Exploring the Mysteries of Time and Eternity
By Will Hart


Time is a central fact of life. It is a measurable, quantifiable phenomenon. In its most basic manifestation -- as seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years -- time is a completely impersonal and objective reality. But while we generally take this obvious, mundane kind of time for granted, does this encompass all that time really is?

While we usually think we know exactly what time is and therefore take it for granted, time is really much more mysterious and complicated than we generally assume. In a sense it is like a many-layered onion and we seem to stay focused on the surface layer only. However, nature guards her deepest secrets and we ignore them at our peril.

Types of Time
On one level, we know time as the interval it takes to get from point A to point B. It takes time to get from San Francisco to New York. We can call this extrinsic time or external time.

It also takes time to learn a skill, to build a skyscraper, to invent a new technology and to accumulate knowledge. Learning, planning and building all require a step-by-step process. A tiny redwood seed weighing but several ounces contains the genetic pattern of a full-grown 300-foot giant. However, it takes the passage of time and the right conditions to realize that miraculous potential.

In the first example, external time implies and even needs space, for without the distance that separates two or more points this type of time could not exist. So we see that physical time and space are truly relative and inseparable. This involves motion and distance, the space-time continuum of four relative dimensions. In the second instance we see that time is also something more than the simple interval it takes to cover the distance between two points -- it is also intrinsically necessary for any kind of process. We will refer to this as intrinsic time.

On the macro level, external time, as we record and track it according to the clock and calendar, is a system of measurement that involves the interrelationship of the earth and sun. It takes 24 hours or one day for the earth to rotate on its axis and give us the diurnal cycle of day and night. The earth revolves around the sun in 365 days or one year. Distance, motion and interval are fundamental aspects of the time kept by the watches on our wrists and calendars on our walls. This kind of mechanical time gives us an external frame of reference that allows us to collectively coordinate and synchronize our plans, schedules, goals and activities.

This mechanical time is a very logical, precise scientific system that is truly one of the cornerstones of modern-day civilization. Try to imagine life in our advancing technological society without clocks and calendars. Impossible! However, mankind has lived far longer without the benefit of precise clocks than he has with them.

As we have discussed above, time is a multi-dimensional reality with many different qualities and components. It might be better understood if we thought of it as a field with different dimensions than simply as a clock ticking away or the pages of a calendar being torn off. That view of time is two-dimensional, superficial and somewhat misleading.

To finish the puzzle of time we need to add several more key pieces. We experience time as the passage of days and months through a succession of seasons. Each season has distinctive characteristics and these seasonal changes require cyclical time, which is very important to biological life and is predictable within fairly tight parameters. The summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumnal equinoxes demarcate the seasons. This allows farmers to plow and prepare their fields for planting in the spring and to harvest in the fall. Many animals rely on the predictability of cyclical time for their seasonal migrations. For example, the swallows return to Capistrano on the same day every year, while geese and ducks fly south in the fall and north in the spring.

This kind of time appears to be programmed into the physiology of many mammal species at a genetic or cellular level. Clearly these animals don’t keep track of the changing seasons externally like we humans do -- at a conscious level with calendars -- but their bodies understand the seasonal cycles. The circadian rhythm is similarly programmed into the physiology of people.

In addition to the above outlined dimensions of time there is also non-cyclical or linear time. Take a hypothetical leaf floating from the source of a river high in the mountains down to the sea. Our leaf would be taking a journey in linear time from a spring in the mountains to the ocean. Once it reaches the river’s destination it cannot return. Like the floating leaf, human history exhibits a linear progression. We have gone from the primitive conditions of the Stone Age to an advanced technological civilization. Each new generation is a movement forward and onward, a sequential progression. Evolution progressed linearly as well. The age of the dinosaurs and mega-flora gave way to smaller mammals and smaller flowering plants tens of millions of years ago because they were more suited to the changing conditions on planet earth.

We return to the question: What is time? It is a complex field made up of many dimensions. One can’t help but wonder why we try to cram all of this into one concept, one single word, much less a simple, concise paragraph. So far we have only touched the hem of objectively measurable physical time.

