The Problem of Time

I've spent much of the last two weeks thinking about the idea of time and the difficulties that emerge when we as humans must try to live our lives inside of it.

I'm not ashamed to admit that this was sparked by my recent viewing (for probaby the fifteenth time) of Harold Ramis's romantic comedy Groundhog Day. If you haven't seen it, Groundhog Day tells the story of Phil Conners, who gets caught in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over again with no hope of escape, even through death. This produces much humor and melancholy for the viewer, and almost nothing but complete despair for our main character. There's also some goofs and some romance. It's a weird movie.

The story's primary lesson is illuminated through its exaggeration of normal life. Phil Conners, by repeating the same day for eternity, reflects our own daily life where every new day is so nearly identical to the previous that it might as well be literally identical. When confronted with this narrative of modern daily life, we must contend against the seemingly inherent nihilism to produce worth and value in our actions and time spent. This is what Phil eventually learns to do through good deeds towards others and finding true love (it's a romantic comedy, remember?). And this newfound outlook is what allows him to escape his time loop and live out the remainder of his natural life in bliss in Punxsutawney, PA. It's a masterpiece; please trust me.

In Groundhog Day, time is Phil's curse. When provided with more than enough time to the point of effectively becoming eternal, Phil discovers that life loses all meaning and value. Immortality is the truest death.

Shortly after watching Groundhog Day, I watched another movie that strongly emphasizes characters' relationship with time. In Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk we are put inside the experience of British soldiers in World War II, desperately trying to get off a French beach to escape the inevitable death that is quickly advancing in the form of the unstoppable German army. In this film, the viewer is bombarded with the sensation that time simply will not stop or slow down, the advancing of time can only ever bring death and eradication. All human attempts to mitigate or avoid this reality will backfire at worst, or be merely futile at best. The only true realities of Dunkirk are that time never stops and neither does the German army. Every hope and savior of the British soldiers is either flimsy and inadequate, or succeeds via dumb luck. Ships can get torpedoed and sunk, planes run out of fuel, the goddamn tide just won't come in fast enough.

But despite all of this despair and death, the story tells us that hope is still worth it. Even if your situation is so dire that your hope has to rely on pure chance, it still works some of the time. And the holding on to and expression of hope is inherently good and valuable. Far removed from the horrors of war, we too are faced with the inescapable crush of time in every day life. Time creates an impossible to solve problem for normal life. One where are resources are never enough, any respite or sanctuary can't last, and we are forced just do our best anyway. But that's the point, isn't it? Just like the British soldiers, simply doing our best, even if that's just plodding along from day to day or riding our luck out of a series of disasters, is enough.

In Dunkirk, time is once again our great curse. But here it's because there is not, and can not ever be, enough of it. We must make it through life anyway. And even if all we do is merely survive our crushing reality, that is enough.

So, for the past two weeks I've been thinking about these films, their treatments of time swirling around in my head while I try to figure out what it all means. Groundhog Day tells us that a meaningful and valuable life relies on the the inherent limitations of time, but Dunkirk shows us that these same limitations are a foundational cause of our toil and strife. How do we reconcile these? Is there a balance to be found inside the confines of time?

Well, what are the confines of time, really? I'll describe four that I've identified. Time is limited in its linearity, direction, speed, and quantity.

First is linearity. This is so fundamental to nature as to be quite unintuitive and not obvious at all. But think about it for a moment. How is time represented graphically? By a timeline. Time is experienced as a series of moments, all lined up in a row next to eachother. Moments are happening one at a time, none are stacked on top of eachother. You must travel through each moments in order, no skipping any. (Wormholes. I know! Don't email me.)

The linearity of time is why life is full of mundanity and frustration. You must get through all the boredom and the toil in order to get to the moments you desire. This can be as trivial as a morning routine. To get ready for my day, I have to get dressed, shower, eat breakfast, feed my cat, etc. The desired result is a state of readiness for the day. But to achieve this state, I must move through a series of moments in a specific order. It's the same for less trivial matters as well. A major goal of mine is to become a good cyclist. But unfortunately I can not just manifest that state out of nowhere. It will require hours and hours of training and racing. I must travel through each moment of time, performing all the necessary actions in each moment that will, through the chain of cause and effect, produce this outcome. There are no shortcuts, no getting around causality. Time simply doesn't allow it.

