06 November 2005

On Time

The Universe had a beginning. In 1965 Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson observed the faint microwave radiation that we now know suffuses the entire cosmos. They thought it was some kind of noise, but R. H. Dicke recognized it from earlier theoretical work by Lemaitre and Hubble. It was the remnant of the energy of the Big Bang. The scientific community was astounded. It was if they had run smack into the fourth sentence of Genesis.

The Big Bang did not happen at any particular place. Before the Bang, there was no place. The Big Bang was the beginning of "place" itself. The Big Bang was the beginning of everywhere, and so, the Big Bang happened everywhere at once, some twelve billion years ago, at a moment in Time — it was the beginning of Time, too.

And, some hundred thousand years later, when the Universe had expanded and cooled enough for the primordial plasma to condense, there was light — the light that became the cosmic microwave background. The Universe had a beginning. We have seen it.

The Universe will also have an end. Until recently, cosmologists were debating whether the current cosmic expansion would reverse itself under the influence of gravity and turn into a Final Crunch, or whether the Universe would go on expanding forever, turning into a uniform bath of low-energy radiation as all the matter in the Universe slowly decays away. Just in the past few years, however, scientists have measured that the cosmic expansion is actually accelerating, that some mysterious "Dark Energy" is inflating the Universe as if it were a cosmic balloon. Thus there is added yet another end of Time, the Final Rip, as the Universe eventually tears apart so fast that not even the forces that hold sub-atomic particles together can't resist it. Perhaps the scroll of the heaven will tear and roll up after all.

On the other hand, if the so-called "Braneworld" hypothesis of String Theory is correct, the Universe as we know it is actually embedded in a higher dimensional space, and all the forces we know are confined to our Brane, except for gravity (which would explain why gravity is so weak compared to the other forces). In the Braneworld scenario, the Big Bang was started when our Brane collided with another Brane. The next collision will occur at some unknown time, without warning — " In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet," (1 Corinthians 15:52) as it were.

Thus a caution against fatalism: things have not always been this way. Things had a beginning. Things can change and be changed. A caution against vanity: no achievement you can have, no monument to yourself you can make can endure, because nothing lasts forever, not even the Universe itself. And a notion of forgiveness: no evil you can do can last forever. That, too, will be erased.

But the point is not so much that the Universe had a beginning and will have an end. The point is that the Universe has some dimensions we can move around in at will — Space — and one special dimension that we can't — Time. If you could move around in Time like you can in Space, there would be no beginning and no end, no before and no after. And grief, regret, and guilt would not exist because there would be nothing that could not be undone.

Now if every act or accident could be undone, what need would there be for morality? It is the finality of action due to unidirectional Time that makes morality both possible and necessary. Without Time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have spoken of the "Moral Universe." It is true that the Universe itself is amoral, but Time makes the Universe a place where any sentient social beings like ourselves must have some sort of ethics.

It is as if, in the allegory of Genesis, Adam and Eve, by eating the Forbidden Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, had fallen not so much out of a paradisical Eden, but into Time. The way back is barred by a Flaming Sword, which could just as well be the Arrow of Time. It is not that Eden is a place to which they can no longer go. Eden is in their past. The act of acquiring Knowledge of Good and Evil is also the act of acquiring the Knowledge of Time. It is irreversible. You can't take it back. Whether you will or not, it's forward you go.

You can't really imagine things being any other way (a Universe without Time), because Time is intimately bound up with your Consciousness. Jeff Hawkins and others propose (rather convincingly) that your neocortex (the part of your brain that executes all your higher mental functions) is a multi-layered temporal pattern processor. It constantly accepts sensory inputs, and predicts what sensory inputs it is likely to receive next. Only when input does not match expectation, does higher consciousness get called to check things out. The model explains much of how we perceive and learn. It even explains how we can commit errors of thought, such as prejudice. When Adam and Eve fell into Time, they became embedded in Time, and Time became embedded in them. They knew Time in the intimate sense, by becoming one with it.

Yet we can still say a few things about what it would be like if Time were different — if, say, there were more than one temporal dimension in which we could move freely. Know that Time provides the gate through which you entered this Universe, and also the gate through which you will leave it. If you could move about Time like you move about Space, would you find the gate? Would you have the guts to go through? That is to say, Time as we know it has a kind of salvific value. The entire Universe is structured so that you are guaranteed to find and pass through the way out. In that sense, you can never be lost. Not in this Universe, anyway.

So Time is the Gateless Gate that lets us in and out of this Universe (and makes us follow its rules). But to where does it lead? Or rather to Whom? A long time ago, God showed up as a Galilean peasant, and said that the Kingdom of God is at hand. We are in the outskirts of the Kingdom, visiting the Universe God gives us, going about both our and God's business, on God's Time, heading toward a New Universe, toward a New Relationship with God.

The Good News is that Home is in your Future.

No comments: