Spending a Little Time With Eternity
Being present in the here and now requires a willingness to be present in the past and future as well
“I am Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, and I have the power to be born a second time. I am the divine hidden soul who created the Gods and gives sepulchral meals to the denizens of the deep, the place of the dead… and heaven… Hail, lord of the shrine that stands in the center of the earth. He is I, and I am he!” ~ Egyptian Book of the Dead
Our conception of space and time is undergoing yet another major paradigm shift. What shape this new paradigm will take is still being worked out but its outlines are now visible and its implications profound.
In an excerpt from his book, The Order of Time, published in The Guardian, the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli writes, “We do not describe how the world evolves in time: we describe how things evolve in local time, and how local times evolve relative to each other.”
That space-time is relative has been known for more than a century now. Quoting Einstein, the cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman writes in his recent book, The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes, “Time and space are modes in which we think, not conditions in which we live.”
But Hoffman and some of his colleagues are taking a step beyond Einstein in making the case that reality is an illusion. For them, this illusion includes both space-time and the everyday objects that we take for granted are ‘really’ present more or less as we perceive them.
Hoffman contends that the objects we see, touch, hear, smell, and taste are like icons on our computer screen. He refers to them as “interfaces” or “portals” between us and the world that we have evolved to use in a certain way to maximize “fitness functions.” Just as the trash bin on our desktop is not a real garbage can and the things we place in it do not represent real crumpled up paper documents, so the wastebasket sitting next to our desk isn’t what we perceive it to be either.
Space-time and physical objects are not insights into objective reality, but species-specific adaptations that allow us to survive and reproduce. This requires a radical reformulation of our notion of the nature of objective reality, and of our notion of time. ~ The Origin of Time in Conscious Agents, Daniel Hoffman (2014)
Hoffman also argues that consciousness in some form is eternal and that the physical world evolves to access or interpret it in various useful ways. This view stands the usual materialist idea that consciousness is an emergent product of physical activity on its head.
The potential impact of Hoffman’s idea extends well beyond our interaction with everyday objects. The theory Hoffman and his colleagues developed has implications for free will, science, and spirituality as well. It is a lot to take in. That’s why the interview below with Daniel Hoffman lasts nearly two hours.
Hoffman isn’t alone. In a June 2018 talk at the Royal Institution, the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli seems to share Hoffman’s view when he describes our experience of what we commonly call reality as “perspectival.” We live in a local time “bubble” that is determined by the gravitation of our particular and relatively small planet. Rovelli points out that just as the earth appears flat from the perspective of our front yard, time appears flat from the perspective of the bubble surrounding planet earth.
Physicists now universally accept that time is not an essential part of their equations at either cosmic or quantum scales. Indeed, it can be dispensed with altogether since their equations work just as well moving forward (from our perspective) through time as they do moving backward. This being the case, the real controversy, at least according to Rovelli, is as much philosophical or metaphysical as it is scientific. “You can think about reality without space, you can think about reality without things.” However, Rovelli states, “It is very hard to think of yourself in reality without time. You wouldn’t know how to start thinking.”
Rovelli goes on to offer, more or less, the same explanation for our inability to think of ourselves in a reality that does not include the passage of time as Donald Hoffman and Albert Einstein. He contends the “confusion” arises when we ask “is this because reality itself cannot be thought about without time?” For him, the answer is “No. It is because our thinking cannot be thought without time. We cannot think without [the perception of] time. We are the time machine, not the universe.” (Emphasis added)
There is a temptation to take these ideas about time and reality too far. Both Hoffman and Rovelli would argue against concluding that reality is merely the product of our mind. Solipsism, for example, is neither the necessary nor correct conclusion we should reach if we follow their argument to its logical end.
While the icons on our desktop, to use Hoffman’s analogy, are not precise representations of reality, they are representations of something that is going on between ourselves and the rest of the universe. Our senses are a real means of accessing reality in a way that maximizes our ability to survive. From an evolutionary point of view, the portals of perception need only work well enough for us to get around, feed ourselves, and reproduce. Absolute precision or accuracy is not only unnecessary but would get in the way of our efficient functioning.
This new view of how we interact with the ‘real world’ presents us with both an opportunity and a temptation. The opportunity comes in the form of new avenues for our imagination to explore. If our perception is a mere portal through which we receive a useful representation of other conscious agents, then it’s reasonable to speculate about what other kinds of consciousness may exist that are beyond our perception. If, as Hoffman contends, consciousness is eternal and it’s the physical universe that has been busying itself developing various ways of accessing it instead of the other way around, it follows that this consciousness, no matter how we define it, preceded our birth and will continue following our death.
Anyone taking researchers like Daniel Hoffman and Carlo Rovelli seriously will inevitably ask what the implications of their ideas are for our consciousness after we die. Neither Hoffman nor Rovelli is arguing they have found proof of anything like an afterlife as such. Hoffman, in particular, is quite explicit on this point, even stating his view that consciousness in some form has always existed may be wrong. Regardless, it’s probably unprovable.
The temptation lies in seeing these new ideas emerging from the sciences as confirmation of what has traditionally been a question of faith. While there is little doubt these new theories have the potential to open a door between spirituality and science, ultimately believers must still rely upon their faith when it comes to where we came from and where we’re going next. To the extent any of us claim an eternal consciousness both exist and take a particular form, we should avoid literalism. Metaphors, rather than facts, are the stuff of myth precisely because they allow us to anthropomorphize forces that are beyond our understanding to make the stories we tell ourselves about our place in the universe more accessible. In this regard, mythology functions as the spiritual equivalent of what Hoffman claims our physical senses have evolved to do: make reality more user-friendly.
Also, as Daniel Hoffman points out, the fact that space-time isn’t what it seems opens up far greater possibilities for science fiction to explore. We are already seeing the prospect of communication between the future and the past in movies like Interstellar. The Star Trek franchise has also done its fair share of playing around with time travel.
Neither spirituality nor entertainment is a frivolous human endeavor. The benefit of a good story, whether it’s read from a holy book or experienced in a movie theater, is that it causes us to think more deeply. By allowing us to suspend disbelief, stories can reinforce the portals of perception while broadening our ability to experience and utilize our particular vision of reality.
The idea that consciousness might be eternal is challenging, to say the least. That’s because consciousness is considered so personal. So far, it’s also proven impossible to precisely define. The first law of thermodynamics informs us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be transformed. Only physicists seem to care much about what that means. But if we conclude that something as central to our identity as consciousness is eternal, the implications for both individuals and society become impossible for us to ignore.
The truth is, eternity has nothing to do with time. The past, the present, and the future can’t be differentiated from anything we might call an eternal perspective. It is, for this reason, that to the extent our gods are or have ever been considered immortal, they are also usually considered omniscient. It’s not merely that they can perfectly forecast the future or perfectly recall the past; they are living in both simultaneously.
When we try to place ourselves within infinite space-time, it feels as though we’re losing our existential footing. In doing so we are entering territory traditionally reserved for our gods. According to Genesis, the gods (plural) were troubled when humans partook of the tree of knowledge. They felt a pressing urgency to get us out of the Garden before we also ate from the tree of life:
And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever ~ Genesis 3:22 KJV
We’ve already conquered the atom and are now well on our way to rewriting life’s molecular code at will. What might be possible if we also begin to grasp the true nature of space-time? Perhaps the gods had good reason to worry.