From Christmas to Epiphany

So the intersection of time consciousness and ethics defies our fantasies of time travel.  As many celebrate Christmas, the incarnation, an epiphany, I come to this:

If we take time consciousness as embodying the present in a constructed narrative – it’s a story – while we actually live in an unstructured moment that has infinite dimensions – that is to say if we take our experience of time as all that we can know, accepting it as unknowable in the present – the irony at least might be humbling in a positive sense.

For instance, we must give up wild speculations about time travel.  This is it, now.  It can be otherwise.  We must recognizing that in the expansive present – actually not merely expansive but without dimensions, which is to say infinite – nothing can be other than it is.  If we traveled forward in time or back in time, we can’t help but impact it with our presence.  That would change everything, not just in the future and the past, but presently.  The whole is new.  So that is it, now.

There are some good movies that seem to clear on this point.  My favorite is Jacob’s Ladder (Lyne, 1990).

Again, if I were to travel forward in time, whatever happens, well, that happens for all infinity.  This point is more obvious if we consider traveling back in time.  If I were to travel back in time, to yesterday, and eat oatmeal instead of eggs, then today I would have eaten oatmeal yesterday.  I might today remember eating eggs, but no matter.  I would simply be mistaken, had I traveled back and eaten oatmeal.  If I hadn’t traveled, well so be it: if I ate eggs, the eggs it was.

Is that true?  Are we logically stuck with everything just as it is?

There is no jumping into some future because, logically speaking, going into the future makes it not that particular future at all, but a transformed present in which we are living now.  Similarly, past lives or traveling into the past is simply logically impossible.  That past would be a different past, and that different past would be the only past there is.

Our freedom isn’t limited by our being stuck with the past, as it was constructed in our narrative even if that has infinite possibilities at every turn.  How we exercise our freedom, though, is definitive.  Similarly, the future will be what it is, as we construct it, even as it too is open to infinite possibilities in infinite time.

But what’s done is done.  Our freedom entails consequences or it wouldn’t be freedom at all.  And it does and it is.  There is an ethical dimension as well to the infinite possibilities:  What we do matters.  It matters for all eternity.

In Islamic thought there is this sense expressed as the ethical implications of infinite value: if you kill one person, since each life is infinitely valuable, it is as if you’ve killed all life.  And if you save one, it is as if you’ve saved all.

Consider this:  If I have that right, and if it’s true, my complaint against God (and pardon me if this is blasphemous that I write it out but I think it so I might as well put it out there and you can have the pleasure of correcting me and granting forgiveness) is that it took so long.  Change came glacially slow for many millions of years, before there was conscious experience in some galaxies and perhaps parallel universes.  Volcanoes erupt, black holes implode and, so long as that was all that was going on, no one was getting hurt.  Only when organisms evolved that could feel pain could God, through creation, experience pain.  Even then, if the creation was something other than God, would God be ignorant of this pain?  What is knowledge if it’s not knowledge of something.

Perhaps God’s pre-incarnate knowledge is akin to compassion.  “I feel your pain.” But not really.  It’s your pain, not mine. This puts the incarnation in a certain light, God experiencing joy, pain and even death, not as I do through the fictional characters I create, but as I do directly in my own life.

Well, dear God, what took you so long?  (That’s my rude question, my rude prayer.)

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Over Kenny?

Joshua Tree night

I’ve got to let go of Kenny.  South Park has been going on twenty-two years and I’ve been obsessing on Kenny nearly that whole time.  Kenny keeps dying and dying and living again.  That never bores me actually, but maybe I’ve had enough.  There are books to read…  I need to take a walk…

On a walk I encounter this-ness, haecceity – you gotta love this God.  This tree, this stone in my shoe, the smell of the wet bark.  The infinite is lonely and mostly empty space, and before all that lonely and empty space there is just a little matter here and there throughout the universe.  Or so we’re told and I believe it.  But there is here and now (that I keep reminding you, reminding myself, is past but it feels here, it feels now.  It’s not the logically necessary specious present; it’s what is felt, the phenomena.  I pay attention: this tree, this pebble in my shoe…)

My complaint against God is that our all-knowing God seems to be such a slow learner.  All those millennia where biological beings developed sensory perception and experience, we soon gained the knowledge that pain hurts.  Was God just standing outside creation, observing, tweaking this and that cosmos when life began?  With life came pleasure and pain.  Was that God’s first tickle, first breath, but maybe God was somehow outside of this creation until fully identified with the creation.  In Christianity we call it “the incarnation”, when God became one of us, although in all humility we must allow for at least the possibility that there is an ameba Christ, a plankton Jesus.

