[One of the main reason’s I decided to move the site over to Pajamas Media was so that I could post some of my Afterburner video commentaries as mini-essays. Some of them are more timeless than others, and this one — literally — is the most timeless of all. It has been slightly re-written to bring it to the printed page. The “printed” page. We need more new words!]
Now just for the sake of this discussion I’ll tell you that I’m writing this on the afternoon of Friday, December 19th, 2008. It will get written to some sectors of a hard drive somewhere, to remain hopefully forever, a precious, precious gift to future generations.
I mention all this crap because I thought I might say a few words about time.
Humans may be the only animals on Earth who really perceive time… did you know that? I have heard that animal researchers say that dogs and cats have short-term memories of about 5-30 minutes or so. But I’m told – and I hope this is true – that when you leave your pets for the day or a weekend, they don’t have any real idea of how long you’ve been gone, and they don’t seem to be capable of the idea that you are coming back at some point.
No frontal lobes, you see?
But they clearly are sad when you are gone, and happy when you come back. But if you could ask them how long you’ve been away, they’d probably answer, “You’ve been away?”
They live in the now. You’re either there, or you’re away. And I can tell you, by the way, that as someone who experienced complete amnesia for about an hour, that for humans, the inability to tell when and who is about as terrifying an experience as you are likely to have, short of being shot at or chased by wolves or whatever.
The problem with reading the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. Sounds flip, but it’s actually pretty profound. For instance, on any date prior to September 11, 2001, the date September 11 – nine / eleven – had no more meaning than say, May fifth, or June 30th. There’s that awful worry that amateur historians like myself have, and that is: what will the next black day be? Will I live to see it? Will April the 17th become four-seventeen, exceeding nine-eleven in horror many times over? I hope and pray not. And I am daily grateful to the men and women in uniform and in the intelligence services who live in daily discomfort or obscurity trying to prevent black days, when they should be glorified and praised to the rafters.
Science has a problem with time, too. In fact, many cosmologists say the entire idea of time is an illusion. This stuff around us is four-dimensional matrix called “space-time.” We perceive it as the dimensions of space, and a separate one of time, but that might simply be a limitation of our three-dimensional perception. What we perceive as time may simply be us traveling along an axis we cannot see. When you get up and walk to the kitchen, that is likely just one very short segment of the four-dimensional ‘worm,’ that flowing outline of your body’s movement through space and time. If you imagine yourself walking through a tunnel filled with Jell-O, the shape of the hole you make would be what your body looks like in four dimensions. Since we cannot perceive the fourth dimension directly, we see individual three-dimensional snapshots run in sequence through the fourth dimension, which we perceive as time.
Both the past and the future feel like an illusion, but that’s just because we can’t perceive them directly any longer. The best scientific analogy of time I’ve heard for this effect was this: time is like a record groove. Remember those? Grooves on records? It’s like a track on a CD – oh, wait – they’re obsolete too. Anyway, for you old-timers like myself: the song would be etched into a piece of vinyl, and the needle would vibrate to those little waves and then produce the sound.
Now, which part of that record groove is real and which parts are illusions? Silly question – the entire groove is equally real. Well, that may be what time is like: the entire past and future of the universe exists, has existed, and will always exist. What we call the “now” is simply where the needle is. So what happened in the past is no more or less real than what is happening right —now! — Oh, you missed it. See, that’s the thing about the now. By the time you say now, that now is gone. It’s a new now, now.
So that’s how I choose to look at time: my free-will decisions have cut, have always cut, and will always cut, my own little groove into the four-dimensional fabric of space-time. And so I am determined to make my groooooooove as rich and exciting and interesting as I can. Because whatever I do in my life – according to this theory – has always been there and will always be there. That’s a profound thing to think about when you have nothing better to do.
Anyway, here I sit – where I have always sat, where I will always be seated – on December 19, 2008. And in that big groove of the Universe, and that little track on a hard drive back in the back of an office someplace, this is where I will always be.
Come back anytime. I could use the company. It gets lonely in here.