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.
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.