Picking up Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time in an Oxford bookshop this past May was a surreal moment. After all, it was C. S. Lewis—who taught at Oxford’s Magdalen College for 29 years, and was buried at its Holy Trinity Church—who originally kickstarted my long-standing fascination with time. In many ways, Rovelli is simply the latest in a long line of chain reactions that have led me (rather inexplicably, I know) from wardrobe doors to quantum physics.
I can still vividly recall how I felt turning the pages of the chapter “Time and Beyond Time” in a tattered old ‘60s copy of Mere Christianity. I was 15, and had never thought about time a theological sense before; I’d never thought about God in a remotely scientific sense before. Even though Lewis was a man of letters and not equations, his desire to reconcile reason with spiritual intuition—to see how far logic could take him into unknown realms, and be content with the uncertain nature of his speculation about those realms—inspired me then, and inspires me still. Ever since, I’ve been unable to think about time in any pure sense: as purely scientific, purely theological, purely a literary device. It’s a mystery that defines how we human beings process the world. We use it and abuse it and cannot imagine life without it. The one thing we haven’t been able to do with much confidence is understand it.
So when I heard that my favorite contemporary science writer was releasing a book on the nature of time, I made a point of picking it up in Oxford—not just because the UK edition is so much prettier than the US edition (won’t lie, though, it was a determining factor) but because that full-circle connection with Lewis felt like a fitting waypoint in my creative life.
My novel is currently undergoing a drastic revision process that’s close to a complete rewrite. Rovelli’s two previous books, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Reality is Not What it Seems, have served as companions throughout that process, informing new worldbuilding and story logic decisions that have changed the way I understand my novel’s central conflict and themes. (Reality is Not What it Seems also helped me frame my first article-length research paper as a grad student, so clearly, I have a bit of a love affair going on with the guy’s work.)
I expected The Order of Time to be another touchstone for me—another window flung open in my evolving understanding of contingency, agency, and the ways in which relationship appears to be the fundamental generative force behind our reality.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The concept of time that Rovelli outlines is both intuitive and mind-breaking. To put in my own decidedly non-scientific terms: Linear time is a result of missing information. It is a direct consequence of our limited perception as subjective participants in the universe’s drama. The many variables that we do not register whenever we interact with the world give rise to a “blurred” vision of reality, one that is blind to certain details. In Rovelli’s own words:
Both the sources of blurring—quantum indeterminacy, and the fact that physical systems are composed of millions of molecules—are at the heart of time. Temporality is profoundly linked to blurring. The blurring is due to the fact that we are ignorant of the microscopic details of the world. The time of physics is, ultimately, the expression of our ignorance of the world. Time is ignorance.
The stunning implication of this idea is that if we we were able to see things in wholes, not just the parts that are connected to us—if we were capable of perceiving every nuance of every interaction in the universe with perfect clarity as it happened—time would cease to exist in any meaningful sense.
In other words: Omniscience may be what renders God timeless.
Rovelli advances his theory using the scientific language of heat and entropy. As I read, I was reminded of the simple, intuitive idea that Lewis proposed in Mere Christianity:
If you picture Time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one: we have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave B behind. God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all.
What’s so beautiful to me about this proposition, whether you use the framework of Lewis’s thought experiment or Rovelli’s hard science, is the idea that God—containing and seeing all time at once—nevertheless chooses to inhabit our limitations. Through incarnation as Christ, and through the Holy Spirit’s presence in every living thing, God sees the whole and each separate part simultaneously; God is eternal and also a part of each instant that composes the eternal, because God voluntarily experiences creation through the perspective of every created being. Emmanuel (“God with us”) takes on entirely new meaning in this context.
Zeeya Merali’s wonderful Aeon article “How cosmic is the cosmos?” explores the same concept from a slightly different angle (and really should be read in its entirety):
Indian philosophers two millennia ago were faced with the same paradox as modern physicists: how can an unchanging reality hold within it observers that undergo change? The ancient philosophers’ solution … is that time ticks for humans because we have ‘cut ourselves out from God’. Once we do so, then from our individual perspective, experiencing reality as a separate being, the rest of the Universe starts to tick, evolving in time relative to each human being as an observer.
I wonder: Is this at the core of why practices like mindfulness and centering prayer are so effective at restoring clarity to our (en)tangled minds? Because by paying closer attention to the present as it happens—letting each moment be what it is, instead of noticing only where it intersects with our wants and needs—we inch closer to God’s perspective? The world becomes less blurred. The eternal bedrock of our own nature comes into focus. We forget our separateness, if only for a moment, and see with new eyes.
Even if time is ultimately a result of our ignorance, however, that doesn’t make it a thing to be resented or dismissed as illusory. If God created a universe subject to the experience of time, God did so on purpose, not by accident. Story wouldn’t be possible without it; music wouldn’t; growth wouldn’t; discovery wouldn’t; the act of creation itself arguably wouldn’t (and that’s where the rabbit hole really begins).
Most significantly, our ability to interact with the world as free-willed agents would be impossible without time.
If the eternal is our home, then time, it seems, is our teacher.
Rovelli goes on to say:
We are stories, contained within the twenty complicated centimetres behind our eyes, lines drawn by traces left by the (re)mingling together of things in the world, and orientated … towards the direction of increasing entropy.
This is the other revelation that floors me, for the following reason: Increased entropy brings with it increased possibilities.
Bear with me: In a state of high entropy, a system may break down, but in the sea of its dismantled parts, the potential for something new arises.
Entropy can be summarized with a crude illustration: An apple exists in a state of low entropy (order). When I eat it, the apple enters a state of high entropy (disorder) as the systems that formed it break down. When the systems of my body intermingle with those that formed the apple, they transform it into the energy I need (reorder).
The cosmos as a whole, scientists believe, is moving toward ever-higher forms of entropy (i.e. more disorder). That sounds frightening. But might it also indicate a world of greater possibility opening up around us?
God seems to consistently use chaos and disorder to create new things in the universe (life from death) and in our lives (growth from mistakes; good from bad situations). Entropy is therefore not just a negative but a generative force. It creates possibility. If the tangled systems of reality can be reordered—redeemed—over and over again, offered up as the building blocks of perpetual creation … isn’t that the very definition of grace?
This is the cycle by which the universe reuses matter and energy: order → disorder → reorder. This is how God shepherds the world.
And it’s this same pattern that gives rise to time.
I’m struggling to let that sink in. The thought that God is forever transforming our limitations into limitless potential is…
It’s incredible enough on its own. But when I think that we’re invited to assist with the process as co-creators, my tiny corner of reality, no matter how disheveled, suddenly feels like a canvas.
And my ignorance is reshaped, by divine ingenuity, into a gift.