Discussion 2 – time

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Synthesize the 5 tools: time, causality, logic, epistemology, and ontology with reference to the required reading Newtonian Time and Psychological Explanation  and how they relate to personality theories.

Be sure your discussion includes a minimum of 125 words and all references are in APA format. 

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Newton and Time

1
Abstract

Newton’s conception of time has had a profound influence upon science,

particularly psychology. Five characteristics of explanation have devolved

from Newton’s temporal framework: objectivity, continuity, linearity,

universality, and reductivity. These characteristics are outlined in the

present essay and shown to be central to psychological theories and methods.

Indeed, Newton’s temporal framework is so central that it often goes

unexamined in psychology. Examination is important, however, because

recent critics of Newton’s framework–including both scientists and

philosophers–have questioned its validity and usefulness.

Newton and Time

2
Newtonian Time and Psychological Explanation

Brent D. Slife, Baylor University

Perhaps no conception is more fundamental to any science than time.

If a science is concerned at all about the order, organization, and

measurement of events, then it has to have assumptions of time. Indeed, the

notion of “event” itself is wrapped up in temporal assumptions. Even “soft”

sciences, such as psychology, must adopt philosophical assumptions about

temporal order and measurement. Psychological researchers not only

measure time in many of their experiments, but psychological theorists

assume certain characteristics of time in virtually all their explanations.

What are these assumptions? Why are these assumptions used and not

others? The problem is that such questions are virtually never addressed in

psychology. With certain rare exceptions,1 psychologists have ignored the

assumption of time. They have studied how people perceive and manage

their time, but they have not examined the assumptions of time in their own

theorizing.

The reason for this is clear. At the point in history when psychology

was conceived as a discipline, time had become reified. That is, time was no

longer an “assumption;” time was a property of reality existing independently

of our consciousness. Indeed, this was the view of time implicit in our

culture. As this article will show, psychologists adopted this cultural view, in

part, because it was not recognized as a view. Several historical factors are

described below as leading to this reification. Undoubtedly, a prime factor

was Isaac Newton’s popularization of this reification in the physical sciences.

This essay outlines how Newtonian physics–the ideal of sciences during

psychology’s formative years–became a model for all that early psychologists

wished their discipline to become. Much of this model, however, involved

Newton and Time

3
Newtonian assumptions of the world that were accepted uncritically. One of

these assumptions, as this essay will show, is Newton’s own rendition of

time–Absolute Time.

The bulk of the present essay outlines how Newton’s conception of time

has influenced “scientific” explanations ever since. As we shall see, five

characteristics of explanation have devolved from Newton’s temporal

framework: objectivity, continuity, linearity, universality, and reductivity.

The article first describes each of these as it is related to Absolute Time.

Then, criticisms of this framework by philosophers and physicists are

delineated. The latter group of critics is especially important because many

contemporary physicists have abandoned these temporal characteristics (as

well as Absolute Time) in their explanations. Nonetheless, contemporary

psychology–with its identity now somewhat intact–has not looked back to

physics. This essay reveals how psychology currently maintains most, if not

all, of these temporal characteristics in its mainstream explanations of

behavior, mind, and abnormality.

The Rise of Absolute Time in Western Culture

The view of time held so widely by psychologists is also the view of

time held widely in Western society. Time is “out there” flowing like a line

from past to present to future. No examination of this linear notion of time is

considered necessary, because it is part of reality. An interesting example of

that “reality” is our dependence upon the past. All events that occur in the

present are thought to be explainable by events in the past. Because the

past, present, and future are considered to be consistent with one another–as

part of the same “line”–the present and future must be consistent with, if not

determined by, the past. In this manner, it is “common sense,” both in

Newton and Time

4
psychology and our general culture, to explain behavior, attitudes, and

personality through past events. The question is: How did this ‘common

sense’ become so common? How has this linear view of time gained such a

hold on our culture and such an influence in psychology?

Actually, the predominance of linear time is a relatively recent

phenomenon. Ancient peoples did not view time as an objective frame of

reference for marking events. They relativized time by making it conform to

events, rather than events conform to time. For the Romans, each hour of

daylight in the summer was longer than each hour of daylight in the winter.

Time was a dynamic and adjustable organization tailored to fit our world

experiences. Cyclical rather than linear views of time dominated these

cultures because so many aspects of nature seemed cyclical, such as the

seasons and heavenly bodies. Plato believed that the order of world events

was destined to repeat itself at fixed intervals. Aristotle’s students wondered

whether Paris would once more carry off Helen and thus again spark the

Trojan War (Porter, 1980).

Our Western view of time arose primarily as a result of three historical

developments: the spread of Christianity, the industrialization of society,

and the invention of cheap watches (cf. Porter, 1980; Morris, 1984, chs. 1 and

2; Whitrow, 1980, section 2.3). Pre-Judaic religions complemented the

cyclical view of time. They either portrayed time as infinite and possessing

no beginning or end, or as a cycle of rebirth and future life with time forever

repeating itself. The spread of Christianity brought to bear a “stunning” new

conception (Porter, 1980, p. 13). Christians considered their God to be the

creator and ultimate destroyer of the universe. Hence, the world had a

beginning and an end, and important Christian events, such as the birth of

Christ, were unique and nonrepeatable. The spread of these conceptions

Newton and Time

5
resulted in a competition between the cyclical and linear views during the

medieval period (Whitrow, 1980, section 2.3).2

The temporal tide began to turn in the favor of linearity–at least for

our Western culture–when industrial economies arose. As Lewis Mumford

concludes, “The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the

modern industrial age” (Mumford, 1934, p. 14). When power stemmed from

the ownership of land, time was considered plentiful and cyclical, being

associated with the unchanging cycle of the soil. However, with the rise of a

mercantile economy and the mechanism of industry, emphasis was placed on

the scarcity of time and “forward” progress (Whitrow, 1980, pp. 58-59). “Time

is money” was the byword; time could now be “saved” or “spent.”

The coup d’état for the linear view was the increased availability of

cheap watches. The mass-production of watches in the nineteenth century

made it possible for even the most basic functions of living to be regulated by

time. “One ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock:

one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it”

(Mumford, 1934, p. 17). Regulation of our lives by the clock meant that the

abstract assumption of linear time could be endowed with a type of concrete

reality (Morris, 1984, ch. 3). People now seemed to be able to “see” and “feel”

time (the clock). Time also appeared to be one of the causes of psychological

factors, because the thoughts and behaviors of individuals seemed to turn on

what time “told” them. In short, a convenient (linear) way of organizing

events became reified as the way events were organized.

Psychology was conceived and developed during this temporal

zeitgeist, when time was a concrete actuality rather than a point of view.

The spread of Christianity, industrialization, and the invention of cheap

clocks, all coalesced to make linear time a “reality.” Before this coalescence,

Newton and Time

6
many scientists, including Newton, felt it necessary to make their

assumption of time explicit. Several views of time were possible,
3
and so one

view had to be identified and supported. On the other hand, psychologists

were not called upon to articulate their temporal assumptions. Linear time

had become a given and required no discussion or defense. Time existed as a

line, independently of us, and virtually everyone accepted this reification

without awareness.

Newtonian Time

Psychology was not the only discipline that reified time. Einstein

described a similar state of affairs in his own discipline at the turn of this

century:

Concepts which have proved useful for ordering things easily assume

so great an authority over us that we forget their terrestrial origin and

accept them as unalterable facts. They then become labeled as

“conceptual necessities,” “a priori situations,” etc. The road of

scientific progress is frequently blocked for long periods by such errors.

It is therefore not just an idle game to exercise our ability to analyze

familiar concepts, and to demonstrate the conditions under which their

justification and usefulness depend. (as quoted in Holton, 1973, p. 5)

Einstein’s point here, of course, is that sometimes the very pervasiveness of

an idea leads to its anonymity. Certain ideas can be so commonplace and so

widely accepted that they go completely unrecognized. Yet it is these very

ideas that are often the most influential for thinkers in a discipline.

Part of Einstein’s immense contribution to knowledge was the

realization that time played an unrecognized role in physics. Indeed, linear

time was seen as an absolute truth–an unquestioned part of reality–during

Newton and Time

7
the preceding three hundred or so years of physics. This led to a curtailment

in the number of new ideas in physics (cf. Burtt, 1954, Ch. VII, sections 3-4).

Acceptable ideas about reality had to be compatible with time’s supposedly

linear properties. Einstein’s theory of relativity, however, was in large

measure based upon his examination and eventual rejection of this

traditional view of time.
4
He proposed an alternative view that ultimately

revolutionized the discipline of physics in the twentieth century (to be

discussed later).

Still, this revolutionary view has had little impact upon the lay

culture. Except for parts of physics and philosophy, the Newtonian picture of

the world remains dominant in Western culture (McGrath and Kelly, 1986, p.

26-30). This is not to say that this “picture” was totally original to Newton.

When it came to crucial aspects of his metaphysic, Newton often accepted the

view of the world handed down by his predecessors (Burtt, 1954, p 231). In

regard to time, his most immediate forerunner was Isaac Barrow (1735), who

regarded time as “passing with a steady flow” (p. 35). Aristotle is also viewed

as one of the primary philosophical precursors of Newton’s view of time

(Faulconer and Williams, 1985; Williams, 1990). Nevertheless, Newton

rightly deserves the credit for assembling their ideas into the current

package our culture calls “time.” Let us therefore examine Newton’s views in

more detail.

