Years ago when I became conscious that the mystery of time was deeply intriguing me, I never suspected that exploring the subject would be like following the course of a stream which becomes a great river. A stream may be temporarily blocked by a beaver dam here, then plunge over into turbulent depths there. In some places it may ease off into a swampy backwater or become augmented by tributary streams. Like a river the subject of time originates from a whole watershed of history and affects a broad flood plain of implications. The riverbed may meander from side to side, then branch into a bird foot of channels before it merges its identity with the ancient boundless sea – whence came the rain which sourced that stream.
During my unhurried trip over the subject, I have noticed in passing a great many well-marked diversion channels. Time is valuable if anything constructive is to be accomplished: work done, skills learned, life prolonged. No wonder some feelings toward time are positive. It enables us to live and love and achieve our goals.
But I also noticed some stout embankments and dykes along the way. These defenses are a sure indication that time is greatly feared and must be kept at bay by any feasible means. Many people’s attitudes toward time are quite negative. Time is a thief, a destroyer, a tyrant. Time imposes deadlines, limits possible activities and conceals the future. It whitens hair, wrinkles skin, shrinks stature, weakens strength and eventually terminates everybody. In writing about time and living, I’ve found it hard to avoid echoing depressing sentiments such as these … but I tried.
Relations versus things
When friends find out that I am writing a book, it’s only natural for them to ask what it is about. When I tell them I am writing about the nature of time, some of them respond politely, “What is time anyway?” To me it seems so simple to state my hypothesis that time is the process by which God is creating the universe. That idea, however, doesn’t resonate with the comprehension of every inquirer. I often wonder why. Maybe it’s because they have been taught that creation is something which happened long, long ago. Perhaps they aren’t used to thinking about the universe as a whole. Maybe they see their world as a collection of static things with fixed dictionary descriptions, whereas I think of everything as being involved in a creative process of change and motion.
When I attempt to explain my conception further, I usually encounter an obstacle at a deeper level. Our Western culture has long been predominantly materialistic. The state of the economy is widely held to be of preeminent concern. “The one who has the most toys wins.” People consequently inherit the notion that material things, rather than relations, merit their primary concern.
The very grammar of our language reflects and propagates this materialistic philosophy. Nouns become the subjects of sentences. Nouns stand for things, not relations – unless, of course, relations have been transformed into pseudo-things, such as abstract “nouns” which usually end in “-ness,” “-ity,” “-ence” or “-ation.” Examples: baldness (a relation between hair and a scalp); stupidity (a relation between brains and a subject); fluorescence (a relation between energy and phosphors) and relation (a relation between two things!). In thinking, speaking or writing about the reality of relations – not to mention related relations such as order, system and organization – it’s difficult not to use words which should be appropriate only in reference to a material thing. Unfortunately in English I have to refer to active relatings as abstract nouns: relations, relatedness or relationships. Our language has tended to fossilize the perennial philosophy of materialism.
My conception of time is the ongoing process which is changing the relations between all things in the universe. Because of their cultural background many of my inquirers don’t feel comfortable in continuing a conversation involving the reality of relations.
But I must not blame all misunderstanding of relations on traditional culture. The word has developed an interesting nuance during the recent sexual revolution. When two people are having a “relation” nowadays, we are to understand that this is not just a relation of friendship, but one with sexual involvement. That’s a relation all right, but the word should not be understood solely in that referential context.
Although I have to speak and write in the traditional way, I now think that relations are more fundamental than “things.” When iron rails, wooden ties and iron spikes are related in a standard way they can become a railway. Before that particular kind of relating, those future components of the railway line were only three heaps of things. But even then the iron was different from the wooden ties because they have different internal molecular relations. The forms of iron rails are different from the forms of iron spikes and that’s why they are useful in special relatings. All forms are created by relatings.
Relations and order
My father was a tidy man. He didn’t own many things, but those which he did possess were important to him. He believed in having a place for everything. When he had finished using tools, he would put them back in their place on the racks behind his workbench. Every task he undertook was planned and executed in an orderly way.
