What You See Is What You Get! Or is it?

Albert Einstein famously said that the fundamental question of philosophy is whether the universe is on the whole a benevolent place. For me, Einstein’s question comes second; the fundamental question is whether ‘what you see’ really is ‘what you get’. (A  little later on we’ll discover that these two questions are actually related…and perhaps even inseparable.)

‘What you see’ consists of all human experience (not just vision, obviously); ‘what you get’ is the totality of what is. Is there a one-to-one relationship between that experience (extended by reason) and that totality? Or is there something about the totality that cannot be adequately explained in terms of mere experience?

If it is true that what you see is what you get, then we live in a self-contained, ontologically democratic, universe, a flat world in which everything (‘what you get’) can be explained in terms of everything else (‘what you see’). Proponents of this view believe that human experience, aided by the tools of reason (e.g. logic and mathematics), provides sufficient information for us to account fully, or nearly fully, for the world we live in.

Let’s call these folks “WYSIWYGs”. Of course, they’ll admit, we do not have all the answers yet; but we are close enough that we are entitled to have confidence that our project can, at least in theory, be completed. We can say…

  • We know a great deal about the world but there’s always one more question to ask and answer. That said, we can now say that we know the world completely, at least in outline form, and we are confident that we will eventually be able to answer remaining questions using just the tools of observation and reason.

WYSIWYG comes in another flavor as well. Call it Nihilism or Absurdism: either there is no totality at all or there is a totality but it cannot be understood by human intelligence. French philosopher, Albert Camus framed the problem this way. Human beings are by nature unifiers, modelers, etc… but reality is completely resistant to such efforts. Therefore, the relationship between humanity and the world is incurably absurd.

Still, most WYSIWYGs believe that it is ultimately possible to construct models of reality that account for our world within a tolerable range based solely on the data of human experience. But is that really true? Can a model that relies solely on the data of experience ever give a complete account of experience per se or a complete account of the world that supports such experience? Or do we need to resort to something outside the realm of direct experience to complete our model?

At first glance, this sounds like the sort of question that might divide different schools of philosophy from one another: realists from empiricists, materialists from idealists, and positivists from, well, everyone else. But actually, this question cuts across all those schools of thought…and others as well. It divides members within each school from one another.

The point is this: once we have understood the world to the best of our ability from any consistent philosophical standpoint, we may still ask: “Is this all there is? Have we adequately accounted for our experience and, if we have, are we satisfied that that is sufficient to account for the world that supports that experience?”

You can be an empiricist or a realist, an idealist or a materialist, and still wonder whether there could be ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. Even a logical positivist, who denies the possibility of meaning beyond the realms of perception and reason, may wonder whether there might be something important lurking beyond those realms.

The great Wittgenstein himself recognized that things beyond perception and reason could still matter. Strictly speaking, such things would have no ‘meaning’ but they could nonetheless play a role in our overall experience of the world. He called such things “important nonsense”. Ontological poetry!

At one point in time, people truly believed that it was possible to know everything. Today, it is generally accepted that all models, languages, and symbolic systems have limitations, boundaries if you will. The question is whether there is anything beyond those boundaries that really matters.

Such questioning should never lead to a rejection or devaluation of either philosophy or science. On the contrary, those who deny that what you see is what you get,  call them ‘anti-WYSIWYGs’, often seek to master philosophical and scientific disciplines as jumping off points for their further speculations.

Blaise Pascal, a famous anti-WYSIWYG, wrote, “Faith indeed tells us what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them and not contrary to them.” For Pascal, faith is what completes the picture senses paint.

How do the differences between these competing views manifest in real life situations? Consider three practical examples:

  • Neuro-biologists have made great strides toward understanding the human brain and how it works. But many people feel that we are no closer than ever to explaining the phenomenon of consciousness. Certainly, we have theories about the physiological conditions required for conscious experience to occur; but have we accounted for the experience per se? And if not, will we ever be able to do so? To put it another way, can consciousness ever be reduced to physiology?
  • Similarly, astrophysicists have made great strides toward understanding the evolution of the universe. Indeed, we seem to have pushed the fog of ignorance all the way back to the first few seconds of time…and even beyond that to Big Bang. But is this enough? Have we accounted for the phenomenon of being itself? Have we truly answered the age old question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
  • Finally quantum field theory has been called the most successful scientific theory of all time. It predicts phenomena with almost perfect accuracy and it has never been convincingly falsified by any experiment. That said, do we really understand what is happening at the quantum level of reality? All quantum physicists are capable of making the same astoundingly accurate predictions; yet they formulate quantum theory in terms of myriad different models.

