Clock Time, Cosmic Time, and Free Time

This is about time and transformation and what changes and what never changes.  It began with reading a novel.


Courtesy: Lisa D. Anness Butterfly Garden.

Recently I had some rare free time to read fiction. While reading Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Black Girl, White Girl which I had found in a stack of withdrawn library books, I came across the following quotation recited by one of the characters in the novel, Minette Swift,

“That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been;”
— from Ecclesiastes, 3:15.

Here is a bit of the context. The narrator is the main character, the “white girl”, Genna Meade. Minette is her roommate at University.

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But no, Minette couldn’t be reasoned with. Minette knew that things were “meant to be” and some things were a “test” of how you could take them.

There was weakness, and there was strength. Oh, in the smallest thing!

“Do you believe that everyday is a `test,’ Minette?”

Minette sniffed, fixing me a look confident as Reverend Virgil Swift’s at the pulpit. “Every day? Every minute.  Why’d you think, we are here on earth in clock time?

I asked Minette how else we could be here, except clock-time, and Minette said briskly, ” `That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been.’ ” This was a reply I could not challenge for I had no idea what it meant.
— from Black Girl/White Girl, Joyce Carol Oates, page 50–51.

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There are other cool biblical excerpts concerning time. I won’t list them all. I do not do bible studies a’ight!

Ecclesiastes 3:14. “I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him.

3:15 “That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 6:10. “Whatever exists has already been named, and what humanity is has been known; no one can contend with someone who is stronger.”

King James Bible: “That which has been is now; and that which is to be has already been; and God requires that which is past.”

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OK, so what’s that all about? Is if some kind of pre-modern scifi? haha!

Well, I often think of some of the great prophetic books of ancient times, like the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tripitakas, the Zend Avesta, the Bible and the Q’urân, as works of science fiction in disguise. I think the reason is that all those scriptures were written in allegorical language. You simply cannot read them literally or you will fall into the pit of fanaticism.

Countless in number are the people who read the Bible literally and then use it as an excuse to do crazy murderous things, or just plain crazy things. Likewise with the Q’urân. It’s not that these books are evil. Quite the contrary if you read them with spiritual metaphorical eyes. But if you take their meanings literally then you will be led into all sorts of paradoxes, confusions, delusions and ultimately madness, only you won’t think you are mad, you will think you are doing the work of God“, which is the most tragic irony because you will probably be doing the exact opposite!

One thing for sure I know, in my heart, is that the bible and the Q’urân teach tolerance and kindness as quintessential attributes people should strive for as default behaviours and inner states of mind. Yet time and again Biblical literalists (people who preach the gospel’s of the great scriptures directly as if every sentence had a direct literal meaning) turn in to people who are intolerant, didactic, unsympathetic and cruel. Witness that they will often insist their word is law, or their God offers the only truth, and their truth is the word of God. It’s all madness, yet they see it not as such. Fanatics like this are easy to recognise. They seem so proud of their ”faith“ that they hold on to it in the face of all contradictory evidence, and they twist facts to fit their warped view of religion, and will insist all other views of religion are the warped ones. It is so pathetic, I truly feel sorry for such souls.

And that is one reason why I think treating these Holy books as science fiction is a profitable venture. It may not be what the authors or inspirer’s for those scriptures intended, but it is healthier and, I think, more helpful to think of them in terms of science fiction than to read them literally.

Well, what else can you do with allusions like, The Moon will turn blood red and the stars will fall from heaven?  There is no other rational option other than scifi, right? Or at lest you can treat such passages as allegorical poetry, full of hidden allusions, and interpreted in terms of spiritual reality rather than the literal physical reality in the bare words.

Thus, one scifi reading of “the stars shall fall from heaven” can be assumed as follows: the stars of religion are the clergy and priests of former dispensations. When they “fall” this means they become egotistical and threatened by a new dispensation of religion, a new prophet, and they seek to murder the new religion, kill it off (either literally or figuratively I suppose! It has happened, the attempt at least, to quell a new revelation, in fact it seems to happen regularly in history whenever a new prophet arises). The “stars falling” is thus the debasement in spiritual station of the revered elders and clergy of previous religious establishments. That’s the scifi reading.

