Our intuitions work subconsciously to shape our sense of reality. Their origin is a mystery, doubly so because they vary from culture to culture without any reason I know of. One example is our concept of time.

Classical Greeks, Mayas and many other cultures assumed that time was circular and that it looped back to where it started. The Greeks considered days and years to be the basic temporal units because they end where they begin. They called the process palingenesia, meaning a return to the same. In several religions, reincarnation was a variant of this circularity. The Mayan astronomers developed two ingeniously coordinated calendars to measure temporal circularity: the Long Count and the Short Count.

For the Greeks, the circle was the ideal figure because it represented completion and perfection. No wonder that early philosopher Parmenides conceived of the world as a ball. Long before modern people verified that the world was round, the classical Greek thinkers already knew it was a sphere. With simple, but ingenious experiments they calculated the earth’s circumference with astonishing accuracy. On the largest scale, Heraclitus taught that the entire universe evolved as a gigantic circular trajectory that eventually would return the earth to its original point.

Time for Western mankind has been the straight-line “arrow of time” that supposedly flows forever forward without deviating. This idea is so deeply ingrained in Western mankind that in several languages it also has moral overtones. Rectitude, right, upright, French droit, Spanish derecho, and German Recht all contain, in addition to the root idea of straightness, related notions of what is right, legitimate, righteous and morally correct. On the other hand, deviations from straight-line western thinking are commonly associated with deviancy and dishonesty. Logic appeals to linear minds, but circular reasoning is considered a violation of the straight-line order.

A tragic aura hovers about western linear time. In this concept of time, the past vanishes into oblivion, and the present soon follows it. The future is our only possible escape and chance for happiness. This suggests that unless western cultures develop a different intuition of time, probably they will never develop a fundamentally different culture.

Scientists once unquestioningly accepted the western concept of time. But since Einstein, physicists have thought of time as a fourth dimension of the space-time continuum. The velocity of matter describes a curve in space, and the greater the velocity the greater the space-time curvature. So far, science has reported no evidence of a linear “arrow of time.”

Time continues to be a mystery. Is it linear as we westerners intuitively think, or recurrent and circular as the Greek concept of palingenesia suggests? And there are other possibilities. Some philosophers argue that time does not exist at all, while others believe that past, present, and future exist simultaneously, a possibility that is incompatible with straight-line time. As for the passing of time, poet Austin Dobson, novelist Eduardo Mallea and others say it is not time but we who pass.

Harold Raley is a professor, linguist, writer and philosopher. Email haroldraley49@gmail.com.

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