linear time

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.



A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.4 (Fall 2017)



Faith & Cultural Meltdown


Linear Time and Real Time: Time to Consider the Difference
John R. Harris

The human mind is hard-wired to arrange events in linear time; but the ultimate truth may be otherwise, and a morally responsible spirituality will require at some point that we entertain other possibilities.

Most of the reasons that belief in the eternal afterlife of the individual soul draws derision from “science-minded” people (as they are pleased to style themselves) have to do with the linear conception of time. If we picture events as moving from cause to effect in a virtually infinite sequence of falling dominoes, then later dominoes soon become separated from earlier ones by thousands of intermediate tumbles… and still we have scarcely advanced down the line. If one life’s unique events are represented as claiming, say, a segment of a hundred dominoes, then the number of events that have preceded this negligible range in cosmic history is incalculably vast; likewise, the extent of what remains to happen after that microscopic life ends far exceeds an ocean’s proportion to a pebble. One life, as a point on the infinite line, means nothing.

Now, if souls were reincarnated each time one of them was done with its body, then the metaphysical panorama would at least be capable of withstanding the stupendous enormity of physical time and space. The soul would “stay in play” through thousands or millions of transformations. But when each human being’s vital flash in the pan is said to determine the fate of his or her own unique soul forever, the argument seems to call upon a naiveté—a provincialism—acceptable to no sensible, educated adult of our era. Believers in the importance of such puniness, one might say, can’t count beyond their fingers.

Yet just because linear time is our inteliigence’s default manner of organizing events doesn’t mean that it represents full, ultimate reality. I have retained the analogy of the planarian that I heard somewhere long ago thanks to having dissected that paper-flat organism as a schoolboy. The planarian, I was told, would only be able to think in two dimensions if it could think at all. A tree would be a green circle. An upright, mobile human being would be an amoeba whose appendages venture outward from the central mass now and then.

What if the one-way linearity of time were likewise a form projected by our limited human intelligence upon realities that we would otherwise not be able to process at all? What if, for example, every lifetime were happening concurrently, but in a way which caused a spatial kind of separation to be interpreted—irresistibly—as a chronological sequence?

Allow me here to attempt a pop-cultural Allegory of the Cave in illustration. Imagine a football field. Along one of the sidelines, spaced a yard apart at each hash mark, are one hundred people. On a signal, all one hundred proceed at a shuffle toward the far sideline—but without facing it. Rather, their heads must remain inflexibly turned toward the end zone to the south as they move. The first migrant (on the one-yard line) sees nothing but a goal post; the fourth notices three other persons moving along in front of him, the fiftieth forty-nine persons, and so on. In other words, none of the hundred sees any of the people arranged behind him toward the northern end zone, and every one of the hundred sees all of the people arranged before him toward the southern end zone.

The result of this odd dance is that Person 38 would clearly see what thirty-seven people were doing at a given moment, but he would have no inkling of the sixty-two people behind him. The former would represent the past in the allegory, and the latter the future. If there were some way to peek over his should to the northern goal, then Number 38 could prophesy the events of tomorrow… but no ordinary person is able so to direct his vision.

Are there extraordinary people who possess this ability—or might we all possess it some day if science becomes receptive to counter-intuitive notions of time and learns to navigate among them? Theoretical physics has apparently defined certain conditions under which time travel might prove possible. When we know that we cannot know everything in our present state, declaring the limits of what we might know one day seems presumptuous.

The objection always lodged against ime travel is, of course, that visiting the future implies being able to act in the future—which might well disrupt the future’s continuity with the past and cause our present deeds to have no consequences, making life nonsensical. The conceptual dilemma runs even deeper if we contemplate travel into the past; for if we change the events of yesterday, then those of today must also change… and the very conditions that made us revisit the past to disarm a bomb, kidnap an evil dictator, etc., might no longer obtain now, and so our “adjustment” of a historical tragedy could never have occurred, after all!

