In both contemporary physics and contemporary religious writings “time” remains a mysterious topic. Nothing is more obvious than time to an elder who has watched babies grow into adults. “How time flies!” is almost an automatic exclamation. Nevertheless, in both our scientific quest for truth and in our interior or contemplative quest for truth, “What is time?” arises as an unusually profound topic.
When we look within our own conscious being, we see ourselves living in an ongoing quality we call “now.” Time seems to flow through this now. The past is just a memory taking place now as content in our memory banks. And the future is only an anticipation, taking place now in our guesses about future nows that have yet to “happen.” In our experiences of contemplation or art participation or solitary brooding, “now” continues to be our core experience of time
Being conscious of this now and its here-and-now flow of content is a state we often call “presence.” Presence is a mysterious state of being that we can attempt to describe from both inside the conscious experience of presence and from the outside as an observation of a walking-talking or not walking or talking human being’s manifestations of presence. Presence is not measurable. Now is not measurable. Time as the flow of events through this living now is not measured. In order to measure time we have to move out of our subjectivity into an “objective” observation of a clock or perhaps the sun, moon, stars, days, seasons, and other moving parts of the natural world.
This strange mystery of time flowing through our now of consciousness is first of all a matter of active attention. We conscious beings watch time move; we watch the flow of futures coming into now and going into the past. Watching, however, is not the whole story of what we see using the contemplative approach to truth. We also see deciding among the alternatives confronting us. This deciding has an effect upon the future nows we will confront. We are like baseball players watching a ball coming at us, who at some point swing our bat to meet that ball in hope of some sort of “favorable” result. Results in the real world of time are not wholly caused by us. The actions produced by our free choices are only one of the “causes” of future outcomes. Our limited freedom operates within a larger “reality” that resists and augments the outcomes of our choices. As we choose out of that deep nothingness of personal freedom, we become one, but only one, of the causes of the future. We live in an environment of reality within which many other causes, both outside and inside our being, are contributing to the outcome of our choices. Nevertheless, we humans, using our essential freedom, are also cause agents.
Some have argued that none of our choices are free, that even our choices are caused by some other force of nature; but this is not true. We humans and other living beings make choices that are uncaused causes that join many other causes in determining the future. We might say that we are determined to be free as one of the many determining forces of nature. The apostle Paul put it this way: “For Freedom Christ and set us free.” He is talking about being set free from our bondages of illusion, addiction, compulsion, etc. He is not denying that such bondages exist. He is claiming, however, that freedom can also exist as a state of our being. In fact, freedom is our true being, from which our states of bondage are an estrangement.
Some have argued that all outcomes are predetermined, but this is also an exaggeration. Still others have argued that we are absolute masters of our own lives, that our will is always free from bondages to our various illusions, habits, conditioning, etc. That is also not true. Still others have argued that we have no effects on the future, that we are simply watchers of unfolding events. This is also a half truth at best. The raw nature of consciousness is not only watching, but also choosing. Consciousness is both attentionality and intentionality.
Seen from the contemplative approach to truth, the truth of living shows us to be in dialogue with other powers that are coming at us. Our choices do matter; yet our choices do not matter as much as we might like or guess or hope. We act for some purpose, but that purpose is restrained and/or augmented by forces beyond our understanding or control. These other forces than our own freedom continue to surprise us with next opportunities to respond with our freedom. We continually make further contributions to this ongoing dialogue with other forces in this medium of enigmatic time. For good or for evil we are benders of the course of time. We are responsible beings. Those who deny this are not facing the whole truth.
In a deep understanding of Christian faith (as well as Jewish and Islamic faith), we trust that all the very many opposing dialogue partners have a singular meaning for us: A Grand Oneness of Power operating within time—demolishing the past now, sustaining the present now, and presenting us with a yet-to-be-determined future now whose coming is challenging us to participate in shaping that future now. If we call this Overall Oneness of Power “Thou” or “God” or “Yahweh” or “Allah” or some other devotional word of commitment, we are choosing to affirm our membership in this ongoing dialogue within time. In such a vision, “faith” means a leap of choice—an act of our freedom into openly being this dialogue. Such faith includes accepting our freedom from the passing past (that is, renouncing our clinging to the familiar) and opening ourselves for the impending future that will surely include surprises to our familiar patterns of understanding and living. The coming future can kill our falseness, but the future can also raise us up to newness of life, a life that is more realistic.
