The enigma of time solved

Two schools? No time…

Time is one of our most enigmatic root concepts. The difficulty of grasping it has created two clearly divided schools of thought. The first sees time as a simple order of succession. No reference to the present or to an observer. One event is limited to being anterior or subsequent to another. The second school sees time as a passage. Each event transits from the present to the past while the next one transits from the future to the present. This passage supposing an observer, this dynamic of time would be linked to our subjectivity.

Unfortunately, each of these two schools faces insurmountable difficulties in eliminating the other. The school of ‘passing time’ stumbles on the paradox of ancestrality: the universe, 13.7 billion years old, has done without humanity and even the living for most of its history. If time is subjective, how did it pass before our appearance? As Étienne Klein says, “To confine time to the subject, or to want time to have only subjective reality, is it not to forbid oneself from explaining the appearance of the subject in time? »

The school of ‘time-sequence’ struggles to identify the engine of time. It is not unique to our human subjectivity. Even in fundamental physics, every moment of an experiment replaces the previous one, and quantum and relativistic models do not say why. The impasse refers to Henri Bergson’s question: “How can the successive be generated by juxtaposed?“ or that of Lee Smolin: “When we graphically represent a movement in space, time is represented as if it were just another spatial dimension. Time is like frozen. […] We would have to find a way to unfreeze time, to represent it without transforming it into space. »

Concept lost in the machine gun

Étienne Klein then regrets that we disperse our qualifiers about time, that we lose the concept in a “verbal machine gun“. Time is ’empty’ when nothing happens there, ‘accelerated’ by the rhythm of our lives, ‘cyclical’, ‘psychological’ which would be an alternative time to that of watches, ‘biological’, ‘geological’, ‘cosmological’. Not to mention the multiple senses of time in everyday language: instant, moment, succession, simultaneity, change, becoming, duration, urgency, waiting, speed, wear, aging, and even money.

On the contrary, I believe that this dispersion is a very valuable indication of what time is. Instead of trying to lock it in a single box, should we not give back ownership to each entity that experiences it? Isn’t the problem to seek to take power over time when it is the intrinsic property of each system in relation? It is remarkable that humans who are entirely lay on the question of time manage to agree very well on what it is, without discussing it for a second. Each bathed in a personal time quite close to the neighbor. An agreement is only needed on how to measure it, setting our watches identically. No need to validate the concept. Only twisted philosophers 🙂 need to recreate such an elementary impression from… what, by the way? They themselves know nothing about it.

A subjective time tagged on the real

In fact, it is by beginning by defining the notion of time intrinsic to human experience, by exteriorizing ourselves from it, that we began to look for it in matter. We tagged our virtual impression on its real foundations, as if they were directly connected. When Newton named “t” this equivalent of our time experienced in his equations of motion, he could have called it “s” for ‘succession’, and then the independence of these times would have been clear from the outset. But Newton marks the rise of reductionism, of the subservience of scientists to micro-mechanisms. From then on our time proved became a wobbly reflection, distorted by our mind, of a universal time that must necessarily belong to the foundation of matter. By wanting to inject our time that passes into the origin, it has come back to us terribly mutated and we no longer recognize it.

Every material, biological, psychic, social system makes its own time. None is really calculable from the others. At most, they can be correlated approximately. They lengthen as they climb the scale of complexity. Everything happens as if the times were nestled in each other. The frenzy of particles is hosted by the impavidity of the atom. The permanent excitement of neural networks is hidden in the dragging boredom of a banal day for the psyche.

What is a unit of time?

Physics tells us that there is no other unit of time than that of an elementary interaction in a system. What separates two states is a multitude of other relationships experienced at a more microscopic level of the system. If we reduce this separation to the tiniest level currently known, it becomes unfathomable, replaced by a law, a kind of bridge thrown between the two states without knowing what is crossed. Shouldn’t it be assumed that there are still relationships in this place rather than nothing? Nothing is much more peremptory than the possibility that there is something.

From these times nestled in each other nothing universal comes out. And until then, if we make sequences superimposed on each other, nothing makes these times engines either. Time still does not pass, in any of the levels of complexity.

Passing by surpassing

But that’s forgetting one essential thing: we’re not just one of these systems, we’re all of them at once. We are not particles and atoms and cells and a brain. We are each of these things on top of the previous, indissoluble of it. Surimposition , not superposition.

How do the times of all these levels intertwine together to produce our conscious impression? How does the time of our particles survive in this experiment? The impression of the passing of time is clearly related to an abysmal shift between the particulate unit of time and the conscious unit of time. In between, a multitude of systems have created their specific stability, called ‘elements’ of the system. A new “duration” of time, fusional, has settled on top. Each time is an approximation of the variations caused by the previous one. Each time is an observer of its own constitution, and recognizes itself changed or not. It defines itself in a modified state or not, as past or not.

Two consciousnesses, two times

Let us take two examples of consciousness, one very extensive temporally, because it includes long-term projects, many predictions, the other narrowed on the present, very little informed of what will happen. The first experiences a feeling of slow time. The weeks drag on because the project is not yet realized, the predictions correctly describe the coming weeks. Consciousness flies over this vast expanse of events. Its identity does not change. Its temporal “flow” is low. Time passes, but it passes slowly.

The second consciousness, prisoner of the present, is surprised at every moment. It encounters few of its confirmed predictions and cannot rely on them. It changes state quickly. Time passes very quickly because the identity of this consciousness cannot be maintained. Two watches set to the same temporal flow will be necessary for these two consciousnesses to make an appointment and talk about a common time. They will adjust their subjective times to the mechanical time of the watches. The lower the scale of complexity, the more similar the times are between systems.


This vision brings together the times not in a “temporal” dimension that would like to merge them into a universal time, but in the complex dimension, which retains their specific identity. Thus our two philosophical schools of departure are reconciled. Time is indeed the property of sequences, but of a multitude of them that surimpose themselves in relative independence. Time passes, as experienced, because the sequences move between them, at their relative interface, and they move differently in each of us, from the disciplined particle to the dissipated consciousness.

The time that passes is the friction between floors of a very high tower of presents.


1 thought on “The enigma of time solved”

  1. Time stands still. It may just as well not exist at all, except in our minds and on our schedules: it is used to measure worth because we have found no other useful means of doing so. We get old and die, not on account of it, but because all things wear down and wear out, sooner or later. Downward causation—as with that endless stack of turtles.


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