The Jewish Studio

What does time measure?

From Aristotle’s Physics (Book IV, part 10-13) For full text, click here

Part 10
Next for discussion after the subjects mentioned is Time. The best plan will be to begin by working out the difficulties connected with it, making use of the current arguments. First, does it belong to the class of things that exist or to that of things that do not exist? Then secondly, what is its nature? To start, then: the following considerations would make one suspect that it either does not exist at all or barely, and in an obscure way. One part of it has been and is not, while the other is going to be and is not yet. Yet time-both infinite time and any time you like to take-is made up of these. One would naturally suppose that what is made up of things which do not exist could have no share in reality.

Further, if a divisible thing is to exist, it is necessary that, when it exists, all or some of its parts must exist. But of time some parts have been, while others have to be, and no part of it is though it is divisible. For what is 'now' is not a part: a part is a measure of the whole, which must be made up of parts. Time, on the other hand, is not held to be made up of 'nows'.

Again, the 'now' which seems to bound the past and the future-does it always remain one and the same or is it always other and other? It is hard to say.

(1) If it is always different and different, and if none of the parts in time which are other and other are simultaneous (unless the one contains and the other is contained, as the shorter time is by the longer), and if the 'now' which is not, but formerly was, must have ceased-to-be at some time, the 'nows' too cannot be simultaneous with one another, but the prior 'now' must always have ceased-to-be. But the prior 'now' cannot have ceased-to-be in itself (since it then existed); yet it cannot have ceased-to-be in another 'now'. For we may lay it down that one 'now' cannot be next to another, any more than point to point. If then it did not cease-to-be in the next 'now' but in another, it would exist simultaneously with the innumerable 'nows' between the two-which is impossible.

Yes, but (2) neither is it possible for the 'now' to remain always the same. No determinate divisible thing has a single termination, whether it is continuously extended in one or in more than one dimension: but the 'now' is a termination, and it is possible to cut off a determinate time. Further, if coincidence in time (i.e. being neither prior nor posterior) means to be 'in one and the same "now"', then, if both what is before and what is after are in this same 'now', things which happened ten thousand years ago would be simultaneous with what has happened to-day, and nothing would be before or after anything else.

This may serve as a statement of the difficulties about the attributes of time.

As to what time is or what is its nature, the traditional accounts give us as little light as the preliminary problems which we have worked through.

Some assert that it is (1) the movement of the whole, others that it is (2) the sphere itself.

(1) Yet part, too, of the revolution is a time, but it certainly is not a revolution: for what is taken is part of a revolution, not a revolution. Besides, if there were more heavens than one, the movement of any of them equally would be time, so that there would be many times at the same time.

(2) Those who said that time is the sphere of the whole thought so, no doubt, on the ground that all things are in time and all things are in the sphere of the whole. The view is too naive for it to be worth while to consider the impossibilities implied in it.

But as time is most usually supposed to be (3) motion and a kind of change, we must consider this view.

Now (a) the change or movement of each thing is only in the thing which changes or where the thing itself which moves or changes may chance to be. But time is present equally everywhere and with all things.

Again, (b) change is always faster or slower, whereas time is not: for 'fast' and 'slow' are defined by time-'fast' is what moves much in a short time, 'slow' what moves little in a long time; but time is not defined by time, by being either a certain amount or a certain kind of it.

Clearly then it is not movement. (We need not distinguish at present between 'movement' and 'change'.)

Part 11
But neither does time exist without change; for when the state of our own minds does not change at all, or we have not noticed its changing, we do not realize that time has elapsed, any more than those who are fabled to sleep among the heroes in Sardinia do when they are awakened; for they connect the earlier 'now' with the later and make them one, cutting out the interval because of their failure to notice it. So, just as, if the 'now' were not different but one and the same, there would not have been time, so too when its difference escapes our notice the interval does not seem to be time. If, then, the non-realization of the existence of time happens to us when we do not distinguish any change, but the soul seems to stay in one indivisible state, and when we perceive and distinguish we say time has elapsed, evidently time is not independent of movement and change. It is evident, then, that time is neither movement nor independent of movement.

We must take this as our starting-point and try to discover-since we wish to know what time is-what exactly it has to do with movement.

Now we perceive movement and time together: for even when it is dark and we are not being affected through the body, if any movement takes place in the mind we at once suppose that some time also has elapsed; and not only that but also, when some time is thought to have passed, some movement also along with it seems to have taken place. Hence time is either movement or something that belongs to movement. Since then it is not movement, it must be the other.

But what is moved is moved from something to something, and all magnitude is continuous. Therefore the movement goes with the magnitude. Because the magnitude is continuous, the movement too must be continuous, and if the movement, then the time; for the time that has passed is always thought to be in proportion to the movement.

The distinction of 'before' and 'after' holds primarily, then, in place; and there in virtue of relative position. Since then 'before' and 'after' hold in magnitude, they must hold also in movement, these corresponding to those. But also in time the distinction of 'before' and 'after' must hold, for time and movement always correspond with each other. The 'before' and 'after' in motion is identical in substratum with motion yet differs from it in definition, and is not identical with motion.

But we apprehend time only when we have marked motion, marking it by 'before' and 'after'; and it is only when we have perceived 'before' and 'after' in motion that we say that time has elapsed. Now we mark them by judging that A and B are different, and that some third thing is intermediate to them. When we think of the extremes as different from the middle and the mind pronounces that the 'nows' are two, one before and one after, it is then that we say that there is time, and this that we say...

Source: faculty.uca.edu
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