You won’t learn much about how to knit from a quick glance at a woman with a knitting needle in each hand and a ball of yarn in her lap. You’ll have to follow carefully her every move as she knits, watching the needles and her fingers as they form each loop in the yarn and work it through another loop. Before you can actually see how the knitting goes, the ordinary speed of the knitter’s flying fingers will likely have to be reduced by about 75 percent.
Knitting machines have scores of needles of an entirely different kind. In operation all of them move too swiftly for your eye to follow. To understand how the machine turns yarns into knitted fabric, a single photograph of the action won’t help you very much. You will have to study detailed drawings of the various phases of the whole process, or a sequence of single-phase photographs, or a slow-motion film.
To run through the complete cycle of its operational phases, every dynamic system requires a certain period of time. The necessary changes of materials, energy or information are all “time consuming.” Time is of the very essence of systems because they involve change and motion.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that time appears to be an essential ingredient in the principal concepts of physics—the study of physical systems. The symbol of time appears explicitly in the equations which are commonly used to describe frequency, speed, acceleration, velocity, momentum, work, power and energy. Time is also involved covertly in other important conceptions such as mass, causality and the conservation laws, not to mention the processes of measuring and calculating. Computers may become faster and faster, but computing still requires a period of time, however infinitesimal.
If you were to look for an expert who knows a great deal about time, your first impulse would probably be to ask a physicist. Strangely enough, many physicists have actually given very little time to thinking about time. If they ever do try to come to grips with the subject, they soon give up with a shrug, and relegate time with all its mysteries to the philosophers. In doing so, I hope they never resort to the face-saving excuse, “It’s really not in my field.” That is simply not true. However legitimate it may be for physicists to decline to comment on a multitude of other subjects, time is so utterly basic to every physical process that it undoubtedly lies in the very center of every physicist’s field. Until science comes up with an adequate conception of time, no scientist will be able to claim a full understanding of even the “simplest” physical interaction.
The all-too-common shrug about time leaves the door wide open for persistently curious people like myself to propose hypotheses which feature the nature of time. Such hypotheses might even significantly challenge present physical worldviews, and could issue in a radical reunderstanding of the universe.
I suppose that most reflective persons have wondered about the nature of time. It is involved in everything we ever think about. Time, like the continuous drone that runs under all bagpipe tunes, underlies everything we do. In the past, present or future tenses of our verbs, every sentence that we utter reflects something of time.
If we could understand time, we might be able to deal with some o the most intriguing questions that are asked about events in this universe. No subject, however, proves to be more inscrutable, more riddled by paradoxes or more plagued by perplexity. Questions involving time, though couched in the simplest words, quickly turn out to have profound implications for our beliefs, our model of the world, our theory of knowledge and how we understand the significance of our lives.
Here are a few puzzlers for you to consider in depth (if you have time):
Does time have you?
Why can’t time be hurried along any faster?
Does time keep right on going even when nothing at all seems to be moving?
Why hasn’t everything that could happen already happened?
We can see clocks, changes and motions. Why can’t we perceive time itself?
Is there anything anywhere that doesn’t change with time?
Why do some things last longer than others?
Why should anything last?
What source provides the perpetual supply of fresh new moments?
Why does time flow in only one direction?
How fast does time flow?
Does time always and everywhere flow at one uniform rate?
If so, what controls time’s rate of flow, making it constant?
How long is Now?
Where has the past gone?
Why do time and space always occur together?
What time is it now on the star of your choice?
You are, of course, free to bypass or ignore this whole subject. But I personally would feel uneasy about not facing up to the mystery of time. I’m not happy about muddling along in unresolved confusion about such an all-pervading, important aspect of my world and all its systems. I have therefore read and thought a great deal about this subject and I’ve made up my mind about it as best I could. I’m now going to set forth ideas about time that, after critical examination, have commended themselves to me.
