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What is time?

Posted on 13 April 2012, 19:26

Time is the most formidable and difficult problem which confronts humanity.


Kant (below) regards time as he does space: as a subjective form of our receptivity; i.e., he says that we create time ourselves, as a function of our receptive apparatus, for convenience in perceiving the outside world. Reality is continuous and constant, but in order to make possible the perception of it, we must dissever it into separate moments; imagine it as an infinite series of separate moments out of which there exists for us only one. In other words, we perceive reality as if through a narrow slit, and what we are seeing through this slit we call the present; what we did see and now do not see—the past; and what we do not quite see but are expecting—the future.


Regarding each phenomenon as an effect of another, or others, and this in its turn as a cause of a third; that is, regarding all phenomena in functional interdependence one upon another, by this very act we are contemplating them in time, because we picture to ourselves quite clearly and precisely first a cause, then an effect; first an action, then its function; and cannot contemplate them otherwise. Thus we may say that the idea of time is bound up with the idea of causation and functional interdependence. Without time, causation cannot exist, just as without time, motion or the absence of motion cannot exist.

But our perception concerning our “being in time” is entangled and misty up to improbability.

First of all let us analyze our relation toward the past, present and future. Usually we think that the past already does not exist. It has passed, disappeared, altered, and transformed itself into something else. The future also does not exist—it does not exist as yet. It has not arrived, has not formed. By the present we mean the moment of transition of the future into the past, i.e., the moment of transition of a phenomenon from one non-existence into another non-existence. For that moment only does the phenomenon exist for us in reality; before, it existed in potentiality, afterward it will exist in remembrance. But this short moment is after all only a fiction: it has no measurement. We have a full right to say that the present does not exist. We can never catch it. That which we did catch is always the past!

If we are to stop at that we must admit that the world does not exist, or exists only in some phantasmagoria of illusions, flashing and disappearing.

Usually we take no account of this, and do not reflect that our customary view of time leads to utter absurdity.

Let us imagine a stupid traveler going from one city to another and half way between these two cities. A stupid traveler thinks that the city from which he has departed last week does not exist now: only the memory of it is left; the walls are ruined, the towers fallen, the inhabitants have either died or gone away. Also, that city at which he is destined to arrive in several days does not exist now either, but is being hurriedly built for his arrival, and on the day of that arrival will be ready, populated, and set in order, and on the day after his departure will be destroyed just as was the first one.

We are thinking of things in time exactly in this way—everything passes away, nothing returns! The spring has passed; it does not exist still. The autumn has not come; it does not exist as yet.
But what does exist?

The present.

But the present is not a seizable moment; it is continuously transitory into the past.

So, strictly speaking, neither the past, nor the present, nor the future exists for us. Nothing exists! And yet we are living, feeling, thinking—and something surrounds us. Consequently, in our usual attitude toward time there exists some mistake. This error we shall endeavor to detect.

We accepted at the very beginning that something exists. We called that something the world. How then can the world exist if it is not existing in the past, in the present and in the future?

That conception of the world which we deduced from our usual view of time makes the world appear like a continuously gushing out igneous fountain of fireworks, each spark of which flashes for a moment and disappears, never to appear any more. Flashes are going on continuously, following one after another, there are an infinite number of sparks, and everything together produces the impression of a flame, though it does not exist in reality.

The autumn has not yet come. It will be, but it does not exist now. And we give no thought to how that can appear which is not.

We are moving upon a plane, and recognize as really existing only the small circle lighted by our consciousness. Everything out of this circle, which we do not see, we negate; we do not like to admit that it exists. We are moving upon the plane in one direction. This direction we consider as eternal and infinite. But the direction at right angles to it, those lines which we are intersecting, we do not like to recognize as eternal and infinite.

We imagine them as going into non-existence at once, as soon as we have passed them, and that the lines before us have not as yet risen out of non-existence. If, presupposing that we are moving upon a sphere, upon its equator or one of its parallels, then it will appear that we recognize as really existing only one meridian: those which are behind us have disappeared and those ahead of us have not appeared as yet.

We are going forward like a blind man, who feels paving stones and lanterns and walls of houses with his stick and believes in the real existence of only that which he touches now, which he feels now. That which has passed has disappeared and will never return! That which has not as yet been does not exist. The blind man remembers the route which he has traversed; he expects that ahead the way will continue, but he sees neither forward nor backward because he does not see anything; because his instrument of knowledge—the stick—has a definite, and not very great length, and beyond the reach of his stick non-existence begins.


Wundt, (below) in one of his books, called attention to the fact that our vaunted five organs of sense are in reality just feelers by which we feel the world around us. We live groping about. We never see anything. We are always just feeling everything. With the help of the microscope and the telescope, the telegraph and the telephone, we are extending our feelers a little, so to speak, but we are not beginning to see. To say that we are seeing would be possible only in case we could know the past and the future. But we do not see, and because of this we can never assure ourselves of that which we cannot feel.


This is the reason why we count as really existing only that circle which our feelers grasp at a given moment. Beyond that—darkness and non-existence.

But have we any right to think in this way?

Let us imagine a consciousness that is not bound by the conditions of sensuous receptivity. Such a consciousness can rise above the plane upon which we are moving; it can see far beyond the limits of the circle enlightened by our usual consciousness; it can see that not only does the line upon which we are moving exist, but also all lines perpendicular to it which we are intersecting, which we have ever intersected, and which we shall intersect. After rising above the plane this consciousness can see the plane, can convince itself that it is really a plane, and not a single line. Then it can see the past and the future, lying together and existing simultaneously.

That consciousness which is not bound by the conditions of sensuous receptivity can outrun the stupid traveler, ascend the mountain to see in the distance the town to which he is going, and be convinced that this town is not being built anew for his arrival, but exists quite independently of the stupid traveler. And that consciousness can look off and see on the horizon the towers of that city where that traveler had been, and be convinced that those towers have not fallen, that the city continues to stay and live just as it stayed and lived before the traveler’s advent.

It can rise above the plane of time and see the spring behind and the autumn ahead, see simultaneously the budding flowers and ripening fruits. It can make the blind man recover his sight and see the road along which he passed and that which still lies before him.

The past and the future cannot not exist, because if they do not exist then neither does the present exist. Unquestionably they exist somewhere together, but we do not see them.

The present, compared with the past and the future, is the most unreal of all unrealities.

We are forced to admit that the past, the present and the future do not differ in anything, one from another; there exists just one present—the Eternal Now of Hindu philosophy. But we do not perceive this, because in every given moment we experience just a little bit of that present, and this alone we count as existent, denying a real existence to everything else.

If we admit this, then our view of everything with which we are surrounded will change very considerably.

Taken from Tertium Organum by P.D. Ouspensky published by White Crow Books. Available from Amazon and all good online book stores.


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