Chapter 30. No Turning Back

When movie cameras had become cheap enough for families with modest means to own them, it was common to entertain guests by showing the latest home monies. On a family room screen we would watch our host striding out on the diving board, set at a daring two meters above the swimming pool. As his family clapped in anticipation, he would bow elegantly and dive in as gracefully as possible. After the inevitable mighty splash, its waves radiating to all comers of the pool, our host’s countenance would emerge, shedding water and satisfaction. Now he could show off his carefully planned feature film with the projector in reverse.

Appropriately amazed, we would watch while waves rose up all around the perimeter of the pool and converged on one spot. There the water erupted, ejecting our host’s body feet first. At the height of his ascent, he adroitly inverted the position of his body, landing neatly upright on the diving board. Having accomplished this extraordinary feat, our pro diver bowed humbly, gratefully acknowledging the clapping of his family—and of his duty-bound viewers.

Surprising things do seem to happen during such film reversals. They show us a strangely different world. Unreal perils threaten people, as when someone carelessly walks backwards toward the edge of a cliff. Causal sequences produce very unexpected results, like the uprising of a feet-first diver. While hand-clapping looks much the same, since it is repetitious, converging waves definitely look impossibly “unnatural.” Running a film backward is one effective way to remind us that the familiar order in which things happen clearly depends upon the fact that time always moves in one single and same direction.

Reversing the direction of the projector’s mechanism does not change the direction in which time moves. The machine requires the same amount of energy input regardless of the direction in which it is running. After a session of watching wrong-way movies the viewers are just as tired as they would have been if the films had been going the right way. Perhaps even more so! Everywhere time keeps on going in the same direction, even though somewhere within a given locale the order of events in a given process may be reversed.

Even after watching a system for a long time, it may be hard to see that any change has taken place. If no energy input excites an atom, its properties remain constant. It would be easy therefore to consider that an atom is unaffected by time, unchanging and eternal. In an atom, then, time would have no directionality.

Those unchanging atomic characteristics, however, are simply a “higher level” impression given by a very active repetitive change cycle. The atom’s electrons orbit its nucleus so swiftly, so frequently and so similarly that the atom as a whole appears to continue to be always the same. A crystal, of course, is composed of such “timeless atoms,” so over a very long time it too appears to be unchanged. Since stones are composed of these seemingly static crystals, they contribute to the ancient impression that hills are everlasting. (The atoms in the molecules actually “jiggle” a great deal.)

The atom’s apparent constancy is due to the fact that its changing with time is so constantly repetitious. As the electron moves around and around its nucleus, it nevertheless must complete one circuit before another can begin. All motion is subject to before-and-after ordering in time, and cyclical motions are no exception. While observation on a gross scale cannot detect atomic changes, atoms are known to vibrate with measurable frequencies. The vibrations of the cesium atom are accepted internationally as the standard clock by which the accuracy of all other kinds of clocks is gauged. Frequencies are always a function of time. Even though atoms appear to be changeless, they are not altogether exempt from the time process.

At any particular moment the things that make up the face of the entire universe are distributed in a pattern which is discernibly different from that of any other moment, past or future. The layout of all things right now is unique. No configuration has ever occurred before exactly like this, and it will never happen this way again. When you consider the whole panorama of contemporary events across the universe, despite the old saying, history never does repeat itself. Time ever moves on in the direction of unrepeating overall newness.

Why does this unrelenting production of novelty continue? Why should time move at all, in any direction? Why not in the opposite direction?

The clock runs down

According to Newtonian physics, if time were to reverse its direction, the laws of motion would apply equally well, even though the order of events would appear reversed to an unreversed observer.

But the laws of thermodynamics would not fare so well as the laws of motion. If dispersing heat, light and sound were ever to reverse spontaneously their directions of travel, returning to the source from whence they were propagated, the science of thermodynamics would be dead. A compressed spring may regain its original position, but the expiring flame of a burned-down candle can never be reconstituted as the original candle. Billiard balls may roll backwards, but spilled ink won’t rush back into the overturned bottle, leaving an unstained tablecloth behind it.

It is because the motions studied in thermodynamics are characterized by this stubborn one-wayness, that some physicists have claimed that the one-way direction of time is determined by the second law of thermodynamics.

