How does time move in your life? Are you on Arrow Time or Cycle Time?

Time’s Arrow is a conception of time visualized as an arrow. “A metaphor apparently first used by Sir Arthur Eddington in 1927. This conception has not always been the commonsense view; the ancient Greeks, for example, thought that time consisted of a series of cycles, without beginning or end.” (Paul Davies, New Scientist, 11-1-1997, Issue 2106). In Christianity, time has a more linear sense than in Buddhism or Hinduism. Christians believe that if they lead a good life, they will die and go to heaven. “Hinduism believes in the rebirth and reincarnation of souls. In Hinduism, death is a temporary cessation of physical activity, a means of recycling the resources and energy and an opportunity for the jiva (that part which incarnates) to review its programs and policies ( ). Buddhists have a somewhat similar view to Hindus in that they believe only the body dies but the soul seeks out a new form and is born again.

These views of time as either cyclical or linear (an arrow) seem to be more dependent on where we were born or the religion we embrace than on any actual evidence that time goes one direction or another; or for that matter that time even exists except in our minds. The way we approach the world in Western society appears to be very different than in Eastern societies with a more cyclical view of life. Throughout our lives, we bounce between these two views of time. We live by circadian rhythms but we measure our time in a linear fashion until retirement and old age. We laugh at the inevitable cycles of fads and fashions and trends but we watch in dismay as the new generation replaces the old and throws out the culture and traditions we so cherished. We live by clocks where time goes round and round and by calendars where time is as straight as an arrow measuring each of the 365 days in a year that in one year will be replaced by the next year.

What does “time’s arrow” really mean? For most of us, it might seem to be just an abstraction that hardly affects our daily lives unless we stop for a few minutes and reflect on it. Upon reflection, we can see that it actually does have quite a bit of impact. Our economics, politics, governments and health care are built on a conception of time as either cyclical or linear. Each and every one of us is affected by our own personal view of how time progresses. The choices we make and the lives we live are determined by the way we view time. Even our attitude is based on how we perceive time. We view Mondays as very different from Fridays and Saturday and Sunday are quite different days for many of us.

Do you see time as linear and measure it as running out and running down? Or do you see time as a never ending series of cycles that continually repeat? Will you be born again or will you simply die? What if you could change how you saw time? What difference would it make in your life? Would you lead your life any differently?

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. bgalbreath
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 17:23:35

    Saint Augustine said, “What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”

    In modern physics, time is another dimension, not really different from height and width and length, with the exception that we move through the fourth dimension in a steady way that we cannot control or alter, while we can move forward or back or up or down by expending energy. This modern physics suggests to me that the future, and the past, are both there at some position on the temporal line. They do not come into existence when we get to them or pass away when we leave them. The four dimensional space-time continuum is a block that exists, as it were, all at once. On this view, the future is not really indeterminate or contingent, but “already” there. Time's arrow is just our (somehow) moving around in it. In itself, time is neither linear nor cyclical. It just is. If we move in one direction only, we experience time as linear. If we experience things over and over, it strikes us as being a circle (or spiral).

    One old Greek view of time I read about somewhere depicts time as a river flowing under a bridge that we are standing on. I think the more common image is that we stand on the bridge facing the oncoming flow, but this writer, whoever he was, reversed the image. The river flows from our back. We can see downstream, into the past, but cannot see the future, which is coming to us from behind.

    Usually, I see time as linear, but, for some reason, do not see it as running out. Sometimes I am drawn to the stories of multiple lives, rebirths, cycles. Very rarely, I see time from an aspect of eternity, as if from outside, and then time and change disappear and it is as if I am where I have always been and always will be. Most likely, all three ways reflect more my psychology at that moment than anything about the deep structure of reality.



  2. John Persico
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 13:24:55

    Great metaphors Bruce. It keeps me humble to realize how many other perspectives there is on time. I am reading a book now called “The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life” by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd. Love to know what you think of it. When I first started this block, I thought I would run out of metaphors for time but it has not happened yet.



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