Newton postulated Absolute Time which “. . .of itself, and from its own

nature, flows equably without relation to anything external. . .” (Newton,

1687/1990, p.8). Newton needed this assumption for two main reasons.

First, his conceptions of motion and causality required an absolute frame of

reference (Burtt, 1954, p. 249). Motion, for example, could not be detected or

measured without an objective “past” and “present.” The rolling ball begins

Newton and Time

8
its roll at some point in the past but is “now” at some point in the present.

Second, his mathematics required the continuity of events (flowing

“equably”). He regarded moments of absolute time as a continuous sequence

like that of real numbers, believing that the rate of this sequence was

independent of events (Whitrow, 1980, pp. 185-190).

For these reasons, absolute time became the standard by which all

scientific explanations were judged. The order (and directionality) of the

world was thought to be synonymous with the absolute and linear

organization of events. Characteristics of Newton’s absolute time became the

“rules” for acceptable scientific explanation for nearly three centuries and

still form the rules for many disciplines such as psychology. It is thus

important that we explicate these rules and their modern criticisms and then

check the specific role these rules play in psychological explanation.

Newtonian Temporal Framework for Explanation

Newton’s approach to time left science with a legacy of five somewhat

overlapping implications or characteristics for “scientific” explanation. These

include objectivity, continuity, linearity, universality, and reductionism.

Some of these characteristics are the properties of time itself, as envisioned

by Newton, and some are the necessary properties of the events to be

explained, because they are in absolute time.

The assertion that events are “in” time is itself an implication of a

temporal characteristic. Newton viewed time as objective, existing

“absolutely” and independently of consciousness. Time is conceived as a

medium in which and against which events occur and can be related to one

another. Motion, causation, and change are seen to exist “out there,” and so

an absolute framework for evaluating these conceptions must also exist “out

Newton and Time

9
there,” separate from them (and our consciousness). If time were subjective–

Newton might argue–distinctions between the temporal dimensions (past,

present, and future) would be left up to the perceiver, and an objective

science would be in jeopardy. Indeed, the notion that cause and effect

require succession in time occurred with the advent of absolute time (Bunge,

1959, pp. 62-64).

This view of causality was bolstered by another property of Newtonian

time, its linearity. Newton was a highly religious man whose theology

guided much of his scientific work (Burtt, 1954, pp. 256-264). God, for

Newton, was the First Cause of the world, and thus time has a beginning

point (unlike cyclical time), and properties akin to a geometric line, with no

gaps or spaces. Time begins in the past and advances into the present on its

way to the future.5 This places the greatest weight upon the past (or the

“first” in a sequence), because it is the temporal entity which supposedly

starts this process. The metaphor of the line means that the present and

future must remain consistent with the past. Moreover, the past is the

temporal entity with the most utility. The present is less useful because it is

just an evanescent “point” on the line of time, and the future is less useful

because it is not (yet) known with any certainty. Only information from the

past is thought to be substantive and certain enough to be truly known and

understood.6

Newton also considered time to be continuous, proceeding smoothly

and “equably,” as he put it (Newton, 1687/1990, p. 8). Actually, this

characteristic of time has two properties worth separating out: consistency

and uniformity. Consistency is the well-known Newtonian notion that events

which happen at one point in time will be consistent with events occurring

later in time–the past is continuous with the future. This is the origin of

Newton and Time

10
Newton’s conviction that the world is predictable. If enough is known about

the present situation (or the past), then future events or states can be

predicted. Uniformity, on the other hand, is the notion that time is

homogeneous. Although the events in time can move at different rates, time

does not itself slow down at some points and speed up at others–it “flows” at

a constant, never-changing pace. This uniformity provides the perfect frame

of reference for measuring events.

Time’s continuity has also had significant implications for change. In

Newton’s metaphysic, change could not be discontinuous or instantaneous,

moving abruptly from one state into the next.7 Change had to be continuous

and smooth, much as a flower gradually blooms, because Newton conceived of

time as infinitely divisible–like a line. No matter how small the interval of

time, there is always a line of time (points in time) that spans the interval.

This means change can only be incremental. Whatever change occurs, it is

assumed to have intervening levels that correspond to intervening points in

time. Change can occur at different rates, and motions can proceed faster or

slower. However, change cannot occur through sudden jumps from one stage

into another–such as a flower bud jumping to a full bloom–without some

points of time (and levels of change) falling in between the two stages.

This characteristic of continuity has led to another major feature of

scientific explanation, labeled by some authors as “universality” (Schrag,

1990, p. 65), “atemporality” (Faulconer and Williams, 1985, p. 1180), or

“symmetry” (Ballif and Dibble, 1969, p. 32). This characteristic of

universality, as we shall here call it, assumes that natural laws are

universal and unchangeable, regardless of the period of time in which they

are observed. Natural processes are still thought to unfold across time in the

continuous manner just described. Nevertheless, the principles behind the

Newton and Time

11
processes are considered to be independent of the events and particular

period of history in which the events unfold. The laws of planetary motion,

for example, are the same laws at one point in earth’s history as they are at

another point in earth’s history. This universality is only possible if time is

uniform in the Newtonian sense. If time changes its rate or quality, then the

temporal relations between planetary events would not be consistent from

one period of history to the next. Scientific laws, in this sense, would not be

lawful.

The notion that lawful processes take place across time has had

another implication for explanation–reductionism. Reductionism results

from the fact that any one moment in time contains only a reduced portion of

the process. That is, if a process begins at time 1, proceeds through time 2,

and culminates at time 3, only a portion of this process can be studied at any

point in this sequence. This is tantamount to saying that the process as a

whole literally never exists, because only a piece of the process is occurring at

any one moment in time. The only way in which the pattern or “wholeness”

of such processes can be recognized at all in Newtonian physics is through a

recording device (e.g., an observer’s memory). Recording devices permit each

piece of the process to be “photographed” and juxtaposed with the next

moment’s piece and the next moment’s piece until all the process is viewed at

the same time. Nonetheless, no direct access to the whole of any process is

possible, given the separation of its pieces in time.

Newton brilliantly coalesced all five of these characteristics of

explanation into a coherent package by calling upon mechanistic

metaphors. He felt the universe–with its motions and chains of causation

across time–was directly analogous to the great machine of his day: the

clock. Through his writings and discoveries, he combined the implications of

Newton and Time

12
absolute time just described–objectivity, linearity, continuity, universality,

and reductionism. He represented them all with machine metaphors that

embodied these characteristics.8 Machines seem to objectively operate

through a continuous and linear sequence of events. This sequence is

universal, because it appears to be repeatable, regardless of the period of

time in which the repetition occurs. Machines also seem to evidence

temporal reductionism in their functioning; their sequentiality provides no

direct access to the whole of their processes at any given moment in time.

When the universe is presumed to possess these five temporal

characteristics, explanations that are properly “scientific” also possess these

characteristics. “Mechanistic” explanations of data are, of course, preferred

because they naturally embody these characteristics. The reverse is also

true–those processes that manifest linear and lawful properties are

considered “mechanisms” and thus accorded appropriate scientific status.

Newton even carried his temporal approach to explanation into his method.

He assumed that in order to observe parts of the machine universe in its

mechanistic regularity, a scientist should track the effect of some antecedent

(in time) experimental manipulation on its consequent. Orderly

relationships between variables can thus be observed and cataloged until all

of the universe is understood.

Criticisms of Newton’s Framework

As undeniably brilliant and influential as this temporal framework for

explanation has been, it has not avoided criticism. Indeed, Whitrow

characterizes Newton’s conception of time as the “most criticized, and justly

so, of all Newton’s statements” (Whitrow, 1980, p. 33). Newton’s conception

of time has been called into question on theoretical, practical, and empirical

Newton and Time

13
grounds, primarily by subsequent philosophers and physicists. For example,

Whitrow (1980) himself notes that the “equable flow” of time is problematic

on purely theoretical grounds:

If time were something that flowed then it would itself consist of a

series of events in time and this would be meaningless. Moreover, it is

equally difficult to accept the statement that time flows ‘equably’ or

uniformly, for this would seem to imply that there is something which

controls the rate of flow of time so that it always goes at the same

speed. However, if time can be considered in isolation “without

relation to anything external,” what meaning can be attached to

saying that its rate of flow is not uniform? If no meaning can be

attached even to the possibility of non-uniform flow, then what

significance can be attached to specifically stipulating that the flow is

“equable?” (p. 33)9

Some have questioned the practical utility of Newton’s conception of

time as a frame of reference (e.g., Burtt, 1954, pp. 256-264). Because Newton

regarded time as uniform and infinite, any position that an object might take

in time is not discernible from any other position. One portion of time is

identical (and uniform) to another. Wherever the object resides (in time),

there is no distinguishing feature for that period of time. There is also a

similar quantity of time surrounding it in the past and future (infinity). It is

therefore impossible to locate an object in absolute time and establish

whether it is in motion. Temporal position and motion can only be discerned

with reference to another body (e.g., a clock), and Newton’s conception of

absolute time is unnecessary. Indeed, Newton’s conception seems useless for

the main reason he formulated it–as a standard for temporal position and

motion.