The culture in which he grew up was dominated by a preoccupation with material things and order. Civilized society had a tacitly understood constitution which safeguarded private property. Its class structure bestowed upon each person a station and title, even it was only Esquire, Mr., Mrs. or Miss. Everyone was expected to “keep their place.” Personnel in the government, the courts, the military, the police, the health services, the church, the school and the family were entitled to the respect appropriate to their status in society. “Order” was the order of the day, and people were expected to “obey” the rules and maintain the “status quo.”
As a child beginning to think about what was going on around me, I naturally adopted my father’s “thingy” approach to the world. I was taught the proper names of individual things and animals. Their names entitled them to prominent positions as the subjects of the sentences which I was learning to speak. The characteristic relations of things to things, of things to people and of people to people were relegated to secondary positions as adjectives, verbs and adverbs.
It was great when I learned how to count, for then I could tell whether I had lost any of my marbles. When I had learned the names of the different positions which the hands of our clock could take up, I could tell the time. At school much of my education consisted of breaking down big, general things into smaller and smaller elements and learning their correct names. In physical geography I had to learn what to call each feature of a variegated landscape. In botany I had to take plants apart and give names to the parts. I hated having to kill a plant by taking it to pieces. In zoology I had the same trouble. I forced myself to dissect a frog and a snake, but dead organs and skeletons are poor substitutes for active living animals.
When I was making articles from wood and metal, I occasionally wondered why wood was so different from iron and how small could my material be whittled down before it would disappear entirely. You cannot imagine my delight when, while at high school, I came upon a brand new book in our small-town public library entitled The Atomic Theory of Matter. When I had struggled through that enlightening book, I thought that at last I had some answers to my questions about the smallest and most basic material particles.
Certain aspects of my childhood experience, however, had always made me feel uneasy. Because they were invisible, I didn’t know how to talk about them. They didn’t have names because they didn’t really fit into the category of “thing.” I had two sets of a dozen blocks. Each block had a letter or digit printed on each of its six faces. By lining up the right blocks I could spell lots of words and produce numbers without writing them on paper. It didn’t take me long to notice that if the blocks which spelled out a certain word were lined up in a different way they would either spell a different word or no word at all. RAT might become TAR or ART. Any change in the lineup of digits could produce a drastically different number. I also found that I could use blocks not just for spelling words or making numbers, but to build walls, staircases and houses. The possibilities were endless.
Something magical could happen when I would change the position of one or more blocks. The significance of a whole arrangement would change. Something new and different could come out of the same old blocks. When I was given the rods and wooden connectors of Tinkertoy and the metal pieces of an Erector Set, I could put together all sorts of different contraptions from a small boxful of pieces. My mother was also a magician. She could take some flour, shortening and water, a few apples, sugar and spice – and later, a glorious apple pie would come out of the oven.
I never heard any adults expressing surprise, however, when these kinds of mysterious occurrences happened. Grown-ups ordinarily and regularly make their living by producing new things. What I considered to be marvelous magic was what they ordinarily expected. What was so fascinating to me was, to them, just “the nature of things.” I never heard them use any words with which I could express my awe concerning this strange, creative kind of phenomenon.
As I grew up, of course, I eventually came across certain ways in which other people had tried to speak meaningfully about these important, changeable but invisible “in-betweens.” I learned that the connection between two or more things is called a “relation.” Some relations seemed to exist mostly in my own mind – ideal relations, like when I was planning how to lay out the pieces to make a wing for a model airplane. Other relations could be real and powerful enough to be called “actions” or “forces.”
I now know that a relation may seem to be quietly simple but can actually be very complex. The relation between the sun and the earth, for example, is all of the following: a gravitational relation, a thermodynamic relation, a seasonal relation and a luminal relation.
When things are placed in sequence according to a certain principle or rule, they are said to be related to each other in a certain order. If several things are being shifted around, different states of the whole lot will result. An order or a state, like a relation, is not a material thing. Changing the order or states of things takes time. Time is the imperceptible secret of the creative “magic” which, without warning, uncannily brings forth an emergence – “something” entirely new and different out of what was already available.
