Last updated: Oct, 2021
A Philosophical Perspective on Temporal Perception
Our minds create the present moment to separate the past from the future, argues psychologist and author, A R Graham.
Time's Paradigm: PART TWO – Time
Does time flow? No one knows for sure, nor for that matter have we any idea where time might be going, if it does; whether it progresses or if, conversely, time is a stationary phenomenon and it is us doing the flowing through time. Something appears to flow, we perceive a sense of motion in time from one moment to the next and, yes, we can even measure the concept with time pieces. But isn't that just our minds making the whole thing up?
Our consideration of space is not much better: We can only relate our physical whereabouts and trajectory to other meandering bodies in the universe that are, like ourselves, equally confused. It's the best we can do, though gets us no nearer understanding where we are actually going.
As with space, our place in time is unfathomable if we cannot relate to a beginning or an end and all we have to perceive the flow of time are events flashing by. Pin-pointing a beginning of time is akin to denoting a stationary point in the universe... which is scientifically unacceptable. Pin-pointing the end of time would be like finding the edge of the universe. Huh!
Ironically, Physics asserts that there was a beginning of time, "The Big Bang", where existence and our universe first emerged. Presumably, therefore, they are inferring that time has since been progressing positively towards a distant, infinite horizon, possibly even an end.
That time flows in such a linear fashion from beginning to end, like a ruler, is rather old fashioned. It is much more likely that time – as with space – has no boundaries. In other words, time's passage is cyclical, thus solid, with no ends. Moreover, if viewed objectively, time would not flow at all.
In fact, The Big Bang fits nicely into this niche proposal if it is considered (below) that the past and future are devoid of space, only the present moment being fluid.
No great leap of faith required here. Space-time is curved, explains Relativity: Light has been measured to bend... gravitational waves distort and time to slow down.
Indeed, from a psychological perspective, time dilation makes sense. Time does not flow unless we separate the past from the future, slowing down time's instant passage to a manageable pace. And in that space our minds conceive between – the present moment – light propagates, flowers bloom, life is given reason. Consciousness makes time; it wasn't created for us...
(see How We Create Time's Flow below).
Few philosophers will offer a conclusive theory on The Passage of Time; even fewer scientists. How time flows, what it is and where it is going, are all up for debate. Moreover, many will argue time is merely an illusion, and yet it appears in some of our most grandiose astro-physics equations, so surely it exists...
We "conscious creatures" create a world around us to suit our needs and imagine this moment we live in as best we can. Yes, it is real to us, but what reality actually is may be far from the truth as we know it. Our brains interpret the world around us by means of senses – eyes, ears, nose, etc – and make up a scene for us in which to act. We perceive "Now" by means of biological stimulus and associative conditioning in an otherwise static environment, thus it is we that are flowing through time.
Everything is up for interpretation by our minds: Colour pigments are mixed by proximity to make varying shades that don't really exist; molecules are all stuck together to form clumps of recognizable shape depending on perspective. Red and white become pink, trees become mountains, and the moon is a dime in our mind's eye. It's all a confabulation – Isn't everything?
Consider that signpost in the image above, "The Future". It was made as a rectangle and then 'photoshopped' to produce perspective. Simply making one end narrower than the other fools our brain into thinking the sign belongs. Watching TV we see real people on a flat screen. We look through a telescope and see our cycling galaxy in all its glory. Just look at a slide under a microscope to discover a whole new universe.
A magician waves his hand about and the audience sees four fingers when really there were only three visible; the Mickey Mouse illusion. It is a common fact that humans will create reality if things don't add up or a key element is missing – we apparently need to make sense of madness... it's a comfort thing. Klaus Conrad conceived the term Apophenia to describe the necessary human trait of seeing meaning in things that really aren't valid, well... like, Mother Teresa's face on a muffin. Yes, as many psychologists will point out, by and large we actually invent the world around us.
But time is not the illusion. There is a past behind us and a future still to come. Eternity is all real; the magic is 'now'. All of time already exists in a static, Block Universe model established by cyclical time. There's no illusion to that imperceptible model... the illusion is only the present moment and how we make time flow.
Time flows on a conscious level, of that we can be certain, we evolved to make use of it. Here we are in "The Present", which is our moment of awareness, our sense of time. If conscious living beings such as ourselves were absent from this universe, time would still exist, would it not? But would the present? This question is an extension of French philosopher René Descartes' 'thinking': "Would anything be, without the mind?"
