CD Rollins has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a special interest in physics and the near-death experience. Rollins believes the fundamental laws of the universe, which allow life to exist, truly are the laws of God. He will not claim, as others may have, that new theories in physics support or even prove post-mortem survival of the human consciousness. He merely wishes to share some observations he made recently while reviewing some new developments in theoretical physics in the popular science magazine Discover (December, 2000 issue). There are some very interesting books on the subject of new theories in physics and consciousness such as, The Holographic Universe and The Physics of Consciousness. This is excellent reading. The following is a profile of his observations as they relate to the near-death experience.
Table of Contents
- The Paradox Defined
- The Reason for the Paradox
- The Near-Death Experience and the Paradox
- The Eternal Now
- Connecting It All Together
1. The Paradox Defined
First it would be appropriate to discuss modern physics for those who may not be familiar with it. Modern physics is a paradox created by two mutually exclusive theories. Both cannot be true, yet both have been shown by observation and laboratory experiment to be true. These two theories were born of the intense desire to locate two different objects in space and time.
The first object is the planet Mercury. Mercury has been observed by human beings since prehistory. As astronomers’ instruments became more precise they were able to more accurately predict the position of the planets in the sky. This led to new theories about the nature of the solar system: first the Ptolemaic system which placed Earth at the center of the universe was replaced by the Copernican system which put the sun at the center, and made Earth simply one of the planets. Soon Johannes Kepler developed his laws of planetary motion which described the orbits as ellipses rather than perfect circles, and from there Sir Isaac Newton was able to deduce the law of universal gravitation.
Newton’s laws appeared to completely describe the universe. The position of any object in space could be determined for any point in time with great precision. However as measurements of Mercury’s position became more exact, it was clear that they did not match the position predicted by Newton’s laws. Could Newton be wrong? The measurements of the planet’s position were uniformly off by about 43 arc seconds, barely enough to notice but enough for physicists to question Newton’s model of the universe.
The solution required Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Einstein’s theory changed the way physicists and astronomers view the universe. In Newton’s universe, time and space were absolutes. A mile was a mile, and an hour was an hour no matter where in the universe you measured it. Time and space formed a fixed, rigid, four dimensional coordinate system. In the new relativistic universe, time and space are flexible, and only the velocity of light is absolute. “Now” is not “now” everywhere in the universe since gravity distorts time and space. A mile is only a mile relative to the reference frame of the observer, likewise an hour. This is difficult for many people to understand because we are so used to seeing time and space as fixed. Einstein’s theory accurately predicts how the sun’s gravity warps space in its vicinity and causes Mercury’s position to be other than where Newton’s laws predict it to be.
The next object physicists tried to locate in space and time was the electron. The electron is a sub-atomic particle found orbiting the nuclei of atoms of which all matter is composed. Here physicists Heisenberg, Bohr, Schrodinger and others were not as successful as Einstein had been with Mercury. They found that it was impossible to know an electron’s speed and its location in space with exact precision. In fact the more you knew about its speed the less you could know its location and vice versa. The problem has nothing to do with the availability of precise laboratory equipment for making the measurements. The problem had to do with the nature of the universe itself. Imagine an electron detector of arbitrarily high precision and it will still not be able to tell you the exact speed and location of an electron. Whatever the physicist does to measure the speed of the electron changes its position and whatever he does to measure its position changes the speed. Thus quantum physics, a means of expressing the speed and position of sub-atomic objects in terms of statistical probability was born. The physicist can say an electron is about here in time and space and about this speed but not precisely both. In fact if he establishes the exact location of the electron it will have an equal probability of being at any speed from rest to the velocity of light, and if he establishes the exact speed, it will have an equal probability of being anywhere in the universe. This may seem difficult to believe, but it is true.
Strangely enough this quantum imprecision of the universe extends upwards to macroscopic objects such as tennis balls, people, planets and galaxies. Modern physics has discovered that it is impossible to say exactly where you are at any given moment, however the degree of imprecision for objects such as people is minute enough to be negligible. Only with very small objects such as electrons is it necessary to use probability to predict where an electron might be, rather than say it is here.
2. The Reason for the Paradox
So why the paradox? In simplest terms the paradox arises because of how relativity and quantum physics treat time and space. In relativity, time and space are relative to the observer. Einstein’s equations allow one to accurately transform position data from one reference frame to another. Quantum mechanics treats time and space as a rigid, fixed, four dimensional coordinate system, however it shows that it is impossible to place any object in this coordinate system with absolute precision. So either time and space are flexible and relative to the observer, or they are fixed and the observer’s position as well as what he is observing can only be stated as a probability.
Solving this paradox is the Holy Grail of modern physics. There are many theories: Supersymmetry (SUSY), Superstring, Higg’s Field, and various subsets of these and others, each competing to be heralded as the GUT (Grand Unified Theory) or TOE (Theory of Everything). Physicist Julian Barbour has introduced one unique theory that might solve the paradox. Barbour suggests that it might be possible to throw time out altogether. After all, what is time? It isn’t a substance, field, or particle that physics can measure. Is it simply a fundamental property of the universe? Barbour says no.
Barbour’s universe consists of an infinite number of “eternal nows” stretching from the Big Bang to the end of the universe (either by heat death, or super contraction, sometimes called the Big Crunch). Time is merely an illusion created by the human consciousness, which only sees one “now” at a time, as it moves along through all of the “nows” that make up its life. Somewhere in Barbour’s universe, which he calls Platonia, you are being born, attending your first day of school, going on your first date, and lying on your deathbed. However right now you are only aware of the you which is reading this essay and probably saying to yourself: “This guy has flipped his cork!”
Possibly I have. But according to Barbour, eliminating time as a fundamental property of the universe would remove much of the difficulty in uniting relativity with quantum physics and thereby slay the final dragon of science. Do other scientists agree? Surprisingly, many physicists and cosmologists think time will have to be left out of the final unified theory, and many suspect the concept of space may have to go as well.
3. The Near-Death Experience and the Paradox
So what has that got to do with the near-death experience. Perhaps everything:
“I was told that before we’re born, we have to take an oath that we will pretend time and space are real so we can come here and advance our spirit. If you don’t promise, you can’t be born.” (from Jeanie Dicus’ near-death experience, 1974)
“Space and time are illusions that hold us to our physical realm; out there all is present simultaneously.” (from Beverly Brodsky’s near-death experience, 1970)
“During this experience, time had no meaning. Time was an irrelevant notion. It felt like eternity. I felt like I was there an eternity.” (from Grace Bubulka’s near-death experience, 1988?)
“I didn’t know if I had been in that light for a minute of a day or a hundred years.” (from Jayne Smith’s near-death experience, 1965?)
“Earthly time had no meaning for me anymore. There was no concept of “before” or “after.” Everything – past, present, future – existed simultaneously.” (from Kimberly Clark-Sharp’s near-death experience, date unknown)
“Time could also be contracted, I found. Centuries would condense into seconds. Millenniums would shrink into moments. The entire civilization that I was part of passed by in the blink of an eye.” (from John Star’s near-death experience, date unknown)
“Time and space, as we know them, exist only on the Earth realm. When you leave the Earth realm, you leave such constraints.” (from P.M.H Atwater’s Beyond the Light)
And there are probably other, better examples from other near-death experiences. So what does this prove? Absolutely nothing. What does this imply? A great deal.