Newton and Time

14
Other criticisms of absolute time are long-standing, and convince most

analysts that Newton was “mistaken in several different respects” (Morris,

1984, p. 209) or “uncritical, sketchy, inconsistent, even second-rate” as a

theoretician (Burtt, 1954, p. 208). The ancient philosopher Zeno, for

instance, provided an penetrating critique of the infinite divisibility and

continuity of time (Ariotti, 1975; Harris, 1988, pp. 48-51). Other critics have

focused upon Newton’s confounding of linear flow (his theory) and temporal

sequence (his data) (e.g., Morris, 1984, ch. 1). That is, the existence of

temporal sequence–“time’s arrow”–does not necessarily imply the existence

of linear flow. There are other ways to explain the data (Slife, 1993, p. 5).

Newton, though, considered all physical events to be influenced by the

temporal medium in which they supposedly occurred. Therefore, any

sequence of related events supposedly involved all the characteristics of

absolute time described above.

The trouble is that a sequence of physical events does not have to

involve these characteristics. Consider the sequence of hydrogen and oxygen

gases becoming water. Although this particular set of events has a very

definite and predictable relationship, this relationship does not have to be

viewed as linear. Its predictability is not derived in classical Newtonian

fashion from its “past.” The past properties of hydrogen and oxygen gases do

not permit us to predict the qualitatively different, future properties of water

(cf. Polkinghorne, 1983, 136-137). The predictability of this relationship

stems from our repeated observations of this sequence, not from its

continuous unfolding from a past state. Indeed, this particular change (gases

into water) can be construed as discontinuous in nature–from one

qualitatively different gestalt to another. The point is that the directionality

Newton and Time

15
or sequence of natural events does not require linear or continuous

characteristics (or any of the other characteristics of Newton’s framework).

Newton also confounded his linear theory with his method. Some

philosophers, for example, have criticized him for “making a metaphysics of

his method” (e.g., Burtt, 1954, p. 229). That is, Newton confused his

metaphysical theory of the universe (being a linear and continuous machine)

with his scientific method (observing the natural order of variables). He

experimentally intervened in antecedent events in order to observe their

later effects in time, all the while assuming that linear flow was involved in

this sequential relation. In this way, his metaphysics could not be proven

wrong. His method (sequential observation) made it seem that his

assumptions of time were constantly being affirmed. If, on the other hand, a

crucial event for explaining a phenomenon were simultaneous, Newton’s

linear method would be unable to discover it. This type of nonlinear

explanation would be overlooked due to the institutionalization of linear

explanation in his scientific method (see discussion in Slife, 1993, chapter 4).

The most significant criticisms of Newton’s notion of time have come

from his fellow physicists. Einstein’s precursor, the physicist Ernst Mach,

criticized the reductive implications of Newton’s conception, focusing

particularly upon what absolute time did to causality. Mach felt that a linear

conception was incapable of embracing the multiplicity of relations in nature.

He viewed events of the world as functionally interdependent, with no

particular event taking precedence over the other just because it occurred

“prior” to the other in time. He noted that measures of time were themselves

based on space, such as the spatial positions of clock hands or heavenly

bodies. “We are thus ultimately left with a mutual dependence of positions

on one another” (Mach, 1959, p. 90). In this sense, our dimensions of reality

Newton and Time

16
are not time and space, but space and space. There is no separate temporal

entity against which to measure the “past” or “future” of even causal events

(see also DeBroglie, 1949).

Einstein, too, was highly critical of Newton’s temporal framework. In

what follows, Morris (1984) summarizes the effects of relativity theory upon

absolute time:

Time is not absolute, it is relative. As the special theory of relativity

shows, time measurements depend upon the state of motion of the

observer. Time is not a substance that “flows equably without relation

to anything external” [Newton’s assertion]. According to the general

theory of relativity, the presence of matter creates gravitational fields

that cause time dilation. Finally, if time does “flow,” . . .the movement

of the “now”. . .seems to be a subjective phenomenon. . . .At best, one

can only say that time moves onward at the rate of one second per

second, which is about as meaningful as defining the word “cat” by

saying “a cat is a cat.” (pp. 209-210)

Central to Newton’s view is the notion that events which are

simultaneous for one observer are simultaneous for all observers, regardless

of their frame of reference. In other words, a particular instant of time is the

same instant of time everywhere in the universe, and hence absolute or

universal. Einstein, however, demonstrated through his special theory of

relativity that this is not true. Avoiding Newton’s linear methodology, he

used gedanken (or thought) experiments to show that two or more observers

in relative motion do not necessarily agree that two independent events are

simultaneous. When events A and B are simultaneous in one inertial frame

of reference, A can be observed to occur before B in another inertial frame of

Newton and Time

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reference. In still another inertial frame of reference, B can be observed to

occur before A.

If one assumes an absolute temporal frame of reference, the next

question is “which observer is really correct?” This query implies that only

one (objective) interpretation of events is correct, because there can be only

one temporal measure of events. The same events cannot occur in opposite

sequences when observed at the same time. Nonetheless, Einstein held that

all observers are correct within their own inertial frames of reference, and no

observer is more correct than any other.10 In short, there is no absolute truth

about the matter. Einstein resolved the apparent contradiction between

these observations by noting that time flow is not totally a result of the

events themselves. The apparent flow of time is due, at least in part, to each

observer’s inertial frame of reference (Nicolson, 1980).

Modern physicists have not only disputed the reductivity, linearity,

and objectivity of time, they have also challenged the continuity of events

across time. Many quantum physicists, for instance, contend that electrons

move from one orbit to another instantaneously, i.e., without time elapse

(Wolf, 1981, pp. 83-84). Electrons simply disappear from one quadrant and

reappear in another. Similarly, changes between various stationary states

are considered to be discrete and discontinuous (Bohm, 1980, p. 128).11

Discontinuous change, as mentioned above, is akin to a flower growing from

a bud to a full bloom instantaneously–one instant it is closed, the next

instant it is fully opened. This seems to fly in the face of our linear notions of

common sense. Our usual notion of time implies that one instant has to be

connected to the next with a line, and thus there is always a small interval of

time in which the change must occur. Nevertheless, quantum physicists

Newton and Time

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have demonstrated that change can truly be discontinuous–not just faster

rates of change, but change without temporal duration.

Psychology’s Newtonian Framework

These challenges to Newton’s temporal framework for explanation

have not been widely recognized. Linear time continues to reign supreme in

our lay culture and most disciplines other than physics and philosophy.

Linear time certainly rules mainstream psychology. After psychologists

modeled physics, prior to Einstein’s “revolution” at the turn of the century,

they never looked back. Because of the historical factors described above,

early psychologists never concerned themselves with assumptions of time.

Linear time was part of reality. Criticisms of Newton’s temporal

assumptions prompted no reexamination in psychology, because no temporal

assumptions were recognized. Psychology’s reliance upon Newtonian

assumptions, therefore, remains undeterred in virtually every important

respect.

Consider psychologists’ objective view of time as existing

independently of human consciousness. As Ornstein (1972) notes, “most

psychologists, in considering time, have taken for granted that a ‘real’ time,

external to our construction of it, does exist, and that this time is linear” (p.

79). Faulconer and Williams (1985) also discuss psychology’s “objectification”

of time (p. 1182), and McGrath and Kelly (1986) observe that most research

on time is “done on the premise that there is a singular, and known or

knowable, objective time” (p. 24). Many psychological experiments, for

example, have been conducted to discover how accurately such “real” time is

perceived. Time is treated as if it consists of its own stimuli for perception,

though real time is always identified with clock-time. The clock, of course,

Newton and Time

19
only marks or measures time; the clock is not time itself. To call the clock

“real time,” as Ornstein (1972) points out, “is somewhat like calling American

money ‘real money:’ it is parochial at best” (p. 81).

Second, time is viewed as continuous. Psychological events are seen as

continuous in the sense of later events being consistent with earlier events.

Abrupt “discontinuous” shifts that are incongruent with previous events are

thought to be improbable, if not impossible. As the developmentalists Emde

and Harmon (1987) have observed most researchers have “expectations for

connectivity and continuity” (p. 1), presuming a “linkage from early behavior

to later behavior” (p. 3). People in general are presumed to be continuous

with their upbringing. Personalities and attitudes are traditionally thought

to be consistent with the person’s past experiences. Any behaviors or

thoughts that appear to be exceptions to this rule (sometimes deemed

“abnormal”) merely indicate that some of the person’s past is not known. If it

were known, then we would see its continuity to the “exceptional” behaviors

and thoughts in question.

Temporal continuity is also used to explain change in psychology.

Indeed, in accordance with Newton, change and time are considered almost

synonymous–both being smooth and gradual. Change from one

psychological stage to another must occur through intermediary states (or

moments in time). “Spurts” of change are possible, but some amount of time

must occur between changes. For example, changes that researchers

consider “discontinuous” are often observed in child development (Kagan,

1984). Still, these are normally viewed as rapid continuous changes–

changes across a short span of time–rather than changes with no time or

transition between events (e.g., Fischer, 1984). A child cannot move from one

stage of development to the next without passing “in between.” Continuity

Newton and Time

20
implies that one instant is connected to the next with a line, and thus there

must always be a small interval of time in which change occurs.

Virtually all mainstream psychological explanations are universal

(Faulconer and Williams, 1985). Psychologists have long sought general

“laws” of behavior that are independent of the particular historic situation in

which they are embedded (cf. Rakover, 1990, ch. 2). Examples are Fechner’s

law of sensation strength and Skinner’s principles of reinforcement–both

presumably still applicable, despite their having been formulated many years

ago. Most psychologists attempt to look “behind” their data to find the

universal principles that underlie them (Fuller, 1990, ch. 1). In their study

of memory, for instance, cognitive psychologists expect to glean universal

principles that can be applied uniformly under specified experimental

conditions (cf. Ashcraft, 1989). These psychologists implicitly assume that

time itself will remain uniform from situation to situation.

