THE INTELLECTUAL HISTORY OF TIME
In an earlier essay in this collection, The Perpendicular Present, we showed conclusively that the experiential Present has nothing whatsoever to do with the linear phenomenon we call “time”.
In that essay, we discovered that the world consists of present events which relate to one another in various ways that can ultimately be described by the language of geometry (or topology). We found that events do not necessarily follow one another like conscripts boarding a warship; rather they overlap one another and are embedded in one another in ways that ultimately give rise to Universe encompassing structure.
We discovered that the serial relationship among events we call “time” is really just a special case within a much more fundamental mode of connectedness: embedded hierarchy.
This more fundamental relationship among events essentially runs perpendicular to the common sense notion of time as a linear continuum. In fact, that linear concept of time is the result of a highly practiced, abstractive mental process which has been reinforced since the dawn of mentality by its spectacular pragmatic results (e.g. measurement). But the great William James notwithstanding, what works is not necessarily what is.
A cosmology that reduces spacetime to a mere tool (like a child’s grade school ruler) and replaces it with Universe encompassing, atemporal structure consisting of co-present, overlapping and embedded events seems, well, crazy. But it turns out that it is precisely this concept of reality that underlies Western Civilization’s three great intellectual traditions (Greek philosophy, Judeo-Christian theology and Science); and it precisely this concept that constitutes the primary intersection of those traditions.
Our story begins with the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Anaximander. We only have a single fragment of his teaching (though we can verify it through the influence he exerted on students and rivals alike). According to that fragment, he believed that there neither would be nor could be Being without the phenomenon of Presence. Being ‘begins’ when beings are present to one another.
Anaximander’s successor, Parmenides, arguably the true father of Western Philosophy, expanded on his teacher’s thesis. In his great ontological poem, On Nature, he distinguishes between a “Way of Truth” which is featureless and without extension but eternal and a “Way of Appearance” which is richly varied but incurably transient. The Way of Truth admits no concept of sequence, location, identity or causality. According to the Way of Truth, Being has no origin and no terminus; it is outside the concepts of space and time.
Parmenides offered us no key to help us understand the relationship between these two “ways”. Perhaps he considered them complementary interpretations of experience in a way that anticipated by millennia the wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics.
According to the Way of Appearance, space and time and relations among objects, events and qualia abound; but the Way of Truth admits none of this. From that perspective, Being is eternal, not in the sense of everlasting, but in the sense of being outside of time.
Later on, we will explore the scientific phenomenon known as Quantum Entanglement. In 2013, Ekaterina Moreva et al. (Turin) showed that Universe would look static (like Parmenides’ Way of Truth) to any external observer; but they also showed that Universe would appear to evolve or change (like Parmenides’ Way of Appearance) from the perspective of an internal observer interacting with ‘entangled quanta’. 2500 years after the fact, Parmenides’ great insight has been proven by an unlikely ally, modern science.
Western Civilization is heir to another great tradition, the Judeo-Christian legacy. Improbably, we can find a similar intuition at the base of that tradition as well. Indeed, we find it in the opening lines of Genesis.
This supposed “creation narrative” should be read more ontologically. Here we confront primal reality, “without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind…” This is proto-being, Being without Presence and therefore without order, variety or intensity.
The transition from absolute chaos to a massively ordered Universe depends on just 6 basic structural elements and these elements are catalogued in spell binding specificity in Genesis’ first 31 verses:
First, separation: light from darkness, earth from sky. The former is “time like”, the raw material of rhythm, the later is “space like”, the raw material of locality.
Then, gathering: as water was “gathered into a single basin…dry land appeared”. This is the genesis of form and ultimately of objects.
Generation (“Let the earth bring forth vegetation”) introduces the phenomenon of relatedness and its special case, causality. It is instructive that relatedness emerges from just two structures (separation and gathering) and precedes (ontologically) the emergence of a stable spacetime. This consistent with the conclusions of Morea et al. cited about.
Spacetime comes next. From three primal structural elements (separation, gathering and relatedness), the rhythmic pattern we know as spacetime emerges: “the seasons, the days and the years”.