I find it difficult to accept that the above observations about time and space could have been generated by a malfunction of the right temporal lobe distorting these people’s time sense as some have suggested. In particular, Jeanie Dicus’ comment is downright astonishing. Compare her statement to this quote:
“…time is an illusion. The phenomena from which we deduce its existence are real, but we interpret them wrongly…” (from Julian Barbour 1999)
Now I’m not suggesting that Barbour has proven the case for survival. In fact I have no idea what he believes with regard to the afterlife. I am suggesting there is a startling connection between the words of a twenty-three year old mother in 1974 and a cutting edge theoretical physicist in 1999 that is not adequately explained by temporal lobe displacement. Dicus’ observation about time, and those of many other experiencers reveal insights into the possible nature of reality, unobtainable through normal means, barring prior in depth study of classical and quantum physics on their part.
4. The Eternal Now
So where does this leave us? Is there life after death? Neuroscience says no. Consciousness is a consequence of the brain which is a corruptible and ephemeral construction of simple matter. Paranormal experiences, such as near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, after-death communications, past-life memories, apparitions, possessions, and so on, suggest the opposite. A skeptic might easily dismiss these phenomena as superstitions, modern myth, or hallucinations, but such casual disregard for the voluminous anecdotal evidence is hardly scientific. More complex theories of near-death experiences based on neurophysiology explain some characteristics of the near-death experience but all break down at some point. They can’t explain everything. I humbly submit that there may be nothing wrong with our understanding of neuroscience (though it is still incomplete), but rather our concept of time. If Barbour is right, and time is an illusion, then the question of an “after” life is entirely inappropriate. Absent our notions of time, the terms “before” and “after” become meaningless.
At some point in the universe separated from the present “now” by time (and hopefully dear reader, many years of it) you are dead. So where are you? Do you cease to exist? Your consciousness has been moving steadily though all the “nows” of your life until it reaches the end, and then where does it go? Barbour’s theory gives us no reason to believe that it goes anywhere, but the work of Kevin Williams and other near-death experience researchers, such as Moody, Sabom, Ring, and Atwater, show that it might go somewhere, or some when or, like Heisenberg’s electron, to a point that cannot be described precisely as a time or place. Of course this other state of being, or consciousness (still not the right word but better than “place”), might still provide the illusion of time. Near-death experiencers’ reports of heavenly Earth-like environments in which there is some sense of subjective time indicates that this is the case.
There is more about near-death experiences and other psychic experiences that support the argument that time is illusory. Some experiencers, such as Dannion Brinkley, have made accurate predictions of the future. Psychics some times do this as well, and we are all familiar with the concept of déjà vu. These phenomena indicate that our consciousness may be linked to many “nows” or perhaps all “nows”, and that it, like the universe, is timeless. We are not, therefore, immortal in the sense that our consciousness goes on and on forever and ever, we are immortal in the sense that our consciousness exists outside of time itself. What spiritualists call “physical life”, is simply stepping through each “now” sequentially in a way that makes it seem as though we have a beginning and an end.
This idea may seem far-fetched but, for me, it has a certain logic. Barbour describes his platonia as being like a reel of movie film. Each “now” is a frame on the reel, and our consciousness simply moves through it. If this were so, then we’d have no free will. Our future would already be written and we’d be unable to do anything except step through each frame as helpless observers.
But many experiencers are informed by spiritual entities that they do indeed have free will and that, among other things, physical life is about exercising that free will. How is that possible if the future has already been determined? I must ask the reader to take another leap with me, and imagine that the universe exists not only as everything that is, everything that was, and everything that will be, but everything that could be and everything that might have been. In this universe God creates all possibilities and it is left to us to find our way through them by deciding through our choices which “now” we will experience.
Imagine that instead of a strip of film, the universe is an infinite checkerboard. Each square is a “now.” From where you stand in one “now” you can look behind you. This is called “memory”. You can look ahead of you and with your intellect guess accurately what might be in the “now” just ahead. Using the gift of intuition, you can see further ahead, perhaps just over the horizon. For most of us this intuitive look over the horizon comes from our sub-conscious as a gut feel. For psychics gifted with prophecy, the look ahead comes as a vision or dream. But not all prophecies come true. That’s because the “now” they saw may never happen if decisions which lead to that particular “now” are made differently. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we see the shadows of things that might be, not the shadows of things that must be.