The linearity of explanation in psychology is also readily apparent.

Time is considered to “flow” between psychological events like a line and to

function as a medium for the sequence of events (Ornstein, 1972, p. 82-84).

This is most clearly observed in the “causal” explanations of psychologists.

Any event observed “before” is automatically considered for, if not awarded,

causal status over events observed “after” (Rakover, 1990, ch. 2). The time

interval–the points on the line–between cause and effect must be filled with

causal process (McGrath and Kelly, 1986, p. 128-131). From this perspective,

it is easy to see why so many psychologists place so much emphasis upon the

past. The present is an effect of the past. Moreover, the present is only one

point on the line of time, and a durationless and fleeting point at that. A

person’s life, therefore, consists of the past almost exclusively. It seems only

logical that the most theoretical and therapeutic attention is paid to the past.

Newton and Time

21
The fact that psychological processes supposedly take place across time

has the same implication it had in Newtonian physics: reductionism. No

process–whether it be mental, emotional, or behavioral–can exist as a whole

at any point in time. A reduction of the process is all that is directly

available for study. Consequently, it is only natural to conceptualize

processes as component parts that are separated by linear time. Consider,

for example, some models of family therapy. Although family therapists

typically wish to conceptualize the whole of the family system, their

theorizing often depicts this system as occurring piecemeal along the line of

time. This type of linear explanation has overlooked reductive ramifications.

Because the system-as-a-whole is never present at any one point in time, the

therapist is necessarily resigned to interventions that directly affect only a

portion of the system. No truly systemic intervention–at least in the sense of

affecting all parts simultaneously–is possible.

Similar to Newtonian physicists, psychologists also seem to favor

machine metaphors for explaining psychological processes. Aveni (1989)

rightly declares, “Machinery is, for us, the power tool of metaphor” (p. 36).

Just as Newtonian explanations relied upon the clock, psychological

explanations have historically relied upon a host of different machines. The

human mind, for instance, has been analogized to whatever mechanism was

prominent in that historic period, from the hydraulics of the steam engine to

the relays of telephone switchboards (Martindale, 1981, p.3). Today, of

course, the computer is the ascendant machine, and true to form, computer

metaphors abound in theories of the mind. Even families are understood

through computer metaphors (e.g., Nichols, 1984, p. 421). Computers, no less

than their mechanistic predecessors, operate across time in temporal stages

that minimally included input and output (Dreyfus, 1979, ch. 10). In this

Newton and Time

22
sense, Newtonian time and mechanistic models have each served to catalyze

the popularity of the other.

Finally, many contemporary psychologists and Newtonian physicists

view scientific method with similar temporal assumptions (Rychlak, 1988, p.

47-49; cf. Slife, 1987). Psychological scientists view themselves as intervening

experimentally, and then observing the consequences of this intervention

later in time. This view is aided by psychology’s decidedly linear approach to

causation. Temporal sequence is so conflated with causation that the two are

often indistinguishable in research. Psychological experimenters have rarely

been accused of “making a metaphysics of their method”12 (as has Newton),

but this may be because psychologists have not made their own assumption of

time explicit. Without an awareness that linearity is a part of psychology’s

metaphysic, psychological researchers cannot be accused of confounding this

assumption with their method. Yet, their method may incorporate linear time

in a way that prohibits any true test of its validity.

Conclusion

It is important, then, that we identify the linear view of time in all of

its manifestations. Temporal assumptions cannot be discerned through the

use of a method that assumes them. Thus, in this essay, the process of

identification has begun with a brief cultural and historical analysis. Our

cultural analysis finds psychology’s temporal conception to be a product of

modern Western culture to some degree–likening time to a continuous line

that is independent of the events it supposedly measures. Still, it is unlikely

that psychology would have adopted this conception without reputable

scientists also endorsing it–hence, the significance of Isaac Newton. Newton,

to his credit, made his conception of time explicit. However, there is no

indication that early psychologists (particularly those pressing for natural

Newton and Time

23
science methods) did likewise. Instead, methods and modes of explanation

were adopted that contained temporal assumptions implicitly.

Five of those implicit temporal assumptions are described in this

essay: objectivity, continuity, linearity, universality, and reductivity. These

five characteristics have served historically as an important guide to

scientific explanation in general. Should the recent criticism and

abandonment of these characteristics–in physics and philosophy–give

psychologists pause? There is no question in the mind of the present author

that it should. This is not to say that the issues of psychology are identical to

those of physics or philosophy. However, one is struck by the almost total

lack of examination of the Newtonian temporal framework in psychology.

How can psychologists know if the problems of physics and philosophy are

relevant when most psychologists have no idea they even endorse the

framework in question? This, then, is the importance of recognizing the

“Newtonian legacy.”

Newton and Time

24
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Emde, R.N., and Harmon, R.J. (Eds.). (1984). Continuities and

discontinuities in development. New York: Plenum Press.

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McGrath, J.E., and Kelly, J.R. (1986). Time and human interaction: Toward

a social psychology of time. New York: Guilford.

Morris, R. (1984). Time’s arrow. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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Newton, I. (1990). Mathematical principles of natural philosophy. [A. Motte,

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Nichols, M.P. (1984). Family therapy. New York: Gardner Press.

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Polkinghorne, D. (1983). Methodology for the human sciences. Albany, New

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Porter, R. (1980). The history of time. In J. Grant and C. Wilson (Eds.), The

book of time. (pp. 5-44). North Pomfret, Vermont: David and Charles.

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Schrag, C. O. (1990). Explanation and understanding in the science of

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Slife, B. D. (1981). Psychology’s reliance on linear time: A reformulation.

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Whitrow, G.J. (1980). The natural philosophy of time. (second edition). New

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Newton and Time

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Footnotes

Requests for reprints should be sent to: Brent D. Slife, P.O. Box 97334, Department of

Psychology, Baylor University, Waco, Texas 76798.

1For exceptions, see Rychlak (1981, 1988), McGrath and Kelly (1986), and Slife (1981, 1987, in

press), Williams (1990).

2Christian doctrine may have been interpreted historically as supportive of a linear view, and thus

led to its rise in Western culture. Nevertheless, it is debatable whether Christian doctrine implies

linear time. Biblical revelation points to the directionality of events, but it does not necessarily

point to a linear interpretation of this directionality. The past, for example, is not necessarily

primal in Christian theology. The present (e.g., the indwelling of the Holy Spirit) and the future

(e.g., Christ’s Second Coming) seem to be as important as the past. Moreover, God is often

thought to transcend time, and sinners are viewed as being “reborn” and thus transcending their

pasts.

3Not only was cyclical time possible, but Newton also differentiated his “absolute time” from

“relative time” (Newton, 1687/1990, p. 8). Moreover, Leibniz opposed Newton’s conceptions with

his notion of “relational time.” From Leibniz’ perspective, time does not exist in its own right,

independently of events. Time is the successive order of the events themselves (Whitrow,

1980, p. 36-39).

4This is not to imply that Einstein eliminated time. As Whitrow (1980, section 6.5) has noted,

modern notions of “cosmic” time are not incompatible with relativity theory.

5This linear characteristic of absolute time may seem in contradiction with Newton’s contention

that natural processes are “reversible.” Newton believed, for example, that celestial mechanics

were consistent with his mathematical laws whether they were run “forward” or “backward.” This

would seem to imply that time itself can run forward and backward (e.g., Coveney & Highfield,

1990, p. 30; McGrath & Kelly, 1986, p. 29). However, Newton made clear distinctions between

natural change processes and Absolute Time. Absolute Time flows “without relation to anything

Newton and Time

29

external,” and is independent of these natural processes. Natural processes may be reversible,

but their temporal medium–absolute time–is not. How else could we know, Newton might ask,

whether natural processes of change are forward or backward, unless we have some absolute

standard by which to judge this directionality? As Newton (1687/1990) described it, “. . .the

flowing of absolute time is not liable to any change. . .the order of the parts of time is immutable”

(pp. 9-10). For the purposes of this book, reference to Newtonian time is a reference to Absolute

Time which has definite linear properties.

6Of course, whenever the past is fully understood in a Newtonian framework, the present and

future are also considered to be illuminated (and predicted) as well.

7An interesting exception to this was Newton’s conception of gravitation. For him, gravity was a

force which acted instantly across the distance between one mass and another (Nicolson, 1980,

p. 165). As Bunge (1959) notes, the notion of instantaneous physical actions was actually quite

prevalent during this period of history (p. 64).

8How well machines actually embody these characteristics is, of course, open to debate. The

order that machines represent does not have to be considered linear in nature. That is, the

directionality implicit in mechanisms does not have to be framed in absolute and linear terms.

Historically, however, machines and linear time have tended to be highly associated.

9Morris (1984) presents a similar challenge: “Nor can any meanings be attached to the

statement that time ‘flows equably.’ If the flow of time is not uniform, how can one measure its

irregularities?” (p. 210).

10Einstein did not believe, however, that causal relations were relative to each observer’s inertial

frame of reference. He considered the order of cause and effect to be invariant and absolute

(Ballif & Dibble, 1969, p. 412).

11Bohm cites other examples of instantaneous change, including empirical experiments (pp. 71-

72). Essentially, a molecule of two atoms is disintegrated, resulting in the two atoms flying apart.

