What “Now” Really Means

2017.07. 7

a baseball card photo of Yogi BerraYogi Berra, the late Baseball Hall of Fame Yankee catcher, equally famous for his comical illogisms as for his prowess on the field, when asked by a teammate what time it was, allegedly replied, “You mean now?” It was almost as if Yogi routinely met people who wanted to know the time other than now. Yogi’s answer to one of life’s most mundane questions makes you laugh because of its absurdity. Nobody wants to know what time it was or will be; we always want to know what time it is – now, right at the moment, when we ask the question, What time is it?

Well, what does “now” really mean anyway? We learn the meaning of the word when we are very young children. Our parents punish (or threaten to punish) us if we don’t cease our misbehavior immediately. In all but the most permissive households, “now” and its equivalent in other languages is an early entrant into our vocabularies because it is often a powerful signal of a parent’s anger, disapproval, impatience, or some form of impending punishment. Often a child will test the meaning of “now” to the limit when he or she waits to see how long the moment of “now” lasts before the parent actually punishes him or her. So is “now” a matter of seconds or minutes? Or does “now” turn out to mean “never?”

This simple scenario – besides revealing some ambiguities in the meaning of the word “now”– raises a philosophical issue: What is an event? In an “every day” context, it usually refers to a defined block of time measured by the calendar or by a clock. An event could be an appointment, a meeting, a class, a sporting event, a party… the possibilities seem endless (just as time itself does, “at times”).

In the science of physics, an event is defined as a point in space-time. Herein we enter Albert Einstein’s revolutionary universe in which everything (matter and energy) exists in a mysterious, relativistic four-dimensional void. But if an event is merely a point, then it cannot be measured because a point, by definition, has no dimension. The question is therefore begged: Do events really exist? Is there even any such thing as time?

Some physicists and philosophers actually say no; instead, they say that time is an illusion. This notion is found in the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers Antiphon, Parmidedes, and Zeno; in numerous Buddhist writings; and more recently, in British physicist Julian Barbour’s The End of Time (1999).

I believe that what we call an event is an entirely subjective and arbitrary designation. How do we determine when one begins or ends? How are we measuring it? How do we really know if some other event is occurring at the same time if we can’t observe it?

The problem arose as early as when humans began counting and measuring things. Measurements started with our body parts; hence, our number systems are based on the number ten, which of course corresponds to the number of our fingers and toes. The base-ten numbering system is found in all cultures and seems to have evolved independently on several continents even before writing was invented. Further, we know that the ancient Egyptians built the earliest permanent human structures using the cubit (the length of a human male forearm and hand) as their basic unit of measure.

We know that humans began measuring time before they invented writing. The legendary Stonehenge artifact, built in ancient Britain before the Egyptian pyramids, is an accurate calendar predicting solar solstices. Sundials and water clocks have been found in the remains of several ancient cultures, although the accurate measurement of daily time periods is relatively new.

No matter how humans measure time, a motion of some kind is required, whether it be the motion of extraterrestrial objects, mechanical devices, or the electrons inside an atomic clock. When a motion starts or stops is entirely up to the observer and is never really objective. The same principle applies to all measured spaces – the observer (or measure-er) decides where to begin and where to end the measurement. And, of course, the units of measure are arbitrary human inventions that don’t exist in nature. This fact is evident in the nearly universal adoption of the metric measurement system, except in the USA where the medieval English system is maintained.

Nearly everyone assumes that there are four dimensions of reality, as if these were objectively true as existence itself. Even those who posit that there are more than four dimensions don’t deny the first four – length, width, height (or depth), and time. But nature doesn’t measure itself; only humans attempt to measure nature. As Einstein proved, light has a constant speed in a vacuum of approximately 186,000 miles or 300 million meters per second (note that the mile, meter, and second are arbitrary units), but its exact value has never been determined.

All objects (matter or mass) and their motion (energy) are inextricably bound to make all events (time) happen. Only we humans, as observers, can decide what is an event. If we can’t see it for ourselves, we must take the word of someone else that it actually happened. As an old teaching colleague of mine said, “All knowledge is history.” He was right because nearly everything we know comes from vicarious experience.

Maybe Yogi was right too, after all. I’m writing this sentence now, but…

[to be continued]

Categories: In Too Deep