The human mind is innately incapable of processing terminally unbound concepts like infinity and eternity. We can conceptualize them and discuss them at length but to envision and embody them is nigh impossible for most. We are a species that is obsessed with extremes where, contrary to popular belief, size does matter. We ask constantly: what makes up the smallest things? How big are the biggest things? How far is the farthest thing? How old is the oldest thing?
It is perhaps ironic that we are comforted by boundaries though it may seem that we like to push or pulverize them at every opportunity. Knowing the limits of things provides us with reassurance: we like our seasons to change every few months (for those of us in temperate climes)--we like our lowest seafloor to stay put and our highest mountaintops to remain relatively stable. It allows us to go about our everyday lives content in the knowledge that we understand the way of the world.
Where we get into trouble then is when the limits are unknown or when we are unable to accept those limits (or, more importantly, a lack thereof); time in particular is perhaps the most unsettling. We are hardwired to think of time as being unidirectional--of events occurring in singular sequence. To us, life is not unlike a novel: there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to everything--past precedes present with future following faithfully ahead.
We examine time and reality from a position of myopic solipsism, assuming that, because we view and experience things one way, that such is the true nature of things. Our examinations invariably lead us along similar directional arrows both spatially and temporally. With the advent of telescopes we began to look deeper into space and thus time and with the advent of the microscope so did we look inward.
The discovery of the atom led us to think in terms of composition: what are we made of? I'm still awed by the beautiful symmetry that exists in our cosmobiological histories: the elements that dominate our lives from the carbon and hydrogen in our bodies to the gold in our wedding rings all came from stars billions of years ago--some of the biggest things in the universe that existed in a time and place almost impossibly distant from our present state. We are all made of star-stuff from aeons past...how poetic!
The problem though with our tele- and microscopic explorations is that they led us constantly along the same direction to points that might not actually exist (again something that addles us incessantly). If the atom makes up matter then what makes up the atom? And thus the discovery of subatomic particles--protons, neutrons, and electrons. But, then, what makes up these particles? Why, quarks and leptons, of course! But what makes up...
You see, no matter how small we go we will always ask what is smaller because, I believe, it is simply how we are programmed to think. We cannot envision something that cannot be divided further--dissected into yet smaller constituent pieces. At that point we wind up falling back upon approximations:
"Well, at that point it would be so small that we couldn't measure it so it wouldn't matter anyway."
Go in the opposite direction and we reach a similarly disconcerting conclusion. If the universe is finite in size then what lies beyond the edge of the universe? And if it is infinite then is it not still in our nature to wonder what exists outside of it?
Once again we find ourselves trading in science for the metaphysical or philosophical. Even religion is forced to shrug its shoulders in response to such queries. If God created everything then who or what created God? (The typical answer is, "It's a mystery," which is the sacred equivalent of the secular, "It wouldn't matter anyway." Ditto for the responses to, "Where does God live?" and "What came before God?")
We live within a bounded world and thus it is exceedingly difficult for us to picture anything being physically unfettered...but what about time? Marcus Aurelius said in his Meditations that:
"Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away."
This notion of time as a river seems to complement our typical perspective of an arrow of time dominating and directing our lives since a river begins at one point and moves steadily in one direction...and yet it works also to contradict that purview. A river, despite its motion, exists all at once. Heraclitus famously proclaimed that, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man,” and yet, while the river does change, it exists still in perpetual entirety.
But just what is time? It is commonly defined as:
...the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future. Time is a component quantity of various measurements used to sequence events, to compare the duration of events or the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change of quantities in material reality or in the conscious experience.
Time in physics is defined by its measurement: time is what a clock reads. In classical, non-relativistic physics it is a scalar quantity and, like length, mass, and charge, is usually described as a fundamental quantity. Time can be combined mathematically with other physical quantities to derive other concepts such as motion, kinetic energy and time-dependent fields.
We know from Einstein's work that time is malleable--that two people with identical clocks traveling at significantly different speeds will experience differing durations of it but this refers essentially only to the present. The real issue stems from the past and the future--those uncertainties that stultify us (the past with its esoteric origin and the future with its questionable inevitability). We are used to experiencing things and analyzing them in terms of three time states: past (before), present (now), and future (ahead) but, as I stated earlier, merely because we encounter reality with such boundaries does not mean that time cannot or does not exist in an all-at-once state; perhaps we have evolved to be so constrained in our thinking or have yet to evolve to a higher order level of cogitation.
I should note that what prompted my thinking on all of this was a movie I saw recently that probed the idea of a timescape as opposed to an arrow of time.
