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Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI


Part I: Time and Eternity: Creation and the Theory of Relativity

Chapter 2

The Relativity of Time in Experience

     THE DISTINCTION in the Theory of Relativity between its physical and psychological aspects is a very subtle one and at times difficult to maintain. Yet the distinction is vital. In a paper entitled "Some Points in the Philosophy of Physics: Time, Evolution, and Creation," E. A. Milne sets out to demonstrate that reality is so structured as to make it possible for two events in the universe to be given two quite different temporal orientations by two different observers. He points out that two events separated by a certain length of time may be experienced by one observer in quite rapid succession and by another observer with a considerable interval between them. But he is not thinking in psychological terms. This is a strictly physical possibility because of the nature of the universe. To use his own words, (9)

     You can say "was" or "is" at your choice. There is no difference in the two propositions until an observer is mentioned. In any one observer's worldwide present, for whom Creation "was" so many years ago, we can always specify events the observers at which reckon creation as arbitrarily close to "is". . . .
     To summarize, the passage of time is a definite part of the experience of each individual, and from it may be constructed both time measures and space measures. . . .  Different individuals assign different epochs and different distances to the same event, and the relation between the epochs they assign is perfectly definite for any two observers (in uniform relative motion) who stand in the same relation to the rest of the Universe.

     There is, therefore, a certain form of psychological relativity which is, however, quite objective and contingent upon position and speed. This is quite distinct from that kind of relativity of time which we associate with various forms of psychological excitement or anxiety. Certain drugs can radically upset the individual's time sense;

9. Milne, E. A., "Some Points in the Philosophy of Physics: Time, Evolution and Creation", Smithsonian Institution Annual Report for 1933, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D. C., 1935, Publication #3265, p.236.

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hypnosis will do the same. Philosophically, it seems probable that some forms of animal life "experience" a much slower sense of the passage of time. There is some reason to believe that the time sense of children, of men, and of women may be somewhat different. In pain and in dreams there are disturbances of the time sense which may be very marked. And some less developed cultures appear, for reasons which are worth examining, to have developed a time sense that is very confusing to the more sophisticated Westerner.
     All these are commonly thought of as bearing upon the Theory of Relativity. And while there is a sense in which they do, there is an even more fundamental sense in which they do not. In all these cases the assumption is made that there is an absolute flow of time which the individual by reason of some special circumstance experiences in accelerated or slowed up form. The important presupposition is that time does flow absolutely and independently. This common assumption is what has to be laid aside before the real meaning of the Theory of Relativity can be grasped. And the final conclusions of this paper will not be really understood until this is achieved.
     It is, however, worthwhile examining some of these psychological aspects, because they will make it a little easier to grasp the meaning of what we are trying to bring out from Scripture on the difference between time and eternity.

     It is well known, of course, that drugs bring a temporary disorientation in the time sense. This has been found to be particularly true for alcoholics, and according to Lester Gliedman, accounts in part for the alcoholic's helplessness. (10) This takes the form of a kind of fragmentation of time so that experience becomes discontinuous and past experience bears no relationship to the present whatever. It is a curious fact that many primitive people share this view. For example, a native who has done some damage to a public building may be punished with a fine. But having no money at the time of conviction, the colonial administrator may deem it necessary to have a deduction made from the man's wages at the end of the month. This quite often outrages the moral sense of the native community, it being held unjust to punish a man today for something he did two weeks ago: he is not the same man and should not be held responsible. There is here, in both instances, a tendency to live consciously in the immediate present, and the effect of this not unnaturally is to render the individual indifferent to the possible demands of the future as well as lessons to be learned from the past. With native

10. Gliedman, Lester H., "Temporal Orientation and Alcoholism," in Alcoholism, Alcoholism Research Foundation, vol.3, no.3, April, 1956, p.11

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people, this accounts for some of their apparent improvidence.
     We tend to think of time as something which binds experience in such a way as to make events which are separated by days or weeks part of a whole experience. Thus the experiences of the past are considered to have a bearing on the present in a very direct way. This is what we really mean by a "sense of responsibility," i.e., the present influences the future because it is part of the future. There is no discontinuity. We have no difficulty in thinking of several days as an unbroken unit of time, such as a week. But people like the Hopi do not habitually view experience in this way. They will readily speak of ten men, because one can have ten men at one time.
(11) But they would not speak of ten days because you can have only one day at one time. However, within this one day, everything is "now," even though by our standards it may be later in the afternoon, for example. So that when a native says, "I'll do it now," he doesn't mean what we mean by "now." He means sometime during the day -- if his unit of time is a day. If his unit of time is a week, "doing it now" may very well mean doing it sometime during the coming week by our standards. If his unit of time is a day and he doesn't intend to do it today (i.e., "now"), he probably won't even think about it. Hence his apparent improvidence.
     In some so-called primitive societies, this habit of living "in the present" is extended to mean that action planned for the future is in effect being done now. This can be highly disconcerting to the Westerner who finds it difficult to put too much trust in what his fellowmen say they are going to do in the future. A good illustration of the confusion which such ways of thinking can create is given by Melvin Kyle, who tells the following story:

