My friend and I were having one of our chats over a glass of wine as we have done for some years. We were discussing some material written by the good Dr Phil. It was a testing hypothesis involving spirituality and quantum physics. It is amazing what a rich recursive tapestry such considerations weave. In the end we agreed that the biggest indicator of our ignorance is our inability to get a real handle on time.
As a result I will devote this essay to this most bewildering topic, which even though I have written about it previously, continues to fascinate me. I don’t want to mislead you into believing I have solved this vexed problem, but merely want to share some thoughts with you.
Our efforts to pin down time in any objective way seem to produce illusory outcomes. And it is not a matter to be taken lately, if French Philosopher, Gaston Bachelard is to be believed. He said;
Meditating on time is the first step to metaphysics!
In their book, You Are The Universe Deepak Chopra and Menas Kafatos pose the question:
Did an enlightened sage, a prophetic poet, or a famous physicist say the following; “For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end”?
The answer of course is that these were the words of the famous quantum physicist, Erwin Schrodinger. Yet, paradoxically, physicists have divided perceived time up into its component parts and measured these very accurately. Since 1967, a second has been defined as exactly the time required for caesium atom in resonance to oscillate 9,192,631,770 times! It is astounding that we should be so precise about something that seems so ephemeral.
Our experience of time certainly doesn’t suggest such precision. An hour measured by your watch in the dentist’s chair seems infinitely longer than an hour reminiscing with an old friend.
Our dreams give us a clue to this disparity in perception as well. Scientists have shown that extensive dreams that seem to occupy long periods of time often in fact result from relatively short periods of brain activity whilst in our sleeping state. Neurologists know that the episodes of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, where almost all dreams occur, take no more than a few seconds or some minutes at the most.
Yet when I sit watching the world go by in my awakened state that experience is created by just the same neurons that created my dream experience when I was asleep. As I experience it, neither my dream experience nor my waking experience is more real than the other and yet the time dimension accompanying that experience can be decidedly different between these two states of consciousness. There is certainly an illusory nature to some aspects of time.
Some writer’s compare “experienced” time and “objective” time. Whilst the nomenclature might be somewhat problematic, I am sure most of my readers will easily make the distinction.
Even without getting into the complexities of quantum physics, time only exists in a dynamic universe. Time does not exist in a static universe.
Our first gross interpretations of time related to the earth’s inclination on its axis and its rotation which produced notions of seasons and day and night. Other regular occurrences of natural phenomena had similar impacts. For example in Egypt the annual flooding of the Nile was important, while in many civilisations the observance of the summer and winter solstices held great significance or the waxing and waning of the moon.
In physics, it was Galileo who, in his study of moving objects, introduced the idea of time as a basic physical dimension. But it was left to the genius of Newton in the seventeenth century, to develop the first explicit definition of time. Newtonian time however was absolute and universal. More than that, time was destined inexorably to pass from past to present to future (sometimes referred to as the arrow of time). Why this should be so was later explained by the Second Law of Thermodynamics which posited that the universe on average was becoming, and would continue to become, more disorderly. What’s more in Newton’s schema time stood outside of and was therefore independent of space.
But all this was stood on its head with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Time was no longer an absolute. Time was inextricably linked with both velocity and gravitation and was therefore relative. Now, although not wanting to stretch credulity too far, this at least opens up the legitimacy of personal “experienced” time. If time is no longer absolute, and is dependent on the context in which it is experienced, the threads of “objective” time start to unravel.
But let’s move forward again into another physical (and perhaps metaphysical) framework. Here’s a provocative question for you. Where did time come from in the first place? Well this is a particularly enigmatic question. If we believe in the “Big Bang” theory of creation, scientists have shown that until the expanding universe reached the level of the Planck scale, time and space did not exist. (The Planck scale is named after the German physicist, Max Planck. The Planck scale is very tiny, being 20 orders of magnitude –i.e. 1/10 followed by 20 zeroes – smaller than the nucleus of an atom.) So what is this concept that can neither exist in a static universe nor exist in the most turbulent conditions of creation?
It is tempting to suggest that time reflects the current of life. The beginning of creation is just too turbulent for such a current to establish itself. It is like vigorously boiling water – too chaotic and foaming to allow the establishment of a current. Or perhaps in the case of a static universe, just like after a rain shower when the fallen rain has run its course into a puddle, there is no current either.
In the high energy turbulence of the early stages of the “Big Bang”, life is impossible. In the immense cold of an expended “heat death” universe life is also impossible. Can it be that time is only possible when life is possible or is this just another nuance of the illusory universe? Let me be bold here and assert that time is not only a phenomenon concomitant with life, but as we shall shortly see, with consciousness. Tellingly, St Augustine is reputed to have said:
The only time is lived time!
Time has bedevilled human beings since the very beginning.
Time has inexorably become mixed up with our sense of mortality. We believe that our personal experience of time is finite. We complain that we are “running out of time”. Now this seems to me to be a peculiar sentiment. If we concur that the universe is uniquely described by the four dimensions of space and time, it seems passing strange that we should have such concerns only about one such dimension. Hardly anyone has ever made a case that their life is somehow circumscribed by the concern about running out of space! No. Our fear is about running out of time! Why should this dimension be given such import to the exclusion of the other dimensions?
