Sunday, December 18, 2011

I contain multitudes, and not in a good way

As I mentioned once before on this blog, Kurt Vonnegut got me early (at about age 14) with his vision of time in Slaughterhouse Five, and it's stayed with me: all moments always have existed and always will exist; to be finite in time is no more remarkable than to be finite in space. This raises the question: when you die, in whose "when" are you dead? Even for a monotheist, there's no clear answer. For millennia, theologians have asserted that all moments are equally present to God. You're only 'dead' in the perception of those who live 'after' you -- and they will soon be dead, and so it goes. But our personal timelines are not the universe's. 

Vonnegut's novel offers two ways of experiencing time's nonlinearity. Billy Pilgrim is unstuck at time; he is shunted at random to different moments of his life. Like the rest of us, he experiences these moments singly, albeit not sequentially. The Tralfamadoreans are more advanced: they choose which moments to live in, concentrating on the more pleasant ones, like a habitual re-reader who opens a favorite book to whatever passage she's in the mood for.  But they too experience one moment at a time.

Recently an alternate possibility occurred to me -- perhaps a more comprehensive way of grasping that the arrow of time is an illusion.  We experience time as a sequence of moments -- and that experience is real, even if the sequence itself is a figment of our limited perception. What if there are so to speak an infinite number of each of us, eternally experiencing every moment (singly, subdivided infinitely..) of our lives?  If I were to die five seconds from now, nothing would stop: each moment in which I experience myself on a particular point on my own timeline continues to exist, and each is always and eternally experienced. There is no universally shared 'when' that makes one moment more present than another  -- time is completely relative within our own experience, with a moment experienced as past only from a "later" moment in which it is remembered. Each moment is no less present than the house around the corner that I can't see, and there is no change in the way it is (was) experienced.

This possibility has haunted me ever since the thought struck; it rings true to me, and it's not particularly reassuring. It seems that my hopes and working assumptions are tied to the idea of continuous progress, of always moving up, or at least on.  For all my agnosticism, I am wed to the prospect of a posthumous moment at least of release, insight, debriefing with 'the one presumed to know', whoever, s/he might be.  The notion of my existence as bound by time -- finite, even if its end does not imply a "future" nonexistence -- is only marginally more reassuring than the notion of a finite life that "progresses" to nonexistence. 

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