Without our conscious consideration of this present cursor to warrant purpose, time would have no meaning. History might exist, as might our destiny, but there would be no indication of how time flows.
Here's a simple analogy: All of time and existence is like a DVD; on its own, a flat, rather boring, nondescript piece of plastic. But when the laser hits it the TV explodes into magnificent flowing colour and action... In other words, existence is nothing without us. We flow through time; we make it happen.
There are a few. The first is a lovely, literary liberty describing a swath of history, an epoch, "There was a time," or eternity, "All of time..." used occasionally within these pages.
Secondly, we say, "Time to put on the kettle," here being used as another word for 'moment', referring to 'The Time' as measured by a clock.
Thirdly (as per dictionaries), time is invariably described as, a sequential and irreversible measure of period between events. This definition is on shaky ground, it relies on the premiss that the past and future actually exist, which is hotly disputed... (See the previous chapter, Destiny).
Eternity, which encapsulates the past and the future, should not really be classed as time. The present moment is the only true manifestation of time and that sense of flow we perceive.
Fundamentally, time is about change. There is a difference between the past and the future. From one minute to the next, things are altering their position, their form and their state, be they great celestial bodies or tiny atomic particles. If no change occurs, there is no need for time. In other words, if the past and the future are identical, existence does not occur, because there is no point nor reason for it being, and no place for it to be.
Space, it seems, is a prerequisite for time, because motion needs a playground in which to roam. These three phenomena are the cornerstones of existence; like our three dimensions, one cannot exist without the other two.
It's all or nothing with time. We need time's passage to contemplate everything.
Better said: We need "Now" to contemplate existence, thus dividing the canvass into a past and a future, creating a flow of time. This canvass is all of time seeming to exist at once, The Block Universe, as one branch of ontology hypothesizes and this proposal endorsed in the previous chapter – all of eternity already in place.
Time flows from our three dimensional perspective; but objectively, looking at existence from outside of 'Now', the past and future are a single, static entity. The present moment defines our three dimensions, being the fourth; it is what happens upon creating space, energy begins to flow.
Consciousness Creates Time
Blink rapidly and you will get a rough understanding of how our brains process life. That's how time works. The passing of time is like a film strip in our minds, with still frames being recorded at high speed. It is well understood that the human eye can capture between 30 and 50 frames per second and that our brains then meld those still frames into a single, smooth sequence of movement. Thus, with our eyes open we are constantly registering change at that rate and perceiving the flow of time. It's called the 'flicker fusion rate' (FFR).
Our minds use other senses, too, and process them by the same means. Awareness on any level has a flow rate dictated by our brains. We learn to appreciate it from birth and it becomes ingrained in our consciousness soon after.
Scientists have recently worked out that not all creatures see at the same speed. Pigeons, for example, may register change at double our rate per second, slowing down life for these fast flying birds, making it easier for them to spot a food source, land on a branch and avoid predators. House flies register an incredible 250 frames in a second, making time crawl by and your chances of swatting them with a newspaper nigh on impossible.
Nevertheless, all us creatures are missing a substantial chunk of what is available reality within one second – even flies. If there were a creature that could get close to seeing every part of a second, with a flicker fusion rate in the millions, from their perspective time would freeze up.
Such a creature above would experience time on pause, its entire life focused in one fraction of a moment. Time would cease to flow, coincidentally (perhaps) akin to the experience of an astronaut in a spacecraft approaching the speed of light, and hardly beneficial to the likes of you or me.
Moreover, a flicker fusion rate of millions would give the same result as that of a conscious creature at the other end of the scale, with a rate of one, where a single moment is all that would be experienced. As if both ends of this scale were actually one and the same – a cyclical model.
General Relativity predicted correctly that time flows faster under the influence of less gravity; for example, a clock on a high mountain ticks at a greater rate than one at sea level. It then follows that – all things being equal – a test subject with a flicker fusion rate of 38 in Florida, might experience a lower FFR in Denver, Colorado.
But it's not just gravity that may affect our rate of appreciation, brightness and colour variances have been demonstrated to alter perception of time's flow. The nuances of this phenomenon called FFR are only just beginning to surface following a host of recent cognitive science experiments. So wearing rose coloured glasses may affect your sense of time and thus your emotions in more ways than had previously been thought.
