The Arrow of Time And Other Stories

We live in a materialistic world and one feature of materialism is that we have come to believe that we can control everything.

That we are –

Top of the pile.

Smart as a whip.

The boss of the world.

And we are.

It’s true.

But clever as we are we can’t stop the arrow of time.  We don’t even fully understand it.

Time passes and we can slow down its effects (and even try to paint over the cracks and give the appearance of time not having passed over us for quite as long as it has) but it makes no difference – the arrow of time will get us all in the end.  It’ll be – ultimately – what kills us.

But the thing about the arrow of time is that it is also changing our psychological and emotional worlds along with our physical world.  As we change, as we collect experiences and memories and ideas – even if magically nothing else was to change – everything changes.  If you change one ingredient in a cake you will make a difference to the cake – that’s just a fact.

Because we are moving in time, growing and learning (however imperfectly) just by being in the world, we change.  This means an interaction we have today will – by definition – be slightly different (at least) to one we had yesterday – because we have changed.

The arrow of time only moves forward and as it moves it brings change.  There are ways in which this change brings greater and greater disorder (entropy) – our poor old bodies will testify to that.  But the arrow of time and the change that it brings also has the capacity to bring greater and greater order – but for that to happen there needs to be synchrony.

A flock of birds or a shoal of fish moving in unison are not following orders or even keeping to a choreographed sequence – they are responding to the movement all around – a predator, a neighbour, a gust of wind, a branch – they respond to the change in their environment – whether large or small. They are sensitive and responsive to change not because they are thrill-seekers or love change itself, but because moving in synchrony with the world around them (including their fellow birds and fish) is their best chance of survival.

These birds and animals respond to change instinctually – our problem is that when we let our instincts rule we are inclined to avoid change.  Any change. We tend not to like it – mainly I think because we feel it will makes our lives difficult.  Even though we know, in theory, that change might actually be a good thing, we still avoid it because it makes us tourists in our lives – and that makes us nervous.

The thing about change – even positive change is that for us human beings to really deal with change we have to do the opposite to animals – we have to come off auto-pilot and pay attention.

In other words – we have to think.

And we don’t love thinking, because thinking is hard.

But it may be easier than suffering the consequences of not thinking.

Today, in spite of the fact that information has never been so readily available and easily accessible, we are less and less able to think for ourselves and this is most definitely leading to entropy not synchrony. The solution is to get into the habit of thinking for ourselves.

Maybe it’s time we took philosophy back from the drunks and academics?


  1. If you found yourself standing naked and alone in a forest, knowing only that your survival for the next several weeks would be entirely in your hands…what would you ‘think’ about? And/or what would you do without first giving it any thought?

    Given those circumstances, I suspect you might be find philosophical issues somewhere near the bottom of your list.

    In other words, thoughts and/or actions (or lack thereof) are almost entirely a function of circumstance. If you are sitting safely at home, with no (immediate) concern for food, clothing, shelter, security, etc., then there’s almost no limit to what you can think about…or imaginably do. Including absolutely nothing at all…at least for awhile.

    And the point? Simply this: Speculation, whether philosophical or practical, is situationally shaped. For example, a gathering of Greeks drinking wine under a grape arbor might easily entertain thoughts quite ‘unthinkable’ by a small group of starving Africans walking through a barren landscape for several days trying to reach a UN refugee camp.

    Just a thought…about ‘flocking’ or not, and how that relates to the ‘generalization’ of thinking. 😉

    1. I am delighted that you brought this up, William! I spent ages dithering about using the word philosophy and eventually decided it was the correct word but that – as I tried to suggest – it has been hijacked by academics and drunks.

      OK – Can we discuss the naked and alone in a forest scenario for a minute? So the first thing that would (in all likelihood) happen is that all my adaptive instincts would go into overdrive. I would suddenly be super-focused on survival and indeed I should be – this is not the time for me to sit under a tree and have a think (uncomfortable as well, I imagine, given the lack of clothing and the average forest floor – but anyway…) – I need to act and find ways to survive my forest experience. I imagine the first thing I’d do is start walking. So, there I am trudging through a forest – which I hope is in a warmer climate than Ireland – when suddenly, I come to a clearing where under a tree I find a disheveled, crying baby.

