In this post, I am going to lay on you an entirely new way of thinking about the concept of “time” that you’ve probably never considered before or heard anywhere else. And it is going to seriously blow your mind.
I’ve always been interested in conceptual physics. Over the years, I’ve read many books that popularize the physical sciences, written by some of the best and most respected scientific authors published in modern history, from Carl Sagan, to Roger Penrose, to Lawrence Krauss. I’ve always been Science Channel junkie, a fan of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, and am always glued to the screen for that Morgan Freeman show, Through the Wormhole. Awe and imagination, tempered with science-based thinking, rule my world.
So, let me start by emphasizing that I know enough about physics and mathematics to know that I don’t know enough about physics and mathematics to claim what I am about to tell you qualifies as a scientific theory, or even an hypothesis. The former requires that there be some body of established proof, and the latter requires that the idea is dis-provable. I don’t know if either applies in this case, although I invite your comments as to whether the idea I’m about to unload upon you is even testable.
So, with great respect for the scientific method, let me instead call what I am about to tell you, a “model”, or a theoretical construct to inspire your imagination. A thought experiment, that if you will stay with me, will allow you to consider an entirely different way to think about how the Universe might actually be laid out, with some very startling consequences. In all of my readings and encounters with physics, I’ve never heard anyone postulate anything like this before, so you’re definitely in for something original. Are you ready?
Ok, here goes. I am going to show you how “time” may not at all be what you think it is. It may not be the “progression of events” or the “unfolding of an uncertain future”, that most of us intuitively feel it to be.
Instead, time may very well be the 4th spatial dimension that only seems to be changing because of our focus in the present. I’m going to suggest that perhaps time is absolutely no different than length, width, or height. That is, it is nothing but the extension of these three axes, into its logical, fourth spatial axis. And, I am going to lead you through a thought exercise where you can visualize with me, with absolute clarity, a picture in your mind that will demonstrate to you why this might be so.
First, though, I want to briefly address the conventional notions that most of us hold toward spatial dimensions. Most people think of spatial dimensions – length, width, height– as fundamentally different and distinct from, time. We tend in our everyday thinking, to view time as an operator upon, and separate from space. Popular thought is that time uses, as its canvas, all of our regular 3 dimensions, (and perhaps whatever the 4th …and so on… more, dimensions might be out there) so as to affect or reflect change within these dimensions. Carl Sagan, in his television series Cosmos, described what he thought a 4th spatial dimension might look like, and it certainly wasn’t anything like what we’d call time.
Here’s the 7 minute video of his explanation. You need not watch this video before reading on, but if you have the time, it will be worth it because it is pretty cool in its own right, Carl is just awesome to listen to, and it will get your mind thinking in a mode to better follow me through the thought experiment that will rock your world:
Well, although I hate to side-step my hero Carl Sagan, I am here to tell you that perhaps the elusive “fourth spatial dimension”, and the equally mysterious “time” are actually one in the same. It only seems that they have different properties because we are trapped within our 3-dimensional perspective.
Here comes the mind-blowing part. To help you visualize what I am talking about, follow me through this exercise:
I want you to imagine that you could instantly stop time. I want you to look at your surroundings, and imagine that you could somehow take an imaginary, 3-dimensional “snapshot”, freezing all the objects around you, all the motions around you, all the activity in your neighborhood, around the world, and across the universe—everything at a given moment in time, frozen, into a solid 3 dimensional picture with no movement. (Now, I know some of you are going to say, “Well Jeff, if I’m freezing time here and also somewhere across the universe, doesn’t that imply I’m breaking the light speed barrier?”). Well, no. This is just an exercise, so for our purposes lets just say you have the superpower to freeze all motion in the universe in all frames of reference everywhere at once. OK?
OK. So, you have this frozen 3-D snapshot of an instant in time, where every thing from the largest object to the very smallest subatomic particle has just stopped moving, everywhere in the Universe at once. A “frame grab”, at the cosmic scale.
Got it? Good. Save that picture.
Now, restart time, wait a second, and freeze it all –everything—again, for another 3D snapshot of everything that is happening everywhere—into a another momentary frozen solid.
Got that one? Good. Save it.
Now do it again. And again. And again, each time capturing frozen frames of reality, one second apart, like in a movie, only these frames are in 3 dimensions instead of 2. Save each one.
Now, I want you to imagine that instead of capturing this frozen, 3D, solid “block of universe” every second, you are instead capturing, freezing, and saving one every 10th of a second. Same process, you’re just doing it more frequently. You’re just upping the frame rate in your imaginary 3-d movie.