Maybe you have played the game called Jenga. You start with a large number of flattish wooden blocks three inches long, an inch wide and half an inch thick. You pile these up in successive side-by-side layers, each of which consists of three blocks. Each layer is laid on at right angles to the previous layer. If you keep piling them up this way, instead of a collection of blocks you will eventually have, as an emergent, a tall, teetery tower with a square cross-section. The players take turns at removing a block from anywhere in the tower. They have to be careful lest extracting their block should topple the tower. The blocks which have been extracted are then placed carefully on top of the tower, building it higher and higher – and making it increasingly top-heavy. The player who reduces the tower to a tumble of blocks is the disgraced loser.
Though you watch ever so carefully, when the tower collapses, you will never figure out where the relations which originally created the tower-form went. You won’t catch them in the act of disappearing. From being an ordered set of orthogonal relations they just suddenly stretched in all directions to form a helter-skelter pattern. The tower wasn’t really made of things – the blocks. It was constructed of relations between those things.
Order and organization
My father kept his saws, chisels, gouges, rasps, mallets and other tools arranged in a particular order on racks behind his workbench. By observing and watching I learned the order in which I should always put them back if I had been using them – first the saws, then the chisels, the auger bits, the wrenches, the screwdrivers and so on.
When Dad was working with wood, he might saw off a piece, then reshape it by shaving its length with his drawknife. Sometimes he might gouge out a strip or round off an edge with a rasp. The order of the tools on his racks had nothing to do with the order in which he might use those tools. His tool-using actions had an order in time – he used this tool first, then that one next. His actions had more than a purely spatial order.
He would drive in a chisel with blows of the mallet. When each blow had been delivered, it was just plain gone. The next blow and all following blows also vanished immediately when they had landed. Like relations, actions are not things. Things seem to last much longer than actions. The names of things are nouns, but actions are called verbs, infinitives and participles. Things may have an order in space; actions happen in an order of time as well as one of space.
My father knew what tool to use at the right time in his projects. He was a skilled workman. One of his favorite sayings was, “There’s a system for everything.” In those days I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by a “system.” To him a system was a planned consecutive series of actions. One action should be followed by another which makes possible another and another until the desired result is accomplished. To conduct water from the water main to a kitchen sink, you need to join pipes, elbows, connectors and valves to each other in a certain order – a “hooked up” water system.
I now realize that I can put relations into systemic order in several modes. I can join up actual material components, as in plumbing or electrical wiring. In imagination I can also relate the concepts of those actions and things so that they form a system of ideas. Alternatively I can draw out on paper a connected set of lines and symbols in a diagram which represents both the ideal relatings and the eventual actual relatings between the components of a successful system.
When interest is in the function of systemically related components – what the system was designed to accomplish and how its parts contribute to that achievement – the system can also be called an organization. For example, the constitution of a social organization sets forth the relations of responsibility and authority expected to be upheld between its levels of personnel and departments. Everybody involved is expected to know and respect the general purpose which sets the direction in which all organizational activities are heading. All personnel must know who does what and who is accountable to whom. The hierarchical aspect of a social organization is thus a sort of “pipeline” designed to facilitate the efficient flow of responsibility, information, energy and goods. Unlike a pipeline, however, all levels of a social organization must be respectfully open to receiving wise advice from experienced, skilled personnel and from other people who may be affected by the organization’s presence and activities. If these cross-connective and “upstream” relations are not welcomed, a social organization will soon be in trouble
Although systems and organizations have things and/or persons as components, without the un-thing-like relations which connect them, neither things nor persons nor systems nor organizations would exist.
The universe is much more than an indeterminate quantity of material particles or blobs of “energy” distributed in various persisting or repeatable orderly arrays. Neither is it a machine which goes through exactly the same series of identical, particular actions again and again and again. Since the internal and external relations of all components of the universe are always changing, the universe must be considered to be more than a system of systems. The universe is a process. Unlike a repetitive machine, it is more like a story that goes on and on – a time-drama. The phases, stages and states of a process cannot all be experienced in the same present moment. People who are used to employing calculus to assign a value to any momentary state of a process should have little difficulty in conceiving the universe as an ongoing process consisting of a succession of vast, universal Now-states one after another.
