There is No Time For A Frozen Brain: Trimming Mysteries by a Wittgensteinian Slab


There is No Time For A Frozen Brain: Trimming Mysteries by a Wittgensteinian Slab

Edip Yuksel

“Why do they put the word ‘dictionary’ in the dictionary? Ya gotta know what it is if you’re using the dumb thing, dontcha? Besides, it’s written right on the cover what it is and if you don’t know what it’s used for you aint gonna look it up are ya? Heck, cant’cha just look on the cover if you don’t know how to spell it or do they think we’re so dumb that we’re gonna look it up for the spelling? Think of all the trillions of dictionarys in the world and multiply that by the amount of ink and paper it takes to put dictionary in a dictionary. That’s probably a whole damned rain forest and an ink spill the size of the one from the Exon Valdes! I say we all boycott the dictionary companys till they start taking that needless word out!” (

“Only stupit and ignorrant people write on bathroom walls” (A graphitty on a bathroom wall in the Univ. of Arizona).   

?Can yu corect sentence this    

2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, (33 or 37?)   

“‘What is TIME?’. . . This question is an utterance of unclarity, of mental discomfort, and it is comparable with the question ‘Why?’ as children often ask it. (Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, p. 26)   

Do you know chess? What do you understand from the word chess? Every name andconcept have a use. What is the use of chess? How queer that knowing how to play chessshould take such a short TIME, and a game so much longer! The meaning of words andpropositions are based on their use in our language-gameMetaphysics is a tumor in the brain and you cannot feel my pain and the tumor in the brain does not cause pain, but myknowledge about the existence of that tumor is what causes the pain. Can I describe ordefine for you my pain, my experience of how I feel? What is the intention of a philosopherwho yells at his student: slub! Is the word ‘slub‘ a picture of the object ? It was a dull picture in Tarctatus where I sometimes talked in a private language, but after my investigation it became a useful-mutual game. Now I can use it in anyway I wish. You can ask anotherquestion: Do both students and teacher see the ‘red‘ slub in the same colour? First, what does ‘same‘ mean? Second, what is the meaning of meaning? Third, what does ‘third’mean? Do I have any reliable criteria to check my memory? Isn’t it amazing that I can thinkon my thoughts on thinking! Nevertheless, ‘I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking.’ You can believe or imagine that the sun will rise tomorrow, but you can not justify it. Mathematical problems cause ticklish sensations. Here I shew you: will pi ever exhibit the numbers in the order of 123456789 past the decimal? What is the rule in theorder of the letters of order? Can you think of something which does not have a contrast, besides YESTERDAY? Yes, I will shew you: TOMORROW!


The above scrambled semi-silly statements contain the most frequently used words (underlined) in Philosophical Investigation. Wittgenstein repeats them over and over. He tries to expose or understand the relation between words and objects and their use, that is, circumstances. He makes many arguments to emphasize the importance of the use of propositions in regard of their meaning. For instance, Wittgenstein, probably would try to explain the reason of putting ‘dictionary’ in ‘dictionary’ by the obsession of the editors with verbal definition which “takes us from one verbal expression to another, in a sense gets us no further.” (The Blue Book, 1) He would probably suggest a change in the title of the dictionary, from ‘dictionary’ to ‘this is a dictionary’. He would later shew the apparent ambiguity with this ostensive definition in regard of identifying the reference of ‘this.’ He could list his questions, such as, what is ‘this’? What is a dictionary? The cover, or the color of the cover, or the letters, or the book? He would then tell us the importance of the ‘use’ in language-game. The ‘use’ of the word is what saves us from ambiguity of words.

Here, I will not speculate on whether Wittgenstein would join ‘steve’ against those dictionaries containing needless words, nor will I evaluate the bathroom graffiti according to his theory of truth-functions. I will not even try to correct the distorted sentence and evaluate on his assertion that the use of sentence is more important than its grammar. I will not try to understand when and how one understands the principle of the series and knows which number is the continuation of the series. Here, I’ll try to understand and criticize the concept of TIME, in a Wittgensteinian philosophy.

What is ‘time’? (not ‘what time is it?’)