Scientists have tested the flicker fusion rates of a number of conscious creatures, from super fast flies to rather slow turtles. And, as is so often the case with science, both ends of this scale will no doubt one day surprise us. Geological time is measured in millions of years and often described to us for our encapsulation as though a thousand years were mere seconds in length. What if they were? It is entirely possible that a conscious entity might experience the flow of time super-slow, where a single frame of awareness occurs just once, say, every 250 years – or a Pluto year.
The suggestion that inert objects like liquids and crystals could possibly be attuned to time, or be in the least bit conscious, will strike most of us as silly. And it is, from our perspective. However, we should be cautious of considering that what we see and believe is the absolute truth (just ask a fly). While it may be the realm of fantasy to suggest that a conscious entity could be aware of mountains rising, continents adrift and ice-ages coming and going, our planet "Gaia" may well be more alive than we give her credit for.
Minkowski, the eminent physicist and brain-child of many of the elements of Special Relativity, considered the flow of time to be a passage through layers, as if a film strip stacked like a deck of cards. A physical manifestation of time rather than exposures being formed by the limiting aspect of our simple minds. Later, in Chapter 6. Travel, Minkowski's layers of time will be given a whole new meaning with the revelation of parallel universes.
What we are doing by being aware of time's flow at 30-ish frames per second is slowing down the periods between moments to a rate efficient for our purposes. This is not an illusion, it's how time works: a representation of a fraction of time's vast breadth. In order to see all of time, the processing power of our brains would have to be immense... infinite.
Alternatively, we can step back and look at time objectively, see it all for what it is, from the past into the future. But this would not be conjuring up a present moment in which we find ourselves duly confined. (More on this Bubble in Time below).
The Arrow of Time.
One could argue this: The mere fact that there is a difference between a past and a future, forces there to be a transition, and it is NOT our conscious consideration that influences the passage of time. Reaching equilibrium is a natural and well studied trend in nature, from osmosis to temperature and pressure neutralization, so a difference between now and then in time may just be a balancing act. Another word for which is, Entropy.
Entropy, or Time's Arrow, is one view of how time can be said to flow. Things break but they do not un-break. There is only one direction and that is towards chaos. Quantum Physics might disagree, as it likes to argue that sub-atomic particles may wish to do things in reverse; but on a macro scale we don't seem to be heading for birth. So, entropy is the redistribution of energy in time. It is described by the second law of Thermodynamics as the passing of energy from useful levels to ever less useful levels, in decline.
Whether this decline has a consistent and steady rate is yet to be determined. Entropy is said to increase with this redistribution process, from a state of perfection in the past and little chance of change, to a state of more possibilities due to more freedom in the future. This suggests progress, however it is a linear model of time's passage, where energy flows from a beginning (perfection) towards an end (chaos), whereas Time's Paradigm asserts that time, and thus energy, cycles.
Most modern conjecture on time revolves around Einstein's theories of Relativity, where Space-Time is the leading component. It insinuates time's irrelevance to some degree, but, by the same token, places time and space firmly together in formalizing existence. And that existence all began with "The Big Bang".
Recently, however, there has been quite a stir in science circles, and time has become the topic of much debate. Ideas range from: A Conformal Cosmological Cycle by Sir Roger Penrose, proposing that our universe must have existed before the Big Bang; to a more recent suggestion that two identical universes erupted from the Big Bang, one heading forwards, the other flowing backwards in time, thus providing equilibrium.
Indeed, Stephen Hawking questioned the concept of when our Universe began and has spoken of the quirky possibility that it might only have come into existence a few years ago, and that all our memories of before such a time are merely implanted – though it is likely he was simply making a point.
The Big Bang is understandably thought of as the beginning of time. So, where there is a beginning there is, by consequence, an end. Ending is relative to something that continues. Stopping means the prospect of starting – forwards or backwards? All these issues need reconciling, if we are to believe in the flow of time.
The arrow of time struggles in its pursuit. If time can stop here, then what is to say it cannot stop there, or there, or there..? Or stop for a moment and then proceed? The passage of time could come and go as it pleased. However, it appears to be a continuous, uninterrupted passage, with no complicated rules to address all these queries aforementioned.
If Cyclical Time can adequately round all these square pegs, where does that leave the Big Bang?
