Lost in the Fourth Dimension

by Andrew Crumey

Review of Of Time And Lamentation by Raymond Tallis. Wall Street Journal, 3 August 2017.


'What is time?" St. Augustine wondered. "If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to whoever asks, I know not." He thought that only the present existed, but a millennium and a half later we learned that time is a fourth dimension, one that we might even travel in. According to Einstein, "For us believing physicists, the divide between past, present and future has only the significance of an illusion, albeit a stubborn one." Augustine would not have been happy with that claim, and Raymond Tallis isn't either. His massive philosophical study, "Of Time and Lamentation," aims at "rescuing time from the jaws of physics." It is a worthy goal and a persuasive argument.

Mr. Tallis, a retired physician and neuroscientist, says that we err when we think of time in spatial terms, as a dimension or line, and then take that image literally. We foresee the future and look back on the past, but that doesn't mean that last year is actually standing somewhere behind the present one or that the next is trundling toward us along some temporal track. After all, a heat wave may make thermometers soar but it doesn't set us wondering if we could travel through temperature. The fourth dimension of relativity - time - is an "imaginary" one, involving the square roots of negative numbers. It makes beautiful mathematical sense, but how does it relate to actuality? Is the universe really the bendy space-time so graphically presented to us in physics documentaries, or are those pictures as schematic and artificial as a graph of mortgage interest rates? Physicists insist on the reality of their equations, but if you spend your entire career working with something, no matter how intangible, it will get to feel pretty real.

This issue was raised over a century ago by the philosopher Henri Bergson, who suggested a simple experiment. Take a pin in one hand and prick it into the other, pressing gradually harder. You feel pain, of course; but is it a single sensation that grows in intensity or a succession of different ones: a tickle, a prod, a prick, an ouch? Bergson said that we fool ourselves into thinking it's the former when it's really the latter. Our perceptions are qualitative, not quantitative, he said - including our sense of time. In physics, every moment is an equivalent mathematical point. In life, every moment is unique.

Bergson was hugely famous and influential yet fell out of fashion, his theory of time supposedly made redundant by relativity. That was an error, Mr. Tallis argues, one that he now seeks to rectify. The issue is not one of objective versus subjective time: We all know that guessing how many minutes have passed during a boring film or a hot date is as difficult as estimating the height of a tree, the weight of a suitcase or the number of sweets in a jar. No, the issue is the claim made by Pythagoras, Galileo and most physicists today that ultimate reality is mathematical, all else being mere appearance or even, as Einstein suggested, illusion.

Mr. Tallis has no quarrel with the idea that clocks measure something real, so he has comparatively little to say about Bergson's English contemporary J.M.E. McTaggart, whose "proof" of the unreality of time nevertheless continues to figure in most philosophical discussions of the subject. Mr. Tallis almost seems to assume that the reader will know McTaggart's tricky argument already; he slips in references to McTaggart's "A" and "B" series (two possible ways of ordering events) like tiresome relatives one can't avoid but hopes won't stick around too long. Herbert Bradley, who had a different proof of time's unreality, is never mentioned at all; nor is J.W. Dunne, whose pseudoscientific theory of multiple time dimensions intrigued J.B. Priestley and Jorge Luis Borges. Mr. Tallis is more interested in ideas than personalities. He highlights the circularity of saying that time "passes" when there is nothing for it to pass through, or any stuff to flow, nor any pace for it to keep except "one second per second." Attempts to explain time merely disguise it surreptitiously as motion or change.

Mr. Tallis's original intention, 25 years ago, he says, was to write "a collection of short pieces of what I hoped would be poetic prose." By the late 1990s the project had become a 1,000-page novel, eventually discarded and by now "turning to peat." In 2009, he began what has finally appeared: a mere 700 pages, largely composed in various pubs. "Of Time and Lamentation" is the author's philosophical "argument with himself," often prolix and repetitive, even forgetful of its own train of thought: At one point the same passage of Kant is quoted twice, in full, within a single paragraph. It is a book of frustrations. Mr. Tallis ultimately admits: "I have been more successful in saying what time is not than what it is." But we know that in philosophy there are no answers, only old questions framed in new ways. For all its flaws, this is an absorbing book that will reward the patient reader with a deeper insight into the problem of time, if not its solution.

And what of eternity? To some it means endless time, to others something timeless. The latter was how Boethius conceived it, writing "The Consolation of Philosophy" as he awaited execution in 524. Boethius's idea is often pictured as someone looking down from a high mountain onto a desert plain where a caravan slowly crawls. Past, present and future are all simultaneously visible. It is a metaphor of God's view of us as we make our collective journey across time's landscape. Einstein's remark about the illusion of time, written a few months before his own death, was essentially an updated version of Boethian eternalism. What's wrong with the theory? Only that it provides no explanation of why the passage of time should exist at all or of how any particular moment becomes "now." Physicists have no answer to that, and Mr. Tallis thinks they never will. His final response to Augustine's question? "Time is time."