Cutting-Edge Science Confirms Ideas in This Blog DeconstructingTimeAlmost five years ago, when I started this blog, I began with these words:
"While time exists independently of human beings, our perception and experience of time is uniquely human. I believe it is the modern human -- i.e., Homo sapiens sapiens -- sense of time that is the key difference between humans and the other animals."
It turns out that these ideas are now current thinking. A recent article in the New York Times said this:
"We are misnamed. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, the “wise man,” but ...what makes us wise? What sets us apart from other animals? What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight [ED: my emphasis] created civilization and sustains society.
"A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects."
But contemplating the future is intimately connected both to a sense of time and to our abilities to recall the past.
The Times article goes on to say:
" ...studies of children’s development show that they’re not able to imagine future scenes until they’ve gained the ability to recall personal experiences, typically somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5.
"Perhaps the most remarkable evidence comes from recent brain imaging research.
When recalling a past event, the hippocampus must combine three distinct pieces of information — what happened, when it happened and where it happened — that are each stored in a different part of the brain. Researchers have found that the same circuitry is activated when people imagine a novel scene [ED: that is imagining the future]."
This key ability to remember and work with "what happened, when it happened and where it happened" is essentially the idea I put forward for in my blog about virtual human meta-time. By human meta-time I meant our shared ability to imagine and conceptualize space and time in the past, present and future which requires the ability to remember and conceive of things with the basic attributes of "what, when and where." See my full blog about this:
The article in the New York Times adds:
that was powered by wireless transmission.
This idea has now been put into practice more than 100 years later, but not on a large scale.
But there is one more intriguing idea that this article from the Times suggests.
The central point is that "forethought" is what distinguishes humans from other animals. The article says:
"Our singular foresight [ED: my emphasis] created civilization and sustains society.
"A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects."
But the idea of human nature and "forethought" is ancient going back thousands of years to the myth of Prometheus. The Greek god Prometheus was not only associated with forethought, his name actually meant "forethought." While most people know that he stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, they may not know that according to the Greeks he was the father of mankind, that he made humans from clay, or in another telling of the myth the godly benefactor of humankind. So the idea of forethought has been associated with humankind for a very long time.
Forethought was a fundamental ability that Prometheus passed onto humans as he taught them a variety of skills such as how to tell time from the stars, how to farm and how to sail ships -- all of which required a sense of time and planning. And, of course, he famously stole fire from the gods, but even so tending a fire and having the tools and fuel to make and sustain fire required planning and forethought.
It seems that modern science has now come full circle to confirm an idea that has been an integral part of the Western heritage.
This is not unusual as many ancient Greek ideas such as 'catharsis' -- an idea put forward by Aristotle in 335 BCE -- are part of our thinking. Meteorology, the study of weather, was a term coined by Aristotle in 350 BCE. Terms like "a siren song" or an "odyssey" are part of our everyday language. And the word astronaut was derived in part from the Greek legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece as those adventurous sailors were called Argonauts. Plus the word psychology and the science of psychology comes from the Greek god Psyche, the goddess of the soul.
To understand the detailed and intimate relationship between human beings and a concept of time and forethought, I want to delve into ancient sources in an attempt to shed some light on ancient thinking.
According to Greek mythology Prometheus made humans out of clay and so he was the father of mankind. Or in another version of the story, he was the benefactor of humankind who endowed humans with all their uniquely human traits at the very beginning. But in addition he passed onto humans his ability to think and plan for the future. As I have said, Prometheus was not only associated with the idea of forethought, his very name meant forethought.
Word origin of 'Prometheus'
[Greek] Prometheus, lit., forethought <promēthes, thinking before> < pro-, before (see pro) + mathein, to learn (see mathematics)>
Collins English Dictionary
As the father of humankind, he taught humans how to tell time and also how to calculate and and use numbers, in part to work with time. According to the playwright Aeschylus, telling time was the first skill he taught humans and was necessary for all the other skills or 'arts' that Prometheus showed humans.
In the following passage from Prometheus Bound, Prometheus said "Listen to the miseries that beset mankind--how they were witless before and I made them have sense and endowed them with reason... [They] managed everything without judgment, until I taught them to discern the risings of the stars and their settings, which are difficult to distinguish." [ED: i.e., how to tell time and the timing of the seasons by the stars]
I think it is significant that Prometheus first taught 'primitive' humans about time and then numbers (see the full passage next) -- an essential skill when measuring or referring to time -- before he went on to talk about the arts that he taught humans. In other words telling time was the key that opened the door to learning the skills and crafts that created civilization.
