Time. It might be reasonable to assume that of all the things that are necessary to understanding the human condition, time might be one of the most fundamental and important. Yet, there seems to be no good answer to what it is. Measurements have been created for it, and there certainly is no lack of experience of it, but still there is no actual understanding of it. It seems almost as much illusion as reality.
There is the future, that is, all the things that have yet to occur, all of that which is in front of us. Everyone agrees that it is approaching, inevitably. Relentlessly. Unstoppable. Even if there are good reasons to wish that the future not arrive, it will, at the precise second that it is supposed to. And there is no force in nature that can prevent it. The irony is that it is almost universally agreed that the future does not exist. The future is only a potential, a theoretical construct, a clever turn of phrase to describe the void. Even if we allow our imagination to fill the future with a myriad of possibilities, in mathematical parlance, it is a null set.
But it comes, quickly or slowly, welcomed or not. It comes in exactly the number of hours or minutes or seconds as you reckoned it would, always precise, despite the inexplicable elasticity of such things as minutes and seconds. The future is always a minute away, but how long will that be? It may be an eternity if the future is supposed to bring relief for a searing pain, or it may be all that remains of a cherished life, the desperately short chance to say all the things that need saying before that last kiss goodbye. It comes, and it arrives when the moon is high, when the sand falls to the bottom of the hourglass, the town clock strikes three, when the big hand reaches the six, at the exact moment when the digital display on the coffee maker changes to 7:15 a.m..
The future becomes the present and the present becomes the past in a process that occurs instantaneously. By the time it is seen or heard, the present has already become the past, and the irony is that while the past is filled to overflowing with the things that have occurred, they are all inaccessible to anything but the memory, and the remembered past becomes as illusionary as the imagined future had been.
As ludicrous as it sounds, life then is simply the experience of the briefest moment when the future passes through the individual into the past. That present moment, that which is neither the nonexistent future nor the irretrievable past, is where life occurs. Obviously there are an enormously large number of these moments, and when they are strung together, like the photographic images laid out on a reel of film, it appears that we are moving through time. And while there are an enormously large number of these moments, it is a finite number. At some point, death, we will lose the ability to record any sensory impressions. The present will end, the future will remain empty, the past will stay inaccessible. Time will end.
It would be easy enough to argue that if the present is simply that extraordinarily brief encounter with the null set of the future rocketing through to the inaccessible past, and further if the human condition is such that by the time our senses have had the opportunity to observe the present, that present reality has already moved into the past, then life is something akin to sitting alone in a movie theater, watching a movie screen illuminated by a projector that has no film, and waiting for the bulb in the projector to burn out. Life then may be described as an empty future bursting upon an empty screen, awareness without recognition, nothing to remember, and death.
Empirically, that is wrong. Every human being knows that the present breaks upon the senses like a freight train, with sound so loud that it vibrates the heart, with startling flashing of lights, and the smell of diesel fires. Every human being knows that the present is capable of crushing life.
Empirically, every human being knows that the present is an opportunity is tamper with time. A baseball will travel inexorably from pitcher's hand to catcher's glove unless a piece of wood (some would say ash is best, others hickory or even maple) is placed at just the right point in space. If done properly and with enough skill, millions of dollars can be made.
Empirically, it can be seen that the present, if observed carefully enough, is not random. The present unfolds in such a way that patterns can be discerned. There are regularities in the experience of the present that allow for some very reasonable predictions to be made about what to expect from the future. Sticking a finger in a pot of boiling water has very predictable results.
There are various explanations for why these things are the way they are. One camp would argue that things are the way they are because that is the way things are. Life is one of the expressions of the way things are, and life will go about discovering the way things are and using that information to its own advantage until such time as things aren't anymore. This school of thought may be summed up as follows: things weren't, things are, things will end.
