Thursday, July 9, 2009

On Time, Space and Being: Part 1, Time

We are. We are here. We are here now.
We are made of stuff. Our stuffiness is called matter; bodies down to organs, down to cells, down to molecules, down to atoms, down to sub-atomic particles such as quarks, electrons, muons. We are capable of recognizing our stuffiness due in large part to the very stuffiness itself. Our brain is made of the stuff the nebulae in interstellar space is, albeit organized in a different fashion. Matter exists, and we know it, because we are it.
We are centrally localized in a particular spot, so far as we can tell in the everyday. We are on a planet, we are on land, we are on a continent, we are within a country, within a state, within a county, within a town, within our house, within a room, within the boundaries of our skin, within the boundaries of our cells, within the boundaries of our molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles. We are somewhere.
We are here now. We were not always here. We will not always be here. The things around us are here now, but have not always been here, nor will they always be here. We float along the river of time, entering at a point and departing sometime after our initial appearance. Time flows, and we flow with it, for a while.
If there are truths to base our lives around, surely they are these three, our knowledge of our substantive corporeality, our existential longevity, and ourselves. We know of these things, inherently, and are supremely sure of them. We feel their truth in our bones. They are esoteric and philosophic topics of interest, as well as the basis for how we humans have and continue to direct the course of our lives. Although simple statements, We are, We are here, We are here now, they betray a much larger mountain of introspection buried beneath the mundaneness of everyday life. It is this mountain of concealed and camouflaged cognition that has tantalized philosophers and the devout for nearly all of our recorded history as the various worldwide religions and philosophical traditions have attempted to dig out some of this (these) mountaintops. Science, particularly cosmology, astrophysics, and quantum physics have been continuously attempting to systematically uncover progressively more and more of the psychologically sub-terrainean mountain of information regarding "matter", and the same have been toiling tirelessly to reveal a bit more of the peak of time and it's seeming flow. For the everyday person, matter and time are taken for granted. They are there, and we know it. We know it, and so there are no really overwhelming reasons for us to think about them in more subtle detail. But a closer look can be an interesting endeavor.
For one thing, all three realms of thought overlap each other (actually there are four, if you include cognition along with time, matter and location). Our constituent matter can be descended down to the sub-atomic level, where it can collide with our perceptions of physical locality, something that can also be descended to the sub-atomic level. These two can then collide, within the physical parameters of our brains, with the flow of time and our over-arching ability to conceptualize them at the micro-level, in manners to be expounded upon later. The concepts are inter-related, and although or perhaps because, their inter-relations exist at the micro, atomic, or even sub-atomic levels, the consequences of these relationships tend to be regarded as unrelated and wholly different from each other, for our macro-level selves. I think it is this unfortunate division that has indirectly given rise to the plethora of religious practices and thoughts throughout the world today. The apparent distance between those phenomenon which are related to each other at the micro level and the everyday consequences of the interaction of those phenomenon at the macro level has given humankind a kind of panacea, a veil of misunderstanding, through which we have created fantastical mythologies, ones that bear no resemblance to the tiny world which allowed their birth. To be fair, philosophy has thrived at this macro-level division as well, but so far as I can tell, religion has subsumed philosophy in the realm of dangerous activity, so it is with this in mind that I'd like to point out a few things with regards to our everyday experiences, and how we take them for granted when shaping our personal lives. Let's start with time.
As we all know, time has a knack for flowing (Or flying if you have a young child). It goes from the past, to the future, with a stop in between for what we call the present. The future has not yet happened. It is a place we can only assume will happen. The past is over and done with, never to happen again. It is a place we can only remember, but not visit. We cannot experience time's flow as it is represented by the past or the future. We either have already experienced it in the case of the past, or we have not yet experienced it in the case of the future. We have three representations of time of which we are currently aware (perhaps there is some other representation we do not yet know about). The first two, past and future, are unavailable to us, which leaves us with the only option remaining, the stopping point in between the past and future. We have the present. The past is an arena in which we can remember what has already happened to us, no matter if we are humans, cats, or a meteorite (the arena remains unchanged) and the future is an arena of time in which events have not yet happened. We do not "remember" the future, it is an arena unchanged, as it has yet to occur. So what arena does the present represent, or better yet when exactly is the present?
Time is divisible, compartmental. If we look at a sign as we are driving down the road, it takes us a few seconds to "live" that moment of seeing the sign. We are "presently" seeing the sign. The few seconds it takes us to see the sign, recognize that it is a sign, written in a language which we speak, locate it in comparison to it's surroundings and it's proximity to us, are about as fast as we can process that amount of information into "seeing" the sign. In this experience, we have compartmentalized the moment into a small increment of time, quick enough so that we take in the necessary amount of information, but slow enough so that we can also process it into the moment of experience. Although we break up time's flow into manageable increments, the increments are only manageable because we need them to be, they are only as such to us, and us alone. We manage our own limited capabilities of time-flow recognition. Time can be divided into much smaller increments than what we can process, namely seconds. Unfortunately, breaking time into smaller increments of measurement is of little use to us in our everyday experiences, but the possibility of doing so in no way places a restriction onto time itself. We are restricted in how small an increment of time we can reasonably process. Its division is of no consequence to time itself.
For example, if we see the sign for three seconds, we are also seeing it for 3,000 milliseconds. Subtract the last 2,997 milliseconds from our experience. What if we only saw the sign for 3 milliseconds? What if we were capable of processing all the information described above in only 3 milliseconds? Then 99.997 % of our 3-second experience of the present would actually be considered the future, having not yet happened. Time has not been altered in this scenario, only the length of measurement we make changes. Interestingly, in this anecdote, our moment of the present has been reduced, meaning the present moment had gotten smaller, while the future has become a bit more distant, sort-of. Well, what if our experience lasted not for 3 milliseconds but 3 nanoseconds (3 billionth's of a second)? Now, 99.999999997 % of our three-second "live" experience is not the present, it is the future. Again, the present moment has lost some of its foothold, yielding a portion of itself to the future-yet-to-come. Indeed, the present doesn't last very long in this scenario. Presence (the present) can be pushed farther back into what we previously were counting as the past. It can be shaved down into an even smaller portion than a nanosecond, however. We need not stop at the boundary of a billionth of a second, how about a billionth of a billionth of a second, or more (or would it be less)? The present can continuously be pushed back away from the threshold of the future into a smaller and smaller increment, always approaching but never reaching infinity. However small we slice time's current presence, that infinitely small moment passes ever so quickly and changes from being the present to the past. The moment no longer exists once it passes, and the smaller we compress our moment of present, the quicker the past takes over. As I said before, time has no qualms about being measured in the smallest of increments; it will flow continuously regardless of how we, or anything, measures its flow. There are no restrictions on time; only we who experience time's flow have limitations placed upon us.

If we simultaneously no longer have the past and we do not yet have the future, and the present moment can be viewed as an infinitely small increment of time's flow, then the question must (and has been) asked " When is it that we actually exist?” We don't exist in the future, only our potential for existence hovers off in the distance. We don't exist in the past, excepting only what remains in our memory. We only can exist in the present moment, but as we now know, the present is, or at least can be, infinitely small in duration? Since time is measured as past, present and future and we don't seem to exist in any of the states, as they have been laid out, it could be said that we don't really exist at all. Of course we don't see it that way. Since I am writing this blog, I must exist. I know I don't exist in the past or the future, and the present, however small, is all that is left, it is here that I must exist. Even though the past and future are not my existential abode, they both, nonetheless exert a considerable effort onto my very small present existence. The past is the more powerful of the two. Through memory, I can adjust my behaviors to accommodate a more happily led life. The past governs the future, and the future, in the form of assumptions-based on past experiences is my map to my destination of a fulfilled life. We may exist in the present, but it is the past and future, which make our existence possible.
Eckhart Tolle's "The power of now" implores us to live in the moment, to forget the past, and not concern ourselves with the future. This is, as the preceding section outlines, clearly not possible. We can experience life only through our past memories and our future expectations. Since I am here to write this, I am pulling on my past thoughts, be they ever so recent, and I am also projecting my assumptive existence into a future I have no assurance will come.
If we are forward looking in our stance, then we must look to what may or may not occur or be set in motion which will be of the most benefit to us. If we are backwards looking, then we must remember those events and decisions, which were good for us as a species and also those, which resulted in negative consequences for us. Certainly, we are both forward and backward looking, and what a good thing that is for us. To be able to remember and project is a very valuable skill. It allows us to evaluate and to risk our lives. On the one hand, the evaluative process, which can take place in the blink of an eye, offers a measure of protection from psychological disappointment and physical endangerment. On the other hand the risk-taking permission allows for possible advancement beyond our current place. The two abilities allow us to plan and reminisce. They allow us to daydream and enjoy our lives. Without these abilities, we would not have love, empathy, or even consciousness. This is because we do not live at the quantum level of time. We don't experience life on the nanosecond level, or even the millisecond level. For example, sound waves travel at 340.29 meters per second. Humans cannot distinguish separate sounds if they are emanating from a source less than 35 feet away. 65 milliseconds between sound utterances is about all the length of time we humans can ever hope to be able to distinguish. If the sound instances occur within a smaller range of time, the sounds will not sound separate to us, as they will not sound separate to us if they emanate from less than 35 feet away. We simply cannot do any better than this. Other animals can do much better than us. Dogs, Whales, and bats are much more advanced in their sense of hearing than we are, and are more testaments to the nature of sound being non-contingent on our sensing it. Our life experiences being on the level of time recognition that they are makes our assumptions about the greater world around us suspect. In this respect, I submit that while our everyday methods and practices for measuring the flow of time, and it's three manifestations may indeed be supportive of them, the general tenets of the major worldwide religions, and by consequence, the religions themselves are contradicted by time's elusive nature.
