Archive for the ‘Metaphysics’ Category

The End and Beginning of Time

Posted on November 13th, 2018 in Metaphysics | No Comments »

The first 13.7 billion years went by in literally a flash. The Big Bang, the formation of the Sun and Earth, the stirrings of life, dinosaurs, cavemen, the pyramids, the Crusades, WWII; it all happened instantaneously. The first things I remember experiencing were short moments, with no real recollection of any gaps in between. Memories strung like pearls on threads without interconnecting. It all seems like centuries ago now. It wasn’t until I was about five years old that things began to link up in a way they had not previously. I became aware without being aware that time was moving very slowly.

Minutes and seconds would pass then as they do now, but hours, days, weeks, months, years – they all took the longest time to move through their now familiar rhythms. As a boy I would play for ages. Go to school for ages. The days were nearly eternal, Summer months like eons. Christmas would come and the house would be transformed into a gaudy delight of brightness and colour; the tree would go up, presents would appear and it would go on and on and on until I couldn’t stand it any more. When it was finally done, it would be forever before it would happen again. After periods of time so long I couldn’t name them, it would be Summer again, and the days would drift lazily by once more.

As I learned more and more about events that took place before my own birth, it would seem to me that time raced forward in a gigantic rush, like a runaway train, barrelling down through millennia until it reached me. My existence was somehow enough of an event that time itself would crash headfirst into it and like the most unimaginable collision, suddenly stop dead in its tracks. It was only in the aftermath of this incomprehensible meeting of the most unstoppable force and the most immovable object that the great train of time began to slowly shuffle forth one more. Tamed and humbled, the once raging river of eternity was reduced to a mere trickle.

But what I failed to appreciate was that time had momentum on its side.

Over the years of my life, I became aware that my power to contain time itself would weaken. Eventually I noticed that the days were now not quite so long as in my youth; Suddenly it would be Monday or Saturday again. Was it really a week ago? Not just a few days? What happened to my long, glorious Summers? A few weeks and now the cold of Winter is biting already? It is Christmas again? I look back in alarm at the years that have literally slipped away from my grasp. Where did that decade go? What have I done? Where am I now? I recall events that seem to have happened only a few years ago, and find it stupefying that it’s been twenty years or more. What? My own childhood now seems to have almost passed into myth. But I was there, dammit!

People I knew and loved are now dead and gone. I know it will only get worse. The laughter of once close companions is replaced by quiet. The days are a blur now. I get up, and suddenly it’s dark again and time for bed. Time is exacting its cruel revenge upon me for holding it at bay for so long. The scales are continuing to tip in its favour. Eventually I will lose completely. My death will be the last remaining check on its inexorable progress and once I am gone, it will resume its breakneck pace. Much like the moment before I was born, the moment after my passing will cause not just billions, but trillions of years to fly by in the briefest of intervals. An eternity may pass in the merest fraction of a second. The death of the Sun and Earth, the collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda, even the heat death of the entire Universe and the decay of the proton will arrive almost simultaneously with the end of my life. Time will be freed from the shackles placed upon it by me and will run riot until the passage of it in itself becomes a meaningless concept.

The greatest frustration is that just as before, I will not be aware of it all. I wish that after this cosmic blink of the eyelid, I would somehow have knowledge of what had gone before, but I don’t have any real hope I will. It will have to be enough to know now that when my grip on time is finally loosened, all that is to come will flow by just as fast as what had flown before. And for a small interval between two great voids, I alone had the power to tame that mighty torrent, if only for a while.

The Everyday Miracle of Consciousness

Posted on March 26th, 2008 in Metaphysics, Religion | No Comments »

First, I know it’s been awhile since the last post. A lot has changed, hasn’t it? I still hope Hilary wins; A ‘President Obama’ would be another Jimmy Carter at best. But I digress…

I was watching a show the other night about memory, these leading neurospecialists all admitted that even now, nobody is quite sure how memories are formed or stored in the brain. We know that memories (as well as all mental processes) are carried between neurons as electrochemical exchanges from cell to cell. But how does that translate into remembering an event I experienced thirty or forty years ago? What happens in my brain that makes me relive a time long ago in the past? It is nothing short of a miracle.

As regular readers of this blog (if any!) will no doubt be aware, I’m no fan of organized religion; it’s a sheer drain on the species that we’ve long ago outgrown. However, this does not mean I’m an anti-spiritual person. I don’t think I am. I just object to the layers of dogma and nit-picking that have wound up as seemingly essential baggage on the train of every religious belief. But, I feel neuroscientists are trying to work from a ‘bottom-up’ position. What if instead, consciousness worked as a top-down experience?

Some people might be tempted to call this a ‘soul’, but that word has connections that I’d just as soon reject out of hand. I’ll stick (for now), with a top-down approach. The funny thing about consciousness is that we take it for granted to such a degree, we often fail to appreciate how amazing a thing it is, stuck there in our skulls as we walk around. No other species on the planet has anything like the cognitive skills we use every day without (if you’ll pardon the pun) a moment’s thought. And why have we developed these skills? We seem wildly overdeveloped for survival on the grasslands of Africa. Billions of us exist with scant notice of the fact that we do exist; and when we think about it at all, it strikes many as perfectly obvious that we should exist. But should we? Why? And why as such intelligent creatures that we are capable of progressing beyond our own basic physical needs? We can contemplate the distant past, the far-flung future, the subtle nuances of complex emotional interactions, to say nothing of music or art or even symbolism, language, writing, math and a host of other cerebral gymnastics that leaves our ape cousins and even the dolphins far behind.

Consciousness, our consciousness, is not so ordinary that it should escape our notice. Instead it’s the rarest, most precious commodity in the known universe. We are self-aware, and yet with all our ability, we still can’t even describe our own knowing. It does not seem possible that the jelly between our ears can reproduce the moment of our first kiss, or the loss of a loved one, or eating a really good sandwich. But it does, and all the time. I have to believe that somehow we are generating the chemicals and electrical impulses, but they are the footprints, not the foot, of our thought. It’s as if we study the hammers of a piano and wonder how they can organize themselves into the music of Bach. The point is well and truly missed.

Happily, I can contemplate this without the need for Jesus, the Prophet, Buddha or any other divine messenger. What if we die and discover that we have been our own gods all along? I know, there’s no proof, but nobody can explain how my brain can let me retrace a long-ago summer’s day, when the world seemed perfect and eternal. My own personal miracle.

An I for an I

Posted on June 12th, 2007 in Metaphysics | No Comments »

Some years ago, I was driving to work when I had an epiphany. I suddenly saw myself as I was – an American white male, living in the latter half of the twentieth century. Good health, somewhat affluent, in short, nearly the cream of the crop as far as life experience gets. And the question that bubbled up in my mind was… why?

Why was I not born as a poor African, sick and starved in some rain-forsaken dust bowl? Or an oppressed peasant deep in the backwoods of some underdeveloped Asian country? Or one of a myriad of other unpleasant and probably short-lived lives around the globe? How and why did I end up so high the ladder of desirable conditions, suspended between two eternities? I remember being really shaken by the cosmic roll of the dice that put my consciousness in such a ‘privileged’ place. The population of the world was probably close to four billion when I was born, and if you were to line up everyone alive at that time by how well off they were, I would have been well ahead of most; certainly two-thirds of humanity, if not five-sixth.

Twenty years later, I still don’t have an answer to this question. I still wonder why I’m me, and not already dead of malaria or malnutrition or infection, or barely clinging to my miserable life. I’m saying this not to brag about how wonderful I am, or how well-deserving I’ve been of my status as a White American Male (WAM), but more about how really shocked I was when it came to my realization that it could have so easily have been very different. Of course, the fact my own personal consciousness appeared at all is another amazing thing, considering I could have been born in the Stone Age, or the 13th century. But that’s just another small sub-facet of the same question: Why am I me, and not someone or someplace else? Why? It’s a question that still shakes me to the core; If you think about it hard enough, it should shake you as well.

Thought Experiment

Posted on April 20th, 2007 in Comedy, Metaphysics | No Comments »

If nothing else, a blog is a handy way to empty your mind of stuff that’s been pasted to the inside of your brain for some time. This is something that’s rattled around in my skull for years. A good example of what I get up to when I’m not doing anything else.

Imagine for the sake of argument that everyone has a built-in digital display over their heads. Assume it’s a part of nature that we evolved with, just like five fingers and two ears. The display measures the difference between physical time and the time in our heads. You know how you get impatient when you sit at a red light that seems to take forever to change? When it turns green, what do you do? Usually you then try to rush to catch up to where you think you should have been, had the light changed sooner. It’s this difference between where you are vs. where you think you should be that the display measures.

For most people the display would nearly always be lagging behind to some degree. It seems we’re always in a hurry, or always behind where we should be. As we run late, the display would provide proof of this. Some people, like obsessive-compulsives, would be manic to make sure their display was as close to ‘proper’ time as possible. A few would even be ahead of where they should be. Lucky bastards. Remember, I’m asking you to assume that this is a normal part of human physiology; it wouldn’t even bear much comment, unless someone was seriously ahead or behind.

Got that? If so, then the thought experiment itself is much simpler to describe:

What (if anything) would Frankenstein’s display read?