Notes on Time, Language, and Thought

Bethany Keffala
Serendip/SciSoc Group
Summer 2006

When I began my research this summer, I didn't really know what, exactly, I was looking for. I had a vague idea about studying the connection between time and consciousness, working off of an idea from my freshman year. I will sum up that idea here, just to try and make things as clear as possible.

The idea came out of a conflict between a Physics lecture and a Language Working Group conversation, and drew partially on the c-sem I had taken during the previous semester dealing with stories and science and perception. In the Physics lecture, we discussed time as a line, and the idea of time/space being relative, but the idea with the most force was thinking of time in a spatial matter: that is just how we seem to operate, thinking of time as a sort of spatial dimension (think time travel/memory/long time/short time). The LWG discussion centered around, if I remember correctly, the examination of a sort of computer program, and the key part from this was the idea of having no past and no future, per se, but instead the existence of a single state, which one could call the present. Within this state are all possible inputs and all possible outputs. We could say for example, that state X could have been produced by these inputs, 1,2,3, which are all outputs of these possible states, W,Y,Z, which could have been produced by these inputs, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc. etc. In the same vein, X can produce the possible outputs 8,9,10, which can produce states A,B,C, which can produce outputs 11, 12, 13, 14, etc.

<< had a diagram here, but is not working in post>>

My problem was that time could not both be linear AND be only the present state with no past and no future. My idea was that in the unconscious mind, time is much like the input/state/output setup from the LWG discussion, and that the conscious mind looks down, in a sense, on the unconscious, and perceives a linear process. This is reminiscent of an idea from the book Flatland, in which a triangle travels from his two dimensional plane to one dimensional, three dimensional, and four dimensional planes. He is at first very reluctant to accept the possibility of a plane to have anything other than 2 dimensions, until he actually visits the alternate planes. If one is able to look at a plane from an added dimension, one sees an expanded version of what is in the plane itself. This way of looking at things is definitely not our usual, simple, linear approach. My sense is that memory and predictive capability both play a role in our being able to see a line where there is a dot. I think Paul wants to call this story-telling, and that's cool with me. This may be getting too speculative, but I think that it is also very interesting that the part of the brain that we think may be responsible for conscious or self-reflective thought is the neo-cortex. If we consider the rest of the central nervous system to be the unconscious mind, of sorts, and view the neo-cortex as the addition of another dimension, then this would provide the set up needed for us to take a state and see it as a line with past/present/future.

Problems I'm having

how do I actually go about trying to prove or support this?
A lot of reading I've done had to do with non-human primates, or memory, or both, or well-known theories on time (like block theory), and then I started getting into possible linguistic/anthropological help. (see below: Aymara, Maori)

Also, we run into a problem similar to that of Zeno's paradox in which it is suggested that movement is an illusion. The occurrence of this problem for time is very interesting as this paradox is of a spatial nature. Zeno's paradox constitutes walking a certain distance. One takes a step, but, as a part of this step, one must move a smaller distance (which goes into the larger distance of the step), but there is also a smaller distance that is a part of the first smaller distance, and so on. The distances one must travel in the paradox get smaller and smaller and smaller, infinitely so, and in the end, one cannot move at all.
For time, the problem is identifying the present moment. How long is a moment? Is there a smallest unit, like an atom? If not, we could theoretically infinitely split the moment and get nowhere, just like with distance in Zeno's paradox. When does one moment become the next? Using states to identify moments may be a useful tool, but then how do we identify a state? This may not be important quite yet, but I think it is something that will need to be answered eventually if this idea is going to be worthwhile at all.

During a talk with Paul about this way of thinking about thinking about time, he mentioned that he liked that the model wasn't deterministic in either the past or the future, meaning that it is recognizable that the present state could be achieved from many different past paths. For some reason, though, this bothers me, and I really feel like the past is more concrete than the future, though I'm not sure how to represent that in this model, or that I even should represent that, and leave it open to interpretation. It seems that, even though our memories are just constructs, there tends to be a certain cohesiveness that doesn't hold for speculation about the future. Say that a group of people watch a block falling from a building. If we take their current states and look at the states leading up to that state, would we see that they are all watching the block fall? If we see this, does this mean that this past path is more valid, than, I don't know, saying that person number two was a fluffy crocodile that was bungee-jumping off a spaceship when all of a sudden it turned into a person and saw a block fall with four others? There must be that setup step; the closer we get to the present state, the fewer options we have to get there. The spectrum is narrowed as we approach the present state. I think its also probably narrowed on the other side, with future possible states, and this is where I think the future spectrum should be wider, at least immediately, than the past spectrum. But I don't know if this is irrational.

Using language to identify how we think about time both consciously/unconsciously?:

An article on Aymara linguistic (cultural, too?) approach to time, with brief mention of Maori. Thoughts on Maori stated here are from my own experiences in New Zealand.,,1423455,00.html

Aymara speakers have switched the orientation of the line for time. Most western language speakers consider time to be oriented with the past behind and the future ahead, but Aymara expressions and conversations with native Aymara speakers have lead linguists to believe that Aymara speakers consider the future to be oriented behind them and the past in front of them. The Maori cultural concept of time is also different from the frequent western conceptualization. This is perhaps less linguistic, but more anthropological evidence, though the Aymara article suggests that there may be linguistic evidence as well. (This is working off of traditional Maori beliefs and customs, which have a place in current society, but many aspects or realizations are now quite different.) As a part of the Maori belief system, time is considered to be a circular process. This is very much a part of their concept of whakapapa, which can be loosely translated as family tree, but is much much more complicated than our notion of a family tree. Everything in the universe is connected in whakapapa, and this lends itself to a heightened feeling of connection between the past present and future. Decisions made by those in charge were heavily affected by considerations for future generations. Those in the present considered themselves as stewards of resources for future generations. Will try to add more in this vein soon.

The last thing I was working on was trying to come up with evidence for though being separate from language.

I can think in pictures, or in emotions, or memories. I can imagine with no words. What about when you hear music in your head but can't remember how the lyrics go? Or thinking about music that doesn't have words? What about concentrating on the noise of your alarm? Or visualizing a lemon, with its shape, texture, smell. One doesn't have to think lemon to conjure that construct. Lemon in English and citron in French both represent the same thing. I think this gets into Saussure and the arbitrariness of the sign, but I think it is a valid place to go. Let's imagine we had lemons before we had speech. Just because we didn't have the word lemon, does that mean we couldn't conceptualize a lemon? If so, then I guess that really sucks for hunter/gatherers who had to look for certain types of food and remember, hey, this is poisonous, or, hey, that has horns and charges when you try to chase it. What about dogs who get depressed when their owners leave? Dogs don't have language, but it seems they can conceptualize that someone who is usually there is not there now, or at the very least that something is different. What about babies before they learn language? What about trying to put our thoughts into words? What about trying to explain a concept for which English (for example) doesn't have a term?

Aside from my own intuitions, I recommend the following chapter from Donna Jo Napoli's book, Language Matters: Does Language Equal Thought? Her points include: analyzing several interactions between young children/ children and adults that do not involve either spoken or signed language; the case of Genie, a girl who was isolated during the normal language acquisition period and robbed of human interaction/linguistic input but who, when she learned (temporarily and with great applied effort) some very rudimentary language skills was able to describe things that had happened to her in the past, before she had the ability to linguistically recount anything; words in one language that cannot be translated without much explanation in another; and several other pieces of evidence.

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