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Other papers on this website:

Evolution, Time & Order Paper

The 1993 AHP transcript-Part One

Selections from the 1993 AHP transcript

PhD Commentary

An Open Letter to Sam Harris

Art & the MOQ by Robert Pirsig

An Introduction to
 Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality

An MOQ Summary by Robert Pirsig

Khoo Hock Aun's Paper

David Buchanan's Art & Morality Paper

Pirsig Annotations on Copleston

Gavin Gee-Clough's "Brisbane Winter" Paper 

 Henry Gurr's MOQ presentation


Sneddon Thesis

- Part One


Sneddon Thesis - Part Two

David Buchanan's 2006 Paper

Observer Interview

Notes on the tetralemma

The MOQ & Education

Pirsig & Pragmatism

Chai at the Lazy Lounge


The MOQ and Time


Dr Anthony McWatt



The concepts of change[i] and time are not discussed directly in Pirsig’s published work though as these underlie the evolving nature of static patterns in the MOQ, it’s important their position in the system is clarified.  In this brief paper then, we will examine change, sensed time and the two key theories of mathematical time elucidated by Newton and Einstein.  The latter are differentiated from sensed time in reference to Northrop’s concepts by intuition and postulation and the popular work of Stephen Hawking[ii] and John Barrow.



As elucidated in Chapter 2 of my PhD thesis, logical priority in the MOQ is given to Dynamic Quality before all intellectual concepts.  This includes ‘time’ as Pirsig (1997d) illustrates:

It’s important to keep all ‘concepts’ out of Dynamic Quality.  Concepts are always static.  Once they get into Dynamic Quality they’ll overrun it and try to present it as some kind of a concept itself.  I think it’s better to say that time is a static intellectual concept that is one of the very first to emerge from Dynamic Quality.  That keeps Dynamic Quality concept-free…

The MOQ starts with the source of undifferentiated perception itself as the ultimate reality.  The very first differentiation is probably ‘change’.  The second one may be ‘before and after’.  From this sense of ‘before and after’ emerge more complex concepts of time.

In the MOQ, therefore, ‘time’ and ‘change’ are intellectual static patterns which are often thought of (in some interpretations of experience such as Newton’s) as having an independent, objective existence.  If change is illusory the logical primacy of Dynamic Quality (in the MOQ) would not be affected. 

The evolution described in the MOQ exists within static patterns only.  There is no evolution in Dynamic Quality.  With Dynamic Quality there is no contradiction and no agreement.  Contradiction and agreement are functions of static intellectual patterns.  (Pirsig, 1998c)

Nevertheless, as the idea of cosmological evolution is an important component of the MOQ, if the process of change was illusory this would throw doubt on the viability of Pirsig’s system as a moral framework i.e. without change, evolution couldn’t occur and, therefore, no moral hierarchy could be developed employing evolutionary criteria.  The ontological status of change will, therefore, be explored in the next section.



As apparent from the above, Pirsig perceives the concept of time as a sophisticated development of the concept of change.  The difficulty with change as a basis for a definition of time is that (since the era of the Ancient Greeks) doubts have been put forward concerning its ontological status.  Certainly, from the static viewpoint of the MOQ, modern scientific evidence strongly indicates that physical reality (from the quantum level upwards) does continually alter and that even language and ideas seem rarely to survive without modification especially over periods of hundreds or thousands of years.  Chaucer (c.1382) understood this and his Middle English is now a literal illustration of his point:

Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge

With-inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho

That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge

Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so.

For Pirsig, the changing particulars are secondary to the constant underlying reality of Quality which, like Plato’s Good, is the primary reality where truth though important for discovering knowledge (about the Good) is secondary.[iii]  ‘It is the cause of knowledge and truth; and so, while you may think of it as an object of knowledge, you will do well to regard it as something beyond truth and knowledge and, as precious as these both are, of still higher worth.’  (Plato, c.393 B.C., Book VI, Chapter XXIV, para.508)  However, the difference between Pirsig and Plato is that the constant and non-constant are integrated in the MOQ while Plato divides the changing particulars of empirical reality (such as horses) from the Forms (such as horse-ness). 

