It’s enough to give you a headache.
A few years ago I was working on a book with Dr. Morris E. Chafetz, and in the course of conversation he said, “Maybe time doesn’t really exist. Maybe it’s just something we’ve created for our own convenience.” As a child of the space age, I’d heard speculations of all sorts and now, with a book to get out, I didn’t see where we had time to discuss it. “Yeah, maybe,” I replied.
(The book did get out. It’s Big Fat Liars, by Morris E. Chafetz M.D., and if you don’t have your copy you should get one.)
A few months passed and I happened upon a Catholic priest on television. Father John Corapi was mentioning, in the course of making another point, that time might not be the long string of events that we perceive, but instead a single point.
If that were so, I thought, it would make a lot of things easier, at least from a religious standpoint.
For instance, the philosophers have long argued over “determinism” — that everything is pre-ordained — and “free will” — that we make our own choices, for good or ill. With time being but a speck, the two are reconciled: we do make our choices, but since all time from beginning to end is just one instant, we’ve also already made them, so if one were able to see the whole thing, one would know how it all turns out, because it already has. (I wasn’t kidding about the headache.)
It was a nice idea but a fanciful one, I thought until recently, when I read that there is a body of theory in physics that is now considering the notion put forth by Dr. Chafetz in talking to me and Fr. Corapi to his television audience.
It might be. That poetic phrase, “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,” could be a fact of physics.
One does have to be careful with theoretical physics. There is also a body of thought — I have no idea how widely accepted it is — that every time anything happens, any decision is made, one or more entire universes gets spun off, resulting in an enormous number of parallel universes. Let’s not go there — pretty soon we’d be doing arithmetic.
But the idea of time being just one instant fascinates me, because it seems to open slightly the theoretical possibility of oneday being able to move around in time, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. That seems to be something everyone has thought about at one time or another.
Of course, if at some point in the future time travel were possible, we would have seen people from the future. My guess is that should it ever become possible, we might be able to see and hear into the past rather than actually go there. (If looking into the future became possible, that would be it for the state lotteries, wouldn’t it?)
There’s something I want to see and hear. It’s Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. We have, over the 146 years since those words were spoken, come to cherish them. But the audience, according to reports at the time, was unimpressed. I would like to hear Lincoln’s voice, his accent, watch his delivery. I wonder if Abraham Lincoln might have lacked the star power necessary for s successful political career today. Hey, he could have been just awful on television.
Other events would be worth witnessing, to be sure. Anyone interested in language and accents would jump at the opportunity to hear the debates leading to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. We imagine particular accents and particular forms of conversation, but we don’t really know. Ah, to be able to hear those things!
Everyone, probably, has a favorite first stop, were we able to watch history. When I was a kid, I would have witnessed the eruption of Krakatoa. Certainly the whole notion of the grassy knoll and the Kennedy assassination could quickly be put to rest one way or the other were we able to look back and see.
It would be terribly sad, too. Watching history would be like watching performances of Romeo and Juliet — hope as we might, the outcome will always be the same.
For some reason, I’m disinclined to think of going back and hearing, say, the Sermon on the Mount or watching the parting of the Red Sea. Some things are the property of faith.
Nor would I be eager to visit Rome, even if I could see my favorite of the emperors, Claudius. I prefer Derek Jacobi’s portrayal and Robert Graves’s books. It might be fun to find the lost books of Tacitus, though.
Mental calisthenics on a warmish winter’s day can be a good thing, I think.
Good enough to make the headache worth it.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.