Back in the day when I was a licensed Baptist minister at the wizened age of seventeen, I was told that you should try to make all your sermon points start with the same letter, although I think the title of this blog post just did that because the words share common roots.
I was also told that it’s good to open with a story or an illustration, so….
Imagine, if you will, an empty glass. I almost always have one at my desk; I drink the water while I do other things, go back upstairs to refill it, bring it back down – it’s the circle of life.
If you were to say, “This glass is empty,” it would be weird and pedantic to point out that the glass is not truly empty. It would be accurate to do so, however. Not only does the glass have little bits of dust and moisture in it, it’s full of air. We do not perceive the air, and therefore we usually don’t take it into account in our language. If two people are standing in an empty room, we say there is “nothing” separating them. While this is true in a common usage sense, it’s not true in an ontological sense.
But there’s more that could be said about our glass full of air, because both the glass and the air consist of molecules. The glass’ molecules are tightly packed together; the air molecules are more dispersed. These molecules are made of atoms. These atoms are made of subatomic particles. We can keep drilling down until we get to Planck. At some level, both the glass and the air are simply small particles, heat, motion and configuration. The glass and the air are a specific event, in that sense.
None of this suggests that the glass and the air are not real or things we can’t distinguish. If I throw the glass at your face, the effect will be markedly different than if I throw a handful of air at your face. At our experienced level of reality – the reality-for-us level – there is a glass and there is air.
At the same time, though, we acknowledge that these distinctions largely come from what we do and don’t perceive. If we were capable of seeing all matter at the subatomic level, we would not see a difference between the glass and the air. Or, maybe a better way of putting it, we would see that the glass and the air were not different kinds of things but were rather differing configurations, movements, collections of the same thing. At that level, there is no glass and there is no air; it’s only our coarse-grained perceptions that present them to us in this way.
Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
– Boy to Neo in The Matrix
In the movie The Matrix, the characters live in a world that is completely generated by their brains processing electrical signals. I would like to point out that, for all practical purposes, I have described our world as well.
Inside the Matrix, we (the audience) know the world is a fictional construction because they tell us in the story. This is the main conceit of the film. People living in the Matrix would normally have no clue that they are hooked up to machines because their brains are being fed “perception signals” that makes them see what the robots want them to see.
At one point, Cypher is looking at a monitor streaming code, and he tells Neo that, when he looks at the code, he sees various people and objects. At their most fundamental level, all of these objects are composed of the same stuff. Cypher has the ability to see the “stuff” and also recognize the configurations. At a later point in the movie, Neo develops this ability as well – to see the world around him as particular manifestations of the same raw materials (computer code, in this case).
On one level, there is a lady in a red dress in the Matrix. There are dogs. There are cats. You can be cruel to people in the Matrix. You can kill them. You can jump from rooftop to rooftop. There are cars.
On another level, there are none of these things. All of them are simply configurations of code, and that same code could easily describe a completely different kind of object if arranged in a different way.
What makes this concept so compelling is how very much like the actual world this is.
Our perceptions enable us to deal with objects, animals, and other people in the world, which is a good thing because survival kind of depends on it. Also, you might discover you have fewer friends if you decided to treat everyone and everything in your life as an arbitrary configuration of molecules that could just as easily have been something else.
So, these objects are real. There is nothing wrong with talking about glasses, air, basketballs, spouses, kittens, etc. But we also know and relate to these things due to the limits of our perception. Again, if we could see all these things at the subatomic level, it would all seem like a frenzied dance of particles to us. We would realize, then, that our empty glass is simply how I as a perceiver observe and relate to that particular configuration of all molecules. Molecules which, I might add, will one day belong to other objects and not this glass.
Because this idea of an empty glass is so tied to my perception of it, there’s a degree of relativity involved. If I called my neighbor on the phone and said, “Hey, make sure you don’t knock over my glass,” they’d have no idea what I was talking about. They do not perceive my glass. My glass is over here. This does not put the reality of the glass into question, but it does mean that I can’t talk to my neighbor as though they are experiencing my glass.
To make the relativity clearer, imagine a race of giants so enormous that our entire solar system would fit on the tip of one of their nose hairs. Is my glass anything to them? Or is it a particle so small that it would never enter into their perception? When one of them says, “I trimmed my nose hair,” that’s an act of hygiene to them. To me, it’s destroying galaxies.
When you brush your skin with your fingertips, you are raining food from heaven down upon an innumerable host of microorganisms.
Speaking of, imagine a being so tiny that they moved between the empty spaces between molecules. Would they know about my glass? Would it seem glass-ish to them? Well, no, they live among the molecules and would be blissfully unaware that their entire universe ultimately coalesced into my empty glass.
If you’re still reading, you’re probably quite rightly wondering where I’m going with all of this. Bear with me for a bit more road.
I have talked about how the nature of space is made up of tiny particles in varying configurations agitated by heat and transferring heat. This is a fundamental idea underlying physics.
