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“Time is what prevents everything from happening at once.”

– John Archibald Wheeler

“I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility”

– Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes”

“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough. “

– Rabindranath Tagore

As a child, I was always fascinated with science fiction stories that dealt with time or time travel. Going back to a previous historical era held some interest, but I was more excited about the idea of traveling into the future. The future, I was sure, would be more interesting than the present, and more advanced. (It hadn’t quite yet occurred to me that scientific advancement and other kinds of advancement might not go hand in hand.)

Studying physics in college, I became aware of the intellectual questions surrounding our understanding of time. In Special Relativity, the time one assigns to an event depends upon one’s state of motion, so that two observers in different states of motion can actually place events in different orderings. This is saved from becoming a causality nightmare by the fact that the only events whose ordering are a matter of perspective are events that cannot have any causal connection with each other, by virtue of being too far apart in space to affect one another. Still, it is quite a strange thought.

Then, in General Relativity, we encounter things like black holes, where time and space can actually reverse their roles: if you could cross the event horizon of a black hole, the singularity at its center is no longer a point in space you can move toward or away from, but instead becomes a time in your future, and hence absolutely inescapable. An analogous thing happens in the standard model of the Big Bang, which suggests that time literally begins at the moment of the Big Bang. Asking what happened before is like asking what is north of the North Pole. Of course, we can’t figure out how to extrapolate the laws of physics back to that precise moment, so it’s still something of an open question, it seems.

General Relativity even allows “closed time-like curves” – strange loops in which the simple passage of time actually brings you back to where you started. In this theory, one would come back to exactly the same conditions as before, which is not like the science fiction time travel stories, where people seem to return to earlier times with a different state of knowledge, or perhaps even in a different body. Physicists tend to view these closed time-like curves as impossible in the real universe, just an quirk of the mathematics of the theory.

Physics has also failed to resolve the question of time’s asymmetry in any satisfying way. Why do things move from past to future rather than the other way around, or, to put it another way, why do we perceive past events as real and future events as only possible? The equations of physics do not dictate this, it is just a part of the backdrop against which physics talks about change. Pointing to things like entropy is interesting, but ultimately begs the question.

A couple paragraphs only scratches the surface of the problems of time in science and philosophy, but years of study in this area left me feeling science hasn’t done anything to explain the phenomenon of time – rather, it has shown that our routine perceptions of time are naive, without offering any viable substitute.

Those routine perceptions, of course, differ from person to person and from culture to culture. In European culture for many centuries now, the obsession seems to be with time as a strong river sweeping us along without choice to some uncertain end. We bemoan how little time we are given, we focus on life “slipping behind” too soon, and dream of “turning back time”. The Hindu vision of time is much more cosmic, with ages within ages, great cycles within even greater cycles, a dance of time that renders our daily temporal concerns insignificant. As a Pagan, I often think of time as a circle, or rather a helix, emphasizing the turning of the days, months, and seasons. Yes, I am a year older than I was last spring, but spring is still spring, and so I am connected to something more enduring than the image of plummeting down a river would suggest.

When I meditate or contemplate the nature of my immersion in this life, I experience yet another understanding of time – timelessness or eternity. The word “eternal” is used two different ways. Many people use it prosaically, to mean just “lasting forever”. More mystically, however, the eternal is not a long or infinite stretch of time, but the experience of being outside of time altogether. This is how I feel when I’m living fully in the present moment.

Instead of past, present, and future, perhaps we should just speak of memory, consciousness, and expectation. The present moment is actually happening, whereas memories of the past and expectations of the future are images of things not present to our immediate awareness. The quote above from John Wheeler keeps coming back to me. Perhaps the sense of time is a feature of consciousness that allows it to experience the infinite possibilities of being in all their delicate detail. Time, perhaps, is consciousness’s way of savoring itself.


May 2008