The way we experience time has never been too fascinating to me until the last week or so. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it hit me, but all of a sudden I found myself attacking the very fundamental nature of time itself. This has led me to look at prayer in a completely different way. Let me explain.
As I type, I can see that the desk in front of me has width, length, and depth. I can perceive all three dimensions simultaneously. People like Steven Hawking insist that time is a dimension also. And yet, while the first three dimensions are easily and immediately perceived by my mind, time has a completely different quality.
I cannot travel to my birth, nor can I perceive my death. For some reason, I’m trapped in the “present.” Once I have measured an amount of time, it has vanished forever. I cannot go back and measure and re-measure the same second over and over again, and I cannot perceive something in the future at all. Upon closer inspection, even the present is an illusion, for it has no duration, right?
My wife tells me sometimes that I think too much, and this might be evidence for that. However, as I made these observations, I kept asking to myself, “Why is it so? Why can I not perceive time as I perceive space?”
I wrote to some of my smarter friends and they offered what they hoped would be advice, but their answers ended up being tautologies; namely, time is a dimension unlike the other dimensions because it has qualities that are different than the other dimensions. Still the question troubled me. Why is it so? It seems that we’re speeding through life, unable to really stop and view cause and effect simultaneously. In my mind, it would make more “sense” if time were ever-present and we could view possible causes and effects simultaneously. Interestingly, it is often said in religious circles (not just LDS) that God possesses this capability. More on this in a moment.
I then turned to Philosophy, and it seems these questions have been asked before. Let’s turn to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The very expression ‘the perception of time’ invites objection. Insofar as time is something different from events, we do not perceive time as such, but changes or events in time. But, arguably, we do not perceive events only, but also their temporal relations. So, just as it is natural to say that we perceive spatial distances and other relations between objects (I see the dragonfly as hovering above the surface of the water), it seems natural to talk of perceiving one event following another (the thunderclap as following the flash of lightening), though even here there is a difficulty. For what we perceive, we perceive as present—as going on right now. Can we perceive a relation between two events without also perceiving the events themselves? If not, then it seems we perceive both events as present, in which case we must perceive them as simultaneous, and so not as successive after all. There is then a paradox in the notion of perceiving an event as occurring after another, though one that perhaps admits of a straightforward solution. When we perceive B as coming after A, we have, surely, ceased to perceive A. In which case, A is merely an item in our memory. Now if we wanted to construe ‘perceive’ narrowly, excluding any element of memory, then we would have to say that we do not, after all, perceive B as following A.
Okaaaaay. This is the point where I usually say something like, “Well, crap.” Because it means that people much smarter than me have thought about this and they haven’t really come to a conclusion either.
After reading all this, I think I can tell what you’re thinking. “Arthur, what’s the freakin point here? Why are you dragging us through this? This is MormonMatters, not PhilosophyMatters.” Well, I’m of the opinion that the implications and solutions of any problem are theological in nature, theology being the framework through which we choose to view the world. I’m not the first to think of this theologically anyway. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy points us to St. Augustine’s Confessions. After reading a bit of his section on Time, I became hooked.
Who speak thus, do not yet understand Thee, O Wisdom of God, Light of souls, understand not yet how the things be made, which by Thee, and in Thee are made: yet they strive to comprehend things eternal, whilst their heart fluttereth between the motions of things past and to come, and is still unstable. Who shall hold it, and fix it, that it be settled awhile, and awhile catch the glory of that everfixed Eternity, and compare it with the times which are never fixed, and see that it cannot be compared; and that a long time cannot become long, but out of many motions passing by, which cannot be prolonged altogether; but that in the Eternal nothing passeth, but the whole is present; whereas no time is all at once present: and that all time past, is driven on by time to come, and all to come followeth upon the past; and all past and to come, is created, and flows out of that which is ever present? Who shall hold the heart of man, that it may stand still, and see how eternity ever still-standing, neither past nor to come, uttereth the times past and to come? Can my hand do this, or the hand of my mouth by speech bring about a thing so great?
Nor dost Thou by time, precede time: else shouldest Thou not precede all times. But Thou precedest all things past, by the sublimity of an ever-present eternity; and surpassest all future because they are future, and when they come, they shall be past; but Thou art the Same, and Thy years fail not. Thy years neither come nor go; whereas ours both come and go, that they all may come. Thy years stand together, because they do stand; nor are departing thrust out by coming years, for they pass not away; but ours shall all be, when they shall no more be. Thy years are one day; and Thy day is not daily, but To-day, seeing Thy To-day gives not place unto to-morrow, for neither doth it replace yesterday. Thy To-day, is Eternity; therefore didst Thou beget The Coeternal, to whom Thou saidst, This day have I begotten Thee. Thou hast made all things; and before all times Thou art: neither in any time was time not.