And the “Moon turning to blood” might refer metaphorically to the sacrifices a prophets’ followers may make in the formative years of a new revelation, their blood (meaning their energy and spirit) is spent in the effort to teach and establish a renewal of religious laws and teachings and guidance. There may be other good interpretations equally valid. You just need to figure out what “blood” symbolises in religious canons, and what the Moon symbolises. I’m not an expert on these matters, but I’m sure someone can full in a decent scifi interpretation of such biblical passages. A lot of the weirder stuff appears in Revelations, so I’m sure someone has studied this in the correct non-literalist light.

But my purpose in this essay is to look at the quotation about past and future and “now”. It’s good stuff because it is not all scifi. There is some interesting science fact in it as well.

How the Future Has Already Been

So far this is just a warm-up to the quote about past present and future. This took my fancy because I used to work in a Time Standards laboratory with atomic clocks. And although that job did not involve time travel or other cool scifi, it was a cool job for me because I’ve always been fascinated by time and general relativity and cosmology. In time and frequency standards you do not get to explore cosmology, and general relativity is sort-of hidden behind all the software and atomic clock internals.

Time and frequency standards plays a very important role in modern technology, especially in GPS and stock market trading and airline scheduling and navigation. This is all fine and good, but the truly interesting physics only happens at the research frontier, which unfortunately was not in my job brief (my research was supposed to be on microwave measurement standards, but I never got hooked on it).

Cosmology, the large scale features of the universe, is intimately connected to time. And no one really understands time. It is perhaps the most common concept in physics, but also one of the least understood. Einstein’s theory of general relativity, for example, tells us that the future has already happened, and we are merely creatures with past-only memory cells in our brains which makes us think we are experiencing a flow of time, when in fact we are merely observers, watching our completed life as if through a movie reel, one frame at a time.

This is why we can say the future has already been. From the proverbial “god’s eye” view into our universe, all future events are connected to the past by the geometry of spacetime. In Einstein’s theory space cannot be separated from time, in fact, they are merged together in a deep way. Experiments confirm Einstein’s insights. One of which is the observation that an object travelling close to the speed of light measurably ages slower, but it’s spacetime velocity (4-velocity) never changes. In fact every object, even objects at rest, have a constant 4-velocity which is always equal to the speed of light (300 million metres per second).

Einstein explained this by postulating that our universe is not just an isolated sequence of “nows”, but is rather a continuum of all times over all space, and our entire universe must be regarded as a complete four-dimensional geometry. When we move we simply shift from maximum velocity through time (called “ageing” rather than “moving”) to part movement through time and part movement through space. At the extreme and object might move only through space and not at all through time, and such things do exist, they are called photons (or particles of light). Since photons move entirely through space and not through time they never age.

To visualise this, think of an object as having a 4-velocity vector (an arrow pointing in it’s direction of motion). The four directions are three of space and one of time. So you might try to imagine four perpendicular axes, but if that’s too hard, imagine space is squeezed down to just 2D or 1D, and then you can draw time as an axis on a sheet of graph paper. An objects’s 4-velocity is a vector (arrow) measuring the objects direction of motion in all four directions.

When at rest this 4-vector is pointed only into time. Then as it starts moving, say after being pushed by a motor, it’s 4-velocity doesn’t change in length, it just rotates so that now it points a little bit into space and still mostly into the time direction. Then as the object picks up speed and gets faster and faster it’s 4-velocity still never changes but rotates further into space and less into the time direction.

So in general relativity, the theory of our cosmos as a whole, time and space are inseparable. And aging is just another word for motion that is motion through time.

So the Future is Out There

The future is just events in space time ahead of the events in spacetime you are currently experiencing. But what does “currently experiencing” mean? It means there is a local notion of “now” which is the time on a clock travelling through life with you. This could be any clock. Your biological clock is a good one. You can measure the age of a person by examining their DNA damage or their bone cross section structure and/or other indicators, a bit like a tree’s age can be measured by examining core’s of it’s trunk which reveal growth rings.

But “now” for you is not “now” for me as I write this essay. Your “now” is in my future since you cannot be reading this until after I finish typing and posting this.

Which is why “now” has no objective meaning. It’s a purely subjective and relative notion. And such concepts, while accessible to science, are not part of fundamental physics theory. Physics deals with only objective reality.

The objective reality is that space and time are a single connected continuum we should call spacetime. And so all of your subjective “past” is connected to your “future” and so the future exists already and is in an anthropomorphic sense waiting for you to experience it. It’s dangerous to use anthropomorphisms in scientific explanations, but I think there is little danger here. Most people understand what this means. The “future” is not a thinking entity which can “wait for you”. But it is a bit like film frames on a movie reel that are waiting to be run through the projector when you will then see them on screen in your subjective “now”.

