that I intentionally steered clear of in the article (apart from the mention of “mystical” in one of the Einstein quotes). This aspect of our conception of time was never far from my mind but I wanted to stick with the “facts” (such as they are) in writing about the subject. Anyone who has had an experience that they characterize as “outside of time” inevitably associates it with something mystical, spiritual, or religious. Perhaps it is our failure to arrive at consensus explanations of such experiences that prevents our developing language about time that is closer to nature’s “more basic elements.”
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 6:54 PM
Comment by: LHS101
Evolution does have new science that presents evidence of life "that is closer to nature's "more basic elements"". And some older Evolution theories, like passing information from one generation to the next thru genes. Actually, religion influence did not allow Western Rational Thought to consider the possibility, and assumed Man as being highest form of life on Earth. All people in the New World were considered to be less than, like animals,i.e. savages.

New animal studies have shown examples of surprise how animals may sense the world different from Man, and even deep sea vents where life exists not on carbon base, or dependence. Some cultures of humans have been farther studied to learn that maybe they were not just savages. For example, different from Western Civilization some passed info between generations in two formats, not just one written. Special individuals were identified that could relate ancient knowledge from their genes, which were programmed so to speak, because the culture believed in the system.

Consider all life with a shared goal....continue. Thus maybe other life gets more from gene transfer of world perspective.
Saturday July 4th 2009, 2:40 PM
Comment by: James M.
It's odd that no one until now has commented on LHS101's incredibly bad and machine-like diction.

Also, in reply to Geoff A.: Yes, Ishiguru's book is a good example of the fictional treatment of the subject. Also, I'd recommend Claude Simon.
Saturday July 4th 2009, 7:53 PM
Comment by: LHS101
James M. says,

"...LHS101's incredibly bad and machine-like diction." Thank you for the criticism. Feel free to be more explicit.

And if I may, you say "fictional treatment of the subject." Well, we are talking about Science, there is zero fiction with what Nature is. Yes, we may be completely wrong until another Einstein like you comes along and does better. However, Nature is Nature, and sooner or many hundreds of years latter we will get closer to what it is. Just work as hard as we may, still it is a wonderful thing for someone like you to be more dedicated and get the whole world onto a better theory.

My goodness, Sir Newton was 18 years old and could not find a diction to explain his thoughts about an apple always falling down and not up: so he invented Calculus to do so; and was patient for the mathematicians of his day to learn calculus so that he could finally communicate his physics!
Sunday July 26th 2009, 10:58 PM
Comment by: Andrew C. (Baldwin,, NY)
REDUCTIONISM AT VERBAL THESAURUS
"Such high-flown notions are not rare in the minds of theoretical physicists but they are rarely presented in language that less developed earthlings can grasp, and so it is easy to just not let your mind go there. Once you do let your mind go there, you find that it's not easy to wrap it around ideas that attempt to loosen our firm grip on the past, present and future."

Posh! Scientists know no more about ultimate than laymen. Remember laymen didn't build the Titanic, professionals did.

"Many physicists now believe that at its roots, nature is built from elements more basic, that space and time emerge from something messier, and then merge into the mirage that human inquiry is able to access."

Again posh! How do they know?

Quoting your ideologist author:
“One approach to answering that "what if" is "who cares?" Evolution, after all this time, has not endowed us with any more refined sense organs that could penetrate these mysteries: it only asks of us that we reproduce successfully, and you don't need a very sophisticated understanding of space or time, or their underpinnings, to do that. So really, who needs to know whether space and time exist or not?”

Some physicists, those who start with inductive reasoning, from their theory to fact like the protean bed, keep allotting more time to "existence" in order to prove the mediating life forms that make no survival sense under Darwin's non-scientific, anti-theological evolution as against the likelihood of the general process of evolution. Court decisions can’t change fact. Interestingly, the godless Chinese anthropologists are the most vocal critics of Darwinism.

"space has qualities that seem verifiable independently of language: we can test it and experience it with two other senses: sight and touch"

Why limit your skepticism to space? The lesser logically cannot encompass the greater. Science rests on the faith that our senses are not hallucinating or that survival (which atheists argue is random and has no goal) is focused on understanding rather than convincing us to reproduce. Besides we are all subjective about what benefits us, including our status, which is why science advances in cancer are so sorry. 20th century is a jungle of contradictions. It says there is no hand, sure, except those like Dawkins, Hitchens (who has gone from an ideologue Leninist to a virulent anti-Christian, as have Harris, Dennett and Sagan. (See Chris Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists). I personally knew a person who suffered delusions. Why can’t there be general delusions? (See Jung and Hobbes and the rising of the sun).

Then your author gets it right by contradicting his own agenda. “On the other hand, there seems to be pretty good evidence that humans have already achieved maximum exploitation of space-time, and so perhaps we need go no further:” Maybe of the wisest physicists feel this and out of truth willingly share it with the general public.

“Our experience of time, on the other hand, is mediated conceptually, learned via language, and communicated almost exclusively via language.”

Well your author would go head to head with Chomsky, no lover of religion.

“space has qualities that seem verifiable independently of language: we can test it and experience it with two other senses: sight and touch.”

Boy would Newton be overjoyed that you reject Einstein, quantum physics and black holes. But their very definition of black holes they are humanly impossible to observe as is Public TVs arrogant spread of string theory, that because the “mathematical theories postulating 17 or 18 or 19 spaces conjoining ours makes for ‘beautiful music,” it is likely true. Oh, back to the romantics and “beauty is truth.” Thank God. The Church stands as the bulwark of science against that. Tip: Instead, listen to Beethoven’s “Last Quartets” and stop mixing it with the scientific method. It is far deeper.
Sunday July 26th 2009, 11:13 PM
Comment by: Andrew C. (Baldwin,, NY)
This is Carlan again. I had much more, as much as your commentator, which I had tp cut. If enough are interested perhaps this webmaster will give you the opportunity to share the other view from reductionism, that outside material reality is for everyone the same. Don't relativists try to jump from the Empire State Building. Everyone will get the same result.

Thank for your broadmindedness in posting a hard opposition. Disagreement is what advances all human activities. Civility is critical to civilization but niceness is its enemy.

God Forgive Fallen Human Nature. We All Do What We Would Not Consciously Want to Do and Do Not Do What We Should and Want to Do.
Friday November 13th 2009, 8:20 AM
Comment by: LHS101
Anonymous joins Andrew C. with:
"Thank for your broadmindedness in posting a hard opposition. Disagreement is what advances all human activities. Civility is critical to civilization but niceness is its enemy."

There was ZERO 'hard opposition' presented, as there was NO scientific method used. Adopt the scientific method, conduct your experiments to prove new evidence supporting your theory --- Even if you have to invent new mathmatics like Newtown did with Calculus, or build devices like X-Ray machines that go beyond the human senses to view the world. And be prepared to start over again after another scientist used your work and now with computers easily surpassed a liftime of individual calculations one person could do with pencil and paper; or some rich country built even more exotic and expensive machines like the Hadron colliders coming online today. One Hubble telescope in space, easily out shines all the 20th Titanic stories.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.