Is it a Substantive Question Whether Time is Static or Dynamic?

Bill Vallicella  writes:

“Surely it is a substantive question whether concrete, mind-independent reality is static or dynamic”

I can’t imagine how the question could be substantive. I take the meaning of “substantive” to be that the universe would be a different place in one version of reality than in another, and I can’t see how that would be.

I believe from the context that what Bill is referring to is these two theories of time:

  • The dynamic theory of time, or the A-theory posits that the world is a place with distinct past, present, and future, such that the present is continuously becoming the past.
  • The static theory of time, or the B-theory posits that time is an undifferentiated dimension, in which past, present and future are just how we perceive the universe, much like as we travel along a road, we perceive the road behind, the road where we are, and the road ahead.

If the choice between these two theories is substantive, then it must be the case that there would be a real difference in the universe if the A-theory were true versus if the B-theory were true. Is there such a difference?

Well, if the A-theory is true, then the B-theory is also true in the sense that it is an abstraction of A-theory time, where you abstract away the distinction between past, present, and future, viewing the whole of time as an undifferentiated line. Conversely, if the B-theory is true, then the A-theory is also true in the sense that it is an application of the B-theory, where each mind represents the past, present, and future of each point based on where the point occurs in the line of time.

How would the universe be different if the A-theory were true and the B-theory an abstraction vs. the B-theory being true and the A-theory an application? Well, we might say that if the B-theory were true, then things in the past, present, and future all exist equally, while if the A-theory were true, then only present objects would exist. That won’t do, because it doesn’t represent a difference in fact, but only a difference in terminology. Both the A-theorist and the B-theorist agree about the facts of the matter, they merely disagree on how to speak of them. The A-theorist agrees that past objects did exist and that future objects will exist; he just emphasizes that such objects do not presently exist.

Meanwhile the B-theorist agrees that the objects that the A-theorist calls “past” are in fact not present in the section of time that the A-theorist calls “the present”, and similarly for future objects. Consequently, there is a direct mapping from A-language to B-language and an inverse mapping from B-language to A-language, so that they are merely describing the same thing in different words. A similar argument can (I claim) be constructed for any difference in descriptions.

But Bill adds another comment that might lead us to a real difference:

Is temporal passage real or is it mind-dependent?

Is there a substantive question of whether time is mind-dependent or not? I say “no”, on the grounds that both theories of time imply that time is mind-independent. Clearly, if the A-theory is true, then the past, present, and future are mind-independent facts of the universe which the mind perceives. I’m not sure what it would mean for an A-theorist to think that time itself (as opposed to the perception of time) is mind-dependent.

If the B-theory is true, then presumably at any point t on the timeline, the mind perceives t as the present, times previous to t as the past, and times after t as the future. How can this be considered mind-dependent? It is just asserting that the mind, at each point in time, possesses a correct perception of its position on the timeline. One might counter that the mind also possesses a sense of the passage of time, which is mind-dependent, since time is not actually passing, but this is just another way of saying that the mind is aware, at each point along the timeline, that there are points in the past which the mind in the past perceived as the present.

I suspect the notion of time being mind-dependent is an artifact of A-theory minds trying to take a B-theory perspective, and inadvertently relying on an A-theory concept while doing so. In particular, I think the idea is that the mind is a sort of focus traveling along the B-theory timeline, viewing it’s current location at each time as the present. But of course, if the B-theory is true, then there is nothing moving along the timeline since the timeline is static. Such a notion requires a sort of meta-time, which reintroduces all of the problems that the B-theory was supposed to deal with.

So, I think the notion that there is any substantive difference between the A-theory and the B-theory is very dubious. Anything that an A-theorist believes about time can be translated into something that a B-theorist believes about time and vice versa, which makes the debate seem more like a terminological dispute than a substantive one.

Your Cat Doesn’t Love You

I’m sorry, but it has to be said. All of you cat people basking in the warmth of your pet’s love and adoration are suffering from a delusion. When kitty purrs in your lap she isn’t trying to communicate, “I love you”; she is trying to communicate “You do your job well, serf. I shall permit you to live another day.” When kitty leaves a dead animal on your door step, she isn’t trying to give you a gift; she isn’t motivated by love; she just got bored waiting on the doorstep for you to open the door so she dropped it and wandered off.

Non-Euclidean geometry does not prove Euclid was wrong

Possibly the most misapplied data in philosophical discussions is the fact of non-Euclidean geometry. The usual story is that for two thousand years, it was believed that Euclid’s Fifth Postulate was true and self-evident, but then the development of non-Euclidean geometry (or possibly the use of non-Euclidean geometry in a physical theory) proved that Euclid’s Fifth Postulate is not true.

This story has been used to counter the notion of self evidence as a source of knowledge and it has been used against Kant’s notion of space as an intuition. However, the claim is false. The discovery of non-Euclidean geometry had no bearing on on the truth of Euclidean geometry (although it did prove that the Fifth Postulate is independent), and because non-Euclidean geometry has no bearing on the truth of Euclidean geometry, its use in a physical theory, even a true physical theory, also has no bearing on the truth of Euclidean geometry.

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Self Evidence and Self Reference

The notion of self evidence as a justification for knowledge has fallen from its two-and-a-half millennia rule as the beginning point of all science and philosophy to the low point where today it can be casually dismissed as Peter Suber does here:

Self-evidence seems to be a byproduct of culturation or paradigm-influenced perception, not a theory-free anchor by which to judge theories. New discoveries have forced us to unlearn the self-evidence of the commensurability of all numbers, the motionlessness of the earth, the parallel postulate of Euclid, and most recently the naive definition of a set as any collection of any elements.

What I found striking about this list is that although it is very typical of arguments against self evidence, not one of the items in it strongly supports the point. I’ll go over each example except for the one about Euclid which I put in a separate post.

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Can Humans Observe the Quantum?

William C. Bushell and Maureen Seaberg think that human beings can directly “observe” the quantum (hat tip: Instapundit). Their evidence is a collection of experiments exploring the limits of human sensory abilities. Unfortunately, they are equivocating on the meaning of words like “observe”, “see” and “hear”, and this equivocation is then used to inflate the significance of the finding and to justify their pseudo-mystical proposals.

For example, they say that we can “see” light at the level of one quantum (essentially, that means one particle of light–you can’t have any less light than that), but owls and cats can see much lower levels of light than people can. Does that mean that owls and cats can see below the quantum level? Obviously, that makes no sense, so what could this mean? Well, when you “see” light at the quantum level, you don’t really see anything, at most you get a vague impression. What the experiments show is that if you ask people to stare into a device and push a button when they think they detect something, their button presses are a bit better than you would expect from random chance (and let’s note that there is similar statistical evidence for the existence of E.S.P).

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Causality, Free Will, Prognostication, and Fixed Points

John C. Wright explains why time travel is annoying: because it seems to be incompatible with causality and free will. He describes some ways around that particular problem, but the solutions create additional problems.

Prognostication (seeing the future) is different from time travel and can be made compatible with free will and causality. Basically, the idea is this: knowledge of the future effects how the free-willed prognosticator acts, and thus causes changes in the future, which can potentially invalidate what the prognosticator knows about the future.

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How the Age of Exploration Undermined Scholastic Science

The science of the middle ages is called scholastic science. It was based largely on the science of Classical Greece although it was not static and there were various changes and additions over the centuries. Naturally, there were some important conflicts between Catholic doctrine and Greek science, but in the thirteenth century, a¬†Dominican friar named Thomas Aquinas helped to meld Aristotle’s science into Catholic doctrine. By the fifteenth century, Aristotle’s physics was the physical science of Europe.

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