The Illusion of Time

The Thinker by Rodin

This article in Thursday’s Washington Post intrigued both my wife and I. It is a synopsis of a conversation between a reporter (Joel Achenbach) and Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist. This physicist, like many in the business, is working hard trying to validate string theory.

Hold on! Before you roll you eyes and click elsewhere this is actually incredibly exciting stuff. Physicists are closer than ever to being able to understand the most fundamental mysteries of life. The implications are mind-boggling.

One of the more controversial theories — which increasingly is being accepted by these theoretical physicists — is that which we call time is just an illusion. A lot of people feel the same way but physicists like Greene say it can be inferred from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Past, present and future are all equally real and timeless. But what is real? It is apparently not what we think, at least according to physicists like Greene. Space is real. Mass and energy are real. Gravity is real. But time is probably just an illusion.

I won’t bother to explain their logic since I am not a theoretical physicist. But the article (while it exists in its free form online) is worthy of reading. Physicists are not snake oil salesmen. They are scientists. They are trained to be skeptical. They are trained to use the scientific method and to work out the mathematical proofs. All the pieces are not in place yet to tie together Einstein’s discoveries on the relationship between matter, energy and time and the subatomic world. But it’s not unreasonable to suggest that sometime during our lifetimes this question may be answered.

So we are going to purchase his book “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality” this weekend. We will see what we as laymen can glean from such a sharp and insightful mind. But it is interesting how sometimes the scientific world can intersect with the spiritual and metaphysical world. This may be one of those times. In the future these two universes, often perceived to be polar opposites, may turn out to be unified after all too.

In my metaphysical reading I consistently learn that after death we live in what amounts to a timeless state of energy. In that state we can review our life as many times as we want and run it back and forth like a tape recorder. I read about astral planes and astral beings and how after death we move out of the physical plain into the next astral plain and possibly into many more. I have one friend who assures me that she has through meditation already moved into an astral plain or two.

I don’t know how much of this stuff to believe. But I tend to believe it a lot more when I hear respected theoretical physicists make aspects of it look very plausible. Those of you who have browsed through my metaphysics archive will recall an early entry on deja vu. You will recall how creeped out I was by these experiences and how on some level I know they are true. Now perhaps theoretical physicists are agreeing with me that deja vu is what I think it is: some part of my mind is aware of my future in what I perceive to be the present.

If time is an illusion what exactly is a life anyhow? The only thing that works for me is that it is an experience. Perhaps we are all trills. A trill in Star Trek is an intelligent species that lives inside another intelligent “host” species such as a human. Perhaps our individual energy is what we call a soul, and our body is the mechanism for experience. And one aspect of our body is that because of the way it is constructed it has the attribute of perceiving time.

Perhaps one life is like a breath or a heartbeat in a larger life. Perhaps we glean what knowledge and understanding we can from our symbiot (the body) then depart and jump into another world, another body and another experience.

If time does not really exist then perhaps we experience a multitude of lives all at once. Perhaps we are everything and everyone. Perhaps part of me … of us really … is President Bush. Perhaps I am also Bill Clinton. Perhaps I was also Mother Teresa. Perhaps I am the cat on my lap at the moment and he is also me. (Maybe that’s why it feels so nice.) Perhaps we are all one entity. Perhaps I am you reading this, and you are me writing this. Perhaps we truly are just an aspect in the mind of God … which means we are God.

Perhaps we are all the same thing and yet all completely different. Perhaps we truly are Yin and Yang. Perhaps we are modeling infinite diversity in infinite universes and infinite times all in a timeless place we call the now.

I hope it is so. There would be no reason to fear death. Every life would be truly part of a great and much larger adventure. And my ramblings are not complete fantasy. Because with time likely to be an illusion and with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity demonstrating that we are all intrinsically connected and related we are neither dead nor alive. We simply are: different and the same, spawning colors in a gigantic universal kaleidoscope. And it is the relationship of all these colors that is the greater truth and beauty. And it is the relationship and the larger abstract picture that is this thing we call love.

5 thoughts on “The Illusion of Time

  1. Hi,

    If you are interested in this subject, read comments posted at
    http://www.socialtext.net/wired-mag/index.cgi?is_time_an_illusion

    In my understanding, time is an illusion, being just the way our mind puts events in certain order. Time exists as a notion, but does not have physical reality. You can also say that the true nature of time is stream of events or changes. Our mind adds to it a “sense of time” and we have the whole thing as experienced by humans. I could elaborate on this but I will only add that the clock is not measuring “time” being just the mechanism of the constant change which can be compared with other changes. Direction of the time sets the stream of events and its ireversibility is guarded by the law of entropy.

    Question of existence of time is closely related to a question of physical existence of our world. As you know space is expressed by three dimensions or distances from certain origin. Distance equals time multiplied by speed. If time is not a physical entity, we cannot really get a hard, physical world as a result of this equasion. Answer is simple although might be difficult to admit: we live in a mind-space… And so on so forth.

    I am off course not the first one who has this understanding of our world. Understanding does not really matter as long as is not a base for a change. Philosophy as such is a bookish science if not coupled with a practice which can give achievement of its point of view. And this set is called a religion.

    That’s all. Thank you for your patience if you read this to the end.

  2. Dear sir,
    Since some years i am duty on the thoughts that there is no time. Intuition said me there is no time and it will be investigated by the thought that time only reach our mind but the upset en down going of the sun and the rotation of the earth around his axes.From the beginning,from the occlusion in the belly of the mother,and after that from our birth,we, our beginning brains, continually programmed with the being. The human nature evolved,but only in the mind! Mind you, there is nothing only the holy Ghost, who has an particle in the nature and in each human being, but there is nothing!The humaniness people says that the human kind make it all. That is really true but it is the Great master of the Universe that has a small part in any human being who made it. The human being create with his conviction. The real conviction and does growing the human kind to the perfection human being. But time is an illusion, also the dead of our mind, only our mortal material. Please give me stones to subscruter this thought.
    Very truly yours,
    Arie Aalders

  3. time is an illusion; what would time be without the human invention of clocks… they’re just a means to measure the movement of planets & stars, the cycle of earths movement around the sun etc. Each day i’m sure somebody, somewhere comes closer to a true understanding…

  4. Something to consider.There is no future until it becomes the present but once it has become the present it is already becoming the past.

    We all know the past is irretrievable in ‘present’ terms and the future refers to nothing tangible other than an expectation of events which may or may not occur……….
    So do we really only exist in the moment and if we do what is a moment?

    Also another point worth considering is as humans we wonder where or if we will or will not exist after death but how often do we as humans ask where did we come from? That is we will not compare birth with death but yet they are exactly the same thing…..transits through portals of inhuman existence albeit in the most basic form as molecules of organic matter to human existence. Many more molecules of still organic matter but in a form we identify as human. Then at death we return to the basic matter we were prior. The only thing missing on entry and exit is our consciousness which supposedly dwells within our human form. So does the humanly immeasurable quantification of the mass of consciousness still exist outside of a human form once it has ceased to exist? Guess all will be revealed when we get there.
    Thanks for your time.

  5. CAN ANYTHING BE TIMELESS?

    Today’s scientists are like religious gurus of earlier times. Whatever they say are accepted as divine truths by lay public as well as the philosophers. When mystics have said that time is unreal, nobody has paid any heed to them. Rather there were some violent reactions against it. Here are some examples:
    “G.E. Moore pointed out that if time is unreal then there are no temporal facts: nothing is past, present or future, and nothing is earlier or later than anything else. But, plainly, it is false that there are no temporal facts, for it is a fact that I am presently inscribing this sentence and that my breakfast yesterday preceded my lunch.”
    – Richard M. Gale
    [Book: the philosophy of time, edited by Richard M. Gale, Publisher: Macmillan, 1962, Chapter: Introduction to Section Two, The static versus the dynamic temporal, page 69.]
    “First of all, what can be meant by saying that time is unreal? If we really meant what we say, we must mean that such statements as “this is before that” are mere empty noise, like “twas brillig.” If we suppose anything less than these – as for example, that there is a relation between events which puts them in the same order as the relation of earlier and later, but that it is a different relation – we shall not have made any assertion that makes any real change in our outlook. It will be merely like supposing that Iliad was not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name. We have to suppose that there are no “events” at all; there must be only the one vast whole of the universe, embracing whatever is real in the misleading appearance of a temporal procession. There must be nothing in reality corresponding to the apparent distinction between earlier and later events. To say that we are born, and then grow, and then die, must be just as false as to say that we die, then grow small, and finally are born. The truth of what seems an individual life is merely the illusory isolation of one element in the timeless and indivisible being of the universe. There is no distinction between improvement and deterioration, no difference between sorrows that end in happiness and happiness that ends in sorrow. If you find a corpse with a dagger in it, it makes no difference whether the man died of the wound or the dagger was plunged in after death. Such a view, if true, puts an end, not only to science, but to prudence, hope, and effort; it is incompatible with worldly wisdom, and – what is more important to religion – with morality.”
    – Bertrand Russell
    [Mysticism, Book: religion and science, Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1961.]
    But when scientists have shown that at the speed of light time becomes unreal, these same philosophers have simply kept mum. Here also they could have raised their voice of protest. They could have said something like this: “We will never accept the statement that time is unreal. Then why are you wasting your valuable time, money, and energy by explaining to us as to how this time can become unreal? Are you mad?” Had they reacted like this, then that would have been consistent with their earlier outbursts. But they had not. This clearly indicates that a blind faith in science is working here. If mystics were mistaken in saying that time is unreal, then why is the same mistake being repeated by the scientists? Why are they now saying that there is no real division of time as past, present and future in the actual world? If there is no such division of time, then is time real, or, unreal? Thus spake Einstein when his lifelong friend Michele Besso died, “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” And thus spake scientist Paul Davies, “The most profound puzzle of all is the fact that whatever we may experience mentally, time does not pass, nor there exist a past, present and future. These statements are so stunning that most scientists lead a sort of dual life, accepting them in the laboratory, but rejecting them without thought in the daily life.” [Book: Other worlds, Publisher: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1980, Prologue, Page 14.] Is this very recent statement made by a scientist that “time does not pass” anything different from the much earlier statement made by the mystics that “time is unreal”?
    Now some scientists are trying to establish that mystics did not get their sense of spacelessness, timelessness through their meeting with a real divine being. Rather they got this sense from their own brain. But these scientists have forgotten one thing. They have forgotten that scientists are only concerned with the actual world, not with what some fools and idiots might have uttered while they were in deep trance. So if they at all explain as to how something can be timeless, then they will do so not because the parietal lobe of these mystics’ brain was almost completely shut down when they received their sense of timelessness, but because, and only because, there was, or, there was and still is, a timeless state in this universe.
    God is said to be spaceless, timeless. If someone now says that God does not exist, then the sentence “God is said to be spaceless, timeless” (S) can have three different meanings. S can mean:
    a) Nothing was/is spaceless, timeless in this universe (A),
    b) Not God, but someone else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (B),
    c) Not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (C).
    It can be shown that if it is true that God does not exist, and if S is also true, then S can only mean C, but neither A nor B. If S means A, then the two words “spaceless” and “timeless” become as meaningless as the word “brillig” (cited by Russell in his quotation mentioned above). By the word “brillig” we cannot indicate a person, a thing, an action, a property, a relation, or any other thing. Similarly, if S means A, then by the two words “spaceless” and “timeless” we cannot indicate anyone or anything, simply because in this universe never there was, is, and will be, anyone or anything that could be properly called spaceless, timeless. Now the very big question is: how can some scientists find meaning and significance in a word like “timeless” that has got no meaning and significance in the real world? If nothing was timeless in the past, then time was not unreal in the past. If nothing is timeless at present, then time is not unreal at present. If nothing will be timeless in future, then time will not be unreal in future. If in this universe time was never unreal, if it is not now, and if it will never be, then why was it necessary for them to show as to how time could be unreal? If nothing was/is/will be timeless, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anything can be timeless. If no one in this universe is immortal, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anyone can be immortal. Simply, it is none of their business. So, what compelling reason was there behind their action here? If we cannot find any such compelling reason here, then we will be forced to conclude that scientists are involved in some useless activities here that have got no connection whatsoever with the actual world, and thus we lose complete faith in science. Therefore we cannot accept A as the proper meaning of S, as this will reduce some activities of the scientists to simply useless activities.
    Now can we accept B as the proper meaning of S? No, we cannot. Because there is no real difference in meaning between this sentence and S. It is like saying that Iliad was not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name (Russell). So, if S is true, then it can only mean that not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless. Now, what is this “something else” (SE)? Is it still in the universe? Or, was it in the past? Here there are two possibilities:
    a) In the past there was something in this universe that was spaceless, timeless,
    b) That spaceless, timeless thing (STT) is still there.
    We know that the second possibility will not be acceptable to atheists and scientists. So we will proceed with the first one. If STT was in the past, then was it in the very recent past? Or, was it in the universe billions and billions of years ago? Was only a tiny portion of the universe in spaceless, timeless condition? Or, was the whole universe in that condition? Modern science tells us that before the big bang that took place 13.7 billion years ago there was neither space, nor time. Space and time came into being along with the big bang only. So we can say that before the big bang this universe was in a spaceless, timeless state. So it may be that this is the STT. Is this STT then that SE of which mystics spoke when they said that God is spaceless, timeless? But this STT cannot be SE for several reasons. Because it was there 13.7 billion years ago. And man has appeared on earth only 2 to 3 million years ago. And mystical literatures are at the most 2500 years old, if not even less than that. So, if we now say that STT is SE, then we will have to admit that mystics have somehow come to know that almost 13.7 billion years ago this universe was in a spaceless, timeless condition, which is unbelievable. Therefore we cannot accept that STT is SE. The only other alternative is that this SE was not in the external world at all. As scientist Victor J. Stenger has said, so we can also say that this SE was in mystics’ head only. But if SE was in mystics’ head only, then why was it not kept buried there? Why was it necessary for the scientists to drag it in the outside world, and then to show as to how a state of timelessness could be reached? If mystics’ sense of timelessness was in no way connected with the external world, then how will one justify scientists’ action here? Did these scientists think that the inside of the mystics’ head is the real world? And so, when these mystics got their sense of timelessness from their head only and not from any other external source, then that should only be construed as a state of timelessness in the real world? And therefore, as scientists they were obliged to show as to how that state could be reached?
    We can conclude this essay with the following observations: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then SE cannot be in the external world. Because in that case mystics’ sense of spacelessness, timelessness will have a correspondence with some external fact, and therefore it will no longer remain a hallucination. But if SE is in mystics’ head only, then that will also create a severe problem. Because in that case we are admitting that the inside of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists. That is why when mystics get their sense of timelessness from their brain, that sense is treated by these scientists as a state of timelessness in the real world, and accordingly they proceed to explain as to how that state can be reached. And we end up this essay with this absurd statement: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then the inside of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists.

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