How can we talk about tomorrow, in other words, future? If future does not exist now, then, how can we name and talk about something that does not exist? Can we have the feeling of future, or the knowledge of future? How can I describe my experience of life by words? If every meaningful word needs a contrast, then what is the contrast of time? Does timelessness exist, or can we imagine it? What do we mean when we say “I don’t have time for…”? What is the truth value of propositions about future? To answer all of the above questions we need to answer the fundamental question: What is “time”? Is “time” a substance? Philosophers, such as, Archie J. Bahm, O.K. Bousma, and Ludwig Wittgenstein point to the flaw in the question. If a question is wrong, then the answer will be wrong too. Here are the reaction of three philosophers who consider language (in fact, lack of knowledge of language) as the main source of pseudo-philosophical puzzlement:

Part of the problem of interpreting the nature of time, or of any category, consists of referring to it as “it” (i.e., as “something”) when such reference takes the grammatical form of a noun, which in Indo-European languages tends to connote substantiality. The hypothesis proposed here needs a language structured in a way that reflects the structure of existence it proposes rather than a “subject-predicate” language based on a “substance-attribute” metaphysics, which it is criticizing. (Bahm, 46)

So we can understand this case of a man who does not know what time is, as like that of man who does not know what aether is. He is like one who breathes deeply to take one big breath of time, hoping to get wind of it in this way. And he would like to know how out of so much time and a trowel to make a star. There, now I think I know what it is that this man who does not know what time is, does not know. He also did not get the drift (Bouwsma, 127).

“But it is the use of the substantive ‘time’ which mystifies us. If we look into the grammar of that word, we shall feel that it is no less astounding that man should have conceived of a deity of time than it would be to conceive of a deity of negation or disjunction.” (Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 6).

Wittgenstein criticizes his favorite philosopher Saint Augustine’s conception of time. St. Augustine, in the 11th book of his Confession, tries to answer the question “What is time?” He says when no one asks him, he knows; yet when someone asks him, he no longer knows. In order to solve the arising problem from the question “What was God doing before creation?”, Augustine needs to define the “time.” He ends up denying the absolute existence of time by a tricky analysis. Wittgenstein summarizes Augustine’s analysis in one statement: “How is it possible that one should measure time? For the past can’t be measured, as it is gone by; and the future can’t be measured for it has no extension.” (Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, p. 26).

Past and Future; Do They Really Exist?

Ronald Suter, a Wittgenstanian philosopher, rejects Augustine’s analysis by changing the meaning of time:

Augistine’s original conclusion that the past and the future do not exist rests on both a faulty theory of meaning and on a particular picture of time that leads him to seek after some sort of entity that can be called ‘past’ or ‘future.’ Not finding a physical entity, he postulates a mental one.

“Of course Augustine is right that in a sense neither the past nor the future do exist. For example, the hundreth president of the United States does not now exist any more than George Washington does. Yet there can be facts about the future as well as about the past, and it is in this sense that both the future and past exist.” (Suter, 166).

Suter avoids the problem by reducing “past” and “future” to “events.” Then, he reduces events to facts, or to memories, or expectations. In other words, in Suter’s language-game, ‘future’ suddenly transforms to future events, and simultaneously future events transform to expectations. Yet, for all those speculations he does not provide any argument. Ironically, the example he had chosen does not even fully justify our expectations of future events. In his sense, the existence of future is probabilistic. Besides, its existence depends on our pessimism or optimism; it can change from individual to individual. To a radical anti-government activist, Suter ‘s expectation of the hundreth president (future) is only a wishful thinking. Thus, the existence of future will depend on the number of votes. But, how many votes?

Wittgenstein also diagnoses the source of philosophical puzzlement about time in language. He likens the question “where does the past go to?” to “where does the flame of a candle go when it’s blown out?” or “Where does the light go to?” (Wittgenstein, The Brown Book, 108). It is ironic that Wittgenstein, who is well aware of deceptive nature of analogies, resorts to another analogy in order to discredit an analogy. His analogy is far from demystifying the puzzle of time, since the flame of a candle shines and dies in time. The flame of a candle does not exist when it is blown out. It is exactly Augistine’s point: past (flame) does not have existence in the present (when it is blown out). The puzzlement is not in “where does past (or flame) go?” rather it is a consequence of the fact that “past (flame) does not exist now (when it is blown out)!

Present, where are you?

After rejecting the existence of both past and future, Augustine, with Zeno’s magnifier, focuses on the “present.” After a crafty analysis he surprises us with the news that the present has evaporated. According to Augustine, the “present” is a moment that cannot be divided into smaller parts. It is the temporal equivalent of geometrical point which by definition does not have any dimension. Or, it is the equivalent of the ancient concept of atom which is not divisible. By trimming “present” from all temporal extensions, step by step, he shrinks it to such a small point where it becomes impossible to be noticed or caught. Present is so small and lucid the speed of our thought and words are unable to measure it.