A concentration of energy always tends to disperse through every channel which is open to it. Local concentrations of energy eventually dribble away until they are no longer able to do any work or make any difference to anything. As energy drains from a system, it loses its ability to hold its components together. Its organization then tends to break down into lesser subsystems, the whole thing coming apart in disorderly array. Heat always moves from a hotter body to a colder one. It will never move spontaneously from the colder to the hotter. If left to themselves, heat and all other forms of energy will move in only one direction—downhill. It has long been known that in a “closed” system, i.e., cut off from all inputs of energy from outside the system, each successive state of the system will be more disorganized than the last. Assuming that the universe as a whole is a closed system, as time goes on the accumulated uselessness and disorganization of the universe can only increase. In that case a dismal and deadly end is in store for the world. This degradation of energy and corresponding increase in disorderliness is called entropy.

It is tempting indeed to believe that the inevitable entropic tendency of energy establishes the direction in which time moves. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that the direction of time must always run parallel to the direction of entropy. Entropy is not the universally predominant principle that it is so often made out to be. Far too many situations appear to be outside the province governed by entropic law.

Consider a sealed flask of dye solution. The liquid in that flask will retain its even color and look the same for an indefinitely long time. Within the solution, however, individual particles and molecules are always on the move, bouncing about and jostling each other—the Brownian motion. In this helter-skelter activity nothing ever settles down into any particular order. As long as the temperature of the liquid remains the same, the situation will at no time become more orderly or less disorderly than it presently is. If its every successive state is equally randomly chaotic, within that flask, time’s flow would have no particular direction at all—IF, that is, time flows only in the same direction as entropy. In fact in such a case time would entirely cease to flow, since the entropy is not increasing.

This, of course, is nonsense. It would be ridiculous to claim that the dye solution is timeless and eternal, or that even “for a long time” time stood still inside the flask. The perpetual motions of the dye particles and the molecules of solvent are ordered in time. From bump to bump they are always in motion. Any given bump comes after a certain previous collision and before the next one. Thus on that level, time is operating as usual although entropy has ceased to increase. No chaotic, random situation is timeless. In the most mixed-up muddle, time steadfastly maintains its accustomed direction and the “even tenor of its ways.”

Reputable evidence seems to indicate that the universe originated in a “Big Bang.” An unexplained “singularity”—a unique particle of infinite mass—somehow exploded, thus launching the universe on its expanding, complexifying career. If, according to thermodynamics, energy will never spontaneously concentrate itself, how then did that tremendous concentration of energy which exploded ever become so infinitely concentrated before it so violently expanded? If the Second Law did not pertain, what constraints were operating at the beginning? Something or someone not subject to the law of entropy must have been at work. In that case the domain where entropy applies would seem not to be entirely universal.

It now appears that the Big Bang belched out matter in a most improbable, smoothly distributed way, complete with a gravitational force that has been busily at work making more and more complex arrangements and organizations of that primal material. That’s where galaxies and the many kinds of stars come in, along with the complex atomic products of nuclear synthesis. In the billions of years which have allegedly elapsed since the Big Bang, far more information and organization has come to exist now in the universe than there ever was before. Furthermore the “evolutionary” processes mat have been at work among plants and animals have not worked nearly as far towards the disorganization of organic life as might have been expected. Today among scientists the unchallenged sway of the Law of Entropy is therefore being strongly challenged by highly knowledgeable physicists and biologists.

Although some of the energy in earth’s living things is always being irreversibly used up by their life-processes, for a fairly long time each one manages somehow to gather in new energy from elsewhere. If any organization ceases to be able to do this, entropy does take over, and the failing creature dies and disintegrates. But organisms in general tend to grow and multiply themselves rather than to shrink, wither away and die out unanimously. The earth supports an incredibly large biomass.

In each living creature the dust of the earth—previously disorganized and dispersed by entropy—is perpetually being reassembled and built up into new and orderly organizations. Each living organism, therefore, represents a defeat of the downward drag of entropy. Plants even defy gravity, for in them, water moves uphill.

Throughout the ages, mind-boggling structural and functional innovations without number have emerged from existing life-processes—and the end is not yet. The human race has contributed its own surges to this torrent of living, creative reorganization—a rising swell of inventions, art works and technical projects that has mounted steadily throughout human history.

Dear enemy

Some writers have been convinced that living things are only “local anomalies,” “temporary eddies and pools” in the deadly, downward-flowing stream of degrading energy. In the end, given time, they say, entropy will defeat all life.

