What is time?
Simple questions such as these seem to have the peculiar habit of being almost impossible to answer. Perhaps it’s because we have a conception of an answer that is good enough, sufficient for everyday life and reciprocal understanding of human concepts. Perhaps it’s because the answer to this question exists at a level of profundity incapable of being articulately expressed. Maybe the answer to this dwells deep within us, every single one of us, which is why we are able to communicate about it without to much difficulty.
But if the latter proposition is true, why has time retreated to the dark cave that is our inarticulable thoughts, our mutual understanding that can only be introduced but not addressed? Perhaps there is some evolutionary purpose for it.
IF you find yourself scoffing at my false profundity, or confused about the nature of the initial question proposed, allow me to elaborate and include you in my chaos. When I refer to the notion of time, I mean the phenomenology of time. The experience of time. What is it like to be a human, conscious that they are passing through time, reflecting on time they know will never manifest itself, imagining a time in which they are happy, fulfilled, suppressing the thought it’s antithesis. Remembering time that has passed, being thrown into paralyzing anxiety by a time that has yet to come.
Is time merely just experience? By that I mean, is time necessarily phenomenological? It seems that way to me.
Imagine a universe composed entirely of inanimate objects, entirely and completely devoid of consciousness. No animals, no living microbes, no viruses even. A universe consisting exclusively of matter which has no conscious experience. Is it fair to say this universe does not exist? Paradoxically, this thought experiment is actually incapable of truly expressing the desired psychological effect, for merely considering a universe we necessarily create it inside our minds.
When I tell you to imagine a universe that lacks anything which could possibly have conscious experience, what image emerges in your mind? Perhaps you see a lone comet drifting through space. Perhaps you see a star and it’s following of orbiting masses. When I ask you to create this hypothetical universe, the reason for which it was thought up in the first place necessarily disappears. For what I am asking, to put it clearly, is does a universe which cannot be comprehended exist?
If you imagine a universe populated exclusively by stars and comets and other exclusively ‘dead’ matter then you necessarily imagine such a universe in a manner appropriate to the comprehension of a living organism. This is because it is impossible for you, for I, for anyone, to imagine the experience of a star, of a comet.
Thus, I find myself at a distinct disadvantage. My goal is to explore the phenomenology, the experience, of time. Yet, I find myself necessarily incapable of getting rid of time, even in the absence of phenomena.
Anyone interested in philosophy of mind is likely to be unimpressed by this discovery, for they have already pondered the ‘what is it like to be a bat’ thought experiment and dove headfirst into the incomprehensible spectrum that is conscious experience. They understand that, though we will never understand what it is like to be a bat, sleeping upside down (rightside up for them?) and manifesting the world by utilizing echolocation, nevertheless such an experience exists. No matter how much empirical information we obtain about the phenomenology and behaviour of bats, we will eternally fail the simple task of stepping into their shoes.
But to those people I merely want to point out a distinction; I am not merely conducting another phenomenological thought experiment when I ask you to consider a universe depleted of experience. I am actually asking you to do something impossible. I am asking you to experience that which necessarily has no experience, to become conscious observers of a universe which is supposed to be exclusively unconscious.
So, with the initial question still within sight, let me ask another question. Does time exist without experience?
If this question is impossible to answer, for which we will concede it is for the time being, then let us abandon it. (this presupposes that consciousness is something more than information processing. If, in this exclusively unconscious universe there lie a quantum computer that was calculating gravity and masses using nothing but automated algorithms, such information processing would not affect the scenario, for algorithms do not have an experience)