Another group would have you believe not that life is one of the expressions of the way things are, but rather all things are an expression of life. In this view, all things are the way they are in order to demonstrate life. In this view, the present is not simply the passage of an empty future into a meaningless past, nor is it the momentary encounter of a process begun in oblivion and destined for oblivion. In this view, the present is a moment of creation, a self portrait of life. The present is a set of building blocks that continually arrange themselves in patterns that guide life back to its source. In this view, each individual is called to participate in the creative process, moving the blocks to where and when they can to form a more perfect pattern. The passage of time then is a path from its source to its source. This school of thought may be summed up as follows: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
The "things weren't, thing are, and things will end" group and the "as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be" group have one thing in common: they each would agree that time is a construct. Time, and coincidently the universe, began some thirteen billion years ago. Everyone can rally around the concept that before time, there was no time, and at the end of time, there will not be any more. Time has a beginning, and time has an end. Uncomfortable with that much agreement, however, the "things weren't, etc." and the "as it was, etc." groups would once again return to arguing about what was before and after time.
For some then, if it was possible to stroll back to the very first moment of time and look on the other side of the moment, they would say that there would be absolutely nothing, or at the very least there would be absolutely nothing of any consequence to life here on this side of the Big Bang. Life is an expression of the way things are, and on the other side of the Bang, things weren't. Run all the way to the other end of time and stick your head through, and boom, the same thing. There may or may not be stuff beyond time, but as long as life is seen as an expression of the way things are, it doesn't really matter -- nothing beyond time can have any effect on life.
For others, what existed before time was life itself, the pure energy from which all matter came about. All matter in the universe comes from this pool of energy. Just as the effects of an atomic bomb are a graphic illustration of the conversion of matter into energy, so too the Big Bang and the resultant mass of the universe attest to the incomprehensible, seemingly infinite amount of energy that predated its existence. And since energy can neither be created nor destroyed, all the energy of this universe will ultimately find its way back to that pre-temporal pool.
The "things weren't, things are, things will end" people are indeed sensible, and they will admit that it may never be possible to see before the Bang, but see no reason to jump to unsubstantiated conclusions on the nature of things before time. On the other hand, there is no proof whatsoever for the "as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be's" contention that the energy of the universe is a directed, intelligent being, and for their part, they like it that way. Acceptance of the unsubstantiated is a tenant of faith.
Time will tell ultimately what the nature and fate of the universe truly are, but for the individual, the issue of time is much clearer. It is readily apparent at which point a person enters into time. At a specific, identifiable, uncontestable moment in time, a small piece of matter which if left to its own devices would have followed a natural course toward decline and decay suddenly begins a dizzying series of transformations that lead for no apparent reason to a sentient being. Life, and sentient life in particular, seems rather counter intuitive to a universe where everything else is cooling and slowing and dying. And yet, at least here, life flourishes, and a new individual steps in front of the future and experiences the present for the first time. In due time of course the matter that makes up the body through which the sentient being experiences time simply gives out. The legs no longer walk when asked, the hands no long grasp, the heart no longer beats, and the sentience has no choice but to allow the matter of its body to finally continue its journey of decline and decay. At that moment, the individual is released from time.
Before a certain moment in time, an individual does not exist, and after a certain moment, the individual does not exist. It sounds very much like the "things weren't things are, things will end" scenario, but in fact in the case of the individual, it is possible to go back and peek through the beginning to before. The individual is the result of millions of years of evolution, and even if the proximate cause of his or her existence is an indiscretion under the bleachers after the homecoming game, there can be no denying the necessary ordering of past events that led to the creation of that human being. An insanely large number of random and incredibly unlikely events needed to occur in the proper sequence in order to produce the reality of a sentient being.
In the "things weren't, things are, things will end" line of thought, the common thread in the production of a sentient being is things. Connections, some more tenuous than others, can be made from the present all the way back to the beginning. Current things are some manifestation of past things altered in mostly predicable ways. Oatmeal cookies, as wonderfully magical as they may feel on the palate, are easily demonstrated to come from a series of events that lead back to the flower, oats and raisins, and the flower, oats and raisins can be traced back to primitive plants, primordial ooze, and then elementally to hydrogen items and the plasma of the Big Bang. Life, then is chemically based fizzing as it were, the result of the correct Alka Seltzer tablet dropped in water.
