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Kevin Bermeister

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Time Travel, Your Mother and the Limits of Science

Posted: 10/17/11 10:12 AM ET

What would happen if you traveled back in time and killed your mother before she gave birth to you? That would mean you could never be born, in which case, how could you have traveled back in time?

This riddle of cause-and-effect, while fun to spend a few hours scratching your head over, has never had much relevance in the real world. But it's been in the headlines in the last few weeks, as particle physicists have gathered evidence that sub-atomic particles called neutrinos may travel faster than light. Why is this such a big deal? Well, a direct result of faster-than-light travel, according to Einstein's theory of relativity, is time-travel: A light signal, and therefore information, could arrive at its destination before it had even been sent! Such nonsensical, "causality violating" situations, in which an effect occurs before the thing that caused it, would send the edifice of science crashing down. As Alvaro De Rújula, a theorist at CERN, the group that conducted the experiment, said, "If it is true, then we truly haven't understood anything about anything."

The finite, physical universe is a different thing altogether from the infinite, eternal backdrop of which the universe is merely a part. They may be related, but we do not know how, nor can we: Science and math, both useful systems of understanding, are finite, so they can never describe the infinite. There is a real chance that the longed-for union of the physical with the metaphysical will never come to be. The finite and the infinite may very well remain irreconcilable by the materialistic theories of science. If they do, we should hardly be surprised. Indeed, at the sub-atomic level of science, the more we know, the less we know -- quite literally, as progress depends on our ability to measure particles at ever decreasing scales. In this theoretical realm, in which evanescent, miniscule flashes of energy are interpreted as the signatures of ultimate reality, the line between belief and science is easily smudged. And while there are undoubtedly benefits to understanding the sub-microscopic world, there are also costs: A society that believes that the ultimate source of reality can be apprehended through the cold tools of science risks losing a valuable part of its humanity.

Where knowledge enhances and improves life, there should we apply our intellects. But when the pursuit of knowledge begins to resemble speculation, science has crossed a border into a different field altogether -- that of philosophy. Those who read the headlines and naively champion the methods of science remain unaware of these branch points. They are fooled by the subterfuge of the quasi-scientific, and take comfort from the apparent ability of science to discern the universe's infinite origin. But perhaps now that we have seen hints that the laws of physics break down, and that the universe might not enforce Einstein's cosmic speed limit all that strictly, how will we react? Will we once again launch into obsessive, metaphysical speculation that takes us further and further from reality? Or will we shore up the little we do know and apply it to the actual conditions of our lives?

Just as, in our day, scientists publish evidence-based papers in scientific journals, the philosophers, religious scholars, sages and prophets who came before us recorded their voyages into the metaphysical. Jewish mysticism offers a vast system for contemplating ultimate reality. Over many millennia, despite obscurity, persecution and deprivation, Jewish scholars continued to investigate this reality, the one we all live in, in works that offer profound insights even in the current age. But the headlines distract us from our heritage. "Subterfuge science" too often convinces people that the modern metaphysics of quantum speculation are better informed than religious traditions as old as history, and have something more meaningful to offer. When trying to comprehend the blurred no-man's-land between physics and metaphysics, in which the frontier of science operates, it is all too easy for modern people to close their minds to tradition and cite the newest, most preliminary of scientific results as proof that science provides a more comprehensive point of view than religion.

Sometimes it is the very profligacy of science that is the problem. We see enormous amounts of new information every day: data amplification, comparative analyses and pattern detection, all suggesting new directions for investigating reality. We struggle to make sense of the world, but the glut of information that is an inescapable fact of life in the Internet age can make this harder, not easier. Our heads are swimming with information. And so we make snap decisions, and any decision that is not fully and carefully considered will inevitably impact our lives in a negative way.

For example, as children we are taught that the earth revolves around the sun. But this isn't strictly true: The sun and earth rotate around their shared central point of mass like dancing bodies in space, sensitively poised to affect each other. This small, but significant, mistake, introduced in childhood, leaves the adult with a misperception about the world that gets repeated and passed down the generations.

Despite the great strides that man has made in the past few hundred years, we still can say what Socrates said long ago: that the wisest man is the man who is most aware of his own ignorance. And science, as useful and impressive as it is, nonetheless must remain a finite system. At its edge, indeed, is ignorance. So do we rely on the incomplete approximations of science, rejecting religion? Do we assume that the great minds of the prophets and sages of centuries past, who devoted their lives to the study of the metaphysics that science is just now beginning to brush up against, were less sophisticated than we are? That the intellects that defined the world's major religious paradigms were deficient?

Time is strange. It is the one dimension in which we can only travel forward -- we could not, even if we wanted to, journey to the past to murder a parent. Nor can we halt the stream of time, even for a moment. It is always passing us by. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote,

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

Before the tune ends -- before it is too late -- we should have the courage and humility to realize that, for all our vanity and the vaunting ambitions of science, our highest goal should remain to leave the world, when we depart it, better, brighter and more worthy for those who come after.


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