Lately there seems to be a convergence of minds -- physicists and philosophers -- centered around the question of the validity of the time concept. Things are coming to a head. This month's (June, 2010) issue of Scientific American has as its lead story: Does TIME Really Exist? by the University of California, San Diego philosophy professor, Craig Callender [funny, his name's Callender and he's writing about time]. Mathematician John D. Barrow writes in his book PI In The Sky "Spacetime is but a large-scale manifestation of some more fundamental entity." From what I've read, this seems to be the general consensus.
The essay contest of June, 2008 offered by FQXi on The Nature of Time drew a lot of attention from the world's TIME enthusiasts. The times they are a-changing, or that is to say, the notion of time is undergoing severe scrutiny. As Einstein examined our assumption about time's nature and overthrew its Newtonian hold on our psyches, a similar questioning is currently going on. There is no definite understanding as to the origin or essential characteristics of time. The rush to derive a comprehensive theory of gravity towards a hoped-for unified field theory to replace or supplement the Standard Theory has to stop to take a breath, back-up, so to speak, in order to first address this major conceptual hurdle. What exactly is time?
Almost forty years ago I was living in Santa Monica. One day I wondered into a used book store, my favorite places to explore. Way back in a far corner I came across a little yellow hardback book entitled Fingers Pointing Towards The Moon by Wei Wu Wei. I still have it. At the time, I was looking for something to grab onto, as a guide of sorts, some line or course that cut through the trappings of religion and western philosophy and got right to the heart of the matter. Having a scientific or mathematical bent, this book satisfied that search, at least as an anchor in what was then a very confused individual.
In the spirit of the ongoing debate over the nature of time with respect to devising a theory of gravity or spacetime, I include a few excerpts from it below. I find that expousers of their beliefs as to time's reality often repeat or reformulate, in diffferent clothes, ideas that have been around for centuries or are paraphrases of others, parallel constructs. String theorists, loop quantum gravity supporters and those involved in developing what's called, Causal Dynamical Triangulation (CDT) [my choice] have been grappling unsuccessfully, it seems, to come up with a suitable definition for time as a fundamental footing in their theoretical constructions.
It's not enough to say that time doesn't exist or that it's not fundamental, for where does that leave us? Those are negativities, what we need to hear is a positive description: what is it? And how does it differ from previous concepts? Most people who bother to think about it understand Einstein's notion of time as expressed in his Special Theory. Time in quantum mechanics is less clear, at least to me. In any event, they don't gibe, and in order for them to come together somehow, this TIME idea needs to be straightened out.
Research in science has moved on and left the basic assumptions on which it's based lagging behind. A reassessment is in order. It's like the Tower of Babel, scientists and philosophers debate conjectures and speculations as to the nature of the universe and reality, imagining as they do that a certain understanding of time is shared. I believe there is a notion of time to be found that underlies these two, a deeper notion possibly dredged up from the past and refashioned according to the present scientific and philosophic contexts, or else something brand new, created out of thin air, a firm, solid, clear understanding all can agree on.
To state that it is an emergent phenomenon doesn't satisfy for the reason that it's simply too general and vague. Emerging from what and where? I read a lot of this kind of stuff and get glossy-eyed trying to see beneath the surface of their generalities. It's as though someone gave you directions in a big city to "go north a ways and then turn east." Well, wait a second. I want to know just what streets I'm to go down, what landmarks to look for, and how long will it take me. You know -- specifics, something concrete. EMERGE is a wonderful concept and I understand its meaning regarding phenomena -- a collection of parts on an elemental level that have an affinity for each other -- self-organizing, perhaps -- emerges into a separate interrelated and irreducible complexity, a whole on a higher level the global properties of which cannot be deduced by studying the parts, and so forth. But, if time is emergent, how does it emerge? Is it a process? A field of force? We conceive it as a dimension of space with characteristics all its own. But what does that mean? What is it?
Kant tells us that, "We create Time ourselves, as a function of our receptive apparatus." I used to imagine I knew what that meant exactly, but not anymore. It doesn't tell me what it IS but only that it's produced by filtering -- prism-like -- through my brain, my receptive apparatus.