      At first I’m glad because I figure there must be adults with the baby – so I run around for a while searching for people – to no avail. Now, my adaptive instincts are telling me I am going to have difficulty finding my way out of the forest. I have nothing. No food, weapons, clothes etc – in terms of my survival it makes the most sense if I leave the baby where he is – I’m not sure I can save myself and I tell myself that he surely has parents who will come looking for him and that he’ll be ok and even if he isn’t OK if I add having to carry and protect and find food for a baby it will slow me down and reduce my own chances of survival – and then both of us will die. So what do I do?

      I have no way of knowing what I would do in these circumstances – I figure I’d take the baby with me as life has convinced me that not being able to live with your actions is a fate worse than death – but who knows – maybe my amygdala would win. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I am totally the boss of my adaptive instincts. But my only point is that this ‘thinking’ process I would have to enter into is, I think, actually philosophical. And one which (as far as we know) other inhabitants of the planet can’t undertake. If a dog or a lion or a wolf left a strange cub or pup to die because it would endanger him or her to do otherwise, it isn’t blameworthy because they don’t have those other capacities. Is that true of human beings?

      I’m sure you’ve read Viktor Frankl – my understanding of Man’s Search for Meaning is that he was saying (globally) that no matter what your circumstances you always have the freedom to choose what you will do. He seems to be saying that human beings do best when they learn not to be simply driven by their survival instincts. But this requires learning to think and the development of a properly philosophical mind. Not ‘angels dancing on the head of a pin’ type of philosophy but Man’s Search for Meaning type of philosophy. How do we learn to use our huge capacity to think in order to inform how we act- as a philosophy.

      Maybe the problem with philosophy – and even the idea of thinking – is that they have come to be seen as opposite to action rather than complementary. Either we act or we think.

      And as for it being generalised – that is necessarily true in a way but that’s like saying there’s no point in learning how to walk unless you know exactly where you will walk. We learn to walk and then we can walk where ever we want/need to walk. To stay with our scenario – though I could never have anticipated the forest issue, my walking ability – developed in my toddlerhood – would most definitely help me in that situation. Too late to learn to walk then!

      I think we are discouraged from thinking as it is seen as the antithesis to action and action is definitely essential for any kind of life, meaningful or otherwise – I find myself constantly saying I only believe actions not words. Talk is cheap. But I still think we need to find ways to integrate thought and action to improve the world. Otherwise – no matter how sophisticated we look – we will find ourselves in all sorts of situations that require thinking and because we haven’t learned to think it’ll be too late to learn to think then and so our adaptive instincts will take over because that’s all we have. Perhaps this explains the herd instinct?

      We need to learn to think, act, reflect – act -think etc. – in whatever order is appropriate but making sure not to leave out parts.

      Sorry for the long-winded (and slightly unintelligible) reply, William – but thanks again for your great example and comment!

  2. Great post, Trisha. We could think about and discuss this topic forever — and maybe we would if we weren’t so lazy. I was visiting a historic site a few days ago, a settlement from the 1700s, and I couldn’t shake the thought that people knew how to do things back then, skills we’ve lost because we no longer need them. Then I thought about calculators and spell-checkers and the Internet, and I wonder if thinking in general is headed in that direction. Obviously, you’ve been wondering about similar things. Is it too late?

    1. Thanks, Charles – I don’t think it’s too late but I do agree that we have become sort of lazy about thinking. While you were visiting your historic site, I was thinking about how ‘philosophical’ old people were when I was a kid and a teenager. I know people did awful stuff in the past and weren’t encouraged to think for themselves etc – I’m not being nostalgic I promise – but I still knew loads of ordinary, people without much formal education, who had thought about life and had a whole philosophy they worked out for themselves and lived by (btw – not all alcoholics – and I didn’t know any academics when I was a kid!) – that was a commonplace behaviour.