NB. From a philosophical standpoint, time cannot flow backwards in this universe. To use such a word implies an opposing direction of which there is none. Time may have a course – if such a notion can practically apply – but precisely retracing steps taken is impossible as this would run contrary to causality. Positive momentum occurs, there are no negatives in natural progression. One change in temporal circumstance does not create forward motion, except that, for our simple minds used to contemplating spatial displacement, we mistakenly define change as 'direction'.
In considering an expanding universe which may eventually collapse in upon itself, contraction would not be an identically opposite phenomenon. Deflating balloons do not collapse in reverse. Time flowing Backwards is thus a misnomer. But take away the notion of a passenger train and instead think of time as having dimensions, then the supplement below will have you reconsidering "the meaning of life".
Memories, Time Lines and Alternate Lives.
A cosmological cycle of time might conjure in the minds of some the supernatural idea of reincarnation, living our lives over and over again, the world repeating itself every so often. Unlikely. For afterlives and rebirth you'd do better acquainting yourself with mysticism and the Buddhist faiths.
The more likely case is that a reintroduction of matter in the Universe over time (billions of years?) will occur; however not necessarily all at once, as will be described in later chapters. Growth and nature might be somewhat similar in part, showing repetitive construction; but never will the universe repeat itself precisely nor, indeed, produce the likes of you or me ever again.
It is not merely that there is no such thing as a beginning or end of anything, it is that all particles that make up any small part of this cosmos have individual journeys leading to continuous reinvention at their own pace, which, if happen during our lifetime, are inevitably perceived as beginnings. Birth is a transition, as was the Big Bang – which we might liken to Phoenix rising from the ashes. Such a creation might happen anywhere and at any time in eternity. As motion is relative and thus objectively unrealistic, size is also bequeathed the same fate, this universe being nothing more than an excerpt of the whole granted us by our limited perception thereof.
Alternatively, we can re-consider Stephen Hawking's comment above, and question whether a few billion years is all that realistic. A cyclical progression for time, where the end meets the beginning and renders both void, might be just a few years long. The end could be minutes away, while the beginning might have been yesterday. In terms of designated moments in time nominated by humans, however, these points in cyclical time do not apply, and neither does the present – it could be anywhere.
Whilst we are conscious and aware of any given moment in time we also carry memories. It would make no difference to our consideration of the present moment if the end of today was connected seamlessly to the beginning of today rather than tomorrow, a one day loop, as imagined by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Our brains would not complain that we missed out on living tomorrow because we would wake up as always with all memories from yesterday intact... and we would live today over and over again with the same enthusiasm, unaware of the reality.
The irony is, wherever we are is "Now". Time exists in its entirety and we are conscious throughout the brief period we are alive... we cannot have two 'nows' just as we cannot have two measures of time. Being aware in the present moment feels right with the memories we have; it's a one-off experience.
So, much as we might like to, we cannot consciously skip over to another moment on our time-line because we would not have the correct ensemble of memories. Have you ever woken up in a hotel room and wondered where on earth you were... what day it was... and what you were supposed to be doing?
Having gone to bed in the dimness of an evening without contemplating your surroundings, you wake up lacking memories of what the hotel room looks like in broad daylight – and your mind is lost. That's all it takes to slip out of place, in time.
I remember my mother having dementia and slipping decades at a time through her long life, quite lucidly. One afternoon I would be her deceased husband (my father) and the next day I was her brother, the uncle I had been named after who had passed away years before I was born. The lack of association between environments made her passage to other times that much easier, a familiar face and voice being the most dominant features that played into the scene she was experiencing at the time.
Of course, it helped that the tea-set before us on her antique side table was the same one she had had for over 50 years, even though the house we were in was different. Then, of course, she did not actually slip back in time physically, only mentally. She did not occupy a moment she had occupied before – I don't think – but something very similar, without a doubt.
Memories, the blueprint for our existence.
You get up and go make yourself a cup of coffee. You come back and sit down with it. Now you wonder if you are still in the kitchen – though not your current consciousness – just as you might also be washing your mug in the sink sometime in the future even before you have drunk the coffee you are staring at.
Memories dictate. The mind may accept where it finds itself with some confusion but with very little aversion. It has to. It is designed to be aware, to submit to reason without challenge, whatever the conditions. We cannot say with any conviction that we are 'unconscious'.
