For the time is near (Revelation 22:10)
This is the conclusion of a two-part reflection on 2 books by Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time. The previous post is Rab – ½ R gab = Tab.
Rovelli deconstructs time as he talks about it in terms of relativity and quantum mechanics. The song (quoted at the beginning of the previous post), “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is?”, takes on totally new meaning in the world of quantum physics. The answer is clearly “NO, we have no idea what time is let alone what time it is!” Just as our observation deceives us when we think the earth is not moving or when we believe the sun is rising or setting, so too our normal experience of time is completely relative. Time it turns out is related to mass, speed and gravity which is totally counter intuitive to what we think we experience. As an old, slow moving fat man living in the lowlands, I experience time differently than the average child running in circles at the top of the Rocky Mountains – and its not just because I’m older and slower.
Ten years before understanding that time is slowed down by mass, Einstein had realized that it was slowed down by speed. The consequence of this discovery for our basic intuitive perception of time is the most devastating of all. The fact itself is quite simple. Instead of sending the two friends from the first chapter to the mountains and the plains, respectively, let’s ask one of them to stay still and the other one to walk around. Time passes more slowly for the one who keeps moving. (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 353-358)
Those of us who have paid attention in recent years to liturgical talk know that in the Church there are different kinds of time – chronos and Kairos. There also is the sense of eternity – that which exists completely outside of time, not bounded by beginning and end. And in Christianity, we have the incarnation and ascension in which the timeless God enters into time itself blurring all distinctions between past, present and future and creating a unity in which eternity becomes temporal and the temporal world comes to exist outside of time!
There is, nevertheless, an aspect of time that has survived the demolition inflicted on it by nineteenth- and twentieth-century physics. Divested of the trappings with which Newtonian theory had draped it, and to which we had become so accustomed, it now shines out with greater clarity: the world is nothing but change. None of the pieces that time has lost (singularity, direction, independence, the present, continuity) puts into question the fact that the world is a network of events. On the one hand, there was time, with its many determinations; on the other, the simple fact that nothing is: things happen. (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 806-811)
The theory of relativity and quantum physics have shown that Newtonian physics [which to a large extent accurately describes the world we experience and was capable of getting humans to the moon] does not fully reflect the nature of reality. Nature turns out to be far more mysterious than previously imagined. Additionally, so much in quantum physics turns out to be shaped by the observer of the events – as if reality does not exist until and unless it is observed. This aspect of physics should be far more intriguing to faithful theists than it often is, for it might suggest that the universe, 16 billion years old, was unfolding only because there was an observer all along – namely God. The will of God might be considered to be that what God observes – not predestining every little thing, but allowing things to unfold in unexpected ways. And in fact it could not unfold at all if there had not been One observing it.
…we must accept the idea that reality is only interaction… (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 207-207)
Heisenberg imagined that electrons do not always exist. They only exist when someone or something watches them, or better, when they are interacting with something else. They materialize in a place, with a calculable probability, when colliding with something else. The “quantum leaps” from one orbit to another are the only means they have of being “real”: an electron is a set of jumps from one interaction to another. When nothing disturbs it, it is not in any precise place. It is not in a “place” at all. (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 177-181)
Things do not simply exist – they only exist in relationship to other things. Ultimately, they need an observer to exist at all. Reality is thus relational, and certainly Trinitarian Christians would say that relation is part and parcel to God’s own existence. God as Trinity does not exist alone but always and eternally as a relational divinity – the Three Persons of the Trinity in constant love with one another and now in relationship to that which they created and called into existence.
Rovelli for all his commitment to pure science can’t in the end resist waxing philosophically. As he considers the human experience of the universe, he writes:
Lucretius expresses this, wonderfully: . . . we are all born from the same celestial seed; all of us have the same father, from which the earth, the mother who feeds us, receives clear drops of rain, producing from them bright wheat and lush trees, and the human race, and the species of beasts, offering up the foods with which all bodies are nourished, to lead a sweet life and generate offspring . . . (De rerum natura, bk. II, lines 991–97) (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 677-687)
Even though we humans are conscious beings who influence and shape the changing world, we still are part of the empirical universe that exists. Our roots are in the same creation which brought all else into existence. Yet, we humans have a unique role to play in the universe because of our consciousness and our consciences.
Persian poet Saadi Shirazi. Captured and enslaved at Acre by the Crusaders, Shirazi is the author of those luminous verses that now stand at the entrance of the headquarters of the United Nations:
All of the sons of Adam are part of one single body, They are of the same essence. When time afflicts us with pain In one part of that body All the other parts feel it too. If you fail to feel the pain of others You do not deserve the name of man. (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 218-224)
To be human is to feel pain, not only our own, but also that of our fellow human beings. To be human is to be part of the created order – we humans are relational beings. We relate to each other but also to all that exists. We not only observe the universe and thus affect it on the quantum level through our observations, we also interact with it consciously and help shape the unfolding of the universe and of time, whatever time turns out to be. We are capable of knowing things and knowing one another, and observing things from another’s point of view. Our capacity for knowledge leads us to new relationships with the universe of which we are part, which we can observe, and which we can influence and shape.
as Lucretius wrote: “our appetite for life is voracious, our thirst for life insatiable” (De rerum natura, bk. III, line 1084). (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 669-670)
We are not merely the products of a random and indeterminate universe. Though for science as Rovelli describes it the universe is mostly these random processes working out the relationships of the things which are:
A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies; of the innumerable stars; of sunlight; of mountains, woods, and fields of grain; of the smiling faces of the young at parties; and of the night sky studded with stars. (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 322-325)
The passage of time is internal to the world, is born in the world itself in the relationship between quantum events that comprise the world and are themselves the source of time. (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 372-374)
As Christians we know that we humans have evolved to the point of being observers of the universe and thus in quantum terms capable of shaping what unfolds. We have realized that the inanimate universe is not all that exists, for we have come to know there is a God who observes us observing the universe which God created for us to know God. We not only observe, we are capable of conscious choice which itself changes the universe. We are not merely evolving according to biology, for we have evolved to the point of being able to shape our destiny. And we realize we are not the creators of this reality, but participants in a reality which was created by God. We thus continue to discover ourselves as relational beings – not just to the empirical universe, but to its Creator as well, with whom we are capable of interacting. We are capable of experiencing the mystery of time, of experiencing things that defy scientific explanation or which exist beyond the confines of the empirical universe.
So what is this “time” which we experience? Rovelli says in physics it can be reduced to this:
if nothing else around it changes, heat cannot pass from a cold body to a hot one. The crucial point here is the difference from what happens with falling bodies: a ball may fall, but it can also come back up, by rebounding, for instance. Heat cannot. This is the only basic law of physics that distinguishes the past from the future. (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 233-236)
For Christians, however, time is kairos: that which God called into existence so that God can act in that which God created which is not God but which God created exactly to share in the divine life and to become God.
“God became human so that humans might become God.” (Irenaeus)