Empirically, we sense that we are more than an Alka Selter tablet. Perhaps life, the tendency for matter to clump, grow and replicate, could be considered as part of the series of events leading from the Bang, but sentience can not. Sentience is the wrong stuff to have been the result of the Bang. In fact, sentience, as far as anyone can tell, has no stuff. Indeed, sentience exists only because the sentient beings of the universe recognize it.
Empirically, cogito ergo sum. There is at the core of sentient existence that which is aware, and while informed by the matter it inhabits, is different from it. It is that which can not be diminished even as the body is whittled away bit by bit. It is not the life that keeps the body animated; rather it is the capacity to see even life as different from being. It is the essence of sentience, the purest awareness of self. It is the thought of self. An idea.
In all of the universe there is no analog to the idea of self, but outside the universe there may well be. There exists throughout the universe hot pockets of creation where the turmoil of the Bang still seems fresh. Stars are still heaving and groaning, and black holes, in ways we still do not understand, are unraveling time and space, but nowhere are there strings of proto-sentience adrift. Nowhere are there pools of elemental ideas waiting for lightning to strike to give them life. But it could be argued that prior to the Big Bang, that that was, on the grandest of scales, was the purest awareness of self.
Religions of the world have spun fantastic tales about the human encounter with this cosmic self awareness; grand rituals and enormous structures have been built to stage encounters with its energy. Yet with what is almost laughable simplicity, each individual human confronts the absolute truth about the nature of the universe with each encounter of the creative act of the present moment.
There is almost a comic nature to the human condition, a kind of dog-chasing-tail aspect to living. The human sentience relies on the senses of the body to inform it of what is happening, yet by the very nature of perception, once something is perceived and the information moved to the mind, the present is now past and the future has already arrived. Like an electron that circles the atom, we are held in place by forces that we can not fully comprehend, desirous of grounding in the present but unable to resist the lure of the past and the future.
We are capable of abandoning ourselves to the present. We have had the experience resting in the peace and beauty of the moment of creation, unconcerned by what may come, untroubled by what has been. Our youth is spent there, on those endless summer days when nothing is as important as the immediacy of the sun and the feel of grass on bare feet, when the color and motion of the butterfly tells us what we need to know of life, when the warm breeze is the breath of the universe on our skin. In our youth, the present is easier for us to find, because we have not learned to worry about the future we can not control, nor are we burdened with our past.
As adults however, we drift further and further from the present. We become endlessly busy with trying to manipulate the future and mourning our past, and the present slips quickly and inconveniently away.
I believe that this is the result of the original sin. Paradise, creation of the present as it was intended by the Creator, was not sufficient for us. We wanted control, we wanted to remake the present to our liking, and God granted us our wish. We abandoned Hope, the trust that what will be will be good, and we discovered Despair, the anguish over the consequences of our actions. Burdened with the responsibility we so jealously wanted, we retreated from the present and increasingly dwelt in the illusionary future and inaccessible past. Credo in hoc, this I believe.
But there is no need to take my word for any of this. There is no time like the present to enter into the debate, to decide for yourself if what is is ordered by anything other than the clever clockwork of physics. In just a moment, creation will unfold in front of you and you will have the opportunity to experience it for yourself. The present will break upon you like a wave, and the universe will manifest itself to you. Embrace it. Allow yourself to become awash in it. Allow it to display to you in all its giddy beauty and anoint your senses with the exotic. Be drawn, if just for a moment, into the very idea of creation, and consider, if just for the moment, that by this very idea you were conceived.
And I confess to you, O Lord, that I am still ignorant as to what time is. And again I confess to you, O Lord, that I know that I am speaking all these things in time, and that I have already spoken of time a long time, and that "very long" is not long except when measured by the duration of time. How, then, do I know this, when I do not know what time is? Or, is it possible that I do not know how I can express what I do know? Alas for me! I do not even know what I do not know. Behold, O my God, in your presence I do not lie. As my heart is, so I speak. You will light my candle, O Lord my God, you enlighten my darkness.
-- The Confessions of St. Augustine
Originally appeared 2011-01-31.