Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself toward a condition of maximum disorder. It is a question of probabilities…In the end, you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.
In this essay, “The Temporary Universe,” Lightman considers our relationship with time. In particular, he focuses on our yearning for immortality despite all the evidence that identifies such yearning as delusional. We know full well that impermanence is life’s defining quality, and we know this from…all experience. And yet we cannot help but create stories and religions and cultures that lead us in the hopeless direction of timelessness, of the transcendence of everything we know to be true. Belief prevails, and we find ourselves simultaneously latched onto moments in time (trying to preserve in memory things which have long passed and can never be realized again) and ungrateful to time. We reject time’s hold on us, the way we are carried forward inexorably on it toward a certain end, and yet we cling desperately to it, wishing we could live on various parts of it. We search for order through it; we build logic and reason through it; we attempt to immortalize relationships through it. And yet time is constantly erasing itself to make way for the next piece of time, not caring really for whatever is lost in the process. Conscious of this fate, and always unconsciously confronting it, we do everything we can to rebel against this proven reality. Temporary? Fine. But what I’m experiencing right now feels like it’s eternal. And that’s something I won’t and don’t need to give up.
I’m reminded of Nick Carraway’s epiphany at the end of The Great Gatsby: “And so we beat on…”
Because fuck time.