Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sliding through Grooves of Time

The biggest questions of physics and of philosophy are one and the same. At the centre of all this is the notion of time. What is time ? Does time flow, does it have a direction ? What does it mean to be sharing a moment with others ? Is there a distinction between the past and the future of time - is there ever a choice for shaping the future ?

Answers to these questions, if they ever come by, would reveal us the true meaning of freedom. Since freedom is the most fundamental yearning for a human being, these questions ultimately define the human experience.

I have been going through Brian Greene's book "The fabric of the cosmos". Though the book is occasionally verbose and indulges in lengthy prose, it explains clearly the scientific underpinnings of those questions. Einstein's theories of special and general relativity are particularly pertinent, as they blur the boundaries between time and space. The book conjures the analogy of a loaf of bread to visualize this space-time fabric, which I found quite captivating.

We can cut the loaf into slices, and these slices of bread are the "moments" of time that we experience passing us by. Each moment is a consummate set of objects in space that one shares existence with. What the theory of special relativity says is that these slices can be cut not just vertically but in any direction. So depending on how a person is cutting the bread, he / she would experience time in a different way. And crucially, the "moments" of time experienced by two persons need not be the same.

According to relativity, there is no distinction between the past and the future. The whole 4D-loaf of space+time may very well be frozen like ice. Visualize a bullet of light (a light-car) driving through this icy block, and that is the conscious experience of a human being. In this fatalistic world, a human being is a mere spectator to the machinations of the future.

Quantum mechanics, however, gives some provision for "choice", and potentially, for acting on free-will (for a human being, animal or any other object in the universe). This choice (or quantum indeterminacy as it is called) is a mysterious thing. We do not know what this actually means - whether it means the freedom to just choose the direction of our light-car through the loaf, or actually the freedom to shape the loaf itself !

Imagine that this 4D-loaf of space time has grooves, each like a slide in a playground or like the rails of a roller coaster. Once you step into a groove, you would slide through that path. If you can recollect your first experience of skiing or roller-skating, you would understand this easily. The path of the groove defines how you experience the ride. There is hardly any control (especially if you are not a skillful skier / skater) that is left for you after you step into the groove.

I think that our conscious experience as human beings is very similar to this. Decisions once taken in life pull us down the chutes of their paths. As we pick up speed along the chute, the conscious experience becomes repetitive - because it gets etched into our habit. We crave for the same kind of opponents, the same kind of building blocks to organize our thoughts. We expect the same kind of pleasures and pains, frustrations and release, boredom and excitement. We cannot afford to look beyond the patterns of repetition, as that scares us out of our wit's end, as we have to face the reality that we are sliding down a chute with no control whatsoever.

The more choices you exercise your will upon, the more bound to them you will be. From big choices such as the occupation of your work, the person you get married to.. down to much simpler choices like the friends that you see regularly, the food that you eat, the news that you read, the political causes that you feel passionate about, the websites that you visit.. With each of these choices exercised, there is lesser and lesser freedom for perceiving, inspiring and creating new ideas. This is possibly why the wise people of the old have said that children are God's beings. They have far greater freedom than adults.

In our modern consumer society, we think of choice as freedom. But they are not at all the same. Choice, when exercised without awareness of where it leads to, actually reduces the freedom of a person. But complete awareness is impossible to obtain, even the wisest human beings cannot see beyond a few days or months of where their choices lead. In a way, most of us people are blind and cannot see beyond a few minutes of our actions. When people make choices in such haste, they cannot but experience chaos and frustration.

In my opinion, the web-browsing experience is symbolic of the frustration that people feel in a larger sense in their lives. Whenever you see a hyperlink, you have to decide whether to shift your attention to a new page. This constant exercising of choice leads to browser fatigue. We human beings criminally waste the most precious resource that we have - our attention. Part of it is not our fault, because each past choice reduces our freedom in making future choices. The fatigue experienced by chaotic web-browsing is similar to the fatigue that experienced in modern life. The lasting aftertaste is that of disappointment, confusion and a distinct lack of freedom.

So what is the solution ? Can we escape sliding through these grooves in time ? Are there any sections in this space-time loaf that let us slow down and look around in serene dignity ? I don't know.. But if you ever find one such place, I suggest you make a habit of visiting it regularly. Because freedom is ultimately just a state of mind. If you visit that state regularly, it might even become a habit.

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