The Illusion of Time
Is time real, or is change just a kind of optical illusion resting on a deeper unchanging reality? The true nature of time engages all of our endeavors. We have all experienced time seeming to fly and then drag based on our feelings and circumstances, just as a Child waiting for a Birthday…it never comes and then passes swiftly. This is the paradox of Linear Time – are we caught in its current and flow helplessly into the future?
How disjointedly time seems to flow, passing in a blur sometimes with single images standing out more clearly than others. And then, at other times, every second was significant and etched itself in my mind. This long exposure of the hustle and bustle of New York‘s Grand Central Station illustrates visually some aspects of the illusion of time. Taken with a Nikon D90, stabilized by hand on an upper balcony, a 6 second shutter speed captured the movement of the commuters and tourists in time…some static, while others mere ghosts.
In the domains of spirituality, humans have also asked if there is more, or less, to time than ticking clocks or the march from birth to death. It is often the “now” which takes precedence in spiritual endeavor. Buddhists, with their emphasis on meditation, have long seen the unspooling of time as an artifact of the mind. In Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki tells us:
“You may say, ‘I must do something this afternoon’ but actually there is no ‘this afternoon’ … At one o’clock you will eat your lunch. To eat your lunch is, itself, one o’clock.”
Christian writers such as Meister Eckhart have taken a similar stance:
“There exists only the present instant … There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now … “
Science however has its own take on time’s illusion.
For decades physics inverted the problem, holding the now to be something less than real. In relativity theory the past, present and future already exist in the four-dimensional continuum of space-time. You think next Tuesday hasn’t occurred yet. But in relativity, every event in your life defines a single 4-D object called your world-line and it’s all there already. Freaky, huh?
More radical ideas reject the notion of time altogether, taking each moment as separate and eternal. Perhaps the now is all that exists, the past and future merely illusions. Or, perhaps, it is the now that’s an illusion and below the appearance of change is a timeless substrate that is perfect in its eternal repose.
One thing is, however, certain. Looking across the broad field of human endeavor — science, art and religion — time and the question of its illusion remains essential, and essentially unresolved.