We are of course, in this respect at least, illogical. If our concern is the continuation of the existence of a physical body, extinguishing one of the spatial dimensions would just as surely annihilate us as the removal of the temporal dimension.
Since time immemorial, in myth, legend and spiritual traditions, time has been portrayed as our greatest enemy, In the Sanskrit epic, the Bhagavad Ghita, the hero Arjuna confronts the god Krishna not as a creator but as a destroyer.
“Tell me who you are?” he asks Krishna. And the god replies, “I am come as time, the waster of the peoples, ready for the hour that ripens to their ruin.”
And thus time is always portrayed as the malevolent dimension. Notwithstanding that without time we would have no experience, no development and no growth, our existential angst overwhelms us into believing that time is our enemy. You might even say that time is the prime marker of being.
Time seems to me to be an intimately personal thing. Time is about our experience here and now. There is no other time. And pause for a moment and remember this well – there is no such experience without consciousness!
And because time is basically an experiential phenomenon, the only time that is possible is the time we are currently experiencing – that is now! (Refer again to the quote from Schrodinger with which I began this piece.) This fact has been attested by sages, scientists and philosophers over the ages. Let me give you some examples.
The Now-moment in which God made the first man and the Now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the Now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one Now. Look! The person who lives in the light of God is conscious neither of time past nor of time to come but only of eternity.
In the spiritual world there are no time divisions such as past, present or future; for they have contracted themselves into the single moment of the present where life quivers in its true sense.
Gandavyhu Sutra as translated by D T Suzuki
Or consider Albert Einstein writing about the death of his lifelong friend Michele Besso in 1955 (and less than a month before his own death).
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.
Einstein, among his many contributions to this debate, was instrumental in demonstrating that time is a personal construct. As Einstein showed, there is no fixed spot in the universe for measuring time. Every observer is in motion relative to every other observer, and therefore every observer has a unique frame of reference, and thus, of necessity, each observer has its own unique experience of time. As Chopra and Kafatos state:
Time is not universally the same for every observer. We are like free-floating points in space where only local time applies.
[It is worth reflecting on the genius of Einstein. Fixing the speed of light as a constant was a desirable achievement because it removed the unreliability of subjective time.]
Now quantum physics revolutionised human thought when it proposed that subatomic particles only existed as potentialities (probability distributions smeared across discrete bits of unrealised space) until the intervention of an observer which instantaneously prises the particle from the quantum vacuum. Because the notion of space is nonsensical without matter, the act of observation is also essential to the creation of space. And because time is essentially an experience, and there can be no experience without consciousness, time also arises as an act of consciousness.
So now we arrive at a paradoxical conclusion. I asked previously from whence time came. The only answer that makes sense to me is that time is a manifestation of consciousness. It is consciousness that enabled both time and space to arise.
Now the materialists will argue strongly that that cannot be.
They steadfastly maintain that consciousness is an emergent quality from the complexification of matter in the brain. If this was indeed the source of consciousness then my thesis is overturned. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that consciousness as we experience it, is a relatively recent phenomenon, perhaps arising only in the last 100,000 years or less. Their assumption is that the “Big Bang” created matter. Somehow in the primordial soup in the earth’s early years, biological life arose and finally through the creative processes of evolution, brains developed and eventually minds, with attendant consciousness came into being. This rationale is vastly unsatisfying to me.
To begin with we know it is only the presence of a conscious observer that allows the probability function to collapse to create the fundamental building blocks of matter. To my simplistic mind this means – no consciousness = no matter. Therefore for the universe to exist at all consciousness must have always been present.
For the materialists the fundamental stuff of the universe is matter. For me the fundamental stuff of the universe is consciousness. Unitary consciousness has always existed. It may manifest in different ways, but it is essentially eternal. Why is it eternal? Because in reality it is the only thing that exists. Everything else we perceive is a manifestation of it in some way, or perhaps as Einstein stated “an illusion”.
When the universe was created (it might be more appropriately described as a thought emanating from unitary consciousness) and life began, those sentient living creatures were imbued with some of the consciousness from that primal source.
Now as I have tried to show, there is no single indivisible universe. Every being imbued with consciousness exists in its unique universe, which fortuitously overlaps with the universes of other such creatures which enables us to empathise with but not entirely share the experience of other conscious beings.
It is a wonderful thought to me that we each exist in our own unique universe. (It is amusing to think that when we talked of someone living in “their own little world” our description might have been more accurate than we believed!)
So, in my concept of the universe(s), consciousness was always there and matter came after. A human being is a privileged being that has embedded in it part of that unitary consciousness which created the multitude of universes we have been fortuitous enough to inhabit.
It is interesting that the notion that consciousness has such creative power was foreshadowed by the British philosopher Bishop Berkeley when he asserted two centuries ago that;
To be is to be perceived.
This concept was taken up by the physicist John Archibald Wheeler in the 1970’s. He insisted that we live in a participatory universe where the observer is woven into the very fabric of reality.
Perhaps my thoughts may not have helped you clarify your ideas about time. But one thing I am now convinced of is that the time dimension of the universe does not hold a privileged status, and relies on its place in the universe, just as the spatial dimensions, on the intervention of consciousness.
Thus, my time, my life so to speak, is my unique experience of separation from the unitary consciousness to which I will inevitably return.