(*SPOILERS* AHEAD FOR THE MOVIE ARRIVAL)
In an excellent analysis of the film on NPR, Marcelo Gleiser refers to the brain's "neurological plasticity" when it comes to learning new languages enabling it to adjust for its differences to other already known languages. He references too the iconographic language of the Heptapods--beings who view time in its entirety and thus speak in a way that is devoid of time values. They are able to move freely through time and space because of this perspective and, consequently, there is a profound impact upon the protagonist when she eventually learns to become untethered in time. (The article can be found in its entirety here.)
I could not fall asleep after watching the movie because my brain was afire with analytical excitement. Two recurring queries dominated my thoughts though and it is this pair that I wanted to explore here in this essay. The first and perhaps most pressing is: why don't we see all states of time simultaneously or, more importantly, why can't we? If there is neurological plasticity with regards to language then why not time?
It might seem like an insignificant differentiation between don't and can't but I believe that it is utterly material not just to our discussion here but to our very existences. I understand that the notion of time existing all at once seems incongruent with commonsense and indeed our everyday experience but many giants in physics not only support but adhere to that very belief. Richard Feynman touched upon it in his sum over histories theorem but Einstein took it a step further. In 1955 the latter wrote a letter of condolence to the family of a friend who had recently passed saying:
"Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."
We are used to our arrow of time and we allow it to shape not only our thought-processes but the very actions of our lives. We have our earliest memories from childhood or perhaps infancy that represent one terminal boundary and then we have our inevitable demises that, presumably, create the second terminus thus closing the loops of our lives. We can read about the distant past much as we can surmise about the far future but in terms of actual memory--that which is utterly internalized and drawn upon with a much different sense of realism and emotional energy--we are privy to only that which we have already experienced and are experiencing now.
Having access to all of our life at one time (as explored in Arrival) would have an intensely immense impact upon our present (ha!) states of mind as well as our future actions; it would defenestrate our long adhered-to beliefs and tenuous knowledge about the natural order of life. In the movie (again, SPOILERS!), the protagonist knows that her daughter will eventually die prematurely of a disease and that her foreknowledge of this presumed inevitability leads to the disintegration of her marriage (with the assumption being that she knows of the future circumstance but will take no action to affect the outcome). She remembers what it is like to hold and to be held by her beloved as she meets him for the first time.
She manages somehow to live her life in spite of this knowledge but how would we, then, approach such daunting information in our own lives? How could we possibly engage in relationships that we know are doomed from the start? How could we develop attachments to things that we know are going to break?
Say you had a favorite teddy bear. You know that nothing lasts forever except love but even this fades over time. Let's say you could see the future--the exact moment the bear falls apart. Would you hug it less or sleep with it less frequently if it would extend its life by a year? A few months? Even a day? Wouldn't you get to the point that you never interact with it just so that it can go on existing...and yet now you run the risk of losing the meaning that it had to you in the first place?
The first issue with what I like to think of as temporal transilience is whether or not knowledge of future events can impact the present and thus lead to changes in said future. If we see the pain of a future loss is so acute that it destroys us would we then at the moment of genesis of that relationship or interaction choose not to embark upon that journey in the first place? Of course few things would be solely saddening and thus one sequence of poignant pain couldn't possibly negate the perhaps lifetime of happiness that would precede it.
Would we exist then as representatives of Feynman's sum over histories? Instead of particle wave paths canceling each other out resulting in a few states of higher probability would it be our emotions that experience time as such? Would we feel in the present the net sum of emotions resulting from past and future in concert?
And, again, what if we could choose to alter things? Being somehow conscripted to the events of our lives would make it easier to accept the bad things but think about the implications: knowing every single thing that will happen to you at one point means in essence that there is no such thing as free will--that fate and destiny dominate your narrative. These are concepts that I explore deeply in my second novel of my Kosmogonia series, which, in turn, is inspired by the very nature of its name (Kosmogonia is a bastardization of the Greek word for cosmogony or the study of the origin of the universe) and that I still grapple with today.
Our discussion thus far has been merely superficial though--hardly scraping the surface of the topic. We have probed temporal omniscience as it pertains to one life bound by birth and death but what if those limits were altered? What if, at each point of decision in our lives, new universes or dimensions were created based upon the options that we chose?
Though it might sound like far-fetched science fiction it is actually based upon a well-known interpretation of quantum mechanics called the Many-worlds interpretation. It is described as:
...an interpretation of quantum mechanics that asserts the objective reality of the universal wavefunction and denies the actuality of wavefunction collapse. Many-worlds implies that all possible alternate histories and futures are real, each representing an actual "world" (or "universe"). In layman's terms, the hypothesis states there is a very large—perhaps infinite—number of universes, and everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but did not, has occurred in the past of some other universe or universes.
|The quantum-mechanical "Schrödinger's cat" theorem according to the many-worlds interpretation. In this interpretation, every event is a branch point; the cat is both alive and dead, even before the box is opened, but the "alive" and "dead" cats are in different branches of the universe, both of which are equally real, but which do not interact with each other. (From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Many-worlds_interpretation)|
When you begin to consider all of the possible outcomes and the variables therein then you begin to get a sense for how large and all-encompassing infinity is! With regards to the aforementioned access to all-time, what would the impact be of having access to the timescapes of all of those different realms of existence? Would we lose our sense of self and our penchant for persisting in the present? Would we become lost in the time-stream--choked by the waters of the past and future, drowning in the overwhelming flow of time itself? How could we possibly exist with exposure to that much information about ourselves?
