Today is Sunday. A full year has passed since that grim day Michael left us. Jack called to invite Kay and me to come over in the afternoon to watch Michael’s video again. Kay suggested that he invite Barry Bard as well, since he was the one who found Michael dead on the floor. Since then Barry and I have become good friends. We don’t quite see eye to eye about each other’s worldview, but we can be honest with each other and agree to disagree. Barry was free, so Jack’s invitation was readily accepted.
When all of us had arrived and exchanged greetings, Marie served punch and we sat down to watch the video. Although we had seen it before, the video was interesting enough to be well worth watching again – but we paid more attention to Michael’s face and voice than we did to the astronomy pictures. His tones, emphases and the tempo of his words showed that he himself was deeply impressed with the moving splendor of the constellations, the alien far-flung shapes of nebulae, the pock-marked moon and the lonely isolation of remote planets. The symphonic music which accompanied the presentation added to its emotional grandeur. For educational purposes he had also included practical information such as drawings of the solar system, the comparative sizes of our fellow planets, gravitation and the tides, the phases of the moon, the seasonal tilt of the earth with respect to the sun, the rotation of the earth through night and day and the necessity of time zones. As a video it was first class. But what moved us all deeply was realizing once more what a great man we had had for a friend.
When the video came to an end, Jack quietly rose and shut off the machine. For a while we were completely silent. Throngs of personal memories and reflections ran through our heads.
Finally Marie broke the silence. “It’s kind of weird to see and hear Michael again, isn’t it. Technology has given him a form of immortality. I’m glad we have that video to remember him by.”
Kay sighed. “What will people remember me by?”
Before anyone could answer, Jack remarked, “Well, I’ve built a lot of warehouses, stores, garages and apartments, but those structures don’t have much artistic flare. No one would look twice at a video of my life’s work.”
Barry spoke up. “You think your work won’t be videoed. Mine can’t even be photographed. As a psychophysicist I must try to find out what’s going on inside people’s heads, and that isn’t directly visible. We used to locate the effective centers of brain activity by observing which bodily functions were affected by injuries to which portions of the brain. Now we can see pictures of which locations in a person’s brain are actually functioning during an assigned task. But only a specialist would be able to make sense of those pictures.”
Marie hadn’t forgotten what Kay had said. “I have the same question as Kay. Some of us women have spent the biggest part of our lives looking after our children, our homes, community concerns, and so on. I don’t know about you, Kay, but apart from a few letters, recipes, poems and water colors, my family won’t have much material to remember me by.”
Looking respectfully at Kay, I added commented, “Without Kay’s TLC, I probably wouldn’t be alive today. Our children know that Kay actually brought them up, because I spent most days and evenings at the office. She did a great job and they love her for it. So do I. To remember her by – and may that day be long in arriving – we’ll at least have ourselves and the core of what we are.”
Marie nodded and said, “There you are, Kay. Your family is all alive and good citizens of the world. You people are more valuable than any video. I suspect too that you’ve been a big help to John in his writing.”
“She certainly has,” I agreed. “Kay is my best critic. She quickly detects faulty reasoning. She doesn’t hesitate to prick and deflate my unanchored theoretical balloons. I trust her sense of values and her judgment. If anything I write can’t get past Kay, it will never reach the public. She makes good positive suggestions and helps me to say things better. I shudder to think what my writing would be like without her.”
“How’s the book coming along?” Marie asked.
“It’s just about finished, Marie. But talking to other people about time is like sailing against a heavy wind. For most people time is just the numbers indicated by a clock, a matter of day and night or one year and the next. It’s really hard to convince anyone that time is not just an inert, neutral accompaniment to living – more like the face of their watch than the works inside. Hardly anybody is interested enough to ask why things keep happening, or why there are events. It’s because time is an active agency.”
Jack raised his eyebrows quizzically. “Now what do you mean by ‘Time is an active agency’?”
“A fuel supply, oxygen, a sparking device and brakes are essential for driving an automobile, right? They are active agencies. So is the timing of the sparks that ignite the fuel. Without time, no car engine would go. Without time nothing would ever change. Time is an essential ingredient in the performance of all work, Jack, and therefore it is absolutely necessary for the concept of energy. Without time nothing moves, no differences are made, no relating proceeds, no communication is accomplished. For me, time is the agency which keeps making past events affect the future, for time was and is responsible for the energy involved in all past and present events. Frequencies and waves, which are the very essence of radiation and matter, could not appear without time. The various forms of aging reveal the agency of time. Time determines what is possible when. The quality and continuance of life depend on food and safety being present at the right time. Time is absolutely essential if a process is to be started, maintained, controlled or stopped. Without time, nothing would ever happen.”
I paused and Barry took over. “John puts forward a strong argument for the agency of time. Trying to buck the prevailing scientific consensus about time will be tough, though. Scientists generally consider time to be just an independent substratum, a ‘given’ fourth dimension over or along which change and motion take place. It’s an unmoving background against which change and motion can be measured, using numbers supplied by a clock. A featureless background, a mere dimension can never initiate action in the world. It can’t inject energy, or in any way control the process of change. In science, time is never considered to be an active agent.
