Episode 124 – “A Kind of Stopwatch”

In the normal course of things, time passes. Our awareness of the passage of time is intimately related to our experience of happenings, or events, in the world and in ourselves. When we explicitly measure time, using a watch, a clock, or a stopwatch, we are comparing one sequence of happenings with another, e.g. someone running the 100 yard dash, with the movement of the hand of a stopwatch around its face, divided into segments we call seconds, tenths-of-seconds, etc. When we declare that the earthquake took place at 2:15pm, Pacific Daylight Time, we are saying that one event, the earthquake, and another event, the registering of 2:15pm PDT on an accurate clock, occurred simultaneously.

When we use a standard stopwatch, we initiate a series of events, the movements o f the hands of the stopwatch, or digits on the display, and compare it to the event we are observing, and thus judge the duration of the latter event or sequence of events. The two series of events, the moving of the watch hand or digits, and the event or events being timed, are not usually causally related. They occur independently of one another. I say usually, because an earthquake, for example, could cause a rock to fall on a stopwatch, and so cause it to stop. Other causal interactions in that direction can easily be thought up. Also, looking a a stopwatch could play a role in causing a runner to speed up or slow down.

“A Kind of Stopwatch” is not about a standard stopwatch, but a stopwatch that causes events in the world to stop abruptly. Activating the stop function on the stopwatch stops almost everything. What doesn’t stop are the events related to the owner of the watch. The owner keeps breathing, walking, talking, doing whatever else she or he wishes to do that can be done alone.

Once again, we find ourselves asking whether something that is represented as a possible world really is possible. If all motion outside the skin of Patrick Thomas McNulty, the possessor of the special stopwatch, ceases, that means that objects at all scales, from the very small to the very large, would also cease. The earth would stop orbiting the sun, and would stop spinning on its access. All planetary motion would cease, as would the motion of electrons around the nucleus of the atoms to which they belong, and the arrangement of atoms in molecules. Oxygen would cease to be a gas, and Mr. McNulty would not be able to breathe. If falling objects were suddenly suspended in mid-air, then gravitational forces would clearly be suspended as well. The physical world as we know it would not just freeze in place, the very laws of physics would be suspended, except in one small area, the area outlined by the skin of Mr. McNulty, and, as we’ve noted, McNulty would not survive.

Perhaps this interpretation of the thought experiment is too severe. The episode shows everything except McNulty freezing when he presses the button on the stopwatch. Perhaps it allows for the possibility that the atmosphere is not frozen, that the planets continue their motions, so that McNulty can still live. What really matters in the thought experiment provided by the episode is that people can be frozen, while McNulty is not. In their frozen states, do other people exist? Do they endure unchanging through the interval in which they are frozen, until McNulty hits the stopwatch again and unfreezes them?

This might seem like an easy question to answer. Yes, if McNulty freezes the action for five seconds, then the frozen individuals continue to exist, frozen, for five seconds, though only McNulty will be aware that the objects in the world endured for those five seconds. However, when the stopwatch breaks with everyone and everything outside of McNulty (and whatever else in the environment he needs to preserve his life), it is plausible to conclude that the objects no longer exist. At least they no longer exist as the objects they were to McNulty, who, as the only person left, is the only one who matters. He can’t talk to anyone, annoy or bother anyone. At most the frozen figures are just representations or reminders of a past existence. McNulty is in a graveyard.

Someone might see the situation differently, and argue that the frozen world is still a world of objects, and that although they don’t change individually, as long as McNulty is changing, they can be described as participating in his changes. Thus as McNulty walks away from a frozen beagle, the frozen beagle has undergone a change in its distance from McNulty. Peter Geach argues that this isn’t a real change. It’s just a change in the way we describe the object. Following Geach, philosophers call such changes “Cambridge Changes.”

McNulty’s circumstances in “A Kind of Stopwatch” raise some fundamental questions about the nature of time and the relationship between time and objects in time, and in particular, whether time is a real feature of objects, or is instead a manner in which objects appear in relation to other objects. If it is the latter, then the idea of the episode, in which a  stopwatch breaks and this brings about the end of time itself, is less far-fetched than it might have seemed at first.

McTaggart, a late 19th and early 20th century philosopher, famously argued that time is unreal. He held that we perceive events, and that when we do so, we’re perceiving events as  present. We don’t perceive the past, or the future, but we take it as essential to time that it is a series from past to present to future. But if events occurs in a present moment, they don’t change when they are in the past. Rather, what changes is our description of it. The change is a Cambridge change, not a real one. So on McTaggart’s view, the only changes are changes in whether events are regarded as past, present or future. The events themselves are unchanging and not in time. Time is not a property of objects.

Serling summarizes the episode as showing us that what happens “will alter [McNulty’s] existence, and ours.” If McTaggart is right, it doesn’t alter the properties of any objects or persons, but it does change how those objects are perceived. Kant held a somewhat related view, that time is something in the mind which structures the way we perceive objects. The failure of this feature of the mind leads to McNulty’s solipsistic nightmare in a manner not unlike that in “Time Enough at Last.”

Further Reading:

Geach, P.T., 1969, God and the Soul, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

McTaggart, J.E., 1908, “The Unreality of Time,” Mind, 17: 457–74.

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