Again, the Feynman approach might somehow factor in where conflicting realities would annihilate each other and we would be left with access to fewer outcomes but still, such omniscience seems to me a burden of unimaginable weight! And all of this is restricted to our own personal places in the multiverse! What if we had the ability to see literally ALL time? Not necessarily the memories of others, per se, but that which existed before and will exist after our own time on this plane?
Even this can be further divided between eternal and finite existences. If the universe had a beginning and has an end then what would we do with that information? The ability to see not just our own ends but the end of everything? I would imagine that it would be terrifyingly beautiful but also innately debilitating (for reasons I will explain in a moment).
And what if there really is no end and was no beginning? Would it be possible then to become trapped in our own examination of past and future--traveling forever through perpetuity thereby a) losing the ability to live in the present and b) depriving us of our physical experiences? We would be like YouTube videos buffering forever as we awaited a return to our regularly scheduled programming!
At that point, past and future would lose meaning because they would be indelibly linked; there would no longer be beginning and end--only a single state of being. Time would essentially loop in upon itself, which, interestingly enough, is the way that the universe's shape is often described. Many believe that there is no end or beginning to the universe and that one who embarks in a particular direction will eventually return to the spot from which one left or that there is merely the appearance of an end like the map in a sandbox type game like GTA IV.
Temperature too appears to be malleable in a quantifiable sense based upon the discovery of negative temperatures--the idea of the temperature scale looping back upon itself.
(By definition, Absolute Zero is the coldest theoretical temperature--the point at which all motion ceases--and yet temperatures have been discovered and created below Absolute Zero. At these so-called negative temperatures behavior changes from that of extremely cold particles to extremely hot ones thereby implying a closed loop of temperature--go too far in one direction and you find yourself approaching from the other end. For more information scope out this awesome article: about negative temperatures.)
Wading into the murky metaphysical waters of the afterlife, what about time after death? Would we be privy to the arcane wisdom of the great beyond whilst still we lived? The ontological implications of this epistemological miracle would be profound! They would shake the very core of our philosophical and scientific beliefs (saying nothing of the various religions this would shatter) effectively redefining life and what it means to live--to be.
And what then of an endless array of afterlives? The idea of a paradisiacal post-life was created in part to comfort those who feared death but also to ensure obedience from those who existed on the present plane of existence. By fostering desirable behavior from the flock, the political heads ensured both obeisance and order through the promise of an idyllic post-existence rife with halcyon days spent amid empyrean environs; life was bisected into two distinct eras: now and then.
Of course, the notion of reincarnation most closely approximates the idea of an infinite existence but even that is curtailed by the confines of our lovely blue orb: each return trip would be inherently earthbound. There would be no need for other times or realms of existence because everything would take place here ad infinitum. In those instances, would we keep our memories of our past selves (assuming a lack of access to the proposed all-timescape)? If so, would we continue to accrue lifetimes as we aged?
The nature of the self then is tested; who are we if not ourselves, after all? Reincarnation implies that the self remains but the vessel changes. Our consciousnesses then defines us: we are comprised of our mind and memories--our emotions and experiences. The emphasis of course is on the word our; to have someone else's memories would be an exigent existential enigma!
Access to all-time would, I believe, damage our innate senses of self. We define ourselves based upon boundaries that we take for granted or aren't even aware of. It is the amalgam of experiences, decisions, feelings, and remembrances that make us who we are, bookended by birth and death--awakening and eternal sleep. Without these delineations we cease to appreciate our respective individualities.
A step even deeper into the rabbit hole leads us back to where we began: if there was a beginning of the universe and thus time and we had access to knowledge of such a point then what came before that? This, in my opinion, is the fundamental question that baffles most people and which sends them scrambling to God or the physics textbooks for answers. It is arguably the single most difficult thing to conceptualize: what came before time itself?
To ask such a question, to quote the great Corey Taylor, is a pseudo-sacrosanct perversion of the fabric of everything; time is the most hallowed aspect of our existence because, by its very nature, it establishes the parameters of our lives. By relinquishing our grip upon the need for such clearly defined parameters then do we begin to appreciate our own places amid the infinite.
