About Time

This is not going to be a very erudite essay. I promise, for those of you more scientifically inclined, I will write something more substantial on the topic of “Time” at a later date. But before I do that I want to make some more subjective comments on this most arcane and difficult topic. I have said to some of you that are close to me, that I think that understanding the fundamentals of the universe is wrapped up in the understanding of time.

Yet we know our concept of time is coloured by subjectivity.

The dentist says, “This might hurt a little, but it will only take a minute.”

I lie back in agony, my every muscle tensed. Then after an age he says, “Nearly done.”

What does he mean, “nearly done”? He continues the torture, the pace of his progress being something like the rate of tectonic drift.

Finally he says, “All done! Have a rinse now.”

While bending over to get a glass of water, I surreptitiously glance at my watch. Barely a few minutes have gone since I last looked at it. So there was a lot of time here that I have experienced that my watch hasn’t measured. Where did it go?

On another day I go fishing. It is a lovely day with the sun shining, the winds light and the tide running gently. I pull my little tinny up alongside the rock bar and throw out the anchor. I look at my watch and it is almost 7:00am. My wife needs the car later in the day and I promised to be home by 11:00am.

You could hardly say the fishing is electric but I am getting a few bites. Occasionally a fish grabs the bait and whilst I have the baitcasting reel on free spool I allow the fish to take a few metres of line before I strike. Without much effort I catch a half dozen nice bream. When I land the last one I look down at my watch. Good God! It’s now just after ten. I need to up anchor and head off home in a hurry if I am to get there in time for my wife to meet her commitments. As I motor back to the boat ramp I shake my head in dismay. Surely I couldn’t have been there for three hours? This time my watch seems to have measured more time than I experienced. Where did it find it?

We have learnt from Einstein that the universe is mapped by its space/time continuum. If we are to provide a definitive physical description of anything, we know we have to provide the coordinates of the three spatial dimensions plus a time coordinate as well.

This reflects, I believe, a limitation of our consciousness. Time is essentially an add-on dimension for human beings because we can’t experience everything at once. Whatever God is, It/She/He has that capacity (to experience everything at once). The Universe from the point of view of God has no time dimension separate from the spatial dimensions because time has no more significance than length or breadth.

It is an interesting exercise to look at our creation myths. Every major religion seems to have a creation myth, but these creation myths, reflecting the understanding of those who created them, merely describes the creation of the world or even that little part of the world inhabited by the believers. There is always a before and an after.

Science has its own creation myth. It is far more encompassing than the religious myths because it encompasses the creation of the whole universe. Because, as Einstein showed us, space and time are close coupled, the science creation myth also includes the creation of time.

The traditional creation myths assume that God (or their particular version of It) always existed. This allowed some sort of prehistory to creation. The science creation myth does not allow this luxury because prior to the creation event, the Big Bang, not only did the universe not exist but neither did time. Consequently it is pointless to ask what there might have been before.

The science creation myth certainly is a better explanation of the world as we know it than the competing religious creation myths. Consequently it seems bizarre that anyone might take the religious myths seriously. Yet I don’t believe the Big Bang theory is the whole explanation. I think it too attempts to find a way around our limited ability to understand the world.

In some ways it reminds me of the pre-Kepler explanation of the heavens. When we could only believe that planets had circular trajectories we had to keep adding more and more orbits to explain the observed movement of the planets of the solar system. Because time seems beyond our immediate comprehension I suspect our picture of the universe and its creation have been “complexified” (to borrow a term from Teilhard de Chardin) to compensate. But once we understood that the planetary orbits were actually elliptical the model of the planetary movements was vastly simplified.

Or perhaps it is like the eighteenth century physicists who decided electromagnetic waves needed a medium to propagate them. As a result they postulated the ether. But of course once our understanding improved and Maxwell gave us a better framework for understanding the phenomenon, we didn’t need the ether.

When our conceptualising is constrained, we always have to add complexity to explain. Many years ago, and I can’t remember the source, I read a story someone had written about a world that only had two spatial dimensions, length and height. The fishermen had to drag their boats down to the sea every morning. Because this was a two dimensional world, each had to wait for the one in front because they had no ability to pass them laterally. (The only opportunity to pass someone would be to go over the top of them which would be exceedingly difficult.) When they got down to the ocean and they hoisted their sails (which in a two dimensional world only needed to be a vertical line) whichever sail, front or rear, that received the wind automatically blocked the wind from everyone in their lea. These difficulties are all resolved once another dimension (breadth) is added. It provides a simplifying factor just as Kepler did with the introduction of the notion of elliptical orbits or Maxwell with his mathematical framework for electromagnetic radiation.

In this way time seems to me an artificial device imposed on us because of a limitation in our perception. I suspect the scientific creation myth only prevails as a device to counter that deficiency in our consciousness. Just like the fisherman who wished to overtake the one in front of him was required to clamber over the top of the boat in front in a most difficult way in a two dimensional world, in trying to understand the universe with a constrained perception with respect to time, humankind has to introduce the artefact of the Big Bang to explain the physical universe.

Now I know this is a very provocative position to take. But there are others who have had similar thoughts.

Einstein writing about the death of his lifelong friend Michele Besso in 1955 ( and less than a month before his own death) said “And now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

2 Replies to “About Time”

  1. Our brain is the key. Our brain processes vast amounts of information and as a result forms an internal picture that is the reality that we each perceive. It is not reality though. The main function of the brain is to filter out and simplify reality into something that is manageable and practical. As part of this simplification the brain categorises and labels, splitting reality into objects that interact with each other and then introduces time to order these interaction. God knows what is thrown away in this process. What are we missing out on?

    1. Your comments are reminiscent of Aldous Huxley. I can’t remember the words exactly but he said something to the effect that the brain was a reducing valve that that filtered our sensory inputs to a level that we had the capacity to process. As you infer, and indeed part of what I argued in this essay, time seems to arise from a limitation of our perception.

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