Almost any shade of opinion about the nature of time has received the support of some eminent authority. Opinions on various aspects of this subject differ widely and often conflict. Small chance that my conclusions about time will satisfy you immediately and entirely. They don’t satisfy me in all respects yet either. I can promise, however, that if you follow my argument through this and the following chapters, you will be exposed to a worldview which you will not likely encounter anywhere else.
When Western scientists wish to produce accurate and useful descriptions of the physical world, they automatically turn to mathematical expressions. Calculus has a way of dividing the track of a moving point into infinitesimal sections while holding the whole trajectory together as a dense and continuous mathematical series. There is always another number between any two numbers, however fractional they may be. By analogy with this mathematical continuity, physicists from Newton’s day to the present century have usually conceived motion as a continuous flow. They have, however, disagreed about whether the moving world flows through time or with time or whether the flowing process itself is time.
Unanimous agreement has never been reached, moreover, as to the direction in which time flows. People who are preoccupied with the pushiness of mechanical causation consider that time always flows from the past toward the future. So do those who envisage historical events as moving toward some ideal goal or destiny. Others have believed that in the beginning God laid out the whole future history of the universe in an unchangeable sequence. For them, humans, like phonograph needles, passively participate in the oncoming river of predetermined events that flows inexorably and uninterruptedly from the future toward them and on into the past. Some vigorous spirits believe that in their private rowboats they can breast the time-current which streams down toward them from the future. They think they can freely maneuver themselves into more advantageous positions somewhere in that passing flood.
For ancient peoples, if time ever seemed to flow at all, it did so intermittently. Mostly they experienced time as occurring in episodes, each with its own peculiar characteristics and distinctive name. Each day was a different day. It began with the rising of the sun and ended with its setting. The day’s occupations having ended with nightfall, the creatures of the nighttime sallied forth and roamed about until the dawn of the next day. For the Hebrews, the new calendar day always began at nightfall, because they believed that the first daylight came after aboriginal darkness.
The differences between the seasons were usually clearly discernible. The advent of each new season was customarily marked by a special festival. As the year advanced, different and widely separated constellations of stars appeared once more in the night sky. People born under a certain configuration were often believed to have been stamped by it with a set of unalterable and characteristic personality traits. In fact all events whatsoever were often popularly believed to be completely determined by the astrological “signs of the times.”
If any ancient writer spoke of time as a whole, it would be considered to be simply the sum of the eras during each of which a certain ruler or dynasty had held sway. The coronation and death of a king clearly demarked his particular reign, during which period the history of his realm took on a special character. Similarly a unique event, such as “the first sin” or the birth of a Savior, could mark the beginning of an “age”—one so radically different from all previous ages that ever afterward people would place events as having occurred before or after that outstanding “marker event.”
Whether or not people have believed in the unbroken continuity of time, they have seldom objected to having it chopped into segments by time-measuring devices. Even modem physicists do that. It has always been useful to be able to specify a certain time of day or night to get together with someone, or to begin or to complete a job. To ordinary people, their hours of labor and the watches of the night have always been of much more practical importance than a philosophical notion about the unbroken continuity of time.
From ancient days, therefore, there have always been those who assumed that any long time is only the sum of many separate “little times” or “instants.” But how small is an “instant”?
Nowadays the word “discreteness” is commonly used to refer to the complete separatedness of momentary “atoms” of time. The word “atom” originally meant “what cannot be further cut or divided.” The apostle Paul used the word “atom” when he spoke of a “moment of time, the twinkling of an eye.”1
Many famous thinkers took seriously the discreteness of time. A list of them should include at least the names of Zeno of Elea (fl. 475 B.C.); Martianus Capella of Carthage (fl. 470 A.D.); Isadore of Seville (d. 636); the Venerable Bede (d. 735); al-Khazali (d. 1111); William of Ockham (d. 1349); Evangelista Torricelli (d. 1647); René Descartes (d. 1650); Arnold Geulincx (d. 1669); Nicolas de Malebranche (d. 1715); and David Hume (d. 1776).
After the seventeenth century, the high prestige of the mathematical idea of continuity, however, carried it over into mathematical physics and even into theology. Any philosophy which then proposed that time might be atomic, i.e., discretely “granular,” seemed quite ridiculous, for “everyone knows” that time flows continuously.
