Edinburgh International Science Festival 2017 / Reflections on Time


Though I am far from an expert in time, conceptually it has always fascinated me. In one sense, its presence is axiomatic; our interaction with it is almost reflexive as it brings order to both our thoughts and actions. Yet, equally, its nature is enigmatic; it often eludes our perception and resists our attempts at characterisation and definition. And so, whilst its utility is undeniable, bringing temporal order to our lives, the characteristics and nature of time remain, in a sense, undetermined. Or perhaps ‘undetermined’ is the wrong word, since the issue lies less in the ability to provide a conceptual analysis of time and more in the strong disagreement amongst disciplines. And it was precisely this idea which served as the primary point of discussion in last week’s Edinburgh Science Festival event, Reflections of Time.

As we entered the venue at Summerhall, which, though modest in size, was intricately decorated, a figure of distinct wisdom was seated on stage. Red-rimmed glasses rested on the bridge of his nose and a full, white beard extended from his face. And whilst I entered the room knowing very little about Prof Raymond Tallis, I would leave Summerhall in complete admiration of a person who can only really be described as a Renaissance polymath. A retired clinical neurologist, Prof Tallis is now a full-time author, philosopher, literary critic and poet, whose fascination with the infinite complexity of human lives has led him to publish over 20 books, many of which have been widely acclaimed. And whilst much of his work has been concerned with consciousness, mortality, and the state of being, on this particular night he discussed with us the great problem of time.

At the heart of his talk was the rejection of the ‘spatialisation’ of time; for Prof Tallis, defining time as simply the fourth dimension would not only be reductive, but largely incorrect. As a metaphysicist, he drew a clear distinction between both space and time as irreconcilable entities. Space, he argued, does not flow; there is no perception of direction as there is with time. Rather, it is the sum possibility of all directions. And whilst we can travel in space, the same cannot be said for time.

Though his examples were deliberately simple (and subsequently imperfect as he would later argue that time also had no real sense of direction), Prof Tallis was reminding us of an undoing in the physical sciences: its preoccupation with quantities and the modernist tendency to see the world as little more than an order of magnitudes. Drawing our attention to two fundamental yet equally irreconcilable theories in physics, that of relativity and the later one of quantum mechanics, Tallis reiterated the importance of the metaphysicist’s role in providing answers to the world’s great questions. And though he may have been unable to do so in the space of a short hour and half, at its core, he reminded us of the imperfections of objectivity – something which, as a medical student, I am very aware of.

It would have been impossible to do justice to the intellectual rigour and variety of Prof Tallis’ content within the constraints of a news report; however, his book (which was the primary material of his discussion), Of Time and Lamentation, will be released to the general public in early May this year. I would encourage you all to try and read it; I know I certainly will be.

This report was written by Haris Haseeb and edited by Teodora Aldea.

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