Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Matter of Time

We want to return to the issue of time today (pun fully intended), because we believe grasping the concept that time is an illusion is critical to fully embracing the absurd. Now, we realize this statement likely seems ridiculous at first blush. After all, we all experience time--we age and die, things break, and there is not one documented example of milk unspilling itself.

However, physicists have for a long time understood that one of the effects of Einstein's theory of relativity is that there is no true distinction between past, present, and future. Brian Greene did a wonderful job illuminating this in his book The Fabric of the Cosmos, in which he explains that given the nature of space-time, all moments (past, present, and future) could actually be considered "now" for someone, somewhere. Greene calls this the "space-time loaf"--basically, think of the entire universe as the shape of a loaf of bread that encompasses all space and time.

For each individual, his present moment is a 'slice' of the loaf, which contains all the events occuring throughout all of space at that moment. However, observers in relative motion will cut the loaf at different angles, resulting in a different set of events. While such differences are vanishingly small for individuals moving at speeds we think of as "normal," they become quite significant as you approach the speed of light, as well as for individuals separated by vast distances. However, it is important to understand that such differences do exist for people walking in different directions on Earth (for example); the fact that we do not notice these differences is irrelevant.

The result, of course, is that each individual perceives different events as occurring "simultaneously." More to the point, there is no "right" or "wrong"--all frames of reference are equally valid, even though they are all different. Time, therefore, is not absolute--the statement that two events occur simultaneously is not absolutely true or false, but rather depends on the individual's frame of reference. This is pretty mind-boggling (and we highly recommend reading the book to get a better handle on this issue), but we are most interested in the consequences. As Greene puts it:

"If you buy the notion that reality consists of the things in your freeze-frame mental image right now, and if you agree that your now is no more valid that the now of someone located far away in space who can move freely, then reality encompasses all of the events in spacetime... Just as we envision all of space as really being out there, as really existing, we should also envision all of time as really being out there, as really existing, too." (Italics in original.)

Such a worldview, of course, raises a host of thorny issues, not least of which is the issue of whether or not we actually have free will. If all time is "out there," then the concept of being born, aging, and dying, is simply an illusion--all these events are already embedded in the spacetime loaf, and we simply experience them as occurring in sequence.

So what of the absurd? Well, as we noted the other day, one practical application of this theory is to recognize the arbitrary distinction we place on past, present, and future. We are currently reading "Strangers on a Train," which opens with an individual en route to finalize his divorce. He spends a great deal of time on the train agonizing over what may or may not ensue when he sees his estranged wife; then, after he sees her, reflects that all the worries now seem somewhat silly.

Who has not experienced this exact emotion? We worry about the future because we believe we can influence it by our actions (and because some circumstances seem preferable to others). Then, after the event has passed, our worries vanish since there is no more uncertainty. (Yes, people can regret actions or results, but this tends to fade over time.)

So consider this. What if we viewed all time as ancient history, or better yet, ancient history happening to someone else? We do not worry about events from three centuries ago, nor regret decisions made by long-dead ancestors; instead, we view them as fixed and unchanging, and thus unworthy of our mental anguish. Would it not be preferable to view all things this way?


  1. Hi Rick,

    A shift in perspective can lessen the impact of an event (as you suggest in the last paragraph), but it does seem to me to be a trick that one can play to oneself, which may work sometime, and not an actual freedom from the impact.

    Also, relativistic time is not universally accepted as a given. See for example the article and comments here:

  2. Harmanjit-

    Agreed - we offer this merely as a method to (as you put it) lessen impacts - you are correct that it is more window-dressing than a fundamental change in perception. However, we find that the more of these "tricks" we employ, the better we get at keeping our perspective on a day-to-day basis.

    Very interesting stuff on time - we will dig into this and get back to you.