Time and the fear of death

I plan to spend much of 2018 on the philosophy of time and becoming.  The following are unconsidered thoughts from an as yet uninformed mind, written mostly for my own sake.

Recall this quote:

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.

My life terminates in the future, but also in the past and also less than a meter to the left or right of my plane of symmetry, and yet only the first bothers me.  My reason agrees with Einstein, but I have learned that my instincts are less easily fooled than my reason.  I am afraid to die, therefore there is something wrong with this sort of eternalism.  (Note that it doesn’t matter that this fear is not very strong at this moment or that you may disapprove of it.  For you too, I imagine, the thought of mortality is spontaneously a cause of unease, even if you have overcome it with pagan fortitude or Christian hope.)

Aristotelian substances relate differently to time vs. space.  The left half of me is only a part of me, but me at the present time is the complete me, the complete me in the present.  The future concerns me because it is coming inexorably toward me.  But this doesn’t make sense.  Coming with respect to what?  With respect to time?  But that is tautological.  My left side terminus also “approaches” as one moves along the appropriate axis.  For time to “flow”, there must be some other measure that past to future progresses on.

Causality.  Our instinct rebels against the claim that the arrow of time is a result of the 2nd law.  We feel that the past causes the present, the present causes the future.  Causality is more basic than time.  Indeed, cause and effect are coincident temporally and spatially.  At an event, force causes acceleration, not vice versa.  The equation allows one to go either way, but one direction is the direction of causality, the other is the direction of inference.

But wait.  Considered as points on a manifold, the past is not coincident with the present.  My $latex t=t_1$ and $t=t_1-\epsilon$ are distinct events, making true causality impossible.  Therefore the past must actually persist in the present, although doubtlessly in a manner different from how it exists in its own time.  The pasts persists not as a poetic way of saying that the past causally influences the present, but as a literal requirement for the past to exert causality on the present.  Note that this requires no sense of an absolute standard of simultaneity.  Special relativity has sunk presentism irretrievably as far as I’m concerned.  (Then again, these are just my uninformed thoughts.)  An event persists in its future light cone.  How far?  Me at time A causes me at time B causes me at time C, so by this line of thinking A persists in some way in B while B persists in C.  But presence is transitive, so the present persists indefinitely.  Actually, this is extremely doubtful, but let’s just see where it takes us.

Does this explain the fear of death?  My present self persists into my future death and suffers this calamity in a way it is not present in my past coming into being.  But why worry?  Causal chains in which I participate continue after my death, so present-me lives in them.  That can’t be right.  Perhaps A only persists in B to the extent that it acts as cause.  I fear that while there is an exterior me whose actions initiate causal chains extending indefinitely into the future, there is some sort of inner me that is causally inert except in passing itself on from moment to moment, and that inner me is imperiled by death.  Yes, that’s it.  My existence is a sinking ship, and I want to cast off as much of me as I can before being swallowed up.  Perhaps that’s why I’m publishing this, a bit of my subjectivity tossed into the objective world–at least if somebody reads it.

The folly of intellectual ambition.  How I would love to make my mark, uncover some new truth.  But as Saint Augustine said when encouraging friendly criticism, inso far as what we say is true, it belongs to everyone and not to us alone; our errors are ours, but we are better rid of them.  The idea of introducing some new falsehood certainly holds no appeal to me.  Alas, I don’t have what it takes to discover a new truth–lack the IQ, the knowledge, the wisdom, the creativity; each dimension of the intellect a new occasion for me to confront my inadequacies.  Don’t have the time either; I’m 41 and squandered my youth.  But even if I could do something like what Einstein did, would I be at peace with death?  Despite what he said, was he?

Of course, everything I wrote above is very probably wrong, but it still has some value if it makes my intuitions clearer to me.

6 Responses

1. The beauty of Aristotelian-Thomism is that it’s simply systematized common sense. On the other hand, attempts by secular scientists to do philosophy without admitting it, generally lead to ridiculous conclusions, like those of Einstein you’ve quoted.

That the present exists and the past and future does not is simply obvious. I am actually typing this right now, I’m not actually eating dinner last night. Before and after are simply irreducible features of reality, that cannot be fully explained in present terms. That rates of change can be affected by velocity or gravity doesn’t make time an extension of space.

2. If you want to explore time, it might help to try to build a system for categorizing how other people/intellectual traditions have understood time. Like, is there a “standard” Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of time that you can learn? Is there a standard modern conception of time? What did Lewis think it was? What did Augustine think it was? That’s where I’d start. This is the programmer’s ethos: Don’t try to solve a problem until you’re sure no one else has already solved it.

3. ArkansasReactionary,

I admit that, as stated, Einstein’s quote isn’t true. Even in relativity, there are temporal relations between events. What I take him to mean is that the flow of time is an illusion, and this is a claim that’s harder to deal with. People who take this view would grant that no other time is present now, just as no other place is present here. But it’s this sense that the future is coming at me that makes it more a matter of concern to me than the past.

4. >What I take him to mean is that the flow of time is an illusion, and this is a claim that’s harder to deal with. People who take this view would grant that no other time is present now, just as no other place is present here.

The matter that is here is different from the matter that is there. On the other hand, the matter that is now is the same matter that was then. There’s simply no parity between space and time.

5. Don’t we observe time as a consequence of decay?
Time must have been created when there was decay in the universe. This plugs into causality?

Godman said something about grass in the parable of the lilies, to paraphrase, today it is here tomorrow it is thrown into the fire. This grass seems to be a picture of the world.
If we were not decaying where would our death be? If there was not the passing of corporal life what would time be?

Isn’t it a teaching of the Church that time itself is a creature? Entrance into eternity is the end of our time, God willing our faculty of will shall be united to that of God.
We flex our will only in this time, and as you point out St. Augustine — inso far as what we say is true, it belongs to everyone and not to us alone; our errors are ours, but we are better rid of them. —
What is of God is true, what is of our own is error.

6. […] the thought of going to my death having never said anything is horrifying, as if I will somehow be more dead if my beliefs never escape my brain before its destruction.  And a performance requires an […]