Varadaraja Raman: Perceived Reality



Time is the most insubstantial element of human consciousness that is experienced very profoundly. It seems to be with us all through our waking hours, apparently drifting silently and unhaltingly out there in the external world as well as within the very core of our being. Each one of us tastes a slice of time and then suddenly drops out: Individual death may be looked upon as straying away from Time's course.

There is a famous quote from Saint Augustinewhich says: If no one asks me, I know it; but if anyone should require me to tell him, I cannot. Augustine was not speaking here about God, but about Time. Countless thinkers before and since have wondered about the nature and mystery of time. From the Upanishadic seers of ancient India and Pythagoras of reflective Greece through medieval scholastics to countless philosophers and scientists down to our own times, human minds have pondered on the nature and mystery of Time, and acquired but glimpses of its essence.

At one extreme, thinkers have wondered and argued about the reality of time, some contending that it is a mere illusion, while others have insisted that it is as much an entity in the external world as the sun and the moon which help us measure it. No matter what, time is surely an ever-present feature of perceived reality, powerful and useful in the scientific grasp of the world.

Time has been compared to a steady stream, gliding smoothly or rushing torrentially, for on occasion it seems to linger on, and on others we feel it galloping away at undue speed. Slow or fast, in the phrase of the poet, "there is no arresting the wheel of time." Historians have referred to chunks of time as stagnant, tumultuous, Dark Age or Golden. Time has been called a robber of our possessions, a poison, the dissolver and destroyer of all, for it seems to eat up every event and episode. Shakespeare described time as "the king of men, he's both their parent, and he is their grave..." Yet time has also been called precious, and praised as a healer of heartaches, for it is a dependable, if slow, consoler in grief. In the words of Ovid, temporis ars medicina fere est: time is generally the best medicine.

We feel intuitively that it is time that keeps the world going, that it makes things happen, for a world where time did not move would be static and lifeless, more still than a painted scene on canvass, more frozen than a sculptured bust.

Our minds cannot picture a moment beyond which there will be no time, nor one before which there was no time. Unending time seems to have had no beginning either. Such at least is what the purely reflecting mind seems to suggest. Time, we are inclined to think, is eternal. Like expansive space and never-ending numbers, time is another baffling infinity.

Our perception of reality requires sensory inputs, and light is a primary information source for what happens in the world. This is especially so when we take note of whatever there is in the skies. When we fix our eyes on a star our first impulse is to think that we are seeing the star such as it is at that very moment in our conscious experience. But knowing that light takes time to travel a distance, and that the distance is considerable, we are reminded that what we see is an aspect of a body such as it was a few years or perhaps even a few hundred years ago. We are indeed looking into the distant past every time we glance into stellar space. What this implies is that even if there was an absolute time, our knowledge and perception of events in the world depend on how far we are from the point or region where the events occur.

This insight into the nature of perceived reality would be impossible if we did not realize that light travels with a finite speed. If, as had once been imagined, light swept through space with infinite speed, then there could be instantaneous transmission of information. Since it appears that nothing physical can travel with a speed exceeding that of light, instantaneous transmission of information becomes a physical impossibility.

This is a matter of some significance in our understanding of the world. For it will take a finite interval of time for information to go from one entity to another. This is one of the fundamental tenets of physics. It must be pointed out, however, that careful experiments with photons and electrons conducted during the past two decades, based on the theories of 20th century physics, suggest that in certain microcosmic phenomena, an event in one place may affect the status at a distant point without a lapse of time! This is contrary to anything physicists have known or believed in thus far.

The possibility of instantaneous transmission of information, even between subatomic entities, opens up all kinds of possibilities. Some have argued that this makes telepathy a possibility, for perhaps these experiments show that minds can receive and send signals in instantaneous flashes. Others have regarded the results of these experiments as confirming mysticism, while yet others have described such interpretations as a "flurry of flap-doodle.” There will always be these two camps: one with people who are all too eager to embrace anything that seems mystical or mysterious as true, and the other, consisting of people who will never accept any non-physical explanation as part of physical reality.

And yet, serious physicists have also been tempted to come up with models and processes in terms of which instantaneous information transmission would become a possibility. One such idea was proposed by the brilliant and unorthodox quantum physicist David Bohm who introduced the notion of implicate order which is best understood by means of an analogy. Consider a table standing on the floor. The universe we experience is analogous to what creatures constrained to the flat floor would feel: to them the feet of the tables are unconnected, though in fact they most certainly are, via the table top. So too, perhaps, every event in the space-time world is intrinsically connected to every other via dimensions beyond the modes of perceptual reality.

No creature or thing we know of can disappear out of space, nor jump away from the temporal axis. The notion of anything beyond the touch of time is simply inconceivable. The whole universe, from minute matter to gigantic galaxies, is embraced in the arms of time, for who can imagine a world where time never ticks.

But would it be fair to say that what cannot be accommodated in the human mind does not or cannot exist? An entity that is both particle and wave is a conceptual oxymoron, for a particle can be constrained to a narrow nook in space, while a wave is smeared all over: yet the building bricks of the material universe are wavicles, particle-waves, or so they seem to be.

In a sense, those meditating mystics who declare there is a reality that transcends space and time are quite right. For it is change that engenders time. There can be no reckoning of time in a still and inert universe. Time is in fact a manifestation of change. If, therefore, there is something changeless, it must be beyond Time. Now if we define or envision the Divine as that which is immutable, as the ever-unchanging principle behind the ceaselessly changing universe, then that Divine is unbound by time, is bound to be beyond time.

Even aside from mystic talk, fundamental physics, strengthened by hard core mathematics, has dragged us willy-nilly to states in this very tangible universe of ours where Time naturally, not mysteriously, disappears. If anything should fall into the dismal depth of a black hole, technically known as a singularity, then, says a celebrated theorem of current cosmology, it would be squeezed out of the temporal domain as well. Unbelievable, inconceivable, fantastic, or whatever: but this is the translation into plain English of what the mathematical microscope unveils.

So, as with everything pertaining to the beginning and end of things, as with the ultimate essence of the most common experiences, Time too is passive and serving us well when we are indifferent to it, but it becomes a teaser and baffling bully when we try to probe into its innermost secrets. So there is wisdom in what the Mahabharata says about the Cosmic Principle: You are the origin of the worlds and you are Time, their destroyer.


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