Looking at time

Greek mythology described three goddesses called the Moirae, or the Fates. They were responsible for the lifespan of each person. One of the fates spun the thread of life, the second measured the thread, and the third cut it. They decided how long a life would be and how it would end. People who feel helpless about their lives, who feel that everything is decided for them by outside forces, are still called “fatalistic.”

To spin and measure a life and determine its end, the Fates had to work outside the stream of time. They could see every life from beginning to end, being able to measure that life and cut it at the end. More recent writers have also imagined beings that could see human lives outside of time. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, describing beings from another planet who saw time the way we see space. When they looked at one of us, they saw our entire lifespan, from beginning to end. Vonnegut called himself a Free-thinker; he was not a Christian. He found comfort in the thought that every person lasts forever in the universe as a glowing thread that runs through time. That permanent life might exist entirely in the past, but Vonnegut proposed that the past life still exists from some points of view, making that person immortal in one sense of the word.

Vonnegut was not fatalistic, though, about that lifespan. The value of a permanent life, preserved as a thread through time, was found in the choices made by each individual during the duration of that thread of time. If we imagine someone—God, or the Fates, or beings from another planet—seeing our lives from outside of time, knowing what we will do before we do it because they can see it already done, that knowledge does not rob us of our freedom. We make choices, steering our lives through time. We are free, because knowledge of what we will choose is not power that forces us to choose what is already known by someone who exists outside of time.

To be “outside of time” is difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine. We still think of beings outside of time of having their own timespan while observing our timespan. But, outside of time, before and after do not exist. All events are seen in one gaze or glance. Time, like space, exists insofar as it is measured. We measure a distance between two objects and define that space, whether it is as tiny as the space between an electron and a nucleus in an atom or as large as the observable universe from one end to the other. We measure emptiness or void in space, but we cannot measure the nothing that exists outside of space. Likewise, we measure time between two events, but we cannot measure time outside of events. No time existed before the “Big Bang,” or before God said, “Let there be light.” To ask what existed before the Big Bang or what God was doing before he began to create is nonsense; there is not empty or void time before time begins—there is only nothing.

But, if our lives are viewed from outside of time, the viewer can also see imaginary time. The viewer can see where we would have gone in our lives if we had made different choices. We see the road we traveled in the past; looking right and left, we glimpse other possibilities that we have not visited. The viewer outside of time sees the entire landscape, all the things that could have been in the past and present and future, things that were not and are not and never will be.

Fatalistic people deny that freedom. To them, only the road exists. They might blame God or the Fates for their journey; they might blame their inheritance (coded in their DNA) and the limitations of their situation in life, or the traumas that they endured in childhood. Fatalistic philosophers claim that we have no freedom. Clearly, we exist under many limitations. We must breathe to survive; we must eat and drink; we must rest and exercise. We can be only one place at any given time. We cannot levitate (although we can make machines that lift us into the air and that even fly us from place to place). The Fates, or God, or the laws of the universe place parameters around our existences; but they do not deny us all freedom. If we had no freedom, God would not make commandments telling us what to do and what not to do. If we had no freedom, governments would not make laws and punish people for breaking those laws.

Sometimes people claim to be helpless, unable to stop themselves from sinning or from breaking the government’s laws. They blame their DNA, their childhood, their environment. Their defenders say that people should not be punished for crime; they should be rehabilitated. Jail is for correction, not for revenge. The legal system recognizes a certain level of helplessness called insanity. The insane (according to legal judgment) are not in control and cannot be punished for their crimes. Still, for the protection of society and for their own protection, they must be restrained and kept from breaking more laws.

Debate continues about freedom and predestination. Some believers insist that, because God is Almighty, whatever happens is what God wanted to happen. People who refuse to believe in God are unbelievers because God made them that way. Others say that faith is a choice. God forces no one to believe; his Judgment is based upon the way individual people used their freedom, whether they used it to trust God and follow his plan, or used it to deny God and reject his plan. Yet other believers hold to a paradox called “election.” While people are free, they are unable to come to God under their own power. Without God’s help, they are dead in sin, enemies of God, incapable of coming to him. By his power, God brings the dead to life. He grants saving faith and gives individuals the power to obey his commands, starting with the commandment to believe his promises. Those who are made alive are free; they can remain alive, or they can choose death. But on Judgment Day, all the saved will credit God with their salvation, acknowledging that they could not be God’s people without his help. On Judgment Day, all the lost will accept the blame for their rejection of God. They chose their rebellion; they preferred death to life.

In other matters, though, people are free. The clothes we choose to wear are not predestined by God or by nature and nurture. The acts of kindness we perform or fail to perform—and the acts of cruelty and neglect we perform or choose not to perform—are all free choices we make as we travel our timestream. Sometimes we face big decisions; many other times, paths we might prefer are closed to us. Sometimes the little choices we make change more than we expected. We cannot see the future. We cannot even see the present with all its possibilities. We live in time and we move through time; the flow of time is one dimension of our lives. J.

More choices, please

The thought that led to yesterday’s post somehow slipped my mind while I was typing yesterday. I wanted to complain that my computers’ software often seems to offer too few choices to fit the situation. For example, at work I will sometimes get a message on the screen that says, “This program is slow to respond. What do you want to do?” The only two choices are “quit” and “wait.” What if I don’t want to do either? Why isn’t “jump off the roof” one of the choices? Or, “throw computer out the winder”? How about “eat chocolate”? That would be an acceptable alternative to choosing between “quit” and “wait.”

