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Several years ago I began to notice that there was something not right about time. As a scientist, I always thought of time as a dimension, much like the three dimensions of space. But unlike space, time seemed to lack a consistence of measurement, a metric. Recent events of the last few days sometimes seemed to have happened a century ago. Events from the distant past were often as fresh and sharp as if they had occurred yesterday.

This sense of time differs from my experience of physical distance in space. The metric is much clearer. It doesn’t matter if I drive from Colorado to San Francisco or walk or fly there by plane. The distance feels the same. I know what lies between Colorado and San Francisco and what it takes to get from here to there and back. Of course, with some effort I can fill in all the events between two points in my lifetime. But I remain unable to explain where the time went (if it went anywhere).

On getting older (I am now 61) this time thing began to take on more importance. Yikes! Here I am trapped is something called the “present” moving inexorably away from the past (which was fun) toward the future (death and decay doesn’t sound like fun). I began to compare my passage through my lifetime to riding the big hill on the roller coaster. It’s great fun starting out, getting pulled higher and higher with all the girls waving and shouting “wheeee.” Now we are at the top! Look how far you can see. It’s fantastic. Oh oh! We’re starting to go down. ‘Aieeeeeee!!!’ Is that a black tunnel at the bottom? Or a brick wall?

Contemplating  our inevitable progression toward death and decay assumes that time really exists, as we perceive it. But who can seriously question the nature of time which we all experience?

Just in time (pun intended) I happened on some ideas that offered me an escape from time’s trap. I have always been interested in Kurt Gödel, the friend of Einstein who shook up the mathematical world with his “Incompleteness Theorem“. Less famously, he published a short paper demonstrating that if Einstein’s theory of general relativity is true, time as we know it cannot exist.

The history of this extraordinary article is described in the brilliant but difficult book “A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Godel and Einstein” by Yourgrau. I am not a physicist. But the idea of the nonexistance of time continues to grow on me.

Eternal Traffic Circle

Eternal Traffic Circle

Here is the gist of the idea. There are at least three kinds of time:

  • Experiential time. You are reading this right now. You read the last paragraph in the past. You can’t to the past from here no matter how hard you try. Everything in the future is yet to come. The future, including death, is inescapable.
  • Clock and calendar time. This is the time we can measure with wrist watches and cesium clocks.  We assume it is related to experiential time because we can mark today on the calendar. Yesterday is remembered and we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
  • The time of space-time as described in general relativity. Space-time contains all of time and all of space. Objects can be located in space and time. But time is relativistic, that is, measurements of time differ depending on their frame of reference in space-time. .

I would propose that experiential time is an artifact of our consciousness. More specifically, our experience of the passage of time is an inescapable consequence of the way in which our brains think and remember events. It is only indirectly related to the time of space-time, which I will call real time.

There is no “now” in space-time. All points in times are equal, and so in a sense eternal. After all, all points in space exist and are equally real. Why would the axis of time be different?

If we allow ourselves to really believe this, the present moment becomes the only moment there ever is. Every moment of our life, from birth to death, is the present moment. If we could really get in a time machine and travel into the past, we would be no wiser because it would be just the present moment, as it always has been and always will be.

Our consciousness moves in time because in order to be conscious we have to think, and thinking requires activity in our brains that spans time. Our brains use energy, so thinking and forming memories increase entropy. As pointed out by Steven Hawkings, this entropy increase means that the arrow of experiential time must point in the same direction as the arrow of the time of space-time time. But I am suggesting that the arrow is arbitrary. Switch the head and tail of this arrow and real time is unchanged.

And so I believe that the trap of time is an illusion. There is no more reason to worry about what it will be like after we die than there is to worry about what it was like before we were born. Our lives span a limited region of space. Why should they not also span a limited region of time? Death and birth are artificial boundaries that represent transitions. In reality, we die and are reborn every moment.

More about this from the perspective of Buddhism to follow.

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7 Comments

    • Kenichi Ikuta
    • Posted December 21, 2008 at 2:00 am
    • Permalink

    Several years ago I began to notice that there was something not right about time. As a scientist, I always thought of time as a dimension, much like the three dimensions of space. But unlike space, time seemed to lack a consistence of measurement, a metric. Recent events of the last few days sometimes seemed to have happened a century ago. Events from the distant past were often as fresh and sharp as if they had occurred yesterday.

    *The remark, “But unlike space, time seemed to lack a consistence of measurement, a metric”, seems to be concerned with the designation of imaginary “ict” in the representation of spacetime interval, I am not sure, though.

    *The following part seems to be concerned with individual’s sense, inclusive of memory, affect, and so forth; namely, it is a matter of individual events.

    Contemplating our inevitable progression toward death and decay assumes that time really exists, as we perceive it. But who can seriously question the nature of time which we all experience?