Philosophologists[iv] sometimes try to identify the MOQ with Plato but Plato considers the Good to be a subspecies of form[v] while the MOQ considers form to be a subspecies of Good.  That is a huge difference.  (Pirsig, 2001d)

I would suggest that as evolutionary theory shows even ‘horse-ness’ changes over millions of years and is never constant, it’s the Dynamic element of reality that is more fundamental than the static one.

Moreover, without change, it’s difficult to understand the appearance of biological life from inorganic matter or how it evolved further into the intellectual and social patterns that exist today.  From the perspective of comparing the universe at the time of the ‘Big Bang’ to now, it does appear plausible to believe that reality has continually altered.  It seems even contradictory to state an objection to the reality of change as it changes one state of affairs to another i.e. no objection at t1 to an objection at t2.  As noted in Chapter 2 of my PhD thesis, one famous example of such an objection comes from Parmenides which is examined next.


Parmenides’ belief that reality is changeless relies on the assumption that non-being is impossible and, therefore, being must be necessary and always exists.  If being always exists then it can neither come into existence nor out of it.   If a property (of something) cannot cease to come into being or begin to come into being, then change must be unreal as change depends on properties coming into and disappearing from being.  However, Parmenides’ reasoning contradicts his own theory.  His theory depends on the assumption that non-being is impossible yet there was a time before he thought of his theory when it was in a state of non-being.  It subsequently changed to a state of being when he thought of it.  Therefore, his theory could not have come into existence without there being change.

From the standpoint of contemporary physics, the Parmendians [sic] were right to claim a distinction between appearance and reality but wrong in their claim where the illusion lies.  What is illusory is constancy, not change.  (Di Santo & Steele, 1990, p.160)

Clark (1999) argues that Parmenides’ theory concerning change could be an absolute truth (having the same ontological status as a Platonic form): ‘If true, always true’ and, therefore, existing before Parmenides discovered it.  However, there still was change in Parmenides conscious mind from not having the theory (that change is illusory) to having this theory.  Moreover, it appears that Parmenides is conflating a description of reality (i.e. being) that by definition can’t cease to exist with reality itself and is, therefore, begging the question in the first place. 

On the other hand, from the Dynamic sense of the MOQ, Parmenides is, strictly speaking, correct as the concept of ‘change’ is an abstraction from Dynamic Quality and, therefore, (as with anything abstracted) doesn’t exist in an absolute sense.   Possibly, the koan-like theories of Parmenides and Zeno indicate (and they may have shared similar thinking to Zen masters for such verbal conundrums) the error of assigning absolute truth to a static concept when reality is fundamentally dynamic. 



Nevertheless, though change may not be an absolute, it is a ‘concept by intuition’ (as understood by Northrop)[vi] and seems more fundamental than even the ‘I’ given in Descartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum.’  As far as the related concept of time is concerned, Northrop (1947, p.196) elucidates the important distinction between ‘sensed time’ and ‘mathematical time’: 

Newton, in the Scholium at the beginning of his Principia, points out that sensed time and sensed space (i.e., denoted by concepts by intuition) are not to be confused with ‘true or mathematical’ time or space (i.e., designated by concepts by postulation) with which physics is concerned.  One reason for the difference is that whereas the time of physical theory is postulated as flowing uniformly, the time given to the senses flows unevenly.  He goes on to add that anyone who confuses the two is guilty of a vulgar ignorance.

Northrop (1947, p.86) notes that Newton’s employment of concepts by intuition and postulation in the context of time is continued by Einstein:

Recently, Albert Einstein has replaced Newton’s postulates for mechanics with a different set.  But in Albert Einstein’s theory the same distinction exists between postulated time which flows ‘equably’ and sensed time which flows non-uniformly. Thus, contemporary as well as traditional modern physics distinguishes between concepts by intuition and concepts by postulation and formulates its theory in terms of the latter.

This type of conceptual division is supported by the psychologist William Friedman (1990, p.5) who notes a historical differentiation between sensed concepts of time and absolute notions of time: 

Much of the history of the philosophy of time is a series of attempts to find time’s essence, whether in nature or in consciousness.  Among those conceptions tying time to the physical world, time has been defined as motions, as the succession of events, and as an absolute, universal framework.  Mentalist definitions refer to the perception of succession and simultaneity or the succession of ideas in consciousness. 

Yet, despite Newton’s and Einstein’s apparent realisation that the term ‘time’ refers to two (or more) distinct contexts, Friedman (1990, p.5) observes there still remains a ‘common tendency’ to treat time as a single entity: 

Perhaps the fact that we have a single word for time has seduced us into searching for its essence.  However, at least from a psychological point of view, it seems far more productive to consider the many things that time is, in the world, and the many ways in which human beings experience it.


A concept by intuition is always known through direct perception.  Examples of concepts by intuition are sounds, smells, (perceived) colours, pains, pleasures and sensed time.  Though it is possible to judge the passing of sensed time by immediately perceptible changes (such as hunger or the position of the sun) it flows non-uniformly.  For instance, a prison sentence might go very slowly at the time yet, retrospectively, seem very quick (maybe due to the relatively lack of interesting events) while an enjoyable holiday might fly past at the time yet seem much slower when looking back (maybe due to the relative abundance of exciting events); the memory of experience seemingly prone both to contraction and expansion. 

If (biological) evolution had taken another path, it seems possible that sensed time for human beings would now be quite different.  For instance, if temperatures drop only slightly above zero, cold blooded animals such as crocodiles and tortoises lose the ability to see movement; a hummingbird flying past is not visible to them.   A human being can see the hummingbird though its wings aren’t perceivable while a falcon, whose sense of time passes relatively more slowly, can see the hummingbird’s wings.[vii]  Moreover, it seems apparent that the usual limits of temporal awareness for human beings depend on body temperature and can be altered with the increase or decrease of certain chemicals.  It has been noticed in humans that an increase of adrenaline production slows the passage of sensed time so that in times of danger there is an increased ability to act.  Undoubtedly, this is why people involved in car accidents or other life threatening situations talk about ‘time slowing down.’  In addition, there is anecdotal evidence that artificial chemicals such as LSD and cannabis affect temporal awareness.[viii]  Though, it can be assumed that sensed time (outside the use of drugs) has remained, more or less, constant for all human beings this is now open to radical change via genetic manipulation.

Gorman & Wessman (1977, p.44) trace the critical biological advance for temporal awareness in human beings to the development of a bigger brain; particularly an increase in the frontal association areas of the cerebral cortex. 

The evolutionary development of the brain… appears to be a necessary substrate for man’s advanced temporal awareness.  Marked advances in cranial capacity occurred sometime during the past million years, possibly earlier, according to the fossil evidence.

This temporal awareness was, no doubt, reinforced by patterns in nature such as night & day and the cycle of the four seasons.


Derived from (and logically posterior to) the concepts by intuition are ‘concepts by postulation.’  A concept by postulation refers to entities and relations known only through formal or scientific investigation.  ‘A concept by postulation is one the meaning of which in whole or part is designated by the postulates of some specific deductively formulated theory in which it occurs’.  (Northrop, 1947, p.62)  Concepts by postulation include substance, causation, subjects, objects, static value patterns, seconds, minutes, hours[ix] and phlogiston.[x]  ‘Mathematical time’ is also a concept by postulation; the two major ‘mathematical’ constructions of time being Newton’s idea of ‘absolute time’ and Einstein’s idea of ‘relative time’.

According to Hawking (2001, p.32), Newton produced the first mathematical model for space and time in 1687’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.[xi]

In Newton’s model, time and space were a background in which events took place but which weren’t affected by them.  Time was separate from space and was considered to be a single line, or railroad track, that was infinite in both directions.  Time itself was considered eternal, in the sense that it had existed, and would exist, forever.

The concept of mathematical time employed by Newton was based on the analogy between time and a geometrical straight line and was derived from Isaac Barrow (Newton’s predecessor in the chair of mathematics at Cambridge)[xii] who regarded time as absolute i.e.

Time does not employ motion, so far as its absolute and intrinsic nature is concerned; not any more than it implies rest; whether things move or are still, whether we are sleep or awake, time pursues the even tenour of its way. (Whitrow, 1988, p.128)

Theoretical mechanical and mathematical systems promoted a mechanical view of the universe and soon replaced the previous Aristotelian emphasis on substances as the primary object of scientific investigation. 

