What the heck is time, part 2!


An eternal rumination: Last week, in this brief report, we said we'd offer some detail about a famous statement by Augustine.

The statement is almost two thousand years old. In a conversation with Ezra Klein for the New York Times, Dean Buonomano recalled it thusly:

BUONOMANO (12/13/22): So all animals exist in time, of course. And they have to anticipate and interact with other beings on other—their conspecifics and predators and prey. But humans are unique in our ability to represent time and to have a conceptualization of time, of long, temporal periods, to make cause-and-effect relationships between now and one year from now.

So while humans have the ability to conceptualize time, that’s sort of what gives us the ability to have this discussion of, What is the nature of time? What’s the difference between past, present, and future? So this ability that humans have to conceptualize time, I think, is what makes Homo sapiens sapien. It’s what makes us wise.

But at the same time, we’re not very good at it. We know what we mean by time, but it’s something we’re still struggling to understand. There’s the famous quote by Saint Augustine, which is translated various ways. But the gist of it is, if you don’t ask me what time is, I know what it is. If you ask me what it is, I do not know.

So we struggle to define time. And so that’s what I mean, that the brain didn’t evolve to understand not only time, the nature of time, but a lot of things, including the fundamental nature of the universe.

Buonomano is a professor of neurobiology and psychology at UCLA. Klein is on the very bright end among still youngish American journalists.

That said, their discussion of, let's say, "the nature of time" may seem to make little sense. We're going to blame that on the philosophers—on the academics who walked away from the later Wittgenstein's work.

To be honest, the later Wittgenstein was highly inarticulate. He simply wasn't very good at explaining what he was talking about in his various rambling discussions. 

In part for that reason, the professional philosophical establishment has tended to walk away from his work, even as they sometimes name him the most important philosopher of the 20th century. In this piece for the New York Times, Professor Horwich offered an unflattering portrait of his academic colleagues—an unflattering account of the reason why they decided to ditch the later Wittgenstein's work.

With the holidays drawing on, we'd still like to address the question of Augustine's famous presentation, which we'll paraphrase thusly:

What is time? If no one asks me, I know. If someone asks me, I don't.

People still like to monkey around with that rumination, balking at the chance to answer the eternal question: What the heck is time? 

As happenstance has it, Wikipedia is able to offer an answer to that question. Its answer starts like this, then continues slowly from there:

"Time is the continued sequence of existence and events that occurs in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, into the future."

So Wikipedia somewhat clumsily has it! Possibly by way of contrast, Buonomano may almost seem to be puzzling over these questions:

"What is the nature of time? What’s the difference between past, present, and future?"

What’s the difference between past, present, and future? Like everyone else, we can answer that one:

When we talk about the past, we're talking about events which have already happened. 

When we talk about the present, we're talking about events which are happening now, more or less as we speak. When we talk about the future, we're talking about events which haven't happened yetevents which may yet happen.

In the most obvious sense, that's the difference between the past, the present and the future. On its face, that doesn't seem especially hard. 

In fairness, that may not be what Buonomano means. But it seems to us that what he and Klein mean is never enormously clear, as is routinely the case with these "philosophical" discussions.

Buonomano is a ranking neuroscientist. By any conventional measure, Klein is very smart.

It's also true that the logicians have long since walked off their posts, with discernible results. 

The later Wittgenstein's jumbled work remains well worth discussing. We may return to this task, and to the conversation between Buonomano and Klein, as the days crawl by.

[Offered so we won't have to discuss this morning's Morning Joe.]


  1. "It's also true that the logicians have long since walked off their posts, with discernible results."

    This is not a question for logicians.

    The past, the present and the future are all mental representations that exist in our consciousness. Unlike most other species, we are able to examine such mental representations, manipulate them and compare them in our working memory. In addition to these representations of time, we can think about things that have never existed (fantasy), form images of prototypes that are named using language (the typical apple for example), conceive of ideals (our better self, angels, abstracts such as freedom or beauty). All of these are properties of our ability to form representations and manipulate them in consciousness.

    The people who study this are not neuroscientists or journalists either. They are cognitive psychologists and cogntive scientists.

    If you study philosophy, you can find out what people have thought about such concepts as time, but it won't tell you anything about time itself.

    Somerby's odd way of thinking about domains of knowledge and disciplines leads him to write essays that mean nothing and say nothing. If all he is trying to do is avoid discussing TV, no problem, but what a sad waste of everyone's time! You would think that someone who wants to think about time might actually read something useful on the topic. There are several books available titled "The Psychology of Time," and this interesting article comes up when you google psychology of time:


    1. Why did you say "Unlike most other species"? Do you know of any other species at all that can perform the mental feats you discuss?

    2. It is unclear whether primates, dolphins, elephants can do this. For some species it is hard to know what they are thinking because they cannot talk and we cannot devise good ways of testing them. For example, comparative psychologists (who study animals) are reassessing the intelligence of cats because someone devised better ways of testing them and is showing they can do what dogs do, just often choose not to. Even babies are hard to test, but we know what they can do because they grow up to be adult humans. So, leaving the door open.


  2. "When we talk about the past, we're talking about events which have already happened."

    So then, dear Bob, when nothing happens, there's no time; time does not pass?

    1. That would be true. However, in a certain perspective, the idea of nothing is actually something.

  3. Maher did a fairly good monologue
    about brands that retain their names
    (History Chanell, etc.) but now do
    something other than what they did.
    Something perhaps for Bob to

  4. The other day someone on here asked about where to buy "fanny worms." I think I just might know where...

  5. "In our appraisal, almost everything you currently hear on blue cable is being embellished or manipulated in some tribally pleasing way."

    This is the way things must sound to someone who has immersed himself in Fox Cable. Somerby is recognizing the contrast between what he hears on the right and the mainstream news, but the mainstream news is not the left. It is at most Center Left (see the Media Bias Chart here: https://adfontesmedia.com/). Somerby calls this "blue cable" but that is a misnomer. There is no hyperpartisan cable on the left that balances Fox News, Newsmax and OAN on the right. Anything that is not the right is by definition the left, in Somerby's mind, but there is still a large media that attempts to be non-partisan and strives to be as objective as is humanly possible. Somerby does not acknowledge that and simply labels everything left of Carlson, blue cable.

    It is understandable that anything non-Carlson is going to be tribally unpleasing to the right. That doesn't make it leftist or tribally pleasing to the left. Much of the left considers the centrists to be majorly unpleasing. To the extent that cable reflects a more centrist view, it is NOT tribally pleasing to progressives or even old-style liberals, no matter how unpleasing it is to Somerby and his right wing comrades.

    Somerby shoves his dichotomy down our throats daily. It is incorrect, but he doesn't care and he doesn't read his comments, so he doesn't have to address criticisms either. Who evades criticism like that? Only Somerby and Donald Trump -- who also doesn't care what is said on the left where it is all lies, fake news. Somerby is expressing his own view that the left (anything not Carlson) is peddling tribally pleasing fake news, and it is no surprise that it is the same view as Republicans everywhere indulge in. Anything not pleasing to them must be fake.