I didn’t give much thought to the enormity of time before I was 17. Until then, time was just this annoying thing that forced me to run on a schedule, made me wait for the things I wanted and that I always seemed to be running behind on. Time was the clock on the wall, a calendar, a season. It moved in one direction and was inevitable. That’s all there was to it.
The only time I had occasion to think of it differently was very briefly, during an episode of Cosmos, when Carl Sagan presented the timeline of the universe to-date expressed as a calendar, with the Big Bang kicking off at midnight on New Year’s Day and “right now” being midnight on New Year’s Eve. He pointed out that all of human history, all that we know of the ancients and medieval history, the conquests and untold stories and all the artwork and literature humanity ever made — all of it was created in the very last seconds leading up to midnight on New Year’s Eve. That’s how new we are to the universe. That’s how brief our lives are on the universe’s timeline.
And then, a week after graduating high school, I flew to Europe and decided to do some light reading on the flight over. I took James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” on the flight with me, and found myself riveted by a priest’s description of eternity, comparing it to the time it would take a seagull to clear a beach of sand if it moved a single grain of sand at a time — with several aeons between trips.
And a few months later, I encountered Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” and heard of new ways of grappling with the mystery of eternity versus the certainty of time.
Since it’s now a new year — L’Shanah Tovah, by the way — I thought I’d take some time (see what I did there?) to ponder the enormity of time, and what science, faith and Spinoza all have to say about it.
Sub Specie Aeternitatis
Spinoza had a clever way of conceiving of a person’s place in time that is still interesting, and perhaps even useful, to think about today. But boy howdy is it going to take some explaining, so buckle up.
Let’s go back to the beginning with Spinoza’s “Ethics,” where he was defining things like substance, extended modes and attributes. Without getting into great explanation here (but you can follow the links), he conceived that all matter was one substance, which was identified as God or nature. Everything else in the universe, like you and I, are examples of extended modes of that substance. Finally, God (or nature) is said to have infinite attributes, but as humans, we are aware of only two: body and mind. These two are considered by Spinozist thought to be like two sides of the same coin, with body and mind working in parallel, or in tandem.
That’s a lot. Sorry.
Back to God.
Spinoza didn’t see God as being subject to time. God was before time began and God will be after time ends. In this, he’s not far removed from what you might have learned in Sunday school, but it’s worth noting that not every religious system views time this way. More later. Spinoza had a special phrase for this: Sub specie aeternitatis, or under the aspect of eternity.
Everything else, then, is subject to time. Moreover, everything else has a beginning and end. That is, they are finite. I don’t believe Spinoza coined the term, but an Internet search suggests it dates to the late 1800s. You, me and everyone we love, we’re all living under the aspect of time.
But that’s not the whole story, not according to Spinoza. And this is where his margins between rationalism and mysticism blur so lovingly. Really, I love this.
We know, of course, that our time is limited (that’s not the part I love). We grow old, our bodies fail us, we die. Our bodies are returned to the earth and become parts of other plants or trees or beings. That’s us living under the aspect of time, bluntly put.
Spinoza was such a rationalist that I honestly expected it would stop there. But it doesn’t! This is the part I love. Remember back a few paragraphs where Spinoza said that we are extensions of the same, single substance that exists eternally? The idea, the concept of us always was and always will be. The entity that is you reading this now, you’re just the actualization of that idea. Lucky you — that you get to be existing temporally for this glorious short blip in the face of eternity, I mean. Not necessarily that you’re spending some of that that all-too-brief time reading this (which, why???).
Anyway, now that I made my best run at explaining it, this is what Spinoza actually wrote in the note to Proposition 23 of Part 5 of the Ethics:
The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but there remains of it something which is eternal. … There is, as I have said, this idea that expresses the essence of the body under the aspect of eternity (sub specie aeternitatus) — a certain mode of thinking that pertains to the essence of the mind and is necessarily eternal. It is impossible that we should recollect having existed before the body — since there can’t be any traces of this in the body. ·And anyway, eternity isn’t a matter of long-lastingness; it doesn’t have any relation to measurable time. But still we feel and know by experience that we are eternal. ·It’s all right for me to say ‘feel’· because the mind feels the things that it conceives in the understanding as much as it does those it has in its memory. For demonstrations are the eyes of the mind, through which it sees and observes things. So although we don’t recollect existing before the body, we nevertheless feel that our mind, by involving the essence of the body under the aspect of eternity, is eternal and that this existence that it has can’t be a matter of long-lastingness. ·That last clause is important. To reinforce it, I repeat·: our mind can be said to last for a certain specific length of time only while it involves the actual existence of the body. Only then can it have thoughts about when things begin and end, thoughts about how long they last.
In re-reading that, I’m struck again that a philosopher so identified with the rationalists of the Enlightenment succeeded at being so damned mystical at the same time.
The Awful Meaning of This
Where Spinoza found spiritual wonder in contemplating eternity and mankind, it seems that too often religious leaders found only anxiety and dread. But that’s the hazard of matching eternity with either the promise of everlasting reward or never-ending punishment.
Judaism is pretty light on the concept, actually. There’s a phrase that gets used as a standard in many of the prayers, עולם הבא (the world to come), and לעולם ועד (forever and ever). Not a lot of emotional or spiritual energy is spent on either of these phrases, however. They just are. There is absolutely no idea of hell to go with them. Ideas of heaven? Very nebulous. The standard phrase is something like, someone should get their share in the world to come, “whatever that may be.” It’s just not something people stress over. It’s one of the reasons I love Judaism, by the way.
