A Rational Theory of Time

© Hugh A. Thomas 2018

Time cannot be measured. Time is a product of consciousness. Time is not a feature of the universe. Ratios change with changes in velocity and gravity.

We remember our last meal, our first bicycle ride, our trip to a national park. Thousands of memories are stored in our minds. We also have an imagination that gives us an expectation of events to come. We look forward to dinner, our next birthday, work-related events, retirement, etc.

These mental processes, the process of memory and the process of imagination, give us the vague feeling that we are moving through time, that time is passing, that time is a river that flows, and that we ride down that river every moment of our lives.

These memories of the past and our expectations for the future are not simultaneously held in our consciousness as thousands of individual entities. One might hold two or three memories in one’s conscious focus, but the totality of one’s memories can’t be held in one’s consciousness simultaneously. An analogy for this could be a juggler. Three balls are possible, maybe even twenty balls, but never twenty thousand. Hence, the totality of our memories are not viewed by us as thousands of entities, but rather like one nebulous unit.

Our sense of the future can also be thought of as a nebula of imagination. We can choose to penetrate our memory and recall an individual memory from the past, we can choose to imagine a possible event in the future, but until we choose to recall or imagine a specific entity, our memories of the past and expectations for the future are nebulous feelings. Thus, individual events are analogous to a molecule of water vapor, and the totality of memory is like a cloud. These vague clouds of memory and imagined events to come form our notions of past and future.

A way to understand this “cloud” in describing our memories and imagination can be illustrated by testing a small portion of our memories. Here is the test: Imagine all of the movies you have ever seen. Now, attempt to hold all of these memories in your mind at once, the titles of the movies, the actors in the movies, and the story lines in the movies. Of course, this is impossible. Notice that in recalling a movie memory, you can hold one title in your mind at once, one actor. However, you cannot hold an entire plot of a movie, you must piece it together one scene at the time, and “build” the plot in your mind. Now, think of the idea, “all the movies I have ever seen,” and attempt to visualize all of this information at once, that is, all of the titles, the actors, the plots, etc. By doing this, you have experienced the vagueness of the nebulous portion of your mind that is your memory. Realize that all of these movies most likely represent less than one percent of your memory bank.

We lump all of our memories into a concept we call “the past.” We lump all of our expectations of things to come in the concept, “the possible future.”

We make sense of these two clouds by an understanding, an understanding that is achieved by remembering the sequence of events in our memories, or estimating the sequence of events that we imagine for the future. We can go further and assign numbers or objects to the individual memories and expectations that make up these clouds. These numbers, numbers that could be fingers, stones or other references, refer to units, units that are derived by the relative motions of two objects, mainly, in the case of our modern world, the Earth and the sun.

A definition: Time is the sequential indexing of memory and imagination via a numerically assigned unit derived from the relative motions of two objects.

When we humans project our neurologically created time concept toward physical reality, we subjectively create time for nature as a whole. To state it another way: Because we have memory and imagination and because these traits create the time concept that we perceive as a river of time, we assume the entire universe is in this river. The problem, and the reason for our mistakes in defining time, is that we have a very difficult job in separating our innate sense of time from the actual facts in external reality.

A thought experiment can shed light on this process and its inherent problems. Assume you have absolutely no memories of the past and can’t gain any new memories. Further assume you have no imagination about the future, that is, you have no expectation that anything is going to happen. Now, place yourself on a busy city sidewalk. You see people walking past, cars driving down the street, and you hear horns honking. Now the question: would you develop a sense of time? The obvious answer is no. The reason is that memory plus imagination create the time concept. Your conceptual life would start anew with each event you witness, your brain could never formulate a sense of time. Memory and imagination are primary attributes on which the self is built, neurologically based time is a result of our biological need to sequence these phenomena, and our minds ride this time platform, a raft of sorts, down the river comprised of experience and expectation. Without these two clouds that make up the time platform, your essential humanness would be lost. One could then conclude that time is a fundamental attribute and necessity of human nature.

The way we humans have made measurements and provided context for these memories and expectations of the future is by creating time.

Some cultures have probably used moon phases to organize their memories and expectations of the future, others may have used the hatching of insect swarms, tides, the mating of animals, etc. A previous culture may have decided to plant a crop, “two full moons after the last snowfall.”

We present-day humans use the spin of the earth as the basic reference, the basic unit. We divide one complete spin, that is one day, into hours, minutes and seconds. To make things more precise, we have devised machines that replicate this spinning, and we call these machines “clocks.” Clocks do not measure time. Clocks replicate or simulate the earth’s rotation relative to the sun, and calendars replicate the earth’s orbit around the sun. Time is a neurological phenomenon. Time is a mental construct that has utility, and is most likely necessary for human life. However, the projection of time outward and assuming time is a feature of the universe, is a subjective notion.

This is worth repeating: Clocks do not measure time.

