Time, gentlemen, please

Harper Charley SerengetiSpaghetti

Much discussion again over at Language Log over a claim of the form “Language L has no word for concept C”.  This time, it was the claim by Wade Davis (whose strange use of past tense indicates he has forgotten or is unaware that many Australian Aboriginal languages are still in use) that:

In not one of the hundreds of Aboriginal dialects and languages was there a word for time.”

The rebuttal of this claim by Mark Liberman was incisive and decisive.   Davis was using this claim to support a more general argument:  that traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures had different notions of and metaphors for time to those we mostly have in the modern Western world.

We in the contemporary educated West typically use a spatial metaphor for time, where the past is in one abstract place, the present in another non-overlapping abstract place, and the future in yet a third non-overlapping abstract place.    In this construal of time, causal influence travels in one direction only:  from the past to the present, and from the present to the future.   Nothing in either the present  or the future may influence the past, which is fixed and unchangeable.   Events in the future may perhaps be considered to influence the present, depending on how much fluidity we allow the present to have.  However, most of us would argue that it is not events in the future that influence events in the present, but our present perceptions of possible future events that influence events and actions in the present.

Modern Western Europeans typically think of the place that represents the past as being behind them, and the future ahead.   People raised in Asian cultures often think of the abstract place that is the past as being below them (or above them), and the future above (or below).   But all consider these abstract places to be non-overlapping, and even non-contiguous.

Traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures, as Davis argues, construe time very differently, and influences may flow in all directions.   A better spatial metaphor for Aboriginal notions of time would be to consider a modern city, where there are many different types of transport and communications, each viewable as a network:  rivers, canals, roads, bus-only road corridors, railways, underground rail tunnels, underground sewage or water drains, cycleways, footpaths, air-transport corridors, electricity networks, fixed-link telecommunications networks, wireless telecommunications networks, etc.    A map of each of these networks could be created (and usually are) for specific audiences.  A map of the city itself could then be formed from combining these separate maps, overlaid upon one another as layers in a stack.   Each layer describes a separate aspect of reality, but the reality of the actual entire city is complex and more than merely the sum of these parts.  Events or perceptions in one layer may influence events or perceptions in other layers, without any limitations on the directions of causality between layers.

Traditional Aboriginal notions of time are similar, with pasts, the present and futures all being construed as separate layers stacked over the same geographic space – in this case actual geographic country, not an abstract spatial representation of time.  Each generation of people who have lived, or who will live, in the specific region (“country” in modern Aboriginal English) will have created a layer in the stack.   Influence travels between the different layers in any and all directions, so events in the distant past or the distant future may influence events in the present, and events in the present may influence events in the past and the future.

Many religions – for example, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, and African cosmologies – allow for such multi-directional causal influences via a non-material realm of saints or spirits, usually the souls of the dead, who may have power to guide the actions of the living in the light of the spirits’ better knowledge of the future.   Causal influence can thus travel, via such spirit influences, from future to present.  Similarly, the view of Quantum Mechanics of space-time as a single 4-dimensional manifold allows for influences across the dimension of time as well as those of space.

I am reminded of an experience I once witnessed where the only sensible explanation of a colleague’s passionate enthusiasm for a particular future course of action was his foreknowledge of the specific details of the outcome of that course of action.  But these details he did not know and could not have known at the time of his enthusiasm,  prior to the course of action being executed.  In other words, only a causal influence from future to present provided a sensible explanation for this enthusiasm, and this explanation only became evident as the future turned into the present, and the details of the outcome emerged.  Until that point, he could not justify or explain his passionate enthusiasm, which seemed to be a form of madness, even to him.    Contemporary Western cosmology does not provide such time-reversing explanations, but many other cultures do; and current theories of quantum entanglement also seem to.

Contemporary westerners, particularly those trained in western science, have a hard time understanding such alternative cosmologies, in my experience.  I have posted before about the difficulties most westerners have, for instance,  in understanding Taoist/Zen notions of synchronicity of events, which westerners typically mis-construe as random chance.




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