The physical sciences launched by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Boyle secured a longer and stronger hold on the cosmogony-builders than did either their forerunners or their successors.  People still tend to treat laws of mechanics not merely as the ideal type of scientific laws, but as, in some sense, the ultimate laws of nature.  (Ryle, 1949, p.74)

The belief in an absolute sense of time (in industrialized societies) seems to have been reinforced (in the late seventeenth century) with the application of mechanical ideas by philosophers such as Descartes and the invention of accurate mechanical clocks that could operate uniformly and continually for years.  As clocks proceeded to operate without any need for their original designer to intervene, the analogy of God as a creator of a non-telelogical mechanical universe was soon made.  This is illustrated by Robert Boyle (1627-91) who thought the world was analogous to:

A rare clock, such as may be that at Strasbourg, where all things are so skilfully contrived, that the engine being once set a-moving, all things proceed, according to the artificer’s first design, and the motions of the little statues, that at such hours perform these or those things, do not require, like those of puppets, the peculiar interposing of the artificer, or by any, intelligent agent employed by him, but perform their functions upon particular occasions, by virtue of the general and primitive contrivance of the whole engine.  (Boyle, 1686)

By the seventeenth century, the Church calendar already emphasised the regularity of Sunday every week and was continued by the Puritans who advocated a regular routine of six days of work and one day of rest.  The belief in the uniformity of time was reinforced by the development in towns of an economy based on commercial interests.  The new mercantile class soon realized that ‘time is money’ and so shifted the emphasis of time from a seasonal notion (based on agriculture) to a daily one that emphasised regularity and time-saving.[xiii]  It’s still apparent in industrialized countries that city living seems ‘faster’ than agricultural areas.  This observation is supported by a study published in 1971 by Lowin, Hottes, Sandler & Bornstein.[xiv]  They found that in U.S. towns with populations of less than 8000, the subsequently described actions took longer than in a big U.S. city (such as New York):

1. Walking 100 feet after leaving a bank;

2. Completing a postal transaction;

3. Waiting for an attendant to arrive at one’s car at a petrol station; and;

4. Purchasing cigarettes in a drugs store. 

Anecdotal evidence of the difference in the pace of life between country and city life is illustrated by Pirsig (1974, p.14/15) when recounting his motorcycle journey across the Mid-West: 

Paved country roads are the best...  Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from the porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding...

The whole pace of life and personality of the people who live along them are different.   They’re not going anywhere.  They’re not too busy to be courteous.  The hereness and nowness of things is something they know all about.  It’s the others, the ones who moved to the cities years ago and their lost offspring, who have all but forgotten it.

This observation may involve a piece of urban romanticism though the Industrial Revolution certainly increased the reliance on the clock in commerce.  There was the invention of the chronometer for use at sea (to find longitude) by John Harrison in the 1730s, a British mail coach system based on strict time-keeping was introduced in 1784, the railways employed Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) from the 1830s and international Universal Time (based on GMT) became employed from 1884.  In 1839, a railway director wisely refused to supply a compiler of railway timetables (George Bradshaw) the times of his trains, having realized ‘it would tend to make punctuality a sort of obligation.’[xv]  Moreover, there was a proliferation of pocket watches from the late eighteenth century, the manufacture of cheap Swiss watches in their millions from the 1860s, the Victorian introduction of the idea of ‘spare time’ (as a reward for hard work) and the requirement of workers to ‘clock in’ and to ‘clock out’.   In 1850, the Nepalese ruler Jang Bahadur on a visit to England observed that ‘Getting dressed, eating, keeping appointments, sleeping, getting up - everything is determined by the clock... everywhere you look, there you see a clock.  (Whitrow, 1988, p.164)  It’s therefore noticeable that modern industrialized society is dependent on time to a greater extent than any society previously recorded[xvi] and that an Enlightenment notion of time still supports an Enlightenment form of work (i.e. capitalism). 

