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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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A Short Introduction to the Time Riddle

Paul Kiritsis - Sunday, April 21, 2013

Did you know that when you’re perusing a scintillating star in the night sky you’re actually seeing that stellar body in the condition that it was at the time when the light that has now penetrated through your cornea to the back of your retina first radiated out from its core? If we take into consideration the gargantuan life span of stars, that would have been a very long time ago. To give an example if its actual distance from the earth is something like five light years you’re seeing how that star was five light years ago. For a human being imagining such vast distances is mindboggling! Naturally, the most inconceivable notion of all is the possibility that, whilst the earthly observer ponders its twinkling light, the star in question has already lapsed into a stellar remnant and become a black dwarf or hole (depending on its original size).

 As we know it, the observable universe is a confluence of subatomic blocks that make up visible matter along with the four fundamental natural forces (i.e. the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravitation) that govern such relations. This energetic vacuum is the province of physics and cosmology, both of which have utilized interpretative models like general relativity and quantum mechanics to come to some basic, sound conclusions about how everything therein is governed. Individuals working in these fields have embarked on assiduous ‘universal’ quests to address these cosmic operating principles in hope that the cosmos will yield answers to questions like “At what rate is the universe expanding?”, “How big is it?” and more significantly perhaps, “How old is it and when will it end?” The context in which the aforementioned issues are studied and addressed is provided by the emergent Big Bang model, a theory equating the birth of the universe with a spontaneous expansion of space. While it is true that this model has provided a suitable framework for mapping the evolutionary development of the universe, scientists cannot deny the fact that it resembles the Lernaean Hydra–every answer harvested has exhumed an auxiliary set of questions.

Everything that comes into existence has a beginning and an end, or so we’re led to believe! In the beginning the universe was miniscule; a condensed speck of searing, formless matter athwart an illimitable sea of nothingness. This embryonic phase implies that there was something there before the fateful expansion. Hence we can safely assume that creation proceeds ex materia, not ex nihilo as the Creationists have always affirmed. The conventional scientific view holds that the ensuing expansion of space the characterized the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago brought with it the four-dimensional space-time continuum, energy, and matter in the form of fundamental particles and antiparticles. Ignited by Einstein’s theory of relativity, the consensual agreement amongst the intelligentsia and commonfolk alike is that the separation of events unfolding in the phenomenal world should be described in terms of space-time intervals. Indeed, for most of us the close interrelation of space and time is conceptually unassailable and questioning it is akin to attracting to oneself an anathema.

If the Big Bang was an expansion of space and not an explosion in space as formerly supposed, then it holds to reason that this first instant must also have been the inaugurator of time. From this vantage point the birth of the universe is also the time origin of everything. Time, then, also began about 13.7 billion years ago when the universe finally took up its Aristotelian nisus and entered a transitional phase of inflation and cooling. While this explanation seems reasonable, it introduces dialectical complications about viable causes and reasons for being: why should the universe have begun when it did? Why didn’t it begin fifty billion years ago, five million years ago, yesterday, or even a microsecond ago? What about causality?

According to physical law all effects are spurred by a cause. Overkill at tennis or basketball training might cause calluses to form on the soles of our feet. On the other hand overhunting has caused the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger, the Mauritian Dodo, and the cosmopolitan Mammoth, and an infestation of bees is usually caused by the seasonal blooming of dandelions, roses, and hyacinths in one’s garden. Adhering to this archetypal pattern would mean finding a cause for time. Who or what has caused time to come into existence? We could say that there wasn’t anything preceding time and the Big Bang but that would be an outright aberration of those laws pronounced by physicists to be as unyielding, unshakeable, and uncompromising as the scythe of death. This is the conundrum that has physicists scratching and sometimes pulling out strands of hair from their heads. In attempting to solve this gulping impasse a great many have resorted to quantum physics and iterations in string field theory which construe the Big Bang as the visible effect of a collision between two parallel universes and all visible matter as its remnants. At first glance it seems as though any alternative to the original based on solid mathematical probabilities is plausible and satisfying until you stumble over the enormous complexities it has introduced into the cosmological equation by placing the time origin before the Big Bang. Even if time preceded the latter and resembled something like a container, an alchemical retort or vessel encompassing space until it expanded (implying that time and change are quantitatively unrelated), it would not explain why the evolutionary process unfurled when it did. We must always remember that alternate theories still have to address the very same issues which plunged the prevailing one into question in the first place. And for the time being it seems that string field theory with its parallel universes comprising up to eleven dimensions doesn’t really address how the universe (or multiverse in the language of string field theory) formed, if it ever did. 

Perhaps the greatest threat to time as a conceptual thing-in-itself comes from Zeno’s (ca. 490–430 BC) paradox which understands that motion is a necessary precursor to an instant or point of time. Let’s expand his arrow example. You’re at a weekend carnival and you’ve decided to participate in the archery competition. In one fluid motion you raise and draw your bow, hone in on your target, and then relinquish your grip on the bowstring. This sends the arrow hurtling towards its target along a horizontal flight path. We know that there is never an instant or point in time when the arrow isn’t moving. In fact we could quite safely assume that from its leaving the bowstring till its hitting the target, the arrow is always in motion. Now if the shortest point on a time scale takes up no time at all and there is never a point in time when the arrow isn’t moving towards its final destination, how might the arrow be moving at all?

