I just finished reading E=MC2 by David Bodanis. It’s a fascinating book, and for the first time, I feel as if I can grasp some of the importance of this formula and its history.
One subject the book touches upon, though only in passing, is the relativity of time and its status as a dimension. This reminded me of how I used to struggle with the concept of “eternity” as a child. I wish I could have all that wasted time back, for it turns out that it’s one of those things that do not actually exist, but for which words were invented anyway. It’s cruel when that happens.
Many years ago, I studied at a Lubavitcher yeshiva (a Jewish religious school). The rabbi was teaching a class on the main esoteric book of the Lubavitcher Hassidic sect, the “Tanya.” At one point, while trying to emphasize a difficult concept (one that seemingly made no sense), he kept repeating, “It’s THERE, but it’s NOT THERE!” as he gestured dramatically. I thought to myself, “Wow. This is really deep.” Later I realized that the deepest concepts are the ones that are false. The reason we can’t understand them is that they really don’t make any sense. Sometimes, our most primal, instinctive gut reactions are the correct ones.
Sometimes science, though well-meaning, takes us on wild intellectual rides – that end up exactly where we started. For many generations, it was Greek philosophy that was considered cutting-edge science. This was the case in ancient Greek and Roman times, when Hebrew (representing a more primitive mode of thought) clashed with Hellenistic thought. Though traditional Jews were successful in holding back imperial Hellenistic forces, during the wars of the Maccabees (celebrated through the holiday of Hannukah), Judaism and Hebrew were transformed through their contact with Greek and Greek thought.
Hebrew took on many loan-words from Greek. The Talmud, with its overly analytical methodology, was clearly influenced by Greek philosophy.
As for the Hebrew language, it was fundamentally changed. Before Greek influence, there was no clear-cut concept of tenses. I’ll quote ulpan.net:
there was no such thing in Hebrew as “Past Tense” or “Future Tense”. These are modern Israeli Hebrew terms. Originally it rather was “Perfect” and “Imperfect” aspects. It is the Perfect which gradually developed itself to be used as “Past Tense”, and that’s Imperfect which we treat today as “Future”.
This is well-known to scholars. Classical Arabic is the same way, and I’m told the same is true of classical Mandarin Chinese. It’s possible that ancient Semites didn’t perceive time the same way most of us perceive it today. Something that was to take place in the future was simply something that IS meant to be. “Yiqtol” now means “he WILL kill”, but in ancient times it meant “he is one who kills” or something to that effect. His status is the same today as it will be when he actually does the killing. As to the concept of eternity, Hebrew has no such word. The word that serves as a proxy, in classical Hebrew, is “le’Olam,” which literally means “for the world,” or “for a world.” In other words, for as long as it matters for those in the world.
The human mind is easily molded, and once we get used to thinking about things a certain way, it becomes extremely difficult to think outside of these terms.
Perhaps, through Einstein’s revolutionary grasp of time, as being relative, we have come full circle. The ancients (and even not-so-ancients) viewed time as simply an extended “present,” with the past and future holding no special status in everyday life. The Greeks, and modern Europeans (and those under their influence) enhanced the past and present into a rigid time hierarchy. This was useful for them, and helped facilitate modern society. Those who embrace this hierarchy most fully are those who can be more successful in modern life. The future is more real to them; they have less time-preference. Those who exist in an extended present are held back.
So, for all practical purposes, there is a rigid past-present-future procession. But, as a purely academic question, we can still ask: In the wider reality, outside of ourselves, does it really exist? If we do acknowledge its existence, does this not force us to confront impossible concepts – such as eternity?
Perhaps we can view the rigid procession of time as a human invention. One that is useful to us. As soon as we disappear, so does time. In that case, “eternity” exists only as long as humans exist. As soon as we’re gone, time disappears, and so does “eternity.”