Friday, April 28, 2006

Forever Now

by Joel Marks
Published in Philosophy Now Issue No. 41, May/June 2003.

My mind has been blown. That happens on occasion; it is an occupational hazard of one whose work is thinking about things, examining assumptions, wondering. As I suggested in an earlier column about the nature of philosophy (in Issue no. 33), this business is simply one of reflecting on already established facts (or beliefs), from commonplaces to scientific arcana, and drawing out implications from them by descrying relations among them. But the payoff can far exceed the investment; indeed, everything can change, as in my oft-used analogy of a Gestalt shift.

So what is it this time? Why ... it is time. This is certainly not a new subject to philosophers. In fact, the insight which so moves me at this moment has probably come to others before, from ancient mystics to modern physicists. But I did not quite grasp the significance of it; and so I would like to indulge my fascination by sharing it with you, Dear Reader. 

Let me begin with an analogy. Leading up to Copernicus's revolutionary idea about the revolution (and rotation) of the Earth, there were medieval thinkers who recognized an ambiguity in what we see in the sky. Of course it looks like the stars -- both "fixed" and "wandering," including Sun and Moon -- are moving across the sky diurnally (as well as monthly, etc.), as if located on the inside surface of a gigantic rotating sphere with the Earth at its core. (The very solidity of that sphere is apparent when you view the heavens from a truly dark site.) But, if you think about it, the identical visual effect could be achieved by having the Earth rotate on an axis, while the larger sphere of stars remains stock still. And, amazingly to untutored intuition, the latter turns out to be closer to the truth.

Well, there is also an ambiguity in our experience of time, which had not registered with me until I happened to read a special issue of Scientific American magazine (September 2002) devoted to the science of time. We are accustomed to perceive time as "going by." Oh, we could think of it as stopping, or even reversing. Again, the analogy would be: Yes, we can imagine the stars just stopping in the sky, or even reversing direction -- as some actually, i.e. optically, do, namely, planets in retrograde; but we can also conceptualize their regular motion as merely apparent. In fact, the late futurist (so to speak), Buckminster Fuller, claimed to be able, as a result of his continual globetrotting, to experience the "motion" of the sky as belonging to the Earth. Can we, then, conceive, not to mention experience, an analogous alternative in the temporal realm? 

It turns out that the answer is "Yes"! But before I reveal this novelty, let me backtrack once again. As difficult as it may be to break our familiar habit of temporal perception, the natural way that we "feel" time, as "flowing forward," is itself fraught with paradox. St. Augustine famously pointed out (in his Confessions, book 11, chapter 14) that the future does not yet exist and the past no longer exists. But then, we might wonder, what "happens" when the present moment occurs? Does the whole universe suddenly come into existence, in an act of "creation" rivaling the Big Bang (or, the Creation)? And then does it just as quickly go back out of existence, to be supplanted by the next Creation, and so on every moment? This seems wildly bizarre.

(I suppose it is odd for me to disparage something on the ground that it seems bizarre, given that my topic is how bizarre reality may turn out to be. I should also note that just such a scheme of continual creation and annihilation is the correct account of reality at the quantum level, according to physicist Shimon Malin in Nature Loves to Hide [Oxford, 2001]; but I'll just ignore that since this column is limited to 1000 words!)

So here is the punch line. Suppose instead of a single "real now" moving from past to future, there is a set of "real nows" that are all (and here I lapse into metaphor) contemporaneous. The mind-blowing revelation is that these utterly different scenarios -- as different as a stationary Earth is from a rotating Earth -- could be experienced identically (as could the two Earths), so that we simply cannot tell, based on our phenomenology alone, which is the reality. Hence, the novel scenario could be the true one; and according to physicists such as Paul Davies, it most likely is. Furthermore, I would add to any scientific argument the philosophical advantage of eliminating the problem I derived from Augustine's observation, since nothing need come into or go out of existence every moment -- it's all just "there." 

 This is so unusual a conception of time that Augustine deemed it not time at all: "But if the present were always present, and would not pass into the past, it would no longer be time, but eternity" (ibid., tr. John K. Ryan). One thinks also of Nietzsche's "eternal return," except that each moment would be enduring ... eternal? ... and hence not need to "return" repeatedly; we don't have to come back if we're already "here"!

Perhaps we could say that it is not time which has seemed to move forward, but reality. (When I began to write today, 9 a.m. existed; but it no longer does, since reality has since moved on to 10 a.m.) Time, in fact, might best be conceived as the moving-forwardness of reality. Hence, what is at stake could be the very existence of time: If reality does not "move forward" (even if referring to some reality, at best a double metaphor), then there is no time, but only eternity (or perdurance?). Thus we would end up with a kind of inverse-Copernican revolution: For while our stasis turned out to be the illusion in space, it is our movement that is the mirage in time. We may be stark still in (and for?) eternity at every moment. We aren't "going" anywhere (or -when)!

Finally, could one then try to become a temporal Bucky Fuller and perceive time "as it is" (assuming the truth of the hypothesis)? The key to embarking on such an enterprise could be to recognize -- in order to question it -- what we might call a temporal or contemporary solipsism, a solipsism of the moment, consisting of the belief that "This is the only now there is."