Changing clocks and playing with time

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There have long been practical concerns about our annual clock-changing ritual. It causes sleepiness, confusion, and accidents. In response, the Senate passed the “Sunshine Protection Act” this week, a first step to making Daylight Savings Time permanent.

But if the clocks move forward permanently, we might end up driving to work in the dark during the short days of winter. These practical concerns are important.

The idea of “protecting the sunshine” pushes us even deeper. If we can change our clocks, what else could we change?

Socially constructed realities

Twice a year, as we reset our clocks, we are reminded that our shared experience of time is socially constructed. Clocks are tools, created by us. They give us an image of time. But that image is a human creation.

A similar issue afflicts our orientation in space. In prior centuries, it was thought that heaven was up and hell was down. Our conception of space is also colored by the way draw maps. North is up; south is down. But in reality, we are on a globe hurtling through space. There is no heaven above or hell below. Up and down are a matter of perspective.  

If clocks and maps are social constructions, then what else is a matter of perspective? These days, our notions of sex and gender, marriage and the family are being reconstructed. Could it also be true that the economy, politics, and religion are social constructions?

Well, political borders are lines drawn on maps, often at the expense of those living in the borderlands. These borders are not God-given facts of nature. Religion itself is a social product. The world’s religious traditions evolved through centuries of interpretation and social conflict. This is also true of the economy. Feudalism gave way to capitalism and then to the modern globalized economy.

If clocks and maps are social constructions, then what else is a matter of perspective? These days, our notions of sex and gender, marriage and the family are being reconstructed. Could it also be true that the economy, politics, and religion are social constructions?

Dale McGowan recently suggested, “there is no normal.” After two years of pandemic weirdness, this is obvious. Is it normal for the sun to rise at 6AM or at 8AM? What time is the normal time for school or work to begin? And what is a normal workday or work week? Our temporal world is artificial. It is a way of organizing things. This is a social project. We can tweak it according to our needs and interests.

An inventive species

This does not mean that time does not exist or that anything goes. Almost three hundred years ago, the philosopher David Hume suggested that much of life is artificial but not arbitrary. As Hume said, “Mankind is an inventive species.”

We invented marriage, money, months, meters, and minutes. How long is a minute or a month or a meter? Those measuring tools are defined by us. They are the result of human artifice, governed by rules we created. Once they exist, the rules are not arbitrary. These rules regulate our shared experience. But they are not woven into nature.

Nature presents us with a reality that is neither artificial nor arbitrary. The sun rises and falls according to celestial patterns we do not control. The time it takes to bake cookies is governed by the chemistry of sugar and fat. And light travels at a constant rate. The facts of nature are real and unalterable.

But we can play within the givenness of time. We can choose to get up in the dark and see the sun rise. Or we can sleep the day away and come to life as the stars appear. We are inventive animals who have an amazing capacity to play, innovate, and create.

If we can make daylight savings time permanent, maybe we could also change the work week. Why not four days on and three days off? And what is so special about the 8-hour workday? We could change that as well. And who says we need 12 oddly numbered months and 52 weeks of seven days? We could reconstruct the year with 36 weeks of 10 days each, plus a holiday of 5 days at the end of the year. If we are reconstructing things, let’s get imaginative.

Mortality and hope

Our inventiveness does not mean we can ignore the temporal processes of the physical universe. Our lives are subject to movements that are beyond our control. In the end, time is our master. Most importantly, our bodies age. We will witness a finite number of sunsets and solstices. And then we die.

Considerations of mortality divide religious and nonreligious people. Some religions hope for eternal life. This is another human invention, an imagined time beyond time. Atheists, of course, have a difficult time making sense of that idea.

Life seems to imply time. Outside of time—in eternity—what would there be? There would be no change or movement. But change and movement are essential to life, thought, and play. Eternal life is mysterious and paradoxical. It frankly seems kind of boring. In eternity would there be music, art, and creative play? Those human goods only seem to make sense in a world of time.

Of course, theists often claim that without hope for eternity, life is meaningless. But the opposite may be true. When we realize that we are free to play within the givenness of nature, a different source of meaning arrives. We make meaning within the limits of time and mortality.

Once we see that much of life is socially constructed, we can reconstruct it in ways that are empowering and enlightening. We can make daylight savings time permanent. We can also turn time into music, or into money. The choice is ours. As we reset our clocks, we can also reset our lives.

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