While the atoms are in flight (and potentially separated by great distances), any attempt to

Newton and Time

30

measure the spin of one atom is instantaneously registered in its “brother” atom. No time has

occurred in which to allow any “transmission” from one atom to the other, yet the two are

somehow instantaneously related.

12Rychlak (1988) is a notable exception, because he has accused psychological experimenters of

an “S-R Bind.” That is, an S-R type of linear framework is imposed on a nonlinear style of

theorizing in order to make the latter more “scientific” (in the linear sense). This is perhaps most

readily seen in the confounding of the S-R theory with the IV-DV of method (Rychlak, 1988, 172-

174).

Newton and Time

1
Abstract

Newton’s conception of time has had a profound influence upon science,

particularly psychology. Five characteristics of explanation have devolved

from Newton’s temporal framework: objectivity, continuity, linearity,

universality, and reductivity. These characteristics are outlined in the

present essay and shown to be central to psychological theories and methods.

Indeed, Newton’s temporal framework is so central that it often goes

unexamined in psychology. Examination is important, however, because

recent critics of Newton’s framework–including both scientists and

philosophers–have questioned its validity and usefulness.

Newton and Time

2
Newtonian Time and Psychological Explanation

Brent D. Slife, Baylor University

Perhaps no conception is more fundamental to any science than time.

If a science is concerned at all about the order, organization, and

measurement of events, then it has to have assumptions of time. Indeed, the

notion of “event” itself is wrapped up in temporal assumptions. Even “soft”

sciences, such as psychology, must adopt philosophical assumptions about

temporal order and measurement. Psychological researchers not only

measure time in many of their experiments, but psychological theorists

assume certain characteristics of time in virtually all their explanations.

What are these assumptions? Why are these assumptions used and not

others? The problem is that such questions are virtually never addressed in

psychology. With certain rare exceptions,1 psychologists have ignored the

assumption of time. They have studied how people perceive and manage

their time, but they have not examined the assumptions of time in their own

theorizing.

The reason for this is clear. At the point in history when psychology

was conceived as a discipline, time had become reified. That is, time was no

longer an “assumption;” time was a property of reality existing independently

of our consciousness. Indeed, this was the view of time implicit in our

culture. As this article will show, psychologists adopted this cultural view, in

part, because it was not recognized as a view. Several historical factors are

described below as leading to this reification. Undoubtedly, a prime factor

was Isaac Newton’s popularization of this reification in the physical sciences.

This essay outlines how Newtonian physics–the ideal of sciences during

psychology’s formative years–became a model for all that early psychologists

wished their discipline to become. Much of this model, however, involved

Newton and Time

3
Newtonian assumptions of the world that were accepted uncritically. One of

these assumptions, as this essay will show, is Newton’s own rendition of

time–Absolute Time.

The bulk of the present essay outlines how Newton’s conception of time

has influenced “scientific” explanations ever since. As we shall see, five

characteristics of explanation have devolved from Newton’s temporal

framework: objectivity, continuity, linearity, universality, and reductivity.

The article first describes each of these as it is related to Absolute Time.

Then, criticisms of this framework by philosophers and physicists are

delineated. The latter group of critics is especially important because many

contemporary physicists have abandoned these temporal characteristics (as

well as Absolute Time) in their explanations. Nonetheless, contemporary

psychology–with its identity now somewhat intact–has not looked back to

physics. This essay reveals how psychology currently maintains most, if not

all, of these temporal characteristics in its mainstream explanations of

behavior, mind, and abnormality.

The Rise of Absolute Time in Western Culture

The view of time held so widely by psychologists is also the view of

time held widely in Western society. Time is “out there” flowing like a line

from past to present to future. No examination of this linear notion of time is

considered necessary, because it is part of reality. An interesting example of

that “reality” is our dependence upon the past. All events that occur in the

present are thought to be explainable by events in the past. Because the

past, present, and future are considered to be consistent with one another–as

part of the same “line”–the present and future must be consistent with, if not

determined by, the past. In this manner, it is “common sense,” both in

Newton and Time

4
psychology and our general culture, to explain behavior, attitudes, and

personality through past events. The question is: How did this ‘common

sense’ become so common? How has this linear view of time gained such a

hold on our culture and such an influence in psychology?

Actually, the predominance of linear time is a relatively recent

phenomenon. Ancient peoples did not view time as an objective frame of

reference for marking events. They relativized time by making it conform to

events, rather than events conform to time. For the Romans, each hour of

daylight in the summer was longer than each hour of daylight in the winter.

Time was a dynamic and adjustable organization tailored to fit our world

experiences. Cyclical rather than linear views of time dominated these

cultures because so many aspects of nature seemed cyclical, such as the

seasons and heavenly bodies. Plato believed that the order of world events

was destined to repeat itself at fixed intervals. Aristotle’s students wondered

whether Paris would once more carry off Helen and thus again spark the

Trojan War (Porter, 1980).

Our Western view of time arose primarily as a result of three historical

developments: the spread of Christianity, the industrialization of society,

and the invention of cheap watches (cf. Porter, 1980; Morris, 1984, chs. 1 and

2; Whitrow, 1980, section 2.3). Pre-Judaic religions complemented the

cyclical view of time. They either portrayed time as infinite and possessing

no beginning or end, or as a cycle of rebirth and future life with time forever

repeating itself. The spread of Christianity brought to bear a “stunning” new

conception (Porter, 1980, p. 13). Christians considered their God to be the

creator and ultimate destroyer of the universe. Hence, the world had a

beginning and an end, and important Christian events, such as the birth of

Christ, were unique and nonrepeatable. The spread of these conceptions

Newton and Time

5
resulted in a competition between the cyclical and linear views during the

medieval period (Whitrow, 1980, section 2.3).2

The temporal tide began to turn in the favor of linearity–at least for

our Western culture–when industrial economies arose. As Lewis Mumford

concludes, “The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the

modern industrial age” (Mumford, 1934, p. 14). When power stemmed from

the ownership of land, time was considered plentiful and cyclical, being

associated with the unchanging cycle of the soil. However, with the rise of a

mercantile economy and the mechanism of industry, emphasis was placed on

the scarcity of time and “forward” progress (Whitrow, 1980, pp. 58-59). “Time

is money” was the byword; time could now be “saved” or “spent.”

The coup d’état for the linear view was the increased availability of

cheap watches. The mass-production of watches in the nineteenth century

made it possible for even the most basic functions of living to be regulated by

time. “One ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock:

one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it”

(Mumford, 1934, p. 17). Regulation of our lives by the clock meant that the

abstract assumption of linear time could be endowed with a type of concrete

reality (Morris, 1984, ch. 3). People now seemed to be able to “see” and “feel”

time (the clock). Time also appeared to be one of the causes of psychological

factors, because the thoughts and behaviors of individuals seemed to turn on

what time “told” them. In short, a convenient (linear) way of organizing

events became reified as the way events were organized.

Psychology was conceived and developed during this temporal

zeitgeist, when time was a concrete actuality rather than a point of view.

The spread of Christianity, industrialization, and the invention of cheap

clocks, all coalesced to make linear time a “reality.” Before this coalescence,

Newton and Time

6
many scientists, including Newton, felt it necessary to make their

assumption of time explicit. Several views of time were possible,
3
and so one

view had to be identified and supported. On the other hand, psychologists

were not called upon to articulate their temporal assumptions. Linear time

had become a given and required no discussion or defense. Time existed as a

line, independently of us, and virtually everyone accepted this reification

without awareness.

Newtonian Time

Psychology was not the only discipline that reified time. Einstein

described a similar state of affairs in his own discipline at the turn of this

century:

Concepts which have proved useful for ordering things easily assume

so great an authority over us that we forget their terrestrial origin and

accept them as unalterable facts. They then become labeled as

“conceptual necessities,” “a priori situations,” etc. The road of

scientific progress is frequently blocked for long periods by such errors.

It is therefore not just an idle game to exercise our ability to analyze

familiar concepts, and to demonstrate the conditions under which their

justification and usefulness depend. (as quoted in Holton, 1973, p. 5)

Einstein’s point here, of course, is that sometimes the very pervasiveness of

an idea leads to its anonymity. Certain ideas can be so commonplace and so

widely accepted that they go completely unrecognized. Yet it is these very

ideas that are often the most influential for thinkers in a discipline.

Part of Einstein’s immense contribution to knowledge was the

realization that time played an unrecognized role in physics. Indeed, linear

time was seen as an absolute truth–an unquestioned part of reality–during

Newton and Time

7
the preceding three hundred or so years of physics. This led to a curtailment

in the number of new ideas in physics (cf. Burtt, 1954, Ch. VII, sections 3-4).

Acceptable ideas about reality had to be compatible with time’s supposedly

linear properties. Einstein’s theory of relativity, however, was in large

measure based upon his examination and eventual rejection of this

traditional view of time.
4
He proposed an alternative view that ultimately

revolutionized the discipline of physics in the twentieth century (to be

discussed later).

Still, this revolutionary view has had little impact upon the lay

culture. Except for parts of physics and philosophy, the Newtonian picture of

the world remains dominant in Western culture (McGrath and Kelly, 1986, p.

26-30). This is not to say that this “picture” was totally original to Newton.