     A desert traveller went with a missionary friend to visit one of the 10,000 mud villages in the valley of the Nile. The night was not a restful one in a native home. The next morning the traveller wished to return as soon as possible to the boat on the Nile. The missionary, however, knowing the demands of courtesy, insisted that they must not go until after breakfast, but expressed the hope that breakfast might be expedited. "Oh," said the host, "breakfast is just ready." One hour and a half after that time by the traveller's watch, a match was struck to kindle the fire to cook the breakfast. And sometime later still, a cow was driven into the court of the house to be milked to provide the milk to cook the rice to make the breakfast. Was the host

11. Hoijer, Harry, "The Relation of Language to Culture" in A. L. Kroeber, Anthropology Today, University of Chicago Press, 1953, p.562. See also Benjamin Lee Whorf, "Collected Papers on Metalinguistics," published by Dept. of State, Foreign Service Institute, Washington, D.C., 1952; and also Language, Thought and Reality, edited by John B. Carroll, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wiley, New York, 1956.
12. Kyle, Melvin G., quoting Edward Mack on the "Chronology of the Old Testament," in an article appearing in Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. I, 1831, p.644.

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untruthful? Not at all; he did not reckon by time, but by events. He had no way of determining the passage of time. When he said, "Breakfast is just ready," he meant it was the next thing in the household economy, that they would do nothing else until that thing was done, and that everything done was to that end. That is to say he reckoned only by events.

     This is interestingly reflected in our word presently, which in Shakespeare's time quite logically meant "in the present," i.e., "right now," but has come to mean "sometime in the future" � indeed in the distant future! A similar concept is to be found in the Hebrew of the Old Testament which did not have a distinct verbal form for the future tense. The present tense is used, as a rule: but the past tense is used for the future when God is declaring what is to come. It is as though the certainty of it rendered it already done. It is spoken of by Hebraists as the "prophetic perfect." In one way this is not so strange, because we sometimes find ourselves doing the same thing: we may say, for example, "I am going to see the dentist tomorrow," using a present tense for a future action.
     But this is really only a manner of speaking, whereas among primitive people and apparently among alcoholics it is a characteristic habit of thought. Life is lived in the present with very little consciousness, most of the time, of either the past or the future. It would be invidious to imply any real parallelism, yet one supposes this must be somewhat the manner in which animals "experience" time.
     An interesting case of the unconscious slowing-up of normal physiological processes in the presence of an excess atmosphere of carbon dioxide was witnessed when Major David G. Simons made his remarkable balloon ascent to the altitude of 102,000 feet. At one point, his physical condition was noted to be deteriorating because he was found to be speaking over the intercom system at only one fourth his usual speed. Major Simons was apparently quite unaware of this change in tempo, and one may therefore assume that his experience of the passage of time was being remarkably modified by the presence of the carbon dioxide acting in conjunction with considerable psychological stress.
     Under hypnosis � as under the influence of drugs such as hashish or opium � the time sense may be shortened or extended almost unbelievably. L. F. Cooper of the University of Georgetown suggested to a hypnotized patient that a metronome beating once per second was actually beating at a lower rate and showed that it was possible for the patient to accept the new time scale and fit it into

13. Simons, Maj. David G., "A Journey No Man Has Taken", Life Magazine, 2 Sept., 1957, p.19ff.

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her dreams. Thus the passage of a few minutes was extended to hours. In one dream lasting three seconds, the patient imagined that eighty minutes had passed, during which interval she was able to pick and count 862 bolls of cotton. (14) It is generally agreed that a person who is awake could not possibly count 862 of anything, even in imagination, within an interval of only three seconds, in spite of the extraordinary feats of some mathematicians who can make extended calculations in their own minds in a remarkably short time.
     There is plenty of evidence that most dreams last only a few seconds, yet much often transpires during this interval � far more than can possibly be recounted afterwards in the same length of time. Almost everyone has had the experience of lying awake in the dark and finding that time passes terribly slowly. Recent experiments have demonstrated that the sense of time is modified in the dark. Signals given to an observer were estimated to have been more widely spaced in time than they actually were.
     When we consider the time experienced by animals, we are, of course, unable to do much more than philosophize. But it must surely be true that a creature that lives only for a day experiences a full lifetime of childhood, youth, middle age, and senility. Just what form its consciousness takes is impossible for us to know. But if its momentary experience is always one of the immediate present, then its lifetime may be experientially longer than ours. Interesting papers have been written which suggest that cold-blooded animals may in fact, experience the passage of time as slow or fast, depending upon environmental temperatures. For example, carrying this situation to the extreme, when the temperature is low enough for such creatures, a state of suspended animation sets in and all experience of the passage of time must come completely to a halt. This concept is explored in an intriguing way by C. B. Goodhart of Cambridge, in an article entitled "Biological Time."
     LeComte du Nouy has explored the possibility that the passage of time as experienced by children and men and women may be rather different.
(17) He suggests, in fact, that time is much longer for children and much shorter for men. A child's "wait" is a long one. A man's wait is somewhat reduced. And then he suggests the

14. Cooper, L. F., "Trance Slows Down Time", reported in Science News Letter, May 15, 1948, p.311.
15. Kafka, John S., "A Method for Studying the Organization of Time Experience," in American Journal of Psychiatry, vol.114, no. 6, Dec., 1957, p. 546-53.
16. Goodhart, C. B., Discovery, Dec., 1957, pp.519-21
17. du Nouy, Lecomte, Human Destiny, Longmans Green, New York, 1947 p.208. 