It was Descartes' thinking that a body could not exist without the mind. Likewise, neither can the mind without its body. We cannot extract our consciousness from 'now' so as to become aware in another moment, the body must follow. To become unconscious in the act of dissociation before regaining awareness in the kitchen, would sever that bond, then still find us satisfied – with those memories we would have – that we are in the present moment.
We are conscious throughout time, now and in the kitchen, because there is no real distance between moments; it all happens at once. Except that our 'now' seems to feel like there is a before and after, a separation of events – a flow of time. Of course, the statement: "It all happens at once," is a falsehood; there is no other time by which we might measure the passing of our time. The correct term should be: "It is!"
Then there is physical distance. While the kitchen remains but a few meters from your current position in the sitting room, the kettle actually boiled a few million kilometers away. The familiarity with local settings imposed by our attachment to a speeding bullet – this planet – beguiles us into thinking that the ghosts of our past are just as close by.
To slip away and return to that past event in the kitchen is simply out of the realm of possibility, for those of us within time. Outside this universe there may exist other times with other conscious entities who would thus have the privilege of choosing a present moment in our time in which to settle.
Here's an analogy: Imagine observing two planets in an otherwise empty universe orbiting one another, their same sides always facing. Inhabitants would consider their worlds to be stationary, having no stars around to relate to. But we, from outside this universe and with our alien attributes, see a binary system in motion.
Our Present Moment - a Bubble in Time
No matter where we might be on our time-line, there is a procession within the passage of time, an order of events, because everything is connected. We call change time's flow, or arrow, but there is really no going anywhere – it is all already out there. Our consciousness opens up and blossoms like a flower within a solid, immobile landscape, creating the notion of space between things where none exists. The past and the future are devoid of space.
This universe functions as a closed system where time and distance can be conceived by advanced lifeforms as change, even though there is no change occurring. Like slicing a cake and finding two faces of the same reality. Moreover, this tare in the fabric of existence creates restrictions and paradoxes for binding forces where none would normally be – unfettered – such as a top speed for light, infinite space and gravity.
Why does light not reach an infinite speed? What reason is there for its velocity to be limited? It is sandwiched between now and then, trapped in a bubble of time; as if on a curved trajectory from the past to the future with no infinite avenue to pursue. It has a determined destination: the future.
That extraordinary bubble, the present moment we conjure, is an inconsistent truth, the order of things bent to accommodate impracticality.
Within this bubble time flows, but it comes with constraints imposed on freedom sided by the static potential of a past and a future. Eternity is held to account, obliged to offer us substance with which to measure our own existence. If the future did not exist, the speed of light would be infinite. If the past did not exist, there would be nothing for us to experience.
Observance creates reality, relativistic physicists accept this to be the case. But quantum physicists are grappling with the idea that the observer and the observed are entangled in a relative quandary. On the very edges of our bubble of 'now' there must ensue a battle for connectivity, where the past stretches out with a multitude of fingers, reaching for the future: The Multi-World Interpretation (MWI), see part 1. Destiny. One could liken the scene to molten mozzarella cheese being pulled from a pizza, our bubble the piece we are extracting.
A Universal Present Moment
So, when is now? We are aware in the present, and yet everything we experience in this so called 'now moment' is actually from the past. It takes time for sound to reach our ears, for light to reach our eyes; even for our brains to receive and process the feeling of the chair we just sat down in. So what exactly are we experiencing in whose present moment? Is there such a thing?
A few decades ago we would watch BBC coverage of an event in the Middle East, and the journalist on the scene was often having difficulty with the lag time between questions and answers. So were we. It would take a few infuriating seconds before she was able to comprehend what the Anchor was asking, and for us another nail-biting few seconds before we began to get her answer.
Imagine just how frustrating it must be for scientists controlling a rover on the surface of Mars!
Distances separate simultaneity. Information received classifies the present moment for each of us, regardless of origin. Many sensory deprivation experiments have found that our awareness of 'now' becomes dramatically distorted, even with just one or two inputs denied. Kidnap victims in solitary confinement suffer terribly as a consequence.
A lack of senses would render us completely unaware of time's flow. If we could not smell, hear, move, feel or see, we would have no sense of now. We would be as if in a coma. We would be a living entity with no conscious consideration, not unlike the vast majority of invertebrate creatures inhabiting this planet. We might still have our memories, some thoughts to occupy our mind. But our inner voice, the only cognitive operating process with the ability to flow through time and with which we cling to sanity, would eventually be in doubt.
Sleep and the sub-conscious is also a state in limbo. A dreaming mind has no use for time; though you might wake up and consider the dream you were in, it is difficult to be sure you or anyone else in that dream were actually moving, that time was actually flowing. To highlight, test subjects on awaking during scientific experiments have sworn they were dreaming for half an hour or more, whereas the monitors could see that the dreams they were having were just a few seconds long.
Close your eyes. You can probably project a purple light out in the distant darkness ahead of you – many people can – which may grow as you concentrate.
Now visualize a car on a road and demand it run forwards like a video. It won't... at least, not smoothly. It will progress in parcels which you may find end up altogether as one single, stretched out frame. Time does not flow in our closeted minds. We can recall memories of movement, the feeling of flow, and we can project that with our imagination on to a picture in our mind. But it won't move.
Real-time input is the only way to see how time flows. It is created by our minds in an effort to make sense of an endless cascade of data. We become aware. Foremost, conscious creatures recognize their existence. Awareness is about stopping to think, rationalising a set of parameters and then separating the past and the future from each other by sticking the present in between.
The Past is the Future.
We feel imprisoned by this present moment we have made for ourselves as we trundle blindly along towards the future. Looking out between the bars of our carriage window it seems we are seeing only the past wandering by. But that is not the reality. We are seeing messengers of light arriving from some time in the past, not the past itself. If we could see the past then we would also be able to see the future. There are past events that have gone before us just as there are others that have not yet arrived.
Light is the arrow of time. "This way," our master tells us, "there is nothing to see in the now," as arrows are falling all around our feet. We like to imagine our future coming towards us, but it does not; that is the past continuously arriving. As time goes by we see more and more past events, the longer we live the more of them we see. Not just things that recently occurred but things that happened years ago that have yet to reach us. The past appears vibrant, fluid and ever evolving – quite unlike the future.
The past comes at us from all directions. We look forwards but not into the future, as if from our bubble floating in the middle of a whirlpool, the future within us seeping out, the past without, swirling in.
And while we experience events from different moments as though they occurred simultaneously, all, in fact, are the future or the past unto themselves. Three travellers look up at a star streaming across the night sky that seems to beckon them on, while the cries of a new-born are heard from a stall in the little village up ahead. We receive it all as one glorious Nativity and yet it was an eternity in the making.
In every Today, we are witness to past moments from many millions of years ago. In fact, thanks to the telescope, we can see the history of the entire Universe unfold before our eyes, almost back to the Big Bang itself. Peering out into the Cosmos, we watch as if a video recording of a bygone 'now', whether a huge supernova event or the tiny variance of light from a distant star announcing the existence of an exo-planet. Light has guarded that moment on stream, conserved the event while it travels, for whomever might come across it at some time somewhere else in the Universe.
It is not so hugely different to imagine that we could film an event here on Earth and beam it out into space, on a curved trajectory that would have it return to Earth many centuries from now. Except that light cannot be influenced to bend to such a degree; time's arrow will not be seduced from its purpose. By design, we are unable to re-experience our own past. Not to worry, we can just stick the video on a flash drive and carry it with us into the next century.
Being aware is an individual experience... is it collective? We all feel as if we are in the same present moment, together. We don't seem to be experiencing 'now' out of sync'. Or, perhaps we are. The BBC journalist broadcasting from the other side of the world presumably experienced her 'now' at the same time as our 'now'. But how can we be sure if we are not by her side to verify as much?
Is there a Universal Clock that keeps us all in line? Like the cutting of that cake, we might say, running through everyone's time line, making us all aware simultaneously.
There is no reason to assume otherwise, is the hasty conclusion. Some process does seem to act in this manner, as individuals do not appear to be wandering in and out of the present moment or lagging behind while they catch their breaths.
Neither do inanimate objects come and go, so this universal clock applies to everything, not just conscious beings who cannot but accept this strange phenomenon because of the eyes that we have. Yes, all glued together in time by the mere fact that we are all stuck on a planet where everything is relatively comparable.
Time Dilation and Astronauts.
In the 1970s work with atomic clocks proved the predictions made years earlier by Special Relativity: that all our time pieces – clocks, watches, etc. – tick along at different speeds, dependent on our velocities. However, as we are all on planet Earth travelling together at roughly the same speed this is a non issue, we are in unanimous, temporal sync' and don't notice any discrepancies.
