Friday, June 21, 2013

As time goes by

Is time something that is defined by the ticking of a cosmic clock, God's wristwatch say? Time doesn't exist except for the current tick. The past is irretrievably gone. The future does not yet exist. Consciousness is awareness of a moment.

Or is time a dimension like space? We move through time as we move through space. The past is still there; we're just not there anymore. The future exists; we'll get there. We experience time as we experience space, say, by looking out the window of a moving train.

Or is time…

Physicists and philosophers have been debating these questions since the pre-Socratics. Plato. Newton. Einstein. Most recently, Lee Smolin. Without resolution.

What makes the question so difficult, it seems to me, is that time is inextricably tied up with consciousness. We won't understand time until we understand consciousness, and vice versa. So far, consciousness is a mystery, in spite of books with titles like Consciousness Explained.

Will consciousness be explained? Can consciousness be explained? If so, will it require a conceptual breakthrough of revolutionary proportions? Or is the Darwinian/material paradigm enough? Are we in for an insight, or for a surprise?

As I sit here at my desk under the hill, looking out at a vast panorama of earth, sea and sky, filled, it would seem, infinitely full of detail, so full that my awareness can only skim the surface, I have that uneasy sense that it's going to be damnably difficult to extract consciousness, as a thing, from the universe in its totality. I think of that word "entanglement," from quantum theory, and I wonder to what extent consciousness is entangled, perhaps even with past and future.

Who knows? Perhaps consciousness, or what I think of as my consciousness, is just a slice of cosmic consciousness, in the same way that the present is a slice of cosmic time. As a good Ockhamist, I am loathe to needlessly multiply hypotheses. But time will tell. Or consciousness will tell. Or something.