Things That Are But Cannot Be ($)
To better understand yourself, don't rely on what makes sense.
“To learn is not to know; there are the learners and the learned.
Memory makes the one, philosophy the others.”
― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
We’re always looking for sense in the world. Is this because the world is sensible, or because we are wired to understand it that way? And if we find sense in the world, is it really there, or are we using what we see to justify what we think?
Physics gives us some answers if we accept it without prejudice. It tells us that the world cannot make sense, and that there is no way that we will ever make sense of it. You can take this to be a disaster or as liberating. It’s a disaster, if you need order to find peace. It’s liberating, if you accept the necessity for higher consciousness.
Newton invented physics to demonstrate that there must be a God, because only a universal omniscience could arrange everything with a consistency for which there was no exception. It turns out that while there does seem to be a universal consistency at a fundamental level, it exists beyond anything we can understand.
We can calculate it, make predictions, and run experiments. Some of these techniques are understandable, but others are not. It’s not that we don’t understand them, it’s that they contradict what we call understanding.
I referred to one of these paradoxes before, in the piece “To Be Confused I – Physics”. There, the conclusion was that time could be circular. The situation in which time is predicted to be circular is not the situation in which we live, but it applies to the same universe, with the same things in it, operating according to the same rules for which we’ve found no exceptions.
We live in a differently configured universe where time may not be circular, but whether it is or not, it’s the same “time” as the universe with circular time, so we should not feel self-assured.
To say time is circular is, in itself, an unfathomable assertion. Does it mean that the calendar repeats after a few billion years, or does it mean that the events repeat themselves when the cycle comes around? It’s most likely the former: that the calendar repeats, and the actions of things does not: time is like a hamster wheel. Is that a problem?
What meaning does that have? If things behaved differently the second time around, then we’d need a new calendar in which to record them. If that were the case, then the cycle would not be the same and time would not be something we live “within,” but something that rather flows “underneath” us, reminiscent of what Heraclitus said: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river, and he's not the same man.”
We may be spared the experience of repeating time, but it’s still the same insubstantial time that we are experiencing. Which indicates to me that time, as we know it, is only our experience within it, and that we really know nothing of time at all.
What we know nothing about, we hold as external to us, and we view as constant and simple. This is how we view time, and that’s alright because we can be fairly confident that the nature of time is not going to change. From the calculations we’ve made about the relativity of time, it doesn’t affect our everyday lives, and it won’t affect us as long as we remain in our terrestrial habitat.
This problem with time comes from the Theory of Relativity, in which time can be distorted. This is disturbing, but not incomprehensible. Relativity tells us that we can measure time using the speed of light, which is not actually the speed of light per se, but rather the maximum speed of information.
Light is what we call a stream of photons, if you use light’s particle name. Other things besides photons travel at this speed (O’keefe, 2019), but light is the only one we directly experience. For such particles, Relativity tells us, time does not progress.
If you understand that all events—actions and reactions—involve the communication between things, and that communication is the transfer of information, then you can start to understand that weird stuff is going to happen when the speed of things moving through space and time approaches the maximum speed at which information can flow.
In this case, if you begin to catch up with information, then it’s comprehensible that the rate at which events progress will drop to zero. And since distances are measured by events—every measurement is an event—then distances will be affected. But, as long as we keep away from that realm, and we don’t try to catch up with information, then times and distances will seem reliably consistent.
“Things traveling at the speed of light don't actually age… So a photon is actually not aging relative to us. It’s timeless, in that sense.”
— Flip Tanedo, physicist (O’keefe, 2019)
The maximum speed of information is 186,000 miles per second, which is seven times the circumference of the earth every second. Aside from light itself, nothing in our common experience goes anywhere near that fast, so we can continue to think of time as flat, common, linear, and unchanging.
Even phone conversations with people on the other side of the earth continue at an unbroken pace. Not so with conversations with people on the moon, however. Question and answer conversations with people on the moon are delayed by five seconds. We are not entirely immune from this effect.
The fastest satellites can travel at 18,000 miles per hour. This is only 5 miles per second, but that’s fast enough to create detectable distortions in time and distance. In particular, global positioning technology, built into every smartphone, uses this distortion in the calculation of your position.
We are using this reality distortion in our everyday lives, but it is not changing our understanding of life. Still, we’re painting our reality with the same brush that would utterly confound us if we painted with larger brushstrokes. The very concepts that assure our safety, as long as we remain within terrestrial limits, predict the possibility of a mental collapse if we went outside them.
What is this stuff on our conceptual brush? Is it really okay to be complacent and ignore what happens at the far limits of our experience? As the old maps of the world sometimes warned, at the edges “there be dragons.”
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