Mini-Feature: Altering Time

Would you be able to tell if time had been altered in some way?

Time has been altered—repeatedly—by technology—and almost everyone can tell! What is confusing is that previous changes are obscure and previous messages about what time really is are deeply rooted in religious answers to ultimate questions.

Consider what really distinguishes the ancient from the modern ages. For the ancients time was cyclical, measured from the circle of life to that of the seasons and the transit of the celestial bodies. To claim that time was really the linear, progressive, cumulative march of standard increments would have been preposterous.

Yet this is the modern understanding of time, which arose (over time) as a result of theological disputes over how much agency God had in the daily working of the universe. A God who could do whatever He wanted was seen as preposterous; more plausible to leading modern scientists was a relatively brief period of creation followed by a long period wherein the wound-up universe, so to speak, ticked and tocked.

Clocks of course are cyclical but they mark out linear time in a universe with one vector of history. The development of the animals over time was really linear and not cyclical, as the debate around Darwin led most to believe. Quantitative time accounted for the qualities and directionality of change—forward, never back.

While there is some evidence the ancients had some skill at mechanization, and at least a few rather sophisticated automata did exist prior to the modern period, it seems likely that the triumph of print technology moved scientist-theologians to see fundamental questions of time as answerable in a way analogous to the linear, progressive, cumulative march of letters and words on the page. The explosion of knowledge spread internationally by print was seen by Benjamin Constant and other moderns as a decisive break from the past—relegating the cycles of conquest and catastrophe to obsolescence, and revealing a providential plan advancing connectedness and enlightenment which could be no more than delayed or weakened by anachronistic and unsustainable figures like Napoleon Bonaparte.

The advent of electricity complicated this understanding of time. Electricity enabled living at night as if it were day. It made it possible, via radio, to hear the recordings of now-dead people almost on demand. The onset of electricity ushered in a wave of occultism and dictatorship deeply at odds with the clockwork-universe impression of time and the thesis that history meant the unfolding of equalizing enlightenment. Then came television, a medium which enabled masters of organizing illusory images to create mass impressions of time and space totally at odds with reality. These new faculties came to be seen as better than reality at capturing what mattered most about our relationship to the universe. Fantasy became both a way to exit time and to give meaning to history, which had become seen as too regimented, cold, and heartless to structure human flourishing.

Now there is digital tech, a standing archive of all people and things, a map as big as the territory—all made possible by the total recall of largely invisible and ubiquitous machines. The impact of this new triumph of a new medium on our experience of time is and will be profound. It has already altered our sense of what the universe is, what our place is within it, and how change in life and matter can and should be measured. What few have figured out so far is that the foundational character of these questions, and the answers they require, is throwing everyone back upon premodern yet not always ancient patterns of thinking—that is, characteristically religious patterns of thinking. Digital disenchantment of both postmodern fantasy and modern science sends us into theological territory for fundamental guidelines, returning us to core questions about the meaning and nature of time.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


There is an odd theory called the "Phantom Time Hypothesis" that claims that Emperor Otto III, in conjunction with Pope Sylvester II, retrospectively added almost 300 years to the calendar—from 614 to 911—that never really happened. The idea is that Otto wanted to oversee the millennium in order to enhance his legitimacy, so he forged the history of the early middle ages, including the existence of Charlemagne. Properly speaking, the current year is not 2021, but 1724 Anno Domini. 

There are several problems with this hypothesis, which is universally rejected by historians. For instance, the history of Islam and its conquests, which is well sourced and independent of European chronicles, overlaps with the gap years and is insufficiently explained. 

If time shifted and left us a few minutes ahead or behind, it is hard to know how we would respond to it. I guess if everyone did it all together, it would be hard to notice. People who go into comas and wake up later like Rip van Winkle are said to experience missing time, in that they don't recall it passing. Being under general anesthesia is like that, too. Sleep, it is worth noting, is a different experience entirely.

We already have time machines—it's just that they are stuck in one direction and have only one speed. Putting it in reverse or unjamming the throttle is the tricky part.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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It’s not entirely clear to me what it would mean for time to be altered without our noticing—time being, after all, little more than the mere fact and manner of our noticing things.  

Reflection upon this mystery is of course among the great traditions in philosophy and theology, from Aristotle’s patient analysis in Physics 4.10-13, through Augustine’s reverential contemplation in Confessions 11.21-31, up to Kant’s pugnacious rebuttal of both Newtonian objectivity and Berkeleian idealism—all of which in some sense paved the way for relativity and Einstein. We are at a bit of a crisis on these issues, as on so many fundamentals, because the variability of things previously considered stable impresses itself upon us while, at the same time (see what I did there?), total subjectivity is an intolerable chaos. No one can really live as if there were nothing objective against which we measure and evaluate the truth of our experience. But what is the measure? 

For moderns it is probably most apposite to start with Kant: “Space and time, along with what they contain, are not things, or properties of things, in themselves, but belong merely to the appearances of such things.” But, crucially, “space, as well as time, inheres in us before all perception or experience as a pure form of our sensibility and makes possible all intuition from sensibility, and therefore all appearances.” 

This is good stuff, if a bit dense. Kant is saying that space and time do not have objective reality “outside” our consciousness—or at least, if no consciousness perceived things, there would be no one to say of this or that event that it takes place “here” and “now.” Those terms are meaningless unless someone is saying them relative to himself: they amount to saying “the thing I perceive is happening at this distance from me in both space and time.” But the very form of consciousness, or at least our consciousness, is experiencing things as having place “where” and time “when.” Time just is, as Aristotle argued, a kind of order inherent in our perception—it is not a yardstick we use to measure things but the pure fact of our experiencing those things in a measurable way.  

Or take Augustine: “Nor is it fitly said, There are three times, past, present and future; but perchance it might be fitly said, There are three times; a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future. For these three do somehow exist in the soul, and otherwise I see them not.” This is why an “atomistic” account of time, which is the premise of all calendars and clocks, does partial but insufficient justice to what time really is: time is not simply a series of interchangeable blocks and measures. Not all moments are created equal, though they are interrelated at least in such a way as to be simultaneous, or not, with one another. You and I saw the same movie at the same time: that is true. But I was bored and felt like it dragged on forever, while you were thrilled and thought it was over before it began. That is true as well, and resolves our dilemma regarding the subjectivity and objectivity of time: why don’t we have both? 

For any of this to work, of course, you need an ultimate consciousness, an arbiter in whose perception all moments rest at once so that they can in fact be meaningfully related to one another for us all. If that were to change, we would indeed have a different experience of time, or perhaps no meaningfully communicable experience of time to speak of. References to the mountains (space) and heavens (time) melting away in Revelations and the Hebrew prophets may refer to something like this, or at least to a drastic reorientation of the way in which our limited experience of time relates to God’s. When that happens, I wager we will certainly notice it. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind