This article is a departure from my usual practice of commenting on contemporary social and political issues from an anti-capitalist and revolutionary humanist perspective. Although, as the reader will see, the topic here chosen is also intrinsically connected to the functioning of the capitalist mode of production. I therefore hope that the unusual choice of subject matter which follows doesn’t disappoint too many of those who regularly visit this blog. The catalyst for my departure has been a long winter of viewing television documentaries headed up by scientists, academics and other specialists who, whatever else their expertise comprises of, have clearly not understood the applicability of at least one key concept they continually use – ‘time’.
I have elsewhere dealt with the frequent application by ‘experts’ of human values and motives to non human species, a facile habit known as anthropomorphism. For example frequent statements such as; ‘This animal is choosing the best mate in order to pass on its genes’ – as if an animal was aware of biology or the implications of DNA and any genetic possibilities. Even most humans don’t mate on that basis. The process of selective genetic breeding among humans, known as Eugenics, never really became popular – and for good reason. The reality for humans and animals is that ‘attraction and sexual activity is selective enough and can feel terrific’!! No other motive is possible for animals, and caste and class apart, the same goes for human beings. The pleasure of mutual attraction and sex is the motive which has ensured species reproduction alongside much of species evolution.
That topic aside, in this article I wish to discuss in more detail, the repeated inaccurate use and application of the concept of ‘time’. The habit of abstracting and detaching the concept of ‘time’ (as with other concepts) away from its human origins and limitations and attaching it to nature and/or the universe seems to be proliferating. In my experience, this practice is most frequently exhibited by cosmologists and astronomical theoreticians in academia and the media. Popular science based programmes on television and radio are littered with examples such as; ‘…since time began – billions of years ago . etc…’ ; ‘The history of the first stars stretches back in time to the beginning of the universe, etc.’
Stars having a ‘chronological record of events’ (ie a ‘history’) is sloppy thinking enough, but the incidence of such expressions concerning the begining of ‘time’ are just too frequent to think they are individual lapses. They appear to have become part of some firmly embedded trend, at least within the popular media. The avowed purpose of such TV programmes is to simply update the listener or viewer with the latest ‘facts’ and educate them beyond their current knowledge base. However, too often what is confidently communicated to the audience – as fact – is no more than speculation and imagination. Take yet another bizarre example introducing one popular commentator of a TV series entitled ‘Wonders of the Universe‘; “Discover the role of time in creating both the universe and ourselves”. ‘Time created the universe and humans’ – really!
The real ‘wonder of the universe’ is that this sort of fanciful nonsense, gets past the editorial staff. However, we should not forget, that under the capitalist mode of production, these programmes also serve a number of other functional purposes. Purposes such as facilitating or advancing the careers of individuals, justifying the funding of the institutions which produce research on these topics and promoting the image of a serious dimension to television broadcasting. They also represent a small but significant personification of the ideological hegemony required under the bourgeois mode of production. While they pocket their substantial incomes and gaze at the heavens, not only are these professors of esoteric speculations uncritical of the dominant mode of production, which cripples the lives of millions, but they are mostly uncritical with regard to the theories and assumptions made within their own discipline.
Such media-elevated individuals are part of the capitalist systems spectrum of ‘experts’ which we lowly workers are meant to look up to, learn from and trust. They are paid to interpret the world in which we live for us and invite us to accept their conclusions as scientific and thus unbiased. Such ‘authorities’ (economic, political and scientific) are granted access to mass media outlets to publicise their views, precisely because they serve such a deferential inducing purpose. They are there primarily because they do not question the ideology and practice of system they are a part of. While we the viewers are supposed to be dazzled by the size and intricacy of their multi-million pound (or Dollar) instruments (Telescopes and Hadron Colliders [£6 billion or $9 billion.] A few hospitals could be built for that!) and are reassured by their confident assertions, they draw comfort from their present status and future pensions. However, to increase the general level of scepticism among ordinary folk, which I suggest is important, let us consider how ‘expert’ they really are with regard to their use of the concept of time.
Capitalism and time.
Undoubtedly, time is a crucially important element within the bourgeois mode of production. The business cliché ‘time is money’ openly demonstrates its roots in the capitalist production process. It is a process in which profits (or losses) are dependent upon production times, delivery dates, turnover intervals and investment periods – all measured by units (minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years) commonly denoted as parts of time. As the capitalist mode of production has developed so too has the importance of accurate time keeping. Clocking in and out of work, working round the clock, time and motion studies, have all become part and parcel of capitalist economic life. The concept of time and its length measured by ever smaller intervals has been predominantly shaped by the needs of the capitalist classes in pursuit of wealth and profits.
The rapid motion of machines, as with calculating the exact duration of processes, means that the measurement of motion (time) has been increasingly honed to a high degree of sophistication. Under the capitalist mode of production, revolutions per minute have been constantly increased, millisecond transfer speeds in communications have become necessarily routine. In every aspect of life, the modern capitalist world is dominated and obsessed with time. It cannot be surprising, therefore, that this centuries-old obsession with the economic importance of time has permeated all aspects of bourgeois culture, from so-called ‘common sense’ and carried into the realm of science. Time as with many other concepts needed by the current mode of production is assumed to have a natural and eternal existence.
This idea that the concept of time has an existence entirely independent of humanity and the mode of production has a long and contradictory history but as noted, this actually ahistorical perspective reaches it its most sophisticated, speculative and esoteric forms in the 20th century. It has become something of a fixation. A number of celebrated thinkers, both pre and post Einstein, have assisted in this process of detaching the concept of time from its purely human origins and purposes and envisioning time as a product of the universe itself. A more recent leading intellectual figure in the promotion of this perspective is the renowned author Stephen Hawkins. For various reasons I shall take Professor Hawkins as a suitable modern embodiment of this trend.
An even briefer history of time.
Steven Hawkins in his book ‘A brief History of Time’ quotes the centuries old St Augustine as writing ‘that time was a property of the universe that God created, and that time did not exist before the beginning of the universe’. Professor Hawkins seems to agree with this assertion for he goes on to argue that; “As we shall see, the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe.” The first part of that sentence is interesting; “..the concept of time has no meaning before…”. No meaning before what? He seems to be half way to grasping the real ‘relativity’ of the concept of ‘time’ but then fails to draw the obvious conclusion that it did not exist before a certain stage in the evolution of humanity!
He later adds “We may say that time had a beginning at the big bang,” The concept of the ‘big bang’ itself is another imaginative speculation, resting on inferences derived from sparse inter-galactic evidence which may in future, as in the past, be differently interpreted. Yet it is here asserted as fact along with his assertion that it marks the moment when ‘time’ began! These examples illustrate the fact that even highly acclaimed scholars can fetishise the concept of time and assume it has existed almost for ever. Despite the fact that he makes a link between the concept of time and the existence of a material universe which is moving, Professor Hawkins fails to draw conclusions which might undermine his fully absorbed bourgeois assumptions about time. Unlike Einstein for example, who actually drew attention to the fact that;
“..time-values can be regarded essentially as magnitudes (results of measurements) capable of observation.” (‘Relativity, the Special and General Theory. Chapter 3)
According to Einstein, time values are the results of measurements made by observations. Of course they are! Only humans are capable of measurement and observation! Planets, stars and Galaxies obviously are not. I hesitate at this point to delve further into Professor Einsteins later, often contradictory, use of the concept of time (space/time continuums etc) as if it were in fact more than an imaginitive conceptual tool with the inevitable ‘relative’ limitations and inaccuracies any human concept or tool is bound to have. In passing I merely note that he too asserted the following;
“The idea of the independent existence of space and time can be expressed dramatically in this way: If matter were to disappear, space and time alone would remain behind...” (Einstein ‘Relativity, Special and General’ Appendix V. emphasis added RR)
After considering the following paragraph and the next section, the reader will draw their own conclusions from the above imaginative statement supposing what would be left after the disappearance of matter. However, rather than pursuing Mr Einsteins thoughts further in this article, I return to the assertions of Mr Hawkins. The mistake Mr Hawkins makes, and before him St Augustine, among others, is to assume that any concept could exist before the creators of concepts (the human species) existed. The concept of time by definition could not have existed before humans conceived of it. Measured by the probable number of the planetary revolutions of the Earth, before human life evolved to the level required for any form of time reification or fetishism to take hold of the human intellect, the ‘history of time’ is indeed brief.
What did exist before humanity evolved, as far as we presently understand it, is a planetary system in which spinning objects we call now planets (instead of gods) along with other miscellaneous gallactic debris, revolve around other spinning objects (sun’s and stars) within a spiralling galaxy. Is it not obvious then, that before humans existed there were no minutes, no seconds, no days, no years, no centuries – in fact – no ideas? What existed before humanity was not time, but repetitive circular, elliptical or irregular movement of matter in motion, which we now generally describe as spinning (complete with periodic wobbles) and orbits.
A short – but real – history of time.
When humanity reached the level of intellect to recognise, articulate, investigate and record the repetitive patterns of this objective motion, it created the terms we now call in English language – days, nights and years. From that period humans began to count and record the effects of the spinning and orbital motion, which lacking suitable instruments, they for a long period inaccurately observed. Only from that stage can we say that ‘time’ as an important concept existed. Despite a lack of technical innovations, early humanity had invented the concept of time by counting (or measuring) the movement of observable matter. At first this measuring was crude and far from universal, but experience along with technological intelligence and ability added sophistication to this measuring and recording.