One way out of this dilemma, the positivist way, is simply to deny the meaningfulness of the questions themselves:

  • There is no more to consciousness than physiology;
  • There is no more to being than cosmos;
  • There is no more to quantum mechanics than its predictions.

This last point is what’s called the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. According to Copenhagen, the accuracy of the predictions is all that matters. Models are meaningless. And yet, 90 years after Copenhagen we are still obsessed with those models!

Each philosophical school and each scientific discipline has its own way of probing reality to make it yield its truths. Each asks its own unique questions and expresses the answers in its own unique language. But a meta-question hangs over all of them: is this enough? Have we gone far enough?

The positivist answer is simple: meta-questions have no meaning so yes, we have gone far enough…because there is nowhere else to go. If you are still asking questions about consciousness or being per se or about the reality underlying quantum measurements, it is simply because you don’t understand that such questions are meaningless.

But does saying make it so? Is our proclivity for formulating meta-questions evidence of our mental laziness…or testimony to the human spirit? According to French philosopher Albert Camus, the patron saint of the Absurd, it is human nature to seek unifying principles, even if such principles do not exist or are unavailable to us.

Perhaps we can never know more about consciousness than its physiology or more about being than cosmos or more about quanta than their observed behaviors. But is that the fault of reality itself (‘there’s nothing else there’) or of our own limited mental apparatus and processes? Are not knowing and not being one and the same thing?

So, you can be a realist, an empiricist, a materialist or an idealist and believe that your philosophy has accounted for…or can ultimately account for…the world; or not.

Anti-WYSIWYGs reach their common conclusion via many very different paths; for example:

(1) There are those who base their argument on the limitations inherent in rational (Gödel’s Incompleteness) and/or physical (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty) systems.

(2) Others believe that certain meta-questions are impervious by their very nature to observation based analysis: we can explain cosmos…but not being; we can explain the brain…but not the experience of consciousness; we can explain quantum mechanics…but not the underlying physical process that makes the results what they are.

(3) Still others take a reductio ad absurdum approach. Give me any observation based model of the world and I’ll show you that it does not satisfactorily account for that world. One version of this argument focuses on the distinction between parts and the whole. When you add up all that philosophy and science have told us about the world, it makes perfect sense ‘locally’ but no sense ‘globally’. It brilliantly explains phenomena within any specified universe of discourse but it does not explain the entirety.

Consider a jig-saw puzzle. Imagine an algorithm that accounts for the shape and pattern of each piece but makes no reference to the overall image, the gestalt that is after all the puzzle itself. Philosophy and science provide such algorithms…but is something absolutely huge still missing?

(4) Yet other anti-WYSIWYGs base their position on what they do ‘see’. For them, experiences are vectors pointing toward a reality outside the realms of perception and logic. For example, we ‘see’ things that we recognize as ‘beautiful’ but, Aristotle notwithstanding, we can’t really define beauty and we certainly can’t account for it. According to accepted ontological theory, beauty is either entirely subjective or it is real only in so far as it can be reduced to physical, biological and/or sociological processes. Yet sometimes beauty seems to transcend any possible nexus of material processes. Sometimes beauty is “all ye know on earth and all ye need to know” (Keats).

(5) Finally, the existence of evil is often advanced as an argument against the benevolence of the universe (Einstein) or against the existence of a benevolent God. That argument, however, can be turned on its head. A single confirmed instance of Good may be all it takes to overthrow that argument and falsify the WYSISYG hypothesis. How so?