An analogy of clock variances might be this: A vehicle's tachometer doesn't quite measure distance or speed as accurately as one might hope if the tyres are worn. Clocks give us the impression they are reading the speed at which the present moment is moving toward the future, but this is a fallacy. It's the opposite.
When an astronaut sets off in a rocket at great speed from this planet, she becomes detached and her on-board clock will slow down the faster she goes. This does not affect her ability to function; for her, everything appears to be just fine. To some extent we know this following a number of lunar expeditions, and because people travel by jet aircraft all the time. Indeed, some atomic clock experiments were conducted on-board passenger planes.
But at relativistic speeds (approaching lightspeed) realities are unknown, only the physics. We don't know how astronauts might respond at such speeds, whether they would be lucid, whether they might be conscious, at all. And consciousness is key to our experience of now. In this respect, physics can tell us what our clocks are reading, what circuit-boards are doing, how a robot may be performing, but not what our human minds might be experiencing.
It is considered that our metabolism slows down as we accelerate, just as the mechanisms in our clocks will function slower. It's a bit of a stretch, however, to suggest that astronauts near lightspeed will somehow survive this metabolic rate reduction, especially in light of all the medical fervor these days surrounding our relatively simple task of sending humans on their first flight to Mars. No doubt, as compelling as the physical inconvenience of relativistic space travel will be the psychological impact to astronauts of such a venture.
What of our flicker fusion rate, for example? A slower metabolism suggests diminished cognitive skills and mental acuity. And yet, these high speeds suggests the opposite, that of a mind with potential to stretch out the seconds and see more of time, experiencing a greater share than those on Earth. Not, then, solely a physical phenomenon measured by mathematical formulas, but a psychological effect derived from conscious consideration.
More energy into a system will inevitably lead to complications but could also create benefits. Our heightened awareness and processing power of time could just be one of many.
In these thought experiments it is always assumed that both we and those speedy space travellers would all be aware in the same moment regardless of time's flow rate, though means of communication to substantiate this claim would be nil. Such an assertion implies that there can be only one moment in time throughout the universe by which all conscious lifeforms abide: A constant universal clock dictating the value of 'now'.
A universal clock can be asserted by science in three dimensional space. Shoulder to shoulder, two people see in the night sky an exploding supernova at the same time, confirming close synchronicity, but someone on another planet on the far side of the sun might see it some 15 minutes earlier or later. We measure stellar distances by triangulation and with a constant speed for light deduce that the event creates 'now' in sync' for everyone no matter where they may be.
A similar scenario was wonderfully illustrated in the H. G. Wells fictional classic, The Time Machine. The craft was a pod situated in the time traveller's house. He was then somehow able to slow down the on-board clocks, while he could look out from the machine and watch the world around him fast-forwarding through time. The beauty of this concept is that he and his surroundings were in visual contact with one another throughout, whereas, we on the planet can never visually determine that a speeding astronaut traversing our galaxy and a few light years away, is in fact, living in slow motion from our point of view.
Apparently, it doesn't matter how fast or slow you are deemed to be passing through time, we are all locked to the same present moment.
The problem we have here is a differing of opinions. On the one hand we have the block universe model of time where a present and floating, fourth dimension is revealed by the consciousness of living creatures; on the other, a three dimensional version of time held together elastically by a mathematical constant.
Actually, it is just mathematics having difficulty with the language of reality. They are reading from the same book.
The Big Bang Is Now.
If we are to believe The Big Bang started it all then such an event might be that 'uniting force' we seek, a universal clock ever flowing through the cosmos. After all, everything would have been conceived in proximity, born of the same egg, in line with a block universe model. But that requires we believe in a beginning and an end of time. It requires we believe that 'now' is created not by consciousness but by physical design.
Or does it? The Big Bang and its consequent evolution might be that vibrant bubble mentioned earlier, our present moment. What came before is the past, what comes after, the future – both devoid of space – a solid tenseless block.
The breadth of time is vast, and the present moment, flexible: Time Dilation. We see only a tiny, narrow fraction of it at 30 frames per second, while a fly sees a far narrower strip. Just one frame witnessed in a billion or so years sees it all in the broadest detail possible...
Back To The Speedy Space-Traveller:
The scientific consensus for interstellar flight at relativistic velocities concludes that, while our clocks at home continue as normal and a few years pass, in that time the clocks on board the astronaut's spacecraft have only registered a few months going by. When she returns to Earth we will all have aged considerably more than she. From her younger perspective, she has somehow returned in our future.
