Thursday, 16 December 2010

Now you see us, now you don't, or "Who knows where the time goes?"

Earlier in the week I posted a ‘musing’ about time.
I’ve been thinking about the issues raised there for quite a while, but more recently I’m inclined to suggest they have some bearing on our present-day intellectual battles.
I have just begun reading Keith Ward’s More Than Matter?, which makes the following point:
Most people ... accept a philosophy of common sense. They assume that things continue to be roughly what they are observed to be even when nobody is observing them. We live in a world of real objects in three-dimensional space, and we observe it more or less as it is (this is ... sometimes called naive realism, because many philosophers think it really is rather naive). (30-31)
That, I think, pretty much describes where most people are at. Indeed, I would go further and say that is pretty much where the public discourse encourages them to be at. We are encouraged to think of the world on a ‘what you see is what you get’ basis, within which we are marginalized as mere accidents, able to observe for a while but due to disappear quite soon, whilst the ‘reality’ of the universe continues as it has always done.
At the same time, however, we are also encouraged to regard human affairs as of mammoth importance — the state of the economy and the behaviour of governments, for example, are prominently headlined, even though, for the most part, most of what is headline news only affects us emotionally (and, indeed, is written up precisely to affect our emotions).
Thus one could say we actually live in a ‘Matrix world’, imagining we are busy with important things, but shielded from too much present awareness of the real reality.
Of course, those who understand much science (and especially physics), know the naivety of this ‘naive realism’ all too well. Matter is not matter ‘as we know it’. Nor, indeed, is time what we ‘know’ it to be. Indeed, our ‘real’ world of space-time is avowedly elusive, and, at the level of ‘common sense’ almost illusory.
One illustration of the latter, it seems to me, is the question of when ‘now’ becomes ‘then’.
Common sense says we live in the now — the present moment — which has an extension in time. My guess is that for most people ‘what is happening now’ is quite a flexible concept. Right now I am typing. Right now in Africa people are starving. It is now early evening in Perth — and so on.
Yet if we think about ‘now’ as ‘that which has not become the irrecoverable past’, it becomes contracted almost to the point of vanishing. By the time I finish typing this sentence, the production of the capital B is already ‘the irrecoverable past’. I can go back and correct a mistake, but I cannot go back in time and not make it in the first place.
Worse than that, however, by the time I have typed the w at the end of ‘now’, the n at the beginning is already in the ‘irrecoverable past’. And so it goes on, as we slice ‘now’ (both the action of producing the word, and the concept itself into smaller and smaller sections.
But, of course, it is not just the ‘time’ that is irrecoverable, it is also the matter — the physical reality that we think of as ‘permanent’.
And this realization can, I think, be somewhat mind-boggling. We are accustomed to think of the past in terms of millennia (or even ‘billennia’) that, by their sheer magnitude, establish it as something ‘real’. Yet it would seem that actually nothing ‘in the past’ exists. Certainly it existed, but only for that brief moment we call ‘now’. In our ‘now’, what is ‘then’ doesn’t exist at all.
More strangely still, the entirety of the universe is exactly the same. All the vastness, from here to whatever is the furthest point we can speak of as physically existing, is actually in existence only ‘now’. We may predict what vast swathes of it are going to be like in a moment’s time, or even millions of years time, but what we can predict nevertheless has no existence. And we can see what equally vast swathes of it were, and how that relates to the nature of things ‘now’. But what once ‘was’, now ‘is not’.
And this, I would suggest, has implications for the answer to the question, ‘Why are we here?’ For although the condition of the world ‘now’ results from its condition in the past, the existence of the world ‘now’ stands — it would seem — separated from either the past or the future.
And there I must leave it — for now.
John Richardson
16 December 2010
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  1. John, it really depends on which theory of time you adhere to.

    The "A" (or "processed" or tensed" Theory of Time says that the "Now" exists independently of our existence. That the "Now" exists in a way that the past and future do not.

    The "B" (or "stasis" or "tenseless") theory of Time says that the "Now" is merely a feature of our experience and that what matters is locating events in time in relation to other events.

    Augustine and classical theism subscribe to the "B" theory. Only on the "B" theory can God be timeless.

    See "Four Views: God and Time" ed. G. Ganssle for an in depth discussion.

    Ro Mody, Virginia Water.

  2. I am tempted to say that all this is merely philosophical debate - as a lot of the 'does it exist' comment SEEMS to depend on whether you can 'see' something or not. And of course, it doesn't matter one jot whether you can see something or not, it doesn't make it exist or not exist.

    I think therefore I am
    I see it therefore it is

    Neither theory actually works in practice. Ergo, we have to bow to another and greater mind on the matter.

    Now, as to whether something 'in the past' exists, if it was an action then it doesn't - although we might remember it, and we might suffer (or benefit from) the consequences of it. If an event in the past can exist in the present then we have to cede to Rome's view of what they are doing in the 'mass' - and we're not going to do that, are we?

  3. I don't see why Quantum Physics doesn't pertain to this issue. If there is such a thing as anti-matter, then observing it is to also observe its corresponding Matter, with time running in the opposite direction... and vice versa. Time and matter are an anomaly, a breach in the universe, and ultimately (whether you call it the "end" or the "beginning", everything comes to rest.

  4. John:

    Have you read Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" - The chapter on the Arrow of Time might be useful - It's been a long time since I've read it... I need to revisit it now.

    Although this could be considered purely philosophical as Dominic points out I see a great deal of positives that come out when out theology and our physics are equatable. We cannot begin to answer questions of pre-destination (and more practically vocation and calling) and more widely eschatology without attempting to understand the nature of time.

    Time is but a function of space and velocity - you're point, John, pretty much defines time. The tick and tock of 'irrecoverably pasts' is the very nature of us perceiving time.

    My critique of your argument would be that throughout your posts you've seen time as a constant - it's not. If we move through space our time changes.

    Ben, Harrow, London

  5. Ben, I haven't read Hawking, but I've read quite a few other folks, including Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, which was great.

    I'm not really suggesting time is a constant, but I do think that for the purposes of trying to work out what is represented by 'past' events in terms of reality, you can pretty much ignore issues of relative differences - not least in the interest of simplification.

    I'm convinced, though, that we do need to think through the philosophy. I've just discovered that some of what I'm kicking around has been considered under the heading of 'process philosophy'.

    Now if I were thirty years younger and had time to read the books ...

  6. Not sure if I'm quite 30 years younger... (I'm 28...) I might have to pick up a process philosophy book.


  7. I recently reached similar thoughts myself, and there is one idea that has led me to something of an answer - the many worlds theory. This theory was designed to help explain away the weirdness of quantum mechanics by introducing diverging universes; that is, it says that at every moment an endless number of universes is created in which every possible outcome occurs, but we remain limited to perceiving only one of those outcomes. Granted, that explanation implies these universes are being generated along some arrow of time, but the important part of the theory is the idea that every possible outcome exists in an infinite number of universes, known as the multiverse. From there it’s not hard to eliminate time altogether, just consider the implications of an infinite multiverse, namely that there are universes in which you have the memories of this sentence in your head, this being one of them. So, instead of these universes being generated along an arrow of time, perhaps they all exist simultaneously within this infinite multiverse, completely free of any time altogether. What we perceive as the past and future are merely the illusory byproducts of one possible outcome of our conscious state within a universe thats part of an infinite multiverse. The present is a universe unto itself, and really is the only thing that exists; even our memories are an illusion.