Does Time Fly?

Well, does it? Yes? No? But we do isn’t it? Or do we?

Consider this: when we say that we are flying, in actual practice it means that we are sitting still in a plane and that it is the plane which is flying. The plane is performing the action of flying, and as we are not doing that ourselves, in absolute terms we are actionless as regards the flying – although we may move about in the plane, say to use the toilet. Another way of putting it would be to say that we are being actionless in action – and that is a big philosophical debate which we will not go into, but it’s a fascinating one to explore.

So let’s come back to the question of whether time flies or not. For that we’ll have to start by understanding what time is. For example, is it something that actually exists, or is it something artificial that’s in our imagination and does not have any independent existence, as when we say that some object has got a length, that we can actually see and measure? Of course we do measure time too – but then we do not see it. Aren’t we very clever indeed, to have invented means to measure something invisible!

But we do have an impression that time flies, by which we understand that it is going past very rapidly. And when we think it’s going slowly, we say it is flowing. So that’s how we perceive the phenomenon of time, and therefore, as opposed to being something that actually exists, time is something that we have invented; it is in our mind, a mental construct. But nevertheless, quite real to us because it comes into practically everything that we do in our daily lives, but also puts some order into how we look at the passage of events. The truth be told, there is no definitively agreed definition of time among scientists, or even among philosophers, although we have built our lives around the concept of time, as a reality which we deeply feel.

For the Wikipedia, ‘Time is a measure in which events can be ordered from the past through the present into the future, and also the measure of durations of events and the intervals between them. Time is often referred to as the fourth dimension, along with the three spatial dimensions (NB: length, breadth, width).’ Physicists lump time and space together as a ‘spacetime continuum’, which is a very useful concept on which the edifice of physical science is built. Trying to understand its complexities is something that only a few people can do, and we’ll leave it to them and come down to the more mundane aspects of time.

I was talking to a busybee niece of mine last night, whose job is training people. She has an extremely busy schedule, which also involves travel abroad and so is ever on the move. And, with two small kids, her situation is like that of so many other couples, juggling profession and family, and social life which is pretty hectic too when you have a big family-cum-circle of friends. Many of whom, befriended at the university, you hardly have…time!… to meet, as they are also struggling in the same whirl!

At one stage in our conversation, she said, ‘time flies, non Uncle? It really does, this week has just flown by!’ Yes, it does indeed beti I replied, you’re telling me! And this feeling is shared by many people I meet, and even we retirees complain about not knowing where the time goes – a literal translation of pas conne koté letemps la aller!, meaning there are so many things to do, but we don’t complete them for lack of time. And yet these are things that we have taken upon ourselves pour meubler le temps. Another way we put it is we don’t seem to find the time, pas trouve létemps. And any number of expressions to articulate the idea come to mind, like ‘hey, it’s already the end of May!’ or, ‘half the year is nearly over can you imagine!’ or, ‘only the other day it was New Year!’ And so on and so forth.

When we reflect on it, we find that, on the one hand, there is the time that we can measure by the clock, in terms of seconds, minutes and hours, and for longer periods it’s the days, years, centuries and other notations when it comes to larger scales. Hindus, for example, conceive of time in terms of eras known as yugas and mahayugas which are of astronomical dimensions and are of a cyclic nature, in contrast to other systems which are of a linear nature, that is, there is a beginning and an end to time. Interesting ways of conceptualizing, each with its own implications as far as, for example, human life and human destiny are concerned.

On the other hand, there is what we can refer to as psychological time, one aspect of which manifests as our bodily rhythms: for example, our wakefulness and sleep cycle is one of them, and we refer to these as our internal rhythms or body clocks. Another aspect is when we feel that time has slowed down so much that it is suspended – but into an eternal moment: try sitting down at the seaside with your beloved when the sun is setting and the air seems to hang still too. You may end up sitting in silence there a whole night before you realise that dawn is breaking! All bodily needs and functions were also suspended! How much time was that? An eternity, or only so little?

That’s how, when Einstein was asked to explain his Theory of Relativity to some lay people, he is supposed to have said, ‘think of it like this: if your hand touches a hot plate, one minute will feel like an hour, but when you are sitting with your girl friend, one hour will seem like one minute!’ Who will deny that this is the reality?

In the Bhagavad Gita, a major scripture of the Hindus, Lord Krishna says that at the time of your death, you see your whole lifetime passing before you. And one can imagine how much time is available at the moment of death!

In the whole of literature that we are familiar with, perhaps there is no more beautiful poem than that of Alphonse de Lamartine’s ‘Ô temps! Suspends ton vol’ that touches our beings so deeply, and that is the most apt to end this piece with:

‘Ô temps ! Suspends ton vol, et vous, heures propices !

Suspendez votre cours :

Laissez-nous savourer les rapides délices

Des plus beaux de nos jours !

Assez de malheureux ici-bas vous implorent,

Coulez, coulez pour eux ;

Prenez avec leurs jours les soins qui les dévorent,

Oubliez les heureux.

Mais je demande en vain quelques moments encore,

Le temps m’échappe et fuit ;

Je dis à cette nuit : Sois plus lente ; et l’aurore

Va dissiper la nuit.

Aimons donc, aimons donc ! De l’heure fugitive,

Hâtons-nous, jouissons !

L’homme n’a point de port, le temps n’a point de rive ;

Il coule, et nous passons.’

Time, sublime…but also kaal, the devourer…

*  Published in print edition on 12 June 2015

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