The Foundations of Science/The Value of Science/Chapter 2

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The Measure of Time


So long as we do not go outside the domain of consciousness, the notion of time is relatively clear. Not only do we distinguish without difficulty present sensation from the remembrance of past sensations or the anticipation of future sensations, but we know perfectly well what we mean when we say that of two conscious phenomena which we remember, one was anterior to the other; or that, of two foreseen conscious phenomena, one will be anterior to the other.

When we say that two conscious facts are simultaneous, we mean that they profoundly interpenetrate, so that analysis can not separate them without mutilating them.

The order in which we arrange conscious phenomena does not admit of any arbitrariness. It is imposed upon us and of it we can change nothing.

I have only a single observation to add. For an aggregate of sensations to have become a remembrance capable of classification in time, it must have ceased to be actual, we must have lost the sense of its infinite complexity, otherwise it would have remained present. It must, so to speak, have crystallized around a center of associations of ideas which will be a sort of label. It is only when they thus have lost all life that we can classify our memories in time as a botanist arranges dried flowers in his herbarium.

But these labels can only be finite in number. On that score, psychologic time should be discontinuous. Whence comes the feeling that between any two instants there are others? We arrange our recollections in time, but we know that there remain empty compartments. How could that be, if time were not a form pre-existent in our minds? How could we know there were empty compartments, if these compartments were revealed to us only by their content?


But that is not all; into this form we wish to put not only the phenomena of our own consciousness, but those of which other consciousnesses are the theater. But more, we wish to put there physical facts, these I know not what with which we people space and which no consciousness sees directly. This is necessary because without it science could not exist. In a word, psychologic time is given to us and must needs create scientific and physical time. There the difficulty begins, or rather the difficulties, for there are two.

Think of two consciousnesses, which are like two worlds impenetrable one to the other. By what right do we strive to put them into the same mold, to measure them by the same standard? Is it not as if one strove to measure length with a gram or weight with a meter? And besides, why do we speak of measuring? We know perhaps that some fact is anterior to some other, but not by how much it is anterior.

Therefore two difficulties: (1) Can we transform psychologic time, which is qualitative, into a quantitative time? (2) Can we reduce to one and the same measure facts which transpire in different worlds?


The first difficulty has long been noticed; it has been the subject of long discussions and one may say the question is settled. We have not a direct intuition of the equality of two intervals of time. The persons who believe they possess this intuition are dupes of an illusion. When I say, from noon to one the same time passes as from two to three, what meaning has this affirmation?

The least reflection shows that by itself it has none at all. It will only have that which I choose to give it, by a definition which will certainly possess a certain degree of arbitrariness. Psychologists could have done without this definition; physicists and astronomers could not; let us see how they have managed.

To measure time they use the pendulum and they suppose by definition that all the beats of this pendulum are of equal duration. But this is only a first approximation; the temperature, the resistance of the air, the barometric pressure, make the pace of the pendulum vary. If we could escape these sources of error, we should obtain a much closer approximation, but it would still be only an approximation. New causes, hitherto neglected, electric, magnetic or others, would introduce minute perturbations.

In fact, the best chronometers must be corrected from time to time, and the corrections are made by the aid of astronomic observations; arrangements are made so that the sidereal clock marks the same hour when the same star passes the meridian. In other words, it is the sidereal day, that is, the duration of the rotation of the earth, which is the constant unit of time. It is supposed, by a new definition substituted for that based on the beats of the pendulum, that two complete rotations of the earth about its axis have the same duration.

However, the astronomers are still not content with this definition. Many of them think that the tides act as a check on our globe, and that the rotation of the earth is becoming slower and slower. Thus would be explained the apparent acceleration of the motion of the moon, which would seem to be going more rapidly than theory permits because our watch, which is the earth, is going slow.


All this is unimportant, one will say; doubtless our instruments of measurement are imperfect, but it suffices that we can conceive a perfect instrument. This ideal can not be reached, but it is enough to have conceived it and so to have put rigor into the definition of the unit of time.

The trouble is that there is no rigor in the definition. When we use the pendulum to measure time, what postulate do we implicitly admit? It is that the duration of two identical phenomena is the same; or, if you prefer, that the same causes take the same time to produce the same effects.

And at first blush, this is a good definition of the equality of two durations. But take care. Is it impossible that experiment may some day contradict our postulate?

Let me explain myself. I suppose that at a certain place in the world the phenomenon happens, causing as consequence at the end of a certain time the effect . At another place in the world very far away from the first, happens the phenomenon , which causes as consequence the effect . The phenomena and are simultaneous, as are also the effects and .