Then, in a leap worthy of Darwin and his successors, the interplay of the generative urge with rhythmic stability immeidately leads to life and even speciation. With life, the world is enriched with multiple experiential foci, multiple independent actors, multiple co-presents.
Finally, consciousness: “human beings in our image, after our likeness”. Just as God is consciously aware of his creation (“God saw that it was good”), so now mankind. With this final step (recursive reflection), Universe becomes self-aware through its elements; and through those elements it now has the capacity to act upon itself (“…fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion…).
And so, God “…rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken”. The implication is that creation is complete and the universe itself will now be responsible for its own evolution.
It is traditional to read the six days of Genesis as unfolding in linear time. But the authors of Genesis knew nothing of Big Bang Cosmology or Paleontology or Biological Evolution. It makes more sense to understand this creation narrative as an unfolding in the Perpendicular Present. The various stages of “creation” correspond to an ever widening Present characterized by events of ever broader duration. The six days are a linear analogy for the hierarchic reality.
The Greek philosophical tradition of Anaximander and Parmenides and the Judeo-Christian tradition of Genesis meet again in the New Testament Gospel of John. John was entirely familiar with both traditions and clearly saw the vast common ground.
Using the language of Greek philosophy, he retells the Genesis “narrative”. Once again, the opening verses tell us what we need to know.
Standard English translations of John’s Gospel usually begin, “In the beginning was the Word”, an enigmatic phrase to be sure. But John’s “beginning” has more a sense of foundation than initiation and his “Word” is actually the Greek word “Logos” which means order, structure, relationship, etc., the syntax of Being as we saw it in Genesis.
A more accurate but less poetic translation might be, “At the foundation lies order.” This “order” or logos has all the characteristics of the eternal, Perpendicular Present we have been discussing in this essay. In just 5 verses, we learn that all things come to be through Logos, that nothing comes to be without it, including life, the light of the human race.
John’s ontological narrative is more spare than what we found in Genesis (5 verses vs. 31) but it manages to hit all the high notes: light (contrasted with darkness), entities (things), life (the multiplication of experiential foci) and humanity (the capacity for self-reflection).
In verse 6, we meet another John (“The Baptist”) who “testifies” to (i.e. reflects on) the light. As in Genesis, we have gone from the mere principle of order (Logos) to the reality of self-reflection (exemplified by John’s testimony).
Here the parallel between John, Genesis and the Pre-Socratic Greeks ends. In following verses, John goes on to add a uniquely Christian dimension to his concept of Presence: Incarnation. “Logos became flesh and dwelt among us.” Via incarnation, the ever widening Universal Present reappears as one of its own elements: the whole becomes one of its parts. We have moved from the mere self-reflection of Genesis to self-actualization, an incredibly radical step.
Gensis presents 6 structures of Presence; each new structure raises exponentially the potential for order. In just a few quick jumps (“days”), we go from the mere separation of light from darkness to the incredible array of qualia, events, experiential foci and reflective consciousness that constitutes our world. The transitions are truly breathtaking.
But in Genesis, “…the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. On the seventh day, God completed the work he had been doing; he rested…” And why not? Surely, once we arrive at the capacity for self-reflection, the journey is at an end; we can go no farther.
Yet John is not satisfied. Incredibly, he proposes one more step: Incarnation. He demands that the Present not just reflect on itself but enter into itself, physically and historically. The Universal Present, the whole, is not just the sum of its parts; with John, the whole is one of its parts.
The formulations of Anaximander, Parmenides, and Genesis ignore the elephant in the room: Why is there a Universal Present and why is it structured the way it is? Answering this question has been the Holy Grail of ontology since the dawn of reflective consciousness.
Anaximander talks of spontaneous mutuality, Parmenides invokes the Greek gods, Genesis relies on a divine creator. All ad hoc appeals to outside agencies.
But John presents us with a model of self-generation. Being becomes a process and that process constitutes a feedback loop. The mechanism of Incarnation makes John’s system totally self-generative. There is no need of outside agency. John’s system is entirely self-contained and self-explanatory.
