Thoughts about Time



by: Paul R. Martin

In this essay I will take a look at the concept of time. Even though we are very familiar with the notion of time, and it is a useful concept that we take for granted in daily life, it is really quite mysterious if you start thinking about it and try to figure out exactly what it is. I'll explore the notion of time in this essay in the context of my (admittedly wild) ideas about the nature of reality and the cosmos.

To start with, I want to separate the notion of time into two notions. I'll call them "subjective time" and "objective time". Objective time is what we commonly measure with clocks and calendars. Subjective time is our personal conscious experience of time. I think there are significant differences between these two notions.

To make the distinction between these two notions, let me start by asking the question, "Does time move? Or, does time flow?" For subjective time, our experience is that time is continually changing or flowing. If someone asks you, "Exactly when is now?", as soon as you answer, "Now", you begin hearing a faint echo of your answer in your mind and you immediately recognize that your answer was given in the past. A new "now" has replaced the old one. In fact, a whole succession of new "nows" continually replaces the older ones. You can't stop this flow of time in your mind even for a second no matter how hard you try. So, subjective time definitely seems to flow.

By contrast, objective time does not seem to flow. Calendars don't move or change unless someone draws an 'X' through the date or changes them some other way. Of course we change the calendar each month by turning a page and we replace the entire calendar at the end of the year. But these changes are all deliberately made by conscious people. Otherwise, the calendar remains more or less static.

Similarly, clocks are more or less static. They pretty much give one reading for quite a while, typically a minute, before they switch to a new reading. If the clock has a second hand, you can see it move if you watch it for a while, but you have to be paying conscious attention to it.

The point is that objective time seems to be static and subjective time seems to be dynamic.

But more dramatic is the difference between our conscious notion of time and the appearance of time in Physics. Physics, I think you would agree, provides the most precise formulation we have of the behavior of most of the visible universe. And, within the equations of Physics, time is a very common and important parameter or variable. So let's compare our personal notions of time with the notion of time as it appears in Physics.

From our conscious, subjective, point of view, the notion of "now" is all important. In the first place, of the entire vast expanse of time from the remote past to the remote future, we are conscious of only this tiny sliver of a moment we call "now". It is only in that moment that we see things, hear things, think things, wonder about things, etc. The past is only accessible as memories and artifacts, and the future is only accessible as speculation, prediction, projection, imagination, etc. Those major divisions of past, present, and future are of utmost importance in our conscious activity and in living our lives. So in our personal experience, the notion of "now" plays a very important role.

What about the role of "now" in Physics? Well, it doesn't even appear anywhere in any equation involving time. Neither do the ideas of past, present, or future appear anywhere in the equations of Physics. You will find a variable called t-zero quite often, which I suppose you could equate to the notion of "now", but it really isn't. The idea of t-zero is simply the designation of some particular value of the time variable, typically at the beginning of some process, but it is not the same as the notion of now that we experience.

Moreover, most of the equations of Physics that involve time work just as well if time runs backwards as forwards. This is not the case for subjective time. Looking at movies or videos running backwards we see a silly impossible world. Subjective time always runs forwards.

To drive all the nails into the coffin lid, Einstein's Theory of Relativity specifically says that there is not, and cannot be, any meaningful definition of the notion of simultaneity in Physics. In other words, there can be no such thing as a well-defined "now".

So there is no "now" in objective time in spite of its importance in subjective time.

In the first paragraph, I said I would explore the notion of time in this essay in the context of my (admittedly wild) ideas about cosmology, the nature of reality and the cosmos. So I better pause here and mention those ideas. This is not the place to go into detail, but to summarize, my mental model of the world is different from that of most people.

My views are not much different regarding the familiar things that Science deals with; I agree with the laws of physics and the 4D interpretation of the universe. Where they are different is that 1).I think there are multiple extra ("full-size" and nearly-flat) dimensions of time and space. And 2). I think consciousness is not seated in the 4D universe of Science. In particular it is not seated in the brain but instead is somewhere in higher dimensions of space. There is a third point which may or may not be controversial: I think that the universe and everything else in reality is finite. I think Science has yet to take a firm position on whether anything in the universe such as time or space might be finite or infinite.

In this essay, I want to make a clear distinction between my use of the terms 'cosmos' and 'universe'. I will use the term 'cosmos' to mean all of reality, and I will use the term 'universe' to mean the 4D space-time continuum which is accessible to us humans, and which is all Science (so far) will admit exists. The important thing for this essay is to understand that I think the cosmos, contains vastly more than the "universe". So here's roughly how I think the cosmos unfolded and evolved. -- this is my view of cosmogony, "now" in 2003:

"In the beginning", I think there was some kind of ability to know. We could call this thing "Consciousness" or we could call it "God", or whatever we like. Since 'God' is a nice short word, and since many people already believe that something they call God was there at the beginning, I'll use that term for the remainder of this essay.

But, remember that in my view everything in the cosmos is finite, including the universe and including God. So in the beginning God was not what He is "today" (I use the term 'today' as if there were such a thing as "now" even though I know better.) The point is that in my view, God began small and simple, and that He has evolved to become unimaginably huge, powerful, complex, wonderful, etc., etc. We only need to contemplate the scope of the visible universe to get an idea of how big and complex reality has gotten.

So, God started out with the ability to know. This led to the discovery, by God, that there was a difference between knowing and not knowing. (Or maybe it was the difference between being able to know and not being able to know -- I just don't know). In any case, the knowledge of that discovery was something new. So now there were two "things": the difference and the knowledge of that difference. After that, there were more things that were known leading to differences among them. That set of things, i.e. knowledge, differences, knowledge of differences, differences in knowledge of different differences, etc., soon became pretty complex.