While advanced science and personal experience may admit relativity; the practical world does not.  We are [still] regulated by the Newtonian world of timepieces.  (Gorman & Wessman, 1977, p.47)

However, this dependence on time-keeping is not a necessary facet of human life as indicated by less-industrialized societies.  P.M. Bell reports that Ugandan children in comparison to Western children (of a similar age) have a reduced notion in judging duration.  For instance, a two hour journey by bus was estimated at ten minutes by some Ugandan children while others gave a time of six hours.  Moreover, though Australian Aborigine children can read the hands of a clock as a memory exercise, they supposedly find it hard to relate the time they read to an actual time of the day.[xvii]  It has been suggested by some anthropologists such as La Barre, Lee and Whorf (1936, pp. 57-64)  that certain non-Western cultures (such as the Hopi Indians) have no concepts for time (even a relational notion) though Gorman & Wessman (1977, p.45) point out that the absence of conceptual time in some cultures is far from established:

Certainly most, and possibly all, languages possess time words and allow their speakers to communicate regarding temporal features of experience.  Also, context and paralinguistic features probably would allow implicit temporal references that might not be clearly codified in speech.  We doubt that any group could function or survive without some degree of effective communication regarding the temporal features of both the natural world and social interaction.

Finally, it seems the ability of human beings to acquire socially shared symbols and abstract relations seems to have facilitated the conceptualization of time.  Even hunter-gathering which involved activity then rest for relatively long stretches (not requiring precise time measurement) must have necessitated future planning:

Many of the significant discoveries and practices of early man clearly required foresight and planning or indicate considerable temporal awareness and concern, for example, tool making, fire making and tending, agriculture and settled habitation, and burial customs.  These prehistoric practices must have been accompanied by the development of social communication and speech, which permitted the maintenance and transmission of cultural practices and traditions.  Language facilitates memory and enhances capacity for imagination and planning, thereby extending time span into past and future. (Gorman & Wessman, 1977, p.44)


Both Einstein’s and Newton’s notion of mathematical time passes ‘equably’ and uniformly at points in space-time that are at rest with respect to each other (e.g. the stones at Stonehenge) though it is observed in Einstein’s theory of general relativity of 1915[xviii] that when points (in space-time) move at relatively different velocities in relation to each other, then time passes at different rates between the points (e.g. Stonehenge in relation to a spaceship a light year away travelling in close proximity to the speed of light).

This required abandoning the idea that there is a universal quantity called time that all clocks would measure.  Instead, everyone would have his or her personal time….  Einstein had overthrown two of the absolutes of nineteenth-century science: absolute rest, as represented by the ether,[xix] and absolute or universal time.  (Hawking, 2001, p.9/11)

As noted above, Newton’s ‘mathematical’ theory of time considered time as absolute.  Consequently, it was thought that when bodies moved or forces acted there was no effect on space or the rate of change though Einstein’s theory of general relativity indicates this as false because the curvature of space-time is affected by the distribution of matter.[xx]  In Einstein’s theory, time was no longer an independent property but was now considered as just one direction of a four-dimensional continuum termed space-time.  In consequence, it was realised that time (at least, as space-time) was distorted by physical properties such as gravity, mass and motion.  As Hawking (1988, p.38) illustrates:

Before 1915, space and time were thought of as a fixed arena in which events took place but which was not affected by what happened in it...  The situation, however, is quite different in the general theory of relativity.  Space and time are now dynamic quantities: when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time - and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. 

The typical illustration employed in support of Einstein’s relative notion of time is the flying of two accurate clocks in opposite directions around the world.  When the clock times are compared after the flights, the clock that has been in the plane flying east, records slightly less time.  (Hawking, 2001, p.9)  Another example is provided by Barrow (1988, p.104).  This is the observation that if the Newtonian theory of time were correct, then we would never observe muons[xxi] on the Earth’s surface since they are formed at an altitude of nearly 6000 metres and in their fleeting lifetime can only travel a fraction of this distance.  However, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, as the muons are travelling close to the speed of light, this 6000m distance distorts (from the muon’s point of view) to only 270 metres.  As the muon can travel this distance before it decays, it is therefore observed at the Earth’s surface.

It should be stressed that these counter-intuitive aspects of relative space and time are not just illusions or perspectives, in the way that a body appears to have a different shape when viewed at an angle...  The muons really do reach the Earth’s surface; they would not if space and time were absolute Newtonian concepts.  (Barrow, 1988, p.104)

However, as Clark (1999) notes, possibly the scientists on the day of the above experiment observed some unusually long lived muons![xxii]

As elucidated above, space and time only exist as a combined concept by postulation in the theory of general relativity: ‘It is impossible to divide the four-dimensional continuum into a three-dimensional spatial continuum and a one-dimensional temporal continuum in any way that makes sense from the objective point of view.’  (Einstein)[xxiii]  Despite this, the notion of an objective, absolute time remains the ‘common sense’ notion as noted by Hawking (2001, p.108): ‘It is the [Newtonian] view of time that most people and even most physicists have at the back of their minds.’  Though the relational theory of space-time is presently dominant in theoretical physics, it is only more accurate than Newton’s laws of time at speeds close to the speed of light.  Moreover, Newton’s laws of motion are considerably simpler to operate

Understanding the technicalities of the general theory of relativity is a truly daunting task, each separate equation is much more complicated than Newtons simple inverse square law and calculating anything useful using the full theory is beyond all but the most dedicated specialists.  While the application of Newton’s theory of gravity requires one equation to be solved, Einstein’s theory has no less than ten, which must all be solved simultaneously.  (Coles, 2000, p.22)



In the latest physical ‘Theory of Everything’ (M-theory), the universe is possibly one of many in a ‘multi-verse’ (or to describe the theory another way, the laws of physics are inconsistent and alter depending which area of the universe you are situated).  As such, Newtonian absolute time could possibly be the norm – on the larger scale of things though Hawking (2001, p. 175) does emphasise that there are significant parts of M-theory still not understood and, presently, other ‘universes’ and their laws are just speculative.  The latter point is confirmed by Penrose (1989, p.200-01) who thinks that ‘Theories of Everything’ should be only regarded as ‘tentative’ due to their relative lack of ‘significant experimental support’. 

Finally, the ‘Theories of Everything’ alluded to by Hawking and other physicists are not, strictly speaking, theories of everything as they only explain inorganic value patterns and possibly beg the issue by employing a physical theory in this fashion.  Only a theory that can explain all aspects of reality (i.e. the inorganic, biological, social, intellectual and mystical) coherently could be considered as a ‘true theory of everything’ and, as observed by chemists, even their particular field cannot be presently reduced to physical explanations; let alone the areas studied by biologists, social scientists and psychologists.  Hawking (2001, p.105) argues that, in principle, the laws of quantum electrodynamics do allow the prediction of chemical and biological patterns though such determinism only works if (physical) information is not irretrievably lost in cosmic phenomena such as wormholes and black holes.  According to Hawking (2001, p.126), this is presently an open question though if confirmed would have devastating consequences for physics:

This means that there isn’t any measurement outside the black hole that can be predicted with certainty: our ability to make definite [physical] predictions would be reduced to zero.  So maybe astrology is no worse at predicting the future than the laws of science.

Even if all physical information is retrievable, Ryle (1949, p.74-75) believes that physical laws are analogous to the rules of chess; the rules are fixed but the games are not pre-destined by them.  For instance, a scientist could observe and learn all the rules of chess but this still wouldn’t provide definite predictions of how a particular game would play out:

Physicists may one day have found the answers to all physical questions, but not all questions are physical questions.  The laws that they have found and will find may, in one sense of the metaphorical verb, govern everything that happens, but they do not ordain everything that happens.  Indeed they do not ordain anything that happens.  Laws of nature are not fiats.  (Ryle, 1949, p.75)

Ryle’s central line of reasoning is that the same process (such as an orchestra playing) can be in accordance with different types of laws that are irreducible to each other.  The laws of physics (like a chessboard) may be necessary for biological, social and intellectual laws but are not sufficient by themselves to explain them. 



‘Change’ and ‘time’ appear to be concepts founded in the biological development of the human being’s brain.  In prehistoric social groupings, the brain facilitated the learning and remembering of abstract concepts such as ‘change’, ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future.’  With writing, it became easier to distinguish past times and ages and in the era of the Ancient Greeks, philosophers were already wondering whether time had an independent physical existence or was simply a mental phenomenon.  With the emergence of Newtonian physics and the construction of the first mechanical clocks in the seventeenth century, the idea of an absolute universal time became dominant and still remains the case in the social arena of the world’s industrialized areas.  However, the formulation of general relativity by Einstein undermined the Platonic idea of an absolute universal time, time becoming just the fourth dimension of space-time which measures the physical changes in gravity, mass and motion.   This entails that three distinct entities are now referred to by the term ‘time’ in modern thinking.  These are:

