Many a person has asked me, upon knowing where I’d come from, what Inner Mongolia was like, and I’ve always struggled a bit when responding to such question. For one, the province is too large to be generalized down to a brief description as its landscape and custom change dramatically from east to west; furthermore, my emotional attachment to my hometown Hulunbeier has most definitely skewed my perception of the rest of the vast province, which I am sure is just as stunning as Hulunbeier, if possible at all.
Over the years, I have had many variations of the same answer—more or less recounting the grandeur of the grassland and the hospitality of its people; however, I fondly remember one particular answer that would often leave whomever was asking speechless: It is a place where you can see the Milky Way with your naked eyes at night, and if you’re lucky enough, you can also see the Andromeda some 2.5 million light years away.
Let that sink in for a minute.
If all forms of confusion in life can be likened to stars, then I would be lying on the grassland under the night sky of my lovely hometown, where each star can be seen so vividly that I become overwhelmed by the innumerable. Well fortunately for most, those stars don’t appear visible at all; they look up to the sky and see the moon, sometimes perhaps Ursa Minor—all in order, all too familiar. For me, it was even difficult to single out Polaris, the brightest of the seven sisters constituting Ursa Minor. One searches for true North, but then is himself engulfed by the nocturnal luminance of a thousand suns from the celestial dome.
Alas I have found Polaris, exhibiting its cosmic glory of the yesteryear, as far as 1586; a star so adamant, that it would send its emissary on a quadricentennial journey just to announce its existence. Presently I marveled at its ancient past while for it, my admiration was but a future event yet to transpire. If one’s present is another’s past across vast stretches of space, then there is no such thing as universal division of events, instead, everything would be subjectively based on the observer’s frame of reference. But puny as we are, what frame of reference would we have at our disposal to measure ourselves? A frame too small limits our cosmic agency, and a frame too large pushes our measurement past the point of reliability.
Equilibrium—a state that isn’t necessarily lodged in at the midpoint of the spectrum of referencing frames, but shifting along the bulge of its bell curve, or a normal distribution curve as it’s more commonly known. If nothing else, humans still at least possess the ability to think abstractly about philosophical, as well as technical quandaries; this has led me, for one, to adopt a rather malleable doctrine towards life.
Our ancestors, in almost every civilization, turned to the sky and looked for counsels among the stars when earthly matters went awry. Could it be, that they have found a certain degree of consolation? A heavenly law that governed what appeared to be a capricious disarray? Indeed, against the expansive and aged universe we humans move negligibly through space and time, having almost no impact on either at all; there is some Zen in the acceptance of our frailty, as well as a modicum of solace knowing that such frailty isn’t self-imposed, but perhaps predetermined.
We experience our world in a temporal and spatial way—most would recognize the two as separate concepts, time and space, but few associate them together. For if we simplify our frame of reference as a single basic XYZ grid floating independently in the intergalactic space, then we can infinitely extend those three axes sharply thwart the origin, until past the point of reliability, which is bound to happen sooner rather than later. I don’t reckon that one draws their own XYZ grid, nor do I believe that one has much control over how it would evolve through time, because at any given moment, another grid can unsuspectingly ram headfirst into theirs. At which point will such collision occur? And most importantly, when it does, what new frame is there to reconcile the conflicting two? A four-dimensional non-Euclidean mathematical space—spacetime—is what I incline to agree with, albeit with my shallow and superficial understanding.
What is time? To answer that, first I need to take a detour attempting to expound what reality is. As I have mentioned earlier, two observers may record the same series of events wildly different, which means over vast stretches of space one’s past can be another’s future. Well for nearby events the effect is microscopic, but even so, for instance, if the GPS satellites don’t calibrate their time according to that of the surface of Earth, they won’t function properly. Time slows down or speeds up due to the curvature of spacetime. In the extreme example of a black hole, the time of an object that falls into it will appear to have stopped to an outside inertial observer, which is to say the moment that object crosses the event horizon, we can no longer assign a “when” to any of its proceeding events; in other words, those events will not be able to influence us, the outside inertial observers. Reality breaks down because of this phenomenon, for things with no “when” can no longer cause other things to happen, therefore, reality is essentially causality.
Now let’s get back to time. Although two observers in relative motion don’t necessarily agree on the distance and the elapse of time between two events, they do agree on one thing: causality. It is causality that gives people a temporal sense of time, or put it in another way, time is a byproduct of causality itself.
If one day the causality between two events ceases to exist, done intentionally or otherwise, then the objective reality joining those two events breaks down as well. One doesn’t need to travel afar to a black hole to sever their strand of causation from another—given enough time and time will do that for them. In such a manner, to sustain our already fragile reality, please hesitate not to cause things to happen at all, for causality is all there is for us to make sense of space and time.
Not unlike different schools of philosophy are at odds with one other, many scientific interpretations of reality (or causality) compete vehemently as well, to which I say “Pick your poison”. And for me, it’s the four-dimensional non-Euclidean mathematical space, for it agrees with my pre-existing Taoist notions. I myself believe that we inhibit a tenseless spacetime where our future is not just pre-determined, but is already there, and our fleeting cosmic voyage is just a line segment defined by our births and deaths.
天命, or roughly translated to edict of the heaven (in no religious sense whatsoever), is an ancient Chinese philosophical notion sans a definitive modern interpretation, but it works in my favor since I get to interpret it as I see fit. 天命不可违, which says one cannot run afoul of the edict of the heaven, resembles what I consider to be the epitome of Chinese wisdom:顺其自然，无为而无不为—follow the inevitable, do nothing while everything is to be done.
Why plagued by the myriad decisions, when somewhere along the line a decision would announce itself all the same? Why dread the unidirectional extension of the XYZ axes, when inexorably another is sure to come and collide? More specifically, why would I allow myself to be overwhelmed by the innumerable stars in my lovely hometown’s night sky, when all I should do is revel in the majesty of the Milky Way and the Andromeda that’d given birth to them?
“Splendid, isn’t? The Orion,” I murmured.
Then I heard someone talking, “What a moron, that’s Taurus.”