The faithful find their answers in God. The universe itself was created and there was nothing before that--just an endless void. God the creator then becomes a cabalistic entity--the recondite source of all whose existence cannot be questioned and thus answers everything.
The scientific find their answers in inquiry. Though their godless examination is viewed as sacrilegious or even heretical by some they choose to use logic and reason to reach a qualitatively definable conclusion. The inimitable Stephen Hawking said of both time and God:
"Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang, are simply not defined, because there's no way one could measure what happened at them. This kind of beginning to the universe, and of time itself, is very different to the beginnings that had been considered earlier. These had to be imposed on the universe by some external agency. There is no dynamical reason why the motion of bodies in the solar system can not be extrapolated back in time, far beyond four thousand and four BC, the date for the creation of the universe, according to the book of Genesis. Thus it would require the direct intervention of God, if the universe began at that date. By contrast, the Big Bang is a beginning that is required by the dynamical laws that govern the universe. It is therefore intrinsic to the universe, and is not imposed on it from outside."
(Excerpted from http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html)
The answer from a scientific perspective is simply that there is no before; within the singularity that preceded the Big Bang (and thus time), the laws of physics broke down and thus time was impossible. Existence had yet to be and instead there was only a timeless point of potential--infinite energy and an eternity of time compressed to an impossible degree. What has ensued--now bounded by the laws of physics/quantum physics--has set the limits on not simply what is knowable but what is relevant.
We live in what is termed the observable universe. It is dubbed as such because it is as far out in space (and thus back in time) that we can possibly see: given the age and size of the universe, it is as far as the farthest photons could have traveled in the time that the universe has existed. We need light to see and so if the light is so far away that with even an infinity of infinities of lifetimes it could never reach us then whatever lies beyond that point has no meaning to us because we simply could never observe it. It is impossible to reach the edge of the universe and so whatever lies beyond it (whether something or nothing) is meaningless; it is impossible to measure time before it began and thus a time before time is also inconsequential.
I find that answer to be both confounding but utterly fulfilling: there is no place beyond space and there was no when before time.
Still, I can't help but wonder whether or not time exists all at once and whether our perspective of the temporal arrow is in consequence of or opposition to that reality. Like the heptapods in Arrival, were we to maximize our cognitive capabilities would our increased faculties enable us to see the true nature of things and to process it in ways that we are presently incapable of doing? Or have we evolved in such a way as to protect ourselves from time--to create boundaries that enable us to exist as ourselves (just as we have evolved to ignore background noise so as not to have our senses perpetually engaged)?
It leads me perpetually to one overarching question: would omniscience and omnipresence render our lives devoid of meaning?
We spoke earlier of the possibility of our free will affecting fate. What if through our free will we were capable of altering things in the present thereby changing our potential futures? Would we become obsessed with this tinkering--struggling to find the "right" combination to result in a perfect life? Wouldn't we lose much through the elimination of negative experiences since there is so much to be learned from them?
What if the decisions we make are irrevocable? What if we could STILL see the future but maintain knowledge of the past and thus our other possible futures? What if we give up the dream relationship in one for the dream job in another and lose twenty years due to illness or accident?
Is it like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? You have a certain amount but you can gamble getting more; when you lose you're saddled with the knowledge that you could've simply walked away with what you had and been happy...but then again, what if the what ifs would have torn you to pieces and you wound up obsessing about what could have been rather than what was and what is?
If you could see the entirety of your life at a given moment then the joys would constantly be balanced by the sorrows. Would you still watch the big game knowing your team is going to lose? Would you still be as invested in that job or relationship knowing that it's ultimately doomed to fail? Being able to see all points in time and all places neuters those experiences of value--it robs you of your ability to experience them in their proper temporal position and it makes your present a living hell; it would make every living moment a nightmare fraught with worry about the future, which, by definition, would already be in the past for you in your present--something to look back upon before it even happens.
The problem with omnipresence and omniscience is that it strips the importance away from life events; their value lies in their mystery--in our not knowing the outcome. In any given circumstance--whether it's a sporting event, a relationship, or simply a walk in the park--it's our blindness to the end result that renders the experiences both enjoyable and worthwhile. We need the boundaries of temporal spacing--past, present, and future--but also simultaneously boundaries with regards to knowledge of our lives.
Being omniscient would afford us the knowledge of all-things but would at the same time render them worthless; it is the openendedness of each moment and experience that imbues them with meaning--the fact that they have potential and that we must make our decisions based upon the unknown that shapes not only who we are but the lives that we live.
The solution then is to take each day as it comes, to plan for the future, to reflect upon the past, and to derive our personal meanings in the present from the memories we've made and the moments we've yet to encounter.
Not knowing is ultimately what gives our lives meaning.