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Milky Way

The free lecture on the Great Courses site last month was David Kyle Johnson of King’s College discussing science fiction as philosophy – is time travel possible. He looked at various popular works such as Quantum Leap, Back to the Future, Star Trek, Dr. Who, and others and talked about whether physics would allow for the time travel method used. The one he found closest to science was the movie “Interstellar.” He also mentioned H. G. Wells’s book The Time Machine, but not a couple of modern novels and their feasibility. I am thinking of two science fiction works that are also counterfactual histories – Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South and Lightning, by Dean Koontz. In Guns of the South, white South Africans travel back to save Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederacy by supplying them with AK-47s and other technology. Koontz has time traveling Nazis. Both are interesting reads with their own travel adaptations for travel and the time line.

I think the fascination with time travel is often a desire to change the past and perhaps to see what the future holds. We can also learn by speculating on what might have been had something, even something small, occurred differently – chaos theory in history. We can’t do those double-blind experiments in life to see which path is the best. Every moment, every choice, every action, is a crossing of our own personal Rubicon. Interstellar took care not to have those paradoxes that vex the idea of time travel, like the grandfather paradox. What if you go back in time and do something (like killing your grandfather or some other ancestor) which prevents you from being born. In that case you are not born and can’t go back in time and prevent your birth so then you are born then go back in time and prevent your birth, but then… You are caught in an unending time loop. In physics, theoretically time can go both forwards and backwards, but we experience time in a linear fashion. I think the Canadian series Continuum had issues like this, like having two of the same person in the same place and time. But if there are time travelers from the future, they would have at some point visited us in our present, but there is no evidence of this (at least that we can perceive) so that would lead one to believe that travel backwards doesn’t happen at some point from the future. As for visiting the future, how do you travel to a place that doesn’t exist yet?

I think of time travel as more of a transcendental experience, like Joseph Campbell talked about in the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers a few decades back. (Media does allow us to travel back in a virtual way.) He said that the life everlasting in the Coptic experience was not necessarily going to some supernatural place but experiencing eternity in the moment. It is that mindful place of feeling at one with everything and with all time. You are that everchanging stardust that always has been and always will be.

I do like the speculation of counterfactual history and science fiction. You get an idea of just how fragile a moment is and how there are almost infinite possibilities in each and every one. My favorite Star Trek series was Deep Space 9, and my favorite captain was Sisko. At the end, he explained human’s experience of linear time to the Prophets.

 

 

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Chiune Sugihara, his wife Yukiko and children

Chiune Sugihara, his wife Yukiko and children

A few decades ago, I attended a wedding reception on Long Island and had a conversation with a person that has stayed with me all these years. I only had that one short talk with her and don’t remember her name, but she was very engaging and quite fascinating. She was Jewish and was born in Poland. She was a young girl when Germany invaded her country and systematically began to exterminate her people. Her life was saved by the actions of a Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who provided exit visas to Jews in Poland and Lithuania. The woman and her father made their way across the Soviet Union via the Trans Siberian Railway to Japan to Canada and eventually to New York. I was fascinated by her story but the part that has stuck with me all these years was her wisdom of perspective. She said that we tend to focus on the present and forget to put things into perspective. She would catch herself complaining about the cold New York winters, but then she would remember crossing Siberia and the bitter cold. New York was not so cold after all. When I hear someone say, “this is the worst ever” or even “this is the best ever” I think of her. She saw both the worst and the best in people. And when I hear people judge others as different and as outsiders to be rejected, as we in the US did to the people on the SS St. Louis fleeing certain death, I think of the compassion and bravery of Chiune Sugihara and his family. Too few of us have their integrity.

All we have is the current moment, and how we view and live in that moment ripples through time in ways we can barely imagine.

The end of the year is near on the Gregorian calendar.  There are other calendars – Chinese, Jewish, Muslim, and others including some structured so that dates fall on the same day of the week every year. But, like the metric system, our culture for the most part ignores the way others measure time.  Theoretical physics says that time should be able to go backwards as well as forwards and is not linear. But we experience time linearly and we look for causes from the past and long for or dread the future, and often miss the moment we are in. We resolve, especially at this time of year, to change.

Often people want to know the “why” of problems they have, or of behaviors. They feel they must know the why before they can change, or to make the change permanent. I sometimes tell the story of a research psychologist I once worked for. He swore he would never do clinical work because of an experience he had in rotation during his doctoral program. The rotation included a clinical track. He had a client who was afraid of plants. He tried the standard exposure therapy but got nowhere.  Eventually she came up with a story of being frightened as a child in the presence of a plant. He had no idea if the story was true, but it worked. Too inexact for him. He went into research.

But how exact is research?  Does the why or the cause matter? There is an article in Wired well worth reading at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/12/ff_causation/all/1.  It is called “Trial and Error: Why Science Is Failing Us” by Jonah Lehrer.  He looks at the story of the cholesterol drug torcetrapib and how what should have easily worked failed miserably. Causes are shortcuts, are stories, that we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. We are wired to try to make sense of the world, and we do this with stories.  What we forget is that they are stories and we sometimes make them unquestionable truths.  They matter, but in the end, they are our constructs. Statistical analysis in research can help, but too often the questions are asked in ways that affect outcomes, or the wrong tests are chosen or funding affects outcomes. At best, we can predict with probability.

Jonah writes:

“David Hume referred to causality as “the cement of the universe.” He was being ironic, since he knew that this so-called cement was a hallucination, a tale we tell ourselves to make sense of events and observations. No matter how precisely we knew a given system, Hume realized, its underlying causes would always remain mysterious, shadowed by error bars and uncertainty.”

One problem with a cause is that there is always a cause for the cause – an infinite regression of “why.” Often we have difficulty with randomness and ambiguity and shades of gray. But things happen. One of the interesting things about quantum mechanics is that subatomic particles can disappear and reappear somewhere else for no apparent reason.  We may long for the certainty of predictable waves in the flow of life, but to live, we need to be able to surf. To swim against what we think should be the tide is to wear ourselves out and risk drowning. And realize that nothing is permanent.

Jonah concludes:

“… (W)e must never forget that our causal beliefs are defined by their limitations. For too long, we’ve pretended that the old problem of causality can be cured by our shiny new knowledge. If only we devote more resources to research or dissect the system at a more fundamental level or search for ever more subtle correlations, we can discover how it all works. But a cause is not a fact, and it never will be; the things we can see will always be bracketed by what we cannot. And this is why, even when we know everything about everything, we’ll still be telling stories about why it happened. It’s mystery all the way down.”

What we can do is flow with the mystery in the moment we have and the story we tell. And a new year can start any time we choose in our lives. Calendars are constructs for marking time. Lives are for living.

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