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Guest Editorial

Time Again
by Dan Duda
from the June/July 2022 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission

Most scientists, starting with Albert Einstein, feel that time is an illusion. The current description is called “block Universe” which means that everything past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. The assumption (at least my take on the theory) is that there is something unknown about our consciousness that allows us to negotiate the landscape of this ‘block’ without the passage of time. Einstein’s oft repeated comment was “People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

So, does time pass…or do we pass through an existing field that we call time? Julian Barbour provides another explanation for existence without time. “I believe that time may not exist, and that quantum gravity — the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics — will yield a static picture of the quantum universe.” His ideas are based on the assumption that there is no framework to the universe. He describes motion and the perceived passage of time as being “background independent.” According to Barbour “Time is a measure of difference between two configurations.” Therefore, it’s not so much that time passes, but rather that things change.

A reasonable metaphor for Barbour’s concept is a movie. The film proceeds one frame at a time — each succeeding frame changed slightly. Yet the whole film (all of the frames) exists at one time, past, present and future. It’s only that our attention is drawn to an individual cell, so we focus on that point rather than the whole, hence our perception that time is actually flowing in the movie.

Another factor in favor of the “no time” hypothesis is the Wheeler-DeWitt Equation, which is one of the most successful tools scientists have for understanding the nature of the universe. Interestingly, that equation provides no allowance for time.

Significantly, support for this concept is also coming from the philosophical/spiritual community. For example, Eckart Tolle, a German born spiritual teacher and author, promotes the idea that “Time isn’t precious at all because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the NOW. The more you are focused on time – past and future – the more you miss the NOW, the most precious thing there is.”

I wouldn’t call this a perfect fit with the position of scientists, but it does underscore a tendency in recent decades for a coming together of science and spirituality. When you delete the dogma from both, you find that they’re on the same path. Somehow, I feel that if Einstein and Tolle had met, they might have had a fruitful conversation, or two.

Now to our point (finally). Lee Smolin, a prominent scientist and author, is now proposing that time does exist. So, with all the weight of the elite scientific community effectively arguing that it doesn’t, what can Lee Smolin tell us that will deconstruct what has become scientific orthodoxy? Well, he points out that the laws of nature are supposedly universal and inviolate. So, “…once present conditions are specified, there is no freedom or uncertainty in how the future will evolve.” In other words, if time doesn’t exist, nothing can happen that is not already baked into the universe. That would resolve the issue of ‘free will vs. determinism’. Free will would not exist. (More on this in a future article.)

In the words of Groucho Marx “No man goes before his time. Unless the boss leaves early.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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