During my teens and twenties on the family farm I occasionally got enlisted into potato grading. For those not accustomed to the delights of potato grading it means standing along the sides of a huge conveyor belt whilst tonnes of potatoes – lifted in the latest harvest – run past. The job of the graders is to pick off stones, mud, and any potatoes that have been sliced or otherwise gone bad. This potato product line was set up in a large refrigerated building – important to keep them cool – so conditions were cold and dark.
But probably the prevailing experience was of mind-numbing boredom. It was never entirely clear how long it would take us to get through the latest order – we could easily cover normal working hours, and sometimes this could extend to ten or twelve hour days. I remember closing my eyes at night-time and seeing potatoes passing along my eyelids! It was the kind of work that you clock-watched. Though often I’d look at the clock thinking an hour had gone by when actually the clock had only moved forward twenty minutes. This was a shared experience amongst the workers on the line, such that someone brought in a clock that ran backwards, which brought a kind of rueful laughter and was immediately installed.
Today I want to talk about the perception of time – both the relative speed at which time flows, but also the more mysterious thought about how it is that time flows at all. What I want to show here is that I think there’s a fundamental relationship between the flow of time and consciousness itself.
First an important idea needs to be established and understood. We’re all familiar enough with the three dimensions. Two-dimensional shapes such as circles and squares become three-dimensional shapes when they appear to come out of the page. Let’s say the first dimension is left to right, the second is back and forth, and the third is up and down. We experience the physical space that we’re in right now as a three dimensional structure. But it is also widely accepted that time is the fourth dimension, such that an object can be located not just by position but also the time it is in that position. If I’m looking to cross a busy road, I know the position I am stood in and the position I want to get to, but I also have to reckon with the changing position of cars along my path. It may be safe for me to cross at time t = 1, but if I crossed at time t = 2 I might get squished.
This NASA (2006) diagram attempts to represent the evolution of the cosmos in four dimensions – as we move left to right we are moving forward through the fourth dimension – through time. If we were to zoom into this diagram and locate Earth, we would be able to observe not just Earth at a single point in history – whether 1500 BC or 1915 AD – but rather than life on Earth would continue to move, for history to play out as we moved left to right along the diagram. We could zoom in further and watch our own childhoods as they played out minute by minute, hour by hour, through and into the years of adulthood.
Let’s imagine that then: that you could observe the universe as an outside ‘witness’. You would observe the stars and nebulae and galaxies across not just the far reaches of all three dimensions but indeed across four dimensions. In other words, we wouldn’t just see the positions of the stars and galaxies at say, t = 13.8 (if t is measured in billions of Earth years), but across all values of t*. (*note that one of the consequences of Einstein’s discovery of relativity is that there is no ‘true’ cosmic standard time in the universe, but rather a vast multitude of pockets of time. When we talk about 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang we mean relative to how time passes on Earth.)
The law of entropy would determine that heat always flowed in one direction across the time dimension, but for that witness on the outside it would make no sense to think of time as necessarily flowing forwards, or backwards, or indeed any sense that time should ‘flow’ at all. After all we don’t talk about a necessary directional flow in the x direction (necessarily left to right), or the y direction (necessarily back to fourth) etc.
Likewise, what determines the speed at which we experience the pace of time passing? How come we experience it at the pace we do – that the three score and ten years of our life feel like a lifetime?
Do animals experience time at a similar pace to the way we do, or do they experience time differently? The life of the birds in the trees moves in a different frame of time. A human being will live approximately 25 times longer than a blackbird. Does that mean that a blackbird experiences time 25 times slower? The life of trees in the forest moves in a different frame of time. Looking through their branches, clouds catch our attention, and they move within their own frame of time again.
What if the experience of the flow of time occurred much quicker so that all times happened in an instant – as though all the points along the fourth dimension concertinaed such that life – a person’s life - happened as a single event? What if the flow of time occurred much slower such that a year of life was experienced as a thousand years? Perhaps with the experience in seemingly infinite granular detail of things like preparing a meal or washing the dishes? And given the utter relativity of it, how would we ever know?
Without a conscious being participating from inside the cosmos – a sentient being like a human – it makes no sense to think of time flowing at all. Rather, the flow of time depends upon what we experience as consciousness. (*When ‘I think’, ‘I feel’, ‘I act’.. the I in those statements is the part that experiences life happening as opposed to it all playing out in the dark, through sheer material cause and effect – that’s what I mean by consciousness.)
But the reverse is also true: that consciousness depends upon what we experience as the flow of time. If we did not experience time flowing we would not be conscious beings. This leads me to think that consciousness and the flow of time are two sides of the same coin; you can’t have one without the other – they both originate in the same phenomenon.
That proposal would possibly give consciousness a very special, even fundamental status within the cosmos. And it would certainly not limit consciousness to human beings.
But another consideration: we are not just witnesses to the flowing of time but as we move along that dimension our bodies age. Aging is a natural consequence of entropy; in and of itself it isn’t ‘caused’ by consciousness. However consciousness somehow determines that we experience aging as a flow of events – that in that vast sequence of moments that join up the narrative of a person’s life, our bodies become older until we begin to deteriorate and die.
This leads me to contemplate that brains and central nervous systems, such as are found in human beings and blackbirds, participate in consciousness rather than themselves being the source of consciousness. If consciousness has a more fundamental relationship to the flow of time, then it would seem to be ageless in a way that human beings are not. It would be purer and unblemished somehow – which invokes for me the image of lotus flower venerated in Buddhist and yogic traditions.
