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Unstructured Time

Sometimes I think that there is more confusion about the nature of time than about anything else. Usually, when people talk about time, they are talking about a representation of time, not time itself. We represent time in so many ways, for example, in the form of clocks or more generally, by replacing time by the occurrence of change or the making of a choice. In the first case, time passes only if things change, so if nothing changed, no time would pass. This has been argued most forcefully in physics by the maverick physicist/historian Julian Barbour, in his excellent book The End of Time. While Barbour might be right about the role of time in physics (since physics cares about dynamics more than anything else, its no surprise that time = change as far as a physicist is concerned), physicists have no ultimate monopoly on the nature of time. Similarly, looking at time in a narrative context, the role of time in stories is deeply tied to action and events, which involves characters making choices (see McKee’s excellent guide to storytelling). Once again, sure, I agree that time, when represented in narrative, is structured in the form of events and actions, but that only says something about the representation of time on stories, and not necessarily anything about time per se.

Contemplatives (such as Krishnamurti) talk about a kind of time that does not involve change and has no structure, a choiceless awareness if you will. You could call this bare time, or unstructured time, or “time on its own” as my friend Emily called it in our conversation about this topic. However you name it, there is an existentially potent kind of time that was never implicated in change, never moving from past to future and always present. I don’t think this bare time is supernatural or otherworldy or mystical, its just beyond the reach of our structuring mind which one shouldn’t confuse with the mind as such.

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Synchronicity

It does seem as if interesting things happen in clusters. The last couple of months have been very productive. I have been writing a lot and the more I write, the easier it is for me to write more. Strangely enough, as I pursue my own writing interests, I have been running into people who are writers in the making. These people are complete strangers who start talking to me without any knowledge of my background. Its almost as if I am giving off a “writer” vibe.

You could try to explain this phenomena in several ways. For example, you might say that I am more willing to entertain a conversation with a fellow writer, that I frequent places like cafes and bookstores teeming with writer types, that I make friends with people who are interested in literature and their friends are more likely to be writers. All of these explanations are surely part of the story, but they cannot be the whole. I feel that each time I get interested in something, I randomly run into people who share those interests at a greater rate than before, people who I meet in settings that have nothing to do with the interest per se.

I might be romanticizing purely accidental events, but I wonder if there is such a thing as synchronicity? Is there a form of causality that’s utterly different from our usual interactions with the material world (like pushing and pulling and lifting and moving)? Note that there is nothing supernatural about synchronicity, it just happens to clash with our naively materialistic conception of causality, which we know is a wrong notion — after all, ever since Newton’s account of gravitation, we have known that action at a distance is very much possible.

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Intelligent Design and Physics

I never understood why theories of evolution (Darwin’s theory in particular) are politically explosive. I would have thought that physics presents a far more radical challenge to Creationism. After all, it is:
(a) Far more reductive, claiming that we are nothing but a bunch of moving particles.
(b) Moves the center of the universe as far away from human beings as can be imagined.
So why do creationists get into a tizzy about Darwin and not about Einstein?

Perhaps it’s because evolution introduces a different conception of time and history into our self understanding, while physics is decidedly a-temporal. Physics does not deal with the question of origins, notwithstanding big bang cosmology and other theories of the birth of the universe. Questions of origins really do not play an important conceptual role in physics, because the laws of physics are the same today as they were when the universe was created. By getting rid of special moments, moments that mean more than others, physical theories sweep “why” questions under the rug. Which, unfortunately, also means that physics does not say much about value and meaning.

If I am right, disciplines such as history and evolutionary biology are contentious because they still frame their theories around “why” questions, questions that go to the heart of human nature, which cares about meaning deeply. The good news is that people debate Darwinian theories of evolution not just because they are blinded by faith, but because they instinctively know the importance of “original” thinking, if by original, one means thinking about origins. Disagreements about our evolutionary history have less to do with faith and reason and more to do with embodied notions of the roots of knowledge.

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Philosophy and pornography

It is hard enough to define pornography: “I know it when I see it” according to Judge Potter Stewart. If you thought that was a tough cookie (what do you think of the new Victoria Secret ads on Network TV?), try to define philosophy. “I know it when I define it” says the self reflexive smart alec. He might be right, but he didnt really solve the problem did he?
What is philosophy anyway? I remember being pleasantly surprised and then taken aback during my first visit to a Barnes and Noble megastore (in Madison, Wisconsin if you really want to know) and stumbled into the metaphysics section. I was expecting treatises on Plato and Nagarjuna and was instead confronted with rows and rows of brightly colored evocations of previous lives and astral bodies.
At that time, I remember turning back, screaming silently and mocking the befuffled masses arrayed around me, but were they right? Who owns metaphysics, thats what I want to know.