Time's Dual Nature Part 1

©Fernando Caracena, 2014

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28 by William Shakespeare

Pioneering efforts

The late physical chemist, Ilya Prigogine, proposed that time has a dual nature: first, there is the parametric time (or fundamental time), which he calls the time of being that enters into the fundamental equations of physics, which can run either forward or backward on the axis of past, present and future; and second, evolutionary time, the time of becoming, which always points in the direction of the future (that is, has a direction from present toward the future, called the arrow of time). If you associate temporal causality with time, in which event A, the cause, precedes event B, as an effect, then the time of being does not exist. This means that in making predictions using that notion of temporal causality, we are really talking about evolutionary time, not fundamental time, or the time of being . These ideas about time reflect the ideas in philosophy of being (essence) and becoming (existence, or manifesting).

Humans experience Evolutionary Time


Fig. 1 A typical clock displays forward time elapsed as counted by the tick-tock process, which is some kind of harmonic oscillator, which ratchets the display mechanism forward. By its construction, it displays evolutionary time.

Evolutionary time is most directly accessible to us through human experience based on the motion of various parts of the universe. The complex of astronomical motions of our planet in its orbit around the sun and in its rotation about an axes of rotation has given us the notion of hours, days, months, years and ages. The development of clocks, have given us further precision in the measure of times, into minutes, seconds, and minute divisions of a second, such as: milliseconds, microseconds, nanoseconds, picoseconds, femtoseconds, etc.

Evolutionary Time in Physical Predictions

File:Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot.jpg

Fig. 2. Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, from Wiki Commons.

Physicists use evolutionary time, inserted into fundamental equations, to make predictions about the future based on presently existing conditions as initial conditions, but in doing so, they have to neglect the fact that these equations also can be run backward in time to make predictions about the past. In using the equations unidirectionally in time, they have avoided becoming entangled in the Gordian knot that is the web of being emerging from causality running in both time senses, which creates the fabric of being that is the now. This way of using time creates a certain amount of unease in the minds of physicists, because they have the sensation that they may be stepping gingerly around a conceptual blind spot.

What is missing Here?

The presence of the arrow in evolutionary time (arrow of time) raises some interesting philosophical questions, with which Ilya Prigogine himself struggled, but was unable to fully resolve. The amazing thing about the fundamental equations in physics is that they both describe the time character of being, and that of becoming; but the lack of distinguishing the dual characteristics of time, causes some confusion and unease in the role that time plays in the equations of physics, or in the meaning of time itself.

Can Time itself be defined?

Perhaps, time itself cannot be defined in some fundamental way. We are born into a temporal world, and become habituated to how time operates, in a way similar to our becoming used to the characteristics of space. (See my previous blog on “Space and Time in Classical Physics”.) An interesting discussion of time as a 4th dimension is presented in this video, in which the dual nature of time is handled under the name of time (for evolutionary time) and anti-time for it backward extending role in the question of being, or existence itself.

 The Dual Nature of Time in Bach's Music

The way the dual nature of time is handled in music has produced what is perhaps the best music ever composed, which is by Johan Sebastian Bach, my favorite composer.  This dual-time structure is tangentially referred to by the composer John Reese, in an essay on BachConcepts of the Composition Style of J.S. Bach,” from which I quote extensively below, just in case this web page disappears:

“The cornerstone of Bach’s music was his melodic construction...[, which] ...tended to be very dense and very carefully thought out...in the face of very tight constraints such as when he was writing a canon or some form of invertable counterpoint...

Bach... employed a... "free" melisma that snaked up and down the staff in unpredictable, surprising, and often delightful ways...[u]sually,... set against a harmonically predictable background... By avoiding the sequence in the melisma passages, however, Bach created a balance between the order in the harmony and the disorder in the melody.

In compositions that employed a basso ostinato or repeating theme, such as the Crucifixus from the B minor Mass and the Passacaglia in C minor, he seemed to take delight in experimenting with all the harmonic possibilities a single melody could offer. This is especially evident in the famous "Passion" chorale used prominently in the St. Matthew Passion.

I use the analogy of writing an essay of 500 words or more, where the entire essay forms a palindrome (reading the same from front to back), where you are not allowed to use the letter "e", where all the syntax is correct, and where, finally, the end result makes perfect sense. Bach performed similar feats in writing fugues that were invertable in their entirety (e.g., could be played upside-down), canons woven around an existing melody in which the answering voice is augmented and transposed to a different key, and canons on an existing melody in which the answer is inverted, and which was also playable with the entire canon inverted.

One of the central principles Bach held to in writing music was that each voice should have a melody of its own, and not just simply exist to fill a harmonic need. ..Although he strove for independence of melody between the four parts, the manner in which the voices come together to form a coherent whole is testament to Bach’s greatness as a composer. The voices complement each other in a way that goes far beyond a mere adherence to the traditional rules of counterpoint. If the melody sung by one voice lessens in intensity, another takes up where it left off, only to relinquish its responsibility to another when the time is right. All the while, the harmony formed by the four independent voices creates a tapestry of sound that is unmistakably the music of Bach.”


My observations, after listening to Bach for decades, coming from not from a musician, but from a physicist runs as follows: Bach wrote a rich tapestry of sounds that had a rhythmic, harmonic structure that had themes running back and forth through each other, some even inverted on the musical scale, against which he had independent voices that created the progression of the musical theme that also carried along the whole tapestry of sound. The reasons that Bach's music is great for me, beyond his superb craftsmanship, are philosophical. He reveals in his musical compositions a deeply intuitive understanding of the dual nature of time. If you think of musical notes as corresponding to physical events, his music is very much like the quantum mechanical flow of physical reality, which not only creates the arrow of time through the progression of its rich tapestry against a rhythmic, harmonic structure, but which also constitutes that reality itself through individual notes.

Pointillism and Being

Before the advent of electronic media graphics, pointillists attempted to portray the fabric of visual reality by the use of dots consisting of primary colors applied to a canvas, in the manner that pixels are now flashed on a video monitor. However, pointillism only corresponds to the static make-up of physical reality. In this respect, music can correspond more closely, because music has the structure of individual events in time, and the wavelike structures that they form.

In the second part of this series, another blog entry will deal with the origin of the arrow of time, and some of the philosophical implications of the dual nature of time.


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