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‘Time’ offers some things to ponder

Thursday, June 7, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:43 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Had a little time on my hands the other day. So I thought I’d think a little about time. It’s a fascinating subject and one that will frustrate what little gray matter you might have. Funny. I had never thought about time before. So I tried to force myself to say what time is. Or what it was or what it will be.

I’ve always just assumed that it was something that “flowed” by, coming in upon me from the past and going on from me into the future. But is that right? Time “passes,” we hear. This is a strange, although common, conception of time.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that time was a stream he went fishing in. That’s the flow-concept of time. The fisherman and the fish were entities “in time” — and yet, time passes. If so, then where is it? And what happens to the timeless fisherman and the fish?

I saw a book the other day called by the heavy title of “The Ontology of Time,” written by a philosopher of time at the University of Michigan named L. Nathan Oaklander. That’s what prompted me to think about time. I couldn’t really understand the technical philosophical terms and concepts used in the book, but it did cause me to think about the subject.

If time flows, does if flow from the future to the present and then to the past? Or does it flow from the past to the present and then to the future? I really can’t answer this question, mainly because I can’t really believe that it flows at all. I see time as static, motionless — more like a lake than a river. We creatures and all world-substances do the moving, the coming and the going. Time stands still.

Time was, is and will be. This cannot be said of anything else. That’s my belief.

At least it is interesting to think about it — but not too much. I am born and have my first experience with time; I die and have my last experience with time.

“Do you have time?” is a meaningless question. This cannot be said of anything else. One doesn’t have time. In a sense, time has us. We slog about in time — in a metaphysical sense of course. Our actions are sequential, of course, and are relative to actions of others. But we cannot talk of time in the past. We have no experience with such time. We are not in the past. Nor can we talk about time in the future, for we have no experience with future time.

And, I was thinking ... perhaps we cannot talk about time in the present or of being in the present time. Why not? Because the present is becoming — part present and part future. Since the present is partly — and changing constantly — the past and also the future, it is not really the present. There is no “is.” Or, we might say, whatever we think “is” is really something else that cannot be described since it is in flux.

Oh well, I’ll get back to more mundane thoughts and actions. But I do find that from time to time (pardon the reference), it is somewhat interesting to think about such esoteric things. We have lots of time around us (some of it spare and some of it prime), but we must not waste it.

Merrill, a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism, has written

and taught around the world and here

in Columbia for more than 25 years.


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