How can they be so sure that entropy will eventually take all? How is it that life ever appeared at all on this earth, and that so spectacularly? Something more than entropy is at work in this universe. Where there’s life, there’s hope.

It would appear that by living, organisms use up and degrade energy. Thus life actually hastens the bitter and final end of the world. But in using energy, organisms also maintain their wonderful status as living things. In growing and multiplying, they stop entropy in its tracks Moreover they actually reverse its effect on them, for they can utilize the world’s downward torrent of energy for their own net gains, furthering their own positive purposes.

In order to reach their spawning grounds, migrating salmon on their way up from the ocean have to swim up swift streams that always flow dead against them. They actually employ the downward-flowing waters that oppose their progress, turning them into a ladder, as it were, by which they can climb uphill without legs. They face countless cascades and roaring rapids, but they eventually arrive at their destination, spawn and die. Their bodies float away. But even these carcasses nourish other living things that feed upon them downstream.

Although entropy may seem to have defeated the dead salmon, something of the vanquished is still alive there upstream. Their fertilized eggs will hatch into fingerlings. These too will be swept downstream. But in four years they will come back from the ocean in thousands to make their way back upstream again to begin a new cycle. If humans stopped their overfishing practices, the salmon population would soon greatly increase. How’s that for defying entropy?

Entropy appears to be the enemy of a living organism. If a living thing doesn’t secure fresh supplies of energy before its present supplies are depleted, it will not survive. Yet its life is actually sustained by an entropic process, the breaking down and burning up of food substances. Here in metabolism, entropy smiles and shows a friendly face. As well as destroying life, entropy thus continues life. It contributes both to the ordering and to the disordering of the world, to its reorganization as well as to its disorganization. In the presence of living things, the supposedly universal domain of entropy shrinks markedly, and so also does its seeming hostility.

We should note here that, while entropy is stopped and even reversed by organisms, time nevertheless keeps running on within them in the very same direction that it maintains in nonliving systems.

We have seen that the Big Bang and the existence of living creatures show that entropy is not as universally dominant as some thinkers make out. The nature of atoms also reduces its kingdom even further. In their ground states atoms are, in a way, perpetual motion machines. The motion of their electrons is maintained forever without requiring new inputs of energy. Entropy does drag atoms down from their excited states, but once they have radiated their extra energy and reached their ground states, entropy no longer holds power over them. Their energy level can deteriorate no farther. I’m sure mat a large proportion of the atoms in this universe must be in their ground states and therefore not under the sway of entropy. Within each atom nonetheless time moves on, with or without entropy.

Entropy is therefore not the ruler of the entire universe. Time, however, is in charge everywhere, even in entropy itself. In the strictest sense entropy is the measure of the increase of disorderliness within a system during a period of time. Obviously there would be no entropy if the time process ceased to move on. The passing of time however does not depend upon entropy. Entropy depends upon time. The arrow of time, however, is not aimed by entropy. The reason for its one-way direction must be sought elsewhere.

One-way begins

Some scientists simply take it for granted that the chaotic motions which were involved in that theoretical Big Bang which launched the universe on its billions-of-years voyage gradually settled down into our fairly orderly, averaged-out sort of world. I’d like to know how a consistent one-way direction for time ever became established in that after-the-Big-Bang mêllée of random processes. And how has this single direction been maintained despite all the seething tumult that on the mini-microlevel still underlies the stablest things we know?

In a truly random situation of colliding particles, any shred of orderly sequence, any smidgeon of emerging form, could have only the shortest of life spans. What might have become a lengthening strand of consistent, ongoing process would have had to run backward just when it had begun to run forward. Reversals would occur as frequently as advances. With all those fits and starts, no temporary stretch of identifiably consistent process could in the long run accumulate either net gains or losses. Under such unpredictable conditions any tendency for time to run steadily in either or any direction would inevitably be cancelled out.

I’m waiting for some “singularity in the randomness”—a scientist— to locate the hitherto undiscovered “rectifier” which converts all the “random fluctuations” of the universe into this steady current of time which consistently runs in the same direction.

Where is the “traffic cop” whose invisible hand, by night and by day, tirelessly turns back every attempt to run the wrong way through time’s one-way street?

