Discover more from The Garden of Forking Paths
Are our lives an unbroken circle or a straight line?
On two competing worldviews about the nature of time—cyclical vs. linear—and how they make us think differently about the world and our place within it.
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How to Never Die in Bali
How do you know whether your son is actually your great-grandfather?
Last December, I was in Bali, the idyllic Hindu-dominated paradise in Indonesia. There are signs of religion everywhere: you have to be careful not to step on delicately decorated religious offerings placed on the sidewalk as you walk through Ubud, a hub of spirituality and shrines. Central to these offerings is a conception of time quite different from that which dominates Western culture. Life in Bali is not a linear journey from beginning to end, but an unbroken cycle of samsara, birth, life, death, and rebirth.
But these beliefs are not uniform.
Kodang, an upbeat taxi driver from the outskirts of Ubud, explained that his village has a more particular belief in reincarnation. For his sect, one does not simply get reborn, but gets reborn within the same family. In other words, when anyone has a baby, they are taken to the village holy leader, or pemangku, to determine which ancestor has returned in the form of the infant.
Kodang had previously showed me pictures of his young son.
“So, who is your son?” I asked. “Which ancestor returned?”
“My son is also great-grandfather.”
“How do you know?”
“My great-grandfather love watch cock fighting,” Kodang explained. “My son love watch cock fighting too.”
This seemed like reasonable evidence to me, so, satisfied with the explanation, I thanked him for sharing his beliefs, ignorant as I was. Then, about an hour later, we drove past a big open-air arena.
“What’s that building?” I asked.
“That is cock fighting arena,” Kodang replied. “Everyone in Bali love cock fighting. By far most popular sport.”
Our Beliefs Sway Us (or Weber Comes to Indonesia)
Kodang’s belief system—which may have some minor flaws in the deductive reasoning applied—is nonetheless beautiful in its implications. It’s not just that one never truly dies, but also that saying goodbye to a family member is always a temporary farewell. (For the lucky ones amongst us, that prospect of cycle after cycle on this Earth with the same family members is lovely; for others, not so much).
Time, in that belief, doesn’t move relentlessly forward toward the end. It repeats, an unbroken circle of continuity.
That conversation fascinated me. But what interests me here is not the validity of religious belief, but instead the social impact that such beliefs have on individual behavior and society’s evolution.
There’s a lot to consider here, but I will make three main claims, which have fascinated me as I’ve contemplated them:
The way a society views time affects how that society behaves and develops.
There are three main camps for interpreting the “shape” of time.
Our hidden assumptions about the nature of time, swayed by the culture we were born into, affect how we see the value—and purpose—of our own lives.
The founding father of sociology, Max Weber, argued that the Protestant work ethic—in which devotion to God could be demonstrated through hard work, and the accumulation of wealth was an indicator of being divinely chosen for salvation—was a theology that spurred economies in their transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist.
In other words, Weber argued that America’s economic success was partly derived from the widespread belief in the early United States that hard work was a believer’s best way to show their devotion to the divine. To take his argument to its logical extension, those beliefs laid the foundation for the richest country in world history.
Whether you are convinced by Weber’s argument or not, the logic of his reasoning is ironclad: it’s obviously true that the shared beliefs of a society shape how that society develops and changes over time.
But what if it was the nature of time itself that society saw differently? Would America be the same today if, for hundreds of years, almost everyone believed that the end of life was just the beginning of rebirth in another earthly body?
Is Time a Wheel or an Arrow?
Balinese Hinduism is far from the only religion with a cyclical view of time. The notion of time as a wheel was the default view for much of pre-modern humanity and it persists in much Eastern philosophy and religion. The Babylonians, the ancient Greeks, the Inca, the Mayans, the Hopi, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains all have concepts of time that are more like a wheel than an arrow, with repeating cycles.
One early incarnation of this concept is the Ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail, used to represent an unbroken circle of time.
For someone like me—a nonbeliever culturally steeped in Western modernity, which is inevitably laced with the teachings of Christianity—it’s hard to imagine seeing my life as but one stage in a process that will repeat over and over, almost endlessly. But when I try to imagine it, it’s obvious that if I truly believed that, I would live my life differently. So would you, I suspect (unless you already believe in reincarnation).