We can extend this argument to travelling by car or foot. Suppose you have to hike from the tourist hotspot of Surfers Paradise to Cairns in Queensland, Australia. In order to get there you have to first cover half that distance and reach Mackay. But before Mackay you must reach and surpass the midway point from Surfers to Mackay which happens to be the city of Gladstone on the Capricorn Coast. By the same token reaching Gladstone would mean that you had passed Hervey Bay, the midpoint between the former and Surfers Paradise. So in essence your extensive pilgrimage to Cairns is comprised of traversing an infinite number of half-distances, an act which is humanely impossible given that an eternity of time means you would never get there.

The same problem might be viewed through a slightly different kaleidoscope. Something that has just been jolted into action by a kinetic force can be thought of as having a final moment of rest and a first instant of movement. There’s an infinitesimal segment of time where the object is stationary and a succeeding infinitesimal segment where the object is no longer stationary and in motion. Any individual or conscious entity engaging in the observation of such a phenomenon perceives that a fine point separates these two disparately related conditions. A mountain bike or a wagon, for instance, is either at rest or in motion and the transition from one state to another necessitates a third unto itself. Without this in-between moment there could never have been a time when an actual transition may have taken place, insinuating that the bike, wagon, or whatever other mobile contraption you wish to envisage is either always moving or stationary–one or the other. The blatant truth, of course, is rather disconcerting because no such infinitesimal intercessor and devisor exists.

In retrospection the deductive reasoning used by Zeno must be defective on empirical grounds able to demonstrate beyond a shadow of doubt that motion is an implement of change and that change is encompassed by time. Had this not been the case we would all stand fixed in one place, motionless and compacted like marble sculptures with no intrinsic propensity for movement or reproduction for time immemorial. I’m sure arguments of this kind bellowed loudly within the nous of Zeno’s contemporaries and all future intellectuals who outright refuted his arrow paradox. Noteworthy amongst these was the great Stagirite Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC) who claiming that, “"Time is not composed of indivisible nows any more than any other magnitude is composed of indivisibles." This formidable negation was echoed about fifteen hundred years afterward in the influential discourse of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274): "Instants are not parts of time, for time is not made up of instants any more than a magnitude is made of points, as we have already proved. Hence it does not follow that a thing is not in motion in a given time, just because it is not in motion in any instant of that time." That puts those frustrating paradoxes to rest.

But what about the flow of time? If space or distance can be covered at a specific velocities by juxtaposing it with time, then time which is merely an alternate projection of the four-dimensional time-space continuum must also be subject to specific velocities. Or can’t it? At what specific rate does time flow? Does it accelerate or decelerate like speed? Of these we haven’t the slightest iota because there isn’t a second dimension of time against which we might be able to compare it. As far as we know time is one-dimensional. Add that to three dimensions of space and we get the four-dimensional space-time continuum as proposed by general relativity. Time also has a forward-moving direction equivalent to a river or other body of free-flowing water. Because the renowned metaphor of the river advocates a directional flow for time as a thing-in-itself, it stands to reason that the trajectory of this flow must also have an explicit speed. We know that its physical complement definitely has; depending on the source the waters can flow either in a subtle and leisurely pace (slow) or in a tumultuous and thunderous manner (fast). Sometimes they’ll turn back in themselves and become little dangerous vortices and other times they’ll change and run in the opposite direction. Direction implies compartmentalization and we know that time is divisible into past, present, and future, all of which must be treated as concomitant realities travelling in alternate directions and distinct velocities. The only possible way of measuring these velocities is if the temporal time of which we are aware perambulates about the mooring post of another higher dimension of time of which we remain unaware. Entertaining the notion of two and three-dimensional time makes for a host of interesting possibilities, although just like string field theory it inexorably raises many more questions than what it can answer.

Perhaps the best explanation addressing conundrums of time was offered by German philosopher Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804). Proceeding from Emmanuel Swedenborg’s division of physical and paraphysical worlds, Kant argued in favour of an ontological perspective where the veil of phenomena, aspects of the physical world subjectivized through the sensory modalities, are underpinned by the intangible noumena, the intelligible, objective world of forms as they exist independently of human cogitation and perception.  Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) used Kantian categories to construct a case for the human body as a tangible example of both an objective phenomenon and a ‘thing-in-itself’. Evidently the same logic can be applied to foster an assessment of the macrocosm, the universe itself, as an entity and ‘thing-in-itself’ independent of spatiotemporal parameters which are, according to Kant, innate cognitive principles that help in shaping human perception. Coined in a much simpler way what Kant is suggesting is that time and space are human constructs imposed onto our immediate field of presentation in order to make sense of experience. The mind, just like the universe, prefers law and order to pandemonium and chaos, and is intrinsically wired to compute and shape its associational network of images, impressions, and train of ideas this way. If there is truth in what he articulates, then time is obviously an illusion.

 

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