By Theodore St. John
Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2005 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: St. John, Theodore. "Timeless Epiphany." Quest 93.5 (SEPTERMBER-OCTOBER 2005):175-179
When we try to pin down the origin of the time-flux in our perceptions we encounter the same tangle of paradox and confusion that greets attempts to understand the self, and it is hard to resist the impression that the two problems are really closely related. I strongly believe that it is the 'whirling vortex of self-reference' which produces what we call consciousness and self-awareness that drives the psychological time-flux. It is for this reason I maintain that the secret of mind will only be solved when we understand the secret of time.
—Paul Davies, God and the New Physics
Time flows. But if something flows, it changes with respect to time. So time must change with respect to time. But nothing can change with respect to itself. This paradox flows from the basic paradox inherent in the definition of time. Read any general physics textbook and you will find that time is defined by a unit of time: the duration, or amount of time from one cycle to the next, of a time standard. Any phenomenon that repeats itself may be used as a time standard.
Time is not defined as something, but by something because nothing physical can define a unit of time. It has no physical existence, though it can be measured. Time is not material itself, but a concept that allows one to understand change in the material world. The fact that time is not physical doesn't matter to science. As long as it can be measured, it can stand on its own. It is considered real.
Space, in terms of length, is defined in the same way: by the measurement of something that occupies space, like a ruler. But it does not present the same paradox as time; a unit of space is defined by a physical object, which does not appear to change. It is tangible and much easier to grasp because you can literally grasp it in your hands. A student must accept both these definitions as fact in order to learn any of the other relationships in physics, but some of us never get over the gnawing feeling that something is missing in the basic philosophy behind these concepts. And then there are those who have experienced timelessness, a mystical moment of extreme clarity that reveals innate wisdom and leaves one with certainty that there is some kind of ineffable distortion in our everyday perception of reality.
The mystery of time and timelessness is an ancient one that is probably solved in every generation of humankind. You would not think to find it written in science texts because those who understand it do so through direct experience of timeless unity. They generally express their experience artistically in terms of images, allegories, myths, and parables. These expressions automatically take on a religious and even fairy tale appearance, and are thus forbidden to enter the halls of science. However, the question of time and timelessness does appear at the pinnacle of quantum physics, in an equation known as the time-independent Schrödinger equation. This equation is too difficult to explain here, but it is mentioned here to direct the interested reader, who is academically inclined, to learn how timeless reality is understood in modern physics. If you are interested, The Tao of Physicsby Fritjof Capra is a great place to start.
Science is based on measurement, and time and space are fundamental units of measurement. I submit that the circular reasoning used to define time and space—two different aspects of the same—is what creates the "whirling vortex of self reference" in ordinary perception. This conceptual vortex locks the metaphorical sword of awareness in the stone of measured reality.
In The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, first published in 1924 and most recently in 2003, Edwin A. Burtt recognized the problem with the idea of absolute time. Burtt explained that the concept of space and time as independent quantities, each with their own fundamental existence, is actually a relatively new idea, which was defined by Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century.
Before Newton, the difference in space and time was certainly recognized. People knew that things moved in space and changed in time, but they were not considered to be fundamentally different phenomena. Instead, they were seen as aspects of motion. The strict definition of time as an absolute was then stated by Newton:
Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, or a year.
This definition was accepted because it was such a useful concept. In order to derive meaning out of reality, Newton separated motion into two aspects and considered time to be the absolute. Motion then was considered to be secondary, the process by which time was measured. He did the same thing with space, saying that absolute space remains always similar and immovable, and then defined absolute motion as a translation from one absolute place to another. We are so used to it that we rarely give it any thought and when we do, it is hard to imagine any other way of looking at it. But back then, the idea of motion as a measure of time was recognized as a philosophical blunder, as expressed by mathematician Isaac Barrow:
Nor let anyone object that time is commonly regarded as a measure of motion, and that consequently differences of motion (swifter, slower, accelerated, retarded) are defined by assuming time as known; and that therefore the quantity of time is not determined by motion but the quantity of motion by time: for nothing prevents time and motion from rendering each other mutual, aid in this respect. Clearly, just as we measure space, first by some magnitude, and learn how much it is, later judging other congruent magnitudes by space; so we first reckon time from some motion and afterwards judge other motions by it; which is plainly nothing else than to compare some motions with others by the mediation of time; just as by the mediation of space we investigate the relations of magnitudes with each other (Burtt 158).
