Our Story in Time

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Our Story in Time

Heather Davis

If our perception of time can successfully be challenged, the implications are huge. The story of evolution, which is supported by our observations and is largely becoming accepted as truth, conflicts with most religious stories. The story of evolution, like many other scientific stories, is changing the story of religion. If God did not really create the earth in seven days, the days must be symbolic or represent time on a different scale. If God did not create the human species in the beginning and designate us to rule the earth, perhaps he set the ball rolling, knowing what was to come.* The story told by religion seems to be accommodating more and more to the story of evolution. Do these stories have to be mutually exclusive?

Both stories are embedded in time. They are explanations of our existence based on history. An explanation outside of time is the only way that I can understand the supernatural to coexist with the natural, without denying facts or excessively accommodating for them. Can we think of an answer to the great question, "Why are we here?" without explaining it in terms of time? Can we even ask the question without wondering "Where did we come from? How did we get here?" or similar questions bounding our reality within time? Can we think of any story outside of time? This is a huge question that I do not pretend to be able to answer. But, through an exploration of our understanding and use of the concept of time, I hope to confuse our conception. It may be hard to truly imagine breaking the confines of time until we gain a better understanding by emerging ourselves in it, questioning it, and messing it up.

Before we examine the possibility of a story told outside of time, it is valid to question the existence of a reality before it can be thought, and thoughts, before they must be effectively communicated, outside of time. There seems to be three different questions that need to be addressed. Is there a reality outside of time? Can we think outside of the constraint of time? And, can we communicate without the concept of time? It seems that we need to address the first question first. It does not matter if there is a reality without time if we are not able to think about it. Before we can talk about communicating outside of the concept of time, we must first examine if there is such a reality that would be able to be communicated. If reality is truly bounded by time, it would be purposeless or perhaps impossible to tell a story without it. However, perhaps without our story there can be no reality without time. As our stories change, so does reality. A reality without time, and consequentially a complementary explanation for our existence, in fact depends on our stories.

Humans are storytellers. Unlike other species, we have the ability to reflect on our thoughts, and tell stories about our actions. Because we can choose to interpret our observations in different ways, we can choose how to act, change the way we think, and have control over our destinies. Not only do we have the power to make understandings out of our observations of reality, but also we have power to transform reality according to our understanding of what could be. With our power to imagine what is not, we can create things that would otherwise not appear. We have imagined that people could communicate overseas instantaneously before the invention of the telephone, that people could fly in the air before the invention of airplanes, and that large numbers of people could be killed instantly before the invention of the atomic bomb. Possibilities are endless. What will our imagination bring us next? Can we transcend time simply by imagining an existence without it?

When I was very young my younger brother bet me one hundred dollars that he would turn twenty-one before I did. This is nothing unique. Recently, my four-year-old cousin told me a story beginning with, "When I was six..." Is it that adults just have a better grasp on reality, or is an understanding of reality within time something that we acquire through socialization? Perhaps our thoughts are constrained by our reality.

When I try to tell a story, I immediately think of using language to communicate. Can I speak or write a story without time? "The roses are pretty. I like chocolate. Billy runs to the store." As much as I try to neutralize time, language seems to force it into the communication. Language as I know it requires verbs, which can only be spoken in a tense demonstrating time. If I communicate within language, it seems that I must communicate within time. Language in our society is the primary mode of communication, and may not only inhibit the types of stories we can tell, but contribute to our bounded understanding.

It is difficult to communicate a story without time even when not using language. Movies depict people moving around in time, but still stuck somewhere on its path. The method of telling a story may not be chronological, but even if the story is not told linearly, it still conveys events in a distinct time, and the observer pieces the parts together to make sense within the common understanding of time. We can also leave time out in the telling of a story. For example, a picture of a single instant in time can communicate what has transpired up until that point, and what will probably happen next. If we see an instant of a scene in which a distressed, battered-looking woman, across the room from a bloody man, is dialing a number on a phone of a bedside table, we can make a pretty good guess as to what has and is about to happen. Similarly, we can infer the story from a glimpse of a scene in which a man and women are sitting in a restaurant, with empty plates in front of them, and we see the man eyeing another woman at a bar, looking flushed with an empty glass in front of her. The storyteller does not need to tell us that they have just finished their meal and the woman her drink, and we can infer what may happen next. This story is told without time, but the story itself cannot exist without time. In both of these cases, although the person telling the story does not use time, the observer is expected to use their understanding of time to figure out the significance of the story. Time is implied.

I recently came across a comic story that used time in a very interesting way: http://www.scottmccloud.com/comics/carl/3b/cyoc.html. Starting with one moment in one person's life, the comic proceeds and diverges after different scenes showing many different things one moment could have led to. Then, at some points different paths will converge, leading to the same moment regardless of where he had been. Even though time still exists in this story, it seems to be a less rigid structure. This story plays with the idea of time, and makes me recall my own childhood image of my own understanding of time existing as only one of many that was going on at that moment. At the same time, on a different plane of existence, my future selves and past selves existed, as well as multiple current selves at different places depending on all the different paths I could be on. This understanding of time may acknowledge our limited view of time, but can do little to change it because our existence as a unique individual does not seem to exist outside of our understanding within time. Events, regardless of their brevity, have duration, which seem to necessitate a length, a progression, and a context in time. Can a story be told without events?

Perhaps what is restricting us is the way we're looking at it. Time is a way of ordering events like objects in space. We look at moments as directional. Perhaps this is a symptom of our mode of thinking. We have purpose and act intentionally in a way that encourages our goal. Perhaps our goal orientation perpetuates our understanding of time as a directional course of moments. Time is headed in a direction because we are.

Time does seem to be upheld by reality. Most things that occur can happen in reverse order. Thermodynamics by "law" cannot. The second law of thermodynamics states that systems tend to a state of higher disorder. Obviously, this tendency is a tendency over time. Perhaps this increasing disorder is the basis of our understanding of time. But disorder depends on perspective. If we look at a single particle, disorder, and consequently time, are irrelevant if not imaginary. Therefore, it is not reality, but only our picture of reality which requires time.

I do not have an answer to the conflict of the two stories we tell within our concept of time, but it is helpful to keep time in perspective, and to continue to play with it in order to change the reality that we understand.

*Although I imagine it has changed the stories of many religions, I will speak from a Western, Judeo-Christian perspective because it is what I am most familiar with.

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