Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Brief Pondering About Time

I love to think about concepts like time and space and their impact on things like theology and anthropology and sociology.

For instance, when Acts talks about Jesus ascending into the clouds to sit at the right hand of the father, I often find myself wondering how that worked. It seems to me that Jesus would have either exploded or suffocated as he rose in altitude, and even if by some supernatural intervention he did not, I wonder where he went. Our telescopes can see pretty far, and there is nothing around us resembling heaven for a long, long way. I guess he could have moved really, really fast, at speeds approaching the speed of light (or faster?), but then he would have experienced relativistic effects. Perhaps that is why Jesus can say he is coming back "soon" - from the standpoint of someone moving so fast, his return would not seem like a long time at all. But I digress.

A random phrase someone used in a meeting today triggered a thought I'd like to share, but to outline the thought I need to give a lesson in evolutionary epistemology. Don't worry - it won't hurt, and might actually be interesting.

As a sweeping generalization, evolutionary biologists tend to think that evolution has produced in higher lifeforms an accurate view of reality. Sure, we might be not be able to see into the infrared spectrum, or hear hypersonic frequencies, or feel the motion of the earth, but in general that information which our senses gives us and our consciousness determines is real is, in fact, an accurate reflection of reality. (Drugs, mental illness, and love not withstanding, of course.)

This seems reasonable, if I see a green field in front of me, there is every reason for me to believe that, in reality, there is a green field in front of me. Likewise, if I see a ferocious predator in front of me, there is every reason to believe there is a ferocious predator in front of me. My consciousness would then kick in and tell me to run away before I get eaten. Evolutionary biologists contend that the forces of evolution blindly select for those characteristics that accurately present reality, and therefore can be trusted.

Christian philosophers, like Alvin Plantinga, see a chink this logic, however. Dr. Plantinga contends that blind forces do not care whether or not reality is accurately represented. Lets use the example of the ferocious predator. All natural selection cares about is the survival of the individual, not the accuracy of perception. So, if I see a ferocious predator, and my consciousness kicks and tells me that if I run away, he will be my friend, then natural selection has achieved its goal. My perception is wrong (the predator will never be my friend), but the result it produces ensures survival. In other words, Plantinga believes that, if evolution is true, then our abilities are not necessarily designed to accurately describe reality, but instead to ensure survival.

Here's where time comes in. We all should perceive time as running one way. (If you don't, let me know. I have some questions.) No one to my knowledge has seen it run backwards. Yet there is no currently known reason in physics why it should run one way. (There's a lot of speculation involving stuff like entropy determining the arrow of time, but suffice it to say that there is a lot of disagreement about that.) Yet despite the fact that time doesn't seem to HAVE to run one way, we ALWAYS perceive it to run one way. What if it doesn't? What if the design of our faculties is such that we automatically ignore the hiccups that happen in time and see things always running one way? What if, at least in this pocket of space-time, survival is only dependent upon stuff that follows the arrow of time that we perceive, and all other information cannot be detected by our current equipment? What if?

The reason this captured me has to do with death. I'm not sure what happens to people between death and the judgment. Careful study shows that the Bible is at best ambiguous about it, and at worst in contradiction about where we go when we die. But if our perception of time is screwed up, then all the pieces can be made to fit. In fact, other things about how God might interact with us start to make sense, too. (See this post for some possibilities. Which, by the way, is my favorite of all the posts I have written.) We could very well close our eyes in death, and skip through time to the point of being resurrected. Everyone would enter eternity at the same "point", though their deaths are separated by large amount of "time".

In any case, I thought it was cool. So, the next time I'm around and you see my mind wander off somewhere, I'm probably thinking about something like this.

(Disclaimer: I realize the perception problem can be solved by denying evolution. I also realize you get on a slippery slope with saying our perception of time might be wrong. But ultimately I've been convinced by the arguments of Plantiga, Christian biologists (e.g., Collins, Miller), modern theologians (e.g., McGrath, Polkinghorn, Peacocke), and contemporary cosmology that the answer to evolution and reality is more complicated than taking Genesis 1&2 literally.)


Tracy P. said...

What I don't get is why people even think you could explain "what happens when you die", let alone, why it really matters whether we all enter eternity at individual "points" or at a single "point" (way to avoid using the word time). Isn't the "point" that it is a situation no longer bound by time that we are at a total loss to grasp? Thank God!

And hey, we've made our clocks go forward, so we've got that sewn up. (And even extra forward at our own whims so we can have daylight savings time.) We just so want to package things in a way that we can control them. Not that I think time really ever goes backwards...but I appreciate in your writing that, even though you like to try to make all the pieces fit, you are willing to forego the temptation to make sweeping assumptions in order to get it all nicely wrapped up.

(And don't worry about whether I "got" what you were trying to say--I'm admittedly a little braindead at the moment, so just say "whatever" if this comment doesn't fit. It must relate somehow...)

Benjamin said...

I think it relates. You bring up a good point about death, but it seems to me that "what happens when we die" is one of humanities most enduring questions. (Isn't it?) Even one of my seminary graduation requirements we even to write about the "intermediate state" between death and the "second coming". So evidently, someone cares about this. (In the paper, I said I didn't know, because the Biblical evidence is confusing.)

In any case, I think it is interesting that you lean towards no longer being bound by time in the "afterlife". I'm on the other end of the spectrum. I think that we will always be creatures bound by time, since that is the nature of our creation. But in the "end", I'm not sure it really matters (or that we can have any confidence in our opinion).

I'm with you on the control thing.

Tracy P. said...

I guess it's important to some people to know (as if they could) whether Mom has a conscience and can look "down" on us and know how fun our kids are, etc. But I'm curious about the mindset that leads to this kind of thinking. Is it just a natural outgrowth of the grieving process? It's not that important in my world. I just know that sometimes when I least expect it there is a moment that I know she wouldn't have missed for anything if she were here, and whether she has consciousness or not doesn't make the empty chair next to me feel any more occupied. However, these moments don't begin to rule my own consciousness because these light and momentary (really, fleeting!) troubles are preparing us for eternal glory. So how then do you reconcile that with the idea that there would be a time-bound aspect of our nature in eternity? That sounds like another post--an interesting one!

I'm glad they let you graduate from seminary with an "I don't know" answer. Did the students who thought they knew graduate too?

Benjamin said...

Unfortunately, they graduated all kinds, though I must admit that my "I don't know" answer took up a few pages at least. You learn to be wordy in grad school.

There has actually been a lot written about the mindset of those who hope for a really cushy "intermediate state". My recollection (which might not be accurate) is that those who measure on the unhappy end of the psychological spectrum tend to believe more in a cushy afterlife. The conclusions are that such beliefs are escapist. In other words, people imagine and wish for a better place because they believe theirs is so miserable.

With this in mind, I get disturbed when Christians talk about this kind of cushy afterlife as if it is the "good news" of Christ. I just can't buy that the "good news" is that stuff sucks right now, but as long as you do certain things today, your situation will get better after you die. The good news is so much more than that little perk.

I suppose some people might think that the Bible addresses the topic, and that they must therefore believe it - but in my experience those people make the cushy passages normative. But I'm with you, nothing will replace my uncle at the piano. Whether he is conscious or not has no bearing on life on planet Earth. REMEMBERING his life, though, is a different story.

I'll think about a post concerning time-bound eternity. There is a lot of physical cosmology mixed in there that might take too much space. Plus, wildly speculating on something that will happen in the future makes me vaguely feel like a false prophet. But I guess that's a personal problem.

ChrisJ said...

I do think about time only in one direction but also it is a fallen time. The problem with thinking about the after life is the concept of not only man is being restore but all creation will be also. How did time originally work before corruption. Also speaking about Jesus' exit into the stratos, If all things were created threw him then wouldn't forces react to him instead of him to it.

Benjamin said...

Chris - I agree that thinking about creation is tricky. I mean, the Bible says that creation groans in the pains of childbirth until its glorious redemption, and that God subjected creation to futility in the hopes that it will be set free. (cf. my opinion of Irenaeus in the comments of the Theosis post)

That's why speculating about time-bound eternity seems vaguely, I dunno, like selling snake oil.

On the other side, though, wouldn't you say that speculating on the nature of the "corruption" is also a little tricky, especially since the Bible says that God is the one doing the "corrupting"? (Romans 8)

As far as Jesus ascending into the heavens, I agree that the supernatural could have occurred. I agree that it is theoretically possible that Christ opened a wormhole that took him straight to heaven, or any other such thing. But I also know that the Greeks thought that heaven was literally above the clouds (google pictures of ancient and medieval cosmology if you don't believe me). If I'm being intellectually honest, Christ ascending into heaven by rising through the clouds seems like a cultural product. I struggle with how to take that passage, as a 21st century person with a different sort of cosmology.