Books: Nothing to lose but their watches

Conversations About the End of Time edited by Catherine David, Frederic Lenoir and Jean-Philippe de Tonnac Allen Lane pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
The millennium ain't what it used to be. Forget the trivial arguments about whether it's 2001 rather than 2000; either choice is quite arbitrary. No, the millennium in Christian thought is actually a thousand years of peace before the Last Judgement. No one seriously imagines that a thousand years of peace is going to be obtained any time soon.

Conversations About the End of Time is a fragmentary symposium of interviews in which four thinkers - palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, historian Jean Delumeau, screenwriter and author Jean-Claude Carriere, and semiological flaneur Umberto Eco - riff freely on concepts of millennial fear, time's arrow and religious apocalypse. The book spends far too much time on the incipient misnamed "millennium", but there are gems scattered around in the mess. Gould, for instance, laudably envisages an "ecological ethics" that is focused on the human time-scale, rather than worrying about whether we'll destroy the planet. "The earth itself isn't in any danger," he insists cheerfully. "It's already experienced great explosions that were much more powerful than anything all our bombs are capable of producing."

Delumeau notes that the concept of time as a linear "vector" with a beginning and an end is an invention of Judaeo-Christian thought. Time will cease after the Last Judgement, when resurrected man will live for eternity, chronologic shackles burst asunder. In contrast, this book's most entertaining speaker, Carriere, is fascinated by other traditions, in between illuminating discussions of grammatical tenses and digital watches. Hinduism thinks in terms of enormous cycles of time that are millions of years long and endlessly repeat themselves; while Buddhism teaches, mind-bogglingly, that the universe annihilates and reconstitutes itself from one moment to the next. Frustratingly, Carriere's most interesting points shine momentarily and are then borne away on the inexorable current of conversation.

The problem of time was always very popular with poets: as a clever way of getting women into bed, or as both a challenge to, and the only vehicle of, the endurance of genius: time is mentioned obsessively - 86 times - in Shakespeare's sonnets. And history teaches that people have regularly imagined the world to be at the end of its tether. Even in what we now call the Renaissance, civilisation was thought to be tired, old, and on the way out. Luther wrote: "We have reached the age of the pale horse of the Apocalypse ... the world will not last another hundred years." Of course it did. But why are such predictions so common? It is as if the unbearable, terrifying thought is not that the universe will stop but precisely that it will keep going for ever. Apocalyptic thought is an attempt to cut the universe down to size, to project upon it our own mortality. Umberto Eco insists lugubriously here that "meditation on death ought to be the central subject of any philosophy". (Sadly, Eco's contribution demonstrates the drawbacks of this book's conversational method, as he gets away with far too much nonsense, such as the simply untrue claim that "no one has suggested that we adopt a new musical notation".)

What all the speakers here are agreed on is that for thousands of years mankind has been sick with time. One cure would be to convince ourselves that time just does not exist: a question that this book only glances at momentarily. Sextus Empiricus, in around 200 BC, recorded an ingenious "proof" that time cannot exist, which relied on the argument that the present cannot be defined as either divisible (because then one bit of it wouldn't be the present at all) or indivisible (because then it would have no beginning to link it to the past, nor any end to link it to the future).

Borges took up the problem in his 1946 essay "A New Refutation of Time" - a beautifully ironic title, because if time doesn't exist, nothing can be "new". The thrust of Borges's playful argument is to extrapolate from Berkeleian idealism - if it is true that, apart from our sensory perceptions of them, all external objects, and space itself, have no independent existence, then there is no reason to suppose that time can be spared from this ruthless pruning of entities.

By this time, of course, the work of Einstein had already chipped away at time's monument by proving that there is no such thing as absolute simultaneity, and that time passes at different rates depending on how fast you are travelling. Further work proved that there just is no universal "clock".

But now someone seriously wants to do away even with our relative clocks. Physicist Julian Barbour will later this month publish The End of Time (Weidenfeld), in which he argues, to put it crudely, that the universe is a vast, still soup in which all possible moments coexist. Quantum fluctuations in the fabric of reality bind together a special selection of these instants in an order that we perceive as the flow of time, but it is thoroughly illusory.

Now that's more like a real "end of time". This position has pleasing implications. Who cares about numbers on a calendar? Time can't come to an end because it never existed in the first place. Come to think of it, I needn't have worried about writing this book review in time to meet my deadline. As for you, you're already dead, and in fact you already never existed. So why worry?