What is time? There are so many ways to conceive of it.
Time as a River
One trope is that it’s a river that carries us along. In this metaphor, we are as helpless as so much flotsam and jetsam in the stream of time. Oh, we can decide what to with our time spent on the river, but–despite our atomic clocks and inflated egos–we cannot influence time itself.
Or perhaps time is inseparable from Einstein’s spacetime. In that case, it’s like as a huge loaf of bread, with all the events of our lives already baked in. Imagine that everything in history, including all the details of your life, already exist. In the final analysis, you and I can’t truly determine what we do with our time. Instead, we are travelers down Fate’s railroad (to mix in a yet another metaphor), going from one pre-existing stop to another.
Time as a Cosmic Web
Or maybe time is a reticulum. Annaka Harris, author of Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, notes that some scientists believe time is not a fundamental reality. She cites Nima Arkani-Hamed, who said of his fellow theoretical physicists, “Almost all of us very strongly believe that spacetime really doesn’t exist.”
So what does exist? In her article “What Is Time?,” Harris tries to imagine what time looks like if its “flow” is truly an illusion.
[T]he closest visualization I’ve been able to create is that of a web of nodes in which we experience only one node at a time. At each locus, all the other nodes become inaccessible to us, as if a spotlight were continually traveling across this “web of time,” inch by inch, painting our reality. If you were to experience a structure on this web —such as node a, node a, node f; node a, node a, node f—you might interpret the experience as “two node a’s cause a node f” when, in fact, the whole web of nodes already exists in its entirety. The implicit causality would not apply at a deeper level. Causality through time would still illuminate “connections,” it’s just that the underlying reality of these connections would reveal a structure vastly different from the one we intuit…
I’ve tried to wrap my mind around this “time as reticulum” idea. In a sense, it seems similar to the “time as bread loaf” notion in that “the whole web of nodes already exists in its entirety.” Except here we don’t even have the comfort of a linear-like-though-frozen concept of time. Instead, there is a dense web of pre-existing nodes that only give the illusion of cause and effect.
Because I am a fan of mythologies, I have given some thought to how the Fates (aka, Norns) would see time. The Fates are, of course, the three women who weave the fate of each human being. Each life is a thread and the Fates wind each one into the tapestry of our reality.
Is is just a coincidence that Harris’s notion of the “web of time” roughly corresponds to these ancient myths?
Perhaps. Or maybe there is some archetype at hand, some intuition about the “true” reality of time underlying the one we’ve evolved to experience.
Unstuck in Time
In Kurt Vonnegut’s great novel Slaughterhouse Five, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time.” That is, he travels along the thread of his own his life, experiencing moments of it in no particular order, never knowing where he’ll wind up next.
For reasons I don’t quite understand, I’ve recently been feeling–if not exactly unstuck in time–temporally looser within it, like a nail that seems in danger of slipping. One so loose you can turn it with your fingertips.
This started happening after my mother passed over a year ago. I’m still not sure why. Intimations of mortality, perhaps.
It’s hard to explain. It’s not just reminiscing or even being overwhelmed by certain memories. Nor are all my memories–or even most of them–associated with my mother.
Rather, there’s this strange sense in my gut–literally in the area of my midriff–of being connected to people I’ve neither seen nor even much thought about for decades. The feeling comes and goes in waves but is sometimes so strong I need to force my mind back into the present moment.
All of which makes me wonder whether we not only misperceive time but misperceive ourselves. What would we look like if, in fact, we ourselves were threads in a woven universe with dimensions we have yet to understand?
Imagine if we are not truly discrete but rather long yarn-like beings curled and tangled around one another in nearly infinite complexity. That is, the “I” that exists here and now is not truly a medium-sized biped animal moving through space but, rather, just one segment of a far larger being that stretches everywhere we’ve ever been and, perhaps, everywhere we have yet to go.
If that’s true, then we are all much vaster that we appear, living threads irregularly interwoven around the globe, which itself may be a cosmic thread woven into the galaxy.
This conjures the disturbing image of billions of pulsating worms in a multidimensional ball. Indeed, “worm balls” exist in nature. As the New York Times reports, “A worm blob behaves as a solid and a fluid, like a ball of dough or a glob of shampoo. It only takes around 10 worms to form a coherent blob. A blob of about 100,000 worms resembles a lump of (red) pizza dough. There is no known limit to how many worms can form a blob, except, perhaps, your imagination.”
Okay, yeah, yuck!
Maybe we should go with “dragons” instead. Serpentine dragons are, of course, often referred to as wyrms (or wurms, worms or orms). Moreover, the common symbol for eternity is ouroboros, a serpent swallowing its own tail.
Time and Again
In the end, I don’t know to what degree these various concepts and metaphors help us intuit the true nature of time. But I do believe that we are slowly groping our way to a better understanding of time. We now know, for example, that time can flow backwards as well as forwards at the quantum level, and, as mentioned previously, physicists are increasingly open to the idea that it doesn’t exist at all.
So, I suspect we’ll keep coming back these and other ideas time and again until we have a fuller understanding of what temporality is. But we need to prepare our souls for new discoveries in the event that a better understanding of time dramatically challenges our foundational ideas related to causation, free will, and even the nature of our selves.
Featured image: By anonymous medieval illuminator; uploader Carlos adanero - Fol. 279 of Codex Parisinus graecus 2327.