The actual entities that would populate a flat, self-contained and ontologically democratic universe just are. Within that universe, there is no basis for valuing any one entity over any other. Existentialists might say that we are free to create and assign our own values to things…and they’d be right. But if those values are not rooted in something outside us, what difference do they make? Aren’t they just arbitrary? Any argument against arbitrariness must refer to something absolute outside of plane of ontological democracy.

We use value(s) to ‘e-valu-ate’ everything that happens on the plane we call ‘the world’. We cannot use something found on that plane to evaluate anything else on that plane. What then would we use to evaluate it? We could use everything to evaluate everything else but then we’d be caught up in meaningless circularity.

A world with values cannot be a flat world; it must be hierarchical and the hierarchical principle cannot be an entity on the ontological plane. In a flat world, how could the phenomenon of value claim any aesthetic or ethical priority over anything else? And wouldn’t our evaluations be subject the same limitations as all our other mental activity?

Ludwig Wittgenstein: “No statement of facts can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value…all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level.”

How often do we find Wittgenstein agreeing with Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas advanced 5 ‘proofs’ for the existence of God. Only one, the 4th, still interests philosophers.

“The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings, there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But more and less are predicated of different things according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum…so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest…and this we call God.”

I would not argue that Thomas proved the existence of God. But I would argue that he may have proven that what you see is NOT what you get. The existence of value, if you indeed do believe in value, challenges the underlying premise of WISYWIG, namely that we live in a flat universe bereft of any ontological gradations.

The Latin hymn, Veni Sancte Spiritus sums it up: “Sine tuo numine, nihil est in homine, nihil est innoxium”, which roughly translates “without you (God), human beings are empty and everything is noxious”.

Are you WYSIWYG…or anti-WYSIWYG? Or are you still unsure? Two French philosophers, Pascal and Camus, both argued that it is impossible to know whether what you see is what you get…or not, whether there are objective values…or not, whether the world has transcendent meaning…or not. But this professed agnosticism did not prevent them from coming down on opposite sides of the issue.

Pascal proposed his famous wager. In a nut shell, we don’t know if God exists or not. If he doesn’t, it makes no difference what we do, everything is lost; but if does, what we do is critically important. Therefore, since there is nothing to be gained by atheism, Pascal opted for theism, where the potential return could be infinite, albeit uncertain.

Imagine a game of roulette, all in, one spin of the wheel. You must place all your chips on red or black. If you chose red and it comes up red, you win nothing; if it comes up black, you lose everything. On the other hand, if you choose black and it comes up red, you lose nothing. But if you choose black and it comes up black, you win the deed to the casino. What would you do?

Not Camus! He rejects the concept of a wager, but since he has to place his chips somewhere, he chooses red as an act of rebellion against the unfairness of the casino’s rules. He asserts “courage” and “honor” as his motives…but he does not explain how those ‘values’ suddenly acquire objective status. Of course, I am being entirely unfair to Camus. He is a brilliant writer and thinker. I just disagree with him on this pivotal point.

Here is where our investigation reconnects with Einstein’s. Einstein favored the view that the world is on the whole a benevolent place. But from “what you see” it is nearly impossible to argue that benevolence is “what you get”.

Based on what we see, we get a world that came to be accidentally, evolves purposelessly, and self-destructs inevitably. Suffering overwhelms joy. Islands of order, virtue, truth and beauty are eroded by entropy; and everything is ultimately erased by time.

According to accepted models, the world comes from nothing and returns to nothing. All of cosmic history amounts to nothing more than the life span of a self-annihilating virtual particle pair. All of the things we do in life amount to nothing more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Such a world is necessarily a world without values and a world without values is a world of no value. This view of the world has been embraced by certain schools of 19th (Nihilism) and 20th (L’absurde) century philosophy.

To others though, living in a world without value would simply be unbearable. Such a world is literally Hell. Folks who adopt this viewpoint cannot accept that Nihilism is possible. So, if not not-A, then A.

Many (e.g. Camus) claim this argument (and Pascal’s) amounts to intellectual cowardice rooted in bad faith; I disagree. The argument against nihilism is no different than arguments against skepticism and solipsism. We can’t really disprove these notions, but if they are true then the questions we pose are meaningless in the first place; and if the questions are meaningless, then so are the so-called ‘answers’. The fact that we pose these questions at all assumes something other than the null answer.

