Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Static Time

Mark Vernon contemplates the relationship between God and time at Big Questions Online. He writes:
Augustine made one of the best known and most insightful comments about time. “What then is time?” he wondered. “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

He puzzled over this most fundamental, and yet mysterious, aspect of the human condition in his Confessions, and arrived at a notion that was similar to Plato’s: the ancient Greek sage had defined time as “the moving image of eternity.” That fitted with Augustine’s conception of God, who had created time when He created the universe. To ask what God was doing before that great act is simply meaningless.

It’s an idea that’s stuck. And to some, it is entirely commensurate with the way modern physics grapples with the mystery. Here, time is typically envisaged as a relationship between events. Einstein presented what is referred to as the “block universe” – the notion that all times exist equally. (For comparison, Augustine wrote: “In the Eternal nothing passeth away, but that the whole is present.”)

So, what you see just depends on what you set t to in any given equation. “The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent,” the genius of relativity mused. He was so clear about the illusory nature of time that the thought even provided him with comfort in the face of death.
This is fascinating stuff, to be sure, but in my opinion it's even more fascinating to think that if it's true that the universe is a "block" and the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion what would happen if there really is life after death? Do we pass out of this "block universe" and into an eternal present where all of cosmic history falls simultaneously before our gaze, like taking in an entire page of a book at once?

If so, if we are at that point conscious beings which transcend the space-time manifold, would not all events in the history of the world be in our present? If that's so, then when we die every future event, including the future deaths of our loved ones, must happen simultaneously with our death. If that's so, when we die we could be immediately united with those who, on earth, still grieve our passing. But this would mean that our loved ones must have a kind of dual existence.

They would exist here on earth awaiting the future and simultaneously they'd exist in eternity where the future is in the present. In fact, if this is the case, all of us must have a dual existence, like quantum particles which can exist in more than one place at the same time. Perhaps the self that exists "there" is just as unaware of our existence "here" as our self here is unaware of our existence there.

Who knows? It seems to me, though, that if time is a block, an objective reality, and if there's some sense in which we survive physical death, there's no reason why this couldn't be the way things are.

Anyway, I better stop speculating about all this before you start to think that I'm dabbling with some mind-altering substance while sitting at my computer.

Insect Migration

Cornelius Hunter relates some interesting facts about migratory insects like butterflies:
Anyone who travels much by air knows that pilots try to ride the wind. Flights may even deviate substantially from the shortest-distance route if the wind is strong enough elsewhere. But of course the wind is not likely moving exactly toward your destination. Add to this the fact that the wind also varies with altitude, and the problem of designing the optimal route of flight becomes highly complex.

It is a problem in the calculus of variations (optimizing functionals rather than mere functions) and is analogous to the optics problem of predicting the path of light through a medium with variant refractive index. But this approach requires analytical wind fields, described with functions, rather than numerically derived winds described, for instance, on a grid. In practice the optimal routing problem is solved using various iterative methods. Amazingly, migratory insects also solve this type of problem.

Research using entomological radar has found that migratory insects such as butterflies and moths perform their own flight planning in order to optimize their flights across continents. They select the right time to ride the wind, and they determine the right altitude and flight heading to reach their destination (rather than where the wind is going). As one of the researchers explained:

"Migratory butterflies and moths have evolved an amazing capacity to use favourable tailwinds. By flying at the heights where the wind currents are fastest, migratory moths can travel between their summer and winter grounds in just a few nights."

Luna Moth Caterpillar
This is certainly remarkable, but what's even more remarkable is the fact that butterflies have the ability to migrate and navigate at all. How and why did such a complex behavior arise in such a tiny nervous system? I'm sure it can all be explained by fortuitous genetic mutations being selected for because they conferred a reproductive advantage on the insects that had them.

Adult Luna Moth
I'm sure, too, that lepidopteran metamorphosis can be explained the same way. Somehow caterpillars developed mutations that caused them to spin cocoons around themselves (after they developed the ability to spin out the fibers that make up the cocoon). And then they had more mutations that caused all their tissues to dissociate and migrate around inside the cocoon and then reassemble in the form of a folded-up butterfly. Then more mutations gave the folded up butterfly the ability to break out of the cocoon at just the right time of year and then pump air into the veins in their wings and fly away a completely different creature than they were when they went into the cocoon.

What's that you say? It sounds like a fairy tale? That sort of talk just shows that you don't understand the omnipotent, omniscient character of blind, impersonal, random forces in nature.