Our behavior is swayed by our beliefs, and our beliefs are often internalized by the culture we happen to be born within. The way I see the world was determined, to a large degree, by the cultural lottery of birth.
So, why is there such a wide gulf in thinking about this fundamental aspect of human existence?
Abrahamic religions have a radically different notion of cosmic time—and unlike its precursors, the universe has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this belief system, time is an arrow, not a wheel. As noted in this excellent article, the rise of Judeo-Christian belief systems (and their dominance over much of the world through conquest and empire) produced a major shift in how humanity thinks about the march of time. As the Romanian historian Mircea Eliade explains:
…Judaism presents an innovation of the first importance. For Judaism, time has a beginning and will have an end. The idea of cyclic time is left behind. Yahweh no longer manifests himself in cosmic time (like the gods of other religions) but in a historical time, which is irreversible…
Christianity goes even further in valorizing historical time. Since God was incarnated, that is, since he took on a historically conditioned human existence, history acquires the possibility of being sanctified.
In this new conception, history progressed, from Creation to Apocalypse, with events unfolding as ordained by God. Within that worldview, cyclical conceptions of divine time became blasphemous. God doesn’t need to repeat himself. There was suddenly an end—and we were all hurtling toward it, even hoping to usher it in as the End of Days.
(Indeed, some even suggest that part of the reason why Anglo-Saxon churches were mostly made out of wood rather than stone was because of a widespread belief that the world would end in the year 1,000 AD—so why waste all that earthly money on stone? When that year came and went, they figured they’d miscalculated. Oops! The correct calculation was to be 1,000 years from the Crucifixion of Jesus! Then, when 1,033 AD came and went, it became clear the world wasn’t going anywhere, so the Normans began to build to last, hence the explosion of stone cathedrals across England).
The “time as an arrow” viewpoint dominates modern Western society. But beyond the directional linear nature of time, we also think of it as a progressive arrow, that the world is marching toward a better goal, forged by the relentless toil of iterative improvements. For some believers, the linear progress of time is toward Messianic salvation. For secular liberals, it’s problem-solving, driving forward, deliberately not repeating tragedies and horrors from the past. (“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”) And for thinkers like Marx and Hegel, it’s the inexorable push through stages of history.
There is, of course, a third framework: time as chaos. In this view, the wheel metaphor doesn’t make sense because there’s no underlying structure to time; things just happen. But in the chaotic view, the progress of time’s arrow doesn’t make sense either, because we’re not hurtling toward some cosmic end goal…things just happen. History is “just one damn thing after another.”
Now, pause and consider how you’d behave differently if your mindset shifted from one of those conceptions of time to another. What if you suddenly believed in reincarnation, or started to imagine that there was no underlying order or cosmic purpose to our lives? Quite clearly, whether you view time as a cyclical wheel, a progressive arrow, or a chaotic, untamed beast, matters. Our worldview shapes our behavior, our societies develop based on the aggregations of our beliefs, and our conception of time is the foundation of everything else we do.
(If you really want to go down the mind-bending rabbit hole, read about the Block Universe, or start to understand the well-established phenomenon of Time dilation, in which it’s a scientifically verifiable fact that, due to the effect of gravitational forces, your head is literally older than your feet).
We Experience Time as a Spiral
We experience the wheel and the arrow of time simultaneously—a bit like a spiral, with discernible cycles, but always moving forward, never truly repeating. That’s how time feels to us.
From the seasons to the stars, our internal clocks to our weekly schedules, cycles define our lives. But most of us have a broader sense that every moment, once passed, is irretrievable, and that apparent repetition of events doesn’t mean our lives have returned to a previous state. That creates a “both are true” feeling, in which, as Alexandra Harris puts it: “a year is a circle as well as a line; it repeats even while it progresses.”
This tension—the hybrid spiral—has long defined humanity, even as the predominant conception of cosmic time shifted from a wheel to an arrow in Western societies.
In the Middle Ages, even before mechanical clocks existed, daily life was governed by repeating cycles and relentless arrows. The bells of churches created a sound of time, the liturgical year and the growing seasons created a ritual of time, and the life-altering powers of the planetary cycles or the popular concept of “fortune’s wheel” created a mysticism of time. Without clocks, monks—who structured their day by the repeating cycle of prayers from Matins to Vespers or Compline—nonetheless measured time’s arrow by cutting candles to equal lengths to measure out the hours in the melting wax.
