A challenge to eternity

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

                                 — Albert Einstein

I cringe a bit to read one of my heroes say the phrase “believe in physics” (he would not have been the great scientist he was if he had believed in physics as bequeathed to him), but Einstein’s conclusion that the loss of death is an illusion does seem to follow from the block universe conception of time that I myself have defended.  Facing the prospect of being annihilated tomorrow and being reassured that one’s occupation of a certain chunk of spacetime is immutable, does it not seem that physics must be leaving out something terribly important?

4 Responses

  1. Bonald, maybe my question belongs better in the Ask a Physicist discussion, but here goes…

    I was reading to my children in the past year from a science book on some subject covering the Arctic or Russia or northern climates, I can’t remember exactly what. It referred to the Kola Peninsula (or some part of it) being among the oldest of things on earth, it being in the hundreds of millions of years old.

    I always feel dishonest reading these sorts of things to my kids because they are stated with such aplomb and self-assurance, while I am convinced that no such things can be known, at least in the sense that they are obviously meant by the one asserting them. They are meant to be understood in terms of our experiencing time, i.e., a year ago at this time, rock formations on the Kola Peninsula were one year younger than they are today, just as I was one year younger a year ago from now, since it (the peninsula) and I have both experienced time passing for all significant purposes in the same way. Just multiply that “one year younger” by 450 million (or whatever number it was assigned) and you have the birth of the peninsula’s rock formations. We are meant to be awestruck by the referencing of our own paltry experience of time to that of the rock formations. Imagine – having lived for 450 million years!

    But speaking in terms of our experience, we can’t fathom what a stretch back in time from now to 1 million years prior would be like (would time passing back then be perceived the same way? measured the same way? perceived at all?) much less the hundreds of millions, or billions for the age of the earth itself.

    In addition to this it seems ironic (or perhaps just ridiculous) to me that the discovery of time’s relativity and the beginning of measurements in light of this discovery roughly corresponded to the time when scientists began to put hard (and astronomically large) numbers to ages of cosmological phenomena. It seems to me that discovery of relativity would make scientists less likely to speak with certainty on such measurements of time for phenomena occurring in the past.

  2. Einstein’s argument here does not even depend on this kind of understanding of time. It is basically a reformulation of Epicurus’ argument: “Why should I fear death? If I am, then death is not. If Death is, then I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?”

    I agree with Epicurus that this argument is valid, and it is valid whether or not you agree with the block universe. The only reason to fear death is if you believe in an afterlife.

  3. Such wonderful irony:

    Einstein, signalling in the 20th Century, tries to prove to the world he isn’t a dilettante by saying he “believes” in the revealed truths of his professional occupation; Bonald, in the 21st, signals by saying the opposite.

    It’s times like this that I realize the radical materialists did win after all…

  4. Would this also mean all *bad things* are immutable? Obviously the above is desirable for the good, which we’d like to dwell in and with eternally, but not torture, pain, sin, etc.

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