Motion is the fundamental reality, not time or space. As the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said, "The only constant is change." Motion is change; time and space are only measures of motion, conceptual tools that we use to "compare some motions with others by mediation." We need something constant for our minds to hold onto, so we artificially separate change (motion) and defined relatively constant units called space and time. A spatial measurement does not actually measure space, it measures a change in space. In order to measure something in space, there has to be a difference between one end and the other of the thing being measured, and there must be a way to identify the ends, such as the physical ends of the ruler or tick marks on a line. The same is true for a time measurement—it is a measure of change from a point in one cycle, to the same point in the next.
A spatial standard does not require any sort of pattern, although a regular pattern in space can certainly be used as a standard since a beginning and an end can be perceived. But a time standard must repeat at regular intervals because the regularity of the interval is what allows one to pin it down, that is, to mentally convert change into an apparent constant.
Something that can be perceived as changing repeatedly by the same amount in both space and time, such as the wave pattern shown in figure 1, can be used to define both space and time. This is the key: you can measure change in two different ways, spatial and temporal, so it appears that the measurements are two fundamentally different phenomena. But it is the measurement that makes them appear to be different, not the phenomena themselves. Space and time are two different ways of measuring change. The only difference between the two measurements is the frame of reference. If the observer is in the same frame as the wave, there is no relative motion between the observer and the wave, so the only change that can be measured is the change in space, for example, from the beginning to the end of the wave. In this case, the wave cannot be used to measure time. A second frame of reference, one that moves relative to the first, is required for the wave to change in time.
To illustrate this, look at the wave pattern in figure 1. It is stationary in your frame of reference, so there is no way to use it as a time standard. It can be used to measure a unit of space because you can see where the wave crosses the grid lines. I could now define one unit of space as the distance between one cross-point and the next. Distance is, of course, an amount of space, and defining space as a measure of space is circular reasoning. But that circularity can be avoided by saying that a unit of space is the difference or change between one cross-point and the next.
Now, if you could not sense anything else in the universe, you would not experience the "psychological time-flux." If you forget about everything else that tells you that time is passing, such as clocks, schedules, aging bodies, increasing entropy, and so on, and focus only on the wave, it would just be as it is—timeless. In order to use the wave to create the feeling or impression that time is passing, you would need a moving reference frame.
Imagine that there is a rectangular slot on this page and the wave is a track cut in a different piece of material moving from left to right behind this page. Now imagine that a pin is placed in the slot as shown in figure 2, and the pin is allowed to ride in the wave-shaped track.
The pin will move up the slot until the wave reaches the peak and then down to the bottom of the slot. The instant it started moving, you would sense time, and one unit of time could then be defined as the change that occurs, for example between one peak and the next. Notice I didn't say a unit of time could be defined as the time between one peak and the next, again because that would be circular reasoning.
The fact that we can measure the exact same change in two different ways, just by using two different reference frames that move relative to each other, is the secret of time. We perceive that reality is made up of "things" that "change" in time. That perception creates the separation of "change" into space and time. Taken together the change in space and time make up space-time—a state of energy. The things that we think of as being "things" are not permanent things, they are patterns of energy. A pattern of energy is a unit of space-time in a particular state—it exists in a unique state of space and time. When an object moves, it changes to a new state of space-time—a new "location" in space and time. If an object is on earth, it is always moving because the earth is always moving.