Later, the phenomenon is reproduced under approximately the same conditions as before, and simultaneously the phenomenon is also reproduced at a very distant place in the world and almost under the same circumstances. The effects and also take place. Let us suppose that the effect happens perceptibly before the effect .

If experience made us witness such a sight, our postulate would be contradicted. For experience would tell us that the first duration is equal to the first duration and that the second duration is less than the second duration . On the other hand, our postulate would require that the two durations should be equal to each other, as likewise the two durations . The equality and the inequality deduced from experience would be incompatible with the two equalities deduced from the postulate.

Now can we affirm that the hypotheses I have just made are absurd? They are in no wise contrary to the principle of contradiction. Doubtless they could not happen without the principle of sufficient reason seeming violated. But to justify a definition so fundamental I should prefer some other guarantee.


But that is not all. In physical reality one cause does not produce a given effect, but a multitude of distinct causes contribute to produce it, without our having any means of discriminating the part of each of them.

Physicists seek to make this distinction; but they make it only approximately, and, however they progress, they never will make it except approximately. It is approximately true that the motion of the pendulum is due solely to the earth’s attraction; but in all rigor every attraction, even of Sirius, acts on the pendulum.

Under these conditions, it is clear that the causes which have produced a certain effect will never be reproduced except approximately. Then we should modify our postulate and our definition. Instead of saying: ‘The same causes take the same time to produce the same effects,’ we should say: ‘Causes almost identical take almost the same time to produce almost the same effects.’

Our definition therefore is no longer anything but approximate. Besides, as M. Calinon very justly remarks in a recent memoir:[1]

One of the circumstances of any phenomenon is the velocity of the earth’s rotation; if this velocity of rotation varies, it constitutes in the reproduction of this phenomenon a circumstance which no longer remains the same. But to suppose this velocity of rotation constant is to suppose that we know how to measure time.

Our definition is therefore not yet satisfactory; it is certainly not that which the astronomers of whom I spoke above implicitly adopt, when they affirm that the terrestrial rotation is slowing down.

What meaning according to them has this affirmation? We can only understand it by analyzing the proofs they give of their proposition. They say first that the friction of the tides producing heat must destroy vis viva. They invoke therefore the principle of vis viva, or of the conservation of energy.

They say next that the secular acceleration of the moon, calculated according to Newton’s law, would be less than that deduced from observations unless the correction relative to the slowing down of the terrestrial rotation were made. They invoke therefore Newton’s law. In other words, they define duration in the following way: time should be so defined that Newton’s law and that of vis viva may be verified. Newton’s law is an experimental truth; as such it is only approximate, which shows that we still have only a definition by approximation.

If now it be supposed that another way of measuring time is adopted, the experiments on which Newton’s law is founded would none the less have the same meaning. Only the enunciation of the law would be different, because it would be translated into another language; it would evidently be much less simple. So that the definition implicitly adopted by the astronomers may be summed up thus: Time should be so defined that the equations of mechanics may be as simple as possible. In other words, there is not one way of measuring time more true than another; that which is generally adopted is only more convenient. Of two watches, we have no right to say that the one goes true, the other wrong; we can only say that it is advantageous to conform to the indications of the first.

The difficulty which has just occupied us has been, as I have said, often pointed out; among the most recent works in which it is considered, I may mention, besides M. Calinon’s little book, the treatise on mechanics of Andrade.


The second difficulty has up to the present attracted much less attention; yet it is altogether analogous to the preceding; and even, logically, I should have spoken of it first.

Two psychological phenomena happen in two different consciousnesses; when I say they are simultaneous, what do I mean? When I say that a physical phenomenon, which happens outside of every consciousness, is before or after a psychological phenomenon, what do I mean?

In 1572, Tycho Brahe noticed in the heavens a new star. An immense conflagration had happened in some far distant heavenly body; but it had happened long before; at least two hundred years were necessary for the light from that star to reach our earth. This conflagration therefore happened before the discovery of America. Well, when I say that; when, considering this gigantic phenomenon, which perhaps had no witness, since the satellites of that star were perhaps uninhabited, I say this phenomenon is anterior to the formation of the visual image of the isle of Española in the consciousness of Christopher Columbus, what do I mean?

A little reflection is sufficient to understand that all these affirmations have by themselves no meaning. They can have one only as the outcome of a convention.


