I haven’t posted hardly anything recently. But someone prompted me to write something about Time, and the result was interesting, so here goes:
What is Time?
Time is a word we use to apply to something that is familiar to most people starting at a certain age. A newborn infant, for example, would not have any conception of the idea of time. We must imagine whole worlds. Our current world, the current moment in time, is, despite all its complexity, a single unit. But we know what is meant by the word “Time” because we can recall living in other worlds, moments of the past, which *were* the world. So we live in the moment, and yet we remember and believe in other moments, including their entire worlds. What time means in physics is different from what time means to a person. In physics, time is turned into a mathematical thought, and predictions are made based on what the math indicates. Because the world conforms to those predictions to a large degree, time is thought to be merely a relation of space, by which I mean that we posit notions like a time *line* — a line being a spatial concept — and thus time is turned into a notion of space. Likewise, when an engineer plots the course of a cannonball through time, he points to the position of the ball at each moment.
But there is such a richness to the way we understand Time that one wonders whether it can be entirely reduced to Space. For example, when a fairy tale begins, “Once upon a time,” or likewise Star Wars begins, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away,” our psyches produce a dreamlike condition in which an entirely different world with entirely different physics becomes possible, and is even expected. The state of mind we experience when we are dreaming is hard to categorize in terms of ordinary time. Yet we use the word “time” precisely to invoke such experiences.
A dreamlike state is, in many ways, outside time. It takes place in what we might call Eternity. But our waking minds adapt to the world by imagining a set of physics that operate consistently on the same piece of material, i.e. the created universe. The mind creates Time, and then we apply the rules of Time to the world as we experience it. In many ways this allows us to tame the world. In other words, the fact that we do this must be justified, because it seems wrong to abandon reality as it presents itself in favor of a thought process that places things according to where they *should* be, instead of where they are. The justification is that the world causes too much anxiety in its latent state, and we need structuring ideas like that of Time, to reduce our anxiety. But that points to an important point, that even though our structuring ideas are able to reduce our anxiety to a tolerable level, they still feel like terrible sins — a thought which is reflected in the motif of the Fall of Man from the Garden of Paradise. Life within the Garden of Paradise precedes, among things, the advent of Time as an idea, and as a way of structuring our otherwise too intense experiences.
I would like to ask, besides Time, what other core mental constructs are there that help us prop up the world, and at the same time feel like terrible sins banishing us from Paradise?
Also, I don’t think I’ve talked enough about how the invocation of the idea of Time sets up the child’s mind to enter into a believable fantasy world. The child must have formed the idea of Time in order for “Once upon a time,” to have any effect. The day-night cycle is probably the most familiar way a child understands time. The light is on sometimes and off other times. And yet the world does not disintegrate merely because the light changes. Time is the concept that allows the world to continue to exist even though the light level changes. If you say to me, Once Upon a Time, I almost feel as if my rationality is being stolen from me, because I think I know what is meant by Time, and yet the magic of the phrase steals me from myself. I am anxious, therefore, that I don’t quite understand what Time really is.
Moreover, I feel like I *should* know. I’m forty years old, four times two times five. I feel like someone who is older than forty should have some idea what Time is. At any rate, my current working hypothesis is that Time is superordinate to the Paradisal mind. Contrary to the myth of the Garden of Eden, Paradise is not completely gone from human experience. It always exists, and under certain conditions, even the adult human mind will regress to expressing that state. The consciousness that creates Time is, according to my theory, layered *over* the Paradisal state. Paradise hasn’t gone away, it’s just been covered up.
See what I’ve done? I’ve turned Time into Space, like the physicists do. The myth of the Fall from Paradise suggests that Eden has been left in the *past*. But in order for there to *be* a past, the concept of Time must already exist. But how could the concept of Time be created as an event *in Time*, when according to me Time is a mental construct, more so than a physical reality? Reality is always experienced in the moment. All Time is subsumed within it. Most people can only dream of attaining a zen-like mind all the, ahem, Time. Therefore I resort to the idea of Space instead. Time is a mental construct that occurs in a mental layer *over* (or under) the realms without Time. The Timeless realms — Paradise, Eternity, etc. — can best be understood as coexisting with the Temporal realms, in Space. This is more pleasing to me than the idea of banishment. Remember that the mythos of banishment in Time proposes by its very nature an End of Time — an end of all things, an apocalypse of some sort or another.
But what if the apocalypse is simply the moment when Time is understood as existing in Space, when Time is no longer allowed to tyrannize over other aspects of consciousness? No doubt prioritizing Time has given Western civilization much of its distinctive character, and will continue to do so so long as it feeds people at a sufficiently deep spiritual level. But there are many hints of our reaching the end of that fuel supply. I’m no literary expert, but I have read James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, in which I remember the third chapter consists mostly of a sermon given by a Catholic priest, who describes the ultimate consequences of allowing the concept of Time to tyrannize the psyche. The essence of the novel, and of James Joyce’s subsequent works, was a move towards Space, rather than Time. This is just one author and one book, but the scene stands out in my mind for its depiction of the consequences of the notion of Eternal Hellfire on Catholic consciousness — and how could the living psyche be more imprisoned by the idea of Time than that?
The Jews await the messiah. They never forget what happens to them. Their concept of history depends on the idea of a God who prioritizes events in Time above almost everything else. The Christians borrowed this idea for their religion. The Muslims — not so much. Islam seems to prioritize Space, rather than Time, although the Koran does acknowledge a Day of Doom. These are my thoughts. I’m not trying to pretend to be a religious expert. The early thinkers of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution turned both Time and Space into geometry, which itself is primarily spatial rather than temporal.
But I think we’re headed to a point where we have fully mapped out, so to speak, the utility of the idea of Time. Currently we project our idea of Time onto the created universe, such that we can’t imagine the universe existing without Time. But this gives too much credit to the idea of Time. Time is a psychic construct, and the universe does not need it. No doubt *we* do. But it has a negative effect on our mental health to continue to believe that the universe needs Time the way we do. So we’ll slowly start to make that distinction.