sense of time on time   

Time and our temporal perspective

As conscious beings we cannot help but occupy a perspective on reality that is temporal. No matter what we sense, think about, or do, all our experiences, thoughts, and actions are recessively framed by temporal awareness. The kind of temporal awareness that frames our conscious mental lives is one that provides each of us with a tensed perspective on reality - a temporal perspective centred on the present, from which one is oriented to one's past and future. It also affords us the impression that each fleeting moment of time is successively present, so one has the sense that what is present will become past, that what is future will become present, and that the recent past will continually recede into the evermore distant past. That in turn can give one the impression that time itself is continually unfolding over time - that time passes, and that it takes time to pass; that time flows like an ever-rolling stream, and that time is somehow not only the stream but also the bed into which it flows.

Many of those grappling with some of the deepest puzzles about the nature of time are concerned to uncover how much of this temporal perspective is an accurate reflection of mind-independent reality. They question whether reality is itself tensed, whether the passage of time is an illusion, and they attempt to disentangle those features of our temporal perspective that are peculiar to our ways of perceiving the world. A further, related question we might ask, though, is this: which of our ways of experiencing and representing time are fixed for us - perhaps biologically determined - and which are optional and malleable? And reflecting on that question can in turn lead one to ponder the following, more practical issue: if alternative ways of representing and thinking about time are open to us, how might the adoption of those alternatives affect and influence how we occupy time?

Temporal representation, bias and value

It seems unquestionable that our ways of experiencing and thinking about time do have a profound effect on the way we occupy time. That tensed temporal perspective on reality that we are endowed with brings with it significant asymmetries in our psychological attitudes to the past and the future. For instance, we recollect the past but not the future, we anticipate the future but not the past, we regard the future as open in a way that the past is not; and that apparent openness of the future is bound up with our sense that we are free agents - free to determine our own futures. So we plan for the future, but not for the past.

What is more, these asymmetries in the ways we are psychologically oriented to the past and the future strongly influence the evaluative perspectives that we take on our lives. For example, we seem to be much more disturbed by our future non-existence than our past non-existence; and in general, we tend to prefer to have unpleasant events behind us (in our past), rather than in front of us (in our future). That asymmetry in our concerns plays a significant role in shaping the way we live our lives. But does that asymmetry just reflect an unnecessary bias on our part - a bias that is no more obviously justified than preferring to have certain objects to the left of you, rather than to the right of you?

Some have suggested that this temporal bias - our bias towards the future - is something we might be better-off without. For example, the philosopher Derek Parfit suggested that if we lacked this temporal bias, we would gain a great deal in our attitudes to ageing and death. As our lives pass, although we will have less and less to look forward to, that would be off-set by the more and more that we will have to look backward to. And there are other temporal biases that it has been suggested we would do well to combat, such as our bias towards the near-in-time - for example, our tendency to care more about events in the nearer future than the more distant future.

However, our thinking about time is not only influenced by the tensed temporal perspective that pervades our conscious experience; it is also heavily influenced by the natural change that occurs in our tiny fragment of the universe, such as the trajectory of the sun, and seasonal change; it is influenced by internal biological changes (the circadian rhythm) that organize the internal and external activities of our bodies around the 24-hour day; and it is also heavily influenced by the artefacts and conventions that we employ in representing time - such as our clocks and calendars.

These artefacts and conventions are certainly among those ways of representing time that are optional and malleable. They are subject to our intervention. So critical reflection on their design and function offers a way of exploring answers to the question I mentioned earlier: if alternative ways of representing and thinking about time are open to us, how might the adoption of those alternatives affect and influence how we occupy time? Such reflection can also give rise to a design challenge: what are the ways of representing time that best serve our needs and values? And the attempt to address that design challenge falls to a more fundamental question: what are our needs and values?

Temporal tools and temporal design

Some of the conventions associated with the most ubiquitous artefacts that we employ to represent time are so deeply entrenched in our culture and practice that we tend not to notice what is contingent in their design; and hence we tend not to reflect on, and question, what considerations should be most relevant to their design. Clocks and watches represent time by means of perceptible change, and in the design of any such artefact choices are made regarding the pace, direction, shape, scale and continuity of such change, as well as the labels, units, and divisions that are used to represent that change. The considerations relevant to such choices are, of course, not merely aesthetic. For these artefacts are not merely fashion accessories, and they are not merely depictions of time. They are temporal tools. They are tools that we use to measure time; and perhaps most crucially, they are tools that we use to help us project and co-ordinate our agency in an organised way, over time, and with one another.

The effective role that these temporal tools play in facilitating interpersonal co-ordination (across continents and across decades) might lull one into assuming that in the use of these artefacts we have converged on an 'objective' way of representing time, and that they therefore offer a way of representing time that is 'neutral', in the sense of being free from any temporal bias. However, that assumption can and should be challenged, for the aforementioned choices made in the design of these temporal tools may reflect implicit and unquestioned biases. Alternatively put, those choices might reflect values that can be questioned, and/or they might fail to serve effectively other values and needs that should prioritised in temporal design. When it comes to question of the design of our temporal tools, we might of course conclude that there is no one design that can adequately serve to help us structure the way we occupy time given what we value, because our needs and values are many and varied. But that in itself may serve as a reminder to be wary of the constraints imposed by any one temporal design.

The challenges posed by questions of temporal design, in many ways reflect the challenges posed by some of the deepest, most puzzling and important questions about the interdependencies between the ways we represent time, and the shape we give to our lives by exercising our agency. On the one hand, the way we experience and represent time has a profound effect on the evaluative perspective that we take on our lives, which is to say our temporal perspective on the world has a profound effect on what it is that we value. But on the other hand, reflection on what it is that we value can prompt us to question and modify how we represent time; and a critical exploration of the choices we make in temporal design can help us to trace out, question, and probe these tantalising, and often obscure, interdependencies between the ways we represent time, what we value, and the ways we choose to occupy time.

Professor Matthew Soteriou
Department of Philosophy, King's College London