TUESDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2022
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 yet—events 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.]