Time is not succession and transition.
but the perpetual sound of the present
in which all times, past and future,
---- Ovtavio Paz
Time and Eternity and Schroedinger’s Cat
My interest in this was piqued by correspondence I received from an old friend and former coworker who has self styled himself as a true “curmudgeon.” In this he had asked the question, “What is eternity?” but then failed to answer it.
I thought I’d give it a try, not because I think I’m smart enough to answer this deep a question because I know I’m not, but due to the fact I’d recently reread an old book that is part of my collection of some 1500 science fiction books and remembered there had been something in it about “eternity”.
In “Shakespeare’s Planet” by Clifford Simak, one of the “old masters” of the SF genre, first published in 1976, he tells about a debate held by three human minds whose source is found in three disembodied human brains installed in a starship that is on a 1,000 year journey. With the ship being completely automated, the three minds have nothing better to do than debate. One is a noted scientist, another a “Grande Dame” who admits she was a “real bitch” when she still had a body, and the third is a Catholic monk. The main topic of their ongoing debate is the existence of the universe and at one point they ask themselves the same question my friend did. “What is eternity?” The monk voices one of the best answers I’ve ever heard:
“I think I told you I had a definition of eternity. Not a definition, really, but a pretty tale. The Church, you must understand, formulated through the years many pretty tales. This one has to do with a mile-high mountain and a bird. Once every thousand years the bird, which, for the purpose of the story, was extremely long lived, would fly above the mountain and, in doing so, one of its wings would touch the mountain and wear away an infinitesimal segment of it. Each thousand years the bird did this and eventually wore the mountain, with the impact of its wing, down to a level plain. And this, you say, this wearing down of the mountain by the scraping of a bird’s wing every thousand years, would be eternity. But you would be wrong. It would be no more that the beginning of eternity.”
Kind of mind boggling, wouldn't you say? It seems to me that, if you think about eternity, you have to also think about time and when you do you can’t help but run into an even larger enigma. Eternity can’t exist without time because the latter has to pass as you move toward eternity, ergo, eternity requires time. So that leads to the question, “What is time?”
When I try to read some of the stuff that theoretical physicists think and write about I quickly realize that my mundane brain will never understand such things as entropy, the big bang, etc. I’m left with making up my own, oversimplified, explanations and that has me conclude that time is a destroyer. It destroys everything and does so constantly, continuously and instantly. Think about it, everything you have done in the past second is already gone. It can never be recovered. To my mind, time is the disposal unit, the out-house, of the universe.
I think the human mind cannot accept the rightness or fairness of so cold and cruel a concept so it developed, somehow, the capacity to “remember” and large collections of human minds can remember a great deal which becomes “history”. You might say that the human mind is therefore in constant conflict with time in its attempt to save what has gone on before. Although that memory is useful to some degree in trying to plan for a future segment of time, it is totally worthless in trying to change what happened.
But, if we assume that time does indeed destroy everything then we have to assume it also destroys itself, obviously it does this as it goes along. That being the case, there is no eternity! So, there’s the answer to the question. Eternity, like Simak’s story, is a construct of the human mind and nothing more. It does not exist; it has no reality.
You’ll say, no doubt, that’s ridiculous, and that there is no way to prove this but, there is! To consider a proof we have to enter the realm of quantum physics. Yeah, I know, I am not a theoretical physicist, nor do I claim to understand squat about this subject but I read a lot and every once in a while run across something that kinda, sorta makes sense. And that’s what happened when I read somewhere about Schroedinger’s cat.
In one of my books from my SciFi collection there was an essay that quoted from a book by Kurt Soldan titled “Quanta: Essays on Quantum Physics”. The quote was as follows:
“Understanding the nature of the quantum universe involves a profound reappraisal of the way we perceive our surroundings. If we see a natural object – an apple perhaps, or a stone – we know from experience that it will follow certain laws, the laws described by Newton. Imagine a stone lying on a table; we can measure it, apprehend it. We know that if we push it off the table it will fall to the floor; and if we are quick enough we can reach out and catch it as it falls. This means we can see it falling, we can gauge where it is and how quickly it is traveling, and move our hand to intercept it.”
“But at the level of the atom, the quantum level, things are completely unlike this. We can measure the world of atoms, but our ability to measure is compromised – not by our measuring instruments but by the nature of things themselves. We can measure where an atom is, or we can measure how fast it is traveling, but we simply cannot measure where an atom is and how fast it is going. This is impossible.”
“The reason for this is profoundly unsettling. ……. at the level of the quantum things are not in the way we can confidently say they are at the level of apples and stones. We cannot say an atom “is” in the same way we can say that the stone “is" on the table”. From the atom’s point of view, as it were, there are only “probabilities”.
“You have heard of the famous thought–experiment of Schroedinger’s Cat. The cat lives in an opaque box. It so happens that opening the box will kill the cat, because of the way the box is constructed. We cannot see into the box, or X-ray the box, or anything like that. But we want to know if the cat is alive or dead in the box. If we open the box to look, then it is certainly dead – but is it alive or dead now, before we open the box? The quantum moral of this story is that the cat is alive and dead at the same time”
“It inhabits both states of being simultaneously; what happens when we open the box is that our action of opening the box collapses the quantum probabilities into one single pattern, the pattern being ‘the cat is dead’.”
“Schroedinger’s famous cat will test the suppleness of your mind, I promise you. You want to think, ‘Well, either the cat is alive or it is dead, and by opening the box we find one or the other to be the case.’ But that is not the way it is at the level of the quantum; at the level of the quantum it is ‘the cat is alive and dead until it is observed, and then the act of observation collapses the probability wave-form into a single determined pattern – dead, in this case’.”
“Perhaps the example of cats confuses things. Think of a miniature cat made out of atoms, a nano-cat, ten atoms long. Is it here? Or there? Well, before you turn on your atomic observation machine, it is both here and there. Or to put it another way, before it is observed there is a particular probability wave form that dictates it is 40% here and 60% there – not split between the two places, mind you, but simultaneously the whole nano-cat is in each location with slightly different probabilities. It sounds like I am suggesting there are two cats, but there is only one cat; it is just that it doesn't exist in the world in the same way a full size cat does. You observe and find the cat to be there, not here – but it is your observation that has determined the outcome. If you did not observe, the cat would continue to be here and there, would continue to exist in a quantum probability soup. But by observing you collapse the probabilities into a certainty.”
“And this is the most profound implication of all. The deepest philosophical shake-down; because it follows from this that it is our observation – our power, as sentient intelligences to make the observation that determines the universe as it is.”
(Another excellent explanation of Schroedinger's cat can be found in the curious but interesting best-selling novel titled "A Tale for the Time Being" written by Ruth Ozeki. It includes an Appendix that presents a thorough description of the cat's role in understanding the quantum universe).
How do I consider that this is the proof of my supposition it is possible eternity does not exist? First of all, since time destroys everything that has past, nothing can follow, ergo, neither can eternity. Well then, does time exist? According to the theoretical physicists, it both does and does not exist at the quantum level. If I could observe it at that level the mere act of observing would determine which probability would apply that it does or doesn't. We, each of us individually, appear to have the power to make such an observation. That being the case, time and everything that it controls, is actually a figment of our imagination. Everything we see, feel, taste and otherwise experience is an illusion. This too should be provable. All I have to do is concentrate, really, really hard on observing time so, let’s try it. It should be the