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Jewish World Review
Sept. 9, 2008
/ 9 Elul 5768
Time, and our appalling ignorance of it
The spectacular increase in scientific knowledge during the last hundred years tempts me to ask: cui bono? We now live on average twice as long as in the early 19th century. But what does our ability to repair our bodies and fend off fatal diseases do except prepare us for a long twilight of Alzheimer's and debility, a burden on our families and a reproach on ourselves. I recall a woman in her mid-nineties, who had led a life of duty, saying over and over again: 'I have lived too long.' I spend much of my time studying history, especially letters, diaries and biographies, and I see no evidence that all the technical knowledge we now possess has increased the sum of human happiness by one smile or a single heartbeat of delight.
On the other hand, the things we really want to know about remain, for the most part, as mysterious as ever. Take dreaming, for instance. Joseph, son of Jacob, the outstanding dreamer and interpreter of dreams in deep antiquity, knew as much about dreams or as little as we do. Over 3,000 years later Freud published his Interpretations of Dreams (1899). It is a fine piece of imaginative writing but it is hard to say it actually adds to our knowledge. If he and Joseph could have had a conversation about dreams, across the abyss of time which separated them, it would have been an exchange of ideas or a conflict of assertions possibly a dialogue de sourds but not a productive debate about empirical knowledge. Since Freud's day there have been studies of dreaming states using elaborate and scientific equipment. But nothing momentous has emerged. We do not know for sure why we dream or what benefit dreaming gives us, if any. What particularly interests me is whether dreams ever bring us information we do not already possess, or which lies buried in our unconscious or non-functioning memory banks.
Recently I had a dream dealing in some detail with the manufacture of jewelry in the Middle Ages. It seemed to me new knowledge. But it now seems much more likely to be the detritus of some work I had done on the subject many years ago, which my conscious memory could not recall but which lay, collecting cranial dust, in some distant, echoing corridor of my brain. Of course, if a dream can contain knowledge we don't possess, as most people in antiquity believed, then the phenomenon is of inestimable importance. But you would need to show not only that the knowledge came from outside yourself, but how it got there and who provided it. No one has ever done that, or is likely to. So dreams remain, for all practical purposes, a complete mystery, and possibly a trivial one too.
Then there is time. What is it? When did it begin? Must it, as Shakespeare said, have a stop? If so, when? And what happens after? Can existence continue without time? St Augustine was fascinated by time, and his Confessions, written at the beginning of the 5th century ad, have a long and highly sophisticated discussion of the subject, especially the notions of time past, time present, and time to come. The topic is of great interest to professional philosophers and many of them have had a go. On the whole, the exercise of imagination is as likely to penetrate the mysteries of time as is reasoning. Shakespeare loved to write about time and produced some memorable metaphors in exploring it. Thus in Ulysses' splendid speech on time in Act Three of Troilus and Cressida, we have two: 'Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, Wherein he puts alms for oblivion'; and time as the 'fashionable host', greeting and speeding off his guests a striking glimpse of an early 17th-century cocktail party, if there was such a thing. Shakespeare, being in showbiz, was painfully aware of the cruelties of time, the evanescence of reputations, the feverish and fiendish search for novelty, the haste with which the tried and trusted and worthy is discarded and replaced by 'new-born gawds', everyone being subject to 'envious and calumniating time'. He immortalizes the propensity with a magic line, 'One touch of nature makes the whole world kin': for all of us, irrespective of rank and wealth and genius, are prisoners of time.
There is a similar imaginative discussion of time, and our ability, or inability, to change the past, towards the end of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, when a frightened Scrooge, shown his death and grave, argues with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, and begs him to distinguish between 'the shadows of the things that will be, or the shadows of things that may be, only'. The passage recalls the remarks of St Augustine on time, and illustrates the way in which ratiocination and imagination, far from being parallel lines which never meet, can come to the same conclusion, or rather impasse.
Scientists work on time constantly, though they can never exactly define it, or describe what would happen if time did have a stop. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity appears to have told us something new about time, but he himself afterwards confessed to being baffled by the concept, and could not construct a unified theory of the universe into which time fitted. Oddly enough, an aeronautical engineer called John William Dunne (1875-1940) tried to construct a unified theory which illuminated both dreams and time. He called it An Experiment with Time, published in 1927, and an immediate bestseller, which remained in print for half a century. I doubt if anyone reads it now. One fan was J.B. Priestley, who used Dunne's ideas in a West End play, Time and the Conways, which explains the notion more clearly than the book, and perhaps is due for a revival. The stage, where time and timing dominate everything, is the perfect vehicle for philosophising about the topic. But here again, it can only give us imaginative insights into the subject: definite knowledge is as elusive as ever.
Time, and our appalling ignorance of it, leads one directly to death, a subject on which we are, if possible, even less informed. Yet this is the topic on which each and every one of us is passionately anxious to know more. We all have to face it that is one point on which Judeao-Christians, atheists, Darwinists, agnostics and even pantheists all agree but none of us has the faintest concept of what it entails, or precedes, if anything. It raises more important questions for human beings than any other topic, and yet science cannot answer any of them. Imhotep, the architect of the first tomb complex built in stone, already knew as much about death as anyone today. Indeed, it seems to be a subject most scientists try to avoid. It underlines their impotence about things which really matter.
Death is inextricably linked to time, because if time continues after death, and the disembodied spirit lives in time, then insoluble problems arise. Heaven (or Hell for that matter) becomes a bedlam, in which husbands are confronted with wives married at different times, each with claims, and many with multiple husbands too, hovering moodily in the background. And the children! At what stage in their lives are they fixed, as it was, for all eternity? And what is eternity if it is time-governed? How could anyone conceivably bear it, however blissful? On the other hand, if when we die time loses its grip and we step into an existence where time and change, permanence and impermanence, past, present and future all cease to have any meaning, and we exist in an infinite instant without location or material dimension of any kind, leaving all to the imagination, then there is comfort in the prospect of leaving this world.
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© 2006, Paul Johnson