In the Spirit of Collegial Inquiry...

updated: 11 Aug 99

Dumb Questions and the Arrow of Time

NOS:   As you may know, Marilyn Vos Savant supposedly has one of the highest IQs in the world. She writes a regular column called " Ask Marilyn ". In September, 1998, she published a list of questions readers had asked her that, in her words, " I love too much to answer " ... [among them]: " Must one always begin at the beginning? Much time could be saved if we could begin at the end. "

EM:   ... I'll take a shot. Must one always begin at the beginning? This is a philosophical question. In reality, for hopeless and impossible tasks, the beginning and end are the same, the person just doesn't know it. ... Obviously, Marilyn didn't feel like exerting herself.

KJ:   Indeed. The answer is Yes, by definition. When you begin, that is the beginning. Besides, time is linear, built of causal sequences. I challenge you to digest your meal before eating it. But you may certainly eat your dessert before the soup course.

SS:   Regarding the question of beginning at the beginning, life seems linear to me, and unlike Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, I am stuck in time. It's fun however (and possibly beneficial) to play with the concept to achieve some ends. I recently listened to Donald Sutherland who said he preferred filming his movies from the middle outward. This way, the inevitable mistakes that one made at the "beginning" of a project would appear in the middle of the film, when the audience is more willing to forgive such errors. If you think about it, movies are a wonderful medium to play with the concepts of beginning, middle and end, and many of our favorites have.

CW:   I was thinking recently that realizing the inevitable nature of suffering (as the Buddha did) would require a perspective independent of time if it were not to be superstition. This implies that Buddha either actually developed a perspective independent of time or that he just developed an incurable case of hopelessness. I don't know, maybe they are both the same? Otherwise I think you could always propose that "everything will be OK if..." even if it never is. I am just wondering, as I was in some previous posts how one could have a sense of the general pattern of time without having to actually "live" all time (or more properly "spacetime", which would be impossible).

I was also wondering what would happen if a Star Trek transporter went berserk and started "vacuuming" the entire ship and the rest of spacetime into itself at random?

TPN:   The classical sense of eternity, which was put forth by Augustine is of a divine being standing on a bridge viewing the flow of time from below. In this way, the divine being is said to exist outside of time and yet is able to see the past, present and future of human history all simultaneously.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, eternity came to mean infinite time from which there would be no beginning nor end.

The sense of eternity as viewed by a divine being existing outside of time would be rejected by Buddhists mainly because Buddhism does not believe in a Creator God. The classical argument against this is as follows: A Creator God can not create the universe without having time existing prior to him in order to create, but if time existed prior to him, then he is, in the absolute sense of the word, can not be defined a the ultimate Creator.

Modern sense of eternity, that is eternity of time existing infinitely in both directions, would limit the power of a divine being. He can not create because there would be no "beginning" for him to create, nor can he bring the ultimate redemption because there would be no "end."

To answer your question, the Buddha can not have the perspective of the classical sense of eternity.

In Buddhism, nothing is more absolute then the law of impermanence. To imply the Christian sense of classical eternity would bring exception to this law. In order for the Buddha to develop his realization of the Four Noble Truths*, he must have a realization of time in the second sense, for impermanence would imply this.

    * 1. to live means to suffer
    * 2. suffering is caused by trying to hang on to what is impermanent
    * 3. to cease suffering is to cease the craving for what is impermanent
    * 4. the path to freeing yourself from this desire and delusion for the permanent is the Eightfold Path

The laws of Karma and of causality which is a principle tenet within Buddhism demands the analysis of time and eternity in the second sense, and not a perspective independent of time.

In response to your question on whether or not the Buddha developed an incurable case of hopelessness, well the best answer I can give to this is that he offered a way out of that suffering. He also did this by not violating his own laws of causality and impermanence -- for in the "end" suffering is also impermanent.

Maybe there will never be an ultimate redemptive end of the Universe as thought of by Christian eschatologists, but that does not exclude the possibility of an end to the personal sufferings of all individual living beings within their own space of time.

CW:   My question has to do with how one might perceive the all pervasiveness of impermanence. Is this possible from an ordinary perspective (i.e. aware of the flow of time)? Since we are talking about laws here and not beliefs there must be a way to perceive the "timeness" of time whilst one is in it if this law is to be considered valid. The funny thing about infinity (and hence permanence I would think) is that the object (or process) of infinite duration that started yesterday would be just as infinite as the one that started tomorrow.

