Sir Isaac Newton was perhaps one of the most influential scientists of all time. His laws of gravity and motion set the stage for a revolution in physics beginning in the nineteenth-century. The mechanistic Newtonian physics advanced our understanding of the motions of celestial bodies and physical objects. He envisioned a “clockwork” universe in which all of space could be mapped out in three dimensions and all clocks in the universe would tick at the same rate. According to this model speeds should add up—i.e. a bullet fired forward from a fast-moving car should have a higher velocity than one fired backward. If light behaved similarly then one would expect that when the Earth was moving towards a distant star, the light from the star would reach Earth more quickly than when the Earth was moving away from the star.
However, a crucial experiment conducted by Michelson and Morley in 1887 demonstrated that light did not behave as Newton and other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientists expected. These scientists used a sensitive interferometer that could detect very slight differences in the speed of light that would be expected if their instrument was directed towards or away from a light source. It turned out that the speed of light was a constant no matter which way their instrument was pointed demonstrating that light unlike other moving objects violated the rule that speeds should be additive.
Albert Einstein realized that if the speed of light was a constant no matter what point of reference was used, then something else had to change to account for its constancy. He sensed that this “something” must be space itself. He proposed that space could flex and change, become compressed or expanded according to the relative motion of an object and an observer. The only constant was the speed of light itself or an integrated four-dimensional fabric he called space-time. These insights led to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which states that the universe has four dimensions—the three of space: width, length, and height—and one of time. Time is not a separate dimension in this scheme, but is fully integrated with the three spatial dimensions. Hence, each of the four dimensions of space-time has a spatial and temporal component, which is required from the fact that both space and time are relative to the state of motion. Einstein theorized that with motion, space shrinks and time dilates, while for an object at rest, the movement through space-time is in time alone.
Einstein’s equations indicated that the faster an object moves, the slower the passage of time and the more mass it gains. Ultimately, at the speed of light, time stops. However, for matter it would be impossible to attain this speed since it would require all the mass-energy of the universe. Subsequent experiments have proven Einstein’s theories about space, time, energy, and mass to be correct. For example, the decay of an unstable subatomic particle that is accelerated near the speed of light in a particle accelerator is much longer than when it is stationary. Secondly, such particles gain the exact amount of mass predicted by the theory as they race in the accelerator near the speed of light.
However, a massless particle such as a photon, which carries electromagnetic radiation (e.g. light), can move at the speed of light and its internal clock is stopped and hence it will not decay like other particles. Nevertheless, the equations of Einstein show that even for light there is a speed limit that cannot be exceeded.
Einstein’s second theory of relativity, termed the general theory of relativity, describes gravity as a geometric property of space-time. This theory predicted that gravity distorts space-time. The more massive the object the more it distorts or curves space and “pulls” or slows time. If the mass of an object is small then this curvature is minuscule and Einstein’s equations describing how space-time is curved by mass become the same as Newton’s equation describing gravity. The curvature of space-time caused by a massive object also causes light passing near that distant object to bend. This prediction has been verified experimentally, as has the existence of black holes—objects with such tremendous gravitational force that nothing can escape their pull, including light.
Several startling and unusual consequences arise from this modern model of the universe. The most important, from our point of view, is the realization that four-dimensional space-time cannot change in time. All events that have occurred in the past or will happen in the future are already there within this four-dimensional continuum. Events could be compared to seeds in a watermelon, positioned in fixed locations in the four dimensions of space-time. Since space-time cannot change in time or in space, it means that our everyday experience of the flow of time from the past to the present to the future is illusory.
This modern scientific view of space and time is called “block time.” Space-time is absolute and unchanging, much like Newton’s three-dimensional space. As human beings, we have the perception that things change in time, but this is because we lack the four-dimension insight that would be required for us to see the totality of all past, present, and future played out before us.
Einstein’s special theory of relativity with its mathematical description of a four-dimensional space-time continuum has been verified by numerous experimental observations and predictions made by the theory have proven correct and highly accurate. It is undoubtedly one of the most important scientific discoveries made in the last thousand years. Many of today’s technological advances (e.g., the GPS system) depend on the relative mechanics that are derived from the theory. However, what it says about the nature of reality is both mindboggling and revolutionary. The model is in perfect agreement with the basic idea underlying the spiritual worldview—namely, that beneath this ever-changing realm of human experience lies a deeper, singular and unchanging realm of reality.
The implications of the modern model of the universe are enormous, and most scientists today apparently fail to comprehend what this new vision of reality implies. One might even wonder if Einstein understood the implications of his discovery and what it says about scientific epistemology. It is as though there is an “elephant in the room,” and scientists choose not to see it. Perhaps this is because it describes an all-encompassing timeless domain of which our perceived three-dimensional world is merely a shadow. This speaks of an “other worldly” or metaphysical view of reality similar to that proposed by Plato and many other philosophers and prophets; and accepting this the “true reality” would thoroughly destroy the materialistic worldview that most scientists embrace.
In our normal waking state of consciousness, we are clearly incapable of witnessing all four dimensions of space-time. We are accustomed to living in three dimensions and perceive time flowing by. This is the working principle that we live by, but mystics throughout the ages have described reality exactly like that described by modern science. Mystics, no matter what their religious background have unanimously affirmed that our common perception that time flows like water under a bridge is illusory. When the mystic has entered into a state called samadhi in which their mind is merged with Cosmic Mind they may be witness to all time—i.e. past, present, and future. Take for example this description by Acharya Chandranath Kumar in the excellent book, When the Time Comes by Devashish.
“A person can take their mind two hundred years into the future and describe what is going to happen then. They can take their mind two hundred years back and describe what they see…It is a fact that there is no such thing as the present. The present is merely the conjunction of past and future…the connecting point of past and future.”1
An important question is what happens to the concept of free will if future events are already determined. Can there be free will if the future is already “written”? The mystic answers that humans make decisions on how to act and do not know how events will unfold. It is though we are actors in a movie and do not know the script. For us every moment is new and we decide how to react to life’s events. For example, an event such as a flood damages your house and that of your neighbors. We are free to retreat in self-pity or grow by helping others recover from the disaster. Humans have total freedom as to how they focus their mind and direct their energies. On the other hand, the director of the movie, God, knows exactly how the script will be played out. Everything takes place within his field of knowledge (mind) in the eternity of the now.
If this topic interests you and you would like to know more of why modern science validates the spiritual worldview please pick up my book: The Nonlocal Universe, Why Science Validates the Spiritual Worldview2 (available from Amazon.com or BN.com, print or electronic version).
- Devashish, When the Time Comes, Conversations with Acharya Chandranath Kumar(InnerWorld Publications, San German, Puerto Rico, 1998) 165-6.
- Steven L. Richheimer, The Nonlocal Universe, Why Science Validates the Spiritual Worldview (InnerWorld Publications, San German, Puerto Rico, 2016).