Only a Matter of Time
The great New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, master of the unconscious one-liner, was once asked what time it was. He answered, “What, you mean now?” I was singing to my little vegetable patch one day, as I try to do every day. The song was John Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love,” because when it comes to singing to plants, how can you do better than The Beatles? I’d forgotten part of the second verse and had to look up the lyrics: “There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made, No one you can save who can’t be saved, Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be in time . . .” You can learn how to be . . . in time. Somehow, I don’t thing Lennon was talking about being on time for an appointment.
Forty years ago I read a book by Ram Dass, Be Here Now. As I recall, it’s about the zen concept of being in the “now”, living in the moment. In other words, total awareness. That’s when I began to wonder about the nature of time. In Eastern mysticism you have the idea that now is all there really is — there is no past or future, those are illusions. At first the idea seems absurd. I remember yesterday. It must have happened because I remember it. Yet we know that the mind is easily fooled; just talk to anyone who watches Fox News all the time.
Wait, I hear you saying, you just said you remember yesterday, so it must have happened in the past. It does seem that way, but what if yesterday was now, too? And tomorrow is now, as well. It could certainly explain prophecy — memories of the future, as they say. So how can the past, which we seem to remember, be an illusion? Let’s look at some other illusions. Think back to 4th grade science class. We learned that everything is made up of atoms, which are at great distances from each other. Even the spaces between the nuclei and their electrons is vast, by comparison. That table or chair which feels so solid is in reality mostly empty space, and the perception of its solidity is actually the illusion. But those atoms themselves are also an illusion, as it turns out. They’re made up not even of solid objects, but packets of energy; quarks, muons, and other assorted doo-dads.
Albert Einstein made a compelling case that under certain conditions, time could speed up or slow down, relatively speaking. You’ve heard the expression “time seemed to stop for a moment” during some transformative event. Of course that would be from the point of view of the participant. Time seems to fly when you’re having fun, or it drags when you’re not. Maybe time is plastic or elastic, as opposed to static. There is an apparent paradox, though. Suppose two people are in the same location, and one is having fun, so the time speeds up. The other is bored, so time seems to slow down. If we consider that the idea of our being separate individuals is yet another illusion, and we are in fact one consciousness, there need not be any paradox.
Einstein once said “Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening all at once.” But what if everything IS happening all at once? Physics and cosmology has come a long way since Einstein, and some of his theories don’t square with what we think we know about quantum physics. Now I can’t get a handle on quantum theory, except that to me it seems to involve uncertainty in determining both the speed and location of some quantity, and the high strangeness of the observer in some way affecting that which is being observed. But again, if we are really only a single consciousness, it begins to make more sense. The implication would be that certain enlightened beings may exist outside of time, like the Tralfamadorians in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.
What about time travel? Well, it wouldn’t be necessary if everything is now. If your point of departure is also the destination, time travel is irrelevant to the discussion . . . I think. Maybe total awareness is what people without it would perceive as time travel. I’m giving myself a headache.
In a recent PBS series, “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” astrophysicist Brian Greene brings us up to date with current thinking. Science is continually evolving, as older theories are supplanted by newer ones. The String theory of the 1970s and 1980s gave way to Superstrings around the turn of the millennium, and today everything seems to be about membranes. I guess it’s natural to expect that evolution would occur in science. In one of the episodes, Greene talks about the idea of the arrow of time — past, present, and future — may be illusionary. He goes on to illustrate how they could all be the same. It’s comforting to know that the greatest minds in modern cosmology have finally caught up with me.
The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.