In this article for The Conversation, Sam Brown looks at the difficulty science is having understanding if time is actually a thing.
The story so far…
Physicists have divided our reality into two ontological (think the nature of being) operators manuals.
First, the strange world of Quantum mechanics describes how the universe functions at the tiny levels of particles. Photons, electrons, quarks.
Second, Einstein’s theory of General relativity covers how things behave at the meat and potatoes level. Trees, snickers bars, galaxies.
Unfortunately, these two theories do not work well together. At the edges where they rub up against each other there is explanatory friction and scientific conflict.
So scientists have been searching for a better theory, the Holy Grail of theories….the THEORY OF EVERYTHING (or TOE for short).
Time to ditch time?
As science attempts to tease a TOE, it looks like the function of time may be eliminated from reality completely. It may be something like an ‘optical illusion’.
Just think about that for a moment. This is mainstream science telling us that the feeling we have of a ‘passage of time’ is not a real thing at all.
There is a way out of the mess.
While physics might eliminate time, it seems to leave causation intact: the sense in which one thing can bring about another.
Perhaps what physics is telling us, then, is that causation and not time is the basic feature of our universe.
If that’s right, then agency can still survive. For it is possible to reconstruct a sense of agency entirely in causal terms.
If the scientific explanation of time interests you, check out the short article here.
This is interesting to me because Buddhism has been teaching for thousands of years that a basic feature of our universe is the concept of dependant origination (the ‘techical’ word for this is pratityasamutpada).
Essentially, this means that nothing exists in and of itself, but is each thing is dependent on a multitude of causes and conditions. Nothing exists as a solid thing, but rather everything is a single entangled flow of change.
Time is simply how our organs of perception process that entanglement.
Think of all the things that come into play to place this pencil in my hand at this moment;
- A tree had to grow.
- A person had to choose a career in forestry
- A pencil factory needed to be built
- Someone had to discover graphite
- I had to be born.
- I had to want to buy a pencil
- I had to have evolved opposable thumbs
And on and on, a bazillion causes and conditions. And then imagine all the things that needed to happen for each of THOSE things to have happened.
And on and on and on. ONE thing (or more accurately, no individual thing) in a solid endless ball of flux.
The arrow of time….the feeling that there is a past, that has led to the now that will lead to the future may not actually hold.
In fact quantum physics has time going in every which way, or maybe no way at all.
Having trouble grasping this? Its OK.
Take your time.
Photo by Lukas Blazek