What you may not be aware of is that this isn’t just a property of space, but also of time.
Although it may see counter to our intuition of time, time (or more accurately, spacetime) is composed of particles that, agitated by the transfer of heat, are arranged in certain configurations. We do not perceive these particles; we only perceive the configurations at a very coarse-grained level. This is where our perception of events comes from.
I admit this can sound a little weird at first. It’s one thing to say that this inch of road is a certain configuration of particles, while that inch of road is another, and so on and so on for miles and miles and miles. It’s another thing to say that this present instance is composed of a certain configuration of particles and so is the next on and on for billions of years. As you can see, it would also be virtually impossible to talk about this “instant” without being able to talk about the materials that exist in this “instant,” and that’s another way of seeing that talking about space and talking about time are getting close to pretty much talking about the same thing, just experienced differently.
As heat transfers occur between these particles, new “events” are generated. The fundamental fabric of the universe, as far as we can tell today, appears to be an endless succession of heat-catalyzed changes, moving from lower entropy to higher entropy.
The raw, subatomic materials of the time of my birth and my death and me typing this blog all exist in the universe right now, and there’s no inherent, objective reason why I shouldn’t have died before I was born or why I don’t age backwards Benjamin Button style. All we know is that the particles do not tend to configure themselves in that way.
There are theoretically possible universes where that sort of thing is exactly what happens. There are theoretically possible universes that are devoid of heat and time stands still. There is no equation of physics (with the possible exception of heat transfer itself) that doesn’t work just as well if time “flows” in the opposite direction.
The kicker is that our experience of time, just like our experience of space, is completely controlled by what we can and cannot perceive. If we could see space at its most granular level, we would see that there is no difference between objects. If we could see time at its most granular level, we see that there is no difference between events; there is no past, no present, no future – not at the fundamental, building-block level.
This does not mean that time is an illusion. My glass is not an illusion; it’s real. It’s real, however, only within the context of my perception of it. I operate at a level of perception where glasses are things, but our little molecule man living in the empty spaces between a couple of silicon dioxide molecules doesn’t.
What experiments we can do with time bear this out. Time moves faster in the mountains than it does at sea level. Time moves slower on trains that it does on bicycles. Time is slower around more massive objects than less massive objects. I could fly through space for a few years and come back to Earth many years into its future.
Time is relative to your point of reference. Time is relative to your experience of it.
“But that’s ridiculous,” you might counter. “Cause and effect happen. Things happen after other things. I can remember the past, but I cannot perceive the future.”
Yes, all those things are true and real (maybe even the part about me being ridiculous), but they are true and real according to the way human beings perceive time. You and every other human is a human perceiving time the way humans perceive time, and we deal with it at that level. But that’s not the only level. It seems silly to think of my glass as a seething mass of particles, too, when it’s so clearly a solid, continuous object. But at another level, it’s not at all.
So, again, where am I going with all this?
I want to say at the first that the relativity of time and space is A) not new, and B) not an excuse to throw the doors open wide to making all claims credible.
At the same time, it does make one wonder if some of the powerful themes and intuitions captured by religion aren’t turning out to say more than perhaps anyone thought at the time.
Some of these are more direct. For example, St. Augustine in Confessions boldly declares that the only view of time that makes sense is a human being’s mental activity of holding together instances of the past and imagining the future.
But consider this: the Judeo-Christian tradition has, theologically, grown into two ideas of a judgement. One judgement, you experience immediately after death. Another judgement is at the end of all history. So, which is it? Is a person judged when they die or at the end of history? Or do you get sent somewhere when you die only to be yanked out and sent back there after being judged, again?
Or, is it possible that we can talk about what happens to us after we die according to the way we would reckon it with the way we might currently perceive it, but there’s a level of perception at which those are no longer two, separate events?
Come to the topic of death, should I fear death? Because, apparently, I’m already dead. My death is already etched into the raw materials of the universe right now, and we’re just waiting for my (and all the rest of humanity’s) perception to discern it. Waiting for that configuration to emerge before us.
When viewed that way, I understand that I can’t really be afraid of death. What I fear is loss, and although that hurts, it also shows me that I love and am connected to those relationships whose loss I prospectively mourn.
But at the same time, those relationships are etched into the raw materials of the universe, too. My sons being infants is not a brief flash in the pan of history that has gone forever; that stuff of that time is actually still out there, reconfiguring into new designs and, theoretically, still reproducible – just like the atomic configuration that makes up my glass and the one that made up St. Augustine. I have not and cannot lose anything forever. Perhaps the notion some religions have of reincarnation, past lives, etc. are theological ways of portraying the raw notion that no instance of time ever dies; it simply gets reconfigured.
And, if there is a Being out there who could either by direct control, indirect influence, or by simply allowing the seemingly-random patterns inherent in the fundamental design to play out and configure and reconfigure the raw materials of time and matter… well….
Who knows what worlds are possible?