Thursday, July 03, 2008

Linear Vs. Circular Time

The most curious aspect of the scientific world we live in, says science writer Loren Eiseley, is that it exists at all. Westerners often assume a doctrine of Inexorable Progress, as though the mere passage of time leads inevitably to increased knowledge as surely as an acorn becomes an oak. “Yet the archaeologist would be forced to tell us,” says Eiseley, “that several great civilizations have arisen and vanished without the benefit of a scientific philosophy.” The type of thinking known today as scientific, with its emphasis upon experiment and mathematical formulation, arose in one culture – Western Europe – and in no other.

Science, Eiseley concludes, is not “natural to mankind at all. Inquisitiveness about the world is indeed a natural attitude, but institutional science is more than that. “It has rules which have to be learned, and practices and techniques which have to be transmitted from generation to generation by the formal process of education,” Eiseley notes. In short, it is “an invented cultural institution, an institution not present in all societies, and not one that may be counted upon to arise from human instinct.” Science “demands some kind of unique soil in which to flourish.” Deprived of that soil, it is “as capable of decay and death as any other human activity, such as a religion or a system of government.”

What is that unique soil? Eiseley identifies it, somewhat reluctantly, as the Christian faith. “In one of those strange permutations of which history yields occasional rare examples,” he says, “it is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear articulated fashion to the experimental method of science itself.
(The Soul of Science, Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton.)
How then, does the rest of the world think of itself?

It is a huge philosophical shift to go from the more natural counting of time as a repetition of daily hours, days of the week, and seasons of a year to picturing time as always moving forward. Pearcey & Thaxton claim that the idea of an orderly universe was the single greatest contribution of Christianity to the sciences and philosophy: that the universe made some sort of sense, however elusive, and its order could be discovered. Without this, the scientific viewpoint as we know it cannot exist, and indeed, as noted above, never has existed.

I submit that the idea of linear rather than circular time is the foundation of this. Christianity claims that this world and even this universe had a beginning, and with shadowings in the Hebrew scriptures, through a dramatic Revelation to John, this earth will have a definite end. Because many cultures have origin-myths and Gotterdammerung myths, the Christian version may not seem unusual at first. It is easy to take a facile Golden Bough/Joseph Campbell approach and think them all the same. But Genesis has a proto-calendar in it from the start, and its events are located in a specific geography, however uncertain we may be about it now. The Revelation to John has many time-interpretations: the events already happened in the 2nd C; the events have unfolded over 2000 years; the events will take place in a short seven years at the end. But days, years, and definite locations are in the marrow of the book. The Norse Gods will fight the giants at the end of the world, and great heroes from Valhalla will participate – but the time and place are entirely shadowy.

In the Christian world, time may cycle through its weeks and years, but it is always moving forward.

Without this, people are less likely to think in the scientific frame of “this takes X time to complete.” In a circular time frame, the hour from 3am to 4am seems a very different item than 3pm to 4pm, but in linear time, it’s just an hour, same as any other hour. History also looks different, as the idea of development (or deterioration) becomes part of how we see the events around us.

Conceiving of time as moving forward seems so natural to us that we have a hard time recovering the older idea that is still common in many cultures. The days and years move on, we project out what will happen with the economy or climate in 2010 or 2020. May of 2015 is not strongly connected to May of 2018 in our minds. Those times do not “touch.” They are three years apart.

We can get back into the older way of thinking, but it takes some effort. “Every Christmas when I was a boy” is a phrase that has meaning. Those Christmases do touch each other in some way. “Every Thursday at 4,” if we have some regular appointment, or “all the sunsets last week,” if we saw them, touch each other in a nonlinear way. The seasons, the church year, the school year – the cycle of Sabbaths and 6pm dinners and bills due on the 12th of each month are a different type of counting time, natural in its own way.

“In the 17th year of King Arglebargle IV*…” This is not just an ancient Mediterranean way of keeping time, but is found on Mayan and Chinese inscriptions as well. It seems, in fact, to be the default method of recording history. The sense of a series of decades and years that goes on running, not restarting with each new monarch, comes in much later. Even in the book of Genesis, which carries the first glimmers of this idea of progressive time, time is not measured according to any calendar except a repetition of years. This one lived 200 years and that one lived 300, but nothing is going anywhere. God opens out an idea of long-future descendants to Abraham, but it is described entirely in terms of his narrow clan.