The great divide
It was also taken for granted that any given amount of energy could be divided, and divided again and again into smaller and smaller fractional portions. Eventually one could arrive at as infinitesimal an amount of energy as one might wish. Energy, it was therefore believed, could be radiated, absorbed or transported in any amount whatsoever that could be mathematically specified. Not until the infinite divisibility of energy had been successfully challenged did reputable minds once more begin to take seriously the possibility that time also might actually be discontinuous, its moments discrete.
In 1900 Max Planck demonstrated experimentally that action (the product of energy and time) is not endlessly divisible into tinier and tinier fractional portions. Once a certain measure, which Planck dubbed a “quantum,” has been reached by a process of division, further fractionalization actually becomes impossible.
Planck showed that action, as it were, comes in discrete packets, each of an equivalent and standard value, much like the least coin in a monetary system. Higher denominations of currency must always be multiples of the value of the smallest coin. Each item in a store must be priced in terms of the coin which bears the minimum value or it cannot be paid for precisely.
In our changeful physical world the situation is quite similar. No action involving less than one quantum of energy can ever take place. Each energy transaction will be found to be a multiple of the quantum unit, which is 6.625 × 10-34 joules/second. Unless and until the energy input into some situation has reached the magic measure of at least one quantum, no new action can take place.
The shocking news of Planck’s discovery that energy units are discrete burst upon the savants of natural science like a volcanic eruption. They shook their heads incredulously, hoping that somehow this unsettling revelation would go away.
In 1905, however, Albert Einstein used it to explain a physical conundrum known as the “photoelectric effect.” Physicist Philip Lenard had noticed that when light rays hit a metal surface, electrons are ejected, and that the speed of these ejected electrons never exceeds a certain maximum limit. According to classical energy theory, the more intense the light, the more energy should hit the surface. With increasing intensity of light, the speed of the ejected electrons should therefore become greater and greater. The reason an actual rigid restriction is always obeyed by exit speeds was a real puzzler.
Einstein’s proposal was that light—indeed all kinds of electromagnetic radiation—is emitted in quantized units, later to be called “photons.” The energy in a light ray consists of such quantized units. The amount of energy produced is determined by the vibrational frequency at the ray’s source. Einstein maintained that each photon which falls upon the metal surface has but one quantum of energy with which to drive out an electron, no matter how intense the illumination may become. When applied to an electron in the metallic surface, one quantum of energy can accelerate it only so much and no more. Hence the mysterious upper speed limit on light-ejected electrons. Einstein’s quantized photoelectric theory was soon experimentally verified by Robert Millikan.
A connection between quantized energy and frequency—the rate of oscillation, which is, of course, a direct function of time—was also soon accepted without question as the explanation of many other hitherto unexplained physical phenomena. For example, ultraviolet light can ionize air molecules, but visible light can’t. The reason? Too slow a frequency, which means it hasn’t enough energy to do the job. The spread of the lines of color in the spectrum of light emitted by arc-heated substances corresponds to the quantization of energy levels in atoms of those substances. Insight into the atomic structure of the various substances was thus gained, and identification of substances by spectrometry became possible. Quantization also explained the specific heat of solids at low temperatures. Once turned loose, quantum theory quickly swept the field in physics.
Prom ancient times people had wondered about the nature of matter. Was it solid? Entirely solid? All the way through? Or was it composed of tiny, discrete, indivisible units—the “atoms”?
Just before World War I the first evidence appeared which showed convincingly that matter is indeed atomic. Absolute “solidity” as a meaningful concept immediately vanished. Matter was now admitted to consist mostly of “empty space.” Even the strongest steel is riddled with holes. Discreteness was appearing everywhere. The continuously solid world of physics was falling apart!
Niels Bohr developed a model of the hydrogen atom which resembled the solar system. In his conception, the atom had a central nucleus around which a lighter particle called an “electron” could move in little orbits—orbitals—much as planets move around the sun. Bohr noticed that electrons travel in only a few orbitals and that these are spaced out one after the other at increasing but specifiable distances from the nucleus.
