Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The End of Time?

Ye of little patience: another story - another "exclusive", no less :) - is planned for later this week (up until and including Sunday).

Meanwhile, we've been pondering about the nature of time ad nauseam. Naturally, it never leads anywhere; or if it does, there is no way to confirm the validity of such insights. But if you're anything like us here, you know musings about the nature of time are as irresistible as they are (or can be) maddening.

So, why not muse upon it in the company of a book that proposes there is no "time" at all?

It's not a particularly recent one - in fact, it's ten years old - but then good work doesn't have an expiration date. I am referring to Julian Barbour's book The End of Time.

And since you can borrow it from any good library - as I would recommend - this post can't even be construed as advertising. Be warned, however, that once you've read it - and if you're truly interested in the curiosities of what we call "time" - you might be tempted to keep a copy forever.
I know I was. And I did. (Relax: not the library copy!)

Here's Barbour's angle, in a nutshell:

The main aim is to introduce a definite way of thinking about instants of time without having to suppose that they belong to something that flows relentlessly forward. I regard instants of time as real things, identifying them with possible instantaneous arrangements of all the things in the universe. They are configurations of the universe. In themselves, these configurations are perfectly static and timeless. But how and why can something static and timeless be experienced as intensely dynamic and temporal?"

So, it's all instants. Everything is NOW, in Barbour's opinion. Those individual "frames" in the seeming continuum of a lifetime, any lifetime, are the single core, the essence, of what our true four-dimensional experience is.; the rest is memory and/or imagination (and a very creative one, but I digress.)

Yes, I bet you already suspected that much.
But you might want to read about it from a physicist's perspective.
To whet your appetite or get a sense whether you'd like it at all, you can read this illuminating review here.

Or you can watch this Dutch video (23 minutes), about which Barbour says it has done "a remarkably good job of explaining the ideas of The End of Time in a non-technical way".



Here are a few "dummy" questions that the interviewer should have asked, in our opinion, but either didn't or they were edited out.

* If there is no place for continuity of any sort, were all things created instantly in all their states and potentialities (and even their non-state opposites)? In other words, is a person created as a newborn, an adult, an old person, all at once?

That's what I get it from this interview, and that's what I've been suspecting for a long while now.
And if this is so, what is it that propels our perception to experience the seeming "arrow" of development always in the same direction, from young to old, from "cause" to "effect"?

But the most essential question, in my opinion, is the following:

* Throughout the programme, Barbour uses - inevitably, of course - time-bound (and time-shaped) language: he "came" to the conclusion, he "will" take a snapshot - and so forth.

Isn't "time" ultimately simply a name for our experience of continuity (illusory or not) between all these discrete instants?

I certainly think so; and if this is so, then the true nature of "time" is really a moot point, however interesting. In other words, if we are never going to experience it in any other way, why should we even care what the true nature of "time" is?

But is it so?
Are we really doomed to experience "time" as we normally do - in a linear fashion? (And the many entries in this very blog seem to attest that we do not experience it linearly at all, ahem, times.)

This sub-question seems to me particularly interesting because it would indicate, regardless of the answer (positive or negative), the sort of mechanism that dictates such perception - and which perhaps could be transcended.

Theoretical physics can be great fun and certainly a great exercise for the abstract mind. But unless it is also useful in a meaningful, existential way, it is mostly an exercise in futility.

Still, it is a great work that makes you think about such things.

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