Re: The meaning of time

Devi Jankowicz (
Sat, 7 Jun 97 22:03:03 +0100

Esteban Laso raises the fascinating question:

>My question is: what do we mean when talking about _time_?
>I have something in mind. We talk about _the_ past, not the past _events_;
>and _the_ past is a far more comprehensive construct that _the things that
>already had been_. Are we using a construct based on _what we can remember_
>against _what we cannot remember_? Or is it _what is likely to have been
>(because it would explain the things we see now) _ vs. _what is
>unbelievable to have happened_?
>These are only vague ideas. I would like to get your answers to throw
>lights on the subject. (It's a very dark and cloudy one, I know!)

Here's a few thoughts, in no particular order.

Since we create events by snipping out those bits of the phenomenal flow
which our construct systems indicate might be useful, the present would
seem to involve a more precise and in-the-near-future testing out of our
construing than does the past. The entities which lie in the past are
somehow more fuzzy and open to testing in a less precise way than the
present, I guess. (Notice I'm not distinguishing between the
present-out-there, and my memory of the past-in-here, when I think about
the testing which construing, by definition, involves.)

Talk of time involves talk of memory. In this context, you might find a
cybernetic model of memory useful. Psychological models of the memory
process use a locational-storage metaphor, and explore the properties of
the input process, repository mechanisms, and retrieval process. In
contrast, there's a cybernetic model based on the idea of the person as a
Finite Automaton (pardon the last word, it's just a handy label with no
particular value statements intended).

The finite automaton is an information-processing system with the
property that its present state is specified by its immediately previous
state, together with an intervening input. (A state is defined as a
particular set of values taken by the set of all elements which
constitute the system; if one or more of the elements were to take
different values, we'd have a different state.) At the simplest level, if
we apply this model to a human being, we can begin to talk about the way
in which a construct system at time (t) is the product of a construct
system at time ( t minus 1) together with what has happened in between.

Now, in Finite Automata theory it is possible to understand memory, not
as a location for storage, but in terms of the history of the
input-state relationship. The present system is a product of history: the
product of previous input-state combinations, and so memory exists in the
sense that the system _is in_ a particular state now, rather than in any
of the other states it might have been with different prior state-input

A very simple model, I grant you, but it does make it easy to model the
"alternate-worlds" debate nicely. Another problem is that it doesn't
account for our experience of being able to recall, i.e. address
representations of previous states from within our present state. To do
so, you'd need to model the present system as including internal
representations of bits of its previous states among its elements. ( It's
a long time since I learnt any cybernetics actively, but I would guess
that someone in that field should have developed this by now. ) At any
rate, it does allow us to get away from the locational model of memory as
a box in one's head...

Kind regards,

Devi Jankowicz