Another blogger commented on my post about the way we adjust to technology when technology is supposed to make life easier for us. One of my coworkers has commented that every time our computer systems are improved, it takes more clicks and commands to accomplish the same tasks. Part of the cause of that problem is too many choices. But “eat chocolate” is still, somehow, missing from the programming.

The QWERTY keyboards that we all use were invented for mechanical typewriters. The most common letters are kept distant from each other to reduce the likelihood of key jams. For roughly forty years we have been using digital keyboards without keys to jam. Yet no one has successfully introduced a new keyboard with a more intuitive arrangement of letters. We all learned the QWERTY locations, and we keep teaching them to the next generation.

Many robots are designed to go places where the human body cannot go, places too small or dangerous for a human worker. Many other robots have a humanoid design. My son (a mechanical engineer) explains that robot designers often follow the human form, not because it is better, but because the robots are expected to go the same places where humans go. Therefore, they need to be able to do the same things, such as climb steps or place objects at a certain height.

When I submit a book to Kindle for publication, a number of steps have to be followed. At one point, the automation requires several steps, and they take a few minutes to complete. The suggestions on the screen go beyond “quit” and “wait”: they recommend getting a cup of coffee or making a sandwich. This is not artificial intelligence at work; this is the cleverness of human programmers who understand that the work they do is for humans and not for machines.

We remain in control. The computers exist to serve our needs, not the other way around. And “throw the computer out the window” will always be an option, even if the computer does not realize that it is so. J.

Long hair and Lynda

I have not had a haircut since December. Usually I get a summer cut in May—get my hair off my neck and away from my ears and generally short enough to be comfortable in the summer heat. But everything was closed in May. Even now, in the last days of July, I haven’t bothered to try to schedule a haircut. Most men around me have had their hair shortened this summer. I don’t know how many made appointments with professionals and how many are sporting a home cut. I may try for a home cut this weekend. Time will tell.

My hair is probably longer now than it ever has been. This week I tried to see if that is the case, looking back in high school and college yearbooks. There may have been a time during my second year of college when my hair was almost as long is it is now. It’s hard to say, but I think my hair is longer now.

Finding my portrait among my high school classmates, I happened to notice Lynda’s portrait. We have the same last initial (or did when we were in high school), so of course our portraits were on the same page. We also sat near each other for freshman math class—for the same reason, because the math teacher assigned us desks in alphabetical order. I remember noticing Lynda in that freshman math class—in fact, I noticed Lynda many times during the four years we were in high school. We never dated. We never had any long meaningful conversation. If she sensed that I liked her, I gather she didn’t feel the same about me. Nor did she ever make a point of telling me that she didn’t like me. We were just part of the scenery for each other during those difficult adolescent years of secondary education.

Having seen and noticed, Lynda’s high school picture, my mind added her to a dream last week. In fact, I remember part of that dream in which I was introducing her to my parents and other family members. Usually my mind works the other direction—it pops a person from the past into a dream, someone I haven’t thought about in years, and then that person remains on my mind for the next several days. This time, at least I have a reason to have dreamed about a long-lost acquaintance. But, after that brief glance at one photograph, followed by a dream, I have been thinking more about Lynda and about high school in general.

Last night I pulled out my high school yearbook for senior year and looking up pictures of Lynda. (I hadn’t bothered looking at that volume earlier, because I knew my hair was shorter senior year than earlier in high school.) I saw photographs and Lynda and me in the National Honor Society. I saw photographs of Lynda working on the school newspaper. I saw Lynda’s senior portrait and other graduation pictures. Many years have passed since I’ve seen Lynda, but her high school pictures remain unchanged.

One of the novels I have considered writing at times over the past twenty years would be set at a high school reunion. The main character and his wife would find themselves seated at a table with another man who looked much like the main character and also had the same name. But the main character and his doppelganger would have taken different paths in high school, gone to different colleges, followed different careers, and would have married different women and raised different families. This novel idea is loosely based on my own experiences—specifically a choice I made my sophomore year of high school when I did not have enough time to work for the student newspaper and also take part in the spring musical production.

Even though I wanted then to be a writer, I chose to abandon the newspaper and stay with the musical production. That, perhaps, has made all the difference. Most of my enduring friendships from high school have been with people involved in the spring musical productions. My writing career has largely been limited by other professional obligations. Many things in my life might have turned out very differently if I had stayed with the newspaper and dropped the musical. One of those things is that Lynda and I might have become close friends… might have dated… might have stayed in touch after high school graduation, maybe even attended the same college… might have gotten married. The list of possibilities is endless.

I never featured Lynda in any short stories. I never wrote a song for her. Aside from yearbooks, I haven’t kept a picture of her. And, unlike other schoolmates I have remembered and researched, I cannot find Lynda on the Internet. I’ve searched her name in various ways, and the most I have found is the same yearbook photographs I already have.

It could be a great work of fiction, though. What if, somewhere out there, Lynda has suddenly started remembering me and thinking about me? What if she wonders what ever happened to me and what I have accomplished since high school? If the two of us could time-travel and communicate with those awkward teen selves, what changes (if any) might we recommend to them? And, after all this time, what difference, at this point, does it make? J.