Sunday, May 03, 2009

Waiting for Time to Come

Why God is like an alien, and when we will arrive at the promised land ...

All things, it used to be said, will come to those who wait. That may have been a common attitude in Biblical or medieval times, but it is rather rare in this present age of speed and continual change. Now we are much more likely to go out and get what we want when we want it -- or better yet, place an order online and expect next day delivery by FedEx. Yet even now there are times when we have no choice but to wait.

One example? How about contacting the nearest race of alien beings in our galactic neighborhood. As you may have noticed, we haven't heard from any of them yet, unless you believe in Roswell, and the most likely reason for that is the huge length of time it takes for any information to travel between the stars.

Instead of wondering why no one has called yet, we only have to turn the question around. Why haven't we called them? Our species has only become capable of sending interstellar signals within the past hundred years -- after spending ten millennia gradually acquiring the technology to do so. And even now we are only broadcasting by accident, because our radio and TV signals just happen to go out in all directions. We have yet to organize a methodical project to aim a transmission at specific nearby stars, something that might make it easier for someone to notice us.

Our assumption is that we are much more likely to pick up signals from civilizations far more advanced than ours, because it would be so unlikely that any other planets in the vicinity just happened to come of age at the exact same time as ours. And so we are spending our time listening, and so far in vain.

But what if our nearest neighbors are more than 50 light years away? By galactic standards that's just up the road, but it still takes light or radio or any other kind of electromagnetic waves 50 years to get there, and another 50 to come back. Our neighbors may be listening to us right now, but from their point of view Mr. Marconi is still assembling his wireless and we have not invented TV yet, much less radio telescopes.

Or someone may be replying to us right now, but it will take another 50 years before we receive the answer. In Carl Sagan's novel, Contact, he imagined that the aliens' reply contained a copy of our first TV broadcast -- Adolf Hitler declaring the 1936 Olympic Games open. How's that for a greeting? Maybe if we get to try it again we could be a bit more selective in our choice of material. (There was another old cartoon gag where the aliens threatened to destroy us if we did not stop broadcasting reruns of horrible situation comedies.)

The point is that the universe, if seen as a huge calculating machine, is griding its gears as fast as it can. We don't know what the answer will be, or if the "answer" is simply the state of everything at any given moment. But some things just take a certain amount of time, and there is nothing we can do about it.

All this was going through my head recently when I turned to consider social and political change in the same perspective. I may have also been influenced by contemplating the 10,000 year clock proposed by the Long Now Foundation, and what it would mean to take a long view of our future.

Suppose we could go back 150 years and speak to two Americans in the year 1859 as national conflict was building toward the Civil War. One of them is a slave yearning for freedom, another an abolitionist working toward that cause. Suppose we told them, with the benefit of our hindsight, that their wishes would come true -- that, in fact, a century and a half later, an African-American would preside over the White House.

But then, as they jump for joy at the good news, we hasten to add, "But wait, first you will have to go through the bloodiest war yet fought, with hundreds of thousands of casualties ... You will have to endure the sorrow of losing your President to an assassin... The slaves will be freed and granted the vote, but a backlash will take it from them again and subject them to many decades of cruel oppression as second-class citizens ... A century later you will lose yet another President to an assassin, as well as the most eloquent spokesman for the cause of civil liberties, and even then more decades will pass before the true promise of freedom and equality even begins to be fulfilled."

Sobered by this, our imaginary ancestors might be expected to become philosophical about it. No doubt they would be glad to know that success would come, regardless of price, no matter the effort required and the suffering to be endured. "As God wills it," says the abolitionist. "He moves in mysterious ways," agrees the slave. And they both go back to their work.

And what of us? It often seems that no matter how hard we try we are unable to find solutions to our problems, or to find a way to settle our disputes without war. But what if we are already doing as much as we can, and it will just take time for the collective effort to bear fruit? Could it be that our prayers for peace and all of our hopes and dreams of a more perfect world are being answered right now? Can we imagine that a personal God has heard us and is sending a solution right now at the speed of light, but it will just take awhile to get here?

Suppose we knew that the perfect peaceable kingdom was only as far from us in the future as the Middle Ages are in the past? What if we knew we would get there eventually, regardless of what global catastrophes we might have to endure along the way? What if what we are asking is just so huge and complex, with so many changes to make and conflicts to play out, that the fastest it can possibly happen is a thousand years?

What if these things, like the signals from the stars, just take time?

1 comment:

  1. As happens, I saw Roger Ebert's blog, and it reminded me to check yours. As happens, you two are pooling reflective surfaces - see