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Just what we all need to propel us to work this morning: Time as a grand illusion

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From Jim Holt at Lapham’s Quarterly:

But this sense of flow is a monstrous illusion—so says contemporary physics. And Newton was as much a victim of this illusion as the rest of us are. It was Albert Einstein who initiated the revolution in our understanding of time. In 1905, Einstein proved that time, as it had been understood by physicist and plain man alike, was a fiction. Our idea of time, Einstein realized, is abstracted from our experience with rhythmic phenomena: heartbeats, planetary rotations and revolutions, the swinging of pendulums, the ticking of clocks. Time judgments always come down to judgments of what happens at the same time—of simultaneity. “If, for instance, I say, ‘That train arrives here at seven o’clock,’ I mean something like this: ‘The pointing of the small hand of my watch to seven and the arrival of the train are simultaneous events,’” Einstein wrote. If the events in question are distant from each other, judgments of simultaneity can be made only by sending light signals back and forth. Einstein proved that whether an observer deems two events at different locations to be happening “at the same time” depends on his state of motion. Suppose, for example, that Jones is walking uptown on Fifth Avenue and Smith is walking downtown. Their relative motion results in a discrepancy of several days in what they would judge to be happening “now” in the Andromeda galaxy at the moment they pass each other on the sidewalk. For Smith, the space fleet launched to destroy life on earth is already on its way; for Jones, the Andromedan council of tyrants has not even decided whether to send the fleet.

What Einstein had shown was that there is no universal “now.” Whether two events are simultaneous is relative to the observer. And once simultaneity goes by the board, the very division of moments into “past,” “present,” and “future” becomes meaningless. Events judged to be in the past by one observer may still lie in the future of another; therefore, past and present must be equally definite, equally “real.” In place of the fleeting present, we are left with a vast frozen timescape—a four-dimensional “block universe.” Over here, you are being born; over there, you are celebrating the turn of the millennium; and over yonder, you’ve been dead for a while. Nothing is “flowing” from one event to another. As the mathematician Hermann Weyl memorably put it, “The objective world simply is; it does not happen.”

Einstein, through his theory of relativity, furnished a scientific justification for a philosophical view of time that goes back to Spinoza, to St. Augustine, even to Parmenides—one that has been dubbed “eternalism.” Time, according to this view, belongs to the realm of appearance, not reality. The only objective way to see the universe is as God sees it: sub specie aeternitatis. We should all be like William Blake and say, “I see the past, present, and future, existing all at once/Before me.”

Maybe. Barring the next grand theory.

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The only objective way to see the universe is as God sees it: sub specie aeternitatis. We should all be like William Blake and say, “I see the past, present, and future, existing all at once/Before me.”
Einstein's findings do provide a very significant input to the way we must think of how God might see things. I've not seen a good explanation of how God can exist in time (as the TE Open Theists, for example, say) when time is relative - and closely interlocked with matter and energy states. But the problem with the above statement lies in saying "the only objective way to see the universe is..." The fact is that, not being God, we can't see the universe objectively: all science can give us in an abstraction, not the experience, of eternity. Which is why it will always remain that "God's ways are higher than ours" - nobody has a view from nowhere, and each of us is irreducibly somebody. The question for us is whether time is an illusion, or rather the only reality that God has created for us to inhabit in this life. Sir Arthur Eddington pointed out back in 1927 that in terms of physics the arrow of time is completely reversible. The equations work either way. The only ways we can give time direction are by non-mathematical, humanly subjective insights. In this respect he cites firstly entropy, which requires the subjective assessment of which state is more or less organised (science iself cannot strictly tell us if the Lego castle is more organised than the pile of bricks - but science cannot be done at all without making that judgement). That leads to Eddington's second argument, which is from cause and effect, also absolutely essential to science, but not derivable from it. If time's arrow goes forward, as humans believe instinctively, then an explosion in a gun causes a bullet's trajectory to a target. But if, in fact, time is travelling backwards, you have to argue that the spontaneous travel of a stationary bullet to a gun-barrel causes an implosion. The maths is reversible, but human instinct is right to deny time's reversibility. We're only living in an illusion if materialism is true. Every time we comment on entropy or deal with cause and effect we undermine materialism and demonstrate that it is the illusion, and time the reality, albeit rather more relativistic than everyday experience shows. It's just that our reality is more limited than God's... and some of us have no problem with that. Jon Garvey

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