Here is the full passage from Prometheus Bound:
"[After stealing fire from the gods Prometheus instructed mankind in the arts :]
Prometheus : Listen to the miseries that beset mankind--how they were witless before and I made them have sense and endowed them with reason. I will not speak to upbraid mankind but to set forth the friendly purpose that inspired my blessing. First of all, though they had eyes to see, they saw to no avail; they had ears, but they did not understand ; but, just as shapes in dreams, throughout their length of days, without purpose they wrought all things in confusion. They had neither knowledge of houses built of bricks and turned to face the sun nor yet of work in wood; but dwelt beneath the ground like swarming ants, in sunless caves. They had no sign either of winter or of flowery spring or of fruitful summer, on which they could depend but managed everything without judgment, until I taught them to discern the risings of the stars and their settings, which are difficult to distinguish.
"Yes, and numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them, and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Mousai's (Muses') arts, with which to hold all things in memory." [ED: So in addition to telling time with the stars, he showed them how remember things.]
There is no definitive Greek 'Bible', as there is in the Judeo-Christian tradition, that tells one single story of Prometheus. Various versions list the following 'arts' that Prometheus taught humans.
He taught men the art of mining and forging of the metals bronze, iron, silver, and gold (Prometheus Bound).
He took credit for the domestication of working animals (Prometheus Bound): "I, too, first brought brute beasts beneath the yoke to be subject to the collar and the pack-saddle, so that they might bear in men's stead their heaviest burdens; and to the chariot I harnessed horses and made them obedient to the rein..."
And he invented the sailing ship (Prometheus Bound): "It was I and no one else who invented the mariner's flaxen-winged car that roams the sea."
A modern compilation of the various myths said:
"He taught men how to farm, build wagons and houses, to tell time from the stars, and how to read, write, count and calculate. He taught them metallurgy and navigation plus many other arts."
Phil Simpson, Guidebook to the Constellations: Telescopic Sights, Tales, and Myths
Another modern source said:
"It is also said that Prometheus fancied mankind and, according to Hyginus' Fabulae, he taught them how to keep fire alive when they first got it from the gods. He also taught them how to predict future from their dreams, how to make remedies from the plants, how to live and share with each other and also instructed them into occult art among many other things."
In perhaps the most complete version of the story by Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound, Prometheus said (speaking of himself in third person), "-- every art possessed by man comes from Prometheus." This passage indicates that ancient people believed Prometheus instructed humans in all the various arts, crafts and skills that created civilization.
All the 'arts' as Prometheus called them, required a detailed understanding of process. And process requires a sophisticated understanding of time -- what to do, with what, in what order, and by what time. So all of the skills that Prometheus gave men involved an understanding of time.
Farming is a good example. A farmer had to have seeds that he saved from the previous growing season, he had to know when to prepare the ground and when to plant and when to harvest. He had to have a number of tools to till the soil plus work animals to help him plow the fields along with harnesses, feed and shelter for the work animals. All of this required complex planning along with a way to measure and understand the passage of time and an understanding of what must be done in what order.
A modern interpretation
of the Prometheus myth
(14) "And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
(16) "And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also."
In conclusion, my guess is that the Prometheus myth might yield other insights into the human condition, if modern scientists take a closer look.
The incredibly intuitive ancient Greeks said most of what I have written about the human sense of time through their mythology. In this other version of the myth Prometheus does not create humans but is given the task of endowing humans with unique traits.
"Prometheus was said to be wise and possessed the gift of foresight and often considered what would be needed several years in the future."
The brother of Prometheus, Epimetheus, who was rash and impulsive, was given the job of creating the animals, fishes and birds. Prometheus, a god who was wise and had the power of foresight, took his time making man out of clay. Yet when it came to giving man attributes, it turned out that this brother of Prometheus had already given most qualities away.
"Epimetheus began by giving the best traits to the animals — swiftness, courage, cunning, stealth, and the like — and he wound up with nothing to give to man. So Prometheus took the matter in hand and gave man an upright posture like the gods."
Yet since the natural qualities of fur, flight and strength etc. and had been taken, Prometheus went a step further to help mankind. He famously stole fire from the gods.
"Fire was bestowed upon mankind by Prometheus and with it came the beginning of civilization. Prometheus taught man how to craft tools from iron ore. He showed them how to plant crops and live through agriculture. Man learnt to craft weapons to defend themselves from wild animals. With fire they learnt to survive cold winters and defy the seasons. With fire man began to thrive and became superior to the animals of the wild."
In stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus also taught humans how to think ahead because starting a fire, keeping a fire going, cutting wood for the winter -- all took forethought, the skill needed to master time.
By stealing fire from the gods, teaching men crafts and agriculture, Prometheus, the god of forethought, gave man the gift of long term time, a quality more powerful than claws and sharp teeth. He taught humans about planning, about steps in a process, about the concept of 'when'. So only humans were given the ability to understand this dimension of time -- something the creatures impulsively made by his brother, Epimetheus, did not have.