Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Some reflections on time

This is a highly speculative essay.

Two questions to begin with: Can God stop time, and, can God change the past? Note, the same question can be asked as: Can time stop, and, can the past change? These are not questions about the nature of God, but about the nature of Time. The reason I introduce God is as a mechanism for these processes, i.e., what could possibly manipulate time in this manner but God?

The answer to the first question is no, which will require a slight discussion, since, well, can’t God do anything? This is an important point in general discussions of God, which this is not, so I’m only going to speak briefly on it. God cannot do the logically impossible. For example, God cannot make a married bachelor or a living corpse, or a square circle, not because He lacks the materials, skills, and power to do so, but because it is nonsense even to speak of such things. If we demand that God create such a non-thing, the problem is in the demand – in that it doesn’t ask God to do anything that makes any kind of sense – and not in the Power of God.

So, can God stop time? Let me ask it this way: Can God stop time for an hour? See the absurdity? If time were to stop, it would have to stop for a period of time. Therefore, it is nonsense to think time is the kind of thing that can stop. Stopping is an event that only makes sense within the context of time. God may be able to stop all events in time, but if anything is stopped, then by definition time is still passing.

How about the second question: Can God change the past? This one is more complicated. On the surface the answer seems to be no. The past is defined as what has already happened. The future is open to many possibilities, based on the choices of God, Man, and any other being that might be that can choose. But that’s because it hasn’t happened yet. There is only one past.

We must distinguish between two ways of looking at time: Physical time and Experiential time. To accomplish this end, we get to talk about a time traveler. Looking out of the window of his time machine, he sees the movements of the physical objects around him slow down, stop, and then reverse. The sun goes from west to east, tidal waves build coastal towns before being released into the ocean, and life ends with the sexual act. Think of a video playing in reverse (not that last one). No logical contradiction in that. But for the time traveler, these events are happening in forward time. Though time in the world around him stops, reverses, his past is still the events leading up to this quest; his present experience is progressing forward while nothing around him is progressing forward; and his future is still unwritten, even though it occurs in “the past”. Time as it is experienced is unidirectional. There is no contradiction in things moving backward and forward in physical time. Experiential time, however, is a matter of experience building upon experience. To go backward in experiential time is to forget your experiences.

(There are other paradoxes of time travel that don’t directly bear on this so I don’t deal with them here)

But what this means is that if experiential time did reverse alongside physical time, we systematically wouldn’t know it happened. We would just go back to the point of divergence as if all the intervening time never happened, and pick up from there with new choices and experiences. But if such is the case then it is possible that it happens. And, though the basic idea doesn’t require God, the reversal of time and the changing of the past are logically possible. If there is a God, this adds another dimension to his power.

So the answer to the second question, can the past change, can God change the past, turns out to be yes. Now the speculative part: Say this actually happens, through God or through one of nature’s countless unexplained forces: Perhaps this has some role to play in our ability to anticipate the future, or in a theory of volition.

3 comments:

X said...

There is no flaw in your arguments, but in the discussion itself. I think it is wrong to provide any credence to experiential time at all as it is nothing more than a flawed perception. As three dimensional creatures, we are trapped in our perceptions of time as being sequential and having a momentum. By momentum, I mean that time moves in any direction whatsoever. Asking if God can stop time is a lesson in futility, because time has no motion.

A great example I once read goes as follow. Imagine time as being a panorama, a landscape of grass and trees and such. To the objective viewer this picture is standing still. It has no objective motion. Now imagine however that you were chained to the side of a train that was passing by this panorama and the only observation you could make was through the distant end of a pipe that covered your eyes. Your perception of this scene would be a sequential one, wherein the scene you observe initially, occurs first in time. This is flawed though, because we know that all scenes "occur" simultaneously to the person with the unobstructed view.

Time then, can be thought of as a book. The story already exists in entirety but it is only read one word at a time. Further we are limited to only being able to read the book continuously from first page to last.

There is a flaw though in this analogy. A book is absolute in that in that has a definite beginning, middle and end. Life is not so, because the outcome is determined by choice. The choices you, I and everyone else makes determines the end of the story. The best analogy then is a library with an infinite number of books, each progressing to its conclusion as determined by the choices of its characters.

Life and existence is any one of those books. But the existence of one book does not negate the others. In fact, all stories exist simultaneously, but the story we PERCEIVE is determined by the choices made.

God, then, is the librarian. He does not write the books. They all exist already. The difference is, only he is able to perceive ALL books simultaneously, whereas we can only see the book we are reading.

God cannot change time, as time is not something that actually exists. There is no past or future to change, as all pasts and futures that CAN be... are.

Dave the Philosopher said...

The positive first. An astute comment, and I agree with some of the points you made. The analogy of the books in the library is pretty cool, because it can address the question of free-will vs. God's foreknowledge - GIVEN that we are not only the readers of the books, but the authors. God does not write the books, and they did not write themselves. The question then becomes, can we make sense of the idea of all choices being made simultaneously and timelessly, contemperanously with the creation of the world because all things are on that level contemporanous? There is a certain level where all plurality melts into the One (I'm convinced), where space as well as time dissolves; and yet all the events we percieve have to be somehow included in that timeless event. Therein lies the paradox: Not that time doesn't pass, but that on the very deepest levels of analysis, time does not pass. But on that level, absolutely nothing that we comprehend is as we comprehend it.

But on that very deepest level of analysis, for example, neither does space nor persons exist. Do we then want to call these flawed perceptions also? I think not. I think that the knowledge of this paradox teaches us more than near anything.


Time has no motion because if it did, it would have to have motion in time. Time is rather prerequisite to motion. If you deny time you deny motion, change.

Philosophers have proclaimed that time doesn't exist because of the paradoxes involved. (e.g., Xeno's paradoxes, McTaggert's paradox). Scientists have proclaimed that time is on par with the spatial dimensions, since time can be represented spatially on graphs. These would be reasonable steps to take if the denial of time would make the world more comprehensible. Isn't that, after all, the goal of philosophy, of science? But it does not. For nearly all of science, (to say nothing about other valid modes of perception, like everyday life,) except for a few very basic relationships in the most theoretical areas of classical physics and general relativity, time is an enormously useful concept, that is to say, time in which the past and the future have different characteristics relative to the phenomena in question. This is especially obvious where biological phenomena are concerned. I do not have to prove that time which passes is real. The burden of proof is on those who will deny it.

A terrific treatment of time, and the error we make when we "spatialize" time, can be found in Henri Bergson's "Creative Evolution", chapter 4. Hell, it's a terrific book, read the whole thing.

Dave the Philosopher said...

Another thought: if what you mean when you say experiential time is flawed perception is that it does not correspond to any physical thing, I readily agree. But insofar as experience exists -whether or not its contents are correct - experiential time exists. And one cannot without absurdity deny that experience occurs.