Socrates Up to Date: A Dialogue Regarding Time

SOCRATES. What time is it, Crito?

CRITO. Seven twenty-three.

S. Somewhat later than I had thought. But, Crito, just what does ‘Seven twenty-three’ mean?

C. Why, it means seven hours and twenty-three minutes after noon.

S. Please do not think me fastidious; but just what are hours and minutes?

C. They are units of time, of course. A second is the smallest unit of time; sixty of these seconds make a minute, and sixty minutes make an hour. But you know this as well as I.

S. Very true; but what is this that you call ‘time’?

C. Well, it is hard to say just what it is, but I have a sensation of events having transpired in the past, of events taking place now, — our conversation, for instance, — and of events we anticipate will occur in the future.

S. May we be sure that time is an actuality, a positive thing?

C. Why, certainly. Nothing could be more apparent. It is as real as our existence. If time were obliterated, our existence would go with it. We recall many things which took place in the past, we know what is going on now, and we live in hope and anticipation of the future, not only referring to our earthly existence, but to a future life after death.

S. So it seems, but I am wondering. We speak of time as being past, future, and present. We say the future precedes the present and the past follows it — or is it the other way, the past precedes the present ? If we conceive of time as something passing by us and bringing along with it our experiences, then the future must be ahead and therefore precede the present. But if we think of ourselves as passing along through time, we should pass the past first, the present next, and the future last. No; that cannot be, for the past would not be past until we had experienced the event it relates to, and this experience would always have to be in the present; and it is certain we could never pass the future. It would seem to be more convenient in thought to think of time passing by us, which would place the future at the head though somewhere behind us, so to speak, thereby making the event to which the time relates successively future as it is coming, present as it is being experienced, and past after experienced. What do you consider the present to be?

C. Socrates, you are laying a foundation with which to trip me, as usual; but, with all your reason and analysis, we surely must depend on our consciousness in such matters. Our conversation is of the present; you and I are talking together now; in short, now is the present.

S. That we may understand each other: Your utterance of the last word ‘present’ — would it be proper to say that that event is now one of the past?

C. Strictly speaking, of course, that utterance is a past event, as is the last word that is leaving my lips at each instant; but I conceive of the present in a more general practical sense.

S. If we would be scientific we must be exact, or ‘strict,’ as you say. If you depend on a ‘general’ conception, where will you draw the line?

C. That, of course, presents a difficulty. Where would you draw the line?

S. When we attempt to note in consciousness where the future leaves off and the past begins, we are lost in confusion. We seem unable to come to any certain conclusion as to how long the present endures; closely analyzed, it seems to be a dividing line only, and one that has no breadth; the instant we experience anything it is of the past; is that not true?

C. It seems that way. Proceed.

S. Crito, would you say that the future, filled with events that have not occurred as yet, has a positive existence now? Or that an event that took place, say, a thousand years ago has as such a positive existence now?

C. No; I suppose not.

S. If the future and the past are positive, absolute facts or entities, then the present is squeezed out of existence. But without a present we can have no existence, since we certainly live neither in the past nor in the future. But, as you said, there must be a present. Therefore all is present. What say you?

C. Socrates, my head is in a whirl, and I cannot answer you logically; but surely there is a future, a present, a past.

S. Let us pursue another course and compare results. What do we know about time? You said we are conscious of it. Do you mean that we intellectually feel its existence? If so, our feelings are very unreliable, as I will show you. Suppose throughout the same hour Phœdo is engaged in something exceedingly interesting to him, such as a game of chess, and Lysis is waiting anxiously for some delayed event. If they have no other means of marking time than their respective feelings, would the hour be long or short to Phœdo?

C. Undoubtedly it would be short.

S. Would it be long or short to Lysis?

C. Long.

S. It would be long to one and short to the other? How could that be?

C. Well, of course, the actual time would be the same; the difference you have brought out would be a difference merely in the feelings and sensations of the two under the different conditions of mind. I will have to concede that our sensations regarding time are not always reliable.

S. Then, from the standpoint of sensation, either there is no such thing as time as an absolute entity independent of human existence, or it varies with different individuals, an acceptance of which latter proposition makes it a nonentity.

C. I cannot accept or refute your conclusions on the spur of the moment; but go on — your analysis is interesting.

S. What do we mean by ‘the same hour’? What is an hour? You have just said it is a unit of time. How can we measure or conceive of it, since the senses are so unreliable? You will answer that it is the time required for the minute hand of a clock to make one revolution of the dial. But if with my finger I move the minute hand once around the dial, does that make an hour?

