The great philosopher Aristotle once said, “Time is the most unknown of all unknown things.”
That was nearly 2,500 years ago, but it’s still as true today as it was then. Some of the smartest people on the planet can’t really explain what Time is, or how it works.
What we believe about Time is that it’s a dimension and that it’s also a measurement. In other words, it can help us understand when something happens, or happened, and that it can tell us how long something lasted, or how long ago it took place.
Space, like Time, is also a Dimension. Yet, we can move through Space at will, in any direction, but we can only move through Time in one direction: Forward.
As far as we know, it is not possible for us to leap forward into the future, or to skip back to the past. But, according to Albert Einstein, “Time and Space are modes by which we think, and not conditions in which we live.” That means even though we all experience Time as a linear process where one moment is followed by the next, and the next, that’s not exactly how Time itself operates.
What Einstein suggests is that Time may not exist as a fundamental property of the Universe, but as an emergent property.
What’s the difference? Well, emergent properties don’t exist in any individual components of a system, but they do exist for the system as a whole. For example, individual water molecules aren’t wet, and they don’t react to the tides, but the entire ocean does feel wet, and it is expressed in the motion of the tides. Another example would be the way a film, which is merely a series of still images, can appear to have a fluid motion when viewed in sequence at a very rapid pace. The film seems to reflect motion and the passage of time, but that is an illusion.
In reality, each individual frame of the film is completely motionless and never changes. So, the passage of time and motion we experience when we watch a film are emergent properties of the way we perceive those still images when projected against a screen and viewed at 24 frames per second.
So, the question Einstein poses is this: Could the physics of Time somehow be a similar illusion? Could it be that what we see, and even experience, as the passage of Time moving forward from past to present to future, is actually not reality?
Well, the short answer is: There’s no reason for us to assume that Time only flows in one direction.
Our perception of Time is linear, but Time itself is not. Time, like Space, just is. We experience the dimension of Space as we move through it. We never experience the totality of all Space at once, but only the area of whatever space we happen to occupy at that moment. The same is true of time. Time extends in every direction at once, but we only experience whatever area of time we happen to be in at the present moment.
Space and Time are both three-dimensional. That means anyone’s perception of either is relative to their experience, but their individual experience of either is not the totality of it.
The way we experience Time is part of the problem. Because we experience Time in a linear fashion, we tend to believe that all that exists is this present moment. The past is erased and the future is a void yet to be filled. To us, the answer is assumed to be whatever we experience in the ever-flowing eyeblink between past and future that we call “the Present”, or “Now.” But recent developments in Quantum Physics suggest that the future and the past both exist eternally while the present moment is – for lack of a better term – an illusion.
Isaac Newton, the father of classical “Newtonian” physics, taught us that it was possible to measure and even predict the position and velocity of every particle in the universe, leading to a deterministic view of reality. He believed that it was possible to prove that everyone was experiencing the same, absolute, clearly-definable moment called “Now.” But, today’s physicists now know that Newton was totally wrong. Newton assumed that all particles, all observers, and all points in space were ruled by a single, constantly-ticking universal clock. If true, this would mean that it was possible to define a notion of “now” that everyone would agree on.
However, with the rise of Quantum Physics, scientists now know that there is no one single universal clock, and that it is more difficult – and in some cases impossible – accurately predict the position and velocity of a every particle in the universe. Especially once you begin to look at electrons, protons, photons, molecules and other quantum particles. In fact, what scientists realize now is that one can either predict the position of a particle, but not the velocity, or one can measure the velocity of a particle, but not the position of that same particle in space. This means that Newton was wrong. We cannot accurately predict these two things – position and velocity – at all.
Further studies also found that Time itself doesn’t only follow one predetermined path, but that Time exists all at once across all possible dimensions of Space. So, Time doesn’t have a particular direction, and there’s no preferred “present” reality. Time is just a dimension, like Space, and we only observe the flow of time in one direction – similar to the way a film works when we play those individual still images at 24 frames per second to create the illusion of motion and the passage of time.
Having said all of that – and I hope you were able to keep up with most of it – the point I wanted to make is simply this: Time isn’t linear. The Past, the Present, and the Future already exist in one single block. Scientists even refer to this as the “Block Universe” theory for this very reason.
So, if Time isn’t linear, and if someone could step outside of Space and Time and observe it from that perspective, they could see everything all at once. They could zoom in and find me sitting here typing this sentence as I sit at my laptop in my home office, and then they could turn things slightly to view another facet of my life and see me playing with my friends in the schoolyard when I was in Third Grade, and then turn it once more to see me getting married to Wendy when I was in my Twenties, and then turn it again to see how I died. All of it is already there. My experience of my life isn’t like that, but Time is like that.
Another way to illustrate how our experience of Time differs from the reality of Time, is to think of our present reality as the music encoded into the grooves of a vinyl record. We experience the present moment like the needle that travels around the spinning record, but the entire song exists all at once on the record. You could stop the turntable with your hand, roll it backwards, or forwards, or even lift the record off and look at it as a single object. So, in other words, no one is “playing” the music of our present reality. It just is.
This is why I can say – as I did just a few pages back – that wherever my Dad went after he passed from this reality and entered the Great Mystery beyond, I’m probably there with him, and you are too, and so is everyone who has ever, or will ever, live. Because at the moment we leave this Block Universe reality, we step outside of Space and Time and we enter a reality apart from this one. In that great beyond, everything is “now.” So, when I close my eyes and breathe my last breath in this body, and open my eyes in the next reality after this one, I will turn and see my Father open his eyes for the first time, too. We’ll both look at each other and say, “Hey there! You made it!” because we will both arrive in that place at the same moment. So will you and everyone else.