Things change quickly when you add everlasting hellfire to the equation. All of a sudden, it starts to matter just how long you have to wade around that lake of fire. When the stakes are raised, you have a reason to want to know just what eternity means.
Here’s how a priest explained to James Joyce’s main character in “A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man“:
Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness, and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of air. And imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been carried all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals – at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not even one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time, the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would have scarcely begun.”
Reading that, I could understand why some people had such a fear of hell, a fear that would motivate them to do terrible things and make disastrous choices all in hope of avoiding punishment without cease.
But it’s important to realize that not every religion operates on the same concept of time — or of a God’s place in it.
Hinduism, in particular, has a concept of time that is wildly different from what is found in Christianity. It is poetic and stunningly prescient with how it fits in with current scientific models of the universe. And since I’m in no way an expert in Hinduism, I’ll just quote from someone who does:
The concept of time in Hinduism is based on the endless cycle of existence. One cycle of creation and dissolution. …
There are 14 Manvantaras – this is equal to 1000 Mahayugas or 4,320,000,000 human years. It is the measure of a Kalpa or day of Brahma.
At the end of each kalpa there is the dissolution of the entire three worlds.
Thereafter follows the night of Brahma – of equal duration to one day of Brahma –, which is in turn followed by a further new day of Brahma, consisting again of 14 Manvantaras.
The life of a Brahma extends over a period of 100 such years whereof the measure of a single day is equal to a period of 14 Manvantaras.
All this length of time mentioned above is nothing but a flicker of the eyelids of Vishnu.
At the end of the life of a Brahma, there arises another Brahma.
The endless cycle of existence continues.
It’s interesting to note here that Hinduism, as far as I’m aware, does not have the same sort of hell that Christianity does. Instead, like the cycle of time described above, it holds that people’s souls go through repeated cycles of death and rebirth, hopefully learning from past mistakes and making improvements until they earn their way off this crazy wheel. In other words, the punishment is now, but now is also the opportunity to end it.
Time: The Final Frontier
When it comes to science and the extremities of time, some honesty is in order. There’s a lot we do not know. All the smart science that we have right now points to a Big Bang that happened somewhere around 13.7 billion years ago. At that point, all the matter that would ever be was condensed into a single point. But what happened before this explosion? What set it off? We just have no idea.
Nor do we exactly know what will happen at the end of time, if there is an end of time. But there have been theories and there’s a leading contender now. And spoiler alert, the new leading favorite scares me more than any vision of Dante’s hell ever could.
And a disclaimer: If you really want to understand this, you should probably be going to Neil DeGrasse Tyson or someone else who can explain it to laypeople. If you want to see that layperson hilariously try to explain it themself, here I am.
For a while, astrophysicists thought that the universe would eventually stop expanding and, in lovely symmetry, begin contracting back down to a singular point. This was called the Big Crunch. Once everything had gathered back to the start, presumably whatever had kickstarted the universe in the first place would start it up all over again. And, similar to what Hinduism envisions, the universe will go through cycles of death and rebirth. It was a beautiful model of everything, it made sense. I loved it. It comforted me.
But scientists eventually concluded it wouldn’t work. The universe won’t stop expanding and worse than that, it’s speeding up.
Another theory I liked says that our observable universe is actually the inside of a black hole, and the Big Bang is the sigularity of that black hole. And the black holes in our universe give rise to other universes, and so on, in a lovely pyramid scheme of cosmology. But honestly, it has its appeal, aside from the fact that presumably every subsequent level of universes would be smaller as matter is being divided among increasingly more universes, but hey this universe is so vast that if it were cut in half would we even notice? Hey, I’m just someone who got a C in high school physics, so be glad I got this far, I have no answers. How could I, when astrophysicists aren’t even sure if they like this one yet?
Unfortunately, the end-of-everything model that has most acceptance at this point is the one that truly terrifies me, and I’m not exaggerating here in the slightest. It goes like this: Sometime around 5 billion years from now, the sun is going to run out of fuel and start to act weird. Weird, in this case, means it’s going to get big. So big, in fact, it’s going to nearly reach the limits of the Earth’s orbit. Life on our planet will end.
I didn’t take it well when I first learned about this. I cried for an hour, if I recall, and my parents’ insistence that I’d be long dead didn’t land well.
But that won’t be the end of the universe, which will go on expanding after there’s anyone on Earth to care about it. In fact, it’s going to get bigger and bigger. No new stars will form because there won’t be enough “stuff” in the nebulae to coalesce into them. Eventually all the stars will burn out and the cosmos will go dark. That’s the Big Freeze. The end. The forever end.
It’s that idea of a cold, dark, never-changing universe utterly devoid of any life that scares the hell out of me far more than any story of, well, hell ever could.
And whatever that is, it is under the aspect of eternity.
The Time is Now
While contemplating all the ways the universe began and could have ended, it’s easy to overlook the otherwise insignificant speck of time that happens to be enormously important to us: the time we live in right now.
I’m stating the obvious, I know, but consider how damn short it is. It’s barely there at all. It’s a wisp of smoke. A flash of light. It’s the lingering memory of a dream when you wake up in the morning, and then it’s gone. That inconsequentially small bit of the universe’s lifespan? That’s our everything. And we get to share it with each other. With our family and loved ones. With strangers. With the flowers and trees around us. With the cat beside me and the bird singing outside.
How unlikely any of this was to ever exist. And yet, here we all are, somehow at the same place and the same time, and we get to share this together. Isn’t that crazy? Aren’t we lucky?
And in the blink of an eye, our time will be gone. Doesn’t that make everything a bit more precious?
L’Shanah Tovah. May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may it be a good year.