So “future” is entirely relative to your “now”, and what you consider to be “now” is purely an invention of your brain and it’s senses. It’s changing all the time, right?!

Your conception of future is thus largely an objective fiction, although subjectively it is very real and perfectly natural. Part of your nature. But not part of the nature of the cosmos as a whole.

What is objectively true is that the cosmos encodes your future for you. It all unfolds in your timeline, and your brain’s memory gives you it’s conscious perception of an unfolding universe through time. This is a subjective fact for you, but an objective fiction for the cosmos.

Or rather, to be more precise, it is not an objective fiction. Imagine yourself to be a “god of our universe”. You can look at all of spacetime as a completed structure. You can slice space along some direction, and then all perpendicular coordinates become a relative past or future to the slice that you’ve created or picked out. So future and past can be generated by simply choosing some spacetimes coordinates for a “now”.

Thus, for theological scifi we can get quite close to scifact by using general relativity. The future already exists, and you are just watching and otherwise sensing it flow into your life and memory.

Foreknowledge and Free Will

There is an apparent conflict between general relativity cosmology and quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is an undeniably established feature of physical reality. It tells us that the future cannot be predicted with pure certainty. Experiments confirm this. Quantum mechanics dictates that we can only ever have statistical knowlegde of the future. The universe evolves in time only probabilistically. The amazing thing about quantum mechanics is that it can be experimentally confirmed with certainty that the universe and the future unfold non-deterministically.

The future is totally uncertain, but odds and likelihoods about the future can be computed precisely. So the future is not all chaotic and chancy. Certain weird thing could happen, but with exceedingly small odds. The laws of quantum mechanics mathematically tell us what all the odds are, the odds the Sun will still rise in the East tomorrow, for instance. (That’s one event with near 100% probability, but it is not absolutely exactly 100%, would you believe! No kidding. And I’m not talking about human government officials overnight deciding to redefine the direction of “East”.)

This is great for those who wish to believe in free will. Since it means the future could be partly determined by decisions made by conscious creatures, which is what we normally refer to as “free will”.

But it seems to conflict with general relativity which, as I’ve mentioned above, implies the future already exists. How is this paradox resolved?

The interesting thing is that physicists do not have an agreed resolution. General relativity and Quantum Mechanics have not been fully unified. Physicists still seek a unified theory of all reality. It is a great unsolved problem in physics.

Also, the future is locked-away from our knowledge because the way our brain memory works is limited. It can only store information about the past. Some other type of entity might have two-way memory, of past and future. But not our biological brains. So we cannot access the future even if it does already exist. Of course, we actually do access the future all the time, but it is very poor access, it is serial sequential access. That’s another way of saying that psychologically time seems to “flow in one direction”, towards the future.

There are some fascinating issues about the psychologically perceived “flow of time” which relate to statistical mechanics and the Second law of Thermodynamics. But I do not want to expand them here. I will probably leave them for future articles!

One point I should make is that there is no logical puzzle in the fact that the future is unpredictable and yet maybe pre-existent. So logically quantum mechanics and general relativity could be in complete harmony. The reason is that quantum mechanics does not dictate the future universe is non-existent. It merely tells us that we cannot predict the future with any certainty, only with prescribed probability.

But you see, if a thing can be subject to accurate and empirically confirmed probability estimates, then it is a reality which will happen, and who can say it has not already happened? Like making bets on a horse race in a movie that has already been filmed. Provided none of the audience has access to the film reel, they can have a fair betting game. This is basically what our universe does to us scientists! Why? Because our physics seems to forbid time-travellers. If time-travelling were allowed then it would completely mess up the foundations of quantum mechanics, and general relativity would win the theoretical battle. That’s because time-travel would in principle allow perfect prediction of the future, whereas quantum mechanics says (in it’s core mathematical development based on many good experiments) that no measurements can ever be used to determine the future exactly. But as I’ve hinted, there is no logical reason why the two theories cannot be fully compatible.

It is perfectly logically reasonable for the future to be entirely unknown to present measurements, and yet entirely pre-determined. One way to see how is to imagine tachyons — influences on our past or present which have arrived from the future. Since we do not have memory or measurements of the future, because we cannot observe tachyons, we cannot use them to construct precise predictions of the future. And yet the future can be “out there”, pre-existent. It would just be inaccessible to our measurement instruments. This could be the big key to understanding quantum mechanics. But is is not established accepted physics yet. The trouble is most tachyons are indistinguishable from anti-matter.

Ironically, if such a reconciliation between relativity and quantum mechanics could be established it would probably mean we’d be able to detect tachyons, i.e, confirm they carry future information and are not merely anti-matter particles. And if we could confirm they were in fact tachyonic (carrying information backwards in time) then would we not thus have access to future information and thus enable predictions of the future, and thus overturn the principles of quantum mechanics? These are interesting philosophical questions. But no one can foresee the answers!

So our future is already determined, but we cannot know it because our memory works only in one direction through time. It cannot encode tachyonic information. And in a deeper way the laws of quantum mechanics forbid our knowledge of the future because of the way information from future states of the cosmos are locked-away in structures which our present measurements can only ever, even in principle, detect using probability.

For theology one can say that although God may see all future and past as one completed whole, just as Einstein theory of general relativity would allow, we sentient thinking conscious creatures nevertheless have a sense of free-will because our future cannot be foretold within spacetime.

Caterpillar to Butterfly Metamorphosis

Purely by accident, while I was writing this article i was listening to an episode of RadioLab called “Black Boxes” (radiolab podcast 2014-01-17). It was an entire podcast devoted to various black-box phenomena. These could be anything at all for which something known goes “in” and something knowable comes “out” but for which what happens in between going in and but is mysterious = a black box.

There was a cool one about a pair of Aussie radio broadcasters back in the 1950’s who did a telepathy trick which no one has ever discovered the secret for.

But the black box which interested me a lot more was the podcast about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. This is still a largely mysterious biological process. If you slice the pupa of a caterpillar mid-transformation, you see just a lot of yellow-white goo, like snot. But within this goo are bits of the caterpillar’s brains and nerves, which can survive the liquification process and impart some residual memory for the butterfly. What butterfly’s do with this memory is fairly primitive, but adaptively useful. For example, a caterpillar can be trained to respond to avoid certain smells, e.g., by behavioural association of a certain previous neutral smell with some kind of nasty induced shock, like an electric shock or simultaneous exposure to a bitter chemical.

This was pretty cool science, the fact that a humble caterpillar can actually be behaviourally conditioned. Normally only higher conscious animals can be behaviourally conditioned. But now I learn insects can be conditioned crudely.

But what was really interesting turned out to be that some dude back a century go sliced a caterpillar length-wise along it’s body and showed that inside the caterpillar, were embryonic butterfly wing and antennae structures — near transparent fine structures close to the caterpillar’s skin. And when slicing a young pupa open similarly length-wise you can see the wing and antennae and other butterfly parts are initially squeezed up against the inside of the outer shell of the pupa.

That’s so cool. Especially since while listening to this podcast I was writing about transformations of past to present and to future.

So a caterpillar already contains within itself the image and form of it’s future adult butterfly.

But when you think about it, so do we all. Within our cells is hidden an almost complete image of what we will look like in old age, provided we survive so long, and neglecting injuries and such-like.

How the Past is Now

The other half of the biblical quote is also true. And is a little easier to understand.

Most of your immediate past is still with you, in the form of memory patterns stored in your brain’s cells and neurological structure. Actually, nerve cells in the brain do not store memory, it is the connections between brain cells which constitute memory. Yeah, but memory is not perfect, and so your brain does not record the past history of the entire universe.

There is a deeper scifact way in which the “past is now”. Do you know what it is?

Now is a Boundary on the Past

The basic idea is classical physics. The laws of physics dictate how one state of the universe transforms into a future state. But you can run this script in reverse, and so use current state of the universe to “predict” or may “postdict”, what had to have been the immediate prior state, say one second ago, or a millisecond ago, or whatever resolution in time you desire.

No one can reconstruct the past like this perfectly, which is why history is largely a humanities topic, not a scientific or physics topic, other than the stuff studied in geology and astrophysics and archeaology.  But the physics idea is that the present is a boundary on the past, and from this boundary one can in principle reconstruct all of the past.  All the past universe gets encoded in information on it’s boundary.  In a slightly different guise, in modern physics this concept of information for an entire volume being encoded in it’s boundary is known as the Holographic Principle, and it has been extended well beyond the classical physics paradigm in order to complement Superstring Theory and add to our understanding of Black Holes.  But that is another topic for another time.