    *Can we peceive time directly?! Time may be a pile of chronological events, suchas a series of “birth, growth, and death.”

    But the idea of the nonexistance of time continues to grow on me.

    *What is “existence” proved as “it exists” by when the matter in question is “metric ones” or of similar properties; e.g.:energy.

    Why would the axis of time be different?

    *Conversely speaking, Minkowski space must have been created as a different space from conventional Euclidean space because of the different property of time from that of others.

    *The concepts of phyisics are too difficult for me!!

    *Although I do not know the details, Mr. Yoichiro Nanbu, a Novel Prize Winner for Physics this year, contributed to the concept of “mass.” The origin of mass may be a very important and difficult problem in physics, I hear.

    • chaotos
    • Posted December 23, 2008 at 8:49 pm
    • Permalink

    I am wondering how my comments would translate in Japanese? Most confusing I imagine.

    You are correct that I am contrasting our psychological, subjective understanding of time with the underlying reality. Ontology versus epistemology.

    Einstein was unclear whether he thought time was unlike the other axes of space in general relativity. But certainly our experience of time is different than our experience of space.

    PS I meant metric in the mathematical sense, that is, a unit of measure which follows certain rules of consistency. For example, the distance from A to C must be equal or less than the distance from A to B plus the distance from B to C for all three points A, B, and C. For me, at least, time fails to follow these rules.

    • kenichi ikuta
    • Posted December 24, 2008 at 12:43 am
    • Permalink

    >Ontology versus epistemology.

    Physics nowadays seems to have come to such a point that we cannot regard ontology or epistemology as mere metaphysics.

    I looked into some examples in Wikipedia although I stopped learning physics about 35 years ago.

    (1)—–
    The Copenhagen interpretation is an interpretation of quantum mechanics. A key feature of quantum mechanics is that the state of every particle is described by a wavefunction, which is a mathematical representation used to calculate the probability for it to be found in a location, or state of motion. In effect, the act of measurement causes the calculated set of probabilities to “collapse” to the value defined by the measurement. This feature of the mathematical representations is known as wavefunction collapse.
    ——–

    (2)—–
    Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment, often described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. It illustrates what he saw as the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics being applied to everyday objects.
    ——–

    The theory of “observation” of physics is very difficult for me to understand but, in a sense, it seems to be applied to psychiatry by Harry Stack Sullivan: participant observation, I mean.

    A very primary question put on me now is which of the following expressions is better than others so as to correctly understand the nature:
    (1)Mass is equivalent to energy.
    (2)Mass can be transformed to energy and vice versa.
    (3)Mass is one of the modalities of energy status.
    and so forth.

    “Is photon energy?” or “Does photon have energy?” —-

    >PS I meant metric in the mathematical sense, that is, a unit of measure which follows certain rules of consistency. For example, the distance from A to C must be equal or less than the distance from A to B plus the distance from B to C for all three points A, B, and C. For me, at least, time fails to follow these rules.

    —–
    The sum of the lengths of any two sides of a triangle always exceeds the length of the third side.
    —–

    This may be only applicable in Euclidean space.
    So, we may not be living in Euclidean space??!!

    *This world is full of mysterious things!!

    • chaotos
    • Posted December 28, 2008 at 8:35 am
    • Permalink

    And don’t we love the mysterious things above all others?

    I agree that “Physics nowadays seems to have come to such a point that we cannot regard ontology or epistemology as mere metaphysics.” However we “see thought a glass darkly” and cannot escape the difference between what we perceive and what really is. Physics has become so powerful at exploring what really is, far beyond the range of personal experiences. But not all hypotheses are testable (string theory may be an example.) There is currently controversy as to the necessary role of time at the quantum mechanical level, and experiments are underway to explore the possibility that time is reversible (private communication).

    • kenichi ikuta
    • Posted December 28, 2008 at 7:32 pm
    • Permalink

    >There is currently controversy as to the necessary role of time at the quantum mechanical level, and experiments are underway to explore the possibility that time is reversible (private communication).

    I do not know the reversibility of time. (–>Landau and Lifsitz may have gotten to a conclusion in their textbook, I vaguely remember).

    I am a little interested in the following EPR paradox, although I cannot understand well.

    Modern physics seems to have serious problems with regard to “observation”, “speed”, “time”, etc.
    Most recently, however, the quantum theory must be renewed completely because of the finding that neutrino has weight, I hear.
    Anyway, physics is too difficult for me, althogh it is very interesting!
    (^_^; Hehehehe

    *Space is distorted by the field of gravitation, and light flies straitly in the vacuum. So, which is right to say, light flies straightly or not near the earth?

    • chaotos
    • Posted February 20, 2009 at 5:45 am
    • Permalink

    Ok, Ken, after some internet research I may have found an article which will clear it all up for you.

    http://kims.ms.u-tokyo.ac.jp/bin/time_VI.pdf

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