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Out of time

Guy Levrier

28 Feb 2001

God said to Moses: " I am that I am " (1), meaning either that he exists in an eternal present, or outside of time, which is different. But is it really possible for something other than time to exist? And could we have some kind of intuition of it, which we would be incapable of expressing clearly without having been guided by our science, or by something else which would be just as much outside the bounds of our science as it would be outside our time?

Already, scientists seem to have a need to find something of this kind. Physicists like Hawking, looking for a unified theory combining quantum physics with gravitation, find themselves talking about " an imaginary time " in order to be able to add up the sum over histories of particles (2) which are not situated in the " real " time in which we live. Of course, what we mean here is being able to measure time with the help of " imaginary " numbers, whereas " real " time is measured with the help of " real " numbers (3).

Now these may be mathematical tricks, but it is precisely thanks to mathematics that science has arrived at the present space-time concept, and having acquired this precious paradigm, and over centuries, why should we flinch before a few courageous extrapolations? Before Einstein the notion of space-time was completely absent from our field of consciousness: we couldn't even imagine it. Could it not be that we are looking for a new " region ", the " out of time " which is to space-time what space-time is to time (4), a region in which our mathematical equations would no longer work?

In the quotation above (3), Hawking says " A scientific theory is just a mathematical model we make to describe our observations: it exists only in our minds. So it is meaningless to ask: Which is real, " real " or " imaginary " time? It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description. " So, mathematics would not seem to have a monopoly on the representation of the universe. It is this kind of conclusion, reached by a great scientist, which makes us realise to what extent our universe is becoming increasingly a mental construct for us, and which explains why Berkeley (1685–1753), who has recently been hailed as " the precursor of Mach and Einstein ", is also frequently referred to in discussions about the philosophical consequences of quantum physics.

Berkeley expressed his philosophy of " subjective idealism " by his condensed formula " to be, is to be perceived ", which is nothing less than that of Bohr as expressed in the Copenhagen interpretation " the only real thing is an observed thing ". So, the name of Bohr should logically have figured after that of Einstein in the title conferred on Berkeley. Here again, we have an " out of time " concept, since it crops up throughout our history, somewhere between philosophy and physics, as the " cave " of Plato, the " empiricism " of Locke, the "subjective  idealism " of Berkeley and in the "Copenhagen  interpretation" of Bohr.

As for Einstein, he confirms this when he says " as far as we convinced physicists are concerned, the distinction between past, present and future is just an illusion, even if it is a tenacious one (5) ". This makes me wonder: in effect, Einstein doesn't believe in time either, when we get to the bottom of things. For the living creatures which we are however, the arrow of time is obligatory, flying straight from birth to death, with no symmetry and no turning back. So time should be what we consume in order to live. And then again, there's this " out-of-time " thing. This emerging paradigm which is " in the air ", and which I notice according to the Scriptures that both God and our greatest scientists seem to have the same idea about, and I also notice that these scientists, when they get onto the subject, seem drawn to talk about God.

As an artist, I asked myself whether in some way I didn't also perceive this " out-of-time ", albeit in a fleeting way, in the act of creation. In order to see whether this was true, I observed what " the others " had done throughout history, from the point of view of the result obtained.

Science goes on, as progress is achieved, and today's scientists are no longer interested in yesterday's outdated theories. Whereas art, the great, the sublime, the art of undeniable masterpieces, seems to be outside of time, and particularly outside of any kind of progress, since at this level, we can no longer say that our descendants, because they come after us and do something new, do any better than their ancestors. " New " does not necessarily mean " better ". When, for example, we realise that the Lascaux cave man had made a drawing of an animal of the same quality as that of Leonardo da Vinci some 20,000 years before the great master was born, then we see that in this case there has been no progress in art, whereas in science there has been progress over the same period of time. In painting, impressionism does not represent progress compared to classicism. It is simply something else. However, if progress in art does not exist, regression does, as witnessed by the present fashion for " non-art " or " the death of art " present in our decadent civilisation.

In true art, it is as if time did not exist, as if time were a hypothesis which was not necessary for its practice. Perhaps then, in our search for artistic creation, fused with scientific creation, we shall discover the door to the " out of time ", to this new, and as yet unexplored region.

This is why so many creative artists are no longer hesitating to make what might appear to be a step backwards to some of their contemporaries – which doesn't really matter in fact, as it is the result which counts, the opening of new avenues (6).

Hawking says: " ...the discovery that the speed of light appeared the same to every observer, no matter how he was moving, led to the theory of relativity – and in that, one had to abandon the idea that there was a unique absolute time. Instead, each observer would have his own measure of time as recorded by a clock that he carried: clocks carried by different observers would not necessarily agree. Thus time became a more personal concept, relative to the observer who measured it (7) ".

A personal time! Here's a new paradigm! So, if I stay with the metaphor, as an artist, in the daily exercise of my creation, the fact that no progress is observed in art would characterise the daily work of my mental processes, like a sort of constant of my " personal imaginary time ", whereas the scientist's time, as a result of the progress he makes in science, would be situated in a " personal real time ".