When it came to crucial aspects of his metaphysic, Newton often accepted the

view of the world handed down by his predecessors (Burtt, 1954, p 231). In

regard to time, his most immediate forerunner was Isaac Barrow (1735), who

regarded time as “passing with a steady flow” (p. 35). Aristotle is also viewed

as one of the primary philosophical precursors of Newton’s view of time

(Faulconer and Williams, 1985; Williams, 1990). Nevertheless, Newton

rightly deserves the credit for assembling their ideas into the current

package our culture calls “time.” Let us therefore examine Newton’s views in

more detail.

Newton postulated Absolute Time which “. . .of itself, and from its own

nature, flows equably without relation to anything external. . .” (Newton,

1687/1990, p.8). Newton needed this assumption for two main reasons.

First, his conceptions of motion and causality required an absolute frame of

reference (Burtt, 1954, p. 249). Motion, for example, could not be detected or

measured without an objective “past” and “present.” The rolling ball begins

Newton and Time

8
its roll at some point in the past but is “now” at some point in the present.

Second, his mathematics required the continuity of events (flowing

“equably”). He regarded moments of absolute time as a continuous sequence

like that of real numbers, believing that the rate of this sequence was

independent of events (Whitrow, 1980, pp. 185-190).

For these reasons, absolute time became the standard by which all

scientific explanations were judged. The order (and directionality) of the

world was thought to be synonymous with the absolute and linear

organization of events. Characteristics of Newton’s absolute time became the

“rules” for acceptable scientific explanation for nearly three centuries and

still form the rules for many disciplines such as psychology. It is thus

important that we explicate these rules and their modern criticisms and then

check the specific role these rules play in psychological explanation.

Newtonian Temporal Framework for Explanation

Newton’s approach to time left science with a legacy of five somewhat

overlapping implications or characteristics for “scientific” explanation. These

include objectivity, continuity, linearity, universality, and reductionism.

Some of these characteristics are the properties of time itself, as envisioned

by Newton, and some are the necessary properties of the events to be

explained, because they are in absolute time.

The assertion that events are “in” time is itself an implication of a

temporal characteristic. Newton viewed time as objective, existing

“absolutely” and independently of consciousness. Time is conceived as a

medium in which and against which events occur and can be related to one

another. Motion, causation, and change are seen to exist “out there,” and so

an absolute framework for evaluating these conceptions must also exist “out

Newton and Time

9
there,” separate from them (and our consciousness). If time were subjective–

Newton might argue–distinctions between the temporal dimensions (past,

present, and future) would be left up to the perceiver, and an objective

science would be in jeopardy. Indeed, the notion that cause and effect

require succession in time occurred with the advent of absolute time (Bunge,

1959, pp. 62-64).

This view of causality was bolstered by another property of Newtonian

time, its linearity. Newton was a highly religious man whose theology

guided much of his scientific work (Burtt, 1954, pp. 256-264). God, for

Newton, was the First Cause of the world, and thus time has a beginning

point (unlike cyclical time), and properties akin to a geometric line, with no

gaps or spaces. Time begins in the past and advances into the present on its

way to the future.5 This places the greatest weight upon the past (or the

“first” in a sequence), because it is the temporal entity which supposedly

starts this process. The metaphor of the line means that the present and

future must remain consistent with the past. Moreover, the past is the

temporal entity with the most utility. The present is less useful because it is

just an evanescent “point” on the line of time, and the future is less useful

because it is not (yet) known with any certainty. Only information from the

past is thought to be substantive and certain enough to be truly known and

understood.6

Newton also considered time to be continuous, proceeding smoothly

and “equably,” as he put it (Newton, 1687/1990, p. 8). Actually, this

characteristic of time has two properties worth separating out: consistency

and uniformity. Consistency is the well-known Newtonian notion that events

which happen at one point in time will be consistent with events occurring

later in time–the past is continuous with the future. This is the origin of

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Newton’s conviction that the world is predictable. If enough is known about

the present situation (or the past), then future events or states can be

predicted. Uniformity, on the other hand, is the notion that time is

homogeneous. Although the events in time can move at different rates, time

does not itself slow down at some points and speed up at others–it “flows” at

a constant, never-changing pace. This uniformity provides the perfect frame

of reference for measuring events.

Time’s continuity has also had significant implications for change. In

Newton’s metaphysic, change could not be discontinuous or instantaneous,

moving abruptly from one state into the next.7 Change had to be continuous

and smooth, much as a flower gradually blooms, because Newton conceived of

time as infinitely divisible–like a line. No matter how small the interval of

time, there is always a line of time (points in time) that spans the interval.

This means change can only be incremental. Whatever change occurs, it is

assumed to have intervening levels that correspond to intervening points in

time. Change can occur at different rates, and motions can proceed faster or

slower. However, change cannot occur through sudden jumps from one stage

into another–such as a flower bud jumping to a full bloom–without some

points of time (and levels of change) falling in between the two stages.

This characteristic of continuity has led to another major feature of

scientific explanation, labeled by some authors as “universality” (Schrag,

1990, p. 65), “atemporality” (Faulconer and Williams, 1985, p. 1180), or

“symmetry” (Ballif and Dibble, 1969, p. 32). This characteristic of

universality, as we shall here call it, assumes that natural laws are

universal and unchangeable, regardless of the period of time in which they

are observed. Natural processes are still thought to unfold across time in the

continuous manner just described. Nevertheless, the principles behind the

Newton and Time

11
processes are considered to be independent of the events and particular

period of history in which the events unfold. The laws of planetary motion,

for example, are the same laws at one point in earth’s history as they are at

another point in earth’s history. This universality is only possible if time is

uniform in the Newtonian sense. If time changes its rate or quality, then the

temporal relations between planetary events would not be consistent from

one period of history to the next. Scientific laws, in this sense, would not be

lawful.

The notion that lawful processes take place across time has had

another implication for explanation–reductionism. Reductionism results

from the fact that any one moment in time contains only a reduced portion of

the process. That is, if a process begins at time 1, proceeds through time 2,

and culminates at time 3, only a portion of this process can be studied at any

point in this sequence. This is tantamount to saying that the process as a

whole literally never exists, because only a piece of the process is occurring at

any one moment in time. The only way in which the pattern or “wholeness”

of such processes can be recognized at all in Newtonian physics is through a

recording device (e.g., an observer’s memory). Recording devices permit each

piece of the process to be “photographed” and juxtaposed with the next

moment’s piece and the next moment’s piece until all the process is viewed at

the same time. Nonetheless, no direct access to the whole of any process is

possible, given the separation of its pieces in time.

Newton brilliantly coalesced all five of these characteristics of

explanation into a coherent package by calling upon mechanistic

metaphors. He felt the universe–with its motions and chains of causation

across time–was directly analogous to the great machine of his day: the

clock. Through his writings and discoveries, he combined the implications of

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12
absolute time just described–objectivity, linearity, continuity, universality,

and reductionism. He represented them all with machine metaphors that

embodied these characteristics.8 Machines seem to objectively operate

through a continuous and linear sequence of events. This sequence is

universal, because it appears to be repeatable, regardless of the period of

time in which the repetition occurs. Machines also seem to evidence

temporal reductionism in their functioning; their sequentiality provides no

direct access to the whole of their processes at any given moment in time.

When the universe is presumed to possess these five temporal

characteristics, explanations that are properly “scientific” also possess these

characteristics. “Mechanistic” explanations of data are, of course, preferred

because they naturally embody these characteristics. The reverse is also

true–those processes that manifest linear and lawful properties are

considered “mechanisms” and thus accorded appropriate scientific status.

Newton even carried his temporal approach to explanation into his method.

He assumed that in order to observe parts of the machine universe in its

mechanistic regularity, a scientist should track the effect of some antecedent

(in time) experimental manipulation on its consequent. Orderly

relationships between variables can thus be observed and cataloged until all

of the universe is understood.

Criticisms of Newton’s Framework

As undeniably brilliant and influential as this temporal framework for

explanation has been, it has not avoided criticism. Indeed, Whitrow

characterizes Newton’s conception of time as the “most criticized, and justly

so, of all Newton’s statements” (Whitrow, 1980, p. 33). Newton’s conception

of time has been called into question on theoretical, practical, and empirical

Newton and Time

13
grounds, primarily by subsequent philosophers and physicists. For example,

Whitrow (1980) himself notes that the “equable flow” of time is problematic

on purely theoretical grounds:

If time were something that flowed then it would itself consist of a

series of events in time and this would be meaningless. Moreover, it is

equally difficult to accept the statement that time flows ‘equably’ or

uniformly, for this would seem to imply that there is something which

controls the rate of flow of time so that it always goes at the same

speed. However, if time can be considered in isolation “without

relation to anything external,” what meaning can be attached to

saying that its rate of flow is not uniform? If no meaning can be

attached even to the possibility of non-uniform flow, then what

significance can be attached to specifically stipulating that the flow is

“equable?” (p. 33)9

Some have questioned the practical utility of Newton’s conception of

time as a frame of reference (e.g., Burtt, 1954, pp. 256-264). Because Newton

regarded time as uniform and infinite, any position that an object might take

in time is not discernible from any other position. One portion of time is

identical (and uniform) to another. Wherever the object resides (in time),

there is no distinguishing feature for that period of time. There is also a

similar quantity of time surrounding it in the past and future (infinity). It is

therefore impossible to locate an object in absolute time and establish

whether it is in motion. Temporal position and motion can only be discerned

with reference to another body (e.g., a clock), and Newton’s conception of

absolute time is unnecessary. Indeed, Newton’s conception seems useless for

the main reason he formulated it–as a standard for temporal position and

motion.

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14
Other criticisms of absolute time are long-standing, and convince most

analysts that Newton was “mistaken in several different respects” (Morris,

1984, p. 209) or “uncritical, sketchy, inconsistent, even second-rate” as a

theoretician (Burtt, 1954, p. 208). The ancient philosopher Zeno, for

instance, provided an penetrating critique of the infinite divisibility and

continuity of time (Ariotti, 1975; Harris, 1988, pp. 48-51). Other critics have

focused upon Newton’s confounding of linear flow (his theory) and temporal

sequence (his data) (e.g., Morris, 1984, ch. 1). That is, the existence of

temporal sequence–“time’s arrow”–does not necessarily imply the existence

of linear flow. There are other ways to explain the data (Slife, 1993, p. 5).

Newton, though, considered all physical events to be influenced by the

temporal medium in which they supposedly occurred. Therefore, any

sequence of related events supposedly involved all the characteristics of

absolute time described above.

The trouble is that a sequence of physical events does not have to

involve these characteristics. Consider the sequence of hydrogen and oxygen

gases becoming water. Although this particular set of events has a very

definite and predictable relationship, this relationship does not have to be

viewed as linear. Its predictability is not derived in classical Newtonian

fashion from its “past.” The past properties of hydrogen and oxygen gases do

not permit us to predict the qualitatively different, future properties of water

(cf. Polkinghorne, 1983, 136-137). The predictability of this relationship

stems from our repeated observations of this sequence, not from its

continuous unfolding from a past state. Indeed, this particular change (gases

into water) can be construed as discontinuous in nature–from one

qualitatively different gestalt to another. The point is that the directionality

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15
or sequence of natural events does not require linear or continuous

characteristics (or any of the other characteristics of Newton’s framework).

Newton also confounded his linear theory with his method. Some

philosophers, for example, have criticized him for “making a metaphysics of

his method” (e.g., Burtt, 1954, p. 229). That is, Newton confused his

metaphysical theory of the universe (being a linear and continuous machine)

with his scientific method (observing the natural order of variables). He

experimentally intervened in antecedent events in order to observe their

later effects in time, all the while assuming that linear flow was involved in

this sequential relation. In this way, his metaphysics could not be proven

wrong. His method (sequential observation) made it seem that his

assumptions of time were constantly being affirmed. If, on the other hand, a

crucial event for explaining a phenomenon were simultaneous, Newton’s

linear method would be unable to discover it. This type of nonlinear

explanation would be overlooked due to the institutionalization of linear

explanation in his scientific method (see discussion in Slife, 1993, chapter 4).

The most significant criticisms of Newton’s notion of time have come

from his fellow physicists. Einstein’s precursor, the physicist Ernst Mach,

criticized the reductive implications of Newton’s conception, focusing

particularly upon what absolute time did to causality. Mach felt that a linear

conception was incapable of embracing the multiplicity of relations in nature.

He viewed events of the world as functionally interdependent, with no

particular event taking precedence over the other just because it occurred

“prior” to the other in time. He noted that measures of time were themselves

based on space, such as the spatial positions of clock hands or heavenly

bodies. “We are thus ultimately left with a mutual dependence of positions

on one another” (Mach, 1959, p. 90). In this sense, our dimensions of reality

Newton and Time

16
are not time and space, but space and space. There is no separate temporal

entity against which to measure the “past” or “future” of even causal events

(see also DeBroglie, 1949).

Einstein, too, was highly critical of Newton’s temporal framework. In

what follows, Morris (1984) summarizes the effects of relativity theory upon

absolute time:

Time is not absolute, it is relative. As the special theory of relativity

shows, time measurements depend upon the state of motion of the

observer. Time is not a substance that “flows equably without relation

to anything external” [Newton’s assertion]. According to the general

theory of relativity, the presence of matter creates gravitational fields

that cause time dilation. Finally, if time does “flow,” . . .the movement

of the “now”. . .seems to be a subjective phenomenon. . . .At best, one

can only say that time moves onward at the rate of one second per

second, which is about as meaningful as defining the word “cat” by

saying “a cat is a cat.” (pp. 209-210)

Central to Newton’s view is the notion that events which are

simultaneous for one observer are simultaneous for all observers, regardless

of their frame of reference. In other words, a particular instant of time is the

same instant of time everywhere in the universe, and hence absolute or

universal. Einstein, however, demonstrated through his special theory of

relativity that this is not true. Avoiding Newton’s linear methodology, he

used gedanken (or thought) experiments to show that two or more observers

in relative motion do not necessarily agree that two independent events are

simultaneous. When events A and B are simultaneous in one inertial frame

of reference, A can be observed to occur before B in another inertial frame of

Newton and Time

17
reference. In still another inertial frame of reference, B can be observed to

occur before A.

If one assumes an absolute temporal frame of reference, the next

question is “which observer is really correct?” This query implies that only

one (objective) interpretation of events is correct, because there can be only

one temporal measure of events. The same events cannot occur in opposite

sequences when observed at the same time. Nonetheless, Einstein held that

all observers are correct within their own inertial frames of reference, and no

observer is more correct than any other.10 In short, there is no absolute truth

about the matter. Einstein resolved the apparent contradiction between

these observations by noting that time flow is not totally a result of the

events themselves. The apparent flow of time is due, at least in part, to each

observer’s inertial frame of reference (Nicolson, 1980).

Modern physicists have not only disputed the reductivity, linearity,

and objectivity of time, they have also challenged the continuity of events

across time. Many quantum physicists, for instance, contend that electrons

move from one orbit to another instantaneously, i.e., without time elapse

(Wolf, 1981, pp. 83-84). Electrons simply disappear from one quadrant and

reappear in another. Similarly, changes between various stationary states

are considered to be discrete and discontinuous (Bohm, 1980, p. 128).11

Discontinuous change, as mentioned above, is akin to a flower growing from

a bud to a full bloom instantaneously–one instant it is closed, the next

instant it is fully opened. This seems to fly in the face of our linear notions of

common sense. Our usual notion of time implies that one instant has to be

connected to the next with a line, and thus there is always a small interval of

time in which the change must occur. Nevertheless, quantum physicists

Newton and Time

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have demonstrated that change can truly be discontinuous–not just faster

rates of change, but change without temporal duration.

Psychology’s Newtonian Framework

These challenges to Newton’s temporal framework for explanation

have not been widely recognized. Linear time continues to reign supreme in

our lay culture and most disciplines other than physics and philosophy.

Linear time certainly rules mainstream psychology. After psychologists

modeled physics, prior to Einstein’s “revolution” at the turn of the century,

they never looked back. Because of the historical factors described above,

early psychologists never concerned themselves with assumptions of time.

Linear time was part of reality. Criticisms of Newton’s temporal

assumptions prompted no reexamination in psychology, because no temporal

assumptions were recognized. Psychology’s reliance upon Newtonian

assumptions, therefore, remains undeterred in virtually every important

respect.

Consider psychologists’ objective view of time as existing

independently of human consciousness. As Ornstein (1972) notes, “most

psychologists, in considering time, have taken for granted that a ‘real’ time,

external to our construction of it, does exist, and that this time is linear” (p.

79). Faulconer and Williams (1985) also discuss psychology’s “objectification”

of time (p. 1182), and McGrath and Kelly (1986) observe that most research

on time is “done on the premise that there is a singular, and known or

knowable, objective time” (p. 24). Many psychological experiments, for

example, have been conducted to discover how accurately such “real” time is

perceived. Time is treated as if it consists of its own stimuli for perception,

though real time is always identified with clock-time. The clock, of course,

Newton and Time

19
only marks or measures time; the clock is not time itself. To call the clock

“real time,” as Ornstein (1972) points out, “is somewhat like calling American

money ‘real money:’ it is parochial at best” (p. 81).

Second, time is viewed as continuous. Psychological events are seen as

continuous in the sense of later events being consistent with earlier events.

Abrupt “discontinuous” shifts that are incongruent with previous events are

thought to be improbable, if not impossible. As the developmentalists Emde

and Harmon (1987) have observed most researchers have “expectations for

connectivity and continuity” (p. 1), presuming a “linkage from early behavior

to later behavior” (p. 3). People in general are presumed to be continuous

with their upbringing. Personalities and attitudes are traditionally thought

to be consistent with the person’s past experiences. Any behaviors or

thoughts that appear to be exceptions to this rule (sometimes deemed

“abnormal”) merely indicate that some of the person’s past is not known. If it

were known, then we would see its continuity to the “exceptional” behaviors

and thoughts in question.

Temporal continuity is also used to explain change in psychology.

Indeed, in accordance with Newton, change and time are considered almost

synonymous–both being smooth and gradual. Change from one

psychological stage to another must occur through intermediary states (or

moments in time). “Spurts” of change are possible, but some amount of time

must occur between changes. For example, changes that researchers

consider “discontinuous” are often observed in child development (Kagan,

1984). Still, these are normally viewed as rapid continuous changes–

changes across a short span of time–rather than changes with no time or

transition between events (e.g., Fischer, 1984). A child cannot move from one

stage of development to the next without passing “in between.” Continuity

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implies that one instant is connected to the next with a line, and thus there

must always be a small interval of time in which change occurs.