1. Sensed time (a concept by intuition);

2. Newton’s absolute time (a concept by postulation); and,

3. Einstein’s space-time (also a concept by postulation).

I assume that sensed time has been, more or less, constant since the first human beings appeared.  On the other hand, the concepts by postulation (i.e. mathematical time) have changed since the first recorded times and, no doubt, will continue to do so.  ‘For although our awareness of time is a product of human evolution, our ideas of time are neither innate nor automatically learned but are intellectual constructions that result from experience and action.’ (Whitrow, 1988, p.5-6)  The provisional nature of our theories of time is supported by Hawking (1988, p.11):

Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it.  No matter how many times the results of an experiment agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory.  

And tends to support Pirsig’s caution about assigning anything objective as an absolute reality independent from any observer. 

Classical scientific reality keeps changing all the time as scientists keep discovering new conceptual explanations.  Every year they have to say ‘Well, last year we thought it was this way, but now we know what it is really like.’  …even when it is explained to them carefully the SOM people are so inured to their way of thinking that they still don’t understand.  I had one letter asking, ‘On the day before Newton was born did apples obey the law of gravity?’  I think he thought he had me trapped.

I had to answer him, ‘No.  Apples did not follow the law of gravity on the day before Newton was born.  On that day apples just fell.’  (Pirsig, 1997d)

If evolution is thought of as a process of growth then the concept of change is certainly implied by this and seems relatively straightforward.  Nevertheless, it’s not immediately obvious which notion of time should be employed if evolution is defined as ‘biological change over time.’  Possibly, the answer lies with Einstein who only allows space-time to have a non-mental existence.  As such, evolution is possibly more precisely defined as ‘change within a segment of space-time’ (rather than just ‘change over time’).  Such a revision in definition points to the difficulties that arise when a concept (and especially a concept by postulation) is thought to be absolute as Pirsig (1998d) points out (echoing Parmenides):

According to the Metaphysics of Quality, time and change did NOT act to evolve the static universe.  Only Dynamic Quality did this.  ‘Time’ and ‘change’ are primary concepts used to describe this evolution but they do not cause evolution any more than Newton’s law of gravity causes the earth to stick together.

When Pirsig states that ‘only Dynamic Quality evolved the static universe’, this  echoes Popper’s (1990, p.21) theory of propensities in that it’s ‘not the kicks from the back, from the past, that impel us but the attraction, the lure of the future and its competing possibilities, that… keeps life – and, indeed, the world – unfolding.’  In addition, it seems that the newer static levels (such as the intellectual) seem more responsive to the open-ended ‘possibilities’ of Dynamic Quality.  The inorganic patterns take millions of years to substantially change, biological patterns thousands of years, social patterns hundreds of years and ideas only decades if not minutes.   This would imply that the increase of freedom related with Dynamic Quality will become even more extended as the intellectual patterns gain control in manipulating the other levels.  Finally, it is worth noting that though this increased freedom would have benefits, it would also entail a risk towards degeneracy:

Static quality patterns are dead when they are exclusive, when they demand blind obedience and suppress Dynamic change.  But static patterns, nevertheless, provide a necessary stabilizing force to protect Dynamic progress from degeneration.  Although Dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of static quality, the quality of order, preserve our world… A tension between these two forces is needed to continue the evolution of life.  (Pirsig, 1991, p.124-25)


[i] Change is usually understood as making or becoming different, to alter or transmute something.  (Collins Concise Dictionary, 1982, p.221)

[ii] Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988) and its sequel The Universe in a Nutshell (2001).

[iii] This sentiment is also shared by Iris Murdoch (see The Sovereignty of Good, 1970).  However, Murdoch (1970 p.79) perceives no external plan or objective for human life while Pirsig assumes that the point of life is to improve its quality (while still doubting that this improvement is pre-ordained or delineated beforehand).