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provocative idea that a woman's "wait" is scarcely conscious at all. This is manifestly an exaggeration, but his point is that whereas a man is governed by clocks and other logical fragmentations of the day, a woman's life is governed much more by cycles � a month, nine months, and so forth. For her, the interval tends to be overshadowed by the next event, so that in preparing for it she may often attend to the completion rather than to the time of preparation, and say "I'm coming" as though she meant at once, while the man, with his different time sense, becomes fretful over the interval.
     There is a slight extension of these thoughts which has interesting possibilities, though it may be a misleading one. To a creature that lives only for a day, the events of geological ages would be almost equal to an "infinity" of time. To man, whose life span is so much greater, these events took long enough to complete, yet he is capable of mentally measuring the time in a kind of a way, immense though it is. If there were some creature with a life span of twenty thousand years and this creature were capable of consciously viewing geological ages, the process would perhaps not seem so long. If we carry this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion, we would have to assume that for God, who lives in eternity, the whole process could be reduced to a matter of minutes, perhaps even seconds, perhaps even instantaneous.
     What has been said here with respect to the passage of time since the Creation can be applied in the same way to the size of the universe. In this connection, although the quotation does not directly contribute to our thesis, it is interesting to note the following observation by the Victorian essayist Ambrose Bierce, written long before Einstein's time:

     Magnitude being purely relative, nothing is large and nothing small. If everything in the universe were increased in bulk one thousand diameters, nothing would be any larger than they had been. To an understanding familiar with the relativity of magnitude and distance, the spaces and masses of the astronomer would be no more impressive than those of the microscopist. For anything we know to the contrary, the visible universe may be a small part of an atom, with its component ions, floating in the life-fluid (luminiferous ether) of some animal. Possibly the wee creatures peopling the corpuscles of our own blood are overcome with the proper emotion when contemplating the unthinkable distance from one of these to another.

      With respect to pain, it appears that the time sense may be disoriented almost completely. In this case, it is not a shortening of time, but a lengthening of it. It was found during World War II that

18. Bierce, Ambrose: quoted by E. L. Hawke, in a written communication for the discussion of a Paper by F. T. Farmer, "The Atmosphere: Its Design and Significance in Creation", Transactions of the Victoria Institute, vol. 71, 1939, p.54-55.  

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when a prisoner was captured and tortured for information, the sufferer could survive the ordeal somewhat more successfully if in some way the sense of time was not lost. It was, in fact, held by some of those who had reason to know that if a man could survive the first few minutes of torture, he could not be made to talk by any further application of it. The problem for the sufferer was to know within himself how long he had been suffering, and so in the underground movement in World War II, those who ran great risks of being captured and so treated were encouraged to begin counting, if it was at all possible, as soon as torture was applied. It appears that maintaining the time sense had a profound effect upon the capacity of the individual to survive the ordeal. In the absence of the time sense, it often seemed at the end of the first few seconds as though the suffering had been endured interminably, and all hope of holding out was abandoned almost at once. Punishment may be endless if the sense of time is lost, because the sufferer has no hope that the end is near.
     For three hours the Lord suffered on our behalf on the Cross (Luke 23:44). In this interval He assumed total responsibility for every wicked thing, every murderous thought, every selfish desire: that has ever been committed since man was created and that ever will be committed to the end of time. And this He did for those who should accept or who had by anticipation accepted this sacrifice on their behalf. In this interval, One for whom an evil thought or a wicked act was utterly remote, was tortured with the ultimate responsibility for man's wickedness. But our clocks deceived us. For He who was God-made-man lived continually outside of time, as many Bible passages show. Those "three hours" were, for Him, a continuing present that amounted to an eternity.

     And this brings us to one final thought in this section. The sense of time is undoubtedly impressed most keenly upon the consciousness of the man for whom things have most meaning, for time is the fourth dimension of things. It may well be that in primitive cultures which possess less of the material wealth, but compensate for this by having a greater social consciousness (a kind of a wealth of the spirit), are for this very reason less aware of the passage of time. One might suppose that in some sense spiritual growth is paralleled by a sort of "timelessness" � indeed, for those who are saved when they are young there is a measure of eternal youth. But this leads us into the spiritual aspects of the Theory of Relativity, which are the subject of a later section.

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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