Incarnation reveals a perpetual symbiosis between the eternal Present and its temporal, historical elements. The eternal Present is both the transcendent sum of all its parts and a single atom among the multiplicity.
In the end, we are left with the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “On Earth as it is in Heaven”.
In “The Perpendicular Present”, we were content to leave Universe exempt from the ontological requirement that every actual event must be embedded in at least one other event. Our logic: there is no event outside Universe, therefore there is no event into which Universe could be embedded.
John suggests that we may have quit too soon. Even if you grant that a self-contained Universe does not contradict the Principle of Universality spelled out in our earlier essay, John shows that things do not necessarily have to be that way. In John’s cosmology there is at least the possibility that Universe could be embedded in itself.
This would permit Universe, the whole, to maintain a full spectrum of relationships with each of its own elements. Universe could be sequential or serial with respect to other events; it could overlap with some events and be embedded in others.
And yet we are still not done. We are the happy heir to yet another intellectual tradition, Science! Traditionally, Science has been viewed as the enemy of both philosophy and theology…and for many centuries it may have been just that. Science nibbled away at the dogmas of philosophers and theologians; it enticed folks to reject faith-based cosmologies with the hope that some future, reason-based system would resolve all mysteries. Sadly, many still understand Science this way.
Yet nothing could be further from reality. Over the past 100 years, Science (including mathematics and logic) has been the main engine in the utter destruction of the positivist fantasy. Science is today the chief cheerleader, often unwittingly, for philosophy and theology. Without the recent advances in Science, it would be hard indeed to accept the cosmologies of Anaximander, Parmenides, Genesis and John; with those advances, these cosmologies seem almost self-evident.
This essay cannot be a survey of the past 140 years of scientific discovery. Such an effort would require volumes and is entirely beyond the expertise of this author. A brief skip across the peaks of recent discovery should be sufficient to make our case: Science now supports a view of reality that is far more consistent with our Perpendicular Present than with the notion of linear time.
Begin with Einstein (you could go back further). Space and time no longer exist absolutely; they do not constitute the building blocks of Isaac Newton’s famous “Receptacle” in which all material and energetic events play out, as on a stage. Instead, space and time form spacetime and are relative to one another and to different observers; spacetime is an epiphenomenal function of events, not their pre-existing condition.
Move to Quantum Mechanics (QM) and Quantum Field Theory (QFT). Consider just one theorem from this treasure trove: Bell’s Theorem. John Bell proved that under certain circumstances, events totally outside each other’s light cones could nonetheless be related. Learning something about event A would tell us something about event B without our ever having to measure B (and without any signal travelling from A to B). “Spooky action at a distance,” Einstein called it.
In Bell’s model, event A and event B are “entangled”. Earlier we discussed Moreva’s 2013 demonstration that time (i.e. change) is an emergent property of Universe from the perspective of an internal observer. Moreva’s demonstration was based on the phenomenon of Quantum Entanglement first proved by John Bell 50 years ago.
End our brief tour with Roger Penrose. His Conformal Cyclic Cosmology (CCC) suggests that the heat death of one Universe constitutes the Big Bang for another Universe. Though Penrose would probably chafe at the analogy, his model is remarkably reminiscent of John’s Incarnation proposal two millennia earlier.
These peaks testify to a much broader trend at the base of modern science. QFT shows that the concepts of space and time vanish for very small entities while CCC suggests they vanish once the expansion of the cosmos has eliminated the possibility of measurement. Even more devastating for our linear brethren, contemporary mathematics suggests that the Commutative Principle we all learned in elementary school may not apply to the topology of Universe. And worst of all, it now seems possible that the topology of Universe is not even orientable. If that were to be verified, we would need to reconceptualize Universe as a loop where fundamental relations such as handedness, orientation (up/down), charge, etc… are indeterminable and reversible.
Even our Intellectual History of Time is a metaphor for the universal processes we have been describing. Far from a linear journey with a fixed orientation, we find ourselves perpetually lead back to our starting point. From whatever vantage we begin, we end with the realization that linear relations in spacetime do not form the substructure of Universe. Instead we live in a more magical world that is fundamentally characterized and unified by the phenomenon of Presence.