What is perhaps even more complicated is the whole sphere of internal or psychological time. We all experience this subjective sense of time almost every moment of every day that seems to have no relationship to the clock. A minute is a minute is a minute since it is always 60 seconds, yet that same minute can seem like an hour or it can seem like a fraction of a second. It all depends on the quality of our experience, our perception of a given experience being pleasurable or painful, desirable or repugnant. Another common experience involves the feeling that time accelerates as we age. When we are very young we have a poorly developed sense of objective time. Every adult seems to recall that bygone era when the days, months and years felt like they were moving at a snail’s pace.

This presents us with a paradox in relation to the way we think about, experience and perceive time. Is time one of the basic objective realities of the physical universe we believe it is or is it a plastic, subjective state of mind? The answer is ambiguous: It is both.

Eternity (Timelessness)
Time is measurable and quantifiable. Our very lives are predicated on time. We are born; we grow, mature, age, decay and die. All of these processes involve continuity, interval, sequence and the present moving into the future at the same time it becomes the past. These facts are undeniable.

Time is so central to our lives, perceptions, emotions and patterns of thought that we seem to have made a critical error when it comes to thinking logically about eternity or timelessness. Many people believe that eternity begins after death. But how can that be? If life is eternal then it has no beginning and no end. Eternity existed prior to my birth, it exists at this moment of my life, and it will be what it is after my death.

Another conventional mistake is to look at eternity as endless time. This paradigm takes the usual divisions of time and extends them indefinitely believing that countless minutes, hours, days and years add up to eternity. But do they? No, because an x-zillion years is still within the fields of time. Any extension of time or any thought projection of eternity is still within the field of time.

Eternity is entirely different; it is outside of time’s limited boundaries. Time has continuity. Eternity is discontinuity -- it is time-less. Time is inside the box. The eternal moment is outside the box, measureless. Does this present us with a profound paradox? Yes. One seems to negate the other. How can we have time and mortality and still have eternity? But think about it: We live in time and we live in eternity simultaneously. This is not a semantics problem or an intellectual shell game. It goes right to the heart of understanding the truth of human life and spirituality.

If we only think about and experience our lives from inside the box we are bound by the demands of time and the limitations that perspective imposes: the clock is ticking, time is running out. Anxiety and impatience seem to go hand in hand with this view, as does a short-term orientation. Our individual human lives are very, very brief even by the standard of a redwood tree, let alone geological or evolutionary standards.

What is 80 years compared to the billions of years that have elapsed since the earth was born? How vast are the time scales of the galaxies beyond? Does our earthly system of measurement even apply? If we were in a spaceship outside the galaxy, would minutes, hours and days have any practical meaning or reality? Apparently not, since our system is based on the earth’s movements around the sun. What bearing would that have in the empty space outside our solar system? As complex as our time-box is, it is still very small and confining, as it has nothing to do with the rest of the material universe, let alone eternity.

Our experience of external time and sense of internal time are inextricably linked to our perceptions, thought patterns and emotions. These physical sensations, processes and reactions have evolved over millions of years and time is programmed into our bodies. Everything in the material world changes; in time all plants and animals die. That is our basic experience of time and it is continually reinforced. It may seem mundane and obvious and yet if we try to grab a hold it and really break it down to its essence, it becomes like water to a goldfish in a bowl.

Part of the mystery stems from the fact that our problem is conceptual and semantic. There is no single, quantifiable phenomenon or medium we can represent with one concept so it is a mistake to refer to all these complex processes with one word: time. The Eskimos have three-dozen words for different kinds of snow. I submit that we should be as precise by acknowledging and signifying the different kinds of time.

WILL HART is a freelance writer, outdoor photographer and filmmaker. His work has appeared in Nature Photographer, Wild West, Adventure West and Sierra Heritage. He writes a weekly column titled “Tahoe Natural” and has made films about wolves and wild horses.

Copyright 2002 Will Hart. All rights reserved.


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