The challenge of trying to realize the existence of present by reflecting on it, is like trying to see your shadow with the aid of flash light. Or, it is like trying to see a single letter of a commercial message on the outside of a train speeding 100 miles per hour towards west while you are standing in a station and looking exactly across your nose, without moving your eyes to east (past) or west (future). Or it is like trying to see your dreams while you are awake. The suggested methods for searching for your shadow or for spotting the letters on the moving train, or for trying to observe your dreams, yes, those methods themselves can create an obstacle for observing their existence. Similarly, we may not be able to catch the present when we try to catch it. Is it possible, that we feel it only if we don’t try to feel it?

Wittgenstein was interested with how one judges what time it is without external evidences, such as the position of sun, the amount of light, etc. He gives some examples of thinking process needed for this task. (Wittgenstein, Investigation, #608). He forgets to mention the importance of number of breath, heart beat, and pulses as internal evidences for estimating the short time intervals. Later, he acknowledges the difficulty with metacognition of this process, and comes up with a good rhetorical question:

The idea of the intangibility of that mental state in estimating the time is of the greatest importance. Why is it intangible? Isn’t it because we refuse to count what is tangible about our state as part of the specific state which we are postulating? (Wittgenstein, Investigations, #608).

False Analogy?

According to Wittgenstein the source of this problem is a false analogy, that is, likening time to a river, and trying to measure the length of time as length in space is measured: “The problem may seem simple, but its extreme difficulty is due to the fascination which the analogy between two similar structures in our language can exert on us.” (Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, p 26). J.N. Findlay, Professor of Philosophy in Boston University, restates this point:

“We are likewise puzzled by the measurement of time, and, since measurement in space demands that the measured parts should all be there together, we find it strange that we should be able to measure lengths of time whose stages are never given together. In all these cases language deceives us by its false analogies, and we think we are dealing with something deep and queer, when we are merely dealing with a different sort of case. . . When all this is seen, puzzles regarding the measurement of time will disappear ? as I, too, consistently thought when in 1936 I wrote an early Wittgensteinian article entitled ‘Time: a Treatment of Some Puzzles.” (Findlay, 71, 135).

Wittgenstein is right regarding many problems caused by our language or analogies. For instance, the grammar in expressions like “my hands, my body, my brain” can give us a false sense of a non-material and mysterious substance, “me”, independent of “my” physical extension. However, I think, his criticism of Augustine is a typical exaggeration of the “mystifying use of our language.”

Augustine might have chosen a wrong analysis and ended up in a wrong conclusion, however, his bewilderment is not due to the grammar of the language. The mystery of time is not caused by its usage as a noun or as an object in our daily language. Time, at least is a psychological feeling. Like pain. We generally know what causes pain. However, we are not sure about the cause of sensation of time. Furthermore, our thinking is not “muddled” by the questions “what is negation, or what is disjunction, or what is pain?” but we are challenged by the question “what is time?” The mystifying nature of “time,” regardless of our language, is a universal problem for all thinkers.

Town and Life (not life in town!)

Can we claim that the minds of biologists are muddled when they try to find an answer for the question “what is life?” The queer nature of “life” is not the result of the grammar of our language, but from our shortcoming. We have not yet fully understood the nature of life. The mystery of life lays in our inability to distinguish its “necessary and sufficient” qualities. The ambiguity in the meaning of “life” is not the same with the ambiguity in the meaning of “town.” We can clarify the meaning of town by arbitrary spatial, or numerical criteria. State legislators, the residents of town, or dictionary editors can reduce the ambiguity surrounding the meaning of town without going out and making research on towns. Their decision could create a new and clearer convention on the meaning of “town.”

However, the same thing cannot be done for the definition of “life.” The word “life” refers to something more substantial than the word “town.” Biologists cannot define life without studying nature. Let’s assume that biologists and dictionarists sat down around a table and invented several words to represent and distinguish the diverse characteristics of living creatures, from virus to plants, from amoebae to humans. Even if they do so, we may still need another word to represent the mysterious quality that draws the line between life and non life for all things, with its implicated whys and hows. In short, the word “town” refers to a conventional (man-made) category, but the word “life” refers to an objective (natural) category. It is we who define the meaning of town and city, chair and couch, book and booklet, etc.; but it is life (what ever it is) itself that defines the meaning of the word associated to it. Besides, even a well defined “life” won’t cease to puzzle us with its inherent questions starting with “why”? We cannot eradicate the scientific and philosophic challenge for a more precise understanding of life by declaring the problem as grammatical, since “one cannot control the reality by quibbling over the use of a word.” (Harrison, 225).

