Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/02/2011

A birthday lament: Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (or is it?)

space time

space time

Tomorrow I will have one of those birthdays a milestone in the march to eternity. I’m thinking about the passing of time—the new year and my birthday.

Sebastian Bach understood the human vexation at the passing of time. His expression of melancholy at the ending of the old year (Das Alte Jahr vergangen ist means “The Old Year Is Gone”) is a short elegaic embellishment for organ of the hymn tune Das Alte Jahr. For the good of your soul, you ought to listen to it.

(A splendid recording is at:

The old year now hath passed away;
We thank Thee, O our God today,
That Thou hast kept us through the year
When danger and distress were near.

I say you should listen to the music “for the good of your soul,” not “for the edification of your mind.” The argument about the “purpose” of art is too vast to enter here. However, I wonder if the edification of the mind might lead one to question in an unsettling way the premise about the old year passing away.

Do you remember when you were a kid wondering if everyone sees “red” the same way? I used to spend more time than was warranted pondering if what is red to me is something different to you. How do we know we experience a color the same way? I know about the physics of the spectrum, the retina, optic nerves and brain receptors. I’m not thinking about how it works. I’m thinking about the truly impenetrable mystery: does red impinge on your consciousness as it does on mine?

Describe for me what you experience as “red” —without telling me any of that scientific stuff. Just” red.” Tell me what it looks like. You can’t. What if what you see as red is what I see as blue? What you “see” as that color is what you’ve been taught to call “red.” What I see I’ve been taught to call “red;” my parents told me to call that experience “red” even though they had no idea what my experience was.

So tell me how you experience the passage of time. Sagging skin. Minimization of memory capacity—with the conumdrum that we have more memories even if we can bring fewer of them to consciousness. Cities built. Presidents elected. iPhones invented. Loved ones dying. We know what the passage of time looks, feels, sounds like. We’re certain we know the differences among past, present, and future.

Suppose that it were then discovered that experiences of phenomenal redness were due to an internal brain process that was not correlated with external states of affairs at all; experiences of phenomenal redness were more akin to headaches or dizzy spells than to visual perceptions of external features of the world, and any apparent correlation between the sensations and the presence of putatively red objects was just coincidence (1).

Simon Prosser and I have too much time on our hands. Or we have crossed the line into some sort of unacceptable speculation that puts us in the category of persons who need to be protected from themselves. But here’s what I think. My celebrating myself, my existence, my consciousness tommorow has nothing to do with time passing.

(You can read about Simon Prosser at:

I’m not going to try to explain Dr. Prosser’s argument because I don’t really understand it, and it would just give you a headache. I’m grateful I stumbled upon his article (searching a data base for “temporal lobe epilepsy”—the search found “temporal”—so much for “artificial intelligence”).

If it’s possible (you have to admit the possibility) that “any apparent correlation between the sensations and the presence of putatively red objects [is] just coincidence,” then experiencing the passage of time may be something akin to coincidence, too. I can’t explain how Dr. Prosser arrived at his idea, but I can say that I discovered the same probablilty on my own.

The night I had my epiphany about time, I was at first terrified, and then somehow comforted by the idea that there is no time. I was in high school. I lay in the grass on a hillside in Chadron State Park in the far northwest corner of Nebraska on a midsummer night. It was after “lights out” at our Baptist camp. There was hardly any people-made light on the hillside. I could see every star in the universe (that’s how the night seemed to me). Suddenly (it was sudden, out of nowhere, unbidden and unexpected) came the blinding and terrifying question, “Where does it end?” And the answer, “It’s infinite; it doesn’t end.” And the rejoinder, “There has to be an end.” And silence—both on the hillside and in my brain.

I was terrified. And then I thought, if there is no end, then there is no beginning, and that probably means there is no space either. Everything is in one place. And all time is now. It’s a lie that I was somewhat comforted by this. If all time is now, then what do concepts such as “eternal life” mean? And why do I “remember” what happened yesterday? And what’s a birthday?

Those questions have been dragging me down ever since. The comfort used to be the idea that figuring out what I mean by all of that might make sense out of my existence. The comfort now is it doesn’t matter. Re-enter Simon Prosser.

. . . the laws of physics can be expressed in a way that makes no commitment regarding temporal passage. These laws. . .  need say nothing about temporal passage. . . the sequence of events that occur – is not influenced or determined by temporal passage. So the passage of time is epiphenomenal – it has no role to play in shaping the physical world, and hence. . . it has no role in shaping experience. The nature of experience is independent of the putative passage of time (2).

I’ve read other such writing. Dr. Prosser’s writing did not suddenly—after fifty years’ waiting—affirm what I had thought since that Chadron State Park evening. Stumbling upon his article which more poetically and elegantly says these things than any other I’ve read, as I was thinking about aging—not in time but in non-time—makes perfect sense to me. I think his poetry was already in my mind that night on the hillside.

There is no real passage of time. What we refer to by ‘the passage of time’ is an illusory feature of conscious experience. . . while physical events can have various physical causes and can be explained in terms of these, the passage of time is not a cause of physical events and has no role of any kind in shaping the physical world (3).

At the very least, if the passage of time is a cause of physical events, we have little ability to understand it. And if we do, what are we to do with the knowlege? Jean-François Lyotard has helped to put the knowledge into perspective. He asks if it is possible to know that

. . . this conduct, or that utterance, is not just, whereas this one is? . . . What allows us to decide is not that which has been attained, but that which remains to be attained; it is ahead of us, like an Idea. . . of time. . . a horizon of things to be done in order to judge things already done. . . this horizon [cannot be defined] since there is no possible knowledge of it (4).

The idea of the passage of time. The idea. Of the idea there can be no possible knowledge.

To counter Bach’s lament, one might want to listen to “The Quartet for the End of Time,” by Olivier Messiaen. And ponder the double meaning: music without a time signature to signify the end of the understanding of time.
(1) Prosser, Simon. ” Could We Experience the Passage of Time?” Ratio 20.1 (2007): 80.
(2) Ibid. 82.
(3) Ibid. 81.
(4) Lyotard, Jean-François and Jean-Loup Thébaud. Just Gaming. Trans. Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985, p. 83.


  1. Hey Harold, fascinating stuff I find googling for something to say about Das alte Jahr. Also, interesting questions about color. The concept of perfect pitch is absurd, in my estimation, because the frequency of, say, A, has varied so much through the ages. However the frequency of red is fixed and thus perfect color is possible. My mother had it, and could go to the store to buy thread without needing to take along a sample bit of cloth to insure a match.


  2. […] school, I went to Baptist Summer Camp and had a meaning-shattering experience (not the one I’ve written about before). We campers were asked to dedicate our lives to Christ. (To some, the following may seem […]



%d bloggers like this: