CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice
It's About Time


This topic was suggested by a member of the TPUUF and presented there on March 20, 1994. The lines by Eliot (and otherwise unidentified lines) come from his poem Burnt Norton. Reading of parts of verses I, II and V as well as of an excerpt from Dandelion Wine (Ray Bradbury) were part of the program as well as the haunting Jim Croce ballad, Time in a Bottle. The closing words were by Gregory Benford (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept. 1993): "Only the past is truly knowable. Sometimes, though, not even the past is available - seldom do we preserve good records of people and events. The present is a millisecond wide, the future a fog. Or is it better to say that there is no single future? Rather, we can best regard the future as a set of possibilities."

"Time present and time past.
Time past and time future.
To be conscious is not to be in time, but only in time can ... (a) moment... be remembered.
Only through time(,) time is conquered."

These words by T.S. Eliot are both within time and outside of time: thought of and written down at a particular time but timeless in their contribution to our species' continuing meditation about time, about eternity and our mortality.

Let me tell you all that I know about time.




That's it folks: Neither I nor you nor you nor you really know anything about time. We live in it, we are surrounded by it, permeated by it, saturated by it, we owe our very sensation of existence to it but none of us really knows anything about time. In fact, we can only dimly perceive time, like seeing a black cat at night, by looking where it isn't, by thinking about those things which we can and do know.

For example, what is the difference between an hour past and an hour to come?

One answer: we can remember yesterday's hour but only imagine tomorrow's.

Let me tell you some "not" things, things "not" about time:

Time has no physical reality: We can't touch it, taste it, feel it, hear it, see it but still we mark its' passage.

Time can't be measured: Yet we have clocks, watches, a myriad of time pieces large and small in which we try to trap it, like fireflies on an August night.

Time has no weight: Yet in the end, we all are weighed down by it.

Time can't be saved: It passes.

To think about and talk about time, we must become, in a small way, physicists, since time and our understanding of it touches all aspects of the physical world. It is no small feat: Stephen Hawking, perhaps today's most insightful thinker about time, begins the concluding chapter of his enigmatic book, A Brief History of Time, thus:

"We find ourselves in a bewildering world. We want to make sense of what we see around us and to ask: What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did it and we come from? Why is it the way it is?"

"Why is it the way it is?" Hawking is telling us, in a sly, understated way, that to ask about the nature of time, is to enquire about the roots of our world, about our species' life experience, finally about our separate and individual consciousness of reality.

Thus we must also be philosophers and theologians, since time governs our coming in and going out, hides our origins in the unremembered past and shrouds our destiny in the unknown future.

So, for a few moments, as reasoning and reasonable Unitarian Universalists pursuing truth, let us be at once physicists, philosophers and theologians.

Today's physicists sound a lot like philosophers, even betimes like priests and ministers. In a way, this is a return to the roots of modern reason when physical, philosophical and religious thought were one; that is, physics was simply natural philosophy, that branch of philosophy devoted to attempts to understand the physical world. We think of science as involving laboratories and instruments, measurements and facts, but it still springs, as it always has, from conjectures, from the startling insight of rare individuals who look at the world differently than you or I. These insights have led great minds, such as Hawking, so far from our everyday sense of reality that many modern physics articles resemble ancient Zen texts.

But, perhaps, time is more properly a theological subject. Early societies lived by the sun, not the clock, by the turning of the seasons, not the calendar. In such an age, one rose at daybreak and retired when the light failed. The length of a day was variable: long in summer when much was needed to be done, short in mid-winter when the land and its' concerns slept. Hours, minutes, seconds, even milliseconds surely existed, if units of time can be said to exist, but were of no practical concern. As Christian religious observance became more organized and formalized, clocks were invented to mark the hours of holy obligation so that no service necessary to God or his Church would be tardy or overlooked. Recently, while watching the winter Olympics, I wondered whether time has not passed from being an aid to devotion to the object of devotion itself: What does it mean when four one hundredths of a second separate a gold medalist from a silver one, when arrival at the finish line a mere second late means consignment to the anonymity of history?

However, we owe most of our modern ideas about time to physicists, especially to Albert Einstein and to those, such as Stephen Hawking, whose thinking was illuminated by his conjectures.

It has become customary to speak of time as the fourth dimension: another dimension added to the three familiar spatial dimensions of the world about us. This description of time as a dimension can be traced most recently to Einstein's special theory of relativity, in which he proposes that this relationship:

x2 + y2 + z2 - c2t2 = 0

is invariant throughout the Universe.

As I said, thinking about time is difficult since it inevitably involves physics; as Hawking suggests, the physics of everything. What Einstein was saying is that, if we pick a point, say the corner of this room, measure the distance from that point to, say my left foot and again to your right hand, we can then form two relationships between those sets of measurements (in the three physical dimensions, the familiar width, breadth and height) and the local time at, respectively, your hand and my foot. Both relationships will have the same form, that given by Einstein. And both will be equally true.

The exponents, the twos, simply mean that is doesn't matter whether we consider distance or time to be positive or negative, since multiplying a positive or a negative number by itself produces a positive result. C is the speed of light which, by Einstein's surmise, must be a constant regardless of location or of movement of the observer.

This relationship, which Einstein probably first thought of some 90 years ago, is the line in the sand between the old or Newtonian physics and the new or Einsteinian (or perhaps Zen) physics. It is not possible for me to discuss all of its profound implications here, but let me quickly outline three results:

  1. Since the speed of light is fixed and constant throughout the Universe, the distance which light travels in a given time becomes a useful measuring stick. Thus it has become popular to speak of a light year: the distance which light travels in the time we call a year. A light year is an unimaginable distance: the nearest star, beyond the Sun, is more than four light years away; closer to our experience is a light minute. The Sun is just about eight light minutes away from the Earth. An interesting consequence of this fact is that we, standing on the surface of the Earth, can never see the Sun: even if we view it very carefully through special instruments. In the time it takes the sunlight to reach us here, the Sun moves about one diameter in its' apparent course, so we are looking at where it has been but not where it is.
  2. Time is not a universal constant phenomenon but a local relative one. I don't refer here to our habit of adjusting local time to match the apparent location of the Sun in the sky, but of true local time, a characteristic of where and when we are at the moment. Thus, while we know that it is not possible to be in two places at the same time, Einstein tells us that it is possible to be in two times at the same place. This can be best illustrated by the twin paradox: If two twins part at Cape Kennedy, one to dwell in a beach house, while the other leaves on a space ship to travel a great distance at very high speed, at a speed near that of light, both will perceive the passage of time (local time) to be the same but the traveling twin's hours and days will actually be longer relative to those of the stay behind twin. Or perhaps, we should say, the stay behind twin's time passes more rapidly. Thus, when the traveler returns, he finds that his twin has inexplicably aged. If the traveler moves fast enough, he may return after his twin has died of natural old age, although he himself is still young. If he travels still faster yet, if he could actually achieve the speed of light, then for him time would stop: Hawking conjectures that the whole remaining life of the Universe would flash by before the traveling twin aged another second!
  3. And finally, since negative as well as positive measurements fulfill this relationship, and since we can travel from, say Philadelphia to New York, and if careful and lucky, return, then we should be able to move backward as well as forward in time. That is, Einstein's conjecture can be interpreted to predict that time travel, travel to the past, or at least to our own past, is possible.

Of these three conclusions, the first, that the constancy of the speed of light can be used to measure distance, is now commonplace and quite useful, the second, that time is a relative, local phenomenon, has been demonstrated experimentally but the third, that time is reversible, that time travel is possible, eludes us.

One of the reasons we have for rejecting time as a dimension is that, unlike the spatial three dimensions which we can see and measure, we experience our passage through time internally. We can stand or sit still in a place, such as this room, but even with our eyes closed, time passes and we are aware of its passage. Roy Schieder, playing the hero in the film Blue Thunder (1983), believed that being able to sense the passage of time accurately was the first thing lost when one was on the way to losing one's mind. Perhaps mental derangement is a subjective form of time travel!

Whether we can accurately determine its passage, time passes, time passes and always, so far as we can sense, in the same direction. Sometimes it seems to pass quickly and some times painfully slowly, but we are always aware of its' seemingly one directional flow, even while we frequently get lost and have no idea of where we are in space.

This apparent one directional flow, often termed the "arrow of time," is predicted and encompassed in the the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law, or more properly principle, records the universal observation that heat flows only from hot to cold. As an immediate result, we know that disorder constantly increases and that the Universe, which probably started with an unimaginably hot and concentrated Big Bang will most certainly end in a very weak, diluted, tepid soup. If time were to reverse or to be reversible, then we would be able to see ice cubes forming out of lemonade as the drink itself became hotter. In the flow of heat, there is no exponential "two" to save us, direction matters and, as heat flows downhill, the arrow of time flies ever onward.

But perhaps, as Eliot implies, time does not fly or flow but is eternally present, that is, fixed and predetermined, and our experience of its' passage is rather that of our own passage through time. In the same way that a sphere passing through a plane, a croquet ball parting the surface of a pond, forms a series of cross-sections, of circles at the surface, which increase in size before shrinking and finally vanishing, perhaps we are fixed eternally in time, our life here merely a succession of experienced cross-sections, or instants, as we go about in these familiar three dimensions and, therefore, time is a true dimension. Perhaps our confusion about and incomprehension of time is similar to that which the inhabitants of Flatland, the two dimensional world invented by Edwin Abbott, experience when a sphere appears and attempts to preach to the local gentry of squares and pentagons the gospel of a third dimension, of the possibility of movement "upwards," rather than merely north-south or east-west. Perhaps we should look back, in a reasoned way, to our own Unitarian theological roots for illumination.

