Time’s been pondered for as long as people have noticed motions in the stars and phases of the moon, and the invariable reality of aging in themselves and others. Time’s timelessness, meanwhile, is all too real when as students we ponder where the time goes that we’d otherwise allotted for studying. A core skill of any post-secondary education is the ability to set priorities and get things done in a timely fashion. Because, like pixie dust glitter spinning down a cosmic toilet bowl, time has a way of slipping away even as it causes constant consternation all the while.
How did time get that way, though, and is it as real as we all let on? Let us then time travel back, way back, to the Eleatic Peninsula of what is now southern Italy. A heroic philosopher named Parmenides (c. 485 BC) claimed that because motion and movement and passing time involve either a split second or instance between where something or some time is and where it is going, then such passage is impossible. There’d have to be space between events for them to shift forward, space that requires an absence of any occupying force. Like billiard balls covering a whole pool table, Parmenides claimed that the universe is always-already full and that motion is merely like ripples on the surface of a pond: an illusion! “In a water wave, the water molecules move up and down in a vertical direction when the water travels in a horizontal direction along with the water surface. This is the same reason why a cork or a leaf, when placed on the water’s surface, moves up and down in the same place as the water will move across the surface of the pond.” Essentially to Parmenides, motion is a superficial illusion giving a sense of depth to life. It’s perhaps no irony that a leaf floating on a rippling pond is often symbolic of a placid and serene sense of place; Alan Watts famous book This Is It bears just such a cover (Watts, 1973).
In terms of time, everything has to be somewhere for it to exist, and a state of transit implies passing through space not occupied by something else. This means that each second would have to bump off another second to get where it’s going and then it in turn gets bumped off, going way down the time line. Implicated here is that somewhere, in some time, spaces in time have to exist for time to expand itself. However, for there to be space in an infinite universe means the universe isn’t infinite after all (Quantum physics need not here apply, as Parmenides was using Reason rather than Mathematics or Astronomic Empiricism.)
You see, in the very moment of travel between times (so to speak) time would have to constitute and occupy a “not-so”, or a vacuum. After meeting with some Goddesses who set him straight, Parmenides realized the impossibility (to him) of motion and time because all of the universe is essentially a “so” – made of stuff and reality, not gaps and spaces. A “not-so”, said his Goddesses who arrived on winged chariots with mysteriously humming axles, was just not possible and merely common-sense opinion (otherwise known as an epistemological or ideological blind spot). We can relate when we note that time well wasted remains possible study time no matter how studiously we’ve managed to fritter it away. Parmenides concluded, in a way later corroborated by Baruch Spinoza during the 17th Century, that in an infinite universe everything that is already is and nothing is not. If this seems perplexingly complex and suspiciously obscurantist fear not, Plato felt equally dubious even as he recounted Parmenides’ logic.
From Phil to Psych: Re-Imagining Time as an Eternal Playground of Possibility
Speaking physiologically, rather than philosophically, the instant between each tick and each tock of a clock, or the rhythmic way the sound of a bell resonates through our ear’s Eustachian tubes, are instances where gaps between sound are full of stuff. Even in a silent room the sound of our own blood pressure fills the gap with a perpetual tape hiss of consciousness. This echoes the unorthodox view of Parmenides, who concluded that this fullness of consciousness parallels a universal fullness of time and motion which, by definition, would require gaps between any point A and every Point B, in order to allow for passage from one position (or time) to another. Whenever minding a gap, such as we Western Canadians might do when going for a hike along some train tracks and trying to only step on the railway ties, it’s the sense of space between footsteps that matters most – even though we could indeed step into one or many gaps if we so chose. For Parmenides, purported motion depends on this mere illusion of gaps between time and things. In fact, reality to him represented essentially a closed system that we only think of as going somewhere. It’s like how we can think about studying and even convince others of our rapt scholarly fortitude while, deep down inside, we’ve done diddly-dee-doo-dah.
The illusion of time compared to the reality of existence, to Parmenides, extends throughout consciousness: wherever something seems to morph or move or twitch the reality is that such cannot be the case. The “so” of reality” cannot give way to a “not-so” because everything is something and not nothing. Likewise, when sitting in an invigilated exam room waiting for the paper hammer to be dropped, we might take solace in the fact that if we’re able to remember something it’s because it’s in our brains firmly. And if not, well that morsel of knowledge is in the not-so silo of our minds and retrievable only by a cheat sheet (which none of us ever use, because we AU pupils are ethical beasts). Parmenides implies that we can’t recall something we’ve truly forgotten while others like Plato termed this form of learning by recall anamnesis. It does seem odd how when we glean some new factoid a sensation of aha accompanies the knowledge, as though we’d somewhere in the recesses of our being known the fact all along. It’s as though space, that great impossibility for Parmenides, really was impossible, as we forge a universal unity of ourselves with knowledge. And in a sense that moment when you drum your pencil absentmindedly on your textbook is the summation of all time for all time. We’d better make the most of it!