[iv] The term ‘philosophologist’ is employed by Pirsig to denote people who tend to study the products of other people’s philosophy rather than engage in original philosophical activity.  This distinction is also noted by Spier (1954) p.1:

Before we can enter into an examination of the philosophical system before us, we must answer the question: “What is philosophy?”  The word philosophy is commonly employed in a dual sense.  It can denote the result of philosophic activity, and it is in this sense that one speaks of the philosophy of Plato and Kant.  In this case one refers to their philosophical system, which still exists though these men have long since ceased to be active philosophically [i.e. philosophology].  Philosophy can also designate philosophic activity itself, the act of philosophizing, which is a human activity bound to our temporal life.  We shall employ the term in its second sense.’ 

Only the latter activity is deemed ‘philosophy’ by Pirsig.

[v] Though Plato considered the Good to be above all else, he still considered it as a Form (as confirmed by Book VI, Chapter XXIII of the Republic).  This reading of Plato is supported by the translator Francis Cornford (1941, p.212) who notes: ‘In Greek “the Good” is normally synonymous with “Goodness itself.”  This is the supreme Form or Essence.’

[vi] See Chapter IV of Northrop (1947) for more details of these concepts.

[vii] As shown to great effect by the award winning BBC TV wildlife programme SuperNatural: Nature’s Hidden Time Wheels first transmitted on April 20th 1999.  Tim Macmillan of BBC Graphics (the photographer) and John Downer (the producer & director) were recognised by the Royal Television Society for the innovation and content for the SuperNatural series.  The culmination of two years’ work, the programme featured ‘ground-breaking’ location and studio camerawork with a wide range of animals.  (BBC Two, 1999)

[viii] Friedman, 1990, p.14-15.

[ix] Essentially, units of time are (socially agreed) measurements of inorganic patterns.  According to Whitrow (1988, p.168), until 1952 a year was calculated from the rotation of the earth.  Between 1952 and 1967 a year was derived from astronomical observation and from 1967 was calculated from a new definition of the second (constructed in terms relating to the electromagnetic radiation of the caesium atom).  In other words, what is considered as a second, minute, day or a year is a social convention (though within an increasingly small variation).

[x] Phlogiston was formerly assumed to be a necessary constituent of all combustible material.  It is a good example of a discredited concept by postulation.

[xi] Gjertsen (1984, p.187) notes that ‘However little read, either in Newton’s own lifetime or since, no book has ever achieved the same secular fame and authority.’  In recent times, I would guess that Hawking’s A Brief History of Time comes close.

[xii] This position is now held by Hawking.

[xiii] Whitrow, 1988, p.110.

[xiv] Friedman, 1990, p.111.

[xv] Whitrow, 1988, p.160.

[xvi] With the possible exception of the Maya who, according to Whitrow (1988), were heavily dependent on time measurement for their religious life.

[xvii] Whitrow, 1988, p.7. 

[xviii] Einstein’s special theory of relativity was formulated in 1905 with assistance from Henri Poincaré.  This was successful in showing why the speed of light is constant for all observers but left a discrepancy in that gravitational effects were instantaneous i.e. faster than the speed of light.  This difficulty was only solved when Einstein postulated that space-time is curved in the theory of general relativity.  (Hawking, 1988, p.32-33)

[xix] Like phlogiston, the ether and an absolute universal time are also two concepts by postulation once thought true and then subsequently discredited.  As implied in the MOQ, this is one of the reasons why a concept of absolute truth is not a particularly good one to metaphysically hold.  Absolute certainties have a habit of being proved false!

[xx] The present acceptance of the theory of relativity is noted by Hawking (2001, p.11): ‘The theory of relativity is now completely accepted by the scientific community, and its predictions have been verified in countless applications.’

[xxi] Muons are unstable sub-atomic particles that decay on average after about one and a half micro-second i.e. one and a half millionths of a second.

[xxii] A serious point behind Clark’s comment is that the degree of accuracy required in experiments to prove new theories (such as Einstein’s) is always pushing the limits of technology to the edge.  For instance, the telescopes & photographic plates that the British astronomers Eddington & Crommelin employed in 1919 to test the theory of general of relativity (during a solar eclipse) were hardly able to measure the difference conclusively between the predictions of Newton’s and Einstein’s respective theories.  Moreover, as Eddington & Crommelin obtained only a relatively small sample of experiments, their findings were treated cautiously by the scientific community.  (Coles, 2000, pp. 34-40)

[xxiii] Einstein quoted in Capek (1975, p.361).