Thursday, August 31, 2006

you have to set aside a block of time

A good many doctrines and disciplines are governed by an underlying approach to time. The nature of God, the economy of salvation, eschatology, the exegesis of scripture, anthropology, every bit and so much more are influenced fundamentally by the answer they give to the question of time. How, for example, does one responsibly wrestle with the doctrine of the incarnation of the Son without talking of time? Or how can one talk about creation, space and time, when, at the smallest scale, size and duration mean exactly the same thing?[1] Yes, I am fascinated by this borderland between physics, philosophy, and theology (biblical or otherwise), and own several books on the subject. Unfortunately, none have been suitably digested. Their arguments are just too tedious and complicated, which is why only one blog post "Padgett versus Wood on time and eternity" even raises the issue. So thank God for Scientific American!

In a special edition entitled "A Matter of Time," the editors at Scientific American have produced over a dozen articles which explore time's many dimensions: from quantum physics to the technical and historical refinement of clocks. There is even an article ("Remembering When") which details the structures of the brain that collate our experiences into a single life of remembered events.

What emerges in this issue is a growing consensus among physicists and philosophers that time is a dimension laid out already in its entirety just like space. This consensus is called block time (also the B-theory of time, and tenseless time).
A century ago British philosopher John McTaggart sought to draw a clear distinction between the description of the world in terms of events happening, which he called the A series, and the description in terms of dates correlated with states of the world, the B series.
Instead of landscape, think “timescape.” You can talk about a volume of time in the same way you talk about a volume of space. Indeed, according to Lee Smolin's article "Atoms of Space and Time,"[2] space and time are constructed of infinitesimally small and discrete pieces analogous to the way water is composed of individual atoms. And time is distorted just as space is distorted, bending and flexing, contracting and expanding as matter and energy pass through it. Still, there is no flow, no movement from past to future, in block time, and certainly no special, temporal point called "now."

The theoretical basis of block time comes from Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity. This theory ”denies any absolute, universal significance to the present moment. Two events that occur at the same moment if observed from one reference frame may occur at different moments if viewed from another.”[3] Objectivity dissolves into the perspective of each and every viewer. “Such mismatches make a mockery of any attempt to confer special status on the present moment, for whose "now" does that moment refer to?"[4] Einstein called this the relativity of simultaneity, and it comes out of a founding principle of relativity called general covariance.

All general covariance says is that the laws of physics are the same for all observers.

Two observers will perceive spacetime to have two different shapes, corresponding to their views of who is moving and what forces are acting. Each shape is a smoothly warped version of the other, in the way that a coffee cup is a reshaped doughnut. General covariance says that the difference cannot be meaningful. Therefore, any two such shapes are physically equivalent.[5]

Translated, this means that though time seems to change or flow, the overall shape of time itself does not, ergo block time. More important, it means that the flow from past to future which seems so natural to us is, in actuality, a completely subjective phenomenon. We observe the passage of time. It is phenomenological.

This is, of course, quite hard to understand when measured against everyday experience. We grow older, as do our children, and, hopefully, we grow wiser, too. The sun moves in the sky. Fruit left in the bowl rots. Our elders die. Given the ubiquity of such evidence, how can we understand the change we see around us? How can we question this ever-flowing conduit of “what was” to “what will be?” And what are the ramifications of doing so? Is a denial of time, a denial of the meaning we give and take from history and memory? Can hope survive without time? The questions pile up like seconds on a clock, and, according to Paul Davies, author and theoretical physicist at Macquarie University's Australian Center for Astrobiology in Sydney, “Modern science has barely begun to consider the question of how we perceive the passage of time."[6]

Still, we must begin somewhere, and Scientific American begins with geography. Instead of measuring time as a continuous flow from one state or one position to the next, we could just as easily describe each change as a discrete point or stage. A vase shatters on the floor. We habitually focus on its physical motion, observing its descent from table to floor as a passage through time. But we could just as easily describe the various states of the vase without a reference to time. Here is the vase when it is a meter from the floor. Here it is only a few hundred centimeters. Lets have another example. Take a bunch of cards of a type and number we would normally call a deck. Each card is a slice of a larger block of time, which is the deck. Now this relationship, the deck, does not exist by necessity just because one card follows another. It is more accurate to describe each card independently. The deck is made by their adjacency, not by any sort of relationship they have to each other.