Virtually all mainstream psychological explanations are universal

(Faulconer and Williams, 1985). Psychologists have long sought general

“laws” of behavior that are independent of the particular historic situation in

which they are embedded (cf. Rakover, 1990, ch. 2). Examples are Fechner’s

law of sensation strength and Skinner’s principles of reinforcement–both

presumably still applicable, despite their having been formulated many years

ago. Most psychologists attempt to look “behind” their data to find the

universal principles that underlie them (Fuller, 1990, ch. 1). In their study

of memory, for instance, cognitive psychologists expect to glean universal

principles that can be applied uniformly under specified experimental

conditions (cf. Ashcraft, 1989). These psychologists implicitly assume that

time itself will remain uniform from situation to situation.

The linearity of explanation in psychology is also readily apparent.

Time is considered to “flow” between psychological events like a line and to

function as a medium for the sequence of events (Ornstein, 1972, p. 82-84).

This is most clearly observed in the “causal” explanations of psychologists.

Any event observed “before” is automatically considered for, if not awarded,

causal status over events observed “after” (Rakover, 1990, ch. 2). The time

interval–the points on the line–between cause and effect must be filled with

causal process (McGrath and Kelly, 1986, p. 128-131). From this perspective,

it is easy to see why so many psychologists place so much emphasis upon the

past. The present is an effect of the past. Moreover, the present is only one

point on the line of time, and a durationless and fleeting point at that. A

person’s life, therefore, consists of the past almost exclusively. It seems only

logical that the most theoretical and therapeutic attention is paid to the past.

Newton and Time

21
The fact that psychological processes supposedly take place across time

has the same implication it had in Newtonian physics: reductionism. No

process–whether it be mental, emotional, or behavioral–can exist as a whole

at any point in time. A reduction of the process is all that is directly

available for study. Consequently, it is only natural to conceptualize

processes as component parts that are separated by linear time. Consider,

for example, some models of family therapy. Although family therapists

typically wish to conceptualize the whole of the family system, their

theorizing often depicts this system as occurring piecemeal along the line of

time. This type of linear explanation has overlooked reductive ramifications.

Because the system-as-a-whole is never present at any one point in time, the

therapist is necessarily resigned to interventions that directly affect only a

portion of the system. No truly systemic intervention–at least in the sense of

affecting all parts simultaneously–is possible.

Similar to Newtonian physicists, psychologists also seem to favor

machine metaphors for explaining psychological processes. Aveni (1989)

rightly declares, “Machinery is, for us, the power tool of metaphor” (p. 36).

Just as Newtonian explanations relied upon the clock, psychological

explanations have historically relied upon a host of different machines. The

human mind, for instance, has been analogized to whatever mechanism was

prominent in that historic period, from the hydraulics of the steam engine to

the relays of telephone switchboards (Martindale, 1981, p.3). Today, of

course, the computer is the ascendant machine, and true to form, computer

metaphors abound in theories of the mind. Even families are understood

through computer metaphors (e.g., Nichols, 1984, p. 421). Computers, no less

than their mechanistic predecessors, operate across time in temporal stages

that minimally included input and output (Dreyfus, 1979, ch. 10). In this

Newton and Time

22
sense, Newtonian time and mechanistic models have each served to catalyze

the popularity of the other.

Finally, many contemporary psychologists and Newtonian physicists

view scientific method with similar temporal assumptions (Rychlak, 1988, p.

47-49; cf. Slife, 1987). Psychological scientists view themselves as intervening

experimentally, and then observing the consequences of this intervention

later in time. This view is aided by psychology’s decidedly linear approach to

causation. Temporal sequence is so conflated with causation that the two are

often indistinguishable in research. Psychological experimenters have rarely

been accused of “making a metaphysics of their method”12 (as has Newton),

but this may be because psychologists have not made their own assumption of

time explicit. Without an awareness that linearity is a part of psychology’s

metaphysic, psychological researchers cannot be accused of confounding this

assumption with their method. Yet, their method may incorporate linear time

in a way that prohibits any true test of its validity.

Conclusion

It is important, then, that we identify the linear view of time in all of

its manifestations. Temporal assumptions cannot be discerned through the

use of a method that assumes them. Thus, in this essay, the process of

identification has begun with a brief cultural and historical analysis. Our

cultural analysis finds psychology’s temporal conception to be a product of

modern Western culture to some degree–likening time to a continuous line

that is independent of the events it supposedly measures. Still, it is unlikely

that psychology would have adopted this conception without reputable

scientists also endorsing it–hence, the significance of Isaac Newton. Newton,

to his credit, made his conception of time explicit. However, there is no

indication that early psychologists (particularly those pressing for natural

Newton and Time

23
science methods) did likewise. Instead, methods and modes of explanation

were adopted that contained temporal assumptions implicitly.

Five of those implicit temporal assumptions are described in this

essay: objectivity, continuity, linearity, universality, and reductivity. These

five characteristics have served historically as an important guide to

scientific explanation in general. Should the recent criticism and

abandonment of these characteristics–in physics and philosophy–give

psychologists pause? There is no question in the mind of the present author

that it should. This is not to say that the issues of psychology are identical to

those of physics or philosophy. However, one is struck by the almost total

lack of examination of the Newtonian temporal framework in psychology.

How can psychologists know if the problems of physics and philosophy are

relevant when most psychologists have no idea they even endorse the

framework in question? This, then, is the importance of recognizing the

“Newtonian legacy.”

Newton and Time

24
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Footnotes

Requests for reprints should be sent to: Brent D. Slife, P.O. Box 97334, Department of

Psychology, Baylor University, Waco, Texas 76798.

1For exceptions, see Rychlak (1981, 1988), McGrath and Kelly (1986), and Slife (1981, 1987, in

press), Williams (1990).

2Christian doctrine may have been interpreted historically as supportive of a linear view, and thus

led to its rise in Western culture. Nevertheless, it is debatable whether Christian doctrine implies

linear time. Biblical revelation points to the directionality of events, but it does not necessarily

point to a linear interpretation of this directionality. The past, for example, is not necessarily

primal in Christian theology. The present (e.g., the indwelling of the Holy Spirit) and the future

(e.g., Christ’s Second Coming) seem to be as important as the past. Moreover, God is often

thought to transcend time, and sinners are viewed as being “reborn” and thus transcending their

pasts.

3Not only was cyclical time possible, but Newton also differentiated his “absolute time” from

“relative time” (Newton, 1687/1990, p. 8). Moreover, Leibniz opposed Newton’s conceptions with

his notion of “relational time.” From Leibniz’ perspective, time does not exist in its own right,

independently of events. Time is the successive order of the events themselves (Whitrow,

1980, p. 36-39).

4This is not to imply that Einstein eliminated time. As Whitrow (1980, section 6.5) has noted,

modern notions of “cosmic” time are not incompatible with relativity theory.

5This linear characteristic of absolute time may seem in contradiction with Newton’s contention

that natural processes are “reversible.” Newton believed, for example, that celestial mechanics

were consistent with his mathematical laws whether they were run “forward” or “backward.” This

would seem to imply that time itself can run forward and backward (e.g., Coveney & Highfield,

1990, p. 30; McGrath & Kelly, 1986, p. 29). However, Newton made clear distinctions between

natural change processes and Absolute Time. Absolute Time flows “without relation to anything

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external,” and is independent of these natural processes. Natural processes may be reversible,

but their temporal medium–absolute time–is not. How else could we know, Newton might ask,

whether natural processes of change are forward or backward, unless we have some absolute

standard by which to judge this directionality? As Newton (1687/1990) described it, “. . .the

flowing of absolute time is not liable to any change. . .the order of the parts of time is immutable”

(pp. 9-10). For the purposes of this book, reference to Newtonian time is a reference to Absolute

Time which has definite linear properties.

6Of course, whenever the past is fully understood in a Newtonian framework, the present and

future are also considered to be illuminated (and predicted) as well.

7An interesting exception to this was Newton’s conception of gravitation. For him, gravity was a

force which acted instantly across the distance between one mass and another (Nicolson, 1980,

p. 165). As Bunge (1959) notes, the notion of instantaneous physical actions was actually quite

prevalent during this period of history (p. 64).

8How well machines actually embody these characteristics is, of course, open to debate. The

order that machines represent does not have to be considered linear in nature. That is, the

directionality implicit in mechanisms does not have to be framed in absolute and linear terms.

Historically, however, machines and linear time have tended to be highly associated.

9Morris (1984) presents a similar challenge: “Nor can any meanings be attached to the

statement that time ‘flows equably.’ If the flow of time is not uniform, how can one measure its

irregularities?” (p. 210).

10Einstein did not believe, however, that causal relations were relative to each observer’s inertial

frame of reference. He considered the order of cause and effect to be invariant and absolute

(Ballif & Dibble, 1969, p. 412).

11Bohm cites other examples of instantaneous change, including empirical experiments (pp. 71-

72). Essentially, a molecule of two atoms is disintegrated, resulting in the two atoms flying apart.

While the atoms are in flight (and potentially separated by great distances), any attempt to

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30

measure the spin of one atom is instantaneously registered in its “brother” atom. No time has

occurred in which to allow any “transmission” from one atom to the other, yet the two are

somehow instantaneously related.

12Rychlak (1988) is a notable exception, because he has accused psychological experimenters of

an “S-R Bind.” That is, an S-R type of linear framework is imposed on a nonlinear style of

theorizing in order to make the latter more “scientific” (in the linear sense). This is perhaps most

readily seen in the confounding of the S-R theory with the IV-DV of method (Rychlak, 1988, 172-

174).

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