This means that fashion, because it is transient, would bring about an irreversible decay, to the point of eventual and perhaps, eternal, loss. This explains why Asian art, has for centuries remained practically identical, whereas western art seems to have been bent on a perpetual and breathless quest for novelty. What then, are the criteria which will make a work of art an eternal object instead of something obsolete? How is it that we don't bother to date Khmer, Chinese or Japanese art to within a century or so, whereas an outmoded piece of western art has no more than a vague anecdotal interest for us?

When we talk about time, our Scriptures and our Physicists also mention its beginning and its end: it is more difficult to imagine its beginning than its end, especially the idea that there was no time before the beginning of time. Imagining the end is easier in a universe as chaotic as ours, with the kind of collisions of galaxies which we sometimes observe. But why should there be this idea of the end of History? Our Scriptures, whose prophecies have until now achieved the highest possible score concerning the Creation, the Universe and the Cosmos, all repeat the same message about a cataclysmic End of Time. We, the living, wonder about the usefulness of the end of time. How (on earth) could time be no longer of any use, or at least unnecessary, how could it have no reason for being? And why should this end of time be cataclysmic? Of course at our infinitely small human scale, the disappearance of our infinitely great universe can only be cataclysmic. Moreover, whenever man is terrified, he feels guilty and begins to fantasize. In such circumstances he will certainly experience the cataclysm as a punishment resulting from a judgement.

But just as the text from Genesis would seem to be confirmed by the present day " Big Bang " theory, the cataclysmic end of time which is prophesised, could turn out to be a slowing down of the rate of expansion of the universe, prior to a " Big Crunch ", which would be the opposite of the Big Bang. This would pose the same kind of question as that concerning the beginning of the universe, which is essentially that posed philosophically by Leibniz: " why does something exist rather than nothing? ". There we would have the symmetry between the why of the beginning and the why of the end. Probably, if we find the answer to the first, we shall logically perhaps arrive at the answer to the second, to the extent to which the life of a chaotic system is closely linked to the conditions of its origin.

So, finally, as it is impossible to express in words what I perceive in the " out of time " region, it is with the arrow of time, or outside of time, through my paintings, which are like ideograms, that I express it.

(1) Exodus 3.14

(2) The metaphorical connections between quantum physics and Buddhism are particularly frequent and striking, and it is difficult not to make the link between the expressions " adding up the sum over histories " of the physicist and " actualizing all existences " of the Buddhist sage Dфgen Kigen (1200-1253) for example in his famous aphorism " Learning the Way of the Buddha means learning about one's self. Learning about one's self means forgetting one's self. Forgetting one's self means actualizing all existences. Actualizing all existences means stripping away body and spirit, for one's self and for others ". It is curious to note how easily the cross links of the metaphor enable us to pass from physics to metaphysics to ethics.

(3) " If the universe really is in such a quantum state, there would be no singularities in the history of the universe in imaginary time... This might suggest that the so-called imaginary time is really the real time, and that what we call real time is just a figment of our imaginations. In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space-time and at which the laws of science break down. But in imaginary time, there are no singularities or boundaries. So maybe what we call imaginary time is really more basic, and what we call real is just an idea that we invent to help us describe what we think the universe is like. But according to the approach that I described in Chapter I, a scientific theory is just a mathematical model we make to describe our observations: it exists only in our minds. So it is meaningless to ask: which is real " real " or " imaginary " time? It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description ".

S.W.Hawking, A brief history of time, Bantam Books, London, 1988, p.139.

(4) " If Euclidian space-time stretches back to infinite imaginary time,  or else starts at a singularity in imaginary time, we have the same problem as in the classical theory of specifying the initial state of the universe: God may know how the universe began, but we cannot give any particular reason for thinking it began one way rather than another. On the other hand, the quantum theory of gravity has opened up a new possibility, in which there would be no need to specify the behaviour at the boundary. There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one could have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time.

One could say: " The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary ". The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would Just BE ".

Hawking (3) p.136

(5) Correspondence between Albert Einstein and Michele Basso, 1903 – 1955, Paria, Hermann, 1972.

(6) " The Bach of the later years is totally occupied in examining and practising an archaic musical technique which strikes like lightning and for a brief moment illuminates the contemporary musical world, by presenting it with unusual and almost incomprehensible material... by going back to principles of construction dating sometimes from the Renaissance, and taking the modern style as a basis, but filling it with content that is far from modern. In such cases, as in others which can be found here and there in vocal music, the experience contained in a musical legacy transcends the actual moment of creation, dominates it and imposes itself as a critical fact, like a regulatory activity, while the representation continues to progress in the full knowledge of a musical world which seemed to be worn out and emptied of all content and value ".

" Intellectual tension, calculation, play and initiatory language dominate the Musical Offering and the Art of the Fugue, the two most important signs of the abstract research which Bach undertook in the field of music, two proofs of the strictest, most arduous standardisation work ever achieved in the history of music ".

Alberto Basso, Jean Sébastien Bach, Vol. II, p.779-780, Fayard. In the atmosphere of decadence and the end of civilisation in which we live, our contemporaries will appreciate.

(7) Hawking (3) p.143