The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science.
One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have.
Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.
—all quotes from Albert Einstein
We've been having doubts in the Lounge. Doubts of the worst kind: the existential kind. It all started some months ago when we read in Science News that time, as we know it, may not exist.
Such high-flown notions are not rare in the minds of theoretical physicists but they are rarely presented in language that less developed earthlings can grasp, and so it is easy to just not let your mind go there. Once you do let your mind go there, you find that it's not easy to wrap it around ideas that attempt to loosen our firm grip on the past, present and future.
Space, it turns out, is just as much up for grabs as time in the minds of some physicists. The article we read states that
Many physicists now believe that at its roots, nature is built from elements more basic, that space and time emerge from something messier, and then merge into the mirage that human inquiry is able to access.
What we find, however, as we've pondered these weighty questions fleetingly over the past months, is that language itself entraps us in a notion of time from which we may find it nearly impossible to escape. Here's what we mean.
Most folks who got through elementary physics have some notion of space-time, the four-dimensional continuum in which all that we do (or so we think) unfolds. Space, it seems to us, is the easy dimensional thing to parse: although we do it with language (with words like long, deep, wide, distance, near, far and so forth), space has qualities that seem verifiable independently of language: we can test it and experience it with two other senses: sight and touch. Creatures less endowed with intelligence than ourselves negotiate space very successfully, just as we learn to do — pretty much in the prelinguistic phase of our lives, as nearly all mobile creatures do.
Our experience of time, on the other hand, is mediated conceptually, learned via language, and communicated almost exclusively via language. Think of your experience of trying to learn another language: until you get a grip on the way to distinguish the past, present, and future with verbs, and master the relations that English deals with via words like ago, since, until, and later, you don't feel at all conversant. During this learning process, it's also likely that you do a bit of grappling because each language has developed its own time reporting system, none of them being a perfect overlay for the system in another language.
If you've had experience of talking with young children, or mentally impaired adults, you see pretty quickly that there are ways in which they don't get time: they have either not learned, or have lost their connection to the consensus version of time that we all accede to via language. A look at creatures less endowed with intelligence than ourselves suggests that they hardly bother with time at all: they seem content to live in an eternal present that doesn't compartmentalize the time aspect of space-time.
So it seems as if we have to some degree "spatialized" time: we've taken the easy bit of space-time (the space part) and grafted it onto our understanding of time. We've given time graspable dimensions, laid it out on a line that runs in one direction, from past to future, where we are conveniently located in a place we call the present. Many English prepositions that we think of as temporal also have a spatial aspect (after, at, before, until, for example) and in fact most of these started out their careers referring to spatial, and not temporal relations. So it's arguable that, whatever "messier" foundation exists in nature, we have simply kludged a workable idea of time, a consensus reality about it. Our time is a specialized metaphor of space, but it's the only metaphor you can use if you want to be part of the adult discourse club. The price you pay for admission to that club, however, pretty much locks you into it. And so we wonder: is there another way? Could language develop to interpret our "temporal" experience in a way that isn't so bound to the rigid matrix that we've agreed is time, and perhaps closer to the messier substrate that physicists say exists in nature?
What if events do not occur in the specific temporal sequence that we assign to them but that in fact, reality is (in the words of the thought-provoking article)
a four-dimensional realm consisting of everything, with all "events" occupying points distributed throughout an eternal spacetime continuum.
In other words, that time is just a handy rubric we use for organizing events that we have learned to identify as discrete?
One approach to answering that "what if" is "who cares?" Evolution, after all this time, has not endowed us with any more refined sense organs that could penetrate these mysteries: it only asks of us that we reproduce successfully, and you don't need a very sophisticated understanding of space or time, or their underpinnings, to do that. So really, who needs to know whether space and time exist or not?
We have made peace with space, such as it is, because all of our sense organs limit our practical exploitation of it. In this respect, we don't differ much from other sentient creatures. But if time is really our own invention, humans' working hypothesis for dealing with everything in our minds that won't fit into "now," there will always be that question: is there some other way that we could try to fit it all together, and could we develop language that would articulate and communicate that understanding?
If you like diving off at the deep end of the precipice on which we now stand, here's a great book that explores some of these questions (including the one of the dodgy relationship between what goes on in our minds and what's really out there):
Wholeness and the Implicate Order, by David Bohm
On the other hand, there seems to be pretty good evidence that humans have already achieved maximum exploitation of space-time, and so perhaps we need go no further: