Time crunch

So i’ve been reading all this spiritual stuff about living in the present, and how “now” is the only time we ever have, and it began to sink in that science is inextricably based on the concept of linear time, starting at t=0 and progressing forward, through the instantaneous slice of the present moment, and ever onward,perhaps infinitely, in its monotonic, plodding, uniform rate.

In contrast, the one incontrovertible aspect of human experience is that, whenever you pause to check, it’s always NOW — a kind of temporal illustration of that old spatial saw, Wherever you go, there you are.

‘S true — you never, ever seem too wake up yesterday, or snap out of a daydream and find it’s tomorrow. Every conscious moment happens at, and only at, t=NOW.

Another obvious disconnect between science and common experience is that “uniform rate” thing. Useful as it has proven for practical purposes like the building of bridges and cell phones and the prediction of lunar eclipses, any 10-year-old can tell you that, experientially, time shoots past quickly when you’re scared or concentrating or having fun, and drags interminably when you, for example, are 10 hours into a 13-hour bus ride from Sault Ste. Marie to Ottawa.

In fact, whatever engrossing psychological state you’re in, while you’re deeply into it time seems to be out of the picture entirely. Only once you lapse back into “ordinary” reality does time seem to have passed quickly or slowly.

After the May meditation retreat in Merritt, i began to idly wonder whether the 2,500-year-old Buddhist assertion that time is an illusion might be an objective, scientific-type fact. I began to wonder what a science based on no-time-but-now could possibly look like.

It would have to be change-based, of course — change is another universal constant noted by those ancient Buddhist scientists. So it would have to include a … trajectory or rate-of-change variable for every single thing embedded in the one-and-only NOW. That seems doable. Where i hit a roadblock is this projection-into-the-future thing, for i realized that science, while it purports to be about knowledge for knowledge’s sake, is really about prophecy: it’s acid test is “experimental verification,” i.e. predicting the future (at least in the limited sense of how matter will behave in controlled experiments). Future prediction is the bread and butter of science, but i see no way to slip or cram it into a futureless NOW. (As i wrote that sentence, though, i got a faint glimmer of how it might conceivably be done.)

In Nelson, a few days after the retreat, it was the work of but half an hour on the library Internet to surprise myself with the discovery that there’s a minor revolution brewing in the fringe corridors of physics, on just this subject. I found at least half a dozen books on the nature of time and the problems this puzzle is creating for physics

Wasn’t till Winnipeg that i got my hands on one of those books: The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics, by Julian Barbour. He’s an independent physicist – as he puts it, not tenured by a big university or tethered by a big corporation, and thus able to pursue whatever line of inquiry he pleases, even one challenging as basic and fundamental a common-sense subject as time.

I didn’t finish the book before it had to be returned to the library (alas, time), but got enough of an overview to be intrigued. Physics, according to Barbour, is at an impasse; the macro world of special relativity and the micro world of quantum mechanics both work admirably well at predicting experimental results in their realms, but thus far will not reconcile with each other in any much-sought-after “grand unified theory” — a fatal snag at the heart of which, Barbour and others say, may lie the concept of time.

His proposition is outrageous to contemplate: There is no time, nor is there motion, despite all appearances to the contrary. What there is is an endless series of self-contained NOWs — “time capsules,” he calls them — that each incorporate the characteristics — the mimicry — of time having passed. Our consciousness makes the leap that time has passed, in the same way our eyes and brain construct the illusion of motion from 24 still frames per second at the movies.

Now i’m already beyond my depth, but Barbour invokes another ancient Zen chestnut about the misconceptions we hold about supposedly fixed matter. (The molecules that make up “your” hand are 99% empty space. “Your” blood cells are dying and replacing themselves at a rate of 400 million million a second. Given this emptiness and endless flux of your component matter, how fixed and enduring can “you” really be?)

What’s most interesting is how the mystery of consciousness creeps in here, somehow possibly mediating in what we conceitedly think of as the “objective reality” of things (just like mystics have been incomprehensibly claiming for ages). New-age types will have heard this idea before, but those assertions seem to be on the level of games. Who really operates day-to-day on this level of impermanence?

The end of time, one of our most basic preconceptions about the world, would probably change everything — physics, science, and most significantly the zeitgeist, in unfathomable ways, the way relativity has slowly soaked into the collective unconscious.

I’ve blathered long enough. The field, at any rate, is rich for further, mind-bending reading. Last week i serendipitously discovered that CBC’s Ideas series did a show on this topic, including an interview with Barbour and other speculators. (Click to listen.)

And now we’ve entered the outskirts of Ottawa at last, and i’m looking forward to some urban excitement. Timewise, though, my job — my function on earth, the only thing that seems to hold any enduring interest for me — is to settle firmly into t=NOW.

Author: Greg Blee

Poster to my own gregblee.ca blog, and others.

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