At no time then hadst Thou not made any thing, because time itself Thou madest. And no times are coeternal with Thee, because Thou abidest; but if they abode, they should not be times. For what is time? Who can readily and briefly explain this? Who can even in thought comprehend it, so as to utter a word about it? But what in discourse do we mention more familiarly and knowingly, than time? And, we understand, when we speak of it; we understand also, when we hear it spoken of by another. What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not; and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. Those two times then, past and to come, how are they, seeing the past now is not, and that to come is not yet? But the present, should it always be present, and never pass into time past, verily it should not be time, but eternity. If time present (if it is to be time) only cometh into existence, because it passeth into time past, how can we say that either this is, whose cause of being is, that it shall not be; so, namely, that we cannot truly say that time is, but because it is tending not to be?
And yet we say, “a long time” and “a short time”; still, only of time past or to come. A long time past (for example) we call an hundred years since; and a long time to come, an hundred years hence. But a short time past, we call (suppose) often days since; and a short time to come, often days hence. But in what sense is that long or short, which is not? For the past, is not now; and the future, is not yet. Let us not then say, “it is long”; but of the past, “it hath been long”; and of the future, “it will be long.” O my Lord, my Light, shall not here also Thy Truth mock at man? For that past time which was long, was it long when it was now past, or when it was yet present? For then might it be long, when there was, what could be long; but when past, it was no longer; wherefore neither could that be long, which was not at all. Let us not then say, “time past hath been long”: for we shall not find, what hath been long, seeing that since it was past, it is no more, but let us say, “that present time was long”; because, when it was present, it was long. For it had not yet passed away, so as not to be; and therefore there was, what could be long; but after it was past, that ceased also to be long, which ceased to be.
St. Augustine seemed to believe that time is only a function of our Universe, and that God is not bound by the limits of perception that seem to bind us. To God, he said, the past, the present, and the future are one.
Mind you, Augustine’s perception of God was different than the LDS perception. To Latter-day Saints, God is not the formless entity that Augustine worshipped, with no parts and no body. To Augustine, God was simply unknowable. However, we’re still left with my original problem. Whether God experiences time or not, we do. I am again left with the question, why do we experience time the way we do?
I prayed quite a bit for the answer yesterday and today and as I drove to class this morning I received what I believed was an answer. I understand that what I believe to be revelation was given only to me and therefore it is personal revelation, and I’m almost hesitant to share it. However, the information contained therein is not apocalyptic nor is it controversial. The answer I received is music.
People who know me well know that this is pretty much my answer for everything, so give me a minute to explain.
My father once told a story about singing at a temple dedication when I was younger. I believe it was the St. Louis Temple, but that’s irrelevant. He said that as he was singing one part of a four-part chorus with the choir, in his mind he got a small, brief glimpse of the motion of the Universe. He saw the planets revolving around the Sun, the Sun moving in space in an arm of the galaxy. All the order that was in the spacing and duration of the notes he sang and the frequency and dynamics of each note in relation to every other note somehow related to the order in the Universe.
One might recall the words of Alma in his response to the skeptical Korihor in Alma 30, verse 44:
44 But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and call things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.
My father’s revelation was not unlike mine. We’ve been given a glimpse of a “slice” of the Universe. We perceive time not as a whole but as a fleeting thing that is gone as soon as we measure it. Why is it so? What I believe to be God’s answer to me was, look at music. It only “works” because we perceive time as it is, for music is an art form that uses time as its medium. A song has a duration, we cannot perceive it all at once, like we would a painting. Music uses time itself as a canvas.
This may not necessarily be The Answer, but it answers the question sufficiently for me, at this time. We experience Time in this way because it has the potential for beauty, and thus it can give us joy. Is not this the reason for our existence? And if we perceived time all at once, could we experience the joy in the rhythmic pulsation of a heartbeat or a sonata? I submit to you that music in its current form would be meaningless without our limited perception of time. Perhaps if we become more like God, we could experience time as He does, if it truly is drastically different than how we experience it (I’m not 100% convinced, but the Scriptures give some insights there).
You may now wonder what this has to do with my model of prayer that I mentioned in the very first paragraph. As soon as I received my “answer” about one facet of the Universe’s nature, I wondered about the process that I used to find my answer. My observations about this process will be outlined in Time and Art, Part 2.