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The mentally innate

Only in recent times has it been possible to discriminate with any scientific assurance those aspects of our mental lives that can be attributed to our biology – to our genetic make-up.

It is no longer possible to claim that we arrive in the world as completely free agents – that our minds at birth are ‘blank slates’ on which experience writes its story. Today’s understanding of the human mind is the result of relentless scientific investigation, largely in the 20th century, of the connections between our thoughts (the representations in our heads), words (the meanings of words aggregated into language), and the world outside our minds.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) made a giant leap forward when he isolated what he considered to be the mental preconditions (the innate mental scaffolding) necessary for us to have any experience at all. These predispositions included space, time, causality, substance (?objects), and logic. They were innate because nothing in experience compels their application to the world. The fact that we have survived as a species indicates that this evolved structuring apparatus (which gives us our mental representations) has proved an effective means for accessing the external world. But this does not mean that what our minds tell us is necessarily ‘true’ or ‘real’ – only that it ‘works’.

Thoughts & words

Not surprisingly Kant’s basic structures of thought have correlates in language.

Language is a toolbox that conveniently and immediately transfers life’s most obscure, abstract, and profound mysteries into a world that is factual, knowable, and willable[14] and it does this using metaphor as a kind of intuitive physics. Metaphor helps us to reason, quantify experience, and create a causal framework for events in a way that allows us to assign responsibility. The logic of familiar concrete situations expressed in metaphor is thus used as the logic for mapping and making inferences about more abstract things like time, quantity, state, change, action, cause, purpose, means, categories, and so on. Metaphor helps us understand one mental domain in terms of another.

So how does this intuitive linguistic physics work?

Nouns express matter as stuff and things extended along one or more dimensions. Verbs express causality as agents acting on something. Verb tenses express time as activities and events along a single dimension. Prepositions express space as places and objects in spatial relationships (on, under, to, from etc.). Conjunctions convey the logic of thought (and, or, not, if-then). Adjectival quantifiers express number and mass (some, all, many).

Simile declares itself with the word ‘like’ but metaphor does not give itself away, it claims identity and, if we are not careful, we simply take it at face value, we take it for the way the world actually is.

Our language was uniting space and time long before Einstein gave us spacetime.

Language Instinct – the language faculty (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules – units of language and their manipulation (1999), The Blank Slate (2002), The Stuff of Thought – meaning, semantics, pragmatics (2008).

as we ask the questions ‘What?’, ’Where?’, ’When?’, and ’Why?’.

Space & time

Kant gave us the space and time of thought. However, Albert Einstein argued convincingly that there are not two entities – space and time – rather there is a single relativistic mathematical object spacetime. Einstein gave us spacetime of the world with space and time inseparably intertwined.

Nowhere do we confront the interlocking abstractions of space and time more directly than in language. Long before Einstein language was struggling to express the nature of these phenomena using metaphor … as it still does. It does this by temporalizing space and spatializing time and in so doing agrees with the physics of relativity.

How does it do this?

To make meaningful something abstract, ineffable, and causally inert – like time – we turn it metaphorically into a spatial i.e. physical object.


Spatializing time

Time is a linear (spatial metaphor) sequence of events. Perhaps the ultimate spatialization is when we speak of ‘A long time’.

‘Movement’ like ‘direction’ is a spatial concept. Only physical ‘things’ move. So when we speak of ‘the flow of time’ clearly this is metaphor. Also time does not go up or down, north or south, but we are comfortable in saying that ‘time does not go backwards’. If you accept ‘time does not go backwards’ but do not accept ‘time goes up’ then you are a victim of metaphor as a means of mental representation.

So, time as ‘now’ is not an object moving in space like a wave-front of change, or a container, or a frame in which things happen. Past and future are not ‘places’ so nothing can be ‘in’ them. An event simply ‘is’. Though metaphor may be misleading, what is attempting to be expressed may nevertheless exist objectively in the world. Time does not ‘flow’ but it does do ‘something’. From this perspective, our problem about time is not so much its objectivity but the inadequacy of language to express what it is. We spatialize time because it is extremely difficult to use words to express precisely and unambiguously what time does. Time seems flow-like or space-like while not being identical to these things. ‘Flow’ is a spatial word – but time is not spatial so it cannot flow … but it does do something, it does something ‘temporal’. We need a language of time that expresses what time does in non-spatial terms, that exorcises spatial words like ‘flow’, ‘passage’, ’movement’ and ‘direction’. From this point of view the problem we are confronting is linguistic. But is there a solution?

The solution is to find a non-spatial word to describe what time does. Fortunately, we do have one – and that word is ‘lapse’ or ‘elapse’. Because these words are less confusing than the word ‘flow’, I shall use it from now on – but the spatial metaphor is deeply ingrained.

But time lapse, like time flow, could still be a product of the subjective mind, not the objective universe.

Australian philosopher Huw Price, currently Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, suggests three possible ways of establishing time’s objective ‘lapse’ (a) by identifying an objective present moment or now (b) by establishing an objective sequence of earlier and later or (c) by identifying something about time that is genuinely and objectively dynamic. He is not hopeful that any of these can be achieved, stating that ‘… it is difficult to see what coherent sense can be made of these notions, let alone how they could be supported by evidence or argument’.[1] Perhaps we should leave the topic here noting the tension between time aswe understand itin thought, language, and science (the world).

How are we to represent or ‘visualize’ the duration between one event and another. We do this by using something more familiar – space. We imagine time, not as ‘lapsing’ in the present but as extending spatially between events. We even represent time spatially as a line on a chart or graph. But we also assume that space is precisely what time is not: we are representing something in a form it cannot assume. But then, temperature is not a line on a graph either, but in this case its graphical representation does not present the same kind of problem. It seems that the linear representation of time does not lead to errors of calculation, only serious errors of imagery. We can cope mentally with space because of our awareness of extended objects: but time has no tangible counterparts. That is one major reason why its reality is so often in question.

Spatialization of time is very difficult to exorcise. We think of ‘amounts’ of time in terms of lateral spatial extension. Even relatively space-neutral words like “interval” can be interpreted spatially.

The lapse of time cannot, in the world, have a direction because direction relates things in space. But in everyday language we erroneously force time to go up and down, or from side to side. So, for example, the future lies ‘ahead’ and the past ‘behind’, with events and times being greater or lesser temporal ‘distances’ along the future-past axis. With the realization that temporal ‘distance’ is nothing more than time lapsing in the present and therefore not extending outwards on either side, we are then tempted to think of time lapsing, not along a horizontal axis but in a cumulative sense on a vertical axis. ‘Amounts’ of time then ‘build up’ or ‘accrete’, as do facts and events, in an ‘additive’ way in the present so that the past then becomes a quantity of time ‘accumulating’ ‘below’ us, and the future is time ‘above’ us waiting to join the heap below.
All this spatial imagery is harmless in everyday discourse, but it is counterproductive in coming to grips with the concept of time lapse and the nature of time. The only solution for the philosopher and scientist keen not to be misled by temporal spatialization and hypostatisation is to use words like “lapse” and “elapse” in preference to “passage” or “flow”, and “duration” in preference to the words “distance”, “accretion”, “interval”, “approaching”, “receding” and so on. An expression like “temporal extension” is an oxymoron. Since we define space as extension, then we are here referring to time directly as space as when we speak of a “long time”. The metaphors are endless as we are led inexorably towards … finally … a “space of time”.

One way of removing flow is to regard events as passing from being indeterminate to determinate. This is a change in property that does not carry the burden of movement in the same way as ppf. Presentists deal with flow as being the coming into existence of facts and new states of affairs without the commitment to events themselves moving in any way.

This is all part of the struggle to distinguish time from space, and dynamic and static theories of time and their likely objectivity. Price notes how the temporal character of conscious experience (its phenomenology), even if misguided, requires explanation suggesting that we mistakenly regard ourselves as fixed points and that time therefore flows past us.[5]

It seems that science and logic can tell us something about the nature of the world that is almost impossible for us, as adapted biological organisms, to accept.


In the world of common sense, we relate distance travelled to time taken. In modern physics we have the spacetime interval – a unit about which any observers using the same mode of measurement to measure the interval between events will agree. This exemplifies the claim that the physical constants of the universe apply regardless of position, orientation, and velocity.


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