Time: Physical Property or a Trick of the Imagination?

Warren Kinston 16. January 2014 10:00

Time, as part of space-time, is one of those basic physical universe realities. Or is it?  

I have just read the latest collection of articles from the Scientific American. The accounts were fascinating and rather diverse. But before I comment, let’s review my first engagement with time in the Taxonomy.

You may recall that I identified four experiences or realms of time in, of all places, the production of goodness. There is linear time: the time of the hero. I mean you and me in our daily struggle. Then there is cyclic time: the time not just of the seasons but of every effort to develop our talents—we end up both more advanced and yet more or less at the beginning again.

And then there is the time of an endless present. This is the favourite of New Age gurus who advise us that this is where we have to focus. Or deep philosophers who tell us that any notion of past or future occurs in the now. Finally, there is eternity—the timeless time beyond time where everything simultaneously exists: always has and always will … like numbers or the truths being sought in this blog.

Physicists have come up with similar notions, more or less, in their conceptions of the physical universe.  However, they have a tougher task. Their job is to grapple with what time is «in reality»—and (for them) there is just one unknowable reality. They do not wish to play with subjective notions. For any committed scientist, one idea is right and the others are wrong or illusory. 

Paul Davies, for example, asserts that for physicists “time doesn’t flow; it merely is.” [Sci.Amer. 21(1), 2012)]. Note that assertion: “time … is.” But is it?  He, like many of the other writers, works on the assumption that we are all trapped in a metaphor in which time flows. Personally, I never thought of it that way. I would say it is our activities and important events that flow, or in my case judder. Life, after all, is just one damned thing after another. That’s linear time for you. It also explains why time can seem compressed or expanded: it all depends on what's going on. 

Fortunately, you and I can escape from awareness of the tyranny of linearity and move into one of the other forms of time that feels preferable. We freely activate whichever time fits our current needs. But if you are seeking absolute knowledge, then your freedom is limited.

Is it reasonable to expect physicists to come up with something better than our simple psychosocial concepts? The difficulty for them in studying the physical universe is that they have no option but to use the tools of consciousness—more or less as specified within the Taxonomy (THEE) as you might expect me to insist. So they see what is inside them telling them what is out there.

A scientist can no more get outside human experiences than you or I can. What they can do is use those experiences (e.g. ideas, observations, concepts, judgements, logic, tests &c.) with great precision and intense care through lengthy and cumulative trains of thought and experiments. With such precision and depth, it becomes quite impossible for a layperson to follow. Still, at the end of the day, scientists are just as trapped inside their humanity and the products of consciousness as the rest of us.

Up to now, I have stood aside from arguments about time and simply allowed myself to be mystified. But something happened recently to jolt me out of my complacency.  In conjecturing about the biological basis for the origin of THEE in the Root Hierarchy, I found it necessary to postulate «advanced biological instincts»—the language instinct is one that has been popularized, but there are more. It seemed to me that these instincts are almost continuously sensed in consciousness as pressures. We can ignore or deny these inner pressures, but not easily. In any case, others constantly bring them to our attention. One of those unavoidable psychosocial pressures, the one associated with activity (and Action-RHL1) is conjectured to be «time».  (Read in the TOP Studio for details.)

Interestingly, many articles in the Scientific American collection referred half-jestingly to the inescapable experience of time-pressure. But, even as the authors did so, they seemed to take time for granted as existing in the physical universe as space-time, and not as subjectivity or a construction or projection of our psyche. As Davies insisted above: “time … is.”

Now, if the other pressures in the taxonomic system—for acceptability, for autonomy, for knowing &c.—are unequivocally psychosocial, then surely time will be as well.  I mean, if our understanding (the RL5 pressure) does not exist in the physical universe, then why should time (the RL1 pressure)? The logical assumption is that all the proposed neuro-physiologically-based pressures are part of our subjectivity. 

As a result, I found myself attracted to that minority of physicists who do indeed claim that time does not exist in the physical universe.

Craig Callender [Sci.Amer. 21(1), 2012)] explained that Newton put many demands on time and its properties e.g. simultaneity is absolute, time is continuous, time possesses duration, time has directionality. He was the first to tell us authoritatively that time flows via an inexorable Master-clock. Then Einstein came along, and his relativity demolished simultaneity, duration, order, and continuity. What was left?  Just the word: «time» in a variety of phrases.  Anything that exists has to have properties: if you take away all time's properties, the concept beccomes just an empty shell. There is nothing there. As Minkowski, one of Einstein’s teachers, famously declared, time is a secondary concept, “doomed to fade away”.

The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) recently held an essay competition and conference about Time. Carlo Rovelli. a founder of loop quantum gravity theory, entitled his essay “Forget Time” and won the FQXi First Prize (Community).  In his idea, time is like money. Money is not real wealth: it is an invented medium that allows exchanges of genuine goods/services. So time is similarly an invented medium that handles exchanges or causality between physical systems. It’s a universal mediator, but without value or significance or real existence in itself.

We can see this because while observers living in Einstein’s universe necessarily disagree on the order of events when space is involved—because of their velocity, gravity &c.—they invariably agree on the order of events if causality is involved. If A causes B, then A definitely comes before B; and, while this is not time, it does seem «time-like», so you can understand the confusion.

Another author, Julian Barbour, appeals to Mach who preceded and influenced Einstein with his famous Principle. Barbour is unequivocal that there is change in the universe, but not time. As he puts it bluntly in The Nature of Time: “Time is nothing dressed in clothes. I can only describe the clothes.” By the way, that essay also won the FQXi First Prize (Jury).

I know as little about quantum physics as about Mach and Einstein, but it seemed fairly evident from the Scientific American articles that, despite those FQXi awards, most physicists want time to stay. They even have a Planck Time (10–43 sec), which ticks away more or less as Newton imagined his Master-clock. Perhaps a deeply hidden biologically-driven subjectivity is generating a resistance to dismantling the time of everyday human experience.

I’m with Einstein.



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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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