April 21, 2014
April 18, 2014
Rabbi Yonason Goldson: Clarifying one of the greatest philosophical conundrums in theology
The Kosher Gourmet by Julie Rothman Almondy, flourless torta del re (Italian king's cake), has royal roots, is simple to make, . . . but devour it because it's simply delicious
: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain
April 14, 2014
Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Passover frees us from the tyranny of time
: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic
: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships
: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin
: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate
: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure
April 11, 2014
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden
: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does
: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer
: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You
April 9, 2014
Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?
Samuel G. Freedman
: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau
: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau
: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease
April 8, 2014
Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease
Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear
April 4, 2014
A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children
Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet
Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds
Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves
April 2, 2014
Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?
Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities
It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene
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.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
|BUY THE BOOK|
Click HERE to purchase it at a discount. (Sales help fund JWR.).
Eminent British historian and author Paul Johnson's latest book is "American Presidents Eminent Lives Boxed Set: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant". Comment by clicking here.
08/19/08: Eye-stopping glimpses of an exotic and forbidden world
06/30/08: How to fill a lecture hall, and how to empty it
06/23/08: Americans should count their blessings
05/20/08: Pajamas for Presidents
05/13/08: Literary woodlice boring needless holes in biographical bedposts
04/01/08: When markets come crashing down, send for the man with the big red nose
04/01/08: Quality for dinner. Pass the Fairy Liquid, Old Boy
03/25/08: In search of an American President with brains and guts
03/18/08: Technological warfare against mice won't work. Try cats
03/11/08: What is a genius? We use the word frequently but surely, to guard its meaning, we should bestow it seldom
03/03/08: Fiction as a crutch to get one through life
02/26/08: Impatience + Greed = Trouble
02/13/08: Shakespeare, Neo-Platonism and Princess Diana
02/07/08: Where Industry Has Failed Us
12/19/07: People who put their trust in human power delude themselves
12/12/07: What is aggression?
12/04/07: Pursuing success is not enough
11/07/07: Are famous writers accident-prone?
10/31/07: Courage needed to disarm Iran
09/20/07: Who Will Say I Promise to Lay Off?
07/24/07: Greed is safer than power-seeking
04/02/07: Benefactors must be hardheaded
03/07/07: American idealism and realpolitik
11/28/06: Space: Our ticket to survival
10/24/06: Envy is bad economics
10/11/06: Better to Borrow or Lend? Rethinking conventional wisdom
08/22/06: Don't practice legal terrorism
08/08/06: A summer rhapsody for a pedal-bike
08/03/06: Why is there no workable philosophy of music?
07/11/06: Historically speaking, energy crisis is America's opportunity
07/06/06: The misleading dimensions of persons and lives
06/06/06: First editions are not gold
05/23/06: A downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even pretty
04/25/06: Was Washington right about political parties?
04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
04/05/06: For the love of trains
03/29/06: Lincoln and the Compensation Culture
03/22/06: Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast
03/15/06: Europe's utopian hangover
03/08/06: Kindly write on only one side of the paper
02/28/06: Creators versus critics
02/21/06: The Rhino Principle
© 2006, Paul Johnson