How our perception of time conditions our lives

It is reasonable to argue that time is a serious consideration when building a metaphysic of the world. Each moment in life is meaningless until we attach those moments to other moments. To talk about the ‘now’ is to already place the ‘now’ moment in the context of time. This is because we have to relate it to another moment, a point of reference. We could say ‘the present moment is pleasant’, and in doing so, we have related a moment which has passed, and attached it to the next ‘present’ moment, and regarded it as one long moment, so as to analyse it. As soon as you look at ‘now’, ‘now’ has gone. If we try and experience pure now-ness, we find ourselves wholly unable to do so.

The first consideration is exactly this, the ‘now’ moment is in fact the previous moment, attached to a current, next, moment. The second consideration is that in describing the ‘now’ moment, we use descriptions. These can be language driven descriptions, such as ‘pleasant’, ‘boring’, or ‘busy’, or we can describe it by simply experiencing it. Whatever we do, even if we do our best not to taxonomize our experiences, we still have to draw on previous moments of our life, so that we can understand the ‘now’ moment well enough to have meaningful experiences of it. This means that any moment in time, any experience, and any description, contains past, present, and future in order for it to be meaningful.

Time is something we create for the purposes of comprehending the world

To take a Kantian worldview, time is effectively a human property, not a property of the noumenal (real) world; that is to say, time is something we create for the purposes of comprehending the world. It would be unreasonable to say that time doesn’t exist at all, of course events precede other events, and other events will succeed current events, but it is only to sentient life that time is meaningful. More to the point, it is only creatures with conscious perception which do more than merely exist in time. We perceive the past, experience the present, and project to the future. It would make no difference to a cactus or a chair whether it was 20th January 1972 or 4th May 1950. To us, the implications of one or the other could be great.

What we do is make a synthesis of our phenomenal (experienced) world, containing assumptions based on experiences of the past, so that when we experience something, we are conscious, unknowingly, of all our relevant past experiences. They become attached to our current experience. We live out ‘projects’ in deciding to do things. Every time we decide to ‘do’, we use the knowledge of the past for our future. We flick a light switch to turn a light on precisely because we have learned about light switches and lights in the past. However, once we have acquired knowledge, it becomes working knowledge, meaning that our predictions are synthetic. They are synthetic because we make theories and predictions of the future based on confirmed perceived experiences of the past.

We understand that the ‘now’ moment requires a three point biography to be meaningful (past, future, present), but it is also true of everything in the world. Look at your nearest book. Does it mean anything to you? Of course it does. It exists in time, it exists now. This is affirmed because we have an immediate subject-object empirical relationship with it. That is to say, we see the book, and perceiving the book impinges sense data to our consciousness about information such as the dimensions of it, the colours, the weight we would guess it to be, and so forth.

This isn’t enough to make an object like a book meaningful. We also have the concept ‘book’ in mind when perceiving the book. We don’t say ‘I perceive a red object. I perceive that it is ten inches tall. I perceive that it has 280 sheets of paper inside. I perceive that on the side, it says ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’, and so on. Instead, we say ‘I see a book called An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It is red, ten inches tall, and about 560 pages long’. The ideas relevant to what it may be are contained in our perception of it. All our experiences, at different points in time, of the aspects of the single perception, and all the ideological syntheses we have made, are all brought forth and compacted into the perception of the item before us.

We also approximate other things about the book. Not only do we already have assumptions of what the book is about, and so forth, but we have an idea of its age, its ownership history, how recently is was last picked up, how it was treated by its owners, for example.

When we perceive an object, then, we –

  1. Place it in time.
  2. Place it in OUR time (the time of the perceiver).
  3. Impose upon it its own biography and timeline.
  4. Compact a series of ideas into the object, drawn from various points in time.

Of course, these synthetic perceptions don’t pertain merely to the experience and comprehension of objects, but extend to the world at large too. We create ideological perceptual systems, such as religions, ethics, and sciences. These may not seem, at first, to be subject to the unconscious perception of time, but they certainly are. Religion, for example, frames the ideas in our lives within time-based contexts differently from a secular worldview. A Christian may believe that the earth is just over 6,000 years old (this is 40% – 45% of America). Such a short timespan for the world would affect how we perceive the nature of things. Our unconscious assumptions of animals would be very different if we believed them to have evolved over millions of years or if we believe them to have been placed on the earth a few thousand years ago.

Religions give us a definite sense of finitude.

Religions also give us a definite sense of a finitude to our reality. Followers of the three Abrahamic faiths all believe that the world will end at a set point, for a certain reason. This would change our extension of present-future projections. There is a popular theory that the reason nothing Jesus said was immediately written down was because people believed the end of the world was imminent after his death. This also shows us how culture can create perceptions of time. An early middle eastern Christian culture will have a different perception of time from a modern secular culture, for the reasons that shared ideas of past and future are different.

Another reason is that religious practitioners have ideas of afterlives. If you believe that when your body dies on the earth, your consciousness carries on to another world, your future projections will have a different character entirely from somebody who believes that death is final. Similarly, if you are a Buddhist monk, attempting to negate perceptions of time, your future projections will likewise be different.

Concepts are also specifically meaningful to the point in time in which they are born. Scientific concepts, such as the positing of ‘ether’ to explain matter, or phlogiston to explain combustible bodies, were relevant to their times. It may seem that I am talking about time in a different way when I talk about social paradigms effecting ideas, but I am not doing so entirely. When we talk about these ideas, we are relating them to our pasts and presents, and likewise, we would have had a three way relation in those times too; a relation from our past ideas to our present, and so creating the ideas at any point in time.

Time has metaphysical implications to our entire life.

Time as a metaphysical consideration has implications to our life in its entirety. We are constantly aware of our death as soon as we understand that life is finite. When we take on projects in life, we are aware that there is a linear cut-off to our capacity to act in time. If I decide to put the kettle on, the chances are I will not be thinking about whether I have the time to fit it in before I die. Suppose, however, I decide to start writing a ten-book series. If I am twenty years old, it seems like a realistic goal. However, if I am seventy-five years old, I will probably decide to write a single book instead.

Now, there are different ways of looking at my place in time. I can look at a consideration of myself as a physical personal project. However, I could also look at the course of my actions as a project in the world. The difference is how far I decide to internalise my projections of time, or how much I decide to externalise my projections of time. For example, if I internalise my projection of time, I see my personal project as ending with my body and consciousness. However, there is more to me than my consciousness, there are matters such as reputation, which continue after my death. I could project time to the distance I assume an external manifest project to last for, such as a family estate, or a work of art or an idea. Many people find comfort in the fact that their existence extends far beyond that of their consciousness or physical form.

To tidy up now, every experience of the world we have contains projections of time. It also contains experiences and ideas borrowed from other points in time. In this way, there is no such thing as experiencing ‘pure now’ because even our experiences are informed by the fact that we have learned to experience things in the way we do. Our unconscious and conscious notions of lengths of time transform how we perceive the objects in the world. It also changes how we relate to those objects of the world, our ideas of the world, shared ideas of the world, and our relationship with the world at large. Our entire life is shadowed and informed by the fact that our existence is finite, and the projects we take on in life are decided and characterised by our relation to the time we believe we have left. We can relate our physical form and consciousness to our time-conditioned world, or we can relate our actions and reputation to it. Whatever route we take, we have meaning in our lives because we invent our own ideas of time. In this way, my time and your time are completely different, and are meaningful to us personally.

One thought on “How our perception of time conditions our lives

  1. Excellent, and as always very thought stimulating article. It gives new dimension to the ‘power of now” advisory. Pl. see my related article,though not as dense as yours in my blog under the caption Past,Present And Future.


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