In England’s Wells Cathedral, there is a clock dating to the 1390s, which incorporates cyclical and linear time in a single object. As Gillian Adler and Paul Strohm explain:
“Its outermost circle represents the day and night in two twelve-hour segments. A second circle marks the minutes. A third, inmost circle is dominated by the moon and its phases, including an indication of the number of days that have passed since the last full moon.”
But God, it was believed, existed above and beyond either linear or cyclical conceptions of time. In one story from the Bible (Isaiah 38:8), God even reverses time, making the shadows cast by the sun on a sundial travel backward. The divine, in that view, is not constrained by time, even as we are. The liturgical year might repeat in predictable cycles. But without the hand of a Christian God, it was said, we can never go backward.
The Light and Dark Side of Time as Progress
Personally, even as I sense time as both an arrow and a wheel in my experience of my own life, logic and reason tell me that the time as chaos belief is at least partly true. Some things just happen. And since I’m not a believer in samsara, I don’t imagine that I will come back, reincarnated in another body, my fingertips liberated from eternal damnation, to once again write an e-mail newsletter.
But I also don’t see any reason to believe that time must progress, as there’s nothing guaranteed about an improved world. It’s all up to us. Sometimes, we’re awful to each other, and we make the world worse. Other times, things can go wrong due to forces beyond our control. (After all, the dinosaurs got wiped out by an asteroid. That could someday happen to us, too, and if it did, it would make the whole “time as linear progress” notion seem a bit silly, as nobody would care about the culture wars when we’re all being broiled into extinction by a giant space rock).
So, instead, maybe it’s just worth reflecting on how our beliefs about time shape our behavior and our sense of ourselves.
It’s plausible that our shared conception of time as an arrow of linear progress has a light side—and a dark one. It drives us to make improvements, to strive, to always do better, work harder, get richer, or, sometimes, eradicate injustice. At its best, it can act as an engine of social justice.
But there’s also a dark side: it can cause many of us to be depressingly ill at ease with being content with our lot in life. Each day must be about self-improvement, each moment a stepping stone to a bigger, better goal. Too often, we lose the sense that existence is a miracle to be enjoyed, not instrumentalized to get through an ever-regenerating checklist.
So, now we’ve hit the nub: how we see time isn’t just a driver of a society’s trajectory, it’s also inextricably linked to what we think about the meaning of life—and whether we feel we have a cosmic purpose, or not.
For Kodang back in Bali, it was clear that he derived significant meaning from the sense of boundlessness that comes with endless reincarnation. I can certainly see the appeal of a worldview in which death leads to a new beginning back on Earth. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw how modern science can allows us the same awestruck sensation, even if we won’t literally return as ourselves in another body.
In the words of the Italian chemist, Pier Luigi Luisi:
“It is a fact that each individual dies, but it is also true that new individuals are constantly being born. So it is for trees and snakes and animals and fish and human beings. This brings a rather interesting question: Where does all this material for these new beings come from?…Our planet is a huge reshuffling machine, whereby new organisms continuously arise from dead ones…Thus, there are probably molecules in my body that once belonged to Giuseppe Garibaldi, and perhaps the lady in front of me has some molecules that belonged to Marylin Monroe as well as some molecules that belonged to a dinosaur which lived in Africa 70 millions years ago…One can make the point that the very atoms that have been originated in the Big Bang are still with us.”
To some, that lesson is bleak; to others, it’s uplifting. I’m in the latter camp.
If you’re not a believer, time marches relentlessly forward, like an arrow sailing toward a definite, final end. But even then, science has proven that there is a wonderful cycle of endless decay and regeneration that we cannot escape, because of the great reshuffling machine we live within. The matter of our bodies will become something and someone else. And for me, I guess, that does provide a bit of comfort within the chaos.
But if my distant descendants are reading this long after I’m dead, and you have a child who is a little too obsessed by Border Collies and fascinated by powerful psychopaths, well, there’s no need to bring that little kid to the local pemangku.
You can safely assume that I have returned.
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