Julius-Thomas Fraser:
"Time, Passion and Knowledge" (1975)

(Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Founder of the International Society for the Study of Time (1966), the Hungarian-born social scientist JT Fraser wrote a series of books on the subject of Time, the first one being "Time, Passion and Knowledge" (1975). The good news is that the book is as interdisciplinary as it gets, often taking detours even into poetry and the visual arts. The bad news is that Fraser writes in an often obscure style, probably influenced by contemporary psychiatry and French philosophy.

The essence of his philosophy of time is an Hegel-ian view of time as a hierarchy of conflicts. Fraser denies the existence of one universal time as a single coherent feature of the world. He believes in various nested levels ("umwelt") of time, a hierarchy of temporalities. The lowest umwelt (of pure electromagnetic radiation) is atemporal: if you lived in that umwelt, you would perceive no passage of time, everything happened at once. The quantum physical universe of elementary particles, that can only be described in probabilistic terms, is prototemporal: time and space cannot be distinguished yet (causation is limited to connectedness). The umwelt of objects is eotemporal: events can be ordered in a succession, but there is no preferred direction, and therefore there is no "now", just a simple asymmetry between ordering in one direction or ordering in the other one. Causes and effects are interchangeable, a beginning cannot be distinguished from an ending. The umwelt of living beings introduces biological intentionality, which is driven by needs and directed toward goals for the purpose of survival: this umwelt is biotemporal, i.e. it exhibits a forward time direction. Connectedness and intentionality are finally separated at this level, and therefore one can talk about causality. Human, whose biological needs and goals are expressed through symbolic thinking, beings are nootemporal: time is not only directional but we also sharply distinguish between past and future. The human brain has long-term memory. Causality now involves free will. Beginning is identified with "my" birth and ending with "my" death. Fraser believes that humans became first aware of the future, because we need, first and foremost, to avoid death. Past emerged later, in historical times, and present was the last temporal notion to enter our mind. He notes that children, whose development recapitulates evolution, form expectations much earlier than they develop memories. Finally, human society exhibits sociotemporality.

As each level/umwelt unresolvable contradictions emerge, and they yield the foundations for the upper unwelt, which has its own new set of contradictions.

He tries to find support for his theory of conflict in Godel's theorem and Heisenberg's principle. Worse: he spends quite a bit of time digging into Freud's psychoanalytical theory. These are the sections that sound implausible and, frankly, outdated. Using Freudian theory to explain why humans developed a sense of the future first, of the past later and of the present only recently, Fraser posits that the subconscious repressed the present and the past for as long as it could.

The human mind is a symbolic representation of the state of the brain, the brain being located in the biotemporal umwelt while the mind is located in the nootemporal umwelt. The self is the symbol that does not have an external reference. The human being is more than a mere modeler and mapper of the world: s/he is also an active creator of that world. The central nervous system is the organ that accounts for our sense of time.

As for knowledge, Fraser finds a triadic motivation: seeking the true, doing what is good, and admiring what is beautiful. There are therefore three modes of knowledge: the true, the good and the beautiful. He defines good and evil based on what means are used to solve conflicts: emergence or catastrophe. He believes that art is the supreme manifestation of knowledge, because "it imitates the cosmic process of the emergence of unresolvable conflicts". The "beautiful" offers the most intimate knowledge of the hierarchy of umwelts and their temporalities.

We are "the" time-knowing species. This is an existential tragedy, because we have a stronger perception of the conflict between the expected and the encountered. The biotemporal self that lives in the moment is in perpetual conflict with the nootemporal self that perceives the flow of time towards death. The human psychology is shaped by the conflict between time felt and time understood.

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