Earlier in the week I posted a ‘musing’ about time.
I’ve been thinking about the issues raised there for quite a while, but more recently I’m inclined to suggest they have some bearing on our present-day intellectual battles.
I have just begun reading Keith Ward’s More Than Matter?, which makes the following point:
Most people ... accept a philosophy of common sense. They assume that things continue to be roughly what they are observed to be even when nobody is observing them. We live in a world of real objects in three-dimensional space, and we observe it more or less as it is (this is ... sometimes called naive realism, because many philosophers think it really is rather naive). (30-31)
That, I think, pretty much describes where most people are at. Indeed, I would go further and say that is pretty much where the public discourse encourages them to be at. We are encouraged to think of the world on a ‘what you see is what you get’ basis, within which we are marginalized as mere accidents, able to observe for a while but due to disappear quite soon, whilst the ‘reality’ of the universe continues as it has always done.
At the same time, however, we are also encouraged to regard human affairs as of mammoth importance — the state of the economy and the behaviour of governments, for example, are prominently headlined, even though, for the most part, most of what is headline news only affects us emotionally (and, indeed, is written up precisely to affect our emotions).
Thus one could say we actually live in a ‘Matrix world’, imagining we are busy with important things, but shielded from too much present awareness of the real reality.
Of course, those who understand much science (and especially physics), know the naivety of this ‘naive realism’ all too well. Matter is not matter ‘as we know it’. Nor, indeed, is time what we ‘know’ it to be. Indeed, our ‘real’ world of space-time is avowedly elusive, and, at the level of ‘common sense’ almost illusory.
One illustration of the latter, it seems to me, is the question of when ‘now’ becomes ‘then’.
Common sense says we live in the now — the present moment — which has an extension in time. My guess is that for most people ‘what is happening now’ is quite a flexible concept. Right now I am typing. Right now in Africa people are starving. It is now early evening in Perth — and so on.
Yet if we think about ‘now’ as ‘that which has not become the irrecoverable past’, it becomes contracted almost to the point of vanishing. By the time I finish typing this sentence, the production of the capital B is already ‘the irrecoverable past’. I can go back and correct a mistake, but I cannot go back in time and not make it in the first place.
Worse than that, however, by the time I have typed the w at the end of ‘now’, the n at the beginning is already in the ‘irrecoverable past’. And so it goes on, as we slice ‘now’ (both the action of producing the word, and the concept itself into smaller and smaller sections.
But, of course, it is not just the ‘time’ that is irrecoverable, it is also the matter — the physical reality that we think of as ‘permanent’.
And this realization can, I think, be somewhat mind-boggling. We are accustomed to think of the past in terms of millennia (or even ‘billennia’) that, by their sheer magnitude, establish it as something ‘real’. Yet it would seem that actually nothing ‘in the past’ exists. Certainly it existed, but only for that brief moment we call ‘now’. In our ‘now’, what is ‘then’ doesn’t exist at all.
More strangely still, the entirety of the universe is exactly the same. All the vastness, from here to whatever is the furthest point we can speak of as physically existing, is actually in existence only ‘now’. We may predict what vast swathes of it are going to be like in a moment’s time, or even millions of years time, but what we can predict nevertheless has no existence. And we can see what equally vast swathes of it were, and how that relates to the nature of things ‘now’. But what once ‘was’, now ‘is not’.
And this, I would suggest, has implications for the answer to the question, ‘Why are we here?’ For although the condition of the world ‘now’ results from its condition in the past, the existence of the world ‘now’ stands — it would seem — separated from either the past or the future.
And there I must leave it — for now.
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
16 December 2010
16 December 2010