The theologian Rudolf Bultmann defines Christian faith as trust in this Grand Oneness of Power that is manifest in the flow of time. Faith, therefore, is quite simply freedom from the past and openness to the future. Living within such an “obedience of faith,” we can count on having our current self images and familiar behavior patterns audited, demolished, changed, challenged, and more. We discover that whoever we now think-we-are will be revealed to be less or more than who we really are. So who-we-think-we-are is alway open to the “crucifixion experience,” that is also a “resurrection experience” toward being more real than we have known before. These grand symbols point to the life-adventure for which we are volunteering when we face the Final Oneness of Power meeting us in the flow of time, and give that Power the devotional obedience indicated by the phrase: “our God.”
When the scientific approach to truth is taken, time is a measurable dimension of our thinking and predicting and practical living. Where would we be without our wrist watches and other clocks, sundials, calendars, etc.? The speedometers in our cars are measures of miles per hour of time. Acceleration from one speed to another is measured in changes of velocity per unit of time. The whole of our physical knowledge is based on measuring time. Without such knowledge of reality, our lives would be unmanageable.
Sir Isaac Newton and others clarified for us how we scientific thinkers view time as a line severed into two parts by a contentless point called now. According to Newton, this line-of-time extends endlessly into the past and endlessly into the future. The point of now has no measurable length. It is nothing. The scientific “now” is just an abstraction— a point on the abstract line-of-time. At that abstract point of now, we imagine an abstract scientific observer observing from that space/time coordinate. This whole line—past-now-future—is just a picture in our rational heads. In our conscious experience of living, now does not mean an imaginary point. Yet using our contemplative approach to truth, we know that now is everything. The past is gone, the future is yet to be. Our lives are now and only now.
Though this scientific line-of-time is an abstraction, it is a very useful abstraction. We could not get along with it. In the scientific method of seeking truth, we pay attention to the facts being observed, not to the observer. Though we scientific thinkers are never allowed to forget that observers are involved, the scientific method of truth seeking is not searching our inner experience; it is searching our outer collectively observable experience for rational orderings that make temporal events more understandable, ordered, and predictable.
Science is hugely useful to us. We often take our scientific knowledge for granted without even noticing how useful it is, and how useful it has been for our species far into the distant past. At the same time, we seldom notice how abstract this universe of measurable time is from our inwardly experienced reality of time as a flow through an ever-present now.
Nevertheless, this abstract time-line in our heads is absolutely necessary in order for we humans to create our scientific storehouse of operational wisdom. But this line with that contentless dot of now is not our actual experience of time. Our actual experience of time is living in an ongoing something we call “now.” Reality flows through our now from future nows to past nows. We live only now. We know that we lie, when we try to live in the past or in the future.
The above discussion means that the whole of our physical knowledge is a world of abstractions, not the world into which we are physically born. Some try to argue that it is our inner world that is the illusion and that our scientifically perceived world is the reality. Nevertheless, we know with our consciousness that the opposite is true. Our inner experience is Real, however irrational it may clearly be. The scientifically perceived world is an abstraction of the Real. This abstraction is a useful approximation of the Real—an approximation that good enough for now, but due to be improved in the future.
It is true that our rational views of our inner experience are likewise approximate understandings of our inner reality, but this inner reality about which we have approximate knowledge is real with the same force that our outward reality is real. The dynamics we point to with the words like “consciousness” and “freedom” are real dynamics however poorly or well we describe or understand them. We humans create our descriptions and give our artistic expressions to consciousness and freedom, and these inner realities are not just ideas: they persisting realities quite beyond our abilities to create approximate rational models of them. Our rational models and artistic expressions of our inner realities are useful for our living, even though we know that all these models and art forms are approximations of an inner truth that is always more mysterious that we know.
Similarly, the abstract nature of our scientific knowledge does not make scientific knowledge any less useful. We avid fans of contemplative truth must not suppose that we know all we know through our contemplative excellences. Our scientific approach to truth is an actual approach to truth, and we would be helpless without it. Without the scientific approach to truth, we would know nothing of the weather, baseball, history, dinosaurs, galaxies, planets, suns, cultures, societies, education, and much, much more.