In the normal energy state of the atom—the “ground state”—the electron will be found moving in that orbital track which lies closest in toward the nucleus. If however the atom becomes “excited” by inputs of energy, the electron will then be found in one of the orbitals farther out from the nucleus.
Bohr explained this behavior and the spacing of the orbitals by the principles of quantum theory. If one quantum of energy is imparted to the atom, the electron will speed up, its momentum swinging it out into an orbital farther from the nucleus. Two quanta will send the electron two orbitals farther out, three will move it three, and so on. Sooner or later, unless the electron escapes altogether from the hold of the nucleus, it will begin radiating off the quanta of energy which it absorbed. When it loses one quantum, the electron will move into that orbital which is next closer in toward the nucleus. Losing two quanta, it will move two orbitals inward. Emitting three will move it three, and so on, until the atom returns to its unexcited ground state and radiates no more. In making these discrete “quantum leaps,” the electron seems to jump the full distance from one orbital to another instantly. The spacing of the orbitals at those particular distances from each other appears to be due to the fact that no fractions of a quantum of energy exist which would move the electron only part of the distance across to a new orbital. The action has to use up a whole quantum of energy or none at all.
Bohr’s speculation that energy may be transferred to an atom only in quantum units was proved correct by the experiments of James Franck and Gustav Hertz. It is now known that, while a quantum of energy may produce a jump between orbitals, it can also abruptly change a particle’s linear momentum, its angular momentum, its magnetic polarity, or its charge. A quantum can even alter the inclination and precession of an orbital.
Whatever the aspect of microphysics that is being investigated, the quantum unit, called h or Planck’s constant, always turns up. In such physics, therefore, discreteness and sudden quantized mini-micro-discontinuities in the transfer of energy are today as commonplace as the addition table.
Creation enters physics
In modern particle accelerators, atomic nuclei are bombarded with very high energy particles. These nuclei can be disintegrated into a large number of kinds of subnuclear particles. The tracks of these particles can be followed in cloud chambers, bubble chambers, spark chambers or photographic emulsions. Events have been detected which raise swarms of questions about what can and cannot happen in this world. Quantic discontinuities abound.
Some families of particles are stable. With time others break down or “decay” into other kinds of particles, often with unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences.
One of the heavier kinds of particles may break down into any of five or more different combinations of different particles. In any particular case of decay, no one can predict which particles will emerge or which combination of particles will result.
Science has always repudiated the existence of any process which, like the orthodox doctrine of creation, involves getting something from “nothing.” Sometimes however in particle physics, events occur which appear to come very close to that repudiated principle.
When two particles collide, two quite different particles may appear. Then, for no apparent reason, these two new particles are replaced “by four others, two of which are of the very same kind as the two that originally collided and initiated the whole sequence. Just where did those two extra particles come from? If you can’t get something from nothing, physicists believe that any surplus particles must have been derived from the kinetic energy of the swiftly moving original particles. This supposition seems to be confirmed by the fact that the replacement counterparts of the latter move more slowly.
In another kind of event, extra mass appears out of nowhere. One particle suddenly becomes two, then reverts to its original unity. Quantum field theory explains that the extra mass comes from the energy field which surrounds every particle, and simply returns to the field. Such an event could truly be called a “creation out of no thing,” for an electromagnetic field lacks boundaries and so can’t exactly be called a “thing.”
In yet another kind of microphysical discontinuity, an electron-positron pair will suddenly appear in the midst of a vacuum. After a brief life in parallel the two will just as suddenly combine and disappear in a flash.
Similarly a proton, an anti-proton and a pion will, without invitation or warning, make a simultaneous debut, bow together on the stage of detectability, and forthwith combine to disappear.
Despite the opposition of an “impenetrable” insulating energy barrier, a particle may sometimes disappear from before the barrier and “reappear” beyond it. It seems to have somehow “tunneled through.” It is as if a small-caliber bullet shot at a heavy steel plate went right through it without making a hole. This discontinuity of trajectories is exploited in a number of practical devices, e.g., the tunnel diode. It is also used in explaining radiation from “black holes” and in theories dealing with the origin of the universe.
Tribes of “anti-particles” have been discovered. These possess a characteristic ability to combine with and annihilate the regular particles which are their counterparts. A positron, forexample, is the anti-particle of an electron. If the two should chance to meet, they will wipe each other out.
Anti-particles don’t fit very well with current physical theory. Some theorists suggest that these particles of “negative energy” may be particles which are regular in every way except that they are “moving backward in time.” This suggestion, of course, raises more problems man it solves. But at least it recognizes a connection between energy and time.
These sudden creations and annihilations have driven physicists to scrape the very bottom of their theory barrels. What triggers these sudden appearings and disappearings? Does some even more outlandish particle sneak in undetected by the apparatus, pull its trick and vanish? Are these merely chance fluctuations of field energy—improbable and unexplainable fluctuations and “singularities”? Or could they be acts of divine creation and annihilation?
Ever since the fission of the atom led to the tremendous heat and light of nuclear explosions, matter has been commonly accepted as a form of energy. Today the universe appears to be a vast reservoir of energy which takes on various forms from place to place as the world keeps on changing with time. Although all energy transitions can be demonstrated to be jerkily discontinuous, people nevertheless continue to believe that time flows along with unbroken smoothness. It appears to me, however, that the discontinuities which occur in the energy flow could become more comprehensible if time were believed to come as tiny, discrete mini-durations rather than as an uninterrupted flow.
In order to give a scientific description of movement in a physical system, we measure the masses of its components and the distances they moved during a measured interval of time. We fit these measurements into well-known equations by means of which they may be compared with those values that characterized the system during some other time interval, or with those of other systems during comparable time intervals. By this procedure we can derive values for important dynamic aspects such as frequency, speed, acceleration, momentum, work, power and energy. Thus we can express exactly what seems to be happening in that system.
In the formulae for all these aspects of motion, the units of time are absolutely essential. Without a measure of the time during which a motion or process has been going on, the equations are utterly useless for describing activities that could never have happened at all if time had not passed. Look at the following. Frequency – a cyclic phenomenon’s rate of repeating—is obviously a direct function of time. The amount of work done is described in terms of an amount of mass moved over an amount of distance during a certain time. The power of a certain mover tells how much work it can do in a given time. The amount of energy which was expended to accomplish a given result is determined by the product of the power used and the length of time during which it was operating.
In his theory of relativity Dr. Einstein made a basic assumption: that the speed of light is constant, regardless of the motions or frames of reference of observers. But light could have no “speed” whatsoever were it not for the passing of time. Moreover without “frequency” light could not have its very existence. Frequency obviously depends on the mysterious sequential occurring of time. Time is therefore prior to light. The constancy of the creation-rate of time is the only possible explanation of the constancy of the speed of light.
For physical calculations, the sizes of the units of mass, distance and time have obviously been set by human officials according to accidental cultural customs or arbitrary preferences.
But we must not overlook the fact that one universal unit, the quantum of energy, was not set up by human decision at all. Nobody ever deliberately carved out the amount of energy represented by Planck’s constant from “the great continuum of cosmic energy flow.” The size of this minimal unit of energy is given, universal and definite. Why does this “natural” unit exist? Why is this unit just so large and no larger—or smaller? Why is it a constant?
Being a unit of energy, the numerical value of Planck’s constant is a constant joint product of three factors: a mass factor multiplied by a distance factor multiplied by a time factor.
The unexplained universal constancy of this joint product cries out for an inquiry into the source of the quantum’s bounding limits. Do its limits arise from its mass factor, from its distance factor or from its time factor?
The boundaries of a constant mass may vary widely with temperature. A bucket of water may have the same mass as a great cloud of steamy vapor. Masses know no constant bounding limits. As far as we know, space is boundless, not at all self-limiting. Beyond any markers that we may set up and beyond any edges or surfaces that we encounter, distance goes on and on. Neither mass nor distance, then, can account for the bounding limits which give discreteness to the quantum of energy.
