“I never think of the future, it comes soon enough.” Albert Einstein
Time is one of the most elusive and complex concepts with which humanity struggles. Although there are some serious minds that consider time travel possible, as far as I am concerned the idea of traveling into the future, or the past, is beyond understanding. Think about it, can you really imagine meeting your parents before you were born, or going back to a momentous period of history? Not likely. But even if I haven’t, popular culture has embraced the notion of time travel beginning with H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and many, many others including the ever popular film by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future.”
Traditionally, time was thought to be a strictly linear phenomenon. An absolute progression of seconds, minutes, hours, and days. Time moved in one direction, the measurement of which was derived from the movements of the moon and the sun.
Sir Isaac Newton considered time to be a fundamental part of the universe, something that was an essential feature of reality. Absolute. Time could be measured with time pieces. It was consistent, and we could make predictions about the future from what we knew from the past. For example, we could say with certainty that in Toronto on November 24th the sun would rise at 7:27 a.m. and the next morning at 7:28. And it would. It seemed that time was pretty real.
Enter the fatalists. Fatalism is a branch of determinism, a theory that says the future is a result of causal events over which we have no control. The future unfolds despite our actions, desires, and hopes. Fatalism is an extreme form of determinism which I think should more accurately be identified as “pre-determinism”. This view of reality discounts any notion of human free will.
Following the logic of fatalism, it is tempting to conclude that the future already exists, now. After all, if our fate is already determined, then in some sense it must already be real (i.e. exist). In my view these kinds of mental gymnastics are useful as they open an opportunity to ridicule pre-determinism. A world in which we have no influence over our development seems nonsensical. However, traveling into the past, versus the future, has some provocative scientific evidence that may point to this possibility.
In the “Critique of Pure Reason” Immanuel Kant postulated that time is only a part of our mental apparatus. Time, and space are internal constructs of the human mind. They do not exist “out there”. The universe is unknowable, perhaps chaotic, and our perception puts order onto so-called reality. It makes it intelligible. A common, overly simplistic, analogy used to explain Kant’s theory involves what a person sees when wearing rose coloured glasses. When the person observes a field covered in white snow he or she will describe it as pinkish in colour, even though it is white. They will believe snow is pink (imagine if those glasses were permanently affixed to their face). And so, it goes with the Kantian world-view: time is but a perceptual device that is part of our mind.
Two centuries later, Albert Einstein determined that time is “relative” and that Newton’s belief in an absolute linear and consistent flow of time was wrong. Rather, time is dependent upon who is perceiving it (in this way he partially supports Kant’s thesis). As a result, time is actually a bit of an illusion. Einstein theorized, and later experiments proved, that people moving at different speeds will perceive time differently. The faster the vehicle is moving, the slower the progression of time! So, if a person is traveling on a space ship hurtling through the universe, time will be slowed down.
Another related discovery has shown that when astronauts return from long space voyages they have aged less than they would have, had they remained on earth. Not only is time perceived to be slower but you would age less as well! This discovery alone is enough to have led some scientists to entertain the possibility of time travel. The theory is that if we exceed the speed of light we may actually go back in time!
One of the greatest minds of our “time”, Steven Hawking, has also weighed in on this subject. His theory called Chronology Protection Agency argues against time travel to the past. He points out that if it were possible then surely we would have seen time tourists from the future coming back to visit earth. The very absence of these time travelers suggests it is not possible. Hawking does however discuss “worm holes” and time warps, concluding that although our understanding of them is still in its infancy, they may hold some hope for our science fiction and time travel appetites.
One concluding thought to Part One:
Imagine if a person was sent away in a rocket ship at hyper speed for many, many years, let’s say he ages at a rate that takes 20 years off his life. When he returns to earth all his family and friends will be 20 years older than him. In one sense, he will sort of see 20 years into the future – but because he is so much younger he will kind of be left out of it even though he’s in it. Makes you wonder doesn’t it?
So far, we have had a bird’s eye view of Newton’s absolute, constant time, Kant’s time in the mind and of Einstein’s theory of relativity which proved that time, if not an illusion, is somehow flexible or changeable. So, what can we really say about time? Today scientists talk about melding time and space into a new unified concept called “space-time”. What I think is that it’s time to leave the scientists to their work…
As a business person, I will confirm that “time is money”. It’s precious. If I can spend a lot of time and stay focused on a venture, then I can usually make more money. And, when I spend even more time on that venture I can often make even more money. So, in a funny way, time is money. Yet, we all know it’s not, and money certainly cannot buy time…or love, say the Beatles.
