The Arrow of Time

Staring into the blackness of deep space the light of ageing galaxies and celestial supergiants begins to fade. The very source of light in the universe is running dry and former blazing stellar fires are gradually turning to embers. Solar systems are flung out of orbit and galaxies consumed by black holes. The slow dimming of the last stars is a count down to an eternal night. The furnaces of life fizzle out as faint suggestions of all that went before in a cold and all encompassing darkness. Finally, the last remnants of matter disintegrate and disappear, leaving no clue that anything ever moved. Leaving no trace at all. Forever and ever.

This story of the End of Time is unique among myths about the end of the world in that it points towards a great and unalterable nothingness as the last thing to be. Contrary to cyclical mythologies it opens no door for rebirth or regeneration and unlike other linear mythologies it doesn’t offer an afterlife in some otherworld. As a cosmology it views existence and sentience as a fluke, a magnificent one, but one that shouldn’t really have happened considering the odds. As a narrative, it draws the Arrow of Time as the line between the Big Bang and the Heat Death of the Universe that holds all existence. Yet despite the simple narrative, it is the product of centuries of complex equations and thinking.

That is perhaps why it needs a Skilled and Credible Communicator to impart the more intricate details. With the help of a world-class production team and state-of-the-art graphics, the Communicator travels the globe in search of magnificent landscapes that can hold the grandeur of this story.

The programme ends with a graphical exploration of our Destiny in the Inevitable End much along the lines described above. Having passed through the Degenerate and the Black Hole Eras the universe tapers off in the Dark Era when subatomic particles and black holes have disappeared leaving nothing but emptiness.

Looking at this story from a narrative point of view, the strange thing is that it doesn’t actually have anything to say about what lies beyond the line that runs from beginning to end. It leaves us with an implied ‘forever and ever’ and wisely avoids making any rash statements about before and after. The theoretical ground on which this line is drawn simply runs out into the same emptiness in which the last atoms presumably will disappear. So although the line is drawn with inimitable skill and precision it contains a paradox which leaves more questions than answers. From nothing came everything and everything disappears back into nothing. It looks like a story that has come full circle. The linear story of time is held within a larger, circular narrative: if it is possible for everything to come from nothing once surely it is possible twice. There are theoretical differences as to the nature of the emptiness before and after but nothing it is.

No big deal. Everyone is allowed their own ideas about Time. The trouble with this particular story is that it recognise neither its own position as the Official Story nor does it keep within its own limits. It inadvertently becomes a totalising narrative: because of its particular method of story-telling it considers itself ‘real’ and writes off alternative stories as ‘myths’ despite the fact that it doesn’t do a better job at explaining what lies outside its plot of the Arrow. It doesn’t recognise its own storyness and dismisses any potential discomfort it may cause as mere sentimentality. And it refuses to acknowledge that if we don’t acknowledge the possibility of surprise and the larger mystery that our knowledge is set against, we end up with a rather bleak story. It dispels the enigmas of life as ‘unsolved problems’ and ultimately disenchants existence itself.

No big deal. We may never know how it all ends and we won’t live to experience it, so why not trust the expertise of the Skilled Communicator, the production team and the centuries of theorising to produce the best story? Although their story ends on a bleak note it is still one that inspires awe and wonder. One cannot but marvel at the beauty of life faced with the improbability of it ever happening. We get a sense of our size. Who cares if the universe fizzles out, is reborn in an eternal series of Big Bangs, or comes riding in on the back of a turtle? It doesn’t make a difference, the Sun will still rise tomorrow and the Earth is still round as a tennis ball. Most importantly, most of us still have to earn a living.

But it does make a difference and it is a Big Deal. Because this narrative is one which encompasses a whole cosmology, it is the scaffold on which we draw our worldviews, it ultimately creates a framework for how we relate to each other and perceive the unfolding of our lives and projects. Narrative matters: it holds a story of who we are and our relationships in and with the world. This narrative relegates life to the margins, it makes us strangers in the universe and gives us a sense of living on the fringe of the Whole Thing. The linear narrative all too easily cast differences as oppositional rather than relational. I’d like to explore this a little more. This could proceed in two ways.

A ‘hard’ rebuttal would show that the story is a simplification of a much more complex story and that theoretical physics is actually moving beyond this narrative. Such a line of argument would explain how the Skilled Communicator leaves out or de-emphasises crucial parts of a scientific understanding of time: that there is no absolute time, that time depends on where you are and how you move, that the theory of general relativity breaks down at the micro-scale and that ‘quantum gravity’ is showing that Time persists and has no beginning or end (it’s a different story when it comes to Space). It would bring in a Worthy Adversary to narrate the exciting tale of the pursuit of the Holy Grail of Physics. But I am not a physicist and this is not a dispute about entropy. My interest is in story-telling and the importance of narrative for how we view the world and our place within it. So allow me to explore another ‘soft’ route, which perhaps doesn’t afford the Splendour of Battle but brings Unintended Consequences into the perspective.

