Human beings perceive time in a linear manner, with a distinct beginning and an end, and with significant progress in between. Due to this linear perception, time is largely categorized into three constituting parts, namely, past, present and future.
We, as individuals, live in the present. We can only comprehend, perceive and see what is happening right now. We cannot see the past but only remember it. These unalterable events that have already occurred only exist in our memory, in our heads. And then comes the future, the Great Unknown, an indefinite series of events that is yet to come.
To put it in perspective, linear time can be compared to a man driving in a car on a straight road. This car can only move in one direction, forward. The man can only see what’s immediately in front of him. However, his car comes equipped with a rear view mirror, and he can enjoy a view of everything he has driven past if he wishes to. This, in a sense, is how linear time works. Essentially, it is moving from the past to the future in a straight line.
If linear time exists, what about non-linear time?
Kurt Vonnegut, in his highly regarded anti-war novel Slaughterhouse 5, also known by its underappreciated alternate title, The Children’s Crusade, explores this concept. In his narrative, protagonist and war veteran Billy Pilgrim is abducted by toilet plunger shaped aliens, who call themselves Tralfamadorians. These aliens then reveal to him their vision of time and space.
Tralfamadorians view the past, present, and future all at once, in a series of events. One alien tells Billy that all moments in time exist simultaneously and can be viewed much as people might “see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains”. An individual’s life may be viewed as a string of events, all happening at the same time. Vonnegut writes, “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in the particular moment, but the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments”. Death is not an end, but just another event in one’s constantly occurring life.
After this event, Billy Pilgrim, as he describes, becomes convinced that he is “unstuck in time”, and rather than living out his life in chronological order, Billy jumps from different times and places in his life. The entire tale is delivered in a non-linear fashion. Whether Billy’s crusades were actual instances of time travel or just symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is unclear, and completely left up to the reader. So it goes.
The recent, critically acclaimed science fiction movie Arrival delves into this notion as well. The eerie, tentacle octopus-esque aliens, referred to as “Heptapods” can perceive time in a non-linear manner as well. They give Louise, the protagonist, the gift of perceiving time in this way. Much like Billy Pilgrim, Louise experiences her life in a non-chronological order after she comes into contact with these Hepatpods, and she can jump to different timelines in her life.
This non-linear perspective of time also presents another theme. Free Will.
Free will has been defined as “The power of acting without the constraint of necessity of fate, the ability to act at one’s own discretion”. Non-linear time denies the possibility of this. If past, present, and future all exist concurrently, from a linear perspective, our future already exists. Since it already exists, it is predetermined and unchangeable, thereby stripping away any concept of free will.
If this is true, and none of our actions are conscious decisions, we cannot be held accountable for them either, because, fundamentally, we never chose to do them. If one does not have free will, one cannot be held responsible for one’s behavior.
Both the movie and the book present a similar idea, aliens who have a different understanding of time when compared to ours.
Having said all this, is the concept of non-linear time even possible? Given the sheer magnitude of our universe, the vastness of it, there is a likelihood that there are other life forms out there who perceive time in a non-linear manner. If this is true, and time can be perceived differently, then your entire life has inevitably led up to this moment – you reading this very sentence because you have no other choice.
Article by Potus.