But what about the time factor? Are there any boundaries which are universally encountered in the dimension of time? Does time involve any unavoidable limits that are always there?
Yes. Most definitely YES! Always. Like children who bump their noses trying to walk through clear glass, you and I right now find ourselves confronting invisible and impenetrable time-barriers. To be alive in this world is to be perpetually confined to a place in a sort of “crevasse” which is narrowly open between the sheer walls of “not yet” and “no longer.” We cannot force our way into the future, and there is no way to go back into times past.
It isn’t hard to tell the difference between the present moment and either the past or the future. Events that occur in our present moment of consciousness are vividly perceptible and lively, inviting our participation. The content of any conscious present moment is never identically the same as what was contained in any previous moment. Though imagination and memory can summon likenesses of past moments into present pseudovividness and deceptive liveliness, it is beyond our power to alter the actual content of a past moment in any way. The past must forever remain as it was. If right now any “future moment” has any kind of actuality, it too lies quite beyond our reach. The future can be imagined, forecast or predicted only within a certain degree of probability. The future can be prepared for, but cannot be entirely prepared. The modes of existence which pertain to the past and to the future are quite different in character from that of an actual present moment.
It seems obvious that the present moment must have some duration. Now plus Now plus Now… must not add up to zero duration, for that would do away with time altogether. The long developmental process of the universe and the history of the human race would then be telescoped into one “instant” of no duration.
If Now has always an exceedingly brief temporal duration, and if this miniscule duration is bounded by at least the two aforementioned limiting edges, and if no inherent edges have ever been found for masses or distance, it seems reasonable to maintain that it is the time factor in the constant quantum of energy which gives it those characteristic limits that constitute its discreteness.
The value of a quantum of energy is the constant joint product of a mass, a distance and a time factor. Masses and distances of course may vary. Even if time does come in very tiny durations, there is no way of guaranteeing that all moments are equal. The relative proportions of all three factors that jointly enter into the constant value of h—i.e., mass, distance and time—could easily vary with respect to each other. This intervariant mix could account for the mind-boggling richness of the assorted kinds of events and entities that populate this world. A tiny local variation in the length of the quantic durations in an energy transition could produce, say, the difference in character between matter and light, between kinetic energy and gravitation, between consciousness and dreams. Since a number of relativistic phenomena, such as “time dilation” and the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction, depend upon acceleration (a function of energy and time), it is conceivable that time may be convertible into space and mass. In that case time itself would be the grand unifier of the universe.
The question as to whether or not quantic mini-microdurations are equal is undecidable. Insuperable difficulties prevent us from ever discovering exactly how long a certain Now is. In the first place, we have no means by which we could discern a single mini-microduration. Furthermore, even if we could, it would be impossible to measure it.
Ordinarily we measure the duration of a certain motion by comparing it with the duration of another motion that regularly repeats itself. We call this latter kind of cyclic motion a “clock.”
We cannot ever be sure, however, that the regular intervals measured off by a clock are indeed equal and absolutely uniform. For any given clock, no past interval of time can be preserved alive and intact for later comparison with the duration of some other present interval. Our moments are doled out to us one at a time and they don’t keep well. No clock is known to exist that registers intervals of time which are absolutely guaranteed to be of equal duration.
In any case, comparing two motions will yield us only a ratio between motions. Such a comparison no doubt tells us something about time, for motion does involve time. But motion itself is not time.
A clock merely marks the beginning of an interval of time and its end. But neither the beginning-point nor the end-point of an interval can tell us anything about the time that was going on between these two points. Neither the beginning-point nor the end-point are even motions, let alone durations. When physicists measure time intervals, they make many undemonstrable assumptions about the relation between clock readings, motions and time.
Whether moments of time on the quantic level are actually equal or unequal should make little difference, however, to the view of time which I wish to describe. For simplicity’s sake I shall write as if all Nows are indeed of equal and uniform duration.
