Complexity and the Limits of Imagination

I’ve harped on these themes before, but what the heck. It’s only opinionating but I like it.

Two items intertwined in my mind to form the double helix of this thread. One is time travel, the other is an atheist’s conversion to Catholicism. What they both have in common are the twin titles of this post: Complexity, and the Limits of Imagination.

I’ve been guilty many times of indulging in the fantasy of time travel, and have written some stories in the genre, knowing full well how absurd an idea it is, but unable to resist and usually unwilling to look too closely into it. I came across the notion recently (I wish I could remember where, and link to it) about how “time” not only does not exist, but cannot possibly exist. What we have is not “time” as we know it, but an infinity of seemingly concurrent changes taking place around us constantly. All you really need to do is look outside. Let’s assume you can see a tree, and on that tree there are leaves (jjust budding out now, as it’s the beginning of springtime in your clime, let us say). Those leaves are each in their own state – at the moment – and are changing their state, growing, living, fading, dying as they do through the seasons. Now to “go back in time”, each of those leaves would have to revert to the state they were in at that supposed “time”. That’s just one tree. Seriously, that tree not only houses leaves, but bark and trunk and branches, and all of those are made up of atoms, molecules, protons, neutrons, all the way down the line. Each of the subatomic particles forming each of those atoms would need to revert the QUANTUM state they were in at that so-called “time”. Quantum being the operative word, because by definition that state CANNOT BE KNOWN at that level. Add the other trees, the weeds, plants and flowers in your neighborhood, and build up from there the entire world, solar system, galaxy, universe and so on. Of course we can’t even begin to do that. We can’t even begin to imagine the basic elements of that one tree! We might think we can imagine, but even the hardiest imaginer would have to confess, sooner or later, that infinity is hard to count up to. So, while the idea of time travel is fun, it’s also ridiculous. Every “moment” is already Humpty Dumpty, and can already not be put back together again, because it never is together in the first place.

Just because our imaginations are limited does not mean that the thing(s) we’re trying to imagine do not exist. This is perhaps the best argument in favor of the potential existence of God. “It could happen!” (shrug). Who knows? Who can say? A science fiction writer had a near-death experience followed by a conversion experience which led him to find God and start a heated debate on his blog wherein he and atheists engage in dispute. Now, lots of people have conversion experiences, sometimes accompanying crises and sometimes not, and there’s really no reason by one person’s experience should be taken as any sort of proof of anything by anybody else. One of his main arguments reminds me of Niezsche’s warning that “life is no argument, for the conditions of life could include error.” This man says: “You are also implying that the human race, all of whom believe in gods, ghosts, magic and miracles of one sort or another, except for that exquisitely tiny minority of persons who are consistent atheists, just so happened to have all made the same lapse of judgment in the matter of paramount and foundational importance in their lives, and continue to do so”. I wonder if he really wants to include ghosts and magic in the same category as God, but doesn’t a lot of it come down to the limits and restrictions of the human imagination? Base any argument on “what most people believe” and you’ll come perilously close to awarding the definition of “greatness” as being “Justin Bieber”. It’s not a “lapse of judgment” to believe in something. It may just be the way the human mind works. It’s useful. As far as I know, there has never been any independent evidence presented – that is, by a species other than humans. Does any other species of creature in the universe believe in God or is it a human invention? I would be very interested to know what parrots believe in – if faith is of any use to them – or any other creature of this planet, for that matter. I cling to the quaint notion that humans are animals of Earth, sharing most of the same DNA as many other animals, as well as the same habits (eating, sleeping, waking, breathing, dreaming, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, reproducing and raising our young … stuff like that). It could be that failing to believe in God is a limit of imagination on my part. Or, on the contrary, taking everything you cannot conceive of or understand and assigning it to some one big bucket called God could also be a fail. I’m just going to say, along with Dirty Harry, that “a man’s got to know his limitations”, and leave it at that.


One thought on “Complexity and the Limits of Imagination

  1. I like time travel fiction, I think it makes a fascinating playground for ideas. I like your thought of a time traveler returning to a universe that is the same state as a moment in the traveler’s past, but, because of quantum uncertainty, does not unfold from that point in the same way as the traveler’s original time line.

    For example, if a time traveler returned to the morning of November 22, 1963 with the intent of preventing the assassination of John Kennedy he or she could find that by noon the time lines had diverged sufficiently that Oswald wasn’t firing from the same window that he chose in our world.

    As for the other, I was raised Atheist myself, but converted to Theism in my 30’s, because I think it’s the best theory that fits the facts as I understand them. Other people, of course, have reached other conclusions.


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