Black Holes and the End of Time

I can remember that, as a child, I had a great interest in the cosmos. I was fascinated with ideas about what might be out there, and I read books and articles about the universe and its wonders. Ever since then, my desire to know more about the nature of reality has done much to shape my thoughts and actions. Until I enrolled in Astronomy 102 for this fall semester, however, I’d not done much at all to gain any deeper understanding of the cosmos since I’d been just a child. Studying the universe in this class has provided me with a reawakened interest in the cosmos, but I’ve found myself a bit disillusioned by what I’ve learned thus far. The most significant source of frustration for me in my search for an understanding of the universe has been a book that I began to read a few weeks into this semester, The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking. Ideas in this book from the uncertainty principle to singularities and brane worlds seem to be at once contradictory and counterintuitive. If you please, Mr. Hawking, allow me to retort.

Hawking begins this book with a chapter describing the theory of relativity and its history, including much about Albert Einstein and his life. I’ve always considered Einstein one of my personal heroes, and I’m able to agree with much of what Hawking states in this first chapter. My first quarrels with Hawking’s ideas, however, began as I read this chapter. Hawking claims that time comes to an end in black holes because gravity forces matter in a black hole to form a singularity, a body with no size and infinite mass. His claim is that time stands still because it becomes impossible to predict the behavior of matter once it has been “trapped” by a black hole. My first complaint is that it seems incredibly self-centered to believe that because we cannot know what happens to matter in a black hole, the information about that matter is lost to the universe. The idea of a singularity is awfully far-fetched, as it seems obvious that for a thing to have any mass at all, it must have some size, however small it may be. In the past, it was believed that the atom was the smallest unit of matter, then atomic particles, and now quarks. It seems to me that it would be entirely possible that there is, in fact, a small, indivisible unit of matter that forms the body of a black hole, and the phenomenon of black holes would be explained by the gravity that results from the infinitely dense and small configuration of these units (whether they be quarks or some smaller units).

Beyond the supposition that we might have some definitive answer to the question of what the basic building block of the universe is, I think that it is absurd to say that because we cannot predict what might become of matter in a black hole, time for that matter ceases to exist. The ideas that come from the general theory of relativity with regard to time as a universal phenomenon versus time for “any freely moving observer” seems to be shortsighted. The speed at which certain processes occur changes based on the circumstances surrounding their occurrence, resulting in experiences that would seem to indicate differing rates in the passage of time. The idea of universal time seems to be rather easily discarded by Hawking and many others based simply on the fact that certain things happen at different rates due to the effects of gravity, etc. Time has forever been a relative system of quantification, a means of comparing the duration of one process’s occurrence to another’s, but the inherent problems is that there is no process in the universe that occurs at a constant rate with the exception, possibly, of light travel. Our most accurate means of measuring the passage of time, however, are still based on processes whose rates of occurrence still are not perfectly constant, such as atomic decay and quartz movement. The fact that time under varying circumstances is experienced differently, whether by human consciousness or by atomic decay, says nothing to the fact that, throughout the universe, time is constant in that all things must pass through a consecutive order of events, regardless of the number of events that might occur for any other thing in the universe.

A related argument is that of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This principle suggests that the more accurately one can predict the position of a particle, the less accurately one can predict its speed, or vice versa. Einstein was reported to have said, in answer to this idea, that “God does not play dice.” Hawking, among others, argues that God must, in fact, play dice, as particles obviously cannot have a specific speed and position. It is also suggested that, because it cannot be known what path a particle may take from one position to another, it is reasonable to assume that particles will travel through all possible paths from one position to another. This assertion results in all sorts of absurd ideas including those of imaginary time and multiple histories that make sense if one believes that particles don’t behave well. Simply because the speed and position of a given particle cannot be known with certainty does not mean that the given particle does not have a definite speed and position. I am in complete agreement with Einstein on this issue; I do not believe that God plays dice. Reality is not dependent on whether or not math can predict something; reality is dependent only on itself. A particle’s existence alone is enough to prove that it will have a position and speed relative to the rest of the universe, regardless of whether or not that position and/or speed can ever be known within that universe. Mathematics provides tools for understanding the universe, but, just as in every other situation, flawed equations will produce flawed results. The universe will occur as it will, and simply because we cannot know exactly how it has occurred does not mean that it occurred in every possible way.

Having written all of that, it occurs to me that this paper lacks structure. I don’t really know that I’ve followed any specific line of thought, but rather I’ve simply vented all of my discontent at having read Hawking’s book. That in mind, I must say that I have learned much from this process. I have learned a great deal about what modern theories state about the universe and reality, and I have learned that those modern theories do not seem to be able to provide me with the types of answers for which I am looking. I am a philosopher, and these men are scientists and mathematicians. I am not concerned with quantitative aspects of truth; I am concerned with the qualitative principles that describe those quantitative aspects. Learning more about what is known and believed has led me to a deeper understanding of what I know and believe for myself, which is important enough for me, even if it is not in agreement with what modern thinkers believe. Studying in this astronomy class has allowed me an opportunity to know at least one thing with some certainty: I shall not pursue an understanding of the universe or reality through the medium of science any more than I shall look to science to tell me what my favorite color is.

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