C. Of course not; no one would claim such a thing.

S. The speed of the movement of the minute hand must be uniform and consistent with some standard to which all clocks conform. What we call time, then, according to this line of reasoning, appears to be merely a phenomenon of motion, or involves some relationship to it. We measure it in terms of motion and extension; that is, a material object, the minute hand, has moved at a given uniform rate of speed a given distance. This method of measurement and that of feeling are the only ones we know of. Motion is not time any more than time is motion; neither is extension (space) time, nor time extension. And how can it be a combination of two essentially different things, motion and extension? If we say, then, that time as we commonly think of it has no existence as an entity independent of human experience, because motion and extension are not combinable to create a third distinct thing, have we not arrived at our first conclusion, that there is no time, except that all is present ?

C. Have it your own way as matter of logic. I hold to my first conclusion as to time.

S. Though taking different courses or paths of research, you will admit that we end at the same point?

C. Yes, logically.

S. Your difficulty is that, so firmly founded is the thought in us that time is a distinct entity, and that it has three parts, past, present, and future, which are separable from each other, it is impossible to accept the logically derived conclusions. Acceptance of this conclusion, however, does not in the slightest degree require a change in the condition of things or a belief in such a change.

C. Pardon my interruption, but if your conclusion is true, doing away with time as you propose to do would establish in man a fountain of perennial youth, since no one would ever grow old. If there be no time, all being present, how are we to account for old age, or do you deny the existence of such a condition as old age?

S. I do not deny the condition at all. Old age is readily accounted for and in a way consistent with my proposition, if you stop to think what it is. Old age is a phenomenon of change — just that and nothing else. When we observe wrinkles in a person’s face, we say, ‘Old age.’ If a person of twenty from some unnatural cause has gray hair, a wrinkled face, and a halting step, judging appearance only, we say, ‘Old age.’ If a garment becomes faded, we say, ‘Old age.’ But looking at a recently mounted diamond in a jeweler’s show case, though it may have been worn by the Queen of Sheba, would you think, ‘Old age’? Did you ever hear of an old diamond, or a secondhand one, being offered for sale? No; it would be new because it would reveal no evidence of change.

C. I had never thought of it in that light. Nevertheless, the diamond — or any diamond, for that matter — would be old.

S. Let me try to make my proposition clearer by elaborating on the thought of a series or order. We have been taught to arrange the letters of our alphabet in a series beginning with A and ending with Z. Repeating the alphabet, it is a fact that when we have said Z we have already said A. Which is the older, A or Z? The letter A was repeated before the letter Z, but it is on that account no older than Z, The letter A simply appeared in the order of conscious repetition of the letters in advance of Z. Now to apply the illustration: Under normal conditions a smooth face, dark hair, and elastic step appear in advance of a wrinkled face, gray hair, and unsteady step in the same individual. We do not know why, but they do. Buying our fabrics at the store, the brightly colored state of the fabric appeared first, and its faded condition afterward; but to the manufacturer who saw the fabric before it was dyed, what was the equivalent of the faded state appeared first, and to him the brightly colored state followed, thus making the bright colors an indication of age, at least to that extent. Were it natural to be born gray-haired and wrinkled, and later at the close of one’s earthly career to acquire a smooth skin and dark hair, then what we now deem evidence of youth would be evidence of old age, and vice versa. Here it becomes quite plain that time or age is only a matter of the direction of the process of change.

Language throws considerable light on the proposition. Observe the use of the word ’long’ in such expressions as ‘ere long,’ ‘before long,’ ‘not long,’ ‘a long while,’ and so forth. The word ‘long’ primarily means a matter of distance — that is, extension. Again, note such expressions as ‘time passes swiftly’ or ‘slowly,’ ‘time flies’ or ‘drags,’ and so forth. These are all terms of motion. Can you describe any feature of time concretely in other than terms of extension or motion?

C. Well, we say, ‘He had a hard time,’ or ‘We had a good time’ — but these expressions do not relate to time itself, but rather to a prolonged event or occasion. No, I can think of no other form of expression descriptive of time; but are these not mere figures of speech?

S. Consider the subject practically, then. Traveling from Chicago to New York via Detroit, if there were no delay whatever at Detroit, you would find by the time-tables and clocks used by the citizens of Windsor that you had been an hour and some minutes getting to Windsor, though the train had been moving at a very high rate of speed and the distance is but a few miles. Comparing your watch with Windsor clocks, you would find it an hour slow. Remaining east of Detroit all the rest of your life, that hour would always be lost and you would always be an hour older than you would have been had you remained in Chicago, because your birthday would always come an hour sooner. The basic reason for this anomalous situation is the physical fact that your body had been moving faster than the earth had revolved, and to make up the difference your time indicator (watch) has to be advanced to the extent of one revolution of the minute hand for each fifteen degrees of longitude traversed.