Once again, imagine life is like a game of roulette…but this time with some adjustments to the rules. As long as you bet on black, the normal rules apply. When the ball lands on black, you win; when it doesn’t, you lose. However, if you bet on red, you neither win nor lose; you just get your money back every time…until it’s time to go home (death). Then the house confiscates your chips. In this scenario, who would ever bet on red? In fact, to the extent that players bet on red at all, they are simply not playing the game. Nihilism, skepticism and solipsism all amount to betting on red.

But abandoning WYSIWYG comes at a price. We must accept that we cannot adequately model the world based solely on experience and reason. We must add elements to our model that we cannot ‘prove’, logically, mathematically or scientifically. We are necessarily now with Pascal (above) in the realm of ‘faith’.

So what might an anti-WYSIWYG model actually look like? Amazingly, the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, often called both the ‘father of western philosophy’ and the ‘father of western science’, provided us with just such a model.

As the father of western science, Parmenides was a keen observer and used those observations to construct remarkably accurate models of myriad physical and astronomical behaviors. But as the father of western philosophy, he understood that the world itself could not be fully explained based solely on such observations and models.

For Parmenides, the world must have two faces or aspects, one seen, one unseeable. He called the former the Way of Appearance (Doxa) and the later the Way of Truth (Aletheia).

Now the Way of Appearance is just what you’d expect:

“It has been named all things that mortals have established, trusting them to be true: to come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, to shift place and to exchange bright color.”

This is a world we well recognize: discrete objects and events, coming to be, then passing away, moving through space, interacting and exchanging qualities.

But the Way of Truth is something else again:

“What is is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, single-limbed, steadfast and complete…Nor was it once, nor will it be, since it is, now, all together, one, continuous…Nor is it divisible since it all alike is…it is full of what is…”

As I interpret Parmenides, both Doxa and Aletheia are real. But the phenomena of Doxa cannot be accounted for in terms of Doxa alone. The universe must have a complimentary aspect, Aletheia, to make Doxa possible. The Way of Truth is an imperceptible but necessary foundation for what we experience in the Way of Appearance.

Simply put, in order for actual entities to come to be and then perish, they must also be eternal. In order for things to change, they must also endure. In order for things to move, they must also be fixed. The phenomena of Doxa are possible only if they are rooted in the noumenon of Aletheia.

Another, more complex, example comes from the New Testament. Here the world of experience is embedded in the life of the Trinity. As Father, God ‘creates’ the world, imbuing it with values; as Son, God ‘redeems’ the world, instantiating those values universally and eternally; and through Spirit, God is ‘incarnate’ in the world, participating as one event among innumerable others.

“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘the one who is and who was and who is to come…’“ Revelation

“In the beginning (or at the foundation) was the Word (Son) and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be…And the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us…” Gospel of John

“…Then comes the end, when he (Son) hands over the kingdom to his God and Father…When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.” Corinthians

The tangible world is as real as real can be. After all, it is created by God, it is redeemed by God and God enters into that world as one unique tangible event among all other tangible events. How then could it be anything but real? But as an independent, standalone phenomenon, the perceptible world just doesn’t make sense. The hypothesis of Trinity is necessary to account for the reality of experience.

Important questions remain: Are we satisfied that one of these anti-WYSIWYG models, or some other such model, actually accounts for the world we experience? If so, how do we know that our model is more correct than some other model? After all, by definition we cannot ‘test’ it. Or do all anti-WYSIWYG models boil down to one single model? If not, how many structurally distinct models can there be? How do we distinguish fundamental (structural) differences from superficial (e.g. linguistic) differences?  Finally, how do we go about evaluating competing models?

Perhaps we will address these questions in a later essay on this site.


One morning, I was standing on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River, looking across to Philadelphia. As I was accompanied by several grandchildren, I decided to tell a story, “Once upon a time, a long time ago, an Indian princess might have climbed into a canoe with her grandfather right here at this very spot. He might have paddled her all the way across the river to their village on the other side.”