What we call a “thing” is really a structure – a stable, orderly, interconnected arrangement of seemingly simpler physical elements. In the long run, however, every structure should be understood to be a slowly changing process. Unless it suffers strong interference, anything that is considered to be a stable structure lasts in much the same state for “a long time.” The structures of people, animals and plants not only persist for a considerable length of time, but they grow by a wonderful relational process. Material particles may be physically separate but are held together in structures by electromagnetic relational forces. The structure of the solar system is maintained by powerful gravitational relations.
Because we are so much more familiar with things than with the essential but invisible relating which sustains them, we naturally tend to give our primary attention to material things. Thereby we subscribe unthinkingly to a materialistic philosophy.
Time in materialistic science
Interestingly enough, Western science has been evolving from a preoccupation with material things to a fascination with complexly related systems of systems.
The more traditional cast of scientific mind is still most at home in dealing with substances, analysis, classification, mechanics, physical chemistry, molecular biology, genetics, information, particles and “strings.” Because time is invisible, intangible and un-thing-like, it has always been difficult for materialists to comprehend. They have usually thought of time in terms of numerically divisible space, as if it consisted of ghost-like transparent “stuff” stretched out into a fourth dimension. Some have even conceived a “block universe” which is impossible to represent on paper – a three-dimensional spatial “body” with a fourth so-called dimension which can easily be taken to consist of a fixed-forever causal order of actual historical events. The passing of time is just an impression which comes to an observer who, paradoxically, is free to move past that completely static universe, observing it on the fly.
Much recent scientific interest, however, has turned to energy transformations, relativity, fields, self-organization, systems, order out of chaos, cosmological symmetries and umbrella-type formulae from which might be derived a Theory of Everything (TOE). Thinkers with a more relational interest, however, typically confuse time with motion. If time is measured by the motion of clocks and earth, and motion is measured by time, that approach is locked into a circular kind of reasoning. Moreover, conceiving motion rationally is drastically plagued by paradoxes in the light of the laws of traditional logic. Anyway, how could “timeless logic and mathematics” be expected to explain a time-dependent universe?
Few scientists of whatever stripe want to take seriously the possibility that somehow time may come discretely. A physical atom is somehow conceivable, but an atom of time…? Time doesn’t seem to have a cause or a source of energy. What would stop it and start it again? Time affects the whole universe all at once, and that’s too much of a muchness to fit neatly with any of the common images in current theories. Too many fundamental assumptions of traditional physics would certainly be jeopardized by the consequences of temporal discreteness. The universal validity of the principle of cause and effect, the axiom of the conservation of energy, and certain notions of relativity would be threatened. I can understand why materialistic science prefers to leave questions about the nature of time to philosophers and science fiction writers.
My reflections on the possible discreteness of time, however, have convinced me that postulating throughout the universe a perpetual process of beginnings for flicks of duration and their subsequent endings requires postulating the continuous existence and creative power of God. Despite the common sneer that “God” is just a catch-all for unsolved problems, it may be that some important problems cannot ever be solved by conventional scientific principles. If we are ever to arrive at an ultimate explanation for everything, “the buck” must stop with God.
Not many are bold enough to claim that, in any comprehensive sense, we understand God. A cup cannot contain the ocean. It is quite clear to me, however, that science without God cannot provide a humanly satisfying explanation for the existence and development of the world. Without God, a meaningful conception of time will be unattainable.
If it could be demonstrated conclusively that time actually does come in successive pulses, that discovery would be embarrassing to those who disregard theology – as embarrassing as was the realization that the universe has been and still is expanding in all directions. A “movie” of that expansion run backwards must inevitably arrive at an absolute beginning of the universe. That beginning would be inexplicable by accepted scientific principles. Some scientists, by overlooking crucial aspects of the developing structure of the universe – the essential agency of time being one of them – have conceived self-existing matter as organizing itself from a featureless state into orderly systems. But how did the clever, dovetailing potentialities of dumb matter arise? What are the odds of a set of particularly auspicious initial conditions arising out of a featureless explosion? Who originated the ingenious genetic language of the DNA molecule which has apparently guided much of biological development?
The obviously theological answer to all such questions need not be dogmatically shunned by scientists on grounds that it doesn’t make sense. For a closely critical mind, does the world as science currently portrays it really make sense? I think not.