Looking for the sensation of time (1)

Sitting at a traffic light, I figured I’d try to focus on the sensation of time. I knew the abstract arguments well enough (though no one knows them all) but I thought I’d try to just focus on the sensation. But what does this involve focusing on? The sensation of all the various colors was clear enough and has no immediate obscurity about it; so was the sensation of the steering wheel or the hum of tires.  The first guess was to try to find it in the cars making a left turn in front of me. But was this a sensation of time, or a motion that time is added on top of? Taken in this way, motion has some sort of priority over time. Something seems right about this: looking at leaves flutter back and forth suggests motion in an immediate way, though it suggests time only secondarily. This seems to be because I can see the leaves moving in an indefinite way – they are just “jostling”; but time involves something definite. To see time in the leaves I have to divide them into “now” and “later” whereas the jostling is just an indefinite moving about that one doesn’t have to explicitly divide into “here” and “there”. True, if you want to explain the motion or give an account of it, you need to divide off terms like here and there; and you can always just see the motion according to its here and there, but the mere sensation of motion doesn’t force this division upon us. When the subway flashes by us on the platform, or a bus whooshes by at a crosswalk, there is just an indefinite “going” and not a definite division into “here” and “there”. But to see time in a dropping leaf requires seeing something definite in it: we have to sense where it is as distinct from where it was or from where it will go. 

In this sense, the priority of motion is  from its being indefinite while time is essentially definite. The indefinite is a sort of backdrop or material in which the essential definiteness of time stands out. Making motion definite likewise seems to require a backdrop or material on which these divisions can stand out – and this seems to be our idea of indefinite extension/space. This would explain why, if we want to make everything definite and distinct in our account of nature we will have to identify space, motion, and time, since we will negate the very indefiniteness and imprecision that allows us to distinguish the one from the other. And so the division of extension, motion and time is the sort of division we find between material and the thing made out of it, or between the unfocused attention which has the world as just “there” and the focused attention that draws something out of this indefinite consciousness. Just as motion is usually what snaps us out of the undifferentiated “thereness” of the presence of the world (think of someone waving their hands to get your attention, or the focus of hearing a twig snap in a dark and otherwise silent woods), so too time snaps us out of the undifferentiated “going” or “jostling” of things. Time is thus, in sensation, the essential actuality of indefinite motion, just as motion is the essential actuality of its indefinite, ambient backdrop (whether this backdrop is space, or silence, or room temperature).

If this is right, then the sensation of time might help to address some of the paradoxes of time. Take for example the paradox that the past and future “do not exist” whereas “here” and “there” or the other parts of space and motion do. On our account, which sees time as essentially formal whereas space and motion are material and indefinite, all this means is that time does not have the undifferentiated, indefinite existence that we can cognize in space and motion, and so is seen as “nothing” when existence is taken in a sense appropriate to space and motion. Briefly, the parts of time do not “exist” because we are working from an understanding of existence that is (tacitly) proper to matter, or to undifferentiated “stuff”. 

Because of this, to understand eternal things as containing time or as a simple “now” that is taken as a point as opposed to a line is to go in exactly the wrong direction, and to impute to the eternal thing a more degraded existence than even the temporal ones. Eternity cannot be understood as a falling away from time to the static, indefinite character of space, but as the term one launches into after braking out of the ascent from extension to motion to time. A pure intuition of such a level of existence would require that we see time as essentially indefinite, though this is impossible for us. In this sense, time places a fixed limit on what we can intuit. Time is a “horizon” in the sense that it is meaningless to talk about overtaking it or taking a step beyond it.

But while it is impossible to take time as indefinite simply, there are modes of overcoming it in a qualified sense through realism in painting, metaphor, music, and immanent action.

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