Picture the bow of a small sailboat cutting through water. The sea is time: it is everywhere simultaneously, not a linear set of co-ordinates. I may chart a course, but the lines I draw do not exist except in the abstract. There are no lines upon the sea. The boat momentarily pierces the water which promptly closes behind; the waves, spray and wake, like the traces of existence, quickly return to the sea – they are the sea.
All we have is this present moment, this disintegrating present. The future does not exist, it is not a place, even though we may imagine people and anticipate events in the future (which, in fact, is but another present, a present which for me, in this Now, is not yet in this present). The imagining itself is the complex, creative play of synapses, electrical exchanges and neurons in the brain and, if you will, the soul of the individual anticipating an abstract “future”. Neither does the past exist – not as we “see” it through the lens of memory, history and imagination. We have memories of a present that is no more; we have books, films, carvings, paintings, artefacts and fossils – all of which evidence “a past” which, in fact, was a present that is no more. And our stories – whether individual narratives or the larger metanarratives of society – are themselves heuristic constructs, a fictitious weaving together of the details of multiple “presents” which are no more. This is not to say that the past is fiction, but that the act of weaving – the telling – is contingent rather than empirical. Different histories may be written, and are written. (Revisionist historians continually call into question the sacrosanct “histories” of peoples and nations. (“The Great Trek” is de-mythologized into a trek in a post’94 South Africa. Terrorists are transformed into freedom fighters…)
Philosophers and theoretical physicists have wrestled – and continue to wrestle – with the enigma of time: that there are two contradictory contemporary positions, namely that time does not exist (c.f. Albert Einstein) and that time does exist (c.f. John Polkinghorne), indicates how the enigma remains unresolved. My favourite writer on the subject is the Russian existentialist religious philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev. My thoughts about time are very much formed around his own (although I am nowhere close to grasping his ideas in their entirety). Again I return to the bow of the sailboat analogy where we have only the “cutting“. We have only this Now, this existential moment which immediately fragments into the past which is only real as a remembered present, and in its “ossification”. By ossification I am trying to express something Berdyaev articulates far better than I. Think of Stone Henge: The megalithic structure remains as a tangible testament to a-present-that-is-no-more in which the stone circle was imagined and designed by living human beings. The great stones were quarried and dragged to Salisbury Plain where they were erected in another present-that-is-no-more. For thousands of years people gathered there to perform rituals, each person in their individual and shared present-that-is-no-more. It is as profound as it is obvious: no one has ever lived in the past. Each of us – those of us who are alive in this moment, medieval man, the ancient Romans and back through “the mists of time”(which of course is a trope, for there is no ‘place obscured by mist’) have only ever known a Now with its accretions of memory preserved in myth, history, and the myriad forms of ‘ossification’.
It then follows that, for example, the existential event of a roman soldier dying on a battlefield in 100 AD is no “further” in the “past” that the death of a person in say 1943. We have an overwhelming sense of the distant past: there is the rust on the sword dug up by the archaeologist and the dating of the soldier’s bones evidence their age – but the living, breathing, sweating soldier – like you and I – knew no past as a past. His was a Now, a present-that-is-no-more. Ontologically speaking there is no difference between his Now, my Now, and your Now. Like his, our Now will also ‘pass’ and we will be looked at – whether in photos, home videos, diaries or in the memory of others – as “inhabiting” a past which will be “tomorrow’s yesterday”.
(From various web sources)
“change really is an illusion, because there’s nothing that’s changing; it’s all just there — past, present, future …
life is like a movie, and space-time is like the DVD… there’s nothing about the DVD itself that is changing in any way, even though there’s all this drama unfolding in the movie. We have the illusion, at any given moment, that the past already happened and the future doesn’t yet exist, and that things are changing. But all I’m ever aware of is my brain state right now. The only reason I feel like I have a past is that my brain contains memories… The essence of relativity is that there is no absolute time, no absolute space. Everything is relative.”
“Julian Barbour’s solution to the problem of time in physics and cosmology is as simply stated as it is radical: there is no such thing as time.
“If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers,” says Barbour. “People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.”
“Barbour speaks with a disarming English charm that belies an iron resolve and confidence in his science. His extreme perspective comes from years of looking into the heart of both classical and quantum physics. Isaac Newton thought of time as a river flowing at the same rate everywhere. Einstein changed this picture by unifying space and time into a single 4-D entity. But even Einstein failed to challenge the concept of time as a measure of change. In Barbour’s view, the question must be turned on its head. It is change that provides the illusion of time. Channeling the ghost of Parmenides, Barbour sees each individual moment as a whole, complete and existing in its own right. He calls these moments “Nows.”