Notice that time has never been measured, and that it has no color, no energy field, no wave function, that it has no weight, no height or girth. What can be measured are the relative motions of the Earth and the sun, or the relative motions of other objects. When we “measure time” we are measuring these ratios.

Another factor that confuses us humans about time is the way clocks and watches are built. The common clock face we see is a 12-hour face, with the hour hand making a revolution every 12 hours. A much more informative clock, (the military style for example) would have the hour hand make a complete revolution every 24 hours. Even more instructive would be a clock made from a globe, a globe that makes a full revolution every 24 hours. Numbers could be printed on the globe in a sequence that matches one’s location or time zone. A pointer would then indicate the time.

Time Dilation

Time dilation is the unfortunate term used to designate a phenomena that occurs when objects travel at great relative speed to each other or when things approach a strong gravitational field. I say “unfortunate,” because “ratio dilation” would be a more accurate and more informative term.

Consider this: Bob is in a space ship with a glass shell so you, an outsider, can view the interior. Bob races along close to the speed of light while you remain behind on Earth. You notice that his watch slows down, and you conclude that time is dilating and that time is slowing for Bob.

However, this is not time slowing, it is the change in ratios that occurs when things travel fast. His heart slows, and the steel horseshoe he brought along for good luck is rusting more slowly, that is, from your point of view.

But to Bob, everything is normal. His heart is beating at 70 beats per minute, his horseshoe is rusting at a normal rate, his dog barks and begs for a bone every few hours just as he did when back on Earth. However, from your vantage point, Bob’s watch is ticking more slowly than yours.

After thinking things through very carefully, you can realize that Bob’s watch is no longer in sync with the spinning of the Earth, that is, the mechanics used by his watch to reference the earth’s spinning have changed, in that, the watch has slowed; the ratios are now different.

Time has not slowed. After all, time is unchanged for you and unchanged for Bob. If time is unchanged for both you and Bob, then how can one make the claim that “time has slowed”? Time has not slowed, after all, time is a mental construct, and Bob’s mental state is unchanged as is yours. Rather, the relative mechanics of the gears in Bob’s watch, the oxidation of the horseshoe, Bob’s dog’s appetite, or the frequency of the cesium atoms in Bob’s atomic clock, have lost their synchronization with the Earth’s spin as Bob’s spaceship gained speed.

From your viewpoint, everything about Bob has slowed. The faster he goes, the slower he gets. This slowing is not a slowing of time, it is the slowing of the atomic structure, or slowing of some movement we do not yet understand. In fact, experiments have been made with atomic clocks that show the cesium atom’s frequency changes when farther from the earth’s center of gravity. The conclusion from these experiments has been that “time changes,” when in fact the cesium atom’s frequency has changed, relative to the Earth’s spin.

Notice also, that you could observe similar things about Bob as he approaches a massive object, an object with intense gravity, such as a black hole. If Bob were to approach the event horizon of a black hole, he would, from your view point, experience the above effects of his watch slowing, etc.

Is it possible that high speeds and strong gravity suppress motion? For example, as Bob travels faster relative to the Earth’s spin, and from your perspective, iron oxidizes more slowly, the gears of watches slow, his heart slows… Could there be one underlying phenomena that causes these effects? Could the internal action of atoms be slowed by some sort of compression of space or dark energy due to increased velocity or strong gravity?

Whatever the discourse involved, time does not slow, movement slows. The idea is: As relative speed and gravity increases, atoms and their movements slow for an outside observer. Ratios change with changes in velocity and gravity.

The way we experience the present, that is, the “now,” is likely akin to the way we view motion pictures. The phenomena known as the persistence of vision gives us the ability to view motion pictures that have a frame rate of about 30 frames per second. Because our minds continue to visualize an image for about 1/30 of a second after the light from the image ceases, we experience an uninterrupted sense of continuous motion rather than a blinking or flashing. It could be that all of our senses have similar attributes, giving us our sense of “now” as a seamless interaction with reality. If our vision persists, our hearing, olfactory, touch and other senses most likely do the same. Introspection might tell us as much. If this is so, our “now” probably has a duration of a fraction of a second. The ability to sustain the now for a short period also provides context. These things can explain, along with our memory and imagination clouds, the feeling of being in the river of time.

These memory clouds combined with the cloud of expectations for the future occupy a great portion of our minds, as though our minds were saturated with these things. Our memories are our experiences, and these experiences direct our every waking moment. Our minds are truly submerged in these clouds.

Given this, there is reason to believe that the human propensity to create a mental world bathed in the time concept is quite normal. If human action is largely based on experience and expectation for the future, regardless if that future lies in the next second, next day, or the next decade, the human consciousness can, in one context, be reasonably viewed as a past/present/future oriented biological machine. In this sense, a natural development of the time concept is practically guaranteed. This past/present/future mental immersion is also the reason that, for us to understand time, we must first realize that the human mind is so entangled in this predisposed neurology, that an understanding of time first must involve an understanding of these phenomena. Without this understanding, humans will forever project these attributes of the human mind onto the whole of nature.