Abhishek Kothari



What The Collapse Of Our Ideas Of Space And Time Teaches Us

Callum Wale on Unsplash
The role played by time at the beginning of the universe is, I believe, the final key to removing the need for a Grand Designer, and revealing how the universe created itself. … Time itself must come to a stop. You can’t get to a time before the big bang, because there was no time before the big bang. We have finally found something that does not have a cause because there was no time for a cause to exist in. For me this means there is no possibility of a creator because there is no time for a creator to have existed. Since time itself began at the moment of the Big Bang, it was an event that could not have been caused or created by anyone or anything. … So when people ask me if a god created the universe, I tell them the question itself makes no sense. Time didn’t exist before the Big Bang, so there is no time for God to make the universe in. It’s like asking for directions to the edge of the Earth. The Earth is a sphere. It does not have an edge, so looking for it is a futile exercise — Stephen Hawking

There have been many developments in science and technology that have taken the world by storm. Understandably, the ones that make the most headlines include Artificial Intelligence (AI), gene editing techniques such as CRISPR and RNA interference, Blockchains and Quantum Computing. However, there are other developments that fly below the radar until they are publicized by the mainstream media. One such development has been our re-examination of the concepts of space and time in light of Einstein’s theory of relativity and our attempts at commercializing quantum physics. This article explains how our understanding of the fundamental concepts of space, time and the space time continuum have radically transformed. It also explains how similar concepts have been explored in ancient religious texts albeit in ancient languages and thereby attempts to bridge science and spirituality in another example of a continuum we are ceaselessly attempting to comprehend. It ends by questioning our rabid pursuit of things we so believe to be true that we are willing to sacrifice another humans’ life over what we believe is true. You see, the thing with science, is that no matter how advanced our body of knowledge becomes-when all else is done, only one thing remains and that is ‘doubt’. A gnawing feeling that there is something out there that we may have missed out- a small window to a whole new world out there if we are brave enough to have an open mind. Many ancient religious texts talk about universal and eternal (timeless) truths that we seek to understand. All of our collective pursuits which may follow different paths, call them science or spirituality, are then attempts to uncover these eternal truths from different vantage points. The world, then, becomes eternal and timeless and our concept of time just a very small crutch we rely on to understand what is truly timeless. Imagine a world where we are ‘ahistorical’ or unsullied by the memories of our mistakes and we only live in the present (The here and now) which in turn is based on non-violence, respect for plurality of thought and a love for all living beings. Doesn’t take much to realize what we are missing today.

What Are Space and Time?

In his new book ‘The Order Of Time’ Carlo Rovelli takes a hard look at our concept of time or what we think space and time are. Then, he goes on to reveal why what we think is not true at all. While I am not attempting to distill everything in the book, I am wholeheartedly recommending a reading of the book. I am using what I learnt from the book to connect the dots in my mind in the hope that the connection will help you in understanding the world as well.

Before we understand the harder parts of space and time, we need to understand the basics. Classical physics helps us understand space and time on a very intuitive level. Space has three dimensions ie the directions of our motion. They are up/down , forward/backward and left/right. All other dimensions are derivative of these three just as every color is a derivative of the primary colors. Add a fourth dimension of time to the three vectors space and you get spacetime. Classical physics treated space as a three dimensional entity and time to be an entity independent of space.

For a long time in the 20th century, science believed the universe was three dimensional. As per Wikipedia, its spatial expression in terms of coordinates, distances, and directions was independent of the dimension of time. It wasn’t until Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity that spacetime became a ‘four’ dimensional entity.

In physics, spacetime is any mathematical model that fuses the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time into a single four-dimensional continuum. Spacetime diagrams can be used to visualize relativistic effects such as why different observers perceive where and when events occur.

Now, let me ask you: ‘did you know time moves faster in the mountains than it does in the plains even if by a few milliseconds?’ When the earth revolves around the sun, it changes the ‘gap’ (also known as ‘spacetime’) between itself and the sun. The effect of this change is more pronounced in areas of the earth that are closer to the earths mass ie the plains or low lying areas than the mountains. This is because the mass of the Earths ‘bends’ and slows down time. Therefore, time passes slowly in the plains than in the mountains. So, expect your friend living in the mountain to age faster than a friend living in the plains.

