“At the speed of light, propagation of TIME stops. So, a photon does not travel forever because our concept of time does not hold true for it. Photons do not experience passage of time.” Victor Mazmanian, retired Associate Professor of Physics, U.S. Air Force Academy quoted from an answer to a Quora question, “How can light travel forever?”
I confess that I am a Quora stalker, mostly science, history and philosophy. Never have I posed or answered a question. Perhaps I will work up my courage to do so. When I read the for the most part well informed questions and answers, for now, I am content to learn and to wonder. I follow a few of the contributors like my friend Bob Cormack[i] from Colorado. Mostly though I am eclectic and follow my curiosity. That probably qualifies me as a geek in its current definition.[ii]
The Quora article I linked above is clear and simple without being simplistic about complex subjects like the quantum packets of energy called photons that are always either in motion at the speed of light or non-existent when they stop moving. For photons, time does not exist because at their velocity, time does not pass, a “trip” of twenty light years is a flash without so much as a nanosecond transpiring from their perspective. The math of the quantum physics and relativity will remain well beyond this humble blogger’s aptitude, but the concepts and inspiration to the imagination are mine to play with.[iii]
If we were able to transform and hitch a ride on a photon, a form of time travel would be possible. Astronomers recently discovered a rocky planet circling Proxima Centauri, a mere twelve light years away. With current technology, this would be a journey of about 544 centuries at fifty two thousand miles an hour, which was what the New Horizon Pluto probe attained. It took New Horizon about nine and half years to get to Pluto. Even at the speed of light, should we be able to travel that fast, a round trip to Proxima Centauri would take a couple of dozen years. Upon our return, we would have not aged a day or perceived any passage of time, but our friends and families would be decades older. Or not here at all.
“Please don’t make fun when I tell you something true.” Across the River and into the Trees, Ernest Hemingway
John Archibald Wheeler, theoretical physicist and doctoral advisor to many, including Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, proposed that as we learn more and more about the universe, we will see that it is informational, more like a computer than a machine. Or more like a mind. Wheeler revived the study of general relativity after World War II, invented the terms “black hole” and “wormhole” and was involved with Feynman and others in the development of quantum mechanics. Many current physicists now subscribe to this “informational” understanding of the universe and believe it is the path to eventually uncovering a unified theory of physics, resolving the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory. Wheeler said this during a eulogy of mathematician Hermann Weyl in 1986, “Time, among all concepts in the world of physics, puts up the greatest resistance to being dethroned from ideal continuum to the world of the discrete, of information, of bits… Of all obstacles to a thoroughly penetrating account of existence, none looms up more dismayingly than ‘time.’ Explain time? Not without explaining existence. Explain existence? Not without explaining time. To uncover the deep and hidden connection between time and existence….is a task for the future.” [iv]
“The essence of knowledge does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of “difficulty,” so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift—the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation: it comes effortlessly and without trouble.” Dr. Josef Pieper, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture” English translation, Random House, 1963
For God, time is not linear, rather more like a photon perceives it than like we perceive it. All of time is seen at once, as now, beyond humans to even conceive of His gaze. How this is understood in terms of free will and pre-destination, I’ll leave to the theologians. For this post, I’d like to consider where humans may find some common ground with this view of the cosmos.
The ancients and medieval philosophers taught that human knowledge is gained in two ways, which they named ratio and intellectus. Ratio was what we would now call a left brain activity, rational, discursive, leading to conclusions and requiring lots of work or study. Intellectus is more right brain, wholeness, intuitive, contemplative and receptive. The difference might be perceived in coming upon a vista like the Grand Canyon. Our left brain is curious and studies the mile-deep cliffs of the Grand Canyon dropping to the Colorado River: geological eras with their names and characteristics, rising and receding seas, the crushing together and uplift of tectonic plates and layer upon layer of aggregated stones and fossils. This is learning with ratio.
Intellectus is content to take it all in, to be silent, to think long thoughts or no thoughts at all, to grasp the canyon as beautiful in and of itself: objectively valuable, not just subjectively satisfying[v]. Ratio has to do with the temporal, with the investment of our precious time and work. Intellectus has to do with the eternal, outside of time. Like for the photon, time stops, or rather there is no time that matters.
Gazing in wonder and gratitude at beauty changes the beholder. Contemplation, absorbed in the beauty with mind emptying peace, but filled with instantaneous knowledge and understanding, is of the soul, as well as the will and mind. I believe it is in this that we can imperfectly understand the concept of human uniqueness. We are made in Imago Dei, in the Image of God. When we perceive, however minutely, as God perceives, outside of time, we participate in our limited fashion in the Divine. Captivated by the beauty when we visited the Grand Canyon a few winters ago, my inner voice echoed an ancient voice, “I am Beauty itself, gratuitous and without limit. Rest in Me. Trust in Me. Do not be afraid.”
“Can we ever expect to understand existence? Clues we have, and work to do, to make headway on this issue. Surely someday, we can believe, we will grasp the central idea of it all as so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that we will all say to each other, ‘Oh, how could it have been otherwise! How could we have been so blind so long?” John Archibald Wheeler in his famous “it for bit” talk.
[ii] Originally “geek” denoted a carnival freak who entertained by biting the heads off live chickens. To date, I have not indulged in that fowl slaughter.
[iii] , Before any physics geniuses complain that I am not qualified to remark on the details of the science, I agree completely. But the minutiae are not the point of the post.
[iv] Wheeler, John Archibald, 1986 “Hermann Weyl and the Unity of Knowledge.” American Scientist, 74:366-375
[v] See Dietrich von Hildebrand’s view of truth and beauty with the distinction of the “subjectively satisfying” from the “objectively valuable” as explained briefly by Bishop Robert Barron. Von Hildebrand, a Catholic moral theologian, was once called by Adolph Hitler his number one enemy and had to flee for his life when the Third Reich annexed Austria. Dietrich von Hildebrand and Our Relativistic Age, Robert Barron, Word on Fire website.