I've always been intrigued by circular definitions, which are described as, the meanings of whatever is to be defined are found in the definition itself. Time is one of those constructs that might exist, but one would be hard pressed to find a definition of time that didn't have "time" included in the description. Many other circular definitions exist in the world, and many fundamental units such as the kilogram are best described by circular definitions. Circular definitions, sometimes paradoxical in nature, extend to other areas of nature and humanity with regularity. One would be hard pressed to define exchange without including some aspect, meaning, of exchange in the definition. I can't think of how one could define the meaning of the word trade, without having an element of the meaning of trade in the definition, Trade and exchange could even be used interchangeably Debt could be another term best described with a circular definition, as I'd be hard pressed to find a meaning that didn't include owing something in the definition. Value, as in monetary terms, is another construct that could best be described by a circular definition. Although it's a stretch, the word money, when stripped to it's essence is best described using a circular definition, as "medium of exchange" is still money. It seems that when you drill down to the essential things in science and nature, the building blocks, the things we take for granted, circular definitions pop up with increasing regularity. If fundamental units like time and mass cannot be described without resorting to circular definitions, then our entire bedrock of human knowledge, from the time of Aristotle, is laid on quicksand.

Art Cooper writes:

The bedrock of human knowledge is in fact based on universal human experience in its broadest sense. Your criticism of circular definitions brings to mind Noam Chomsky's universal grammar, which relates to universal human experience. There is a universal human understanding of such fundamental concepts as time and mass, although there are cultural differences in the way such concepts are perceived.

Vinh Tu comments:

For those who are inclined towards things computer-sciencey, the free MIT online book Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs is great, and in particular I found the chapter and lectures on the "metacircular evaluator" to be mind-expanding.

Vincent Andres writes:

Among the best things I have read about time are :

from I. Prigogine
1. La Nouvelle alliance - avec Isabelle Stengers, 1986,
ISBN 2-0703-2324-2
2. Les lois du chaos (Le leggi del caos) - 1993, ISBN 2-0821-0220-3

I think 1. is : Prigogine, Ilya; Stengers, Isabelle (1984). Order out of Chaos: Man's new dialogue with nature. Flamingo. ISBN 0006541151. Unfortunately, I don't know if 2/ was translated in English.

Both books are clearly written (but not always easy). It appears I. Prigogine did a great work as a contemporaneous scientist. But in those books he also achieves a truly impressive history of science job. It's this sort of book you just regret to not have read earlier.

I'd like to hear about other good books/texts on the topic of time.

Phil McDonnell adds:

How about this for a non-circular definition of time:

Time is a condition of increased entropy in the universe.

The usual meaning of 'circular definition' is when someone uses the word itself in an attempt to define the word. In order to understand such a definition one must already understand the word.

However this discussion has embraced a much wider interpretation of the word circular. If I understand correctly it is that a definition is equal to the thing itself. That is always true for every definition. A thing is equal to itself and by extension to its definition.

Dr. McDonnell is the author of Optimal Portfolio Modeling, Wiley, 2008

Jim Sogi writes:

In Henri Poincare's time, there was great dispute over time, where the meridian would be and exactly what time was it? Two places could not agree on time without adequate communication and accurate clocks, neither of which were available back then.

Now time in data is still an interesting issue. Time in Europe, NY, Chicago, Tel Aviv, Japan… whose time is it and what time is it really? Whose framework will prevail. I think this is still contested daily and weekly now. If we take a holiday, does time stop? Who is moving the markets? There have been many big gaps when our markets are closed. Whose time is it?





Speak your mind

3 Comments so far

  1. Dave Bacon on December 7, 2008 2:18 pm

    I’m reminded of a quote by John Archibald Wheeler from “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links”:

    “We reject that view of science used to say, ‘Define your terms before you proceed.’ The truly creative nature of any forward step in human knowledge we know is such that any theory, concept, law, and method of measurement–forever inseparable–are born into the world in union.”

  2. George Parkanyi on December 7, 2008 7:05 pm

    It’s not so much that definitions are circular, but rather, relative. You can ONLY define something in terms of, or relative to, something else. All the great sages of the east say our reality is delusion anyway, because we can’t truly comprehend the absolute from our form of consciousness. They call it duality, because the entire spectrum of our worldly experience is relative.

    In trying to define something, we are trying to bestow upon it the absolute, the property that it cannot be something else - ever. And therein lies one of the most fundamental problems of humanity, especially where “morality” and “values” are concerned. We convince ourselves that something is or must be a particular way, out of convenience or necessity perhaps, and then forget, or choose not to, to look at it from another perspective. Everyone’s reality is different, based on what they have ascribed to be “absolute”. Societies function (a relative term itself) when enough people agree on interpreting experiences and outcomes in a similar fashion - a negotiated (or accepted, as proposed/dictated by others) reality as it were. This shared reality is easier to maintain when the environment in which the society functions is relatively stable, but can change quickly as the environment itself changes. History provides ample evidence for that.

    Ultimately, ALL definitions are circular. (There I go, trying to be absolute …)

    If indeed we are spiritual creatures that have some inherent absolute property (i.e. a timeless soul), then perhaps Shakespeare may have described it best as to why it is we might be here when he wrote “The world is but a stage.” We come here, act out a part - or many parts if you believe in re-incarnation - simply for experience. A good analogy of this would be the “holodeck” in Star Trek, where the crew was able to create any reality they wanted, then immmerse themselves in it for the experience. Or, we could all just simply be random accidents of nature (whatever nature is) that were somehow lucky enough to successfully navigate the shoals of natural selection (man, what a lottery win that was!) - it’s all relative.

    Ah, philosophy.

  3. Dave Bacon on December 7, 2008 7:18 pm

    “Time is a condition of increased entropy in the universe.”

    Locally entropy can increase, so does this mean that locally time goes backwards in such a situation?


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