Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Continuity & Time

Closely related to duration, yet quite different is the concept of continuity. 

Continuity means that we expect the sun to rise every morning, we expect the road we drove down yesterday to be there tomorrow. Continuity means that things continue from the past into the present and into the future; things remain. Continuity can also incorporate a sense of change that is regular or predictable such as expecting our children to grow taller as they grow older. With continuity time in a sense stops or stops being noticed. Even though your workday was different, your house is the same when you come home and does not change, for example.

Continuity provides the framework for 'meta-time' that I wrote about in an earlier blog -- it is the basis for our mental maps of our office, our home, our favorite bar or coffee shop.

Without a sense of continuity it would be hard to function and do our jobs. We need to assume that roads are safe, that electricity will be available, that the phone will work. 

This medieval 'calendar' shows the work needed for each month, starting with January at the top. Known as the Crescenzi Calendar, it is a monthly calendar of tasks for successful farming. Adhering to these tasks at the appropriate time insured continuity. (commons.wikimedia.org)

The observance of annual rituals such as New Years and Halloween are ways that societies assert a sense of continuity -- with traditions that reach back thousands of years and that will also be celebrated in the future.

The daily news is often about a break in continuity. We expect planes to take off and land safely; we assume ships will have uneventful trips across the Pacific Ocean. So when a boat sinks or a plane crashes, this is reported.

A sense of continuity extends not only to things but also to feelings and conceptions. A middle class adult who has been to college may see the world as generally benevolent; a teen brought up in an area with gangs and drive-by shootings may see the world as dangerous.

When continuity suddenly changes, it can be quite traumatic. This is because it calls into question what we had assumed would continue. Expecting a loved one to be home by a certain time and then finding that they have been in an accident, for example, is a break in continuity.

Accidents interrupt continuity and bring about uncertainty. 

A break in continuity can also lead to artistic, creative, and conceptual leaps that see the world in a new way.

When the young Charles Darwin was on shore during his voyage on the ship, the Beagle, he experienced a severe earthquake in South America -- something he had never felt before. He wrote:
“A bad earthquake at once destroys the oldest
associations: the world, the very emblem of all that
is solid, has moved beneath our feet like a crust over
a fluid; -one second of time has conveyed to the mind
a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection
would never have created.”

Charles Darwin
In this case, Darwin's assumptions about the stability of the Earth had been upset. Rather than being rock solid, the earthquake showed that the Earth had an almost fluid nature and that it could move substantially over time. And if the Earth itself was not unchangeable, what else might be brought into question?

I believe his experience of this earthquake became a metaphor for what he himself was to do years later, i.e. create a scientific and conceptual earthquake by asserting that humans were descended and had evolved from apes. This idea was a wrenching break in the continuity of thought in which people had believed that humans had been created by a supreme being in one stroke. 

Annual rituals, such as the Chinese New Year, 
are an expression that continuity will continue. (commons.wikimedia.org)

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