The second limitation is direction. Closely tied to time's linearity is its uni-directionality. The movement along the universe's timeline can only happen in the forward direction. Once a moment has passed, you can not reverse direction to revisit it. The past is lost to us forever, and the future is inevitable.

Time's directionality is the reason for regret, but also for hope. Our decisions and actions carry weight because they are final. Once they've happened they can't be revisited and their consequences will always be in the future waiting for you. You must travel through the story of your life, no matter what it brings. But the knowing that there is always a future provides the foundation for hope. We can't know what the future has in store, but we do know that it holds something. And that something could always be good.

Third we have speed. The limitation of the speed of time is the least physically rigid, the most subjective to human experience, but still beyond our direct control. General relativity describes how the speed of time is not quite fixed by the physical universe. And it's not quite fixed in our experience either. Our emotional state can have great effect on speed of time, at least the perception of its speed. We feel impatience and nostalgia when time seems slow, and exhileration and turmoil when it rushes past.

The speed of time fluctuates constantly. The limitation that humans face here is our lack of control over it. You must suffer through the slog of an endless lecture, and there's no way to slow down a fantastic day spent with someone you love. And there's certainly no pausing it altogether in those times when we just need to catch a break from the onslaught of life.

The final limitation is quantity. This limitation is the most obvious to the human condition. It's pretty apparent that we all die eventually. This reality is the single greatest driving force behind all human motivation. The awareness (and attempted avoidance) of our inescapable death pulses underneath all art, productivity, reproduction, and connection. This limitation, despite being closest to the surface of human reality, is probably the least inherent to physical reality. The universe itself probably won't eventually die. The physical nature of the universe may very well allow for an infinite amount of time. But for each human at least, our inevitable death puts a limit on the quantity of it that is given to us.

Death seems like our great curse. It's not inherent to our universe's physical nature the way the other three limitations are. This makes it seem cruel and unfair. If the universe seems to go on forever, why can't we? Like the stars, we flicker out and are extinguished eventually. But the stars aren't conscious; they have no idea of their fate. Yet we must live with the ever present knowledge of our future annihilation.

Could there be anything worse than death? Yes, in fact. I think immortality would be far worse. I can imagine no worse torture and despair than for our experience of time to be limited by it's linearity, direction, and speed, but not it's quantity. To be bounded to the one-dimensional and unidirectional line of time with no control over the speed at which we feel it is bad enough. But for that to never end would truly be a hell. This is the ultimate nihilism.

Adding time's fourth limitation of quantity to our lives is what provides meaning and value to our choices and actions. When we make choices now, we are creating exactly one reality. There is exactly one life you will live, exactly one world that people are collectively creating. But if humans had immortality inside of the physical universe, if every person lives for an infinite amount of time, then all realities would inevitably happen. This is the exact same type of meanginless nihilism at the heart of the many-world interpretation.

From the collection of finite human lives inside of a temporaly infinite universe emerges exactly one possible universe that will ever exist. So it's up to us to make sure that it's the best one we can make. But even the best possible created world is full of toil and grief as a result of our reality's limitations of time. Is there a larger hope? If escaping death is a greater curse than death itself, what other hope could there be?

I can still find that hope in the possibility that our quantitative limitation of time is not true death. The death we meet in this physical world is not a complete annihilation of self, but simply our removal from the physical world. When we die, we enter into a reality that is no longer bounded by our universe's manifestation of time. We leave the confines of time's one-dimensional and unidirectional hell to an existence outside of, around, and encompassing the line of time. Attempting to describe the nature of this greater reality quickly becomes nonsensical.

Being able to inhabit any point in or around the line of time, instead of only within it, is not comprehensible to the physical human imagination. But I do believe that ability is waiting for us. And I believe that this is the great hope of humanity. And the final freedom from the curse of time.