Yet the whole of scientific knowledge is just an array of mind-orderings in our heads that help us understand the real environment we confront personally. Good science corresponds to a significant extent with our actual experience of the environment. We honor the facts of our objective experience even though we may also know that those facts are themselves constructions of our minds that we must often improve as more information is taken in by our senses. We live in between these two seemingly contradictory truths: (1) that our scientific knowledge is truth that we need to honor, and yet (2) scientific knowledge is never the Truth with a capital “T,” for it will surely be replaced later by a more inclusive truth that is still not the Truth with a capital “T.”
Here is an illustration of this paradox from physics itself. Newton viewed the line of time as independent from the three dimensions (3 infinite lines) of space. These abstractions served the advance of science quite well for 200 years, and we can still get by in many areas of our living with these Newton abstractions. But the general community of physics has now faced up to facts coming to their attention that have firmly established that space and time are not independent from one another. We can now better see ourselves living in space/time, rather than in space and time. Further, space/time is an interacting fabric of reality with warps and curves and that strongly influences every event. Space/time is not a straight-line emptiness in which all “things” simply happen. Space/time is itself a participant in the universe of events.
We experience the fabric of space-time every time our car accelerates. When we speed up, we are thrown against the seat. When we slow down rapidly we are thrown forward. When we swerve to the left we are thrown to the right. These results are understood in post-Einstein physics as experiencing the resistance of the structure of space/time. We are at-rest-with the pattern of space/time when we are moving with a steady velocity (including stillness). Whenever we are accelerating (faster or slower or turning), we are feeling the surrounding space/time.
Even more astonishing to our Newtonian familiarities, we are moving in accord with the surrounding space/time medium when we are free-falling toward the center of the Earth. In the midst of such falling we feel no gravity. We feel gravity only when we are resisting the warped fabrics of space/time in the vicinity of the Earth, or some other large body of mass. When we are being pressed downward toward the center of the Earth, we are experiencing the structure of space/time rather than as Newton supposed being mysteriously pulled by some distant force. This space/time fabric of the cosmos is a better abstraction than the Newtonian abstractions for understanding and predicting many of the events of the natural world. In viewing this massive shift in scientific abstractions we get to notice that all of science is just abstractions that have more or less correspondence with our sensory experience of the natural world.
Ethics is a part of the discipline of learning we call “philosophy.” A comprehensive or inclusive philosophical vision must draw from both scientific truth and contemplative truth—combining them into useful fabrics of understanding that can guide our current culture in meeting its historical challenges. In the context of a responsibility ethics, time is a mixture of measurable time and the inner experience of time accessed through contemplating our now of paying attention and our now of making history-bending decisions.
As we mix these visions of time, we err when we overemphasize the abstractions of science into some sort of deterministic ethics that does not adequately honor the decisional power of human beings. And we also err if we overemphasize the contemplative components of truth toward some sort of exclusion of the importance of science in the making of informed decisions.
In such an understanding of ethical time, the contradiction between the scientific and the contemplative visions of time is handled—not resolved with a rational overview of the nature of time, but united through a willingness to have our lives be as mysterious as our lives actually are. This deep humbling of our human intelligence is not a temporary condition. This will always be the case. No genius will ever resolve the scientific and contemplative approaches to truth into some sort of rational oneness. How do we know this is true? What we know about the nature of scientific truth and what we know about the nature of contemplative truth prove this to be the case. There is no rational consilience between scientific and contemplative truth. Life is a Mystery PERIOD. This we can count on.
Our responsibility ethics can usefully integrate these two approaches to truth into workable patterns of action for our culture in its historical setting with its historical challenges. This ethical necessity for integrating these two very different modes of truth amounts to a third approach to truth—the truth-of-workability for our personal lives, and for the common challenges of our society. Our ethics includes asking questions like: “What combination of scientific and contemplative truth will best inform our culture in this moment of our historical time?”
For more exploration of truth, time, and related topics,
consider the following book:
The Enigma of Consciousness
a philosophy of profound humanness and religion