The illusion of time

Yup, that’s right, you didn’t read me wrong. Time doesn’t exist. How long did it take me to figure that out? Maybe a week, maybe more. Joking aside, there’s something extremely disturbing in considering that time may not exist. Something so disturbing it actually changes completely the way we look at events and things around us. So read on, but bear in mind that vertigo and confusion are guaranteed in the next couple of paragraphs!

When discussing time, logic would require us to start with the present, that instant we call now. So let us imagine we could ‘stop’ time and look at the world from an outer perspective analysing what ‘now’ is made of.

looking at the universe at a fixed time

Obviously, it is impossible to talk about time without mentioning movement. Movement is precisely what makes us think the present is after the past and before the future. The present, the ‘now’, is simply the absence of movement and stopping time is stopping everything. Therefore we are looking at the universe in a completely static position and let us focus on some simple examples in order to move on the more complex ones.

Imagine yourself looking at the universe at a fixed time. Let’s say it is exactly 6pm in a living room where there stands a beautiful wooden chair next to a desk. As it is 6pm, all the constituents of the chair are in a certain position. Every single atom of it obeys a certain configuration. Now if we look again at that chair one hour later, at 7pm, the constituents have moved even if the chair seems to be in the same position. So from 6pm to 7pm, for this particular chair, the only difference between 6pm and 7pm is the movement of its atoms (the contact between the chair and the ground or with someone for example). Therefore, if at 7pm if we wanted to retrieve the same chair than the one we had at 6pm, if we could move those atoms to the place they were, for that chair, it would be 6pm again. There would be no difference between the original 6pm and the one just artificially created.

Stopping time – common and feasible

This is a pretty simple and straightforward example. But let us look at something which seems much more complex than a chair. The human brain for example. We are in the same living room and next to that chair stand a man looking by the window. It is also 6pm and he is thinking it is time for dinner. Looking at it closely, what we have is a man whose brain is experimenting thoughts, in other words, an series of electric currents (several billions of them per second) between his neurons. So at 6pm, our man also obeys to a certain configuration. At 7pm, he has had dinner and returns to the window. This time the difference between our two states is more complex. Not only has he changed position but the huge amount of atoms in his brain have been going through a immense amount of modifications, making 7pm very different from 6pm. In other words, this second example is the same as the first but with a much greater number of constituents.

Now, it seems pretty evident that it would be impossible to reproduce exactly what was in that man’s brain at 6pm. We simply do not have the technology and to be honest, it seems like we never will. But if we could reproduce this state, then our man could find himself able to be the man he was at 6pm on that day (this would include changing his physical appearance to how it was on top of the exact electrical currents and different atoms which made him think what he did at that very precise time). And just like it seemed impossible to take photos a couple of hundred years ago, it now seems something very common and feasible.

A common answer is that what the past is made of is lost forever and that it would not be possible to find it again in the present and nor will it be in the future. The simplest answer to this comes with chemistry. Among the explosive memories from chemistry classes that some of us may have, there is one founding principle that is taught to the students as being the basics of chemistry. Nothing is created, nothing is destroyed, everything is transformed. This beautiful sentence from Lavoisier, a French chemist from the 18th century states that everything in the universe is somewhere and is never lost. Absolutely everything. The burning wood becomes smokes and gas. The atoms are arranged differently but they are still here. So, take the entire universe and look at it as a immense group of moving particles which are constantly rearranging themselves. If only we could reconstitute every single of these elements into the position they were at previously, then we would have recreated the past.

Amusingly, we have all already experienced this to a smaller level. Have we never walked into an old room that has not changed or into a place that brings memories and because there are some many common elements with the past, for a microsecond we feel like we belong to that past again and then immediately realise things have changed. This glimpse of the past is a very short example of what it feels like to be ‘in the past again’. It is obviously quite a confusing feeling which leaves us lost for a moment in our dreams.

reconstructing our past

Amazingly, the immediate consequence of this would be to realise that everything is there, somewhere around but it different bits. Those moments we remember are still here around us but shattered into a million pieces floating around the universe. It is a both a sad and happy way to see that we are very close and very far from memories and past images.

But one might argue that the fact that we can reconstruct our past does not mean it does not exist. It would just mean it is accessible again. But if we manage to reconstruct a past event, then do we not lose which one came first? How can we tell if the one reconstructed is not the original one? It would be truly impossible, breaking the ‘time line’ we virtually have built in our minds.

Just one last confusion to finish with. The fact that we can remember things and therefore see the past happening before the present is due to one very simple thing. We keep images, smells and sounds in our brain. Would we not be able to stock the electrical signals representing all these feelings, we would never see the movement and would simply be ‘living the moment’. This is also the reason we forget and remember. Otherwise we would all be like the goldfish in his circular aquarium thinking he has never been there before. Past is therefore past because we keep it as it is in our brain while it actually has ‘moved on’ to another state floating around us in the universe. In other words, everything is in movement, but we are the ones defining the past and the present with our ‘storage ability’ called memory. All this led to what we call time, why we wear watches and miss our deadlines …

Image: The Palantir

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