Memory has been mentioned already, and this is another illustration of how the past is always “with us” in some sense. All events in the past contributed to our present conditions, and if anything had been different in the past then by the laws of physics the present would not be the same as it is. So, in principle, even though not even remotely in practice, one can conceive of reconstructing the past from only the knowledge of the present.

Scientists cannot do this for the universe as a whole, not even for a glass of water, but an imaginary all-seeing God could do such a trick if they knew the precise laws of physics and the precise arrangement of all molecules in the universe at just the present time. So it’s science baby, not scifi!

The Encoded Past and the Decoding Future

In information theoretical terms, our past is present with us, but trapped within all the results of history mingled together, unravelling it is a decoding process. Running the outcome of the laws of physics in reverse. Curiously, in our known universe, those reversed laws of physics are precisely the same as the forward laws of physics. Amazing huh? Not kidding you. But to explain this — to explain why it is surprising — would be another excursion into statistical mechanics, which I will not take.

Likewise, our future is already determined, but we cannot know it because our memory works only in one direction through time. Yet from our present, given the laws of physics, these laws are constantly decoding the information about the past and somehow (no one really knows the how of it, how does it happen, are we inside a computer simulation, a Matrix, or something more bizarre?) these laws, or whatever it Is that rules them, is ceaselessly and relentlessly generating the reality of our present and near future. At least this is how we psychologically perceive the universe unfolding. The reality is more likely that the future already exists and we are merely walking into it with perennially uncertain knowledge of it.

And in a deeper way the laws of quantum mechanics forbid our knowledge of the future because of the way information from future states of the cosmos are locked-away in structures which our present measurements can only ever, even in principle, detect using probability. We cannot access hypothetical tachyonic information from the future.

Aside: This thing about an inherently probabilistic universe raises an interesting didactic point I feel like remonstrating about for a paragraph: a universe ruled by quantum mechanics is deeply an fundamentally a universe of probability mechanics, in fact this is probably a better description, why people say “quantum mechanics” is an accident of history, arrived at because the first clues that our universe is ruled by probability mechanics came from experiments revealing atomic spectra — which are due to light emitted from atoms from transitions between quantized energy levels of electrons orbiting atoms. (When an electron drops in energy level it emits a photon.) There were also experiments on electron magnetic properties which revealed that electrons have a type of spacetime symmetry property called “spin” which is also quantised (electron spin is discrete, in fact it is either +1/2 or −1/2). These experiments are why the newly emerging quantum mechanics. Yet there are plenty of things with energy or with symmetry in nature which are not quantized like this, and yet everything in nature obeys the probability principles which are the true foundation of quantum physics. Hence the theory should properly be called probability mechanics. Or since Isaac Newton’s name is often associated with classical (pre-quantum) mechanics, perhaps another famous physicist could lend their name to the modern theoretical structure, although it is hard to think of a name which resonates — Heisenberg, Bohr, Dirac, Schrödinger, de Broglie, Pauli, maybe Feynman? Feynman was not one of the first inventors of quantum mechanics, but his name sounds the nicest to my ears, the others are too harsh or exotic. The dudes who actually discovered the mathematical mechanics of quantum mechanics were Heisenberg and Schrödinger, and their respective formulations are often used, they are “matrix mechanics” and “wave mechanics”. In Heisenberg’s formulation the probabilities are represented by matrices (specific types of arrays of numbers). In Schrödinger’s formulation the probabilities are represented in wave amplitudes. OK, that’s all for this aside. I guess we are stuck with “quantum”.

In summary, I guess I just want to emphasise that biblical quotations should be treated a little more like scifi than as literal fact. But I’m being mischievous here. What is more serious is to read the great works and scriptures of theology with an open mind and an open heart and try to extract spiritual meaning from them before any literal meaning. I’m fairly certain there is nothing truly literal intended in the holy scriptures. The original authors (or inspirer’s) surely were writing (or inspiring) from the vantage of a far highly plane of reality than the mere physical. So their “Moon” and “stars” and “Sun” and “heaven” and “blood” are almost surely nothing to do with the (physical) cosmological stars and galaxies and creatures. I think our future civilisation will prove me right, but I can only place a probability on it.

*        *        *

Like the caterpillar, we all carry our future with us, and from our present cells we can in principle decode our entire past, in more detail and with superior fidelity than our memory.

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