“Maintaining the neutral barrenness of time is necessary if the reputation of science is to be maintained. If an experiment which is performed today is performed at any future date with the same materials and under the same conditions, it must yield results which are the same as those reached on the previous occasion. Experiments whose results are not repeatable are ignored. Deeming time to be a change-agent between experiments and their repetitions would threaten the reliability of scientific knowledge.”
I chimed in. “Barry and I have discussed this impasse before. I maintain that in order to duplicate an experiment exactly, the purity and properties of the materials must be exactly the same. That can’t always be done. The materials which were used in the original experiment might have deteriorated and so not be useable in any experiment repeated later. We all know about the expiry dates on food items and medical prescriptions. During the interval between experiments, even if the original materials were kept in a storage well shielded from the influence of forces other than time, they will have subtly changed. Rubber or plastics become brittle. Organisms age. Metal under strain suffers fatigue. Radioactive substances decay. Previously observed dynamic events inevitably lose energy and organization. Weights change if their topographical location is changed. In any case the Earth’s spatial orientation is always changing, as is the whole cosmos. Exactly the same situation can never really be set up twice. Time changes even the experimenters and the conditions of experimentation. The results of each of three seemingly identical chemical experiments will likely be somewhat different from each other. The average is accepted as the truth about the reaction, even though it may be different from all three experimental results.”
“On this point, I think John is being overly scrupulous,” Barry said.
“And I think science is neglecting an agency of supreme importance,” I replied. “So, as I said, we agree to disagree.”
Barry went right on. “Both John and I accept the discreteness of time. He has assembled good reasons for taking that hypothesis seriously. To me the idea makes a lot of sense. But it would be difficult to convince many of my colleagues that time actually comes in separate universal bursts. In science we have a long tradition of believing only what we can demonstrate experimentally – what we can observe with our own eyes or detect with sensitive instruments. I admit that we sometimes have to imagine invisible things which explain the phenomena we observe. But neither John nor I can think of a way to demonstrate conclusively the discreteness of time.”
“Nobody thinks that time is more important than I do,” Jack said, “but I really don’t care whether it flows along continually or comes in fits and starts. My work takes time, and time is money. That used to be all I needed to know about time. But I have learned from you, John, to think of my construction work, and all other work too, in terms of ‘information.’ After Michael died, I was particularly grateful for the idea that information about Michael’s person and work is recorded in eternity as well as contributing to our understanding of the universe. That helps me to feel that all that he was … ,” Jack looked down, “… has not been lost.”
Marie broke in. “When you first told me you were trying to understand the nature of time, John, you became very emotional. You traced the intensity of your concern back to childhood experiences. How do you feel about time now?”
I thought for a minute. “How anyone feels about time depends upon which aspect of it they focus their attention. Time can seem like either a terrible tyrant who is running your life or a gift of freedom to choose your next move and shape your own life. Sometimes time is a road block which delays and frustrates, and sometimes it opens doors of opportunity. Sometimes it seems to be a callous destroyer, and yet time makes all things new. It seems to come on continually and yet it breaks our life into episodes and chapters by day and oblivion or a dream world by night.
“I have always wanted to understand my world in a neat, well-coordinated system of harmonious ideas. The subject of time, however, defied me, flaunted its long list of opposite functions and categories. This was deeply upsetting to me because it threatened my confidence in the consistency of reason. My problem with time wasn’t exactly a dis-ease, but sometimes it made me eerily un-easy. Eventually I called it my ‘time syndrome.’
“I’m grateful now for my perplexity. It drove me to read what others have written about time. None of the conventional modern approaches helped me very much. Two books mentioned in passing that time actually might come in discrete moments instead of a steady stream. That idea caught my fancy immediately. I wondered what kind of evidence would support that hypothesis, and what implications it would have if it were true. As you know, I began to assemble relevant ideas.
“The more I thought about the discreteness of time, the more it appeared that, if time is really like that, it would be strong evidence for the ongoing presence and power of the Creator. Those thoughts have now blossomed into a worldview in which God is not just the One who created the world away back in the beginning, but the living God who has been recreating it moment by moment ever since. This makes me feel that it is God who keeps my heart beating and is always renewing my life. This thinking has expanded the important beliefs which I learned about as a child and have tried to live by ever since. The implications of the discreteness of time have made so much sense to me that I have committed myself to believing that it is true.”
At that point Barry took over. “That’s where John and I differ. I can appreciate John’s work, but I’m not yet prepared to affirm that evidence for the discreteness of time proves the existence of God. I guess I’m still an agnostic – I neither believe nor disbelieve. But I can accept that some future experience might tip the scales. We’ll see.”
Marie jumped in. “That reminds me of an old Chinese story. It goes something like this. A certain farmer managed to make a living off a small piece of land. That land was very precious to him because it could produce almost everything which he, his wife and teenage son needed. To keep out any destructive animals which might be at large, the farm was surrounded by a tall fence of closely placed vertical bamboo poles. He could not afford a beast to cultivate the land, so his wife and son had to pull the plough.
“One evening after a hard day his wife suddenly collapsed and died. The boy ran to tell the neighbors. They came quickly but could do nothing but weep. They lamented the farmer’s loss of his main helper and wondered how he would be able now to look after his farm.
“The bereaved man would only say, ‘We’ll see. We’ll see.’
“Since everyone was absorbed by sadness and all the coming and going, the farm gate was left open that night. Before dawn, a wild horse wandered in and began to enjoy a breakfast of tasty garden produce. The farmer’s son woke up early, saw the horse and quickly shut the gate. The farmer managed to get a rope around the horse’s neck and tie it to a big stone. When the neighbors heard that he had captured a horse which could work for him, they came over to congratulate him.
“But the farmer would only say, ‘We’ll see. We’ll see.’
“Next day, using two ropes, the farmer and his teenager tried to break the untamed horse so that it would obey them. In the struggle the man was thrown off balance. Immediately the horse took advantage of the slackened rope, wheeled and kicked, breaking the boy’s leg. This second disaster brought the neighbors over again to sympathize with the unlucky farmer.
“But all the boy’s father would say was, ‘We’ll see. We’ll see.’
“The following day, word came around that the district’s war lord was going to attack another war lord, and that all the young men in the neighborhood were to report immediately to the army commander. But of course, with a broken leg there was no way that the farmer’s son could go off to fight. The neighbors were glad that the man who had been having so much trouble at least would not be losing his boy, so they came over to tell him so.
“But still all the farmer would say was, ‘We’ll see. We’ll see.’
Marie paused. “I can’t remember how the story ends. Maybe there isn’t any ending. But you get the general idea. The farmer’s attitude to the future was much the same as Barry’s – ‘We’ll see. We’ll see.’”
I responded, “It took centuries to prove conclusively that Earth was a planet and that it was a sphere, not flat. It took ages to develop the means for humans to travel through the air and under the sea. Medicine had to wait to learn that bacteria and viruses are the true causes of certain diseases. Science is well aware of ultimate mysteries which nobody understands. But we carry on anyway, adopting the most credible hypotheses we can come up with. Some hypotheses are going to take more than one lifetime to verify.”
Jack chuckled. “Maybe one lifetime will be enough to prove or disprove whether God is God. I can imagine a hard-nosed atheist dying and finding himself before the judgment seat of heaven. The guy stares at the Judge who is entering the chamber clothed in a blinding light. As the Judge takes his seat, the poor fellow, startled by an ominous roll of thunder, gasps to himself, ‘Well, I’ll be damned. There really is a God!’ For him that would be verification. But I suppose that if he could come back and report his experience, not many would believe him.”
I remembered a classic piece of reasoning which has come to be known as Pascal’s wager. “Blaise Pascal, the distinguished French mathematician, physicist and philosopher who invented the adding machine and proved that air has weight, wrote down why he should bet his life on the existence of God. After he died, the document was found in the lining of his coat. Pascal had thought through the difference it would make if he did or did not believe in God, if God did or did not exist. His reasoning went something like this:
- If I do not believe in God and God does not exist, my life and the world have no ultimate meaning or purpose.
- If I do believe in God and God does not exist, my quality of life will be better even though I was wrong. I shall have lived with hope and purpose, even though I was mistaken.
- If I do not believe in God and God does exist, I shall have missed out on feeling that my life has ultimate value, imbuing me with motivation to seek the finest things in life. Maybe all would be lost for me.
- If I do believe in God and God does exist, all is gain forever.
- Therefore I consider it the wisest policy to believe in God.”
After a moment’s silence, I added, “If my reasoning about time and its discreteness doesn’t yet prove anything about God, in the meantime I’m going along with Pascal’s kind of reasoning and my own personal experiences. I’m betting my life on there being a God who is like what Jesus proclaimed by word and action.”
Without reference to God’s initiating purpose and originative power I can’t explain the universe’s perpetual changing from one Now-state to the next, let alone how it is that so much systemic harmony, goodness and beauty has already been attained. Each day as it comes does present me with new opportunities to be in synch with God and choose the best of the options and opportunities which are offered to me.
I still cannot understand transition with time, even though I live by it. I don’t really understand creating, although I myself can make little inventions, paintings and poems. What my brain cannot grasp, my physical being trustfully performs. Even though living involves what appears to be a simultaneous process of dying, the goodness and beauty which I have experienced in living has been well worth having to endure my portion of life’s troubles.
That I am now living, that I am here today and know it, is to me an astonishing miracle. The ordinary world all around me is also full of astounding miracles and miracles within miracles. If my present existence is so utterly incredible, believing in life beyond death presents no ineffable problem for me. If from a dead start, in this much time the Creator could achieve this wonderful world with so many fine people in it, I can only look forward with confident anticipation toward what such a great God will produce in a world to come. As a prophet in a baseball cap once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” If the process of cosmic creation time has the last word, it is: “To be continued.” As Marie said, “We’ll see. We’ll see.” Here on the shore between what was and what may be, I stand firm because I believe those time-honored words are still true: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”