(Friends and followers,a Warning! This reflection is dense. It assumes too much reading of dense philosophers, theologians, and scientists.)
Is time real or an illusion? And who gives a damn?
Physicist Lee Smolin does, and he asks about it in his book: Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. After reading, I care about time too as a philosopher who believes that philosophy, informed by science, is a way of life. How I answer the question of time as real or illusion makes a difference in my approach to the world.
Smolin first presents the case for time as an illusion from modern physics which seeks invariable truth underlying the world we experience — or overlying it for those who believe in the up-there. Modern science from Newton to Einstein discovered the laws of matter and motion both at the macro astronomic and the micro quantum levels of nature. Now the universe of space-time can be explained by understanding initial conditions and the timeless and universal laws of everything that is. Well, almost.
Not everything yet; for the search is still on for the Theory of Everything that would include dark matter and gravity and the initial conditions of the universe itself. String theory, many physicists conjecture, may be the provenance of this unified field theory that combines the Standard Theory with Quantum Gravity to reach, as Stephen Hawkins called it (metaphorically), the very mind of God.
Here the objective of the pure unlimited desire to know reaches towards the timeless, eternal, absolute reality — the Transcendentals, the One, the True, the Good beyond the transitory things of our ephemeral world. Time is relative and therefore a mere shadow of the timeless realities of the universe.
Or so goes the drive to know from the lovers of wisdom Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Heidegger. Martin Heidegger, who proclaimed all philosophy a footnote to Plato, began to center in on the Dasein (being-there) of human consciousness as Zeit (time) through which Sein (Reality) reveals itself.
New science, according to Smolin, and especially the new formulation of quantum mechanics, comprises a new moment that succeeds the proven Standard Theory by considering time, not only as real, but as the fundamental reality from which even space emerges. Smolin’s physics resonates with Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine’s chaos or complexity theory of an open universe of diverse possibilities. Science and philosophy converge on the fundamental reality of time.
Smolin argues that “time and its passage are fundamental and real and the beliefs about timeless truths and timeless realms are mythology.” Reality, he says, “consists only of what’s real in each moment of time. This is a radical idea, for it denies any kind of timeless existence or truth — whether in the realm of science, morality, mathematics, or government. All those must be reconceptualized to frame their truths within time.”
Uh, oh — postmodern relativity! There goes truth in morality, in politics, religion. No timeless laws of nature? Does that mean also the self-evident truths of the Constitution, the rights of humanity, the tenets of virtue, the divine revelations of religion, the invariable laws of science? “Truth is not truth,” said the President’s attorney. “Alternative facts,” said his publicist.
Not so! In earlier writings, by rejecting the delusion of the absolute and of determinism that I discovered in science and philosophy, I assumed the mantle of a postmodern thinker. However, I argued that there were two postmodernisms — one of which I reject. That is the thinking that would replace the unconditional absolute of modernity with relativity. This means that there is no firm basis for the knowledge of reality and for judgment as to what is true.
Rather, I accept (in this moment) the postmodern thinking that would assert not the relativity of things, but reality’s relationality. I call it transmodernity to distinguish it from the first. Every reality can be understood in terms of its internal and external relations; that is, how its components are related and how it is related to all other things at this moment. Smolin expresses that a relational universe is a corollary of the proposition that time is real and fundamental to all that there is. Another way of saying this is that all things can be explained, and can only be explained, in the moment in which they are — a moment of the ongoing flow of time which is a succession of moments.
This, however, begs the question (not raised by Smolin) as to what a moment is and how it becomes a moment in time. I suggest letting a line represent the arrow of time from past to future. And let points on the line represent its moments starting in the middle with the present moment and then positioned before and after to represent past and future moments. The universe and all things in the universe exist in the present moment and can be explained in this moment by those minds, natural and artificial, with capacity to understand.
In geometry, a point has no dimensions. There are infinite points on a line, each of which is infinitely divisible. In cosmology, a moment can be infinitesimally small, a particle in a particle. Or it can be cosmically large — like an era or epoch or age.
Past moments have passed, and the realities of those moments are gone. However, there may be evidence of them in the present moment (artifacts, DNA, recordings) so that the explanation of them might be reconstructed. Dinosaurs are no longer real though, based on what is real in the present, we can affirm that they were real in a past moment and had certain characteristics, diet, behaviors, etc.
Also, realities (things, events) of the future might be predicted based on evidence in the present. But the future is open. Seemingly invariable laws of nature are subject to unforeseen and chance fluctuations so that predictions can ultimately be falsified or verified by new evidence. Evidence of climate change abounds in the present. Based on meteorological data being collected, synthesized, and formulized, we can make predictions regarding the future effects for the earth and its inhabitants. However, because of fluctuations in the data, partially caused by the accumulation of the change and partially caused by the behaviors of the inhabitants of the earth to the change, those predictions for the future are totally indeterminate. We can be surprised!
This is the picture of a cosmology in which time is real and there are no timeless beings, events, places, or anything outside time that is governing or determining what was, is, or will be reality and its formulations into laws of nature. And no before or after time?
How do moments of time become? How are these points on the time line put? Points are put on the line by pointing.
We point by a gesture, e.g. the forefinger extended to something, as a sign to a teammate. Or by a verbal gesture when we name a thing and use it, explore it, dissect it, change it, or exchange it. We point by using a symbol to count it. We point by using an image as an analogy to classify it. We point by using mathematic and other symbols to conjecture and ultimately affirm its internal and external relationships.
Time and the realities of its moments became known when humanity on earth (and who knows what else on what other planet) acquired the ability to not only have, but also to use images to tell something to someone. [I recount this ability to imagine, articulate, express, and shape a world in many of my earlier writings and will not repeat that account here.] And in the exercise of this capacity to communicate arises the consciousness of self and others interacting to a world in time. The ancients called this sense of self in the world psyche or spirit. Medievalists called it divine image, inner light, or soul. Moderns called it Geist or mind. Contemporary philosophers, like Heidegger and his students, called it time.
Time is the consciousness of our human organisms as we interact with each other in creating our world, our past and our future. It is the sense of transcendence, moving on from where we are and came to an open, undetermined future. We experience our conscious existence as a drive to know or, as A.N. Whitehead described it, the Unity of Adventure, the urge to all possibilities.
The illusion and reality of the self has been discussed by contemporary philosophy informed by biology and neuroscience. The human body is conscious. We human beings feel ourselves in interaction with others as we communicate, use images, words, and symbols, to reach out to our world to understand it and shape it. We are self-conscious. We are conscious of ourselves in relation to other selves, to our environment, to our past and our future.
Is time real or an illusion? Is the real, the fundamental principle of all that is, outside time in some timeless being, event, place, or law? Or is the real time itself? Time as nature and time as consciousness.
What difference does it make? If time is of the essence, then nothing is outside or beyond time. Anything that exists is in and of time. Time is the universe of all that is. And the universe is time, the relationship of all things to all things, the progression of moments within which all things are related. If we accept the reality of time and our place within it, we accept our role and responsibility within time. That make a huge difference, if you think about it. It means that what we think and what we do will direct and project our world.
I suggest that time is both real and an illusion. Through our ability to imagine and express, we humans discover and make things and events in time. At the same time or in the same moment we experience ourselves so doing. Time makes us, we feel time, we discover ourselves and all things in time. While time make us, we make the moments. My time is your time and our time is in line with universal time, the flow of the universe whose moments we discover and create as both actual and artificial, real and illusory. The illusion of self-consciousness (Dasein) encounters the reality (Sein) of a universe.
Evolution becomes conscious in us, said the poet scientist. The arrow of time achieves meaning and direction in us. Should we accept that responsibility and role? Should we spend our time discovering, making, and joining time with others in our world? Is this our vocation? the fundamental option of human existence? Is Zeit another word for Sein? Is Time another word for God? (Always metaphorically speaking, of course! The God of Liberation Theology is the Coming One, the radically new Future impinging on the present. Transcendence is not vertical or spatial, but temporal — living in and for Time.)
Make time for ourselves and for each other. Make time for the world in which we all exist. Make time for the future of our children, our communities, our earth, and our species. This is our time. Let’s use it.