On the Ineffable
This is my review of Nick Stockton’s “Time Might Only Exist in Your Head. And Everyone Else’s.” From Wired, 26 September, 2016. Published at 0600 hrs. I later modified this piece on 17 October, 2016. It keeps bothering me like a splinter in my mind. In its current revision, it comprises 2,537 words.
“Some physicists blame gravity for time. Others blame observers. Time, the arrow of time, the linearity of time flowing from the infinite past through the present into the indefinite future, cannot exist unless an intelligence, something sentient, exists to observe it, they say.
The moment when particle physics and classical mechanics merge is called “decoherence,” and it also happens to be the moment when time’s direction becomes mathematically important.
Mr. Stockton’s article points out that superposition in quantum mechanics means that an electron can exist in either of two places, a property called probability, but it is impossible to say where an electron is until that electron is actually observed.
Some physicists also say that what matters is not whether time exists, but what direction that time flows. (Claus Kiefer, “Can the Arrow of Time Be Understood From Quantum Cosmology?” in L. Mersini-Houghton and R. Vaas, The Arrow of Time, Springer, Berlin, 2010.)
I marvel that anything can move at all, as any distance can incorporate an infinitude simply by holding your fingers a centimeter apart.
Your fingertips are not necessary, of course. You can imagine an infinite digression between any two points. You can even imagine the digression without the points, which is where things get interesting for me.
Not surprisingly, this reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in the academic tradition of droll footnotes, citing “the last magician,” Isaac Newton, saying that “Each particle of space is eternal, each indivisible moment of duration is everywhere.” Principia, III, 42. (Isaac Newton, Newton’s Principia, New York: Daniel Adee, 1846. Borges wrote his 1946 revision of “A New Refutation of Time” in Sur, 1944. Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, Penguin, 1999.)
How anything can leap across the infinitudes separating all things from everything else mystifies me, and how we can imagine infinity without beginning or without end leaves me without words.
Miraculously, everything in this multiverse can leap infinities, and so we have progression, which is synonymous with time. Even using a term like “infinity” forces a compromise upon us, it is a convention, and these are the paradoxes that compel some physicists to suspect that time emerges from decoherence.
Mr. Stockton’s article explains that the most prominent theory addressing decoherence is the 1960’s-era Wheeler-DeWitt equation, by Dr. Bryce DeWitt and Dr. John Archibald Wheeler. Dr. Wheeler claimed that this equation “erases the seams between quantum and classical mechanics.”
Then Mr. Stockton acknowledges the weirdness underlying decoherence and “so-called quantum gravity.” I love the fact that physicists use a term like “weird” and nobody thinks that it is strange. Because these matters are supremely weird.
The second law of thermodynamics ordains that the amount of disorder, or entropy, in our multiverse will always increase. In 1865 Rudolf Clausius (1822-1888) infamously observed: “The energy of the universe is constant; the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.” This is the source of the directionality of time: disorder always increases, so time can only move in one direction.
The Wheeler-DeWitt equation notoriously does not include a variable for time. Time, it says, is something that cannot be measured in terms of itself: in physics it is measured as correlations between an object’s location.
Worse, because the Wheeler-DeWitt equations do not explain why time moves from the past through the present to the future–in other words, the directionality of time is not explained by the Wheeler-DeWitt equations–all that remains to be examined is us, meaning we, the observers.
Dr. Lanza speculates that time moves as it does because humans, and other sentient beings, for that matter, are biologically, neurologically and philosophically hardwired to experience time in that way.
I do not see how it could be otherwise. While you can claim that mathematics exists independently of human perception, because equations do not depend upon witnesses to observe them, we obviously only know about mathematics because we perceive such equations.
I will go one step further and say that equations, all the equations in an infinitude of mathematics, already exist, and merely await a conjunction of time and sentience to be discovered. But they are already there. We are just not yet smart enough to discern them.
Tibetan Buddhism, in fact, features a category of knowledge of this kind, calling it terma. It refers to objects or ideas which are surfaced to human knowledge when we as a species are ready for them. Some believe that we knew this information in earlier incarnations, and we forgot it, as we submerged into ignorance and amnesia. Now we are gradually, slowly, reawakening.
Dr. Lanza, this article says, goes even further, saying that we the observers create time and its directionality. This is actually a very old idea, and I discuss it in an article that I published on this site almost a year ago, Smoke Signals: Borges, Tzahi Weiss, Kabbalah.
Is it possible to say that there is an independent time, a time that exists without anyone or anything to perceive it? I suppose so. Is there also a time that exists because we perceive it? I think that this is inescapable.
” … Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations.
Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”
The time that you experience is not the same time that I experience. Neither of us experiences time as Borges did. Can “the concept of time be defined mathematically without including observers in the system?”
One stance says no, as there is no way to subtract observers from the equations, as equations by default, almost by definition, you could say, are performed by sentient intelligences.
By definition, when you talk about spacetime, he says, “you are already talking about a decohered system.”
This article concludes, like most interpretations of spacetime, that everything is relative, everything is subjective.
We are in self-defined prisons of perception, but we imagine paradises where we share the same perceptions, the same spacetime, and we perceive the same physics. The sad thing is, this is maya, or illusion. Some of us know better, and we have been told.
We do not need these physics, not for awakening from the stupor of the mind to anatta, the emptiness of the self, the realization of the non-duality of the absolute and the relative.