Modern physicists rely heavily on a basic assumption that the expanding universe which followed the Big Bang must be symmetrical in every possible way. Actions must have been balanced by reactions. They believe that the mass of our familiar kinds of matter should have its counterpart in an equal anti-mass of anti-matter. For every positive charge there should be a negative charge, for every north magnetic pole a south. Mathematical physicists have deep faith in their equations. The opposite sides of the equal sign must balance each other exactly. (Incidentally, that means that when the universe is completely added up and the proper subtractions made, the world process must amount to zero—an interesting confirmation of the biblical notion that God made the world out of nothing!) But what ever happened to all the “other-way” sorties of prototime? The “one-way only” direction of time remains inexplicable in a world allegedly determined by rigorous symmetry.

Cosmic creation time

I propose that time must always march along in one direction, because cosmic creation time is the order in which God is creating and transforming the universe. In making the universe Now after Now, the Creator is doling out its existence moment by moment like the pulsing of a cosmic pacemaker. Anything that is has only a momentary, temporary existence, one which is derived from a single pulse of God’s creative activity. It can move neither forward nor backward in time. Having crossed the chasm between what was and what is, there is no bridge behind us. Ahead of us as yet there is only an abyss of un-createdness. Poised thus between a chasm and an abyss, there is no going anywhere in time. When we find ourselves in the next created moment, that’s where we are and nowhere else. We can never be anywhere in time but Now. This mysterious, up-in-the-air situation keeps repeating as long as God keeps on creating new Nows after previous Nows.

If a sequence of events were actually to happen in reverse, the direction in which time moves on would not be changed. Take, say, a sequence of events A-B-C-D, in which event A happened at moment 1, B at moment 2, C at 3, D at 4. If the sequence were to be reversed so that repeats of these events occurred in the opposite order, D having happened at moment 4, the repeat of C would occur at moment 5, not 3. The repeat of B would occur at 6, not 2, and of A at 7, not 1. Each actual moment, whether occupied by a brand new event or by a reversed repeat of a former event, requires a fresh pulse of creativity from the Creator. To reverse the sequence of events would therefore not affect the direction in which cosmic creation time has always proceeded. Running a projector and film backwards doesn’t make time run backwards.

A true and detailed reversal of the sequence of events in the world would, however, dreadfully upset the “laws of nature.” To make an actual stream flow uphill instead of down would entail reversing not only time, but also universal gravitation. “Down” for the force of gravity would be replaced by “up” for the new “force of levitation.” The earth would begin to fly apart instead of holding together. The whole length of the stream would rise bodily into the sky, followed closely by the rocks and mud in the streambed, as well as all observers standing by. Reversing a stream’s downward flow is not at all the same as merely running a film projector backward.

To truly reverse the events of the actual world would require such drastic changes in the laws of thermodynamics that the world as we know it would be unrecognizable. Repeating the history of the universe in reverse would be impossible. It could not then be the same universe at all.

The pulse of creation

My conception of how Now follows Now is obviously somewhat like the way a sequence of pictures—frame after frame—is projected upon a screen to produce a “motion picture.” Although a title shot holds relatively steady for viewing, and repetition of a single frame results in “frozen motion,” at the level of mini-microevents no two successive frames of the film are absolutely identical. Similarly, the exact configuration of details which make up a given Now-state appears only “once upon a time.” The universe, as it is in any given Now, “comes—to pass.” Each momentary state of affairs is speedily supplanted by a revised version of itself. The Creator is this universal movie’s “producer,” “photographer” and “viewing audience.” God is always extemporizing. With each new time frame, mini-microchanges appear everywhere in the complexion of the universe.

The motion pictures we see on our screens consist of mere shadow images. Due to the slow-fading chemistry of our eyes and brains, these successive images seem to blend into each other. What we call a “motion picture” is real enough for what it is, but it’s only a pseudo-actuality. It’s not at all the same kind of thing as the whole new layer of mass-space-time actuality which, moment after moment, the Creator spreads across the whole face of the universe.

A strobe light can be set to emit flashes at any desired time interval. Between the flashes, say, a second apart, while the room is dark, people can shift their positions and also move other objects. When the light next comes on again people and things will then be seen in somewhat different places, in different groupings, relationships and postures. That’s how we know that they must have moved even though we didn’t see them move. Some are farther than others from the position they held at the last flash. We say, therefore, that during the off-time they must have moved faster than the others. If in the dark time someone should produce a balloon and prepare to inflate it, at the next flash for the first time the balloon will suddenly appear in the scene. As the balloon is gradually inflated, its size relative to the sizes of other visible objects will not appear to grow larger smoothly. The balloon will appear to expand by a set of sudden, consecutive swellings.