So, then, how do we account for change? As above, our normal way of going about things is incorrigibly tensed. By this I mean that we inhabit a "tensed" notion of time, a description which refers to grammatical tense--past, present, and future, which are themselves derived from our experience of time. And because of this, we treat the past and the future quite differently. Though we can observe the past, it is not available to us. We cannot expect it, or live into it. Only the future is available to us like that. We, and everything around us, goes into the future (at least from our point of view), and this unidirectional pointing of everything we call "the arrow of time." But is this wrong? Does block time mean we should erase this arrow from our thinking? No, it doesn’t

According to physicists, to embrace block time is not to deny the reality of the arrow of time. The arrow of time is real; there really is a unidirectional sequence of cards. "To deny that time flows is not to claim that the designations "past" and "future" are without physical basis. Events in the world undeniably form a unidirectional sequence."[7]. That is why we do not experience the past. Time's block isn't uniform. The deck of cards--the geography of block time--is not symmetrical. It is asymmetrical. The arrow points in one and only one direction, but seeing the future doesn’t make it necessary that we are moving into the future. "Past" and "Future" should describe something more like geography than motion. "Time's asymmetry is a property of states of the world, not a property of time as such."[8] This means that you can talk about change but not flow. Think, for example, of one of those giant, stone heads on Easter Island. Erected who knows how long ago, they stare forever in a single direction in which they will never go. Quoting again from Brian Davies:

We do not really observe the passage of time. What we actually observe is that later states of the world differ from earlier states that we still remember. The fact that we remember the past, rather than the future, is an observation not of the passage of time but of the asymmetry of time. Nothing other than a conscious observer registers the flow of time.[9]

Physicists and philosophers of science are working to uncover explanations for our perception of time’s flow, and they have uncovered some contributors to the illusion. None the least of these is entropy.

The second law of thermodynamics, the rule that describes entropy, "plays a key role in imprinting on the world a conspicuous asymmetry between past and future directions along the time axis." Indeed, entropy bears directly on "the information content of a system. for this reason, the formation of memory is a unidirectional process--new memories add information and raise the entropy of the brain."[10] This of course assumes a pattern to disorder. “The basic idea is that there are more ways for a system to be disordered than to be ordered. If the system is fairly ordered now, it will probably be more disordered a moment from now.”[11] But why is this so? No one knows. Perhaps the big bang provides the low value of entropy needed to begin an ever-increasing cycle, but if that is the case, then the second law depends not on architectonic laws but on a historical event. A steady-state universe cannot explain entropy.

The brain, too, is a contributor. Kids are fond of spinning, whirling around and around, arms stretched out, until they are hopelessly dizzy. I used to do this for hours while I waited for my parents in our church's common-room basement. Laughing and stumbling, I would lurch about until the world continued to spin even when I stopped. Now I knew that the world wasn't really spinning. It only looked that way, a trick of the inner ear. "Perhaps," says Davies, "temporal flux is similar."[12] Perhaps the perception of time’s flow is just a habit, to be described as David Hume did causation in his Enquiry?

If all of this holds true, the acceptance of block time would require some radical rethinking of a good many religious positions. That is certainly more work than I can do here. Some of the most serious questions asked above remained unanswered. For, as Gary Stix writes, "Recalling where we fit in the order of things determines who we are. So ultimately, it doesn't mater whether time, in cosmological terms, retains an underlying physical truth."[13] Still, referring back to the aforementioned blogpost about the debate between Wood and Padgett, acceptance of a block theory of time means that Wood’s theory of God’s relative timelessness, in which God both transcends time and is temporal in some sense, can work as long as God’s timeliness is understood as an insertion from without into discrete points rather than as a catching up of the divine substance into an irresistible and entropic flow. Wood claims, by the way, that his view is simply a restatement of Boethius--a point worthy of further investigation. And I wonder, too, if this doesn't resurrect the old arguments around occasionalism.