Of course our model is too simple. A checkerboard arrangement makes each “now” come with five possible decisions (against the rules to move backwards). Obviously, some “nows” in our lives come with more than five possible moves. Therefore, try to imagine each square replaced with an irregular polygon of n sides, where n = the number of possible decisions that you can make. Now let us represent the likelihood of each decision by the length of the side. The longer that side, the more likely you will make that decision. Scientific naturalists sometimes deny human free will and claim that our behavior is based on genetics and the environment, neither of which are under our control. I am not denying research that shows that much of our behavior is genetically based or influenced by our environment, particularly in early childhood. Rather, I am stating that these factors merely help shape the decision polygon, making some choices more likely than others. I see our physical brains as shaping our reality and guiding our decisions; however, in each “now” we still may make any decision available in our decision polygon. While nature and nurture affect the length of each side, it is our own decisions and those of others which affect the actual number n, of each “now” polygon.
5. Connecting It All Together
Another theme repeatedly stressed in transcendental near-death experiences is the interconnectivity of the universe. In our new model of the universe, we can see that as we step through each “now” making decisions, or not making them (which as the song says “you still have made a choice”), our decisions affect the possible decisions available to others, and likewise their decisions affect us. My decision to marry eliminates many of my future decisions, and those of my wife, but it also opens up new decisions such as whether or not to have children. Somewhere in the universe there is a “now” polygon in which I die unmarried and childless. Since I am married and have a child I can not reach this “now” polygon, likewise my wife cannot reach the one in which she dies unmarried and childless.
We are all connected to the same “now” but each of our “nows” is not the same shape, or has the same number of sides. Throughout our lives we step through these “now” polygons, usually only barely aware of what lies before us, although as stated earlier, sometimes we are allowed to cheat just a bit. Eventually, however, we will each come to a polygon where n = 0. When this happens we die. There is no where left on the game board to maneuver. Sometimes this is caused by another’s decision, a murderer, sometimes we take n to zero ourselves, a suicide. But most often nature at some point relieves us of all decisions. We can no longer move forward and so our life ends. Absent the evidence provided by paranormal research it would be simple enough to conclude that our consciousness does not exist outside the many “nows” that it occupies. Indeed it seems to be Barbour’s opinion that consciousness itself exists in discrete, frozen instants of brain states, and that nothing, not even consciousness “moves” as I have described it as stepping through “nows.” But something gives us at least the appearance that we are moving from the past into the future. So perhaps my theory is not as half-baked as it sounds. Each frozen brain state is the lens through which our consciousness (or perhaps super-consciousness) views reality.
The near-death experience indicates that indeed some form of consciousness might exist, perhaps on an entirely new game board full of “nows” or perhaps in one big super-“now” that stretches to infinity. The “nows” in these new realms of existence may not be polygons, but instead be smooth fluid shapes that can move around on their own, or blend and merge with other “nows”, or fission into infinite new “nows.” Time may move differently, perhaps at right angles to our current perception of time, or perhaps along some oblique angle. The geometry of reality in these other realms must be beyond our imagining.
Also our consciousness may step down, back into a “now” in the physical universe when a child is born. This is sometimes called reincarnation. Wherever our consciousness touches this reality, creating “nows” we see our past and future lives.
Is my model of reality true? Maybe. After all, it is only a model, and all models break down at some point. Jeanie Dicus said that before creation, before time itself began, we all took an oath before God to pretend that time and space are real. If she is right then I must have been there too, standing along side all of the rest of you. Having taken the pledge I have no choice but to abide by it, using only my feeble powers of intuition to glimpse over the horizon at the potential “nows” ahead. I take comfort in hoping that when for me, n = 0, the veil will be lifted and I will stand outside these “nows” we call physical life to journey through new “nows” or whatever lies beyond.