Thomas Paine held that "the choicest gift of God to man (is) the gift of reason."*It is from the exercise of reason that spring Einstein's, Hawking's and our own conjectures about the physical world, about human experience of it, and, most elusively, about the nature of time and its' apparent passage.

Paine viewed such conjectures as true religious practice, since he also held that "(t)he word of God is the creation we behold: and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man."

Thus, our conjectures about time may be considered attempts, in Paine's terms, to understand the word of, and thus the nature of, God.

Paine again: "This Creation speaks a universal language, independent of human speech or human language...It is an ever existing original, which every man can read." No wonder we hold him in high esteem as a co-religionist!

Paine goes further to make two astonishing assertions:

First, that we humans can invent nothing, since all things are present in the Creation. "Man cannot make principles, he can only discover them."

Second, that we can neither make or nor destroy anything, since all that can be done is to rearrange parts of the Universe according to its underlying given principles. Paine would have regarded the making of a grain of sand from nothingness a true miracle but he would have rejected its' reality, considered it a hoax, since he held that making was reserved to God and is embodied, once and inalterably, in the Creation.

Einstein predicted controlled nuclear fission, the destruction of matter leading to both the horror of the bomb and the blessings of nuclear medicine, by conjecturing that matter (m) could be converted to energy (E) and vice versa:

E = mc2

But even he could not conceive of the actual, true destruction either of matter or of energy; thus, the total sum of mass and energy in the Creation is held to be constant and fixed.

By extension, therefore, humankind neither invented time nor can it affect times' passage.

Einstein's insights notwithstanding, Paine's view of physical reality still accords well with ours, despite two centuries of scientific progress and an explosion of human knowledge.

Let me end this section with a longer passage, also from Paine's famous essay The Age of Reason, which brings us to one of the great puzzles in our understanding of time:

"The only idea which man can affix to the name of God is that of first cause. And incomprehensible and difficult as it is for a man to conceive what a first cause is, he arrives at the belief of it from a tenfold greater difficulty of disbelieving it. It is difficult beyond description to conceive that space can have no end; but it is more difficult to conceive an end. It is difficult beyond the power of man to conceive an eternal duration of what we call time; but it is impossible to conceive a time when there shall be no time."

"A time when there shall be no time." Central to the modern physicists' view of the Universe having begun with a Big Bang, perhaps 14 or 15 billion years ago, is the problem of time when there shall be no time. For was there time and what was the time, before the Big Bang? Before the Universe existed, there could be no light, no energy or mass, no causation and, therefore, time had no reality or meaning. Can there be time when no other dimensions exist, when none are present to mark its' passage? And will there be time and what will be the time after the Universe ends, as it most probably shall? We ask these questions simply, because, in our earthly experience, anything which has a beginning also most surely has an end.

All around us, we see the arrow of time and the effects of its' flight: We remember the past, experience the instant of the present and wonder about the future. Sometimes we have a sense, which we call deja vu, of knowing the immediate future before it arrives but this sense is now generally believed to be a simple trick of the mind, not evidence of true precognition. I have also, occasionally when extremely tired and traveling by air, had a sense of remembering the present from some time in the future, an experience which I call apres vu, but it too, sadly, is an illusion.

Time flows towards us in a great river, out of the future over the edge of the present and then down, away into the ever dimmer past. The seasons turn, grass rises, flowers bloom, fruit sets, ripens, falls and rots. Children are conceived, are born, grow up, grow old, die. We each have a personal sense of the flow of time, of our own mortality, of the impossibility of retracing our steps, of ever stepping twice in the same place in the river of time.

Oh, if we could only put time in a bottle! If we could store up days of wonder and delight, to be savored in latter times, like dandelion wine!

But, as the bumper sticker says pessimistically, "Life's a bitch, and then you die." Or, more optimistically, as Dylan Thomas wrote in Fern Hill:

"Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

"Time held me green and dying, through I sang in my chains like the sea." It is the green time and the sure sweet certainty of death which together give meaning to life. If we were to live forever, in the first perfect April morning, in a land in which the sun neither moved nor died, in a land without hunger, thirst or desire, without need, want or loss, we would truly be forever green and undying, but frozen in the instant, unchanging and unchangeable, like a fly in amber.

It is the wonder of the passing of the instant, of that infinitesimal moment pinned and framed between past and future, which has merit, has savor:

"Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always--
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after."

It is the passage of time, the passing of time, the pastimes of our lives, the singing in our chains, the striving and wanting, the trying and failing, the long anticipation and the brief rewards, the instant between gold medal and oblivion, which give meaning to life, which prevent our being trapped in a constant meaningless moment.

Let me tell you all that I know about time.

Nothing but this one thing:

Without time's arrow, without "the quick now, here, now, always--" life would not be worth the living of it.

Blessed be.