"What is this time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know." With this single quote from St. Augustine (Confessions, 11:14), J.T. Fraser introduces the universal tension within the human psyche: the difference between time felt at a basic emotional level, and time understood as an intellectual subject of inquiry. Drawing upon the humanities, as well as the biological sciences, Fraser does not try to resolve this tension, but rather to follow out the implications of this tension for individuals and society. In so doing, his final goal is the production of a unified theory of time.
Fraser turns in particular to the humanities because he sees as its raison d'etre the relief of the tension brought about by the conflict between time felt and time understood. He does not seek to derive from each humanistic discipline a single underlying understanding of this tension, but rather embraces the multiplicity of interpretations. From this pluralistic perspective he wishes to begin the process of building a unified understanding of time. In drawing from the humanities, with its many drastically different fields of study, though, Fraser has run into four systematic problems:
- Jargon: Every discipline within the humanities has a specialized vocabulary, precisely tooled for use on its subject of inquiry. This vocabulary is not mutually intelligible among humanists.
- Proof: Every discipline has a different notion about what constitutes proof of an argument. What is theoretically acceptable to one humanist is mere conjecture to another.
- Schooling: Because the body of knowledge in any one discipline is so vast, it is not possible for any one person to be equally schooled in every discipline.
- Personality: Every discipline has a particular character to its research, and this attracts people of like character to a given discipline. Different humanistic fields, however, attract people of different characters. Researchers trying to cross multiple humanistic disciplines may find themselves involved in a clash of personalities that prevents a unified approach.
Fraser believes the diversity brought about by these irreconcilable differences is not divisive but provides the building blocks for a unified theory of time. What is required is a system that can put them together. He calls this system the "Hierarchical Theory of Time," which he envisions as a nested hierarchy of levels of increasing complexity.
These nested levels represent qualitatively different temporalities, for both time and the perception of time have evolved. In one sense, time is physically different than it was when the universe first came into being. As the universe continues to change physically, so too will time change. In the humanistic sense, it is the perception of time that has changed, as humans have biologically evolved with different concepts of the world than those of our ancestral species.
This biological evolution, and the different perceptions of time that it implies, are played out in every moment in our brain. Our brain functions in one sense as a unitary organ, but evolutionarily it contains different brains: one that controls autonomic function, one that perceives the world in the moment, and one that understands the world intellectually. By this understanding, the biological self that understands only the moment is in perpetual conflict with the intellectual self that conceives of past, present, future, and the possibility of eternity.
This, then, at its root is the conflict that underlies the tension of time felt and time understood. People can never resolve the fact that we live in the moment, but dream of the eternal.