108 Is the passage of time progress? 8 Jan 2021

Space is big

Article 83 described FDR (President Roosevelt) looking at the night sky until he could say “We can go in now. I feel small enough.” It is reassuring to appreciate something bigger than self. I am only a small part of existence harmoniously fitting into something vast.

 Article 92 recommended thinking about infinity with the sense of wonder that a child has. Physical expansiveness helps us think expansively. That article applied broader thinking to gender identity and property ownership. Larger awareness promoted growth.

 Articles like 52 and 62 conceptualized godhood as infinite extension of humanhood. Eternal life is an extension, past and future, of the time segment called mortality that we currently experience.

Time is long

Let us now apply similar stretching exercises to the passage of time. A favorite story describes a Buddhist monk who wipes an obsidian mountain with a gossamer cloth once every hundred years. When the mountain is all rubbed away, an eon has passed. I admire that early comprehension of geologic time.

Today we are challenged to comprehend time in greater detail. Idaho Museum of Natural History puts the story of the planet into a few expertly organized web pages. They place words strategically on the page to make a graphical display of the earth’s history. The words are nested to show how shorter segments fit into larger ones in order of decreasing size: Eons > Eras > Periods > Epochs.

An effective online version of Paleozoic to present eras is at Field Museum project of Milwaukee Public Museum. In Chicago, a walkthrough timeline of our planet sharpened my perspective on two important aspects of natural history: (a) mammals, especially humans, have been here for a minute fraction of the life of the planet and (b) the changes from one time segment to another are huge. There is always change. In each segment, one can muse “this is a completely different world.” Just as there have been ice ages, there have been massive extinctions. It is hard to think of the planet as only one “place.” It has been comprised of vastly different combinations or settings, each looking like a different place.

Budding speculation

Right away my mind asks whether humans are the only meaning behind all this. It is impossible to feel we are insignificant, but I do feel that our significance is one of many enfolded in this expansive history.

The thought experiment in Article 92 details why time measurements differ according to perspective. One can posit that there is no absolute temporal simultaneity (“now”). What I see as simultaneous might not be simultaneous to an observer in a different frame of reference. Next my mind questions absolute positional sameness (“here”). Perhaps my spatial perception is different from that of someone in a different “wavelength” as described in Article 62 relative to resurrected beings. They could be in a state of thinking they are “here” with me while I am unaware of their presence in my “here.”

Age of earth thinking

Since human occupation is a minute fraction of the earth’s geologic time, we should ask how fully this short span applies to the whole? Article 92 referred to black holes that might have laws of physics heretofore unknown to us. Does that imply causes on this earth that we do not yet understand? Humans appear to be accelerating extinctions and climate change, but what we observe now might not teach us about every change that has ever happened on this planet.

 Let us be flexible in assigning effects to causes. We do not absolutely know how close humans can come to living in an ice age. We do not know how quickly adaptation can happen. Some people were surprised how much animal life was present after the disaster at Chernobyl. Biology did not come to a screeching halt because of the radiation.

 At the other extreme is the story of the dinosaurs that did vanish suddenly. When I first heard that a meteorite collision with earth drove them to extinction, I thought I was being entertained by science fiction. Later I watched an hour-long science show that presented the evidence in convincing detail. It reviewed archeological evidence together with other discoveries and conclusions to show that energy levels were so high as to cause severe global change immediately. Changing “meteorite collision” to the phrase “consequences of meteorite collision” opened my understanding.

Speed of light thinking

Apparent time distortion mentioned above relates to the speed of light. That is the area of thought where complications become interesting. In a similar tone, people sometimes refer to telescopes as time machines. Because light takes time to traverse space, powerful telescopes are receiving messages (light) that originated far away in the distant past. If it took light a year to travel the distance (you guessed it, we call that distance a light-year), then we are now seeing what occurred there a year ago. Taking observations at astronomical distances makes us able to accumulate in the present vast amounts of cosmic history.

 Because what we know as life involves water, there is great interest in the possible existence of water on other planets—past or present. How interesting it would be to find evidence that there was or is water on Mars, for example. At greater distances, we see earlier stages of planets.

 My creative mind wants the time concepts and the space concepts to build stories. Science fiction has done that for years. I have witnessed several movies starting with the premise that warfare or environmental degradation made Mars (or worlds from other solar systems) unsuitable for inhabitants. In the stories, these people find their way to this earth and transfer their population here. That has overtones of what the Europeans did to the Americas, evoking earthling’s fear of extinction. Sometimes time travel adds a fascinating wrinkle to those stories.

Life implications

Physics is an absorbing study of time, space, matter, energy, causality, and innumerable other realities. Associated metaphysics launches the above speculations and many more. How far do we think? Is Big Bang a cyclical process or a steady state among components that move forward linearly? Can billions of years be fully comprehended with the questions we have raised in a few thousands of years? To what extent is future predictable? Should it be tweaked, altered? Is the planet or the universe dying? Are our individual futures different from the future of the planet?

 Will humans evolve into new species? We seem to differ from those that came before us. My articles present godhood as a future state of those now called humans—that is, the same traceable individual essences. Should a higher life form (new individuals) evolve from humans, what direction would that take the future? If the individual human essence exists forever, then the progress of the individual is different from the progress of the species and there is ever increasing complexity. It is too limiting to propose that current-level humans are the only permanent life forms that will ever exist. Diversification suggests otherwise.

Be it therefore resolved

I have been playing mind games with you again! Surely you recognize that I am pulling out all the stops to stretch our thinking. I am deliberately making us dizzy until we let go of self-imposed limitations. How can we from 200 or 7,000 years of recorded science (wherever you entered the science recording practice) claim comprehension of 4.5 billion years of history of this one planet? Let us relax and discover!

 Many religions have tried to slam these doors shut. Maybe some humanists also limit their thinking to what is now the human state. Consider all the questions our minds can comprehend. They are candidate hypotheses awaiting testing. The overarching call to action here is to think, to overcome and abandon pat answers!

 Is this what was going through the mind of FDR when he looked at the stars over the White House? Are these the questions that make a giant of his caliber feel small enough?

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 Audio file

Cover email:

Mind games help us stretch our thinking—out of complacency and pat answers. Today we study time, space, and life forms above humans. The progress of the individual is different from the progress of the species and there is ever increasing complexity.

The article may be a bit poetic. At the end, we feel small enough to think that we do not know it all. 

Complete and Continue