What is time, Augustine asked!


We plan to answer his question: We spotted the sign at the World Cup match. "Allez les bleus," the sign said.

Inevitably, it called Steve Martin's observation to mind. "Those French," Martin famously said. "They have a different word for everything!"

This brings us to the discussion which broke out at Ezra Klein's site this week. Plainly, it was a "philosophical" discussion. At one point, it went like this:

KLEIN (12/13/22): You write in the book, “The human brain did not evolve to understand or to experience a true nature of time.” Tell me what you mean by that.

BUONOMANO: 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.

Klein was speaking with Dean Buonomano, a professor of neurobiology and psychology at UCLA. We'll let Klein offer a thumbnail:

KLEIN: My guest today is Dean Buonomano. He’s a professor of neurobiology and psychology at UCLA. And his book, “Your Brain Is a Time Machine”—what a great name—it gets at these two levels of time, the time that we experience and the time that exists, as best we understand it, outside of our experience.

This is one of those conversations, one of those topics that at times—ha, ha—you might feel like you’ve taken a handful of mushrooms. Because it’s weird. Ultimate reality, to the extent there is such a thing, is weird.

Ultimate reality is weird! To some extent, so are discussions in which we humans are said to be "wise" due to our ability to have a discussion about "the difference between past, present and future."

Eventually, it had to be said! Augustine had to be quoted:

BUONOMANO (continuing directly from above): 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 said Augustine, regarding time. Almost two thousand years have crawled past, and we humans are still puzzling about this.

The later Wittgenstein offered some basic approaches to such never-ending conundrums. According to Professor Horwich, the academy decided to walk away from this helping hand.

Regarding the question, "What is time?" we'll plan to suggest an approach to such conundrums in a very special Saturday morning session. Regarding that specific question, we'll offer an instant spoiler:

With that, as with many such questions, the start to an answer might go something like this:

What is time? I'm not quite sure what you mean.


  1. Tsk. It's an illusion, dear Bob.

  2. Wittgenstein offered ideas about language not time. Somerby never discusses the responses to Wittgenstein by more recent philosophers. He relies on Horwich for his discussion of the reaction to Wittgenstein, and also assumes Wittgenstein was right, that he upended philosophy and mooted everyone elses’s work. He didn’t and Somerby’s nihilism is unjustified.

    Psychologists study the subjective experience of time. Their empirical findings are not the same as philosophical work, but that is nothing new either. Somerby is ignorant on that topic.

  3. Augustine’s actual words were:

    Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio.

  4. "With that, as with many such questions, the start to an answer might go something like this:

    What is time? I'm not quite sure what you mean."

    If empirical researchers waited around for the right definitions, they wouldn't be able to study anything. That isn't how science works. You define your topic operationally (by the way you observe and measure it), and then let your results tell you what time is and how it works in people's minds and behavior. Philosophers spend all of their time haggling over definitions and never actually study time at all. Meanwhile, time keeps passing -- "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives."

    1. tsal si ton syawla tsal. emit si ecaps dna ecaps si emit.