And then, finally, a caveat. As best I can tell, though block time does represent a consensus, it does not approach the status of law. The problem is that block time presupposes the correctness of turning the general theory of relativity into quantum theory, a procedure called canonical quantization. “The procedure worked brilliantly when applied to the theory of electromagnetism,” writes Musser, “but in the case of relativity, it produces an equation—the Wheller-DeWitt equation—without a time variable. Taken literally, the equation indicates that the universe should be frozen in time, never changing.”[14]

Musser goes on to describe how a single question works with canonical quantization to produce absolutely disparate effects. If one believes that space-time exists independently of stars and galaxies—that it is whether or not matter is present—then one is a substantivalist. Or if one believes that space-time is merely a description of how material objects are related, one is a relationist. In the former case, general relativity becomes indeterministic, describing a world which contains a certain amount of randomness. In the latter, the theory becomes deterministic.[15] It is a dilemma which leads physicists to very different understandings of quantum gravity, and suggests that the jury is still far from unanimous when it comes to block time.

1. Paul Davies, “That Mysterious Flow,” Scientific American 16.1 (2006): 8. "The distinction between space and time underpins the key notion of causality, stopping cause and effect from being hopelessly jumbled. On the other hand, many physicists believe that on the very smallest scale of size and duration, space and time might lose their seperate identities."
2. Lee Smolin, “Atoms of Space and Time,” Scientific American 16.1 (2006): 82-92.
3. Davies, 7.
4. Ibid.
5. George Musser, "A Hole At The Heart Of Physics," Scientific American 16.1 (2006): 12.
6. Davies, ll.
7. Ibid., 8.
8. Ibid., 9.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., 11.
11. Musser, 13.
12. Davies, 11.
13. Gary Stix, "Real Time," Scientific American 16.1 (2006): 5.
14. Musser, 12.
15. Ibid., 13.

Suggested Bibliography
Angrilli, Alessandro, Paolo Cherubini, et. al., “The Influence of Affective Factors on Time Perception,” Perception and Psychophysics 59 no. 6 (Aug. 1997): 972-982.
Davies, Paul. The Physics of Time Asymmetry. University of California Press, 1974.
—. About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution. Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Dennet, Daniel C. and Marcel Kinsbourne. “Time and the Observer: The Where and When of Consciousness in the Brain,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 15 no 2. (1992): 183-247.
Gardner, Martin. “Can Time Go Backward?” Scientific American 216 no. 1 (Jan. 1967): 98-108.
Gleick, James. Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. Vintage Books, 1999.
Grondin, Simon. “From Physical Time to the First and Second Moments of Psychological Time,” Psychological Bulletin 127 no. 1 (Jan. 2001): 22-44.
Johnson, Alan, Shin’ya Nishida, “Time Perception: Brain Time or Event Time?” Current Biology 11 no. 11 (2001): R427-R430.
Landes, David S. Revolution in Time. Rev ed. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.
Levine, Robert V. A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist. Basic Books, 1998.
Lippincott, Kristen, ed. The Story of Time. Merrell Holberton, 1999.
McCready, Stuart, ed. The Discovery of Time. Sourcebooks, 2001.
McTaggart, John Ellis. “The Unreality of Time,” Mind 17 (1908): 456-473.
Smart, J. J. C. “Times as Becoming,” in Time and Cause. ed. Peter van Inwagen. Reader Publishing, 1980.
Thorne, Kip S. Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. W. W. Norton, 1994.
Webb, J. “Are the Laws of Nature Changing with Time?” Physics World 16 pt. 4 (April 2003): 33-38.
Whitrow, G. J. What is Time? Thams & Hudson, 1972.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The split between manner and matter

We understand so that we can freely and responsibly make a choice between resistance or embrace. So far, Charles Taylor has built a case for an ethic hidden under the solipsist individualism created by modernity, the ethic or ideal of authenticity. Now, in the last few chapters of The Malaise of Modernity he wants to discover a place from which such authenticity can engage in political debate in the face of soft despotism and the temptation of instrumental reason.

On a larger canvas, one has to remember that Taylor’s arguments find their place in the turn to the subject. Taylor plots a process he calls “subjectivation” where the subject moves to the center of things “once settled by some external reality—traditional law, say, or nature.” Choice takes center stage and asks us to think for ourselves rather than perform for authorities. “Modern freedom and autonomy centres us on ourselves, and the ideal of authenticity requires that we discover and articulate our own identity” (81).