“I’m glad I’m not that princess,” my older granddaughter offered.

“Why?” I asked, somewhat surprised.

“Because she’s dead now and I’d rather be alive.”

Without realizing it, my granddaughter had shone a spotlight on a usually neglected paradox concerning time. We accept that living in 2015 is different in many superficial ways from living in 1515…or in 2515. But we also assume that the essence, and therefore the value, of the life experience itself is always the same. As much as the content of our lives may differ one from one another, we assume that the process itself is identical. Therefore, we are not inclined to accept my granddaughter’s contention that living later is necessarily living better.

Looking at our own lives, however, it is hard to see how events that took place in the past could possibly have equal ontological weight compared with current or future events. What ex-monarch, in the process of being burned at the stake, thinks, “Oh well, I certainly had fun when I was five”? More likely, that desperate creature curses the day he was born.

The reverse is also the case. As a painful experience fades into the past, it loses at least some of its sting.

The memory of past happiness can rarely, if ever, overcome the horror of immediate pain; on the other hand, the hope of future happiness may. A mother in labor is comforted by the hope that she will soon have a baby to love and care for. An athlete may train hard all summer hoping for the thrill of victory in the fall. A saint embraces martyrdom as a small price to pay for admission to the Kingdom of Heaven.

So apparently time is not symmetrical after all. Events that took place in the past do not have as much value for us as events taking place now or in the future. Carrying this logic even further, I would propose that nothing that happened in the past can have any value whatsoever for those of us living in the present.

There are two obvious objections to this proposition. First, past events and experiences may cause or at least condition current events and experiences. Second, past events may leave memories that in turn give depth, value and intensity to our current experiences.

Consider, however, the following thought experiment: Suppose we were all just created de novo with partial ‘memories’ of a fictional past implanted. In that case there is no question of that past causing present events and our memories would be unrelated to any actual events in the past. The past would truly not exist.

How would that be any different for us than if we had lived through an actual past and encoded those memories on our own? Unless we can specify and demonstrate such a difference, we have to agree that the actual past is of zero value to those of us living in the present. Just as surely as above, the past would truly not exist.

Further, if our own past experiences have no value for us, why would the past experiences of others?

In truth, the past exists for us only as the shadow we call memory and as the flat ground against which novelty appears.

Evaluating the future is trickier. We need at least two variables here, one measuring the intensity of the potential reward (e.g. baby, victory, heaven) and another representing its probability. If the hoped for reward is a sufficient improvement over our present circumstances and if uncertainty does not exact too great a discount, we may actually place a higher value on a future event than a present one.

My granddaughter was not willing to trade places with that Indian princess no matter how exciting her life might have been. Her life had zero value for my granddaughter. On the other hand, that princess might have gladly changed places with my granddaughter, giving up a life being lived for “a life to be lived at a later date”. One is reminded of a football team that trades a current player for “a player (or a draft pick) to be named later”.

On another day, I was watching two of my grandsons play with blocks on the living room floor. One was building a train, the other a tower. It occurred to me that they were acting out two very different conceptions of time: serial time vs. cumulative time.

Serial time is like box cars on a train. Every car is interchangeable with every other car. Just ask any motorist stopped interminably at a rail road crossing. The train may ultimately have an engine and a caboose but that does not in any way undermine the inconvenient reality of each and every box car in between.

Likewise, a stretch of serial time may have a beginning and end but those terminals do not impact the reality of the moments of experience in between.

Cumulative time, however, is something else again. It is like the tower that my older grandson is building. The position of each newly placed block recapitulates in some way and to some extent the position of every block placed before it. It is not too much of a stretch to say that each new block in some sense ‘contains’ all previous blocks.

This building process continues, breathtakingly, until inevitably the tower collapses. It has to collapse. The tower constitutes a local increase in order in a universe that is incurably entropic. The Second Law of Thermodynamics guarantees that the tower will fall and that catastrophe becomes more and more immanent as the tower assumes a more and more ordered state.