These differences made a difference in what God was able to know. Using Shannon's definition of 'information', (Shannon says information is a difference that makes a difference), we can see that a set of information began to grow. God began building a database of information.

Since God could add or change information in the database simply by using His imagination, He was able to make many different configurations of things (i.e. bits in the database (which were nothing more than God's thoughts)).

We can easily imagine that God, in the huge amount of time available, could have imagined static patterns of information which would be equivalent to what we would call music, or paintings, or language, or mathematics. Of course they would undoubtedly also have included patterns representing things which we cannot even imagine.

Let's pause here for a moment since I deliberately used the word 'static' and you might be wondering how it relates to my introductory discussion of time. Let's start by supposing that God's database was a static collection of bits. We know from our familiar computer technology that those bits could be arranged in "rows" or "sets" or "bytes" and that in the context of our mathematics, they could be interpreted to mean points of geometry, or numbers of mathematics. In either case, such an interpretation would be tantamount to defining (i.e. God would see them as) points on a spatial line or plane.

Taking the case where the collections of bits represented a static set of points on a line, God would have music! Here's how. The pattern of bits is static, but God could turn His attention to the first bit on the line and then attend to the other bits along the line in succession. In the process of moving His attention along the "line", He would notice patterns in the varying sizes of the gaps between the "points" or "numbers" on the "line" along the way. These patterns would be exactly what we perceive when we listen to music and are able to discern tones (closely spaced bits at equal intervals), rhythms (widely spaced repetitious or similar patterns of tones and blank spaces), harmony (combinations of tones), and melody (variations in the spacing of the tones along the way). God's attention would be equivalent to the read head of a tape player and the static line with the bit pattern would be equivalent to a recording on a tape.

Notice that all the while, nothing changes in the static pattern of bits. The only thing that changes is the particular bit that God happens to be paying attention to. Now, what if God's attention happens to jump around from bit to bit in the pattern. Do you suppose He would still recognize the regularity of the bits making up tones, and rhythms? Or would he be able to discern the melody if He happened to attend to the tones in some random order? Well, I think the answer is "yes". After all, God would have plenty of time to "replay" the "music" zillions of times and in every imaginable sequence. Maybe He even did that in order to really get a handle on the patterns that were in that "song".

Not only that, He would have plenty of time to fill a huge library with such "recorded songs" and play any of them any way He wanted any time He wanted. For all we know, He might have anticipated Beethoven and Bach and composed all of their works billions or trillions of years before they were ever born. And, maybe when Beethoven and Bach finally got here, they somehow gained access to that pre-recorded music. Could have happened -- we just don't know.

Now, with the picture in mind that I just painted, let's ask the question, "What exactly does 'time' mean here?" Or, how could we define a concept of time in this picture which makes sense and is consistent with what we normally think of as time, either objective time or subjective time?

Our mathematics comes to the rescue here. Given such a picture, i.e. a set of points distributed along a line, there is a reasonable way to define time. Mathematically it is the notion of defining what is called a 'metric'. A metric is nothing more than some rule or formula that tells you the distance between any two points on your "line" or in your collection of points. It's just like laying a ruler alongside the line and agreeing to define the distance between any two points as the difference in the number of inches each one is from the end of the ruler.

Now if we made a tick mark on the line at each inch mark on the ruler, we could define time as being this set of tick marks. Notice that it is consistent with both subjective time and objective time.

God would notice the passage of subjective time if He moved His attention along the line in sequence. There would also be a "now", a "past", and a "future" among those points as consciously perceived by God.

The line with its tick marks would also be consistent with objective time. There is no such thing as "now" on the line nor is there such a thing as past or future. Any equation which would relate points on the line to tick marks would work whether we started evaluating it from the beginning of the line, or whether we started at the end of the line and worked backwards.

But, in this interpretation, subjective time is dependent on the changes in God's attention. In other words, if in going through the "music", God goes through it "slower" one time than another, then the pitch would seem lower and the elapsed time would seem longer. But to even talk about God "going slower" it makes no sense without some time in which God acts. So we can't assume that there is such a thing as time this early in this cosmogony.

To fix that problem, let's say that God can make some other mark on the line which indicates where his attention is focused. Then He replicates the line many times over, each replication having one of those marks on one of the time tick marks. This would then be a two dimensional structure and we could interpret one of the dimensions as being time and the other one as being space.

This suggests a project that goes beyond the scope of this essay. The idea would be to explore the relationship between time and space as dimensions. We'll save that for future essays.

From my point of view of cosmogony, Physics has already made a start on this project by equating time and space. Einstein's Relativity requires that we consider space and time to be merged into the one continuum of space-time.

In my view, I would like to continue this "trend" and elaborate on it by adding more of these dimensions to get hyper-space and hyper-time, or probably as Physics has done, I should say we get hyper-space-time. The number of dimensions I can only guess at. The ancient Maya said there were six of them. Modern theoretical physicists say it looks like eleven might be the correct number. Plato, interestingly enough, also pegged the number at eleven. I had a questionable altered state experience in the dentist's chair under nitrous oxide (laughing gas) in which it seemed like I saw about twenty of them. But, the exact number is not important for this discussion. The only important thing in order to understand my views, is to suppose that there are more than 4 space-time dimensions in reality even though we have access to only those first four with our scientific experimental apparatus.

So what we will need to do in order to proceed with this project is to stretch our minds a little and try to imagine some things about higher dimensions. Watch this space for further developments.

Please send me an email with your comments.

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