It is safe to say that in each of the major religions around the globe, one of the main ideas is that that god exists outside of time, or within time, or both. And in some cases, god is said to have created time when he created everything else. Before creation, there was no time, as the teachings go. It is also safe to say that any of these descriptions of god's timely whereabouts, have no real bearing on us. For some of the religions, god's ability to manipulate time according to his wishes, say to stop the sun for an entire day, is certainly important, for it is, to the adherents, just one more thing they can point to say that god is real and involved in their lives. Good for them. However, such a proclamation lends no aid to those who wish to ponder time itself. Since god can exist outside of time, but we cannot, our need for a clear understanding of our existence within time's flow has no need for a god, since he can presumably go in and out of one of the few things we are unable to circumvent.
I have no intention of claiming our misunderstanding of time, as it truly exists (as opposed to how it seems to exist to us), is a complete refutation of god's existence. This is not necessary. What is necessary is to use our discussion from above to analyze the existence of religion. Granted, the various religions are wholly centered on a god, and so it might seem unsavory to examine them from a different standpoint, but let's give it a try anyway.
Since we know our past experiences, which no longer exist except in our memory, indelibly play a major role in the determination of our future courses of action, it is a small step to see that in our everyday lives, a religious tenet, which we might adopt, is one that must be based upon an earlier iteration. We don't reinvent the golden rule every billionth of a nanosecond of our entire lives, although argument could be made to say that’s exactly what we are really doing; however, it seems a pretty safe bet that our memory is supporting us when we say we must "turn the other cheek" and so on. While religious texts primarily have stated the same basic literature over time (I say basically, because as Bart Erhmann made very clear in his New York Times bestseller Misquoting Jesus, the bible for one has been changed many times over the centuries), they are all based on some earlier version, even if the version was oral and not textual. Just as we move from present to past in a flash when we are constantly "seeing" a traffic sign, our present moment(s) of religious understanding pass into the past incoherently quickly. If a computer were capable of mapping every single nanosecond of human thought since our emergence from the savannah, and our branching off from the chimpanzee/bonobo line, the same would be able to trace a clear pathway of the evolution of mankind's religious propensity. God could be seen emerging from the philosophical primordial ooze. Of course no computer exists which can do such a thing and thus this is impossible, but just as biological evolution needs no gapless record to indicate what actually took place, neither do we need a complete psychological DNA strand, call it a RPM strand (Religious Propensity Meme) in order to track religion's rise to power. We can simply look backwards through time, we can accept the past-based future, and work in reverse. From today's evangelical, we can move to puritanical, to prophetical, to Mesopotamian, to iron age, to great ape-hood. From today's hellfire and brimstone, we can devolve to the Salem witch trials, to the "demon-possessed", to the sacrificial goats, to mummification for travel into the afterlife, to the erection of monoliths, to thunder strikes being a psychological terror, to our incapability towards esoteria, being mainly concerned with finding food enough to survive, and mates enough to prolong the family line. these steps are large in spanse. They leap from one era of religious practice back to a much earlier era, but we can do much better in our thought exercise. We can imagine living life now, with all of the silly religious notions civilization possesses, and we can move back a nanosecond. Doing this will reveal no discernable difference between the present and the slightly earlier past. we can keep doing this over and over again, until we see the first slight change (mutation) in the religious thoughts (see we don't need a super computer afterall, we can just use our supercomputer brains). Again, we move back incrementally to the next slight change, and again, and again. As we regress, we can see how more and more primitive our religious ideas are. We can also coorelate their development with our own physical and mental development. In our regression, the less cognitive we are at a given moment, the more primitive our religious ideas. If we continue all the way back to our living in trees along with our great ape cousins, we will encounter every concievable micro-mutation in our religious thoughts. We can see the evolution of how we think today about god, morality, and all that accompanies them. These are a series of small steps backwards, based on the knowledge that we do not experience time, as it truly exists. We instead expand time into manageable sections, and in doing so skip over all of the infinitely small intermediate steps our evolution takes. When we skip over these steps, we very easily build pillars of what we think is the "truth". To paraphrase a biblical account, for purposes of illustration Jesus said, "the foolish man builds his house upon the sand, but the wise man builds his house upon a rock". We are foolish when we assume our understanding of time's flow is the one to which religion can hang it's hat of validation on. We miss a great deal in time-delay. The very idea that the supernatural exists is one that, unbeknownst to most, is balanced very precariously on the edge of collapse. Collapse will come at the hands of time's true nature, and our coming to recognize it. So much for Time, the next blog will be on Matter. Til next Time....