This is more than an interesting curiosity. It is not just some quaint way that other cultures see things that it is fun to contemplate as a multicultural exercise. When we try to answer to ourselves why do these other nations act as they do, it is important to step into their mindset. Imagine for a moment the feeling of being in a culture where this is the only time that is. There is a cycle of hours in each day, days in each week, seasons and a series of festivals in each year, and that’s all there is. The only glimmer of anything outside this series of hamster wheels is your own passing through stages of life and passing life on to the next group – a cycle in itself – or the imposed cycle of rulers. There is no progress of time overriding those things. None of it is going anywhere. Earth is just a place where things go around for awhile, and then maybe you go to another place. You are only a player in a drama that keeps repeating, like living in a full-time Oberammergau Festival. You don’t have much value as an individual. Your family continues existence, or your clan, or your tribe, and that’s the only contribution you make.

It is both comforting and depressing to contemplate that life. One’s life might only have meaning in reference to the survival of the larger group, but that’s at least something. I find it difficult to conceive of a life in circular time as anything but clan or tribe-centered. They seem to go together naturally. There isn’t much point in putting your energy into anything that doesn’t benefit you or your clan pretty immediately. You might fix a car, but why invent one? Why study diseases of plants grown in the next county, even if it would make the area prosperous? These are not either/or propositions, of course. Clan-based societies certainly have their sciences (though technology might be a more accurate term), and people in our forward-time, progress-seeking cultures in the west don’t orient all their actions toward posterity.

Discuss: Put this specifically into the context of foreign relations, and trying to spread democracy (or technology, or prosperity) throughout a region. Things that seem like obvious progress and advantage to us do not seem so to others.

*What’s that from?

10 comments:

james said...

The Norse climax of history always struck me as despairing. It was linear but hopeless; and hope is also a part of science.

Gringo said...

Another Christian influence on the growth of science was that in contrast to other religions, scientists in Europe sought out the order of God in the universe. Arbitrary Allah or the pragmatism of China did not supply the metaphysical motivation to seek out order in God's universe.

I say this as one who has never been a churchgoer. Give credit where credit is due.

Chris said...

"...pity stayed his hand. 'It's a pity I've run out of bullets'"

I'll admit, I had to look it up. Well played, sir, well played.

David said...

1)Rodney Stark makes a similar argument in his book "The Victory of Reason."

2)Interesting question: If a family from a circular-time culture moves to a linear-time culture, how many year..or generations..does it take for the sense of time to change?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think the linear time concept is an add-in more than a true replacement, as we do keep a lot of circular time even in our culture. Because of that, I think it kicks in gradually from the moment you hit our shores.

Carl said...

Great post. I've avoided your question while asking one of my own. It echoes gringo's comment, which I read only now.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Idiot. A couple of other results of the linear/Western/Judeo-Christian idea of time:

--The idea of time as a commodity: "Time is money," billable hours, and so on.

--Promptness and keeping a schedule. When I lived in Ghana, local people who wanted others to be prompt would say something like, "We will meet at ten o'clock--European time, not African time."

Both ways of thinking about time will work in interpersonal terms, but only one will lead to science.

Ben David said...

Sorry to break up the Judeo-Christian thing, but... Jewish time is cyclical.

In the story of Lot being saved from Sodom, he is described as baking matzah for the angels. The Rabbis explain that it was Passover time - centuries before the Exodus.

In other words, this season already had a character to it - potential for redemption and rebirth.

Almost all Jewish observances involve actually re-enacting a previous historical event, at its time of year - Hanuka candles, dwelling in a tabernacle, eating matzah, and others.

Look at the blessing recited when lighting Hanuka candles:

"Blessed art thou, oh Lord... who did miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time."

"in those days, at this time" - recited just before one physically re-enacts the lighting of the candelabrum in the Temple.

Cyclical - or more precisely, helical as there is forward progress as the world is perfected. But every season has its potential and character, to which we return.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Ben David, I don't disagree, and I liked your helical idea. The Christian calendar is much the same, being focused mainly on the cyclical nature, with lesser emphasis given to the forward movement of time. We are also geared toward re-enactment (the Eucharist, Holy Week) rather than simple remembrance, though less intensely than in the Passover celebration.

The use of the BC/AD marking of years is not that separated in time from the Jewish use of AM.

Jewish genealogy and history had parallels in ancient times, but had a different sense of continuity. Other cultures traced their elites back to gods or goddesses, and the figures in the between times were of importance only to that goal. In Jewish regard of the past, the intervening characters, even some humble ones, had importance of their own, and played a part in the unfolding drama. And it is in Daniel, and Ezekiel, and Isaiah that the idea comes in that this whole history is going somewhere, not just endlessly 'round and 'round.

Anonymous said...

* From L. Sprague deCamp's short story about Gonad the Barbarian