One of my graduate courses in Philosophy was on the concept of time. For part of the course we examined ancient cultures and their understanding of time, some examples of which were tribes in Africa and South America who were still living in isolation from the “modern” world. No watches, no clocks. Stephen Hugh-Jones wrote of one Amazonian tribe: “In the West, time is like gold. You save it, you lose it, you waste it, or you don’t have enough of it. In the Barasana language there is no word for time.” For these people, there was no such thing as a linear notion of time. Many measured their lives in terms of events. Similarly, John Lennon once said: “Count your age in friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears.” Others from these cultures referred to their ancestors as if they were still present – there was no sense of “then” and “now” – you could say they were living with the past. The future was something they were making and adding to their cosmos. No need to worry about it because it comes soon enough.
There has been interesting research involving the Aboriginal people of Australia many of whom do not conform to the norms of Western society. For example, punctuality as we know it is not necessarily a part of their traditional personal or work habits. When asked to report to work at 8 a.m. they sometimes arrived at noon, showing no concern. Several studies have tried to understand this different perception or conception of time, the results of which pointed to a very novel world view.
Like many other tribal people, some Aboriginals eschew any linear directional notion of time. There is no past-present-future in their world. Instead they see the world in terms of what researchers have called “time circles”. Important events in their lives are placed at the centre of their circles. A birth would be placed near the middle regardless of when it happened. The past and present is everywhere. In interviews, some explained that it is not important when something happened, it is only important that it happened.
Another interesting facet of Aboriginal cosmology is their concept of “dreaming”. It is a concept of time that is eternal, unchanging, and sometimes referred to as “everywhen” (I fell in love with this word the first time I heard it – reminding me of what Joseph Campbell says in his book “Thou art That” when describing eternity: “(it) is neither future, nor past, but now. It is not of the nature of time at all, in fact, but a dimension, so to say, of now and forever….”). Different than any other conception of time as we know it, dreaming is described as a world that encompasses various archetypal beings who, in turn, are continually creating the external reality we experience. Things and people are always present in dream-time including relatives, events, ancestors, and magical beings. It makes the idea of showing up on time for work a trivial matter. Who the hell cares?
Fast forward to our over developed modern society caught in the grips of a digital frenzy. A time and place full of communication devices that facilitate sending messages to others, but rarely talking to them, much less meeting them. Everything seems to happen at once, a deluge of communication – text messages, emails, phone messages, television, radio, electronic billboards – with no differentiation of importance. There is nothing at the centre of our time circles!. Never-the-less everyone is impatient, almost mad, to see what’s on their “smart” phone every time it beeps. I’ve been in important meetings where you can see people lose their focus once they hear that beep or ring. Their mind is divided between what is being discussed and the unknown message sitting on their phone. They’re completely distracted and become ineffective participants in the meeting.
I’m sorry to say that I think most messages are trivial, or worse, meaningless. There is endless data, interspersed with some knowledge and trickles of wisdom. As Peter Drucker once said, “As information doubles, knowledge halves and wisdom quarters.” It’s rather paradoxical. And disturbing.
Perhaps ancient cultures have much to teach us. Personally, I like the idea of dream circles. My life is arranged and governed around big moments and events. One thing at the centre of my dream circle would have to be when I proposed to my wife in London, England and we ended up dancing in a park after she said “yes.” I’m sure people were watching, but for us time stood still – we had, in a way, stepped, or danced, out of time. I still have very vivid memories of that day, and the feelings I felt then are still vivid and, in a strange way, still with me.
When my children were young I’d often wait until they were asleep before kissing them good night. This let me whisper “I love you”, and then wait while the phrase was absorbed into their small bodies. This time was special. They were precious acts that occurred in the dead of the night. I think it is much more powerful than a statement made to someone awake. Just being with them in that silence seemed complete. “When two souls meet words are not needed,” is a saying attributed to First Nations people.
I find people often respond to kind words in a reflexive and impersonal manner. For example, when you ask someone “how are you?” They generally respond, without thinking, “good, how are you doing?” I think it’s better to say things when you don’t expect, or need, an answer. These days I say “I love you” to my sleeping grandchildren and it seems more powerful - as if I’m stepping into another realm. Now, they occupy the centre of my time circle. These new memories have become etched in my being – and, I believe, in theirs. The loving words sail into their souls. Moments are stored forever, more real than any text or hand written message. Timeless, simultaneously boundless and momentary. Surely it is this sense of the eternal that we all crave and seek. “Time doesn’t seem to pass here; it just is,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien. Everywhen.