In a previous blog I wrote about The Fabric of Memory. Memory is much older than the evolution of humanity, and anything that ‘stores’ information from an earlier point in the fourth dimension – such as DNA – can be considered to be a form of memory. Material etchings ‘carry forward’ forms from one point of time into another point in time – in other words they set up the possibility for the flow of time. The effect of the temporal linkage is to create a temporal differentiation – a form ‘discovered’ in three dimensions become dynamic in four dimensions. Thus as observed in that earlier blog – memory enables consciousness. We might add a further link: Memory enables the Flow of Time, and the Flow of Time enables Consciousness.
I’ve recently read a wonderful book called The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli. Rovelli is a theoretical physicist interested in these same questions – questions like why do we experience time as flowing, and how can we ‘remember’ the past but not the future? Through Rovelli I learned that Saint Augustine – whose life straddled the fourth and fifth centuries, offered a beautiful exposition to explain the role of both memory and anticipation in consciousness:
When we listen to a hymn, the meaning of a sound is given by the ones that come before and after it. Music can occur only in time, but if we are always in the present moment, how is it possible to hear it? It is possible, Augustine observes, because our consciousness is based on memory and anticipation. A hymn, a song, is in some way present in our minds in a unified form, held together by something – by that which we take time to be.
(Rovelli 2018, p.182)
Human beings experience time at different speeds depending on what we’re doing: but just as with Augustine’s explanation for how we ‘hold’ a melody in order to appreciate music, more generally we can only experience time if we have a framework of thought through which to experience it. Whether it is the sheer sense-deprived boredom of working on the potato grader, or the historian’s sense of grandeur when they see how deep history works through the present. The horror of infinite death is also an appreciation of time.
Some Platonic forms operate in just two dimensions, such as a circle; some in three, such as a sphere; and some in four, such as the orbit of planet Earth around the Sun. Extending Augustine’s idea further, perhaps we need to perceive forms in the fourth dimension in order to come into consciousness – we need an idealised account of time (and our gliding through it).
If a concept may be mapped through the fourth dimension, such as the concept of a person’s life span, or the construction of a house, perhaps this yields greater potentials for consciousness than a mere act in the moment, such as sitting towards the Sun, or building a fire. The ‘in the moment’ actions occupy a smaller space along the fourth dimension, the planning actions occupy a much wider space along the fourth dimension.
As Rovelli went onto observe:
If someone throws something at us to catch, our hand moves skilfully to the place where the object will be in a few instants: the brain, using past impressions, has very rapidly calculated the future position of the object that is flying toward us. Further along the scale, we plant seed so that corn will grow. Or invest in scientific research so that tomorrow it might result in knowledge and new technology.
(Rovelli 2018, p. 179)
I wonder if we can go a bit further than Augustine’s concepts of memory and anticipation – those etchings of past and future which create the flow of time?
Whether we’re half-way through listening to a piece of music, or undertaking the chores of a particular day, or taking a look at one’s life as it has unfolded so far, or looking at the emerging nature of the society we’re a part of; in each of these instances there is a sense of a work in progress, or otherwise of incompleteness. A melody to be resolved.
When Augustine spoke of anticipation, how do we know what to anticipate? It is as though the teleology of a certain event is hardwired into it. For example, most of us if presented with an acorn can appreciate that it has the potential, if sown, to become an oak tree. Whilst we cannot peer into the future in all its complexity, we can perceive timelines that go off into the future, including a good sense of what things will become.
These timelines take shapes that we are familiar with, such as in music, nature, language, or human behaviour. Plato wrote 2500 years ago about a realm of forms that we are all the time ‘remembering’ as human beings incarnated onto the Earth. When we perceive events or processes – such as a song melody, or a germinating oak tree – we remember not just what they were before but also we remember something of what they will become.
We stand here at a certain specific point in our history. My clock reads 8:23am on the 18th August 2020 as I write these words. There is no sense in which everything in history is complete up to this point, but rather that we know the forms and timelines will continue to unfold just as sure as we know the Sun will rise tomorrow.
What we also know is that history did not begin with our birth. If ever you’ve seen a newspaper from the day you were born it’s a stark proof that society was already firing on all cylinders in all its often bizarre and eccentric glory. Indeed great civilisations had risen and fallen aeons before we came into the world. A whole wealth of discoveries made in science and a bottomless treasure trove of beauty in the form of art and literature.
So we came into consciousness – rather than consciousness beginning when our central nervous systems began to light up. As well as all the random features of a newspaper from the day of our birth:
· The sun rose and fell every day,
· The tides came in and went out,
· The natural world was teeming with the same species of flora and fauna that we witness today,
· And we were just one of thousands that were born that day.
Likewise on the day that we die, thousands of babies will still be being born, the same species of flora and fauna will still re-appear every spring (with some tragic exceptions), the tides will continue to come in and go out, and the sun will continue to rise.
Though whilst we live, incompleteness offers for me a sense of ‘calling’. The future is still to be created or even discovered, we have some internalised blueprint of what that future looks like, at least on certain timelines, and these blueprints may call us onwards and upwards.
The Buddha once offered the following parable: that walking along a path at twilight we see a snake coiled on the path. We are filled with fright and turn and walk back. The following morning we walk back along the same path and realise that what we thought was a snake was actually a coiled up rope. Then all the fear we felt is released.
Perhaps in a similar way if in the daylight of our awareness we discover that we do not need to personally survive to ‘see through’ those things that are in motion and that we care about; that this may be for us the event in which the snake is revealed as a rope.
NASA (2006) Timeline of the Universe. [online]. Image available from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CMB_Timeline300_no_WMAP.jpg [Accessed 16 August 2020]. Image in the public domain.
Rovelli, C. (2018). The Order of Time. New York : Riverhead Books