What if, however, Number 38 on the trek across the football field were living in the same moment as thirty-seven people befofe him? In a sense, he has already traveled into their presence, for they are contemporary. Thomas Bertonneau introduced me to Oswald Spengler’s work several years ago, and one of the central theses I found in Spengler was that history never repeats itself. I would respond, “Yes and no.” Obviously, the specific terms of repetition change. Yet historical rhythms appear to assert themselves over and over with alarming clarity—alarming, that is, for those who believe in radical human freedom. If there were no such thing as human nature, then one could imagine humanity transforming itself ad infinitum, like one of those transmigrating souls mentioned above. The possiblility of such metamorphosis is the foundational tenet of the secular progressive’s faith. If, however, human nature does exist and encloses us in a cage where we may only pace a cerain length in any direction, then the alignment of our time on earth with innumerable waves of previous times seems not only plausible, but inevitable.

In deference to Spengler, I must add that he was attempting to undermine a Nazi propaganda machine that wished to exploit the notion of “return to the Golden Age” for its own unscrupulous ends. The case of the propagandist was in fact self-contradictory; for if we can mount a political program based upon the collective will to resuscitate the past, then we are not being drawn magnetically into a repetition of history but struggling, rather, to engineer some subjective version of yesteryear.

In the other direction, naturally, the present extends without our being able to notice its futuristic look. The furniture will change; but a colony on Mars in the early twenty-second century will still confront issues such as the degree of self-determination a human being may be allowed when programmed robots are performing so much more efficiently. Our present battles witn”experts” among us to decide even what kind of food we may eat and which words we may speak will prove to have anticipated every major stage of that controversy.

I understand that asserting a belief in the essential fixity of human nature hardly requires that one buy into some highly fanciful notion of non-linear time such as I have unveiled. What I wish to underscore, rather, is that some perfectly common-sensical precepts of morality would have no difficulty cohabiting with my outlandish theory, and indeed might be better explained in that context. Conceiving of the sun as circling the earth every day was functional enough as long as people never traveled farther from their home turf than twenty or thirty miles; when they began to explore the globe, something had to change. Likewise, imagining that every human soul is unique and that its eternal fate is determined in a single lifetime made sense enough as long as we supposed the world to be about 5,000 years old. When geology and archeology forced us from that comfortable provincialism, however, we could no longer endure such disproportion as was implied… and now we must either surrender the old conviction that our individual moral decisions have a vast metaphysical importance, or else we must resist the “scientistic” picture of an enormous temporal abyss that sets our heads to spinning and dwarfs our personal significance.

As for the past’s actually meeting us person to person, thanks to some miraculous technological breakthrough, I would say this much. Should such a time-machine ever be invented, it would intersect with moments of the past aligned with ours: in terms of the analogy, it would take Number 38 into the presence of Number 37 or Number 15 just as all three were two-thirds of the way across the field. The visited past would have to be “tuned” to our present. Were that to be so, then nothing our time-travelers might do in yesteryear would affect this year’s events; for the spiritual mood of yesteryear would be precisely the same as it is now, both chronological locations being united in a single transcending moment, and hence 38 could not persuade 15 to do anything that 15 was not already predisposed to do (through whatever mechanisms his own primitive technology would allow).

So for the future: time-travelers would find themselves among kindred spirits who would not alter their choices based upon the pleas of ancestors, since the representatives of those ancestors would plead for nothing other than what their descendants were in fact doing at the moment.

Suppose, for example, that the UFO craze sweeping through our popular culture were in some measure touched off by actual craft of the future—the distant future—that had found their way “back in the present moment” to visit us. Even if our most serious minds were to accept the reality of these visitations, what effect could contact have upon the way we lead our lives? Would an exchange of information make us adore technology any more than we already do? Would it make us (paradoxically) any more fearful of the unknown and tending toward a quasi-pagan superstition than we already are? Our gray, limber, tiny-featured descendants (partially robotic?) would almost certainly suffer from similar spiritual vulnerabilities; for as man depends more and more upon his technology, the moral beacon that should guide his soul seems to grow less and less luminous.

