Rational Religion

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Of Time and the River

        (or “A Little Crackpot Physics”)


(ADDENDUM:  This chapter was written prior to April, 2000.  On April 20, 2000, I discovered by reading an ad in the April 8 edition of SCIENCE NEWS that there is a book in print, by one Julian Barbour, entitled "The End of Time," which evidently espouses somewhat the same theory.  The ad even used some of the exact terms and specific ideas contained herein, including the notion that time does not exist, that we perceive change and call it time, and if nothing changed time would stop.  


I am torn by the discovery of this theorist and this book.


 On the one hand I am a mite jealous of the fact that somebody has beaten me to this interesting - and I believed, original - notion.   This goes to show that pretty much nothing is entirely new in the Realm of Ideas.  As an amateur theorist, I was by no means unwitting of the probability that - if my concept of time had any currency at all - it had probably occurred to any number of physics students, before.  


On the other hand I am delighted that a trained theoretical  physicist has stepped outside the mainstream of Einsteinian Universal thought to entertain somewhat the same idea that I came up with, ”independently.”


I obtained and read a good deal of Dr Barbour’s book, but have proved to be too innocent of advanced physics to be able to follow his more arcane theories, so they have not greatly influenced mine, but have certainly contributed to my education.)


Down through the ages, how many philosophers - "natural" and theoretical -- have stood on a riverbank and fallen prey to the obvious analogy between the passage of Time and the flow of the stream?


It is a patently false analogy, even more so than most, and doubly misleading because it is so clear.


Here is all this moving water, rushing past us; just as the events of our lives seem to do.   And, although it has been "there" for centuries, we know it is never the same river.  The water that passes me at this moment has never passed this point before and never will, again; except perhaps for random molecules that survive evaporation, prevailing Westerlies and chance up-slope precipitation. 


Even the streambed changes and shifts course, on a time scale easily observed by us short-lived primates.


But one can look upstream, at where it is coming from; then turn and look downstream at where it is going; and very easily confuse all these moving molecules with a time-line of events in an ever-changing universe.


There are so many ways in which we could reduce this analogy to absurdity that it is frankly too daunting to attempt an exhaustive catalog.


Let me condense the effort:  the river is a physical entity, composed mostly of molecules of H2O, interspersed with a quantity of dissolved oxygen and other gases, suspended particulates and various life forms -- all in complex motion, but moving in a more or less singular direction through a comparatively stationary landscape.


Time is none of these things.  


It doesn't even move!


I have several times in these essays referred to the "time line" as though it were an entity which exists.


Even in my own mental picture of the Universe, I see a sort of "pathway" which stretches back from this moment to the "beginning" and away into the future toward "infinity."


In my experience it appears that most people have some such concept; especially those people who create science fiction.  (Although I enjoy good science fiction, particularly such optimistic projections of our species' future as those of Gene Roddenberry, I find my suspension of disbelief most severely strained in those Star Trek episodes which deal with "time travel.”)


"Time" of course is as imaginary as zero; useful only as a tool for thinking about certain subjects and to be discarded without sentiment when it interferes with the thought processes it was invented to assist.


I confess that I do not quite grasp the Einsteinian concept of "space/time," except as an example of using words which traditionally mean one thing in ways which mean something quite different; and possibly entirely new, at least in the history of human thought.


I understand the rudimentary analogies -- the marble, billiard ball and bowling ball variously distorting the surface of a rubber sheet (with grid lines drawn on it to visually demonstrate the distortion) -- but I do not easily make the leap from this picture to a useful concept of space, time, or space/time.


A "space/time continuum," I more or less reject outright.


Now, the perceptive reader with at least a high school physics credit will begin at this point to suspect that I am playing a rather elementary game of semantics.


What modern physicists call "space/time" I insist on referring to with another all-inclusive but more simplistic and admittedly fuzzy concept I call "Change."


I suspect, in a strict evaluation of terms, "space/time" is a lot more specific and useful way of defining a cause-and-effect universe constantly and pervasively in motion; especially if one wishes to predict where it all might lead, on either the local or Universal scale.


The operative word, here, is always "might."    I object to defining Time as anything but a historical record of completed changes. 


Thinking of Time as an entity or force on the level of gravity blinds us to the fact that it does nothing to lead us into the future. 


It is much easier for me, personally, to simply think of objects with mass -- i.e. physical substance -- having measurable attractive influence upon each other, relative to the size and heft of that mass and their nearness to each other, and affecting the amount and rate of change in their neighborhoods as a consequence.  Newtonian gravity, in other words.


If it is more useful to theoretical physicists to think of this as a "warping" of the fabric of the Universe, I will leave them to it. 


As Pierre-Simon Laplace is supposed to have told Napoleon when asked why his theories made no mention of god; "Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis."


One danger, I think, is that the theory of space/time distortion leads to concepts such as "time warps" and "worm-holes" which are probably only useful to writers and film producers. 


I do not mean to imply that time warps and worm-holes are impossible.  I would not so presume.


I do postulate that they are never going to be very useful to human beings in any demonstrable, physical manner; simply because I see no possibility of maintaining the integrity of an individual human body - complete with its conscious intelligence and its impossibly complex internal environment of enzymes, hormones and essential microbes - in any journey through either of these "distortions."


It's fun to think about "what if," and it makes for cracking good stories, and I guess that's useful.


And of course my skepticism will not prevent persons with more imagination and a better grasp of theoretical physics than I from exploring these things as possibilities.  Sadly (because I wish it were otherwise) I don't think much will ever come of it.


I don't think we really understand even gravity very well at all, though we can measure its effects with pinpoint accuracy and even use our resultant calculations to infer the existence of planets orbiting distant suns.


But nobody has ever seen a "graviton;" not even in the sense that we track subatomic particles in a bubble chamber or a scintillation counter.  We assume gravitons exist because gravity is such a pervasive effect throughout the Universe, and something must carry that effect.


A host of physicists are looking for gravitons, and some day they may find them.


I suspect they may never, however, identify a "timeon."  Because time, except as a concept, does not exist.  Unlike gravity, it has no measurable effect on anything.


There probably IS a continuum, but I don't think it has much to do with time; the way most of us think of time. 


 Time is the history of change; a record of incalculable numbers of Universal processes, to now.


Looking, backward, projecting our imaginations over our observable portion of that history, we think we can discern a "line" or progression of events.  Even as we realize that our interpretation of those events  -- even the actual occurrence of most of them -- is very much open to question; still we maintain the illusion that they somehow represent the "passage" of something we call "time."


Because we can "see" into the past, we also imagine that the "line" extends past this moment into the future.


It does not. 


Time is history, only; not prophecy.


And it is certainly not predictable. 


If "life goes on" as an observable result of past occurrences, that is not any function of "time."   It is a succession of changes, generally proceeding one from another (because everything above the temperature of absolute zero is in motion and motion begets motion), but only too often succumbing to some disrupting "outside" influence, from earthquakes to comets to meeting and marrying the wrong person.


On a universal scale there may indeed be a sort of all-encompassing time line, subject to the events which created the Universe (presuming there may have been a Creation) and predetermined by those events.


There is not much likelihood that such an esoteric and absolute time line has any relevance to you and me. 


It is certainly not a river that we can ever hope to travel in, "upstream" or "down."