We should first ask ourselves how one could have had the idea of putting into the same frame so many worlds impenetrable to one another. We should like to represent to ourselves the external universe, and only by so doing could we feel that we understood it. We know we never can attain this representation: our weakness is too great. But at least we desire the ability to conceive an infinite intelligence for which this representation could be possible, a sort of great consciousness which should see all, and which should classify all in its time, as we classify, in our time, the little we see.

This hypothesis is indeed crude and incomplete, because this supreme intelligence would be only a demigod; infinite in one sense, it would be limited in another, since it would have only an imperfect recollection of the past; and it could have no other, since otherwise all recollections would be equally present to it and for it there would be no time. And yet when we speak of time, for all which happens outside of us, do we not unconsciously adopt this hypothesis; do we not put ourselves in the place of this imperfect god; and do not even the atheists put themselves in the place where god would be if he existed?

What I have just said shows us, perhaps, why we have tried to put all physical phenomena into the same frame. But that can not pass for a definition of simultaneity, since this hypothetical intelligence, even if it existed, would be for us impenetrable. It is therefore necessary to seek something else.


The ordinary definitions which are proper for psychologic time would suffice us no more. Two simultaneous psychologic facts are so closely bound together that analysis can not separate without mutilating them. Is it the same with two physical facts? Is not my present nearer my past of yesterday than the present of Sirius?

It has also been said that two facts should be regarded as simultaneous when the order of their succession may be inverted at will. It is evident that this definition would not suit two physical facts which happen far from one another, and that, in what concerns them, we no longer even understand what this reversibility would be; besides, succession itself must first be defined.


Let us then seek to give an account of what is understood by simultaneity or antecedence, and for this let us analyze some examples.

I write a letter; it is afterward read by the friend to whom I have addressed it. There are two facts which have had for their theater two different consciousnesses. In writing this letter I have had the visual image of it, and my friend has had in his turn this same visual image in reading the letter. Though these two facts happen in impenetrable worlds, I do not hesitate to regard the first as anterior to the second, because I believe it is its cause.

I hear thunder, and I conclude there has been an electric discharge; I do not hesitate to consider the physical phenomenon as anterior to the auditory image perceived in my consciousness, because I believe it is its cause.

Behold then the rule we follow, and the only one we can follow: when a phenomenon appears to us as the cause of another, we regard it as anterior. It is therefore by cause that we define time; but most often, when two facts appear to us bound by a constant relation, how do we recognize which is the cause and which the effect? We assume that the anterior fact, the antecedent, is the cause of the other, of the consequent. It is then by time that we define cause. How save ourselves from this petitio principii?

We say now post hoc, ergo propter hoc; now propter hoc, ergo post hoc; shall we escape from this vicious circle?


Let us see, not how we succeed in escaping, for we do not completely succeed, but how we try to escape.

I execute a voluntary act and I feel afterward a sensation , which I regard as a consequence of the act ; on the other hand, for whatever reason, I infer that this consequence is not immediate, but that outside my consciousness two facts and , which I have not witnessed, have happened, and in such a way that is the effect of , that is the effect of , and of .

But why? If I think I have reason to regard the four facts as bound to one another by a causal connection, why range them in the causal order , and at the same time in the chronologic order , rather than in any other order?

I clearly see that in the act I have the feeling of having been active, while in undergoing the sensation I have that of having been passive. This is why I regard as the initial cause and as the ultimate effect; this is why I put at the beginning of the chain and at the end; but why put before rather than before ?

If this question is put, the reply ordinarily is: we know that it is which is the cause of because we always see happen before . These two phenomena, when witnessed, happen in a certain order; when analogous phenomena happen without witness, there is no reason to invert this order.

Doubtless, but take care; we never know directly the physical phenomena and . What we know are sensations and produced respectively by and . Our consciousness tells us immediately that precedes and we suppose that and succeed one another in the same order.

This rule appears in fact very natural, and yet we are often led to depart from it. We hear the sound of the thunder only some seconds after the electric discharge of the cloud. Of two flashes of lightning, the one distant, the other near, can not the first be anterior to the second, even though the sound of the second comes to us before that of the first?


Another difficulty; have we really the right to speak of the cause of a phenomenon? If all the parts of the universe are interchained in a certain measure, any one phenomenon will not be the effect of a single cause, but the resultant of causes infinitely numerous; it is, one often says, the consequence of the state of the universe a moment before. How enunciate rules applicable to circumstances so complex? And yet it is only thus that these rules can be general and rigorous.

Not to lose ourselves in this infinite complexity, let us make a simpler hypothesis. Consider three stars, for example, the sun, Jupiter and Saturn; but, for greater simplicity, regard them as reduced to material points and isolated from the rest of the world. The positions and the velocities of three bodies at a given instant suffice to determine their positions and velocities at the following instant, and consequently at any instant. Their positions at the instant determine their positions at the instant as well as their positions at the instant .

