(1) A linear flow from past through present and into the future. This sense of time allows us to plot things from start to finish, birth to death. It gives us telos-driven thinking, such as Aristotle’s entelechy, where the growth of the acorn tends toward the oak it will become, with the destination, the oak, as the final cause of the acorn’s process of becoming. And it gives us the eschatological religions with a clear endgame for the soul’s voyage.
(2) A cyclical flow of endless recurrence. This sense of time, often associated with the continuous death and rebirth imagery of Eastern religions, gives us patterns, seasonal renewal, do-overs, the possibility of the karmic wheel.
These can be presented as opposites, but also can be presented in a kind of symbiotic tension. Joseph Campbell might well play with both, as one can see the mythic structure of the hero’s journey in both eschatological and cyclical aspects. And myth is a well-suited lens on the concept of time. “Myth,” opines Timothy Leary, “is a report from the cellular memory bank. Myths humanize the recurrent themes of evolution.” And no doubt we have been exposed throughout our evolutionary history to both linear and cyclical patterns in nature.
If you’ll permit me getting a little cosmic about it, both patterns can be related to the journey of the mother ship, planet Earth, which rotates cyclically around the sun, but which is hurtling with the sun and its fellow planets across the universe in a linear path (either out from the Big Bang or back in, depending on our location in the life cycle of the universe). Thus our sense of movement through time is an elegant cognate to the Earth’s movement through space. Space and time lose themselves in a space-time flow. Einstein wins again.
Really, though, if you plot the rotation of the Earth against its linear path away from the Big Bang, the linear and cyclical movements form a spiral in three dimensions. So perhaps it is best for us to view time itself as a spiral. So why do we always hear about “linear” and “cyclical” views of time and never hear about the “spiral” view? We need an advocacy group for the spiral.
Wait! We’re almost there. Now another funny thing happens. Our cosmic spiral still presupposes an absolute reference point, in relation to which we are moving at such-and-such a velocity. But relativity tells us that there is no ground zero, no absolute reference point. Even the Big Bang cannot be plotted to a “point of origin” in space. This conundrum brings us to the third view of time.
(3) Kant philosophized in the late 1700s that time and space had no objective reality but were subjective categories we use to organize an otherwise chaotic flux of experience. He starts at the breaking point of empiricism, which had risen to dominance in the previous century. If your five senses are the fundamental inputs of knowledge, they tell you nothing about the objective world but only about the imprints some presumed world out there makes on our personal sensory registers. Color is not something “out there” but is rather the idiosyncratic way our retina interprets certain wavelengths, etc. Similarly, all our acquired knowledge is based on interpretations made by our own subjective processing plants. So we need subjective ways of organizing the chaotic flux of stimuli, and plotting them into the self-constructed categories of “space” and “time” is our most fundamental organizing strategy.
I am obviously not a scientist and do not offer these three takes as scientific hypotheses. My interest is in the human experience and human conceptions of time. If my astrophysicist friends want to figure out how space and time work in their purely “objective” aspects, let them do the math. I’m sure they will generate many useful ideas along the way. But somewhere deep down, they too emerged from the subjective space of myth, they too are engaged in the hero’s journey. And somewhere along in their figuring, they will have to pass the dragon of the Kantian possibility – that time and space are subjective categories after all. So Joseph Campbell wins this one, with an assist from Kant.