A Stubbornly Persistent Illusion

Give me insight into today, and you may have the antique and future worlds.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

I remember standing in the kitchen as a small child while my mother listened to news bulletins from the Korean War on the radio.  I remember the program I watched when we got our first TV.  I remember how alarmed everyone was when the Russians beat us into space with their Sputnik.  I remember exactly where I was when I first heard that President Kennedy had been shot.  I remember the ferociously hot day more than 40 years ago when I married the woman who is still my wife.  I remember my first-born child, fresh from the womb, greeting the world by peeing all over himself.  I remember the birthday card my then-35-year-old son had given me when I turned 35 myself.  I remember how happy we were when my younger son and his wife told us we would become grandparents. 

I look in the mirror and tell myself I don’t look my age.  Apart from memory and what it says on my driver’s license, how do I even know how old I am?  A sharp blow to the head is all it would take to erase my past and leave me with nothing but what is happening right now.  You can keep track of time with your watch and mark it off on a calendar, but it can really only be experienced instantaneously.  Everything else is memory or expectation, and even these can only be experienced in the present moment.  Right now is really the only tangible time there is.

The philosopher George Santayana once said, "The essence of nowness runs like fire along the fuse of time."  But does it?  We imagine ourselves moving in lock-step to the inexorable march of time.  Yet how do we know we aren’t merely bystanders sitting motionless on the curb as the parade passes by?  Things certainly appear to marching along, but does something called time actually pass?  We all have a sense that it does.  But what if we’d been knocked on the head and had no memory of anything that passed before?  Every moment would be sui generis, without reference to any previous moment, robbing time of any sense of duration.

If, as Einstein once said, time is a “stubbornly persist illusion,” eternity may not be as removed from everyday experience as we imagine.  As long as we are caught up in the slipstream of time, we can only imagine eternity in reference to time’s passage.  We therefore tend to think of it as something that runs on forever rather than something that is at a standstill.   Yet at the heart of reality, physicist Julian Barbour assures us, stillness reigns.  In his Confessions, St. Augustine grappled with the mystery of time and noted that God dwells in an eternity that is not endless time but a never-ending present.  To this God he said, “Your today is eternity.”  And so, as it turns out, is ours.

Julian Barbour, The End of Time

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