This strobe light phenomenon demonstrates that our apprehension of motion, growth and all other forms of change can arise from a swift succession of differences in the spatial relationships of things. Rates of change depend upon how great the spatial differences are between things after a certain interval of time. When the intervals between flashes of the strobe light are shortened to some thousandths of a second, the slow chemistry of our eyes allows us to see the scene as if by “continuous light.” A very fast film, however, would still record a series of slightly different pictures of what to our vision appear to be continuous motions. Such a film can detect things that happen too quickly for the human eye to register—events whose whole lifetime can be measured in thousandths of a second.

Instead of thinking of a strobe light intermittently illuminating a continuously existing and moving scene, think of a Creator alternately setting form and removing the scene, remaking it again and again, each time putting some of the things and people into the slightly different relative positions which they prefer. Sometimes he introduces into the scene items that are entirely new, and sometimes he ends their existence in that scene. If you can conceive this discontinuous process you will be able to feel your way into my understanding of cosmic creation time. In my view, rates of motion, growth and all other forms of change simply express by how much the interrelationships of things become different from pulse to pulse of creation.

Those who wish to know at what rate God is creating the universe are asking for the ratio between God’s working speed and another speed—that of a standard clock. As was seen in chapter 19, a ratio is a purely mental phenomenon. A ratio cannot be found anywhere in the actual physical world. Those who yearn to obtain a direct perception of time while conceiving of it as some kind of ratio between motions will never find it. Ratios belong strictly to the mentacosmic thought-realm, where numbers, comparisons and abstract relations are at home.

Cosmic creation time, however, is essential to the very existence and nature of everything in the ordinary actual world. Time is not something detachable from the physical world. Time cannot be abstracted from the actual historical process of creation and then compared with some other rate. It is unique. As far as we know, there is only one universe and one time-sequence. Any ideas we may have about time are not time in itself. If there is a number that corresponds to the “pulsing frequency” of God’s creative activity, the Creator alone knows what it is.

No film manufacturer can make a film that is fast enough to catch the world’s flickering existence, its on-off-on-off-again way of passing from moment to moment in time. There’s a very good reason why such a film cannot be made. The film, however fast, would come into existence with the very same pulse of creation by which everything whose image it might record also appeared. When those things disappeared, the film too would disappear. The film, like the rest of the world, would have to wait until they all reappear together with the next pulse of creation. Under those circumstances, no film could register the interruptions in the time-process.

I don’t expect that someone someday will build some apparatus that can detect and measure the passing rate of cosmic creation time. No one can feel the pulsing that creates the world. No one can hear the ticking of the cosmic clock. We will always live in what seems to be an uninterrupted, smoothly changing scene. If Planck had not discovered that energy actually comes in miniscule, minimum portions, we would never have been able to infer that motions and other changes are really intermittent, whether we can detect them as such or not.

The word “creation” has traditionally been taken as referring to a once-for-all macroscopic act of God—or a short (six-day) series of such acts—by which the Creator for the first time brought into existence the whole universe and everything in it. If he was capable of creating it all once a long time ago, however, it is not inconceivable that he could recreate it again and again, with new differences, on each occasion.

The apostles John and Paul had a lively sense of the presence and power of God, always at work in his world. May I recall to your mind that John quotes Jesus as saying, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.”1 Paul told the church people at Philippi to “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”2 To the church at Corinth he wrote, “There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.”3

Since the time-process is happening simultaneously across the entire spread of the universe in the one-way direction of “what is ever brand new and never repeated,” we are justified in calling the time-process the process of creation. If everything everywhere is being perpetually recreated, we are warranted in asserting that this process is being generated by the Creator of the universe.

From this point on, therefore, when I am discussing the nature of “Time,” I will be referring to this cosmic creation time—the sequential process by which God is creating and transforming the universe.

The one-way direction of this time and its utter irreversibility force us to recognize that this is not our world. We are able to do many wonderful things by way of reshaping this world, but in all things the ultimate sovereignty rests with God the Creator.


1. John 5:17.
2. Philippians 2:12-13.
3. 1 Corinthians 12:6.