Time, space, technology, self

Einstein purportedly said that the more one looked at quantum physics (and presumably his special theory of relativity) the sillier it looked. Whether that referred to the lay person’s ignorance or to the theories themselves, the indefiniteness and expansiveness of the twentieth-century astrophysical theory is all but impossible to prove, demonstrate, experience, or confirm. There is not existential significance to it.

The elasticity of time has always seemed inexorable: the image of a distant star’s twinkling light that reaches us today but set out millennia ago. More poignant is the image of a star that died millennia ago but the light of which reaches us now. Vastness, emptiness, and absence are the heart of this vast dark structure, though the scientist, ever optimistic, would have us see now not moribund matter but waves, light, and energy. It’s all the same. The cold reaches of time are heavy with a resonant melancholy, and the promises of far-away paradises leave us forlorn and rueful. Like Emily Bronte, one is tempted to renounce any heaven if it is not earth.

Science never discovers much that is helpful to society because everything is two-edged and courts disaster. We are deceived by convenience, speed, and pleasure, distracted from the alienation from self and nature that every invention brings. Not alienation from other people, as surveys want to insist. Television, video games, and the internet create cocoons of individualism, we are warned. But in fact as social phenomena they bring cultures and subcultures closer to one another in ways similar to religion, fashion, or language. Still, this process merely molds modernity into a homogeneous dependence.

Technologies are dominated by the powerful who profit and control them. Technology does not make new water, ancient foods, renewed species, or new forests. The proud products of technology do not feed, cloth, or nourish. Not because they are diverted from noble ends but because noble ends do not matter to the powerful. We borrow aspects of technology for old purposes: tools to communicate, to interact socially, to give ourselves the illusion of self-control and purpose. These entertain us, distract us from the structures that matter. Time is never recaptured, and space is physically destroyed by the progress of society and the necessities of fuel, consumption, and technology.

The chaos underlying the subatomic world as science describes it is epistemological but not relevant. The relativity of Einstein’s theory refers to the physical position of objects, not the intellectual decisions about ethics. Yet the subatomic world mirrors or defines our social world: looking vertically we see in society not the exercise of refined natural law but the artificiality of culture and structures implanted before us like totems. We can learn more from a few days’ observation of nature and simplicity than we can from a Bosch-like vision of subatomic particles confirming our greatest fear, that of fundamental chaos.

Not chaos specifically, we will be reminded. Laws govern the impossibly indeterminate character of the world we do not see or that does not matter to us. Except that the seething energy of that subatomic world, like the world discovered in the seething bowels of Hades, was harnessed by their metaphorical occupants risen to the surface of Earth to assume the role of the powerful.

Thus the old saying that a direct line exists from Galileo to the atomic bomb and that therefore we should remain ignorant of science and nature at first carries a certain ethical weight, persuading us to believe that human activity in technology is doomed to be antithetical to tranquility and peace. But of course that was not the motive for silencing Galileo. The same forces that would perceive the revolution in power that Galileo represented would want to hold that power firmly to themselves, and perhaps harness a similar weapon in the name of authority. And so it has. One can never win when power asserts itself by force, irregardless of the purported cause it champions.

Nor does it matter whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa because it hardly affects our daily lives. Our animal existence is obscurantism in regards to both curiosity and scientific knowledge. We sense more acutely the passage of time and the changes in space approximate to us. That very narrow-mindedness is what, unfortunately, allows the scientists and technologists and the powerful free reign to harness power against the individual, who is too busy earning a living or coping with the vicissitudes of subjective time and space to object to what unnatural devices are arising around him or her.

Why, indeed, should human consciousness, that grand fragmentation between ourselves and nature, not be pulled between benign uses of science and technology versus insidious uses? Technology projects our human nature as clearly and fatefully as anything we do. We do not participate as authorities and are mere spectators: like the lower members of a tribe of mammals watching the powerful tribal leaders from the perimeter. Technology and its products are more efficacious than the gods in this reverse-creation, this undoing of the planet.

Our commands and wishes as a subset of society are without voice or result. Technology is the handmaid of the powerful, and hardly of we who dabble in its amusing end-products, oblivious to the experiments in multiplying lethal equivalents. The communication technology we enjoy and find useful will one day be used against us. The medieval clergy’s desire to ban the crossbow in the Hundred Years War because it was too barbaric is like the modern clergy’s pleas for nuclear disarmament. The truly powerful have long put Galileo in the dungeon workshop — not because of his pronouncements of science but because the rest of the people may listen to him. Now he is in the dungeon cranking out the tools of earth’s destruction. The meek hopes of moralizers and poets need now to be tools of solitude, not dissent. The momentum of technology has long drowned out their voices.

Time and space are fragmented in our daily lives, though the rapid pace of modern life is calculated to make this oblivious, to hustle us along from pausing to ponder ultimate purpose. Memories become fragments of time, complete with textures and emotions, fragile and dependent upon the thin frail tissue of our cells. With age our cells deteriorate like old film and musty paper, those hallmark creations of technology. To hoard memories is as futile as stuffing a warehouse with clutter. Meaning and sentiment assigned to memories are as quickly lost and forgotten. If death is a dissipation, we are wise not to cling obsessively to what we will have to eventually give up.

A perennial human desire is to cling to memory like a piece of furniture or an old photograph. It is only natural and inevitable that we should do so, for we have learned to identify ourselves with material objects which seem to last as long as our corresponding sentiments about them. We devise mechanisms of continuity as feverishly as our bodies slough off old cells — so that we can remain, in time and space, a self.

Memory is consciousness and a mundane function of identity. The marvel of sleep, of unconsciousness without loss of identity upon awakening is like that subatomic world where nothing seems real or permanent until we look away from the electron microscope and feel the solidity of a table or chair, then sigh in relief. We ought to write paeans to sleep and to dreaming, both marvels of existence as much as are black holes, cosmic strings, and an expanding universe.

But we awaken to our mortality, like a prisoner or exile who dreams of freedom and security but awakens to his confines, his limbs still bound in chains. “We are all chained to Fortune,” Seneca wrote. “Some chains are gold and other base metals, but chains nevertheless.” Can we awaken to other than our mortality, or rather to the thought of it, the weight of it?

An “expanding” universe, suggests a mundane analogy. What “expands” more that the awakening self? And the expansion continues quantitatively through our waking day, but qualitatively only in meditation. In meditation, the field of mind reverberates with chaotic waves and particles just like the subatomic world, until we look away from the mind and its shooting thoughts and ignore what goes on in it. Like the subatomic world, motion and identification of particles (or thoughts) is relative and depends on the observer, on our perspective.

Or can we awaken as we dream, a pervading order within a seeming chaos, a continuity not of memory fixed in impermanence but in soil and wind and sunlight and stars, our selves identical with the seeming tranquility and solitude that these natural objects connote? Space and time are not outside of us, to return to Einstein, but perspectives. Space and time are not exceptions to or even the contexts of our existence but merely projections of what we desire.