But, he says, let’s not forget an important distinction: that between matter or content and manner or method. It is a very important distinction, and especially as the assumption is always made that simply because you can rebel against all external voices you should. Stated in another way, just because you yourself find meaning doesn’t mean you have to find that meaning in yourself. “Authenticity is clearly self-referential: this has to be my orientation. But this doesn’t mean that on another level the content must be self-referential: that my goals must express or fulfill my desires or aspirations, as against something that stands beyond these.” (82) One only recalls Taylor’s argument to realize that he espouses causes much larger than the borders of the self. Authenticity is with us; self-reference is encoded in the Western self, but our ends, our matter, need not correspond to our manner.

To illustrate the difference between the matter of self-referentiality and its manner, Taylor goes back to art. At one time, he says, artists had a language made up of “publicly available reference points that, say, poets and painters [could] draw on” (83). People had an imaginative and symbolic universe in common, a public stock of images and meanings, a cosmic syntax upon which artists could draw. “But for a couple of centuries now we have been living in a world in which these points of reference no longer hold for us” (Ibid.). This has been replaced by privately created languages of articulated sensibility; “the poet must articulate his own world of references, and make them believable . . . language rooted in the personal sensibility of the poet, and understood only by those whose sensibility resonates like the poet’s” (84, 87). [For poets, Taylor turns to Rilke, Wordsworth, and Shelly.]

Now the reason this is important is phenomenological. With the loss of a common, public domain of imaginative reference points went a common projection of reality. The “objective” has become a statistical line whereby each imagination’s reality is taken to be some of the truth, but not all, and these projections assembled into a vision which approximates the truth (if there is any “the truth” at all.) Indeed

the very idea that one such order should be embraced to the exclusion of all the others—a demand that is virtually inescapable in the traditional context—ceases to have any force. It is only too clear how another sensibility, another context of images, might give us a quite different take, even on what we might nevertheless see as a similar vision of reality. (87)

But note my sarcasm: “if there is any “the truth” at all.” Taylor strongly disagrees with this rash judgment. “It by no means follows,” he says, “that there has to be a subjectivation of matter [where what is painted, poem’d, sung, or prosed is but the pure psychology of the artist, knowable and experienced only by herself].” Taylor reminds me that, “The effort of some of the best of modern poets has been precisely to articulate something beyond the self. . . . The inescapable rooting of poetic language in personal sensibility doesn’t have to mean that the poet no longer explores an order beyond the self” (88-89). His point is well taken. There is no reason why we can’t “call on individual intuitions to map a public domain of references” (87). The classical order—that public domain of imagination—could itself have been such an attempt; a collective, but temporary, trial at understanding the universe in which human beings of that time found themselves. People changed, and so that model had to be discarded. Yet, their cosmos is the same for us, the same all-encompassing universe “for which no adequate terms exist and whose meaning has to be sought” (86). Don’t mistake the seeking for what is sought; nor confuse even an interesting journey with any sort of arrival.

Such confusion slips into an instrumental reason which emphasizes our claims to the deficit of all others, an error which, Taylor argues, should not be.

Just because we no longer believe in the doctrines of the Great Chain of Being, we don’t need to see ourselves as set in a universe that we can consider simply as a source of raw materials for our projects [contra instrumental reason]. We may still need to see ourselves as part of a larger order that can make claims on us. (89)

Going back to his anthropology of relatedness, Taylor asks his hearer to realize that “nature and our world make a claim on us.” We are creatures immersed in a universe of interrelated demands, but hearing those claims upon us, being related to a world of not-I, of Other, is not easy. We must resist solipsism. We must resist instrumental reason. We must explore our world by means of artistic languages of personal resonance. The ideal of authenticity, and its corresponding ethic, the recovery of our own sentiment de l’existence connects us intimately to our world. That’s why a failure to see this, a failure to separate manner from matter, is a tragedy of ethics and a flattening of our very selves.

Final thought. Taylor deals quite a bit in this chapter with Romanticism, and I wish I had more time to investigate the underlying project and purpose of the Romantics. “It was perhaps no accident that in the Romantic period the self-feeling and the feeling of belonging to nature were linked.” In his notes he cites Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968) and Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, Romanticism and Realism (New York: Norton, 1984) of which he says the second chapter contains an excellent discussion of the Romantic aspirations to a natural symbolism. He also quotes lines 307-11 of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. It is an addition to his argument to reproduce lines 401-414:

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought
That givest to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion, not in vain
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things—
With life and nature--purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognise
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

Previous entries in this series are:
Taylor on Art and History .

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