If you were aboard ship on the Pacific Ocean, passing east near the equator, and touched at a port on the Fiji Islands, and were to go to the Samoan Islands by airplane in three hours, leaving on Saturday at noon, on alighting you would find by the calendars and clocks of the latter islands that it was Sunday, three o’clock P.M. The reason for this is that, in passing around the earth from west to east, a day of time instead of an hour is lost, because the traveler makes one more revolution than the earth does. It is not necessary that the particular traveler should have circumnavigated the globe, but there has to be a place fixed where this discrepancy of time between what the clock indicates and the physical fact of the earth’s revolution can be corrected.

C. True enough as far as you go, and these facts give plausibility to your argument, but the actual fact of time remains constant. Explain to me how a week or a month could be lost.

S. Weeks and months represent merely numerical propositions, a sum of days or a fraction of a year. By circumnavigating the earth seven times traveling east, you would have lost a week, and thirty or thirty-one times would lose you a month. Suppose there existed a planet similar to our earth and equally habitable by human beings, and that, traveling in an orbit just inside the earth’s, it circumscribed the sun in half the time the earth does, but revolved on its axis twice as fast, so that it revolved 365 times during that time, and that its axis was similarly inclined to the plane of its orbit, thereby producing the corresponding seasons of the year. With such a condition existing, suppose on January 1, 1928, our time, I embarked on this other planet, and I found its inhabitants keeping time as we do, the clock’s hour hand making two revolutions with each revolution of the planet on its axis, producing a day and a night. If I kept my watch going just as it did on earth and it kept perfect time, and I marked a calendar according to the movement of my watch, then on July 1, 1928, I should be at the same point on the orbit as when I made the change, and it would be midwinter again on this other planet, its spring, summer, autumn, and the first month of winter having passed over my head. The inhabitants surrounding me would be six months older than I according to their reckoning of time, for with them it would be January 1, 1929. Suppose I adopted their time, then when this planet had traversed the orbit again it would be January 1, 1930, their time; and if I had some instant means of communicating with my friends on earth, which would then be at the same point on the orbit, my communication would be dated January 1, 1930, and their answer January 1, 1929. Would this not be the case?

C. Socrates, you make me dizzy with your suppositions, but I suppose such would be the case.

S. Bear with me for one other supposition. Suppose this other planet to which I had transferred revolved but once on its axis during the year, and I was living on the side facing the sun. Then during its two traversings of the orbit, at the end of which it would meet earth at the point where I had left it, no time would have passed at all for me if I had calculated time in accordance with daylight; and on returning to earth it would be to me January 1, 1928, would it not?

C. Yes, I suppose so. But if a difference of one year could be discerned precisely by the appearance of the face as the perennial rings in the growth of a tree can be numbered, you would in fact and in appearance be exactly one year older.

S. Crito, I see you are incorrigible and a slave to the conventions of thought under which you live, and will not take the impersonal objective attitude in such discussions. If, as you say, one’s age could be discerned to exactness by the appearance of the face, it would be a matter of the change in the appearance, just as I said at the outset. And this change, O Crito, would be the result of the molecular or chemical changes or transformations going on in the structure and functionings of the body. If those changes were twice as fast on this other planet while it was revolving 365 times in its year, thus being in keeping with its physical motion and changes, I should in the first instance, in conformity with your test, have been a year older than a friend born the same day I was, but who remained on earth. And if there were no molecular changes in my body in the case where it was daylight during the two encirclings of the sun, I should be a year younger than my friend. If these molecular changes of the body took place twice as fast on earth as they do, then, other things being equal, we should be old and decrepit at forty instead of eighty years of age.

Thus it becomes apparent, to me at least, that time considered in hours, days, weeks, months, years, is found to be wholly based on the mechanical fact of the rotation of the earth upon its axis and around the sun. Or, if considered in that inexact indefinite way as we do in contemplation of the age of things and persons based on appearance, time is wholly an effect of molecular (chemical) motion or activity, its degree, extent, or speed in any particular case being measured by the deterioration or disintegration (aging) that has taken place as compared with a newly produced object.

Time, then, is a nonentity so far as the external objective impersonal world and universe is concerned; a thousand years is as a day, or a day as a thousand years; considered in the light of sense testimony, time is purely subjective or relative. Therefore, O Crito, there is no such thing as time. We live in the eternal now.