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A Very Brief History of Time

I just had a chance encounter with a garden slug, and it got me thinking about time.

In this ostensibly inanimate, impersonal universe, a garden is a miracle. All the more so is a garden slug, an animal that can extract sufficient energy from the garden’s vegetable matter to move from place to place under its own power. When one is in the right mood, watching the shimmering spotted slug slide over the mulch evokes the miracle of biology in all its splendor; the creature’s pulsating aliveness is hypnotic. But then one recovers his bearings and realizes that this is only, after all, a garden slug, and that the ladder of biology goes much higher. The miracle of life has culminated in one’s own species, man. Unlike the slug, whose nervous system has barely enough complexity to let it interface with the environment, a man’s nervous system, nucleated by the adaptive and inventive human brain, can abstractly model its surroundings and project itself consciously and creatively through time.

A slug can learn. The small neural network that serves as its brain can be modified by sensory input from its environment, and the slug’s behavior modified accordingly. To this extent, the slug "remembers" the input. But because its simple brain cannot form an internal model of its changing relationship with the garden, the slug cannot recognize its memories as "changes"; the state of its nervous system at any given moment can pass for all that it has ever known. Because the neural function by which the slug identifies self is instinctual and perceptual as opposed to cognitive – because the slug "defines itself" strictly by nonreflective instinctual processing of environmental stimuli - the dependent neural function time is limited to here-and-now. The slug recognizes no past self or future self on which to define an extended temporal relationship.

As the slug’s primitive example shows, our awareness of time depends on the extent to which our mental models of reality reflect change. To see an object change, one must recall its former state for comparison to its present state, and to do that, one must recall one’s former perception of it. Because perception is an interaction between self and environment, this amounts to bringing one’s former self into conjunction with one’s present self. That past and present selves can be brought into conjunction across a temporal interval implies that momentary selves remain sufficiently alike to be conjoined; that they can intersect at any given moment to compare content means that the intersection is changeless. So when self is generalized as the intersection of all momentary selves, it acquires a property called time invariance. It is the rock of perception, the unchanging observation post from which the net of temporal connections is cast and to which it remains anchored. Indeed, it is the fabric from which the net is woven, its relationship with the environment serving as the universal template for all temporal relationships.

Through learning, mental models of time evolve in time. As the brain’s neural connections are modified and the strengths of existing connections are adjusted to account for new information regarding both self and environment – as it learns - its model of time changes as a function of time. In other words, the model changes with that which is modeled. If the brain is smart enough, then it can model itself in the process of being changed, and depict its own learning process as a higher level of time. But even as the self absorbs its educational history and deepens its reflexive understanding, it remains static at its core. Otherwise, it would lose temporal cohesion and fall apart. Since self is static, time too should possess a static description that does not change in the temporal flow it describes (if time were the water flowing in a river, then a static description of time would be analogous to the rocky banks that determine the river’s course).

Such a description arises by abstraction. As cognitive models become more sophisticated, cognition becomes increasingly abstract; concepts become increasingly independent of the particular objects they describe. Among the first things to be abstracted are space and time. The most general abstract system incorporating both is a language. Although the term "language" usually refers to a natural language like English, it is actually more general. Mathematically, a formal language consists of three ingredients: a set of elements to be combined as strings (e.g., symbols, memes), a set of structural rules governing their arrangement in space, and a set of grammatical rules governing their transformations in time. Together, the latter two ingredients form the syntax of the language. It follows that neural, cognitive-perceptual, and physical systems can be described as languages, and the laws which govern them as their syntaxes. On a subjective level, time itself can be abstractly characterized as the grammar of the joint language of cognition and perception. The rules of this grammar are the general ingredients of subjective time.

Because time is defined in terms of transformations among spatial arrangements of objects, it is conceptually entwined with space. Thus, it is actually part of a linguistic complex called spacetime. Spatiotemporal relations exist on many levels; if level one consists of simple relationships of objects in space and time, then level two consists of relationships of such relationships, and so on. Because logic is stratified in much the same way, one can say that time is stratified in a manner corresponding to predicate logic. This must be true in any case, since any meaningful description of time is logically formulated. Spatiotemporal stratification allows time to be viewed on various scales corresponding to ascending series of contexts: e.g., personal awareness, interpersonal relationships, social evolution, evolutionary biology, and so on. The histories of people, institutions, cultures, and species are nested like Chinese boxes, with the abstract principles of each history occupying a level of temporal grammar corresponding to an order of predicate logic.

Because of the relation between self-awareness and temporal awareness, temporal stratification induces a stratification of self. What we have already described as the static intersect of momentary selves becomes a stratified relationship…a terrace of temporal vantages conducing to long-term self-integration. As the self becomes stratified, the principles abstracted from higher orders of experience tend to be objectivized due to their generality, with science and philosophy among the results. Thus, the subjective and objective sides of reality – the self and the environment – tend to merge in a symmetric way. On one hand, the environment is absorbed by the self through experience, and the laws of nature are thereby abstracted; on the other hand, the self is projected onto the environment in such a way that it "selects" the laws of nature by analogy to its own internal laws. Either way, the core self tends to intersect with the environment as momentary selves are intersected within it. This brings the subjective and objective phases of reality - and time - into closer correspondence, blurring the distinction between them from an analytic standpoint.

As time grows more abstract, ways are sought to measure it, diagram it and analyze it numerically. This requires a universal depiction of space and time against which arbitrary processes can be differentially graphed and metered. Such a depiction was introduced by the Frenchman René Descartes in the first half of the 17th century. It was called analytic geometry, and it depicted time and the dimensions of space as straight, mutually perpendicular axes. In analytic geometry, any set of numerically-scaled space and time axes associated with any set of properties or attributes defines a coordinate system for assigning numbers to points, and simple processes appear as the graphs of algebraic functions. A few decades later, Newton and Leibniz independently discovered a new kind of mathematics, the infinitesimal calculus, by which to numerically quantify the rates of such processes. These innovations, which laid the foundations of modern science and engineering, suffice to this day in many practical contexts. Even though garden-variety analytic geometry was technically superseded by the Theory of Relativity – which was itself constructed on an analytic-geometric foundation - it gives a very close approximation of relativity in most situations.

Unfortunately, the conveniences of analytic geometry came at the price of mind-body dualism. This was Descartes’ idea that the self, or "mind", was a nonphysical substance that could be left out of physical reasoning with impunity. For some purposes, this was true. But as we saw in the next-to-last paragraph, the relationship of mind to reality is not that simple. While the temporal grammar of physics determines the neural laws of cognition, cognitive grammar projects itself onto physical reality in such a way as to determine the form that physical grammar must assume. Because the form of physical grammar limits the content of physical grammar, this makes cognition a potential factor in determining the laws of nature. In principle, cognitive and physical grammars may influence each other symmetrically.

The symmetric influence of cognitive and physical grammars implies a directional symmetry of time. Although time is usually seen as a one-way street, it need not be; the mere fact that a street is marked "one way" does not stop it from being easily traveled in the unauthorized direction. Indeed, two-way time shows up in both quantum physics and relativity theory, the primary mainstays of modern physics. Thus, it is not physically warranted to say that cognition cannot influence the laws of physics because the laws of physics "precede cognition in time". If we look at the situation from the other direction, we can as easily say that cognition "precedes" the laws of physics in reverse time…and point to the strange bidirectional laws of particle physics to justify our position. These laws are of such a nature that they can as well be called laws of perception as laws of physics.

Before we get to the final word on time, there is one more aspect of physical grammar that must be considered. Physical reasoning sometimes requires a distinction between two kinds of time: ordinary time and cosmic time. With respect to observations made at normal velocities, ordinary time behaves in a way described by Newtonian analytic geometry; at higher velocities, and in the presence of strong gravitational fields, it behaves according to Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity. But not long after Einstein formulated his General Theory, it was discovered that the universe, AKA spacetime, was expanding. Because cosmic expansion seems to imply that the universe began as a dimensionless point, the universe must have been created, and the creation event must have occurred on a higher level of time: cosmic time. Whereas ordinary time accommodates changes occurring within the spacetime manifold, this is obviously not so for the kind of time in which the manifold itself changes.

Now for the fly in the cosmological ointment. As we have seen, it is the nature of the cognitive self to formulate models incorporating ever-higher levels of change (or time). Obviously, the highest level of change is that characterizing the creation of reality. Prior to the moment of creation, the universe was not there; afterwards, the universe was there. This represents a sizable change indeed! Unfortunately, it also constitutes a sizable paradox. If the creation of reality was a real event, and if this event occurred in cosmic time, then cosmic time itself is real. But then cosmic time is an aspect of reality and can only have been created with reality. This implies that cosmic time, and in fact reality, must have created themselves!

The idea that the universe created itself brings a whole new meaning to bidirectional time, and thus to the idea that cognition may play a role in the creation of reality. As a self-creative mechanism for the universe is sought, it becomes apparent that cognition is the only process lending itself to plausible interpretation as a means of temporal feedback from present to past. Were cognition to play such a role, then in a literal sense, its most universal models of temporal reality would become identical to the reality being modeled. Time would become cognition, and space would become a system of geometric relations that evolves by distributed cognitive processing.

Here comes the surprise: such a model exists. Appropriately enough, it is called the Cognition-Theoretic Model of the Universe, or CTMU for short. A cross between John Archibald Wheeler’s Participatory Universe and the Stephen Hawking-James Hartle "imaginary time" theory of cosmology proposed in Hawking’s phenomenal book A Brief History of Time, the CTMU resolves many of the most intractable paradoxes known to physical science while explaining recent data which indicate that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Better yet, it bestows on human consciousness a level of meaning that was previously approached only by religion and mysticism. If it passes the test of time – and there are many good reasons to think that it will - then it will be the greatest step that humanity has yet taken towards a real understanding of its most (or least?) timeless mystery.

And so the circle closes. Time becomes a cosmogonic loop whereby the universe creates itself. The origin of our time concept, the self, becomes the origin of time itself. Our cognitive models of time become a model of time-as-cognition. And the languages of cognition and physics become one self-configuring, self-processing language of which time is the unified grammar. Talk about "time out of mind"!

And all this because of a little garden slug.


© 2001 by Christopher Michael Langan (All Rights Reserved)

 

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