Now, imagine you are doing it every millionth of a second. Then every billionth of a second, and so on, ever finely slicing time into complete 3-d frozen “blocks”, each block capturing the actual frozen state of the entire universe in a full three dimensions. And you are saving each one.
Still with me?
So, what you have now is a bunch of successive three-dimensional blocks. They were captured at such a high rate that each frozen Universe incrementally differs from the one before it by perhaps only the minimal amount that one subatomic particle could actually be said to have “moved” by only the most minimal of distances. (For you physicists, I’m talking about something akin to Planck length here).
Now, I want you to imagine that each of those moments in time, one after the next, actually does still exist in its solid 3-dimensonal fullness in reality, as a permanent lasting part of the fabric of the universe. In other words, imagine that all those little past moments of time are still there! Really there. Every one of them. But you can’t see them because they are “in the past”. But let’s just assume they really, truly are there in all of their 3 dimensional glory, just that each and every one of them is frozen solid.
This is a big jump, I know, but we’re just imagining, so stay with me. Just pretend that this were so, because there’s a big payoff coming.
Now, I want you to imagine that each of these super-thin slices of successive 3 dimensional frozen reality blocks that are somewhere–really solidly somewhere in the past fabric of history–are not separate blocks, but are seamlessly connected, each to the next, seamlessly morphing into the next, along the 4th spatial axis of TIME! Can you picture that??
It is really critical that you get this image in your head, so repeat the exercise if necessary, and keep trying until you can visualize it. It might help to temporarily represent in your head each 3-dimensional snapshot in only 2 dimensions. Like, say, you took a long celluloid movie film, cut out each frame, and stacked them one on top of the other, but of course, each frame is the size of the entire universe.
And so, picture that this giant 4-dimensional blob of matter extends as a continuous unbroken unit from the present way back to the beginning of time. But it also extends as a continuous solid from the present into the far distant future, until the end of time. Rock solid and motionless in both directions.
If you can picture that, then imagine that what we call the present is just an energy wave of excited particle movement that propagates through this solid-state, 4-dimensional Universe stretching from distant past to distant future. As the wave approaches, all dimensional matter in its realm (like a 3-dimensional equivalent of a plane) vibrates into “present-ness”. As the wave moves on, matter quickly re-freezes into the past. Propagating ever forward, successive future blocks vibrate into present-ness, but then quickly refreeze lifelessly into the past as the wave continues. You are riding the wave.
Can you visualize this?? Can you SEE it your head? Isn’t it cool? I’ve included a picture to help you along but the real beauty of it will reveal itself only inside your head.
“But wait”, you might ask, “Jeff, are you implying that the future is already pre-determined? That there is no randomness, no free will”? Well, yes. Under this model (it is only a model after all), that is exactly what I am saying. In fact, I’m not just saying it is pre-determined, but that it is actually already there, right now, waiting for the wave we are riding to propagate to it. To properly visualize the model, you must view the future this way. Past and Future together as a solid, motionless 4-dimensional block that serves as the medium for a “present-ness” wave of energy.
Well, then, you might ask, “How do you explain the erratic behavior of quantum physics that seems to be laden with randomness and points toward a future of unbound possibility?”
Let me suggest to you that Quantum randomness is an illusion. Quantum particles seem to mysteriously pop into our universe, and appear to be occupying many states and locations at once (superposition), only because they have become excited by the present-ness wave, vibrating matter four-dimensionally. In this model, Quantum Superposition is nothing more than a manifestation of the excitation of matter, as the present-ness energy wave awakens it from the immediate “future-block”. Then, the collapsing of the quantum waveform from its many possibilities into a particular state, is how we perceive matter re-freezing into the solid “past-block”, as the present-ness wave moves on. I am here to tell you that all quantum waveforms are collapsing all the time into the past, and that we are just tricked into believing that the act of observation has anything to do with the nature of their collapsed state because we only see them collapse when we’re looking at them.
Still with me? Maybe you didn’t get all that quantum stuff, but let’s keep going anyway, because it gets more fun.
You see, under this model, Gravitation (supported by Dark Matter), Dark Energy, the Strong and Weak Nuclear forces– precisely the forces we still don’t fully understand and can’t yet fully explain, are also illusions. Being illusions might have something to do with why we have so much difficulty harmonizing their relative strengths or comprehending their true source. With the benefit of this new model, can you see why they are illusions? At run-time, all of them appear to be forces pulling or pushing matter together. Well, they only look like magical forces if you are stuck inside the present-ness wave. If you step out of the wave, and look at past and future as a continuously solid-state universe, then you can think of forces as merely artifacts of how the universe is actually laid out along the 4th axis, from distant past to distant future, subtly changing along its 4th spatial dimension. If you are only looking at it from within the present, they look like mysterious invisible forces.
To illustrate this point in 3 dimensions, suppose you’re driving your Ferrari straight down the middle of a desert 2-lane highway such that your drivers seat is directly above the pair of solid yellow painted lines that separate the lanes. There is a big hole cut in the floorboard so you can see the lines rushing past. As you look through this porthole to the parallel paint lines rushing by below, it’s easy to imagine yourself forgetting that you are in motion and instead begin to think 2-dimensionally, that you are looking at two solid bars framed by the hole in your floorboard.
Well, suddenly you see these bars slowly moving toward one another, converging to where they almost make contact and then suddenly separate again. You ask yourself, “what mysterious force is pulling these objects together and then suddenly pushing them apart”? But now you are in a helicopter far above and can see that whomever painted the lines in the road had simply laid them out with a little artistic license.
Now, extrapolate our driver’s folly to three dimensional thinking about a 4 dimensional situation. All the forces we see in our three-dimensional observations are illusory if you step outside of the present, and can see all matter as “3 dimensional road paint” along the 4th spatial axis of time.
Of course, this really doesn’t address the basic question as to why the paint is so elegantly laid out as it is. It’s just another way of looking at the same problem.
Pretty cool, huh? Maybe you can visualize this model, but you’re still having trouble with the idea that the future is predetermined. Well, let’s talk about that.
Have you ever been in two places at once? Have you ever seen two parallel realities play out side by side? (Sorry, magic mushroom trips don’t count here). The answer is you haven’t. So what makes you think the future is going to be any different? Like it or not, there is only one place you are going to be at 3:00pm tomorrow. Period. Just like there was only one place you were at 3:00pm yesterday. Just because you can’t see it from here, doesn’t mean there isn’t just one future. Try it. I’ll just bet that tomorrow at 3:00pm, regardless of where you now think you may be, you’re only going to actually be in only one place. I promise. Same goes for 10 years from now. Undeniably, whatever WILL be, will BE. One actual reality is going to play out. And only one.
Really, if you think about it, have you ever fantasized that some day we’ll invent a time machine to travel backward or forward in time? Then you’d better hope the model I described is how things are. If the past dissipates into nothingness, how could you ever travel to it? Not that this qualifies as evidence, but from here out when you hear a physicist even speculate on time travel, consider this.
Now it’s going to get really weird. Suppose, just suppose, that the present-ness wave that we are now riding together, when it gets to the end of time, will bounce off the other end and start propagating backwards, toward the beginning of time. Everything will be happening in reverse. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard physicists marvel at how nothing in the laws of physics prevents time from running backwards. They say it over and over again, and they can’t explain why time only moves forward. Well, I’ve just given you a model to visualize why time moves forward, and how time could move backwards. As everything ran in reverse, you would be walking backwards while unthinking your thoughts and I suppose it would seem perfectly normal to you. Or, be some kind of hell. I’m not anxious to find out on that one.
Now, to go further into the rabbit hole, suppose that this present-ness wave we’re now riding isn’t the only one. Imagine that there is another wave, just like ours, following us, but it’s still back in the ’50’s. It’s on its way here and it will play everything out in between just exactly like our wave did. And maybe there are lots of these waves. Over and over again, wave after wave, history repeating itself–literally. Maybe there is another You, a little younger, riding a wave a few years behind us, thinking, in the presence of his/her active wave, that (s)he’s all there is! Haha. You know better. But don’t get cocky, because there just might be an older You right now, a few years in the future, looking back laughing at your sorry ass. Déjà vu all over again!
OK. Cool idea. But you might be wondering, “Jeff, do you really believe this?” Nahh!. I don’t believe it any more than I absolutely believe in anything. I give it 10%. Everything we think and count on to understand the Universe is just a model anyway. This is just a good model to retreat to once in a while when you’re anguishing unnecessarily over decision-making and the future. Besides, although I don’t think I’ve violated any laws of physics that I am aware of, I’m pretty confident that the genuine physicists out there will make mincemeat of this model in pretty short order. (If you’re qualified, please be my guest and comment). But it’s fun, isn’t it?