Sundials allowed the splitting of daylight periods into segments which became popularly known as hours – but not all communities chose to split a day into 12 or 24 hours. Earth orbits were given the title of years and divided into months and days but again – not all early human communities chose to divide each earth orbit into 12 periods or months. Some in fact calculated by lunar orbits. For a long period there was no agreement on how the concept of time should be callibrated and regularised. Even the number of days once chosen caused the eventual creation of leap years to bring the choice into closer (but not exact) synchronisation with the real pattern of orbital rotation. These facts alone should caution against any ahistorical use of the concept of time.
With the invention of water clocks and sand timers it became possible for the daily subdivisions to be extended to cloudy days and even nights. However as noted earlier, the obsession with time only fully matured with the full development of the capitalist mode of production and it’s complete absorption within bourgeois culture. Mechanical timepieces progressively led the way to accurate commercial navigation, close-run railway time-tables, and factory clocks. From all this actual history it emerges that time is nothing more than the human measurement of movement whether that is the movement of sun, water, planets, pendulums controlled and weight driven toothed wheels, spring driven mechanical escapements or battery induced oscillations within electronic microchips. Now in view of the above what should the reader make of Einsteins assertion that; “If matter were to disappear, space and time alone would remain behind.”
Having said all this the concept of time and the instruments developed to record it’s passing can be very useful to humanity, even though they are currently of more use to the owners of industrial, commercial and financial capital. But as with any other concept and tool it can be misused particularly when, amid global, regional, and local levels of poverty, vast quantities of human and material resources are swallowed up in non-entertainment speculation and experimentation concerning the so-called origins of time and the even more ludicrous fantasies concerning the possibilities of time travel. So back to the subject science, the cultural absorber of much wealth, and its too frequent use of so-called absolutes.
Science and time.
In this section I feel it is worth briefly indicating another problem with the bourgeois induced assumption that the concept of time has an independent and invariable existence. If we accept that time in the modern period is the more or less precise measurement of movement by using regulated rotating or oscillating instruments known as clocks or other forms of measuring instrument, then certain implications should logically follow. We should be constantly aware of the relative nature of anything which utilises this conceptual tool as a basis for any form of abstract speculation. Take for example the allied concept of speed. Speed is a practical based concept also referred to constantly, almost obsessively, since the 20th century, when even the speed of light was estimated and assumed absolute.
Speed is calculated by measuring a set linear distance travelled within a set amount of time. But speed calculations depend upon the measurement and relationship of these two human constructs – and another – number!. In the case of speed we have linear movement measured in one agreed concept – distance – usually reckoned in units of feet, metres, miles or kilometres; measured against another agreed concept – time – usually reckoned in minutes or hours. And of course this is given a numerical value – which of course is another human concept. The calculation of speed – even the much vaunted speed of light – therefore depends upon these three human concepts and in addition cannot even approach being precise without ‘relatively’ accurate instruments made by humans – no two of which are exactly the same in accuracy – and none of which pre-date the 15th century, let alone humanity!
All this should be obvious, but obviously it is not! It is clear that the use of imagination in science, can lead well away from the obvious, to ideological, self-serving, stipend-achieving speculation. So travelling back in time – at whatever rate of motion – is therefore complete Holywood nonsense as most sane people realise. Even reversing the direction all the things that have moved on either by orbital movement or evolution – which of course is impossible, except in imagination – would not reverse this procession. That is not how the natural world works. The real world works by moving or evolving and not according to imaginative counting, sophisticated equations or speculative fantasy. Yet, as in the past, some areas of modern science exist on very little other than imagination, complex abstract equations and speculative assertions.
Although there are more important immediate issues to deal with, I suggest it is important for revolutionary-humanists and anti-capitalists to learn to deal with the real world, and not be drawn into dangling even one foot into a view constructed by the imagination of numerous bourgeois professionals. In the modern bourgeois era, much of astronomical science, as with history, economics and to some extent biology and anthropology is a product of imagination, speculation and assertion. Theories are too often tested by the best argument or the most influential contender, rather than observation and experiment. Even with observation and experiment what is often proposed are unproven hypotheses presented as theoretical facts. Observations can be selected in order to fit the theoretical framework preferred by the observer – and in too many cases they are! That is until they are exposed as nothing more than self-serving, plausible fictions.
Far too many so-called scientific assertions when seriously examined are also nothing more than functional myths. That is to say myths that conserve the ‘status quo’ and thus serve a very definate social, professional or political function. In addition, as Thomas Khun broadly observed (in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’) most scientists absorb and conserve the paradigms and theories learned as students and maintain them despite the fact they may no longer serve the originally intended purpose due to contradictory evidence. At a certain point a revolution in thinking becomes necessary as well as a revolution in practice. But of course, as in other realms, (such as economics and politics) not all those employed in these fields are open to new evidence. So I suggest it is best that we develop a healthy scepticism and keep our ‘crap detectors’ well tuned.
Roy Ratcliffe (April 2016)