TIME, and the timeless mystery that surrounds it, have befuddled me no end.
Is time – or its zones of past, present, and future – real (meaning, that it can exist objectively or independent of our consciousness) or just an illusion?
Are “past, present, and future” contained in a static or unified whole? Or are they inevitably unfolding through a never-ending flux of becoming?
Admittedly, back in my seminary days, I have had scanty learnings about the philosophical delineations of time, save for some basic notions of time like, if I may recall, the following:
One, Parmenides of ancient Greece, believed that time is “not absolute” and reality is “timeless”. He said that the way we should think about the universe is that it exists with unique objects which simply change their state and time, but it is the same object from one moment to the next.
On the other hand, Heraclides of Ponticus (also ancient Greece) said that “you never bathe twice in the same river,” contending hence that it’s not the same object, or “universe”, for each moment of time; that each moment in time is completely a new “universe” or reality.
Then too, I’ve learned in my past studies that time – its flow or movement – may be conceived as linear (that is, from one end to the other, and thus “the past is fixed”) or cyclical (as “history repeats itself”), or still, as like a “rolling snowball” accumulating the past, present, and future into a constant state of becoming.
Fast forward to the present. Gleaned from my past learnings, I haven’t dispensed yet my understanding of time, particularly about its zones or regions, that the past is immutably fixed and the future is partly undefined.
And as time passes, the moment that was once the present becomes part of the past; and part of the future becomes the new present.
But, notwithstanding this delineated flow of past, present and future, I cannot avoid acquiescing too the alluring philosophy of “presentism”, which argues that only the present exists, and which does not travel forward through an environment of time, moving from a real point in the past and toward a real point in the future.
The present simply changes; the past and future do not exist and are only concepts used to describe the real, isolated, and ever changing present.
Not the least, even my 76-year-old friend, Dom (not his real name), advocates this belief. In his birthday message to her 71-year- old sister, my friend wrote:
“If growing old is inevitable to freeze our years at sweet 16 or even at a younger age, growing up endows us with so much freedom, including growing gracefully in wisdom and understanding that after all, the ONLY TIME WE HAVE IS THE EVERLASTING NOW (underscoring mine) as all of humanity. Keep young and continue growing up but not old! Never mind each passing year. Enjoy NOW – the only time we’re equal with everyone regardless of age. Happy Birthday!”
Indicatively, my friend avers that the past and the future are illusions, and only the present, which is ever unfolding, exists.
Interestingly, my friend’s affinity for the “everlasting or ever-present now” which alone is real finds a similar vein of contention from a contemporary American physicist, Jeff Tollefson, who is an expert in quantum reality and non-local aspects of time.
Tollefson claims that in quantum mechanics, unlike in classical physics, the movement of time from the past to the present is equal to the movement from the future to the present.
“The most basic description of a quantum particle allows you to say that you have two boundary conditions, its past and its future. So if you’re asking what is the nature of the properties of the particle during the time between its past and its future, it turns out that the past and the future sort of kiss in the present,” Tollefson said.
Pray tell, hence, is time real or an illusion? Is it fundamental or emergent?
To start with, let’s try to identify the tangible parts, attributes, or properties associated with time.
Time has flow, or movement, like a river. Time has direction, always proceeding forward into the future. Time has order – one thing after another.
Time has duration – a measurable period between events. Time has a dimension, something like space. Finally, it can be said, time has a “privileged present” – that is, only now seems to be real.
Now, the crux of the matter is whether these parts, attributes, or properties are more constructs of the human brain than actual realities in the physical world!
Galileo and Newton first conceived that space and time are absolutes, that they are independent realities.
Then Einstein in 1905, with his famous E=MC2, put forward his revolutionary theory that space and time are relative –or as lucidly described by physicist Kip Thorne, an expert on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, thus:
“Your time flows at one rate and my time flows at a different rate. What you see as space, I may see as a mixture of space and time.”
For physics, hence, time is viewed as a block universe, a four-dimension structure where time is like a space, and where every event has its own coordinate or address in space-time, so that the future and past are no less real than the present.
That time is but an illusion is affirmed by Hugh Price, a Bertrand-Russel professor of philosophy at Cambridge.
For Price, time is not real or fundamental which exists in the physical world because it is impossible for something temporal to emerge out of something atemporal, and that our notion of time is but the product of our subjective temporal perspective.
“We have such ideas about the properties of time. There’s the idea that there’s a special present moment; the idea that there’s some kind of flow or passage of time; and the idea that time has a fundamental direction.
But these so-called properties of time are really not part of the physical world, but are coming from us,” Price said.
Finally, however, John Pokinghorn, a quantum physicist who later became a priest, does not subscribe to the idea of time as illusion.
For Pokinghorn, “the time-is-illusion theorem is a mistaken argument because no observer has knowledge of a distant event, or the simultaneity of different events, until they are unambiguously in the observer’s past...and therefore such argument can just entirely focus on the way observers describe the past, but cannot establish the reality of the awaiting future.”
Pokinghorn gives another reason why time is fundamental and not an illusion: “If space and time emerged from something more fundamental, what would that do to the fundamental nature of time?
I don’t think it would remove the fundamental nature of time. After all, matter and energy emerge in the same sort of thing, and we don’t think they are illusions. We’re not made of illusions ourselves.”
What I find most interesting in Pokinghorn’s standpoint is his understanding of time from a theological point of view along with the premise that we live in a world of UNFOLDING BECOMING: “If there is a God, how does God experience time, if at all?
The classical view was that God saw the whole of creation all at once. In scientific terms, God saw a block universe, the space-time continuum.
But I don’t think that’s right. I think we live in a world of TRUE BECOMING (underscoring mine) – that is to say that the future is not there already waiting for us, but WE MAKE IT OR HELP TO MAKE IT (underscoring mine) as we go along.
Of course, God is not enthralled to time; there must be a timeless, eternal, unchanging aspect of God.
But I believe that when God brought into being a universe endowed with time or endowed with becoming, God in a way chose to know that world according to its nature and it becomingness.”
I’m but enthralled by Pokinghorn’s idea of time – and, hence, I can no less agree.
Way back from my theologate seminary days, I’m reminded of a concept we learned in Ecclesiology (study of the Church) dubbed as “eschatological” (from Greek word, eskhatos, which means “last”).
“Eschatological” can be interpreted as “already but not yet”, and thus refers to the idea that the community of God’s kingdom (the Church) is already being realized in the present, but at the same time “not yet” (fully realized) in so far as it is still yet journeying towards the end-time (parousia) kingdom of God.
And so also with time – and with us being finitely bound to it. For me, indeed we are in a CONSTANT becoming – past, present, and future.
I am impelled to reckon, thus, that what is more fundamental is not unravelling whether time is illusion or not, neither merely grasping its spatial passage (or flow) nor just its chronological unfolding of events, but more importantly is how we spend or make use of time in our constant state of becoming towards “perfection or completion”.
Paulo Freire, Brazilian educationalist and philosopher, thus aptly said: “Man, who is an incomplete being, and yet conscious of his incompletion, has the inherent potential for completion.”