If all of this discussion of Time and Space is making your head hurt, or if you think it’s all just speculative nonsense, let me remind you that, whenever astronomers look into deep space with their telescopes, they are, in fact, looking into the distant past. How so? Well, when we look at a galaxy 140 million light years away, this means the light emitted by that galaxy travelled 140 million years before reaching us on earth. Therefore, we’re not looking at this galaxy as it today. We’re looking at that galaxy as it was 140 million years ago. This means that the stars you see when you look up at the night sky have probably been dead for several million years, and their light won’t flicker out for another million years after all of us are dead and gone.
So, a telescope is a sort of time machine that allows us to look at what the universe was like a few hundred million years ago. We’re actually not sure what the larger universe looks like right now, because by the time the light travels across the vast distance of space, it won’t be “now” anymore. It will be the past. Even within our own solar system, whenever you look at a planet like Neptune, for example, the light you’re seeing took 4 hours to reach us. So, we’re only seeing what Neptune was like 4 hours ago, not what it looks like right now.
One of the more beautiful things about the universe is that it is endlessly unfolding itself. Maybe we are too?
I mean, if Time isn’t linear, then maybe the way we need to rethink the way we think about ourselves as human beings who exist within this dimension.
Under the previous assumptions about time, I tended to see myself as the person who exists in this very moment; this constant “now” of the present. But, that’s not entire true, is it? I mean, I am alive in 1966 at my birth, and that’s me in 1975 playing the saxophone, and that’s me in 1985 graduating from High School, and that’s also me getting married in 1989, and also me moving to California in 1993, and also me moving to Idaho in 2018, and then again moving to El Paso in 2019, and it’s also me waking up three days ago to drive someone to the airport. All of those are me. The baby, the toddler, the teenager, the young adult, the college student, the older, wiser author sitting here now, and the [hopefully] much older version of me that will one day breathe his very last breath; all of these are the same me. They are all – at the very same time – who I am as a person.
Another way of saying this is that, if you asked me to hand you an apple, I would not take a sharp knife and cut off a paper-thin slice to give you. That would be stupid, and weird. But, in the same way, if you asked me to show you who Keith Giles is, and I were to show you a photo of myself here and now, that would be like handing you that slice of apple instead of the whole thing. Because, as with that apple, a snapshot of myself in one single moment of time is an incomplete expression of what my physical existence really is within all of Space and Time.
Now, if this is true, then who am I? How do I imagine myself as one continuous person across every moment of time and space in which I have existed, and continue to exist? Am I more like an elongated Play-Dough snake stretching across the years from my birth to my death? Am I like a series of still photographs placed one after the other that run forward at 24 frames per second in some cosmic movie theater? Am I like a song being played on a long, continuous groove etched into the surface of a mystical vinyl record in God’s record collection?
The truth is, it’s all sort of a mystery, isn’t it? The universe is unfolding. Deep calls to deep. All things are being made new. What we are is a mystery. What we will be is unknown. After we die, where will go? What will happen next?
None of us really knows.
But that’s okay, isn’t it? I mean, how boring would it be if we knew how the story ended, or how it was all going to work out? No one likes a predictable plot. We want to be surprised, amazed, maybe even shocked to discover how deep, and wide, and long the rabbit hole goes.
If anything, it should give us comfort to know that we don’t have all the answers. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s even okay to have doubts.
The original ending of the earliest Gospel – the Gospel of Mark – ends with this startling admission:
“So, they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” [Mark 16:8]
What a way to end a Gospel, right? The disciples of Jesus find his empty tomb. A “young man dressed in a white robe” [v.5] tells them that Jesus is alive, but they never see or encounter the risen Jesus. That’s in the newer, longer ending of Mark, and in the other Gospel accounts, but not in Mark’s Gospel. Here, they find an empty tomb, hear from a young man sitting nearby that Jesus is alive again, and then their reaction is to flee from the tomb in terror and we’re left with this faith-building nugget: “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Wow. That’s a bit of a downer, isn’t it? But the added ending isn’t that much better because twice it makes the point that many who heard that Jesus was alive “would not believe it” [v.11], and “did not believe them.” [v.13]
What this tells us is that, to those earliest Christians, doubt wasn’t a sin, confusion wasn’t uncommon and that amazement was par for the course.
We could use a little bit of that refreshing honesty today, I believe. Admitting that we’re scared, or that we don’t always believe, or that we doubt something about our faith shouldn’t be a sign of falling away from Christ. It should be seen as evidence that we’re walking in the same path as those first disciples. Unsure. Uncertain. Doubtful. Yet full of amazement and wonder at the same time.
When Thomas doubted the resurrection, Jesus didn’t mock him for wanting answers. He was blessed because he believed what he saw with his own eyes. His questions were valid. His doubts were reasonable. His skepticism was taken seriously.
Yes, Jesus did use this encounter as an opportunity to remind us that those who believe without requiring hard proof were blessed even more than those who believed because they found their answers.
Not because God wants us to have blind faith, but because faith itself was never really about seeing, or knowing. It has always been about belief in spite of what you see, or don’t see.
This is why we need to embrace the beauty of mystery.
What do you think?
MEET ME IN NASHVILLE?
PLUS: We’ll enjoy an exclusive private concert performance by Derek Webb on Saturday night.