Space-time is energy and energy is a process; energy is change. The statement that "the only constant is change" is not just a catchy phrase; it is the law of conservation of energy. The only constant is change because change is energy, and energy is change. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed it can only be changed in form. In other words, energy is timeless, eternal. Eternal does not mean for a very long time, it means no time. It is our perception of energy that creates the psychological time flux. Thus time as an independent, fundamental quantity does not exist. The only reality is now—the energy that exists right this moment. If you consider the past and future to be real, then the current moment cannot exist because it would simply be the interface between past and future. But past and future are not real; they are mental constructs created by the concept of time, which is a tool that allows one to understand the process of energy interacting with energy.
Does this mean that physics is wrong to define space and time as it does? No. The definitions of space and time are simply names assigned to measurable unknowns. On the contrary, both classical physics and modern physics are increasingly reliable, verifiable, and undeniable. But they are simply tools that are used to mathematically (symbolically) express measured reality. Because they subsist entirely on relationships—differences—real as well as perceived differences, they are limited to the world of opposites. Symbols used in physics are expressed in the form of an equation, which is itself a duality; there are always two sides of an equation separated by the equals sign. Therefore, although a complete theory can be derived for measured reality, physics cannot express undifferentiated awareness, but only provide an intellectual platform from which awareness can grow.
What we perceive in the form of differences is the process of transforming chaotic energy into awareness. The world of opposites is merely the surface of the expanding universe, that is, expanding universal awareness. It is impossible to perceive the expansion because everything expands together and every observation collapses the space-time state function into the present moment. Every observation expands awareness. The information that resides outside of you is becoming part of you. It enters you via the wave front known as your body. Thus the inner realm is where the awareness resides. An ancient prophet once said, "God is an intelligible sphere who's center is everywhere and circumference, nowhere." Another prophet said, "The kingdom of God is within you."
Measured reality is where the quest begins. It gives us a sense of certainty—something we can grasp, something we can put our hands on and understand. We can understand it because we can perceive it with our physical senses. But just as a computer requires ones and zeros to process information, we need the opposites—the difference in light and dark, left and right, up and down, you and me, and so on—to create awareness. Ironically, the very thing that allows us to perceive is what forces us to focus on the surface of measured reality, where the transformation occurs, and ignore the inner dimension, where the inpidual differences reunite with the universal consciousness in timeless reality.
Measured reality is the reality that exists in time. That is, measured reality is temporal. And everything that is temporal is temporary. That pattern of energy in your brain and throughout your body is your mind, your ego, which you use to run your life. But that pattern is temporary. It changes as you live and it will change forms when you die. Your mind exists in space and time and does not recognize any other reality. It says, "I think, therefore I am," but it does not realize that the truth is, "I think, therefore I am temporary."
Your mind was created by opposites and is itself made up of opposites. That pattern of thoughts and memories that you have created out of information is what you identify with, what you call your self. Thinking is a temporal process, it exists in time and so it is temporary. If you identify your self with your thoughts, you too will be temporary. The thinking part of you is the mortal part of you.
Your mind looks only at the past and hopes for the future. It rarely focuses on the present, because everything it knows is in the past. It is made out of the past. That is how you know it is not the real you, because the past is not real. Remember that past and future are those concepts that we use as tools to understand measured reality, and the present is all that is real. Nothing exists except the moment now. As Eckhart Tolle explains so beautifully in The Power of Now, the true self is not the thinking self, it is the knowing self—Joseph Campbell's hero with a thousand faces. The thinking self says "I think, therefore I am" but the knowing self is timeless and says, "I am that I am" (Exodus 3:14).
References Burtt, E. A. The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. New York: Dover Publications, 2003. Capra, Fritof. The Tao of Physics. Boston, MA: Shambala, 2000. Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Now. Novato, CA: New World, 2004.
Theodore St. John is Lieutenant Commander in the medical Services Corps for the U.S. Navy. Presently, he is head of the Research and Science Departmentat the Naval Dosimetry Center in Bethesda, Maryland.