How fast does time fly?

As one year winds down and another approaches, we typically start to think about how quickly time flies by.  Tempus fugit.  Or as my high school Latin classmates put it: Tempus fugit non cum bacus est.  (Don’t try to translate.  The added words are Latinized English.  And please don’t snicker.  We thought it was funny when we were 16 year old boys.  Our specialty was the principle parts of new Latin verbs, such as, spito, spitere, actui, splat.)

Six months ago I blogged about time rushing by.  Anne Mei’s departure for college and my 72nd birthday loomed ahead.  Yet, Anne Mei finished the last exam of her first semester at Syracuse University two weeks ago.  We celebrated my birthday three days ago.  I feel more than ever the weight of O’Hara’s line in the old Bogart movie Beat the Devil, which I quoted in that post:

Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.

Who else stole all the years since Father Walsh’s Latin class? We would bring in National Geographic or Life articles with pictures of Rome and leave them open on our desks as Father walked around the room lecturing.  We were sure of a 10 to 15 minute break if he happened to see the pictures and launched into reminiscences of his days in the seminary in Rome.  After class the boys would scold anyone who had laughed at one of Father Walsh’s jokes when he was talking to us in Latin.  Now one of these boys is dying from severe arthritis in a care facility in California.  Some are no longer with us at all.  And when I see pictures from our 50th reunion, I ask where did these old men come from.

An hour with Fr. Walsh seemed like an eternity, especially on a Friday afternoon in the Spring.  In September the school  year ahead would take an eon.  When we graduated, our high school years became a lifetime.  Now it seems that just yesterday I was taking Anne Mei to register at Princeton High School.  There have been many studies of the psychology of why some periods of time seem to drag and others speed by. We may return to those.  Here I want to stick with the literal interpretation of the question in the title of this post, “How fast does time fly?”

Did the clock really move more slowly during Latin class?  Was the time between 71 and 72 really shorter than the time between 21 and 22?  Our question really asks “what is the rate at which time passes?”  But if you think about it, that question doesn’t make sense.  How do we measure speed?  We measure speed as a ratio between units of activity, say, distance traveled or pages printed, and units of time.  “Miles per hour” and “pages per minute” make sense.  But what about “hours per hour”?  That sounds tautologous, if not silly.  It definitely adds no information.

Members of the dominant school of Anglo-American philosophy use such considerations in their disputes over whether or not time really passes at all.  In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  Ned Markosian summarizes one of these arguments as follows:

… [I]f it is true to say that time really passes, then it makes sense to ask how fast time passes. But (the argument goes) if it makes sense to ask how fast time passes, then it is possible for there to be a coherent answer to that question. Yet, according to the argument, there is no rate that can be coherently assigned to the passage of time. (“One hour per hour,” for example, is said not to be a coherent answer to the question “How fast does time pass?”) Thus, the argument concludes, it cannot be true to say that time really passes.

At age 72 I have a hard time wasting my time reading long-winded papers denying that time really passes.  Yet, this so-called “analytic” philosophy, which prides itself on its congruence with modern science, ties itself in knots over a paper that was written by John Ellis McTaggert in 1908 on “The Unreality of Time.”

McTaggert at least had more historical sense than the contemporary scribes arguing among themselves about marginalia on his paper.  McTaggert begins with a reference to the long history of philosophers who question the reality of time, including O’Hara’s Hindus.  In my October update on this blog, I reported that I was reading Buddhist Logic by S.T. Stcherbatsky.  It turned out that Stcherbatsky presents the thinking of an Indian philosopher named Vasubandhu, who provides a foundation for Tibetan Buddhist logic, epistemology and ontology.  Like O’Hara’s Hindus, Vasubandhu holds that

There is therefore no Time, no Space and no Motion over and above the point-instants of which these imagined entities are constructed in our imagination. (St i 84)

Change does not really happen.  I found this a strange position for a Buddhist.  One of the three hallmarks of existence for Buddhists is that we live with constant change.  In denying change he contradicts the goal he announces in his introduction:

The ultimate aim of Buddhist logic is to explain the relation between a moving reality and the static constructions of thought. (St i 2)

Unless he means by “relation” to define away what’s moving in reality.

I also had trouble with the way Vasubandhu (at least as presented by Stcherbatsky) treats these point-instants as substantive entities, as things.  Even though he describes point-instants as “having no duration, no extension and no movement,” he refers to them as “particles” of time or space, as “objects,” as “moments” that are subject to sense-perception.

While I had to stop reading Stcherbatsky because of my frustration with Vasubandhu’s internal contradictions, I did agree with his goal and with his point that we construct time, space and motion through the interaction between imagining and sensing the world outside our imagination.  “Time and Space cannot be separated from the things” our “productive imagination” sees spatially or temporally. (St i 85)

Vasubandhu’s treatment of “ultimate reality” exasperated me so much that I now question the validity or worth of pursuing what we can know and what we can say about “ultimate reality.”  A strange place for a would-be philosopher to find himself.  Be that as it may, I also tend to agree with Vasubandhu’s description of what’s real, even if it needs some cleaning up, especially where I have inserted ellipses.  “Whatsoever is causally efficient is real.  …  Existence, reality, being and thing are its names.”  (St i 69)

We know it’s real if it does something.  I know that statement raises a host of questions, but let’s just let it take us back to our original question.  The problem with asking how fast time moves is that time doesn’t move.  Time is not a process.  Time is just a way we order and imagine processes.  In that sense time is not real.  Processes are real.  Time doesn’t do anything.  We do “time.”  By ordering and imagining, we time processes for various purposes such as to control or to understand them.  In that sense it makes sense to ask how fast we can time a process.  But then we’re asking about the process of timing, not the speed of something called “time” existing independently of real processes.

Time is not a crook.  Time does not steal from us.  Our bodies age.  Our relations with others change.  Other change.  Others age.  We move from place to place, from job to job.  We and others change. We can look at these changes temporally.  But that does not mean that some entity or some process called “time” has changed us.

We say “time marches on.”  We understand that statement as a figure of speech.  We need to be careful not to treat this figure as a metaphor where one process or entity stands in for another process.  “Time marches on” seems more like metonymy to me, a metonymy where one way of ordering and imagining processes like aging substitutes for the processes themselves.

I can’t resist by closing with the comment that our question is another example of the problems that arise when we use nouns like “time” when we could be much more clear by using verbs like “to time.”





  1. As Philip Glass says, “The performer hears first, and then he plays what he hears. I make it sound as if there’s a period of time that elapses. In fact it may be almost no time. But it’s not quite simultaneous because if it reverses itself—if you start playing and then hearing—you run into serious interpretive problems with the music. I can tell you that from experience.” Discussed in a previous post about the playing of one of Sarah’s students, Anne Mei.

  2. I love that, in music, we have the privilege of making time ‘stand still’. Menuhin had a saying that he was fond of: “when you can play in time….only then can you play WITH time”. And when you are able to become one with sound, then time stops. It is the most magical experience. Happy New Year, Ken!

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