Christian teachings would have it that the particular human experience is most identified with God, the messy birth, breast milk on God’s infant lips.  And maybe only in the crucifixion, when the God-Son experiences personally and intensely and definitively death, that everything was changed because God experienced pain and death as a phenomenological truth – no turning back on this, God.  Yeah, death sucks but at least then the pain stops, at least if you’re the one who is dead.

(I think of Mary at the foot of the cross, that she might not have ever got over that moment, how absent she seems in all the resurrection scenes because she didn’t care so much about the magic trick, another resurrection.  Okay.  Welcome back, son.  But they’ll do it all again, and nothing you’ve done changes that for anyone, even for you.  You’ve still got the holes in your hands, and the slit in your side, for God’s sake…)

Yet as discussed before, we exist in the present while we can only know what is just past, even if we experience it as present.  That’s the difference between us and God, a big difference.  We enter into this knowing, or something akin to knowing, when we shut up and are still, quit putting things out there which are artifacts of the present even as we are still working on them, even a single word we speak.  The Word is different than our words, beautifully expressed by the Jewish practice of refusing to express it, spelling it with a dash marking an empty space, G-D.

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Digitize this…

Yesterday I was trying to explain this to some students.  They work with digital media. They create it.  So I thought they’d get it if I could just get it out. It didn’t go well.

Here, let me try again here.  Let me start by defining time consciousness.  It’s different than time.  It’s our consciousness of time, how we experience it, that is not as absolute time (whatever that is) but as a human being in time experiences time.

Digital media makes the structure of time consciousness clear.

The structure of time consciousness, as the German philosopher Edmund Husserl pointed out over a century ago, (and taught Heidegger but that’s another story) goes something like this.:

Think about a bell ringing.  You might anticipate the bell ringing, then someone rings the bell but you hear its reverberation and process it in your mind at least a nanosecond after it actually rings, and then you enjoy the reverberations.

So the structure of time consciousness is:

  • the anticipated future which doesn’t exist yet, just as the past and the specious present don’t exist anymore.
  • the “specious present”, specious because in the moment it takes to register the present sound in consciousness it’s already past, and
  • the remembered just-past….

We exist, we know (rehash Rene Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am”) because, if I wasn’t in existence I couldn’t be thinking. But there’s no ‘now’ to this conscious existence.  Like the sound, there is anticipation,.  Then there’s the sensation or thought that occurs,  but as we sense it and think it and it is registered in consciousness it’s  just-past.  Then there’s recollection.  It has a narrative structure: a beginning, middle, and end, but this is constructed around a present that we can’t actually bring to consciousness.

There may even be the thought of the ‘now’ but, like sound, we anticipate it, we think about it in time and that is a process, thus taking time and in time, time passes.   There’s no now in this that is actually present.  It’s already past, a reflection on what we refer to as now, that has already past.  It exists as an idea we had, we might still hold, but the experience itself of the thought is past as soon as we think it.

What is actually present doesn’t share this narrative structure.   It just is.  That’s where we live, or so we assume.  That’s where we have the experience, but we can’t think about that without it already being past.

The time that we are conscious of, that’s all just what is remembered or anticipated.  There’s no ‘now’ now because in the thinking about it it’s already past.

Yet we live here; we just can’t experience it consciously or think about it in the now of narrative structures because we exist as bodies.  Bodies (us) do have a narrative structure.  We are born, we do exist now, and we live on until we die.  We can make wild imaginative variations on that structure.  But it’s gapped.  We are conscious of the structure but the ‘now’ that is the epicenter of the structure is like a black hole only more so (really less so – there’s not even dark matter there.)  The gap is the present, but as soon as it’s brought to mind it’s not ‘now’ now.

Digital media takes us back to this ancient truth.  There’s ‘now’ now that is the imagined narrative that the media presents, but it is riddled with gaps in the code.  Between the x and the o in our digital reality nothing exists, except we exist.

Without a beginning and middle and end in itself, this gap in the code has infinite breadth and width and depth, insofar as it doesn’t share the narrative structure.

We might picture it as a gap but the gap has external dimensions.  The very idea of a gap is my lame way of bringing what is infinite into the narrative of this expression, this text, that also has a beginning, middle and end. (I’m almost done here.)

So my students create code.  They make out of this infinite-lived space an  image, a game, a storyline.  They give it worldly dimensions.  A narrative.  But they just make this stuff up, out of nothing.  Really.  Infinite nothing.

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