Deep Time & Deep Place

In this Aeon piece by philosopher John Schellenberg, he contemplates the nature of deep time. He correctly observes that deep time is almost always backwards looking and this prevents us from contemplating the deep future. He suggests this is due, in part, to Christian cosmology:

Whether you think of it as casting a long shadow across the history of Western culture or as fathering a great light within it, there is no denying the Bible’s powerful influence on the way that we think today. And you might have noticed that there’s not much about a billion-year future in it. The Bible does not tell us ‘The beginning is near!’ but rather ‘The end is near!’ When I was a child, I helped my father put an actual sign at the end of our driveway that said ‘Jesus is coming soon!’ And although his brand of enthusiastic evangelicalism sponsored endless disputes with other Christians – even other evangelicals – as to how things will transpire in the near future, on the matter of whether we are living in the end times he was in lockstep with other biblical believers. If you allow for secular eschatologies, he was also in lockstep with the rest of the culture, which has by now spun out rather a large number of variations on the biblical Armageddon-just-around-the-corner theme. We all want to live in the most exciting, most consequential chapter of time, it seems.

I grew up in an apocalyptic-evangelical home, so I know the dreadful feeling. But when it comes to secular eschatologies, I can think of other good reasons for not contemplating the deep future. This review of Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, has an Anthropocene-apocalyptic or eschatological feel to it.

But this aside, I’m not sure it is a good idea to be contemplating time, past or future, in this manner. As much as I love deep time, in the form of fossils, geology, and evolutionary history, I’m not sure it is altogether healthy or, as Nietzsche might say, conducive to life. It is revealing that when Schellenberg asks us to imagine deep time, he uses a spatial metaphor laid out in yardstick or linear fashion. When imagined this particular way, time is the distance between two points. The spaces or places in between those those points are more or less irrelevant. This is a classic Christian or linear conception of time.

There are of course alternatives to this kind of conception, and not everyone imagines time in this way. In fact, there are those who think time is a property of space, and that the past, present, and future can be found in particular places. Time, in other words, is subordinated to space.

Last summer I was on the Pine Ridge Reservation visiting a friend; he is a Lakota traditionalist and elder. During one of our conversations, I talked for a good while about evolution and archaeology. When I finished, there was a long pause, and he said: “You seem to be obsessed with time. This may not be good for you.”

Though I didn’t really understand him at the time, I do here and now.


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3 thoughts on “Deep Time & Deep Place

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Interesting confession. Fun thought — a career on understanding time as having a potential bad effect. I was once on a Trauma Surgery surgery team in a “knife-and-gun-club” ER outside of Washington DC. It was gory, violent, and constant adrenaline. We worked 36 hour shifts, grabbing sleep when we could. I did it for less than a year and got out because I could feel it changing me in ways I did not like.

    So, are these new insights of yours making you want to pursue some other activities?

  2. Cris Post author

    It wasn’t so much a confession as it was a therapeutic statement; in other words, I think it is good for people (like me) who spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about time to get out, find places, and enjoy them. That is why I’ve resolved to do no less than 30 days of camping in remote places this year. I think it will be good for my time-obsessed soul, er, mind….If you’d like to join me on an excursion, let me know.

  3. Larry Stout

    It used to be said that Nature doesn’t care about survival of the individual, but only about survival of the species. Geological history demonstrates that Nature doesn’t “care about” survival of species — or anything else. Everything can be thought of as a display of the possible (not to be confused with the merely imaginative plausible). All the possible things of our perception are transient, as Heraclitus of Ephesus (and many others) have observed. Evolution is universal in both the physical and biological realms (an artificial distinction), and continuous, always evincing dynamic equilibria, never attaining “perfection”. People who have no appreciation of geological history and human prehistory have no business posing as “futurists”. We are all theorists by our evolved natures; however, doctrine and dogma paralyze fruitful theory-building and testing (this happens not only in churches, but also in universities and governments). The most-insightful, creative people are quite unorthodox.

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