Therefore one can always postulate permanent jam tomorrow that is just as permanent as jam from yesterday or the "beginning" of time for that matter. The problem with infinity is that you are always in the middle of it, [This] peanut butter sandwich is all peanut butter! So I still wonder what it is that allows one to acknowledge impermanence without it being a mere belief.

TPN:   I believe that your core question is if the law of impermanence is absolute, should the nature of impermanence be subject to its own laws, hence a paradox.

All absolute propositions end up with such terrible inconsistencies.(To which this statement in itself is also an absolute).

CW:   No this is not my question. Obviously it can't be a law in the ordinary sense of the word. Actually it might have been the question but the question changed. My question was more how could one perceive this as an ordinary human being. Then I came to the conclusion that it might not even be necessary in order to do the practice. Enlightenment itself points to an invariant. So the question is what does it really mean to be "outside of time" or experience "timelessness"?

TPN:   I am not sure that I can adequately answer this question since I am not a practicing Buddhist.

CW:   Who is? They just want you to go to their next seminar ...

TPN:   However, I am sure that such questions probably came up around Bodhidharma's time. He was reputedly the founder of Zen. Your question would have made a good example to the Zen enthusiasts of why one should not trust the intellect.

CW:   Nagarjuna is the one to study on this. There is a good synopsis in both Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and Glimpses of Shunyata, both by Chogyam Trungpa ... Also, I was under the impression that Buddha didn't specifically teach that there was no creator of the universe but rather that such speculations were not relevant to liberation.

Also the difference in the redemptive process of Xtianity and liberation are that redemption requires an external source whereas the liberation of enlightenment simply occurs of its own accord. Perhaps the difference is similar to that of owning a dog or a cat. You call the dog but the cat just comes and goes as it pleases. This of course does not mean the dog actually obeys you rather there is an expectation on its part that you are going to make funny noises at it.

Rereading your post I notice that the problem is not so much whether the object of perception does or does not continue but rather your wishes relating to whether it will or will not continue. So it is not particularly necessary to consider impermanence a "law" to understand how it relates to suffering, you need experience only one example. The threat of it happening again would, I suppose, be motivation enough for some to work on overcoming their personal deception. The fact that it happens more frequently would seem to make it easier to practice.

TPN:   Augustine had the same answer concerning the creator God conundrum when one of his audience asked this same question about what was God doing before time was created.

Augustine's answer: Preparing Hell for those who come up with such questions! {laugh}

CW:   That is rather disappointing! ...
Ironically in the movie A Brief History of Time, this is the topic of the conference on cosmology at the Vatican - whether it made sense to say the universe had a beginning, i.e., did the big bang represent a beginning?

TPN:   I think attachment to the concept that all things are impermanent is in itself an attachment that would hinder one's liberation.

And to this, Cal, you've reached enlightenment! {smile}

TPN:   I once speculated that if we travel closer and closer towards the speed of light when time slow down, what would happen if we travel at the speed of light. Would not time stop?

CW:   Perhaps not timelessness but ultimate "time-ful-ness".

TPN:   In this sense, would not God be indeed light?

CW:   Another word for the new age thing, "God-lite"! On another related topic: doesn't time have mass?

TsC:   You wouldn't feel the slow down of time, for you time just goes on as usual. You'll see an outsider, a person not moving with you, in slow motion. By special relativity, the outsider, will not feel any slowdown either, but will see you in slow motion too. Therefore, if light is the God for us, then we're the Gods for light.

EM:   I think I have as good an imagination as most people, but I fell off the track trying to envision one person in a space ship traveling at the speed of light, and another innocent bystander quietly observing from a nearby planet, asteroid, whatever, measuring the time differential. I don't really think anybody is going to observe anything, with or without a stop watch.

TsC:   I think most people fall into that trap at first. The time for observation is so short in the passing-by that no one other than Superman can see anything. Einstein imagined that light travels at only 30 miles/hour or so, in such a world, one can see all the relativistic effects by riding a bike! It's real fun to imagine it that way, try it!

EM:   Perhaps the spaceship could travel in a circular orbit and pass the stationary observer every ten seconds or so?

TsC:   That's quite hard to do because one has to provide a huge acceleration. The size of the orbit of the your space ship is about that of the moon (1.3 lightsecond), but instead of once a month, it turns around once in ten seconds. That puts the mass of the center star 10^19 times that of the Earth, or 10^13 that of the Sun, or about ten times that of the Milky Way.

AMi:   I have always been amazed at what complex mechanisms life has created, and I think that there are no useless features - if some seem so, it is probably because of our ignorance. This is why I would like to ask a few (maybe dumb) questions.

Humans, as well as animals of other species yawn when sleepy and also when they wake up. I think it's mostly mammals - it is funny to imagine a fly or a snail yawn, it makes me think of Disney movies. Why? It is also known (I assume it happened to most of us) that yawning is kind of contagious - and people who get "infected" need not even be aware that someone else is yawning. How is this possible?

JP?:   Although I can't really answer this one there is an interesting book called the Chemistry of Conscious States, by Allan Hobson (?). In it he discusses a possible function for dreaming and the mechanisms behind it as well as a relatively oversimplified model or "state space" that attempts to connect conscious states. One of the facts he points out in the book is that there is a chemical that is essential for falling asleep - in fact an injection of it will knock you out - that is made by bacteria - not your body. Strangely enough, this "foreign" signal is essential for falling asleep.

You will note that yawning is a behavior that occurs during a transition from sleep to waking and vice versa. If you feel what is happening to your mouth and jaw when you yawn you will note that the airway is as wide open as possible enabling a quick intake of air also it stretches all the muscles needed for breathing making it easier to breathe deeply. As for the social yawn effect there is probably some evolutionary pressure to stay awake as a group. There is also the "pendulum effect" discovered by Huygens (where loosely coupled oscillators tend to operate in sync) - a physical basis for much of what we think of as "communication" as I'm sure I've mentioned before.

AMi:   What is the meaning of tickling? Why other people can tickle us while it is difficult, if not impossible, to tickle ourselves? Why sometimes we are more ticklish than others? Does this have anything to do with sexuality?

JP?:   I notice that ticklishness goes away when you become sexually active - as such it may be a primitive form of defence against sexual abuse. There is an interesting theory of sexual orientation called the "exoticness" theory. The theory states that your choice of sexual partner will tend to be one that is somewhat strange or "foreign" to yourself. I don't remember who came up with this theory.

Similarly you tend to like the smell of people who have different MHC proteins (in effect you pick partners by smell who tend to have a different immune system than you). In any case the psychological sense that I get from tickling indicates a form of "strangeness" about the sensation generated and that "strangeness" becomes sexual as you grow up.

AMi:   I read today in the news that surgeons cut off half of a 15 old girl's brain who was suffering of some rare disease, eating her brain away. I am wondering what they filled the empty side with. Sometimes, a not that hard hit in the head can kill. How is it possible to cut someone's brain in half and the person to continue living almost normally. This [at least] is what they claimed would happen.

JP?:   They should put a time capsule in there ... But more seriously there is a great deal of redundancy in the brain so you can mostly afford to lose bits and pieces - obviously the only relevant losses over many generations are those that affect reproduction. So your body's idea of what you can do without and your idea are probably quite different. Problems caused by blows to the head are more to do with swelling than direct brain injury. I would imagine that swelling causes damage by disrupting the clearing of fluid from the brain and you tend to die of oxygen starvation. I could be wrong of course.

CRS:   The phenomenon of normal function with a severely damaged brain does not strike me as unusual at all ... There is a wonderful news article from the Henry Ford Health System that states that learning can actually shrink the brain. Does this mean that people with pea size brains are actually misunderstood geniuses? {wicked smile}

R??:   ... I too work with bosses and coworkers who suffer from the same problem. Maybe that's where the term half-wit came from. Of course they don't know they have a problem as they are stuck in the "don't know they don't know" stage.

AMi:   It might be interesting, if others have answers to similar, yet unasked, questions, that they post it to the group.

JP?:   I think the asking is the real achievement. Unasked questions are never answered. Here is one of my own: Why is it so difficult to turn off language processing? I find it almost impossible to sleep if other people are talking - I'm too busy figuring out what they are saying.

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