Even more; the position of Jupiter at the instant , together with that of Saturn at the instant , determines the position of Jupiter at any instant and that of Saturn at any instant

The aggregate of positions occupied by Jupiter at the instant and Saturn at the instant is bound to the aggregate of positions occupied by Jupiter at the instant and Saturn at the instant , by laws as precise as that of Newton, though more complicated. Then why not regard one of these aggregates as the cause of the other, which would lead to considering as simultaneous the instant of Jupiter and the instant of Saturn?

In answer there can only be reasons, very strong, it is true, of convenience and simplicity.


But let us pass to examples less artificial; to understand the definition implicitly supposed by the savants, let us watch them at work and look for the rules by which they investigate simultaneity.

I will take two simple examples, the measurement of the velocity of light and the determination of longitude.

When an astronomer tells me that some stellar phenomenon, which his telescope reveals to him at this moment, happened, nevertheless, fifty years ago, I seek his meaning, and to that end I shall ask him first how he knows it, that is, how he has measured the velocity of light.

He has begun by supposing that light has a constant velocity, and in particular that its velocity is the same in all directions. That is a postulate without which no measurement of this velocity could be attempted. This postulate could never be verified directly by experiment; it might be contradicted by it if the results of different measurements were not concordant. We should think ourselves fortunate that this contradiction has not happened and that the slight discordances which may happen can be readily explained.

The postulate, at all events, resembling the principle of sufficient reason, has been accepted by everybody; what I wish to emphasize is that it furnishes us with a new rule for the investigation of simultaneity, entirely different from that which we have enunciated above.

This postulate assumed, let us see how the velocity of light has been measured. You know that Roemer used eclipses of the satellites of Jupiter, and sought how much the event fell behind its prediction. But how is this prediction made? It is by the aid of astronomic laws; for instance Newton’s law.

Could not the observed facts be just as well explained if we attributed to the velocity of light a little different value from that adopted, and supposed Newton’s law only approximate? Only this would lead to replacing Newton’s law by another more complicated. So for the velocity of light a value is adopted, such that the astronomic laws compatible with this value may be as simple as possible. When navigators or geographers determine a longitude, they have to solve just the problem we are discussing; they must, without being at Paris, calculate Paris time. How do they accomplish it? They carry a chronometer set for Paris. The qualitative problem of simultaneity is made to depend upon the quantitative problem of the measurement of time. I need not take up the difficulties relative to this latter problem, since above I have emphasized them at length.

Or else they observe an astronomic phenomenon, such as an eclipse of the moon, and they suppose that this phenomenon is perceived simultaneously from all points of the earth. That is not altogether true, since the propagation of light is not instantaneous; if absolute exactitude were desired, there would be a correction to make according to a complicated rule.

Or else finally they use the telegraph. It is clear first that the reception of the signal at Berlin, for instance, is after the sending of this same signal from Paris. This is the rule of cause and effect analyzed above. But how much after? In general, the duration of the transmission is neglected and the two events are regarded as simultaneous. But, to be rigorous, a little correction would still have to be made by a complicated calculation; in practise it is not made, because it would be well within the errors of observation; its theoretic necessity is none the less from our point of view, which is that of a rigorous definition. From this discussion, I wish to emphasize two things: (1) The rules applied are exceedingly various. (2) It is difficult to separate the qualitative problem of simultaneity from the quantitative problem of the measurement of time; no matter whether a chronometer is used, or whether account must be taken of a velocity of transmission, as that of light, because such a velocity could not be measured without measuring a time.


To conclude: We have not a direct intuition of simultaneity, nor of the equality of two durations. If we think we have this intuition, this is an illusion. We replace it by the aid of certain rules which we apply almost always without taking count of them.

But what is the nature of these rules? No general rule, no rigorous rule; a multitude of little rules applicable to each particular case.

These rules are not imposed upon us and we might amuse ourselves in inventing others; but they could not be cast aside without greatly complicating the enunciation of the laws of physics, mechanics and astronomy.

We therefore choose these rules, not because they are true, but because they are the most convenient, and we may recapitulate them as follows: “The simultaneity of two events, or the order of their succession, the equality of two durations, are to be so defined that the enunciation of the natural laws may be as simple as possible. In other words, all these rules, all these definitions are only the fruit of an unconscious opportunism.”


  1. Etude sur les diverses grandeurs, Paris, Gauthier-Villars, 1897.