• sciandenvironment

A static picture of human time

Is the 4th dimension an arbitrary product of consciousness?

By Jake Roslin



Photo courtesy of Djim Loic from Unsplash.


Would time exist if minds weren’t around to experience it? A question that has bothered natural philosophers since, well, time immemorial. This was formalised by Columbia University theoretical physicist Brian Greene a decade ago in a PBS documentary, The Fabric of the Cosmos. More recently the idea of a “block universe” has provoked a lot of discussion and questioning in physics forums and several important articles, including The Challenge of Measuring Time by Frank Wilczek of MIT in The Wall Street Journal published in 2019.

This isn’t the well trodden ground of clocks on mountains running at different speeds, nor the Back To The Future grandfather paradoxes. It’s not space-time curvature or even wormholes. It’s more whether all these are merely quirks of time-as-illusion, created by the brains of living creatures to allow ourselves to interpret an otherwise unfathomable universe, in the way that say a non-sentient object like a rock has no need. Humans need four dimensions for ‘humanness,’ the rock needs only three for ‘rockness.’

Einstein was the first to denounce Newton’s time as a fixed, universal fact into instead a matter of individual conception. Our life experience doesn’t run at a steady pace, others experience even moments we share with them differently. We’ve all felt time “slowing” under adrenalised, crisis moments. Our brains regularly substitute elapsed time since the most recent memory with an earlier memory, for the time since the moment itself. They also haven’t yet evolved a compensation for the perception that time runs faster as we age – the concept that a year, say, is now a smaller fraction of our lives. Could these imperfections suggest time is something our minds are still evolving to formalise and, in reverse, that less developed brains might not be able to formalise at all? Can we even hypothesise that the ability of a mind to differentiate time in at least some way is merely another word for consciousness?

Could these imperfections suggest time is something our minds are still evolving to formalise and, in reverse, that less developed brains might not be able to formalise at all? Can we even hypothesise that the ability of a mind to differentiate time in at least some way is merely another word for consciousness?

When we die, just as before we are born, our individual time is meaningless. We imagine friends who outlive us will subsequently remember us, and indeed they will, but to state that the ‘time’ during which they mourn us on a universal basis, immediately follows our death, is illogical. It occurs instead in their own life timelines, but these only coincided with “us” when we were an “us”. But on the larger scale, no moment in the history of the universe is particularly before or after another, and to an “outside observer” of the universe there’s no real reason for them to perceive our personal timeline any differently from any other dimension. Another way of looking at it is to imagine another universe in which there is no sentient life. It would be meaningless to ask what time it is there, but that doesn’t mean such a universe can’t exist any less than the period our own universe ceased, or will cease, to harbour conscious life, which also eludes ‘time.’

The works of Greene, Wilczek and others seem somewhat comforting for those of us who worry about death far more than we generally admit. Since, by having been born, we are an intrinsic part of the universe, experiencing the four dimensions we understand (perhaps by extension any further dimensions our brain simply hasn’t evolved enough to make sense of, yet). The “time” we have lived isn’t erased by dying any more than the various locations in three dimensional space we inhabited. The potentially good bit is as an intrinsic part of the universe we, just possibly, can’t “not exist” either. Could this mean we live the same life repeatedly? If it seems improbable the universe runs to some external clock: if the “time” of our death is meaningless outside of our own consciousness, immortality seems a tantalising possibility. Our life would presumably be exactly the same, but we wouldn’t remember this as we ran through our ‘infinitieth’ time around.

Imagine an aerial photograph of that part of the universe you’ve physically inhabited during your lifetime. There you are, from the moment of your first consciousness until the moment of your death, a kind of continuous blurred image of all the physical locations you’ve ever been. That we divide this continuum into points we call time could be analogous to the vibration of subatomic particles in a piece of matter: To all intents and purposes static when you aren’t in the realm of being a particle yourself.

If the idea of humans being frozen images on a picture sounds rather Arthur C Clarke, it wouldn’t be the first time science fiction predicted science fact. Neither does a block universe theory of time preclude the existence of other universes. It doesn’t explain why all of this information is there in the first place (for what is our static photograph of the universe, but a collection of information?) but suggests we shouldn’t think of linear time any differently to the first three dimensions, or the suggested seven further ones we don’t experience. As Greene said in 2011,‘Contrary to everyday experience, time may not flow at all. Our past may not be gone. Our future may already exist.’