Thinking About Time

I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of Relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.

-Albert Einstein

My friend Jonathan recently sent me a blog post from sci fi writer/mathematician Rudy Rucker’s blog of his memories of Kurt Gödel, compiled from several talks they shared in the 70s.  I think it’s interesting that Rucker published this piece within only a week of me publishing my thoughts about my interactions with RL “Bob” Morgan.  This isn’t by way of comparison of Gödel and RL “Bob” (although “Bob” did win the California state math championship in high school.)  Nor is it intended to compare my writing with Rucker’s.  It’s just an interesting coincidence.  If you read Rucker’s writing about Gödel, you may even come to the conclusion that it’s an inevitable outcome given the givens.

One thing that struck me about Rucker’s piece is his description of Gödel’s thinking about time- specifically, the idea that time is just one factor in spacetime, and that our perception of time is an artificial perception of an epiphenomenon of higher-dimensional reality.  When you combine this with Gödel’s unique way of thinking about thinking, putting himself in a position to think about very complex problems without the constraints of ordinary reality (cf: his idea that the human mind is capable of understanding the set of all real numbers even though Cantor’s Continuum Problem states that we aren’t capable of knowing the answer) I think you can begin to use the idea to think about time in some really interesting ways.

A black swatch watch on a wrist with pink time markings

One aspect of time that is quite odd is déjà vu – the feeling that something that is happening to you or a place you are visiting for the first time has happened to you before, or that you’ve been there before, even though this doesn’t seem possible.  I can remember having regular, powerful feelings of déjà vu as a child.  In one instance, we travelled to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.  There were several places there which I was sure I had visited before – they induced very powerful, almost exhilarating feelings of recognition in me.  Many people who I’ve talked to about these types of feelings report that they had much more frequent feelings of déjà vu as children.  I have not had any of these feelings since I was roughly eight years old.

I think that the Einstein quote at the top of this piece says something about the way we think as children that can be applied to Gödel’s thoughts about our artificial perception of “time.”  Perhaps, when we experience déjà vu as children, we are somehow accessing the  “unflattened” hyperdimensional reality of spacetime.  What is it that makes us lose this ability as adults?  Does everyone lose this ability?  When you start to explore some of the aboriginal cultures of the world, it seems that not all cultures lose this ability.  What is it about western civilization that causes us to fall out of touch with spacetime?

2 Replies to “Thinking About Time”

  1. Enjoyed the post.

    “What is it about western civilization that causes us to fall out of touch with spacetime?”

    My thought is that conditioning – starting in the schools, and continuing in the workplace – is what is responsible for this. In school we’re very effectively programmed to live in a linear time modality – 50 minute periods followed by 5 minute breaks, with bells to mark each change. This continues in the 9-to-5 workplace – we consistently wake at a given time, report to work, break, report, break, etc., all in an order and linear manner. This sets the predominant pattern for life in modern industrial societies, whose operation is determined by the temporal parameter (t=9:00, t=17:00, etc.).

    Life in aboriginal societies, however, is much more in tune with the “now” or whatever the moment requires. If the current situation facing the tribe requires movement (for example, to summer/winter grounds, or in search of food), the tribe moves. If the moment requires the tribe to stay still (for example, for agricultural purposes), it does so. If the harvest arrives, the tribe can celebrate and at the same time prepare for winter. Aboriginal societies are conditioned to live in the here-and-now, since their survival requires it. Their operation is therefore not explicitly determined by the temporal parameter, and instead arises as a result of the current space-time conditions. Perhaps this allows the aboriginal to maintain contact with higher-dimensional spaces.

  2. Thanks for the well thought out comment – I think you’re correct that we’re programmed by mechanized, industrialized society and that perhaps that’s a reason we lose touch with other dimensions and realities. Some cultures don’t even have words or grammatical structures for past and future, everything is present tense.

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