      I wonder if it’s as common now? We don’t seem to have too much respect for thinking any more. People are sort of embarrassed to say they think about stuff or want to change the world or anything like that – they are afraid everyone will laugh at them and think them naive or dumb – but how will the world ever change unless all people (not just the drunks) engage in that sort of really, truly philosophical thought?

      1. Maybe we’re becoming more and more willing to let others do the thinking for us, and to adopt their philosophy and opinions rather than forming our own. That’s when the really bad things happen, isn’t it?

        1. I think that is exactly right. Ironically we used to have clergy and kings who did our thinking and now we are adamant that we don’t want that any more but we still don’t know how to think for ourselves so we (it seems to me) have appointed new ‘clergy’ – celebrities, politicians, journalists – and they tell us what to think. And bad stuff really does happens as a result.

  3. I’m digesting this so bear with me in my posited notions.

    Perhaps we need to rebalance our current paradigm, with an older one that is in tune and respects our instincts (picking up a baby in the woods to care for it would be instinctual) and a future paradigm that is thoughtful and reverent and intro/extrospective … maybe all the same things. This future paradigm pays attention to history and lives in harmony with the future.

    There’s an indigenous belief about living within the context of seven generations. I’ll have to look up the reference but the idea is that we never act without considering the previous three generations, the current generation, and the next three. This is about the length of reliable oral history I imagine. We tend to think quarterly, or shorter term than even that now. “What am I going to do today…”

    While critical and emergency response needs to be habitual and actionable. Just about everything else should be explored with the greatest tool we have available to us, our power of conceptualization.

    I’ll have to come back to this at a later point, there’s a lot to digest and integrate with your example. The imagery of a mummuration of starlets steering themselves by sensitivity to air pressure has me wondering if we really know anything at all…

    1. I like that seven generational idea, Erik – I never heard it before but it makes sense. And I know that picking up a baby might be instinctual under certain circumstances but what about if my ‘instincts’ perceived the baby as a threat to my survival?

      If instincts by themselves were as trustworthy as that then why did mothers with babies on their backs hack to death mothers with babies on their backs in Rwanda less than 20 years ago? I imagine they weren’t monsters necessarily before the war but that their instinct to survive was over-riding other instincts in the moment – and so we need to be able to superimpose our thoughts as well as use our instincts. As you rightly put it – we need to conceptualise – which is a type of thinking!

      Even using the 7 generational model requires us to think because I am positive that we – like all species- do have an instinct to protect the young so that our species is propagated. Surely the only reason we fail to do this – or even actively destroy them – is that we don’t see them as part of our family? We see them as ‘other’ and nothing to do with us. That’s why stuff like the hate radio in Rwanda was so dangerous because it did create concepts but they were awful concepts that justified rape, torture and genocide.

      Maybe we engage in some sort of conceptualisation even involuntarily – we do have a narrative compulsion in our brains – and if we don’t properly and consciously engage it, maybe it runs on unconscious scraps of adaptive reasoning and makes a very primitive conceptual framework? I don’t know.
      And then there’s this –

      1. I should note that I was mistaken about the span of the seven generation model. It’s based off of an Iroquois Nation(Native American Indians) Constitution and that it looks forward through seven generations rather than back three and forward three. It is built on our ability to be subjective within that span, knowing our great-grandparents and imagining and/or knowing our great grandchildren.

        More importantly though, “ runs on unconscious scraps of adaptive reasoning and makes a very primitive conceptual framework”

        This part scares me deeply when I think about our impressionability and the ability to lose our way in the context of violence and current events.

        1. Even the corrected Iroquois story amounts to the same thing, basically – I love that you bothered to correct it though! As for the rest of it – it scares me too – but then, it should scare us.

  4. “We need to learn to think, act, reflect – act -think etc. – in whatever order is appropriate but making sure not to leave out parts.” I concur and know it is needed more so in our blogging world today. 🙂

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