The concept of time is like Pandora’s Box. It is related with many other difficult concepts. W. H. Newton-Smith, in his book The Structure of Time, expresses this philosophical difficulty under the title “The Intractability of Time.” I enjoyed that passage so much so that I will quote all of it:

“In answer to a question of the form ‘what is X?’ it is sometimes appropriate to point to examples or instances of X. In other cases it is appropriate to offer a definition or verbal equivalent of ‘X’. But all verbal explanations, from the Oxford Dictionary’s explanation of time as ‘duration, continued existence’ to Aristotle’s explanation of time as ‘the number of motion with respect to earlier and later’ strike us as distinctly unsatisfactory. For even granting their truth their circularity offends. This is perhaps the crux of our difficulties. For time is not just an abstract beast but also it is a most promiscuous beast who regularly couples with equally elusive partners. Prima facie there are links between the concept of time and a host of other concepts including the following: motion, space, causality, change, entropy, human action, consciousness. Each of these concepts is in need of philosophical treatment and each requires reference to time in its elucidation. Thus, enlightening as it may be to explore the links between the concept of time and these other concepts, we are unlikely to arrive at some unique, non-circular, meaning-preserving analysis of the concept of time in terms of some other concept or complex of concepts. Time is just too basic to our entire conceptual framework to be captured in this way.” (Newton-Smith, 3-4)

Newton-Smith, therefore, concludes that the philosophy alone is not capable of investigating the structure of time. He asserts that an entirely a priori investigation is inadequate, and inappropriate for understanding the time, since it is an empirical matter. I do strongly agree with him that any serious philosophical study of time must include discussions of the theories of Quantum Mechanics, Special and General Relativity, etc. In this short paper we cannot have such a comprehensive investigation. Here we are dealing with Wittgensteinian philosophers who try to imprison the investigation of time within the limit of language alone.

Pain and Time

What is pain? If we expect to find a substance called “pain,” then, surely we are confused by our language. It is a mental state, a subjective feeling. Though it might be impossible to invent a device called pain-meter, yet the CAT scan picture of brain activity may help us in identifying the existence and density of pain. Here we don’t really measure the density of pain, but the density of brain activity perceived as pain. We can define pain as an undesirable mental perception caused by external disturbances. Pain is a by-product or an event which has cause and consequence.

What about time? Is it also an event, or a mental state which has cause and consequence? Or, is it an enigmatic dimension where (when?) events happens. Can we observe time like we observe pain? Can we locate time as we can locate pain? Is time omnipresent? Do we observe the traces (changes) left behind by time, or do we observe the traces (changes) left behind by previous changes and call them time? Of course, these are not grammatical questions; but philosophical questions. It needs a philosophical argument if we want to reduce time to our perception of internal and external changes.

Measuring the time

As for the measurement of time… If there is a possibility of the existence of temporal vacua, then we can measure time in terms of changes in state of an object relative to other objects. We can do this, merely by reducing time into “change.” However, if time is a necessary component of the world, if it is a substance, then we have big problem regarding its identity and measure. We measure distance with distance (meter, inch, mile, etc.) , weight with weight (kilogram, ounce, ton, etc.) , volume with volume (liter, cup, centimeter cube). However, we cannot measure time with time, unless we reduce it to “change” or something else that we could comprehend.

Again what is time?

In order to answer this question, first, we should distinguish the change or motion of external things in space (conventional measure of time) from our mental perception of internal and external changes. It is the later one which creates the sense of time. We use the motion of heavenly bodies or clock in order for convenience and convention. Again, it is not the motion of bodies, or time-space interaction that is puzzling us, but it is the our mental state, our perception of time that is puzzling us.

“All (some) propositions about time or about the temporal aspects of things are such that they would be false in any world devoid of conscious beings. The thesis that this is so might be referred to as the thesis of the total (partial) mind-dependence of time.” (Newton-Smith, 12).

We all have a feeling of “time” that we cannot reduce to a mere change. Since it is our perception of change. It is the by-product of interaction of neurons in our brain. We can still feel the flow of time in a dark room with our ear and eyes closed. It is a neurophysiological or a neuropsycological event. In general, we have a good experience how to relate those neural interaction with interactions taking place in external world. In small discrepancies we rely on external changes. For instance, while sleeping, our perception of neuronal activity (time) slows down, probably because of slow interaction of dendrites, or because the center of metacognition (if there is such a center) is in resting mode. But, when we wake up we prefer to accept the movement of the sun as the criterion for time. This is entirely for practical purposes. We need to synchronize our internal movements with external movements in our daily life.

If everything stood still, then there could not have been time. If you have problem in accepting this, it is because you cannot freeze your mind (neural activity) while thinking on a totally still universe. Obviously, everything cannot stand still if you are still alive and thinking.

Since the speed of light is constant, anything moving in speed of light cannot have internal movements. This will cause the perception of timelessness. In fact, there cannot be “perception” of timelessness at all, since perception is a function of life, a neurobiological process. It is just timelessness. Unperceived timelessness, but predicted. Therefore, we cannot imagine timelessness in speed of light. P.C.W. Davies, a mathematician in King’s College, London, supports the same conclusion: “For this reason it is sometimes said that a light beam experiences no time at all to travel any distance, however large.” (Davies, 39).

According to this understanding we can only go back in time if we can reverse the movements of all atoms (including the atoms in our brain) exactly in the same order. In other words, if we could repeat the exact spatial relation and coordination of all atoms in a particular point in history we could have a temporal jump or reverse the direction of time.

Indeed, by opening back the files of our memory we can repeat the same neural activity in a certain degree and remember previous changes, that is time. Since, we can only refer to previous internal neural changes, we cannot have a real sense of time travel. During this recollection we may feel younger. But, if we could manage to reverse the changes occurred in our entire cellular structure, then, we could become younger. If we could reverse the change that occurred in and on things surrounding us, then we could manage to go back and live the past with those bodies regressed with us. The impossibility of this case keeps the time-travel as a mere fantasy.

I believe that there is no absolute reality of time. Time, independent of human mind is just succession of events or changes. In human mind, however, it is the perception of both internal and external events or changes. Like our feelings and thoughts, time is a product of our brain. It may be just a by-product. I agree with Kant’s description of time in terms of subjective condition of our intuition:

“. . . we regard time as merely the subjective condition under which all our intuitions take place. . . Time is therefore merely a subjective condition of our (human) intuition, (which is always sensuous, that is, so far as we are affected by objects), and in itself, independently of the mind or subject, is nothing. . . we deny to time all claim to absolute reality. . “. (Kant, 252-253)

In short, the puzzle of time is not caused by our language, but by our natural mental-state. The question “what is time” is more puzzling than the question “what is pain” or “what is love,” since time is a continuous feeling. It is a background noise. We feel it all the time. How interesting that I am compelled to use “time” to describe “time.” Unfortunately, when we don’t feel the flow of time, as in state of unconsciousness or in deep sleep, we cannot taste and savor that feeling. This is the fate of Homo-Sapiens who cannot think with a frozen brain.

PS: Written in 1999 for a grad level philosophy course taught by Professor Ralph Shane who introduced me to Wittgenstein.

Works Cited

Bahm, Archie J. Metaphysics: An Introduction, World Books, Albuquerque, 1974.

Bouwsma, O.K. Philosophical Essays, The Mystery of Time, University of Nebrasca Press, Lincoln, 1965.

Davies, P.C. W. Davies, Space and Time in The Modern Universe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977.

Findlay, J.N. Wittgenstein: a Critique, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston, 1984.

Harrison, Jonathan. Dr. Who and the Philosophers, Puzzles, Paradoxes, and  Problems, Edited by Peter A. French and Curtis Brown, St. MartinÕs Press, New York, 1987. 222-230.

Kant, Immanual. Of Time.  Puzzles, Paradoxes, and Problems, Edited by Peter A. French and Curtis Brown, St. MartinÕs Press, New York, 1987. 251-254.

Newton-Smith, W. H. The Structure of Time, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1980.

Suter, Ronald. Interpreting Wittgenstein: A Cloud of Philosophy, a Drop of Grammar, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1989.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. The Blue and Brown Books, Herper Torchbooks, New York, 1993.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, 1968. . .