The narrative arc that holds the linear story is one which affords three general patterns for the unfolding of a story. One is that of Entropy: the bucket is full but a hole in the bottom ensures that it gradually is emptied. From Full Potential to None, this pattern includes the Fall and the Golden Age, replete with noble savages, degeneration and decadence. Another pattern goes in the opposite direction: the bucket is actually filling; it is full-filling its purpose. This is every Progressive story that exists including the Ascent of Man, the Perfection of Reason and the Glory of Growth in all its various forms. There is also a third kind of linear narrative which, if it was a political party, we could call Reformist as it combines the two plots. One that plugs the leaky bucket or knocks it over when it has become full: it moves from empty to full and back to empty. But the similar state of affairs at the beginning and the end is more like a ‘demolition’ than a ‘return’ because everything that happened in between start and finish is non-repeatable. Such a narrative is the Arrow of Time.

If we see narrative not only as an arc that holds a story but as a constellation of extended metaphors with implications which relate across and permeate all aspects of the story, we may begin to intuit what kind of cosmology the narrative expresses. The deeper assumptions about the world and the relationships between its characters. We see that although the Arrow is shot off with mighty power it inevitably falls from the sky and loses its propulsion. Renewal within this arc runs on non-renewable fuel with a hidden cost exacted in the future (when there will be less ‘energy to do work’). This pattern is reflected in the type of existence which inhabitants of this universe lead. The course of life shared by the characters in this narrative, is a rise towards glory at the height of their powers followed by a fall and subsequent oblivion in non-existence. The Death implied by this inclination can only be a shadow of the Life that preceded.

Because of the implicit valuing of being at the zenith of this curve, the life goals of these characters quickly focus on Staying on Top as long as possible and a struggle ensues, personally and collectively. For the majority, this implies a great deal of elbowing and psychological discomfort at not being where they want to be. Because each life is modelled as a singular line, it is difficult to really connect with others. The best our characters can do is to try and run along next to each other, there isn’t much Time for sitting still. If they do, the whole world might move on in the meantime. There isn’t much Time for anything really, least of all the Past which seems rather irrelevant compared to What Lies Ahead. These are some of the Unintended Consequences of the linear narrative. I am not going to pretend that this is the only story you can derive from the Arrow of Time but at least we get a sense of the kind of worlds it holds.

The point is that whether you tell a story of Entropy, Progress or Reform you are going to end up with looking ahead rather than looking around. The cognitive apparatus of your characters are going to be wired for anticipation and expectation. And yet The Thing They Are Waiting For never quite arrives. And What Is disappears from view, Reality fades into the distance replaced by… a story. So if everything is storied and we are just telling competing fables what’s the fuss? Well, if a story can make What Is and Reality disappear from view, isn’t that at least concerning? This is exactly why it is a Big Deal that the Arrow of Time dresses itself up as Real and discards other stories as Myth. Some stories carry more truth than others. And we desperately need stories that are anchored in Reality and tells us What Is. The thing is that you can’t ever tell What Is, except by pointing at it. And this is how we can distinguish Real Stories from Stories That Pretend To Be Real: they will never make any absolutist statements about What Is and certainly not about the nature of Time. They may show you what Time is by analogy or metaphor but they won’t make Big Statements about its essence.

Perhaps such a ‘soft’ approach to engaging with the story of the Arrow of Time opens up new avenues for exploring the role of narrative and story in how we see the world. I apologise for the polemic tone of this post, it kept sneaking back in despite attempts to weed it out – a bit of a bastard this became. I hope to have at least provided a few leads as to how this may work – if nothing else, the anchoring of the Arrow of Time in a particular narrative is hopefully clear. We can sense that narrative is directly related to how we see the world – it helps us to make sense of the world and has probably done so since we first gathered around a fire. Folk stories are plots that hold wisdom: tell us about some aspect of the world, or something about how the world is. They do so by embedding a moral or an insight into the narrative. This is why it may help us to see narrative as a constellation of extended metaphors. In the relations between characters and plot line, we find analogies which map onto our own lifeworld.

It is easy to see how the Progressive narrative is militating against Reality: there are limits in this world and we are overshooting them in every way. The Arrow of Time is not so obviously culpable but if we dig deeper we see that it ends up justifying exactly the same behaviour as the Progressive narrative: we live on the fringe of the universe so we are not all that important, life is essentially something that grows on matter, and we can do what we please because in the end it isn’t that significant. It relegates the Earth to the edges of Everything when there is no reason we shouldn’t perceive the Earth as the centre. Our centre, our home, our place, the beginning of any perspective on the world. We do live within something that is circular rather than linear after all. When we acknowledge the circles we live within we can move beyond repetition, we can jump circles and create new forms: spirals, double helixes, fractals. Repetition doesn’t have to be atavistic: it is also a key ingredient of renewal.

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