Brain Pickings

Einstein, Gödel, and Our Strange Experience of Time: Rebecca Goldstein on How Relativity Rattled the Flow of Existence

“Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?”

“An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length,” Virginia Woolf marveled at the extraordinary elasticity of how we experience time, which modern psychologists are only beginning to fathom. Nearly a century later, Sarah Manguso — a Woolf of our own — tussled with the same perplexity in contemplating the pleasures and perils of time’s inevitable ongoingness. And yet however convincing our intuitive sense that time is a mutable abstraction shaped by the subjective grab-bag of attributes and experiences we call the self, there remains the empirical nature of time as a measurable, observable, concrete dimension of reality — and the rift between these two conceptions of time is one of the most disorienting yet fascinating aspects of existence.

In the altogether spectacular Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (public library), philosopher Rebecca Goldstein — who has also explored the most intimate facet of our confounding relationship with time, the mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person — chronicles how the emergence of modern physics in the twentieth century, particularly Einstein’s theory of relativity, rattled our intuitive notions of time as a subjective experience.

Einstein and Gödel on one of their regular walks in Princeton, New Jersey.

Goldstein examines the immutable incompleteness of our understanding of time, which preoccupied both Gödel and Einstein:

Despite the popular distortions, to a certain extent encouraged by the vague suggestions of the word “relativity,” Einstein was … as far from interpreting his famous theory in subjective terms as it is possible to be. On the contrary, on his interpretation, relativity theory offers a realist description of time that is startlingly distinct from our subjective theory of time. The great yawning chasm between the “out yonder” and the “in here” is stretched even wider, on the Einsteinian hypothesis, since objective time — the time that is described in the equations of relativity theory — is lacking the very feature that seems to provide the essential stab to our subjective experience of time: its inexorable flow, ultimately lighting all our yesterdays the way to dusty death. Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?

And yet, Goldstein points out, Einstein’s physics actually counters rather than confirms this intuitive subjectivity of the human experience of time:

The nature of reality that spills forth from Einstein’s physics is so much more startling than the simplistic, undergraduate-beloved shibboleth: everything is relative to subjective points of view. In Einstein’s physics, there is no passage of time, no unidirectional flow from the fixed past and toward the uncertain future. The temporal component of space-time is as static as its spatial components; physical time is as still as physical space. It is all laid out, the whole spread of events, in the tenseless four-dimensional space-time manifold.

Illustration for Alice in Wonderland by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Time, then, becomes not an attribute of the outer world — the universal “out yonder” — but an orienteering compass for the inner world. (One is reminded of Henry Miller’s meditation on the art of living: “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”) Goldstein captures this beautifully:

The distinctions we make between the past and the present and the future — distinctions which are so emotionally fraught and without which we can’t even begin to describe our inner worlds — only have relevance within those inner worlds. Objective time, as it is characterized in relativity, can’t support the distinction between the past and the present and the future. Or, as Einstein told [philosopher and Vienna Circle member] Rudolf Carnap, “the experience of the now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics.”

Einstein himself articulated this with piercing precision in a condolence letter to the widow of his longtime friend, the physicist Michele Besso:

In quitting this strange world he has once again preceded me by just a little. That doesn’t mean anything. For us convinced physicists the distinction between the past, the present, and the future is only an illusion, albeit a persistent one.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

Ultimately, these illusions are the direct result of the stories we buy into, which are in turn a direct result of the power structures that purvey the stories we call truth. In that sense, they are, after all, not absolute but relative to the baseline of our manufactured beliefs. Goldstein observes the general dynamics of which our time theories are but a particular symptom:

The necessary incompleteness of even our formal systems of thought demonstrates that there is no nonshifting foundation on which any system rests. All truths — even those that had seemed so certain as to be immune to the very possibility of revision — are essentially manufactured. Indeed the very notion of the objectively true is a socially constructed myth. Our knowing minds are not embedded in truth. Rather the entire notion of truth is embedded in our minds, which are themselves the unwitting lackeys of organizational forms of influence.

Incompleteness is a completely mind-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with Goldstein on the paradox of personal identity, Thomas Mann on how time confers meaning upon existence, and the psychology of why different experiences warp our sense of time.

Published May 7, 2015




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