Give me a break
Why are we not aware of the discontinuity between one moment and the next? Having lived for many years, I have never experienced a single blank stretch of absolutely “nothing at all.” I wonder how I could tell the difference between an experience of nothing and an experience of not having an experience?! Like the physicists after Planck who had to get used to the discreteness of energy quanta, we too may find it hard to accept the idea that moments of time are also discrete. I can only offer you some analogies which have been helpful to me. Perhaps they will enable you to become reconciled to the unfamiliar feel of a jerky, come-and-go universe.
On a large scale, suppose you were awake only during daylight hours, that you always went to sleep before sunset and did not awaken until after morning had dawned. You would never experience the disappearance and reappearance of the sun. You would be oblivious of the amazing spectacle that is revealed during the night—a black sky wondrously spangled with stars. Without knowledge of what happens during your sleep, your impression that the world is unceasingly full of sunlight would be quite mistaken.
On a smaller scale, if two people are looking at each other’s eyes while blinking at exactly the same rate, neither person can detect that the blink-state of the other’s eyes ever changed at all between blinks. A closed pair of eyes seems to remain closed. Half-opened eyes will remain half open. Fully open eyes seem never to have closed.
If every time you look at this page you find it here at the very moment you happen to look at it, this coincidence does not prove that either its existence or yours has been uninterruptedly continuous. Nor does this experience guarantee that there has not been a stroboscopic-like synchronized flashing into actuality and out and in again on the part of both you and the page together.
We all believe, however, that we are not deceived as we experience our own individual continuity throughout the many phases and differing events of our lifetimes. Why is that so? Because much of the world around us changes so slowly and imperceptibly, we regard certain landmarks as being static, almost permanently so. Our memories of these unchanging features seem equally unchanging, so we believe that we ourselves who remember have a long-lasting continuity.
In our remembered experience, “effects” have followed “causes” with great regularity. We therefore assume that there is an unceasing law of causality which eternally ensures that there will always be a necessary and continuous connection between events in any one causal series. If these connections between successive events were ever to be eliminated, if the world were ever to become a mere succession of discrete, momentary Now-states, we would expect things to fall apart like a barrel without hoops or a picket fence without stringers. Our existence and that of everything we know, we believe, must be continuous.
With such deeply rooted convictions about our own continuity as persons, we usually ignore the discontinuous way in which we receive information from the world around us and within us. Information reaches the center of our consciousness only after it has been picked up by our sensory organs. All of it is transmitted by “off-and-on-and-off-and-on-…” firings of our neurons, our nerve cells. Though we never experience the world as flickering in and out of our consciousness, our nerves are utterly unable to send us an uninterrupted, smoothly flowing stream of information.
A “moving picture,” of course, never actually moves. A series of still pictures, each image slightly different from the one before, is flashed on the screen. Frame follows frame—flick-flick-flick—at just the right rate to superimpose a somewhat differing image upon the viewer’s eye before its retinal chemistry has lost its brief impression of the previous picture. The experience of movement which results seems quite smooth and “natural.” Unless the rate of projection slows down, we aren’t aware of definite “breaks” between successive frames.
Viewers staring at pictures on their TV screen are never conscious of the swiftly moving, pulsating dot of light which lights up various portions of separated lines across and down their picture tube. People see only one whole, moving and simultaneous picture.
It takes a while to get used to the idea that the continuity of time’s “flowing” is not smooth but interrupted by break after break. This means that the continuous causal “chains” that for centuries have dominated scientific explanation are actually loose lineups of separated “links.” If this is true, a thorough revision of physical theory and a radical reinterpretation of physical phenomena is in order. A way has been opened to believe once again that each moment of our lives, and of the duration of the universe, is supported only by the creative hand of God. Any continuity which we experience is derived from the uninterruptible continuity of the Creator’s being, purpose and memory.
Before we enter a discussion of the enormous theological implications of time’s interrupted continuity, we should look into the mystery of the one-way march of time.
1. 1 Corinthians 15:52.