When the tower does collapse, not only does the final block tumble to the ground but everything that went before (i.e. all prior states of order) is destroyed as well. All that is left is a scattering of blocks on the living room floor. A state of high and ever increasing order is instantaneously reduced to a state of nearly maximal disorder.

Notice that the relationship between the blocks and the structure differs in the two examples. In one case, the structure (train) is independent of any particular block. In the other case, the structure (tower) is entirely dependent on each and every block.

Notice also the radically different ways in which order and disorder play out. In the cumulative model, order increases geometrically. However, each increase in order increases the likelihood of incipient disorder; and when disorder does come, it comes ‘instantaneously and catastrophically’.

On the other hand, in the serial model order is relatively resilient; when disorder does (inevitably) come, it comes gradually and, at first at least, locally.

We imagine that time is like the box cars of the train and not like the bricks of the tower. We imagine that every unit of time is commutative with every other unit. The subtraction of one unit shortens the train but only by one unit; it has no impact on nature of the train itself or on any of the other box cars that make up the train.

On the other hand, if we look at the tower model, it is clear that the subtraction of just one block impacts, at least potentially, every block in the structure; it threatens the very existence of the tower itself. It has the potential to ‘zero out’ the tower and the high degree of order it represents.

So is time really serial or is it cumulative? Is it independent of the events that make it up or is it an epiphenomenon of those events? Which model actually corresponds to our experience?

I propose that all time behaves cumulatively and that serial time is a special, perhaps even a degenerate, case of cumulative time. Likely, no actual span of time is ever completely serial. A de minimus amount of novelty must creep in, creating an ever so slight asymmetry (a la the cumulative model).

But is that really so? Does each moment of time recapitulate all of the moments that went before it? Certainly, when we consider our own lives, it is clear that there is a certain order to events and that the relationship between a present event and a past one is very different from the relationship between a present event and a future one. Events cannot be shunted around like box cars on the Island of Sodor. The order of events (if not their content) is apparently immutable.

I’m not talking just about human experience here. Even inanimate objects undergo a sequence of modifications, each modification ‘building’ in some way on the one that went before it. At any single point in time, any an ‘actual entity’ (thing or event) is the sum of its history (real or imagined). Therefore, when the entity ceases to exist, must not its history (real or imagined) cease to exist as well?

It is popular today to consider time as a manifestation of entropy (Stephen Hawking, et al). According to this theory, the arrow of time and the arrow of entropy are the same thing. But entropy concerns actual events and structures. Therefore, entropy is cumulative. The entropy at time t is dependent on the entropy at time t – 1. If entropy (disorder) is cumulative, so order (negentropy) must be cumulative as well.

Consider the creation narrative in Genesis. God created the world in 7 days. On Day One, God merely separated darkness from light, introducing a single quantum of order. By Day 7, the world is more or less as we experience it today. But as God created, he did not start over again each day. Instead each day built on the accomplishments of the day before. The world as it is on Day 7 encompasses the world as it was on Day 6 and Day 5 and Day 4, and so on…

So, if and when the world as it is on Day 7 is destroyed, the world will not magically go back to the way it was on Day 6. Day 6 is now just part of Day 7. It is not just Day 7 that will be wiped out but Day 6 and Day 5 and Day 4 and so on. In the real world, disorder cascades like blocks from a falling tower. We are left with the world as it was prior to Day 1: “The earth was without form or shape with darkness over the abyss”; blocks are scattered randomly on the living room floor.

Evolution tells exactly the same story. A species evolves over time through a seemingly endless series of genetic modifications. Each new modification builds on all the modifications that have gone before. But when the species becomes extinct, that entire sequence of modifications is wiped out in one fell swoop. Like the bumper sticker says, “Extinction is forever.”

According to virtually all contemporary cosmological theories, all islands of order in our universe will ultimately be overcome by entropy and decay. The universe as a whole will ultimately end in a Big Freeze (or perhaps a Big Crunch). In any event all prior states of order will be eliminated. Cumulative time turns out to be a universal eraser; it wipes out everything.

According to the notion of serial time, time is pre-existent and events just fill available slots. The train is logically precedent to the box cars that make it up. According to the organic theory of cumulative time, time is a function of the events that create it. Events by nature are not normally commutative and therefore time itself must be asymmetrical (cumulative).