(Equally true, though rarely stated: from our perspective she has arrived from the past).
So, why should she be bound to the 'now' of those with faster ticking clocks? If we truly were synchronized in time then how could we experience a single moment at different rates and still keep up with each other? Think of it like this:
When two marbles are rolled across a table at different speeds (analogous to time), one ends up ahead of the other. It is common sense that the slow one does not keep up with the fast one and is tangent to a prior moment in the life of the faster moving marble. For both marbles to run in parallel but at different speeds requires that the table be warped. And so assumes that the universe – space – can be manipulated by those things within it.
Likewise, the distance the slow marble travels in space can be flexed to confirm the same outcome, by reducing in length. This is how Relativity works, it bends and distorts distances and time as demanded by the constant, light speed, to keep velocities experienced by different parties consistent.
However, it is not possible for time to speed up or slow down, such notions were dismissed when it was concluded that a rate for time would require there to be another time to measure it. The conclusion must be that time is measured by our minds, which will have major implications for future space exploration. Physics is simply trying to come to terms with such a strange anomaly by bending space to accommodate our perception.
Remarkably and from an alternate perspective, these marbles give us clear insight into how our consciousness creates the present moment.
Here's the scenario – upholding the hypothesis that 'Time is Solid', everything is connected.
Suppose we have two planets separated by a few million kilometers and can travel between them in about one hour. A more powerful spacecraft might do the journey in half that time, but relativistic effects (Lorentz Contraction) shorten the perception of distance for the astronaut on board while slowing down her apparent rate through time.
General observations indicate that she made the trip in half an hour, although she has had the distance reduced by half (an exaggeration) in order to accommodate her dilated time, giving her the impression she still made the journey at the observed speed. If a craft twice as fast is later designed and makes that journey, astronauts' perceived lengths are reduced by half again and the distance is traversed in a quarter hour. Now you can see where this is going.
As an astronaut creeps ever closer to light speed, the distance between the planets will be shortened to eventual zero, while the rate of time experienced becomes infinitely long. We, on the other hand, see a craft travel at the speed of light.
Her perception at lightspeed is of two planets attached – no distance between them requiring no time to traverse. Eternity has become solid again, sealed up, everything connected, with the emerging conclusion that it is consciousness in an environment below the speed of light which creates space/time, and thus the realisation of 'now'.
That scenario above follows the rules of Special Relativity. It accepts that there be a constant governing our flexible universe. However, if 'now' were not a unilateral occurrence for everyone because space did not bend to our will, it is reasonable to suggest that the astronaut's 'now' is just as relevant as ours. With her time slowed down she is running behind us.
And it is. If we consider her rate through time to be normal rather than ours, then relative to her, we on Earth experienced time sped up. Two sides of the same coin, because we both use the same time with which we make our calculations. But even though we often believe time to be like space, realistically it has no spatial composition, it is an ethereal dimension.
Those marble speeds on a table were measuring time, but the table is physical distance – not time. The passage of time if dictated by individuals would allow for there to be an infinite number, dissociated. Somewhat like the (MWI) Many Worlds Interpretation discussed in the last chapter.
What we experience is a progression through time in a moment we call 'now', apparently all together, and locally we remain synchronized. However, in deep space consciousness will dictate otherwise and, as you will discover in the last chapter, Travel: if the universe is in contraction, astronauts at relativistic speeds may well desynchronize from other present moments and unwittingly travel back into the past – invoking superluminal velocities.
Yes, it throws into question which entity is the true constant: Light or Time. But it need not.
To truly consider time and any moment or event therein, we must disengage from it. Observing the universe from afar, as a whole devoid of procession with no beginning nor end, we see that there is no present moment we have imposed. We see all of time, and it is four dimensional.
On a lonely planet with no lifeforms capable of reason, there would be no 'now'. There would certainly be potential: geological; gravitational; atmospheric and so on, but no experience of such things – until the universe is made aware. Like Schrodinger's cat or "a tree that falls in the forest," nothing happens unless observed.
We create time; that's how time flows. It was not created for us.
Time's Paradigm THE ABSTRACT download pdf here.
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For further reading, There Was A Time, author's prophetic vision
Hollywood Time Travel Debunked
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