Monday, 19 January 2009

Faith in time

One of the reasons religious writers sound far more sane than the current crop of ultra-rational evangelical atheist scientists is that theological writers have a better handle on the concept of time than their scientific counter-parts. Time is used in such an entirely practical and sensible fashion within our everyday lives, that we are liable to forget that time in itself is a concept, and one which almost certainly pre-dates the concept of science and may even pre-date the ultra useful human concept of counting.

Take this example from The Guardian 31 May 1986, p28:
"I wouldn't wish the last two years on anyone." said Debbie Moore, chairwoman of Pineapple Dance Studios. "My daughter was totally paralysed for some months. My marriage broke up. There was a lot of criticism because the New York studios were nine months late and over budget. Fortunately that's all behind us now. The company is full of life and opportunities."
Most ordinary English speaking people would have little difficulty understanding the time concepts which were being referred to here. There are indicators of time in almost every sentence, except the last. I shall try and list them below:
  1. last two years
  2. some months
  3. nine months late
  4. behind us now
However, it appears there might be a few more subtle indicators of time, which have not been listed already:

5. I wouldn't wish
6. My daughter was
7. broke up
8. There was

In fact I am not even sure I have found all the more obvious ones yet. Now we have to overlay another time concept, which is that, by default, the entire statement was made in a "now" some time before the paper was printed.

9. sometime before 31 May 1986

Already one problem has occurred. I have had to refer to a time concept "now" which was not in the original statement, but has to be implied as existing. I have no definition for "now", except I know that I am here now writing this, and you will read this at some time in the future.

Now is such an obvious concept, that we rarely trouble ourselves to think about it. But when we do we have a great deal of trouble talking about it with any certainty. Are you reading this in the same "now" as I am writing this? Or are there lots of distinct "nows" which separate you from me? We tend to think of "now" in terms of my latter question, but if so we need to ask how we get from one "now" to another? And from that a very fundamental question arises: How many "nows" have just passed between my writing this sentence and the last? We ought to able to count them, surely.

I am not going to try to answer those questions, for now. I am still here now, typing out this blog post. I want to move on to what a scientist could say about all those identified time concepts which I have listed. Scientists like to talk about evidence, so say, what lengths of time or dates would a scientist say the above statement represents.

  1. a period roughly approximate to two years, some time before 31/5/86
  2. probably more than one month, most likely less than a year, but possibly greater. No greater than two years
  3. nine months after the originally expected date
  4. in the past
Another problem occurs here. "In the past" is neither a length of time, nor a date. I could have said "some time before 31/5/86", but "some time" seems like a very vague way to talk about time, particularly if that is the very subject of this piece. Can I define "in the past" without getting into the same problems which I fell into when talking about "now"? "In the past" is the thing which has allowed now to come about. I still don't know if I am living in one long now, or whether I pass between discrete uncountable "nows" to get from the past to now, but certainly all I experience is just being in one long now. Similarly, "the future" is the thing which occurs as a result of now. Does the future really exist? It doesn't just yet, but it will in time. Yet another problem, I can't talk about the future, without referring back to time, my subject. And when I get to "the future", it will become "now", certainly as I experience it.

I am going to set aside looking at the other items listed for now, because I want to go back to why theologians can talk about time with much greater ease than scientists. Here's a very famous first line from a book:
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."
Three major religions, in all their varieties use this text, and so the knowledge of the phrase is very widely known and spoken with great authority. Some scientists and some people known as creationists argue about the literal worth of the text found within the Bible. In essence the scientists accuse the theologians of being "overly literal" and theologians accuse the scientists of not being able to interpret "the meaning" of the text. Because I am writing as neither a scientist nor a theologian, I shall introduce an even more literal reading of the line above, to try to take a look to see if there is actually an even deeper meaning hidden within.

The standard interpretation of the line seems to be that God came first, then he created two places called heaven and earth. I am deliberately going to over-interpret the meaning of the line, to see where it might go.

The first thing is an "in": by implication there must also be an out.
The second thing is a "the": by implication there must also be an "a".
The third thing is a "beginning": by implication there must also be an "end".
Then came "God".

In my "ultra-rational, ultra-orthodox scientific-theology" there are actually six things which preceded God, and we might also infer there was also some "space", so that would possibly make seven things before God. God no longer comes first, God comes sixth or seventh. I am not going to count any further, because it becomes quite hard. But I would just like to observe that "beginning" precedes God. Beginning is of course a central concept of time, it is the arising of the start of something over time.

I believe that a Buddhist theologian would not necessarily accept that time itself has a beginning. But I firmly believe that when Jews, Christians and Muslims assert "In the beginning God ..." they are laying out the foundations of the concept of time. I am fairly certain that Buddhists speak about consciousness not arising, meaning that there is no beginning or end to consciousness. I am beginning to wonder if a universe without consciousness could even exist. In a direct comparison to the Buddhist paradox of what is the sound of one hand clapping, what could a universe without some consciousness to be aware of it look like?

The scientists' problem is this: what evidence have you got for the fundamentals of time, or is it just something which you have always assumed existed in it's own right? Theologians might consider what meaning we have, if we are nothing more than consciousness arising from a profound sense of "I"; and did time pre-exist God, or did God invent time?

As a philosopher I am going to ponder on the question of why counting is not quite as easy as it seems at first glance, and as a mathematician is shall enquire as to whether true/false really counts as three.


AzBukiVedi said...

I find this very interesting. Ever thought of drawing some inspiration from the Kabbalah?

AzBukiVedi said...

Do you actually believe in God?

Martin said...

I have not read anything from the Kabbalah, I understand it might be some type of Jewish mysticism. Most of the religious writings I have read have been on the subject of Buddhism, these are the only ones I have found I can read easily. I am reasonably familiar with the basics of Bulgarian iconography, I have visited the Boyana church and several other monasteries, not because I want to pray, but because I just enjoy the fabric of old buildings.

As I think you guessed I don't believe in God, but I do firmly believe that we all experience delusions. This is why it is possible to hold completely contradictory positions on something. Basically one just has two competing delusions. When you spot someone else's delusion, you become "cured" of it, and because you are outside the delusion, you understand how it works. This is the first time I have seen two competing delusions, and realised I could in some way meld the information from both. The Bible shows that messages from 2000 years ago can be transmitted back to you, language take you further, but how far can you go? Its almost as if there really is no limit.

AzBukiVedi said...

Hm, I see the threads of dualism interwoven in your way of looking at things. Applies also on the theory of delusions. Kabbalah is the other name for mystical Judaism. In its not distorted form it offers a possibility of looking at things beyond dualism. Considering your approach, however, it might not be helpful to you. To reach certain truths about existence, you need to transcend duality. This idea is also a part of eastern philosophy, it is no invention of the Kabbalists. Just a very basic truth about human existence. It has to be "understood" through (in Aristoteles' terms, although I am no fan of his) "pathein" and not "mathein" (which you are trying). To open a door, you need the right key. However you turn the wrong key around, it will not bring any illumination.

AzBukiVedi said...

I meant "applies to"... Sorry, after so many years in Germany, I find it hard to think in English. Well, whatever.