This simple example will illustrate how what we believe about time and space is all subject to unraveling and new explanations.

The simple moral of the story is this : if physics and science are subject to self doubt and revision, can our behavior also toe the same line?

So, the next time you become angry at someone or think what they believe in is wrong, just ask yourself this: is there a small sliver of doubt you could be completely wrong and that there is something out there that you don’t know? The power of saying ‘I don’t know’ is the power of opening up your mind to infinite possibilities. One such possibility is completely changing our view of the world just as Copernicus and Einstein helped us do. It requires guts to say I don’t know and unshakeable discipline to find out the truth. However, it surprises me that there is hardly anyone who happily says ‘ I don’t know’. This is our biggest weakness — a display of confidence without evidence or boasting to know something based on incomplete knowledge. Imagine a world full of such ‘feigned’ expertise. Let’s take another very similar example. Tim Maudlin, a physicist thinks you cannot apply concept of space as a dimension to time and say that time is also a dimension because time has intrinsic directionality ie it moves from the past to the future. In space however, top down and down to top are the same.

Believe you me, it has helped me understand my own biases and mistakes and start respecting everyone more. I have come to respect and love plurality of thought. I have been gladly proven wrong many times over but I have won the love of my fellow humans.

The other learning is that if we stick to our old ‘memory’ based on incorrect dogma, such as the sun revolves around the earth as opposed to what Copernicus taught us is the other way around, we risk being grossly blind about the world around us. The important thing is not only to learn how to learn but also to be selectively ‘ahistorical’ or unlearn the wrong things and wipe our slates clean about beliefs that have been clearly and widely proven to be false. This has important implications on designs of AI systems.

The third learning which is about a higher purpose is slightly difficult to grasp. When Einstein and Oppenheimer created the atomic bomb and then used it, they realized what they had created. The bigger learning or the higher purpose was to then ‘tame’ the energy to help mankind instead of letting it run amok and assuring mutual destruction. This is where spirituality steps in. In fact, Oppenheimer is quoted as saying: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. This is a line from the 700 verse Hindu treatise ‘The Bhagvad Gita’ written in Sanskrit. The moral of the story here is this:

Just as space and time were considered separate entities until Einstein proved otherwise and introduced us to the spacetime continuum, science and spirituality in my mind are not different entities but a continuum. Spirituality has to guide scientific efforts towards a more humane outcome. The people creating new and exponential technologies have to think through their creations ‘relative’ to the weakest sections of humanity.

The Concept Of Eternal Truths

First, let me say I love, respect and try to practice the central tenets of all religions. To me, all religions are equal and are a code of conduct to being a good human first and then to live for a higher purpose call it salvation or liberation of the soul. I grew up in a country with more religions than you can count — India. I celebrate all the festivals from Christmas, Eid, Hanukkah to Diwali with my friends which were ‘born’ into these faiths.

Second, the more I read the more I realize the deep similarities in all religions and cannot help but wonder if they are all following the same eternal truths of love for your fellow humans and dedication to a good way of life. Forget religion, it is universally understood using the commonest of senses that we classify deeds (Karma in hindi) as good and bad. You have to atone for your bad karma by doing good until the books balance and your soul is free. Its a very simple concept to grasp.

Thirdly, I chose Jainism only for illustrative purposes of this article because it articulated the concepts of space, time, inertia millennia before modern science as we know it had defined these concepts. Therefore, it gives me a beautiful clue to think that science and spirituality are part of the same continuum or search towards eternal truths.

Let me give you an example — Jain texts (approximately 4000 years ago) were written in a language called Ardhamagadhi which is older than Sanskrit. At that time as it does today, Jainism asked its followers to not eat root vegetables or vegetables that grow below the ground (eg potatoes, onions etc.) because it would destroy the lives of microscopic organsims that live on these vegetables. The amazing thing is that it advocated this practice millennia before science had even invented the microscope and we even knew that life existed at a microscopic level. Of course, many, including modern day Jains would consider this an impossible diet to follow. I can see many of my readers smiling in agreement.

