Delusions of Consciousness
Wells's time machine, Russell's worldly experiment and Einstein's modes of thought...
“Everybody knows Wells’s Time Machine, which enabled its possessor to travel backwards or forwards in time, and see for himself what the past was like and what the future will be. But people do not always realize that a great deal of the advantages of Wells’s device can be secured by traveling about the world at the present day.”
~ From Skeptical Essays, by Bertrand Russell (1928)
On a clear, autumnal afternoon, much like today’s, a voluntary exile opened a relic of the past (known to old timers as a “physical book”) at a quaint café in Buenos Aires and began to read. The well-thumbed collection, from which the above quote is borrowed, brims with a lifetime of zany insights from the eccentric British philosopher and polymath. Meditating on Wells’s fictional machine and the words at hand, the reader began to wonder whether he was, relative to his fellow café-goers around the world and throughout history, occupying a seat in the past or a place in the future, and whether the present really existed at all.
“Otro cortado, por favor,” he called for another coffee “cut” with milk and began scribbling the following notes...
What is this space in time (Buenos Aires, May 2023) to a Japanese geisha, pouring tea and dispensing wisdom in coquettish flourishes to Tokugawa shoguns, gathered around the hearth tatami? Or to the Golden Age of the grand Viennese cafés, Schwarzenberg, Parsifal, Rebhuhn and Central, in whose abiding embrace huddled rabbis and intellectuals, librettists and rakish raconteurs, conscientious objectors and those who conscripted Horace’s hoary ode, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”?
What say those who filled their cups from Nicolas’s copper samovar, poured China’s best from Queen Charlotte’s earthen Wedgwood, or sought longevity (āyus,) and knowledge (veda) from the clove-spiced chai, flowing in Indian abodes for five-thousand years and more?
Gazing around Café Tabac, a point in space at the intersection of Avenidas Libertador y Coronel Diaz, the reader absorbs the liminal afternoon light as it is refracted through floor to ceiling windows. An amorphous liquid, he knows the glass itself is moving through space and over time. And yet, even the sun’s incomparable heat energy, so diffused during the (approx.) 8 and 1/3 minutes it takes to reach earth through the cold indifference of space, is insufficient to excite the structure’s atoms such that their movement is visible to the human eye. Indeed, mathematical models, standing themselves outside the constraints of the physical world, have shown it would take longer than the universe (and by extension, time itself) has existed for medieval cathedral glass to melt at today’s tepid temperature.
Bound by reality (temporal, spatial) and his merely mammalian brain (biological), and having duly lost count of his cortados, the reader cannot comprehend what this means. Instead, he contemplates the receding afternoon, the daily bombardment of heat and light fading from the Coronel’s corner, his thoughts pouring back over the event horizon of consciousness itself.
The present is a moment that reaches back into the past, set in motion long before Nicolas thwarted Konstantin’s Decembrist Revolt... before General José de San Martín liberated the peoples of Argentina, Chile and Perú... before Britain’s longest serving queen consort bore King George his fifteen children... before even Horace mobilized the latin for Wilfred Owen’s epic poem, two millennia prior...
“Time and space are modes by which we think,” observed Albert Einstein, “and not conditions in which we live.” This from a man who knew a thing or two about time and space, relatively speaking of course.
Light pouring through the slow melting glass, the reader’s trembling thumb turns another page in Russell’s century-old meditation...
“A European who goes to New York or Chicago sees the future, the future to which Europe is likely to come if it escapes economic disaster. On the other hand, when he goes to Asia he sees the past. In India, I am told, he can see the Middle Ages; in China he can see the eighteenth century.”
~ Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays
And if he ventured to South America, considered the world from upside down, what past, what present, what future would he behold?
Were the British philosopher seated here in Café Tabac one-hundred years ago, smoking his pipe under the gilt mirror over by the door, he might have encountered Herr Einstein, who was then touring the Paris of the South (and staying at the Australian Embassy, a short carriage ride up Avenida Libertador). The reader pictured the scene…
“What then of Wells’s device?” said the philosopher to the physicist, a plume of purple smoke infusing the atmosphere with an hazy glow.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe,” replied the latter behind a wry and knowing smile, “a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and his feelings as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.”
Placing Russell’s essays on the table, the reader considers the two men as they pass him by, backlit against the fading afternoon light, time and space forgotten.
Buenos Aires, Argentina ~ May, 2023
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