Think on this for a moment. The absolute and the relative form a duality that is artificial, this is a construct that we create to help us understand what we perceive. It is, in a sense, a filter. We need no such filters.
Borges, in the quote above, in a denial of denial, refused to renounce temporal succession, rejected the renunciation of the self, repudiated the rejection of the astronomical universe, and dismissed the effort as an “apparent desperation,” slyly condemning it as a “secret consolation.”
It was long a secret, as Tibet was closed to mankind for centuries, but Borges understood what he was rejecting. Borges referred to “the hell of Tibetan mythology” for precisely this reason, and that is why I illustrated this article with a painting depicting Yamantaka, just one aspect of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, vanquishing Yama, the god of death. Borges was telling those of us with eyes to see that he was an idealist, not a nihilist. Borges concluded that we manifest everything.
It is useful, I think, to consider Borges’ reference to fire by juxtapositioning it to this excerpt from the Buddha’s Fire Sermon:
“Bikkhus, form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, volitional formations are burning, consciousness is burning. Seeing this, bikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form … feeling … perception …. volitional formations … consciousness …Through dispassion [this mind] is liberated…”
Adittapariyaya Sutta, or the Aditta Sutta, aka The Fire Sermon
It is not understood by laymen, much less by our physicists in this article, but Buddhism is inimical to the concept of a soul. Nirvana is the state attained when the practitioner realizes that he has no self, and he has no soul. Self-negation attains its ultimate realization as it vanishes.
In Sanskrit and Pali, nirvana means “blown out,” in the same sense that a candle flame is snuffed. I am certain that Borges knew. Borges knew everything, he read all books, and he made few mistakes.
These ideas contradict the Western philosophical tradition, our mathematics, our physics, our spacetime, even though Hinduism insists that there is an eternal atman, and an ultimate metaphysical reality. Contradictions and confusions abound.
In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.1, the atman is expressed as “I am” at an eternal moment when nothing existed at the beginning of the multiverse. Because we built the Hubble telescope, we estimate that this eternal moment transformed into the Big Bang and this multiverse approximately 13.7 billion years ago.
Using Hubble, we can measure the speed and distances of galaxies, and hence how fast our multiverse is expanding. Comparing these measurements to the age of the oldest globular star clusters gives us a figure of 13 billion years, which compares favorably to the 14 billion years of our observable multiverse.
Due to the speed of light, Hubble cannot see further than 14 billion years away. When the James W. Webb telescope comes online, we expect to confirm that our observable multiverse represents a tenth of the theoretical galaxies on the near side of our cosmological horizon.
But when you consider that the Big Bang might have been just the latest in an infinite series of singularities, interspersed by an unknowable number of periods of quantum potential, the possibility that the multiverse is infinite, literally without end, looms.
So is consciousness 14 billion years old? The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the oldest, dated to approximately 700 BCE, but this is a compromise, as scholarly estimates range between 900 BCE to 600 BCE, preceding Buddhism.
Human consciousness is very young, even assuming that the priests of Neith who admonished Solon in the Timaeus were correct, the Timaeus is dated to 360 BCE, and I am mindful that when the Temple of Neith in Sais was excavated no records of ancient conflagrations or deluges were recovered. But how old is cosmic consciousness? It is absurd that we even imagine the question.
“In the beginning, this (universe) was but the self (Virāj) of a human form. He reflected and found nothing else but himself. He first uttered, ‘I am he.’ Therefore he was called Aham (I). Hence, to this day, when a person is addressed, he first says, ‘It is I,’ and then says the other name that he may have. Because he was first and before this whole (band of aspirants) burnt all evils, therefore he is called Puruṣa. He who knows thus indeed burns one who wants to be (Virāj) before him.”
As perplexed as I am by yet another reference to fire, the Buddhist Suttas, or Sutras, as I prefer, insist that everything, especially nirvana, is non-self, total non-attachment. The Suttas in Pali refer exclusively to the scriptures of the early Pali Canon, the canonical works of Theravada Buddhism, which are said to be the oral teachings of the Buddha.
The Buddha himself admonished the Sangha not to deify his person, so I prefer the Sutras, the less exclusive, more encompassing genre of ancient Indian texts, which include the foundational works of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
The Buddha started the Wheel of Karma turning as he preached his first sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath near Benares, early in the 5th century BCE. It was in his second sermon that he expounded on the no-soul thesis, anatta-vada, which some Western academics criticize as “an extreme empiricist doctrine.” (Brian Morris, Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction (London: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 51.)
Anatta is one of the three characteristics of existence in Buddhism, with anicca, or impermanence, and dukkha, or suffering. The three comprise the samsara cycle of existence, addressed in canonical Buddhist texts like the Dhammapada.
In anatta, the mind returns to its original prelinguistic emptiness of non-attachment, non-discrimination, and non-duality, and the awakening, as it is described, entails the absorption of cessation: it is tantamount to the dissolution of the self.
This “pure consciousness event” is wakeful, without content, and completely non-intentional. It goes without saying that our spacetime and our cosmological horizon are irrelevant to it: It is ineffable. (Yaroslav Komarkovski, Tibetan Buddhism and Mystical Experience, (London: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 28.)
As Borges said, we are indistinguishable from spacetime. We do not need eyes to see, so death, transformation, is dissolution into nothingness, which many religious traditions summarize as the godhead.
Ironically, it was William James who said:
“The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.”
(William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 1982.)”
Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez, “On the Ineffable”
Bangkok, 17 October, 2016