However, my personal takeaway is this: do all religions codify eternal truths that science is on a journey to uncover? Can science learn and include learnings from world religions. The answer I believe is a resounding yes.

In my humble opinion, there are a couple of true challenge in front of designers of AI systems today:

  1. How can we design AI that thinks like humans do when we don’t yet understand how our OWN brain works?
  2. Even if we design AI capable of thinking exactly like we do, how do we imbibe them with an intellect unsullied by memory and narrow man made identities ie how do we make AI not just like us but like the best version of us that various religions are helping us become?

The second question is a very profound question because it uncovers the steepness of our learning curve when it comes to designing AI algorithms.

What The World Can Learn

Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation and a modern proponent of non-violence based his philosophy on the works of a Jain scholar -Srimad Rajchandra.

Srimad (1867–1901) was a practitioner of Jainism. The ancient Indian religion and set of ideas called Jainism is based on the fundamental concepts of Aparigraha (non-attachment to material things), anekantvada (a respect for all beliefs or plurality of thought) and Ahimsa (non-violence). Jainism believes that a respect for all beliefs and plurality of thought breeds love and non-violence because you respect everyone’s views and welcome one and all with open arms. These principles guided Gandhi and many of his disciples — Dr Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and many others to use non-violence as the bedrock of their struggle. To support my earlier thesis about eternal truths, Gandhi is also quoted as saying :

I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could.

Think about modern Artificial Intelligence algorithms today. You quickly realize that the eternal truths codified by ancient Jainism are never more important than today. Modern AI algorithms have to be unbiased or based on anekantavada. They have to assimilate and respect plurality of thought which means they have to embrace Ahimsa or non-violence towards living beings. Finally, as they approach more awareness, robots need to treat humans as their partners if not masters as they do today. Otherwise, Singularity will lead to evil robots attempting to rule the world. In that sense, they have to detach themselves from the pursuit of absolute power ie they have to embrace aparigraha or detachment from hedonistic pursuits and vices as outlined in Jainism.

Many scientists and philosophers have embraced the unity of science and religion as the essence of progress. Albert Einstein in his most celebrated essay beautifully spelt out this belief. The following words come from Einstein’s essay “Science and religion,” published in 1954:

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

At the time, humanity understood the Janus like quality of nuclear energy which could be a devastating weapon of mass destruction but if harnessed well, it could also be a source of limitless energy. Think nuclear fusion-creating energy out of heavy water using the process of the Sun ie fusing atoms instead of splitting them. Similarly, all disruptive technologies are double edged swords. The question that arises then is this: how to we mould technologies by including empathy, unbiased thought and hedonistic pursuits when we have not even perfected those ourselves? Think about this : we are building ‘intellect’ (buddhi in Sanskrit) in our algorithms. What we should be building is ‘intellect unburdened and therefore unbound by a narrow identity’ or totally unbiased way of thinking — a way of thinking we have not been able to achieve for centuries. Think about the magnitude of our endeavor here.

The answer is deceptively simple to know but almost impossible to codify: we build algorithms using existing human logic because today-the best example of intelligent life form is humans but we mould the existing human logic. Otherwise, algorithms will simply recreate existing faults of humanity and perhaps magnify them.

Instead, we use spirituality in our logic to take the bias out of the data and logic. We rely on ancient and eternal truths codified in our spiritual texts to guide the algorithms on how to behave. We can use data to train the algorithms to think like we do but then take the edge off when we spot bias. However, this means creating algorithms that are selectively ‘ahistorical’ ie which are without memory of our sins and foolish man made divisions but know how to think like we do. In doing so, in the words of Einstein, we help science become less ‘lame’ but more human. Of course, the time to do so is here and now.

I am deeply indebted to these books which are excellent additional references for the curious:

1. Jainism by Jeffrey D Long

2. The Order Of Time by Carlo Rovelli

More by Abhishek Kothari

Topics of interest

More Related Stories