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What Shape is Time?

What shape is time? This might seem like the sort of question that gives philosophy a bad name. But it goes quite deeply towards the heart of disagreements within and between cultures.
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I suggest running this enquiry as a “Starting Positions” session, with the participants first in pairs, then fours, then eights as you move from a quick warm-up question to something more substantial and then on to the main question which will be the focus for the bulk of your session. I’ve put the questions on this PPT for your convenience.
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Have the class stand in a circle around you, pair up, and then one from each pair takes a step towards you and turns to face their partner so that you have an inner and an outer circle. That makes it easy to assign sides for the first two questions if you want to add the energy of disagreement, and to quickly move from pairs to fours to eights.

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2s Question – Future or Past?
You have a time machine that you can use to go either to the future or to the past. It will take you there and bring you back. You can only use it once, and it is the only time machine that will ever exist. Future or past?
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4s Question – The Reality of Time
“You cannot suffer the past or future because they do not exist. What you are suffering is your memory and your imagination.” Agree or disagree?
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This is a quotation from the Indian spiritualist, Sadhguru. It’s a nice fusion of metaphysical questions of the reality of time and questions about the value of living in the moment.
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8s Question – What shape is time?
Perhaps because we can’t see time, when we talk about it we sometimes use words that are normally about places: “The distant past”, “The near future”. But for different cultures, time has a different shape.
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In Western countries, something that happened a week ago is “closer in time” than something that happened a year ago. But some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples see time differently. For them, something that happened many years ago that was important to their community can be “closer in time” than something that happened last week somewhere else. What shape is time?
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People might see it as a straight line, or as a circle, or as a shape with many facets. The first time I asked this question, one girl, Freya, suggested it was the shape of all shapes together in the same place, because everyone had their own sense of time, so we called that a “Freyagon”. This is more of a creative enquiry than one that presents a clear choice between incompatible views.
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Which is more important – place or time?
How we think of time is more than just an academic curiosity. One way of understanding the conflicts between liberal internationalism and conservative nationalism is very well expressed by Theresa May’s barb, “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” There is a tension between a fast-developing, technology-dominated international culture that is increasingly the same the world over, the “culture of now”, and a sense of belonging to a particular place that has a uniqueness and traditions that endure over time, the “culture of here”.
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To those rooted in place, with a sense of national identity and history, people immersed in the culture of now seem rootless, bland, interchangeable; from the standpoint of the culture of now, with its continuous change and convergence, a strong connection to a particular place and national identity can seem quaint, narrow, out-of date. Not recognising that these are different, coherent ways of seeing the world that each have merits is part of the general failure to understand one another that mars current discourse.
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Best wishes,
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Jason

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