“As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows,” says Barbour, “and the question is, what are they?” For Barbour each Now is an arrangement of everything in the universe. “We have the strong impression that things have definite positions relative to each other. I aim to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this idea of many different things coexisting at once. There are simply the Nows, nothing more, nothing less.”
“Barbour’s Nows can be imagined as pages of a novel ripped from the book’s spine and tossed randomly onto the floor. Each page is a separate entity existing without time, existing outside of time. Arranging the pages in some special order and moving through them in a step-by-step fashion makes a story unfold. Still, no matter how we arrange the sheets, each page is complete and independent. As Barbour says, “The cat that jumps is not the same cat that lands.” The physics of reality for Barbour is the physics of these Nows taken together as a whole. There is no past moment that flows into a future moment. Instead all the different possible configurations of the universe, every possible location of every atom throughout all of creation, exist simultaneously. Barbour’s Nows all exist at once in a vast Platonic realm that stands completely and absolutely without time.
“What really intrigues me,” says Barbour, “is that the totality of all possible Nows has a very special structure. You can think of it as a landscape or country. Each point in this country is a Now and I call the country Platonia, because it is timeless and created by perfect mathematical
rules.” The question of “before” the Big Bang never arises for Barbour because his cosmology has no time. All that exists is a landscape of configurations, the landscape of Nows. “Platonia is the true arena of the universe,” he says, “and its structure has a deep influence on whatever physics, classical or quantum, is played out in it.” For Barbour, the Big Bang is not an explosion in the distant past. It’s just a special place in Platonia, his terrain of independent Nows.
“Our illusion of the past arises because each Now in Platonia contains objects that appear as “records” in Barbour’s language. “The only evidence you have of last week is your memory. But memory comes from a stable structure of neurons in your brain now. The only evidence we have of the Earth’s past is rocks and fossils. But these are just stable structures in the form of an arrangement of minerals we examine in the present. The point is, all we have are these records and you only have them in this Now.” Barbour’s theory explains the existence of these records through relationships between the Nows in Platonia. Some Nows are linked to others in Platonia’s landscape even though they all exist simultaneously. Those links give the appearance of records lining up in sequence from past to future. In spite of that appearance, the actual flow of time from one Now to another is nowhere to be found.
“Think of the integers,” he explains. “Every integer exists simultaneously. But some of the integers are linked in structures, like the set of all primes or the numbers you get from the Fibonacci series.” The number 3 does not occur in the past of the number 5, just as the Now of the cat jumping off the table does not occur in the past of the Now wherein the cat lands on the floor.
Past and future, beginning and end have simply disappeared in Barbour’s physics. And make no mistake about it, Barbour is doing physics. “I know the idea is shocking,” he says, “but we can use it to make predictions and describe the world.” With his collaborators, Barbour has published a series of papers demonstrating how relativity and quantum mechanics naturally emerge from the physics of Platonia.
Barbour’s perfect timeless arrangement of Nows into the landscape of Platonia is the most radical of all solutions to the conundrum of Before. But his audacity reveals an alternative route from this strange moment in science’s history. In an era in which the search for quantum gravity has multiplied dimensions and the discovery of dark energy has sent cosmologists back to their blackboards, all the fundamentals seem up for grabs. Barbour is willing to step back even further and offer “no time” as a more basic answer to the question “What is time?”
This is an excerpt from Adam Frank’s book About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang_, newly available in paperback. It’s from a chapter titled “The End of Beginnings and the End of Time,” discussing radical alternatives to the Big Bang._
Not all physicists are ready to demote time to second-class status.
John Polkinghorne, a quantum physicist and Anglican priest, believes that the flow and direction of time are real and relentless. It is a “mistaken argument,” he said, to use relativity to assert that time is an illusion, “because no observer has knowledge of a distant event, or the simultaneity of different events, until they are unambiguously in that observer’s past. And, therefore, that argument focuses on the way observers organize their description of the past and cannot establish the reality of the awaiting future.”
Polkinghorne rejects the notion of the static block universe of space and time together. “We live in a world of unfolding and becoming,” he said.
Andreas Albrecht, a theoretical cosmologist; Huw Price, professor of philosophy at Cambridge Universpp
See more at: http://www.space.com/29859-the-illusion-of-time.html#sthash.c9S9kOG1.dpuf