Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dao of Time

I like to watch cheesy science fiction shows and some of my favourites come from the "Stargate" franchise.  A while back I watched a rerun and found myself thinking about some things.

The plot involved a woman finding an ancient time machine and using it to go back 10,000 years in time to visit an advanced race of people who had built an ancient city.  In her time, she was part of a group of explorers who discovered the abandoned metropolis, but in doing so set in motion a process that resulted in the destruction of said city and the death of everyone else in her group.  In order to prevent this from happening, once she settled in among the original inhabitants she made some changes in the way the city was organized and put herself in slowed-down animation so she could come out and do some maintenance from time to time over the ten thousand year wait.  The plan worked, when the expedition arrived, its members didn't destroy themselves.  Eventually they found the woman in her preservation capsule, but by then she was the equivalent of 120 years old and she died soon after explaining what had happened.

There are two interesting points that the episode brings up.

First of all, the people who built the city were talking to the time traveler and going about their lives just as if the future wasn't known or even of concern.  This makes sense, but jars against my intuitive understanding. If someone comes from the future, then the people in the past are already dead.  Moreover, their lives have already been lived.   But yet they eat, talk, make decisions, have dreams, etc.

Secondly, the woman who lived out her life in a pod that slowed down her aging explained her situation to the younger version of herself that survived because of the work she did to prevent the catastrophe.  This younger expressed regret that the older had lost her life sitting in slowed down animation.  But the older one refused to accept this interpretation.  "No, you are me.  I still get to live a full, rich life.  We just did this thing in order to save everyone else."

What I'm wrestling with here is how we understand "time".  I think that insofar as most people think about time, the see it as some sort of "one damn thing after another".  But when I was at university I came to the conclusion that it makes more sense to think of it as another dimension.  Think of it as something like a ruler with a cursor point that slides up and down the index, like an old-fashioned slide rule.

The line on the transparent piece of plastic is how we experience the "now" of existence.  But that doesn't mean that all the stuff that has happened in the past has ended or the future doesn't exist at all.  Instead, we are just being aware of the "now" at any given point.  

The "nowness" was what the aged woman was getting at when she told her younger self that she was going to live a full rich life through her counter part.  She understood that for everyone----time traveler or not----all we experience is NOW.  The past is a memory and the future is anticipation.  And as modern science tells us, even memory is to a large part as much a created, illusory experience as our anticipation of the future.  So it is literally true that the physically separated body of the time traveler has as much connection to the younger woman before her as if they shared the same body instead of two identical ones.  

I first seriously thought about this issue when I came across some essays by philosophers who were trying to undermine naive assumptions about life.   Two arguments come easily to my memory, so I thought I'd share them.  

The first is a response to the question of "What evidence could we have that time is a spacial dimension?"   Briefly stated, the argument starts out by asking how a being who inhabited in two dimensional space would be able to conceive of three dimensions.  The answer is to think about congruent triangles which look different.   

These two triangles have the same angles at the corners, and could easily have the same length of sides (this was the best example I could easily find), but they are different.  That's because they have been "flipped" through a third dimension.  That is to say, if they were actual pieces of cardboard to make them overlap perfectly (assuming they are the same size), you have to turn one of them over.   This is how someone who lived in just two dimensions might begin to think that there is a third dimension beyond the two he perceives.  In a similar sense, if you look at your two hands---left and right----you know that they are the same.  Yet, they are very different.  One is the mirror image of the other.  The argument is that they are the same but "flipped" through a fourth dimension.

The second argument comes from a question that immediately comes to mind when we think about time as a spacial dimension.  We can easily change our direction and go back in space, why can't we do the same thing with time?  The answer comes from thinking clearly about what we mean when we decided to "reverse our gears" and move backwards.  When I decide to turn around and go backwards I'm actually doing nothing of the sort.  In fact, what I am doing is going forward in a new direction.  Indeed, "backwards" is a totally a subjective definition.  It has to do with what particular direction we arbitrarily describe as where we want to go.  If we look at things this way, it seems to me that our inability to go backwards in time is no more odd than our inability to go backwards in space.  
Nicolas of Cusa

Most people reading this will probably think that what I am talking about is about as important as the old medievalists debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  But a book I was assigned to read at university got me seeing this sort of thing in a different light.  Said book, On Learned Ignorance by Nicolas of Cusa,  (you can read a translation here) goes through a range of confusing questions and suggests that a little humility is a good idea when it comes to understanding the world around us.  I find that when I contemplate things like the nature of time a similar humility presents itself to my consciousness. 

This sense of humility has recently come to light from following various "skeptical" blogs and discussion lists that I spent some time following a while back.  While I've always been interested in organizations that debunk a lot of the bunkum that we can find in everyday life, such as "truthers", anti-vaccination types, etc, I have noticed a really arrogant tendency of various supporters to "dumb down" and dismiss any understanding of the world that doesn't fit into a simple, 19th century materialistic reality.   One example that really got me thinking about his was a blanket dismissal of the whole category of "organic agriculture" that degenerated into a sort of "frat boy pile on" once I suggested that while the term is ambiguous, many important things in life are not easily defined.   One particularly brilliant response to my suggestion was when a fellow suggested that someone once offered him a dog turd which was fine because it was "organic".  Alas, I have come to believe that there is not much difference between many "true believers" in skepticism and those supporting many other dogmatic belief systems.  

The Daoist Zhuangzi obviously connects to this sort of thing.  His book is full of discussions about how little it is we actually know about the world around us and how much humility we should have about what we know.  Some of his analogies have become part of the universal culture of the world, and illustrate the limits of our understanding.  He was the man who said that he didn't know if he was a man who was dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.  He also suggested that what we know about the world around us is as limited as that of a frog who has spent it's entire life at the bottom of a well.  Thinking about time helps me remember this important point.  

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