Now, had our “gray” popped up three or five hundred—or five thousand—years ago, as the Erich von Däniken school of thought argues, people of the time would have been incapable of recognizing him as anything other than a god, a demon, a birdman, or something else whose metaphor was culturally anchored. He would have found his way into existing lore and fused with traditions in the manner designated as “homeostasis” by anthropologists. The visit would have no resonance. Even if he were to leave behind an edifice that turned water into limitless electricity, the structure would be doomed to become another sacred space worshiped from afar and scarcely touched, like something out of Rider Haggard.

The final point I would make in this whimsical argument for a non-linear conception of time is very personal. We have all heard that we live only in the present—that the past is forever lost to us and the future always just beyond our reach. Such utterances have grown cliché; and like all clichés, they have grown immunized to closer analysis to the point that they invite distortion and error. As I cross the threshold of my earthly life’s final years, I find that I do not have the sense of being caught up in the present moment’s moving cubicle. On the contrary, I constantly feel the present escaping my clutches as I work daily to splice the past into the future. I sense such coalescence around me that my hours and days and months often blur; and I have all but concluded that individual change is an illusion—that the man I am now is the child I was more than half a century ago, as well as the subsequent young man and the man in his prime. I have learned to compensate for certain weaknesses. I have turned somewhat cynical and suspicious, for instance—but this is only because I have never ceased being naïve. The man who approaches a stranger with mistrust is a man who knows that he tends to trust people too readily.

So my life, as I begin to believe with ever more conviction, is but a single moment. The life of every human being is but a single moment. We do not, for the most part, learn to be better people or degenerate into worse people. Instead, we all have a sense of right and wrong—of self and other and their proper boundaries, of fair play and foul, of duty to the weak and suffering, and so forth—embedded in us and substantially awakened even before we reach biological adulthood. What we learn are better and worse means of responding to that divine spark in practical circumstances; and the measure of a better or worse character that we register lies in our multiple decisions to act or not to act upon the inner directive. Nothing important changes: future and past fuse in a pattern of behavior, a lifelong present. The understanding of worldly conditions changes and develops, but these are unimportant in spiritual terms; for they never cease eliciting more change in their ephemeral frivolity, and it is only the disposition of the will trying to act through them that defines a spiritual event.

May we not say, perhaps, that the ultimate spiritual challenge of the human being is not to respond deeply to the shifting circumstances that shape an epoch? To resist superstition in a superstitious time, to mistrust artificial gods when they are all the rage, to denounce human sacrifice even as one’s neighbors insist that the tribe can be saved in no other way… this would be my Man for All Seasons. He would understand that Number 23, far down the field from him and also at a stage far closer to the beginning sideline, was bound to be as he was, on average, and that traveling back to that point would not bring an opportunity to make minds think other than as they were capable of thinking; but he would also hope that, should he make the trip, an extraordinary mind might cross his path.

Linear time, you see, is more than just a hard-wired response of our human intelligence to a sequence of events: it is—or can be—somewhat of a self-indulgence. It can generate a myriad of tiny excuses for tuning down the voice of conscience because of “progress” or the “duty to be sociable”—to be a faithful adherent to the times and the customs. It can be consumed like a narcotic. The “everybody’s doing it” defense is, indeed, what appears to keep our common migration from sideline to sideline arrayed in a linear, ethical moment bridging points of different centuries. Societies never mature to a degree that they can collectively intersect previous societies along a skewed rather than a parallel line: only individuals may do this. Spiritual understanding is not treachable through better school systems—no, nor even through denominational catechisms. We are stuck in our time—in a particular present located on a perpetual circle—but you and I need not be.

I described this presentation as whimsical, and I hope it is fully received as such. Were I a qualified physicist, I might write convincingly about how String Theory and parallel universes confirm my fanciful allegory. That failing, all I can do is reiterate the point where I began: that the individual soul must be regarded as of primary importance in human existence, or we are truly lost. To the extent that the high-brow games we have played with linear time have secured us in the confidence that individual lives mean nothing and that individual deeds send not a ripple through eternity, we are amputating our humanity. If that is our state, then we must radically reconsider our conception of time. You and I must, at any rate: “we” most likely will not and cannot.

Dr. John Harris (Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, U of Texas at Austin) is the founder and president of the Center for Literate Values.