In Fingers Pointing Towards The Moon Wei states, or reiterates: "A phenomenon is something that occurs in three-dimensional space interpreted with the fourth dimension seen serailly as time. Reality (noumenon) is motionless, ubiquitous, and permanent." And elsewhere: "Our concept of Time, but not our percept, as of something in flux, is probably mistaken. Differentiation may be a property of the Time-dimension as experienced by us. The fourth-dimension, when seen by us serailly as time (as opposed to its total aspect which is eternity) produces the illusion of phenomena."
With regard to Motion (intimately connected to time) he writes: "The dynamism we know as Life and Consciousness thereof are and remain four-dimensional. Science is built on the arbitray assumption that the universe exists in Time and Space. There is no BECOMING. ALL IS. The illusion of motion is due to our inability to see every thing at once, to the fact that we see one thing after another. The motion is in our psyche. Rhythms, undulations are perhaps the curvature of Time. Time is the measure of Motion. Three-dimensionality is a function of our senses. Time is the boundary of our senses."
With regard to space, he writes: "Our psyche exists in the fourth-dimension. What we see of one another are three-dimensional segments of a four-dimensional totality. The next dimension is Eternity (in its time-aspect) and Infinity (in its space-aspect) in which everything exists immutably or is infinite variation at one point." [Does that last sound a little like the idea of superposition?] "This is the fifth dimension or the second dimension of time, but Ouspensky states that each higher dimension is infinity for the dimension immediately below it. The sixth dimension is that in which every possibility exists."
And with respect to Eternity and Passing Time he says: "Duration (or Eternity) is the necessary point of Immobility from which Passing-time is seen as such. We could not be aware of Passing-time if an element of us were not situated in Duration.
"Light would seem to be using a dimension at right-angles to those of the observer." [Michelson-Morley]. "The fact that light is found to be two separate and incompatible things -- an undualtion and photons -- might mean that its four-dimensional form is undulatory whereas it manifests tridimensionally as a shower of particles."
Ultimately, however, Fingers Pointing Towards The Moon is about the nature of self. And here's where we enter the jungle of clinging vines and treacherous undergrowth. It seems to me that in order to come to a clear understanding, or at least a solid intuition, of the notion of TIME, we have to simultaneously reexamine other concepts intimately associated with it.
As Callender writes at the end of his article, quoting the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty: "... time itself does not really flow and its apparent flow is a product of our 'surreptitiously putting into the river a witness of its course.' That is, the tendency to believe time flows is a result of forgetting to put ourselves and our connections to the world into the picture. Merleau-Ponty was speaking of our subjective experience of time, and until recently no one ever guessed that objective time might itself be explained as a result of those connections. Time may exist only by breaking the world into subsystems and looking at what ties them together. In this picture, physical time emerges by virtue of our thinking ourselves as separate from everything else."
Both in special relativity and quantum mechanics we've accepted the role and significance of the observer, but only as perceiver and measurer; that is, in the biological sense, not as a separate self experiencing the world and thereby humanizing the universe. Scientists shy away from the idea of the psyche, relegating it to the domains of psycholgy, cognitive science, theology, and philosophy. Defying empirical analysis, it's difficult to put your finger on its elusive character. Carl Jung has probably done the most definitive work, certainly the most groundbreaking along with William James, on its description and purpose, how it functions and, most importantly, its source.
Time and self are connected, interdependent, and inextricably entwined, working in tandem to create the world we see around us, and may have a mutual origin, a cosmic progenitor. In fact, it may prove essential to recast both concepts with an eye towards discovering their mutual juncture, their unifying field on some level of physical reality or inner dimension, much the same as electricity and magnetism have been joined at the hip.
In an undifferentiated universe, there is no separate selfhood. Does the act of differentiation -- perception and consciousness -- create both Time and Self as manifestations of some deeper reality? I believe so, but, how do we disentangle ourselves? At the moment of perception and understanding, we necessarily distance our minds from that which we perceive, thereby artificially creating a sense of self and other. How do we get around that?
We evolve: From SELF to self to SELF/self.