So the paradox of time comes down to this: to the extent that you believe in the reality of events, you can’t believe in the reality of time; and to the extent that you believe in the reality of time, you can’t believe in the reality of events.

No one is more closely associated with the classical theory of spacetime than Sir Isaac Newton. Yet even he recognized that his theory could not account for locality or duration. He invoked God to bridge the gap:

“He is Eternal and Infinite, Omnipotent and Omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from Eternity to Eternity; his presence from Infinity to Infinity… He is not Eternity and Infinity, but Eternal and Infinite; he is not Duration and Space, but he endures and is present. He endures forever, and is everywhere present; and, by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes Duration and Space.”

When I told my lame story on the banks of the Delaware, I was espousing a serial concept of time. My granddaughter exposed the fallacy of my argument advancing instead a cumulative model. So it seems that she was right and I, and most everybody else, wrong, right?

Not so fast! Accepting this conclusion leads to some strange corollaries. For example, the last person alive must then be the most favored. Likewise, the prolongation of individual life beyond all reason becomes a moral imperative. Life becomes a giant tontine and the last man standing is the big winner…just before he freezes to death.

As we have seen, the notion of cumulative time assigns 100% of the value of events to the present (and in some cases the future). By definition, past events have zero value. However, our current cosmological theories predict heat death for the universe. There will be no more present or future. Everything will be past but then there will be no past either because (1) the past has zero value and (2) the past only exists in the present and only to the extent that it colors and conditions that present and (3) time itself disappears at the Big Freeze (or Crunch).

So all experience will ultimately be relegated to the past and therefore destroyed; total value = zero. All information would be destroyed (something not allowed by quantum mechanics and by contemporary cosmological theories).

I don’t think many of us would be willing to accept these logical consequences. So something must be wrong with our argument; we must be missing something. But what?

Serial or cumulative, we have assumed that events are entirely co-incident with time. What if that were not true? What if there was an aspect to events that is outside of time entirely? In fact, our considerations suggest that to be real, an event must have an a-temporal (aetemporal, eternal) aspect to it. While events certainly do occur in time, those same events must also occur outside of time, or they are doomed to be erased.

Spacetime can be thought of as a geometric construction (e.g. ‘vector equilibrium’ per Buckminster Fuller) in which events come to be and interact with one another. Time is an integral part of what lets events come to be what they are. But once that process is complete, time is no longer relevant. Ultimately, temporal events and the time that gives birth to them will vanish; we are left only with ‘the thing-itself’, the a-temporal, eternal aspect of the event.

Time is like the imaginary quantities that arise in the course of certain calculations but that necessarily cancel out into real values at the end. Indeed, Stephen Hawking has proposed that quantities of time are best expressed using imaginary numbers.

Time is but one component of multi-dimensional spacetime. But it turns out that dimensionality itself is ambiguous. For centuries we were content to view ourselves living in 3-dimensional space plus time. Einstein showed that this really amounts to a 4-dimensional spacetime. Later Kaluza-Klein theory suggested that certain phenomena are best explained by assuming a 5-dimensional spacetime.

Today, string theory and M-theory work with 10, 11 and 26 dimensional spacetimes. At the other end of the spectrum, the holographic theory of universe suggests that space might be just 2-dimensional.

Even more astounding, in many cases systems with different degrees of dimensionality have been shown to be mathematically equivalent. Clearly, spacetime is not a sub-structural.

Finally, since events occurring in time will always be retroactively destroyed (erased) by gentle entropy or cosmic catastrophe, it turns out that it is only the eternal aspect of events that ultimately matters. Time is part of a medium (or a reflection of a medium) that facilitates novelty which in turn drives the emergence of events. But that is it. Time is at best a means to an end.

So it turns out that my granddaughter was wrong after all…but for reasons that none of us expected that morning on the river bank. In the end, the value of a quantum of experience is time independent. Priority confers no special value, nor does it preclude it. Life is just what it is, regardless of when you live it, because in the end all of our experiences are eternal.