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Is Death Bad For You? A Response to Shelly Kagan

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I’ve enjoyed reading and listening to the philosopher Shelly Kagan, both in debate, lectures, and various articles.  One topic he’s well known for is that of death, specifically the fear of death, and trying to understand the details behind, and justification for, the general attitude people have toward the concept of death.  I’ve written a little about the fear of death long ago, but coming across an article of Kagan’s reignited my interest in the topic.  He wrote an article a few years ago in The Chronicle, where he expounds on some of the ontological puzzles related to the concept of death.  I thought I’d briefly summarize the article’s main points and give a response to it here.

Can Death Be Bad For Us?

Kagan begins with the assumption that the death of a person’s body results in the end of that person’s existence.  This is certainly a reasonable assumption as there’s no evidence to the contrary, that is, that persons can exist without a living body.  Simple enough.  Then he asks the question, if death is the end of our existence, then how can being dead be bad for us?  While some would say that death is particularly bad for the survivors of the deceased since they miss the person who’s died and the relationship they once had with that person.  But it seems more complicated than that, because we could likewise have an experience where a cherished friend or family member leaves us and goes somewhere far away such that we can be confident that we’ll never see that person ever again.

Both the death of that person, and the alternative of their leaving forever to go somewhere such that we’ll never have contact with them again, result in the same loss of relationship.  Yet most people would say that if we knew about their dying instead of simply leaving forever, there’s more to be sad about in terms of death being bad for them, not simply bad for us.  And this sadness results from more than simply knowing how they died — the process of death itself — which could have been unpleasant, but also could have been entirely benign (such as dying peacefully in one’s sleep).  Similarly, Kagan tells us, the prospect of dying can be unpleasant as well, but he asserts, this only seems to make sense if death itself is bad for us.

Kagan suggests:

Maybe nonexistence is bad for me, not in an intrinsic way, like pain, and not in an instrumental way, like unemployment leading to poverty, which in turn leads to pain and suffering, but in a comparative way—what economists call opportunity costs. Death is bad for me in the comparative sense, because when I’m dead I lack life—more particularly, the good things in life. That explanation of death’s badness is known as the deprivation account.

While the deprivation account seems plausible, Kagan thinks that accepting it results in a couple of potential problems.  He argues, if something is true, it seems as if there must be some time when it’s true.  So when would it be true that death is bad for us?  Not now, he says.  Because we’re not dead now.  Not after we’re dead either, because then we no longer exist so nothing can be bad for a being that no longer exists.  This seems to lead to the conclusion that either death isn’t bad for anyone after all, or alternatively, that not all facts are datable.  He gives us another possible example of an undatable fact.  If Kagan shoots “John” today such that John slowly bleeds to death after two days, but Kagan dies tomorrow (before John dies) then after John dies, can we say that Kagan killed John?  If Kagan did kill John, when did he kill him?  Kagan no longer existed when John died so how can we say that Kagan killed John?

I think we could agree with this and say that while it’s true that Kagan didn’t technically kill John, a trivial response to this supposed conundrum is to say that Kagan’s actions led to John’s death.  This seems to solve that conundrum by working within the constraints of language, while highlighting the fact that when we say someone killed X what we really mean is that someone’s actions led to the death of X, thus allowing us to be consistent with our conceptions of existence, causality, killing, blame, etc.

Existence Requirement, Non-Existential Asymmetry, & It’s Implications

In any case, if all facts are datable (or at least facts like these), then we should be able to say when exactly death is bad for us.  Can things only be bad for us when we exist?  If so, this is what Kagan refers to as the existence requirement.  If we don’t accept such a requirement — that one must exist in order for things to be bad for us — that produces other problems, like being able to say for example that non-existence could be bad for someone who has never existed but that could have possibly existed.  This seems to be a pretty strange claim to hold to.  So if we refuse to accept that it’s a tragedy for possibly existent people to never come into existence, then we’d have to accept the existence requirement, which I would contend is a more plausible assumption to accept.  But if we do so, then it seems that we have to accept that death isn’t in fact bad for us.

Kagan suggests that we may be able to reinterpret the existence requirement, and he does this by distinguishing between two versions, a modest version which asserts that something can be bad for you only if you exist at some time or another, and a bold version which asserts that something can be bad for you only if you exist at the same time as that thing.  Accepting the modest version seems to allow us a way out of the problems posed here, but that it too has some counter-intuitive implications.

He illustrates this with another example:

Suppose that somebody’s got a nice long life. He lives 90 years. Now, imagine that, instead, he lives only 50 years. That’s clearly worse for him. And if we accept the modest existence requirement, we can indeed say that, because, after all, whether you live 50 years or 90 years, you did exist at some time or another. So the fact that you lost the 40 years you otherwise would have had is bad for you. But now imagine that instead of living 50 years, the person lives only 10 years. That’s worse still. Imagine he dies after one year. That’s worse still. An hour? Worse still. Finally, imagine I bring it about that he never exists at all. Oh, that’s fine.

He thinks this must be accepted if we accept the modest version of the existence requirement, but how can this be?  If one’s life is shortened relative to what they would have had, this is bad, and gets progressively worse as the life is hypothetically shortened, until a life span of zero is reached, in which case they no longer meet the modest existence requirement and thus can’t have anything be bad for them.  So it’s as if it gets infinitely worse as the potential life span approaches the limit of zero, and then when zero is reached, becomes benign and is no longer an issue.

I think a reasonable response to this scenario is to reject the claim that hypothetically shrinking the life span to zero is suddenly no longer an issue.  What seems to be glossed over in this example is the fact that this is a set of comparisons of one hypothetical life to another hypothetical life (two lives with different non-zero life spans), resulting in a final comparison between one hypothetical life and no life at all (a life span of zero).  This example illustrates whether or not something is better or worse in comparison, not whether something is good or bad intrinsically speaking.  The fact that somebody lived for as long as 90 years or only for 10 years isn’t necessarily good or bad but only better or worse in comparison to somebody who’s lived for a different length of time.

The Intrinsic Good of Existence & Intuitions On Death

However, I would go further and say that there is an intrinsic good to existing or being alive, and that most people would agree with such a claim (and that the strong will to live that most of us possess is evidence of our acknowledging such a good).  That’s not to say that never having lived is bad, but only to say that living is good.  If not living is neither good nor bad but considered a neutral or inconsequential state, then we can hold the position that living is better than not living, even if not living isn’t bad at all (after all it’s neutral, neither good nor bad).  Thus we can still maintain our modest existence requirement while consistently holding these views.  We can say that not living is neither good nor bad, that living 10 years is good (and better than not living), that living 50 years is even better, and that living 90 years is even better yet (assuming, for the sake of argument, that the quality of life is equivalently good in every year of one’s life).  What’s important to note here is that not having lived in the first place doesn’t involve the loss of a good, because there was never any good to begin with.  On the other hand, extending the life span involves increasing the quantity of the good, by increasing it’s duration.

Kagan seems to agree overall with the deprivation account of why we believe death is bad for us, but that some puzzles like those he presented still remain.  I think one of the important things to take away from this article is the illustration that we have obvious limitations in the language that we use to describe our ontological conceptions.  These scenarios and our intuitions about them also seem to show that we all generally accept that living or existence is intrinsically good.  It may also highlight the fact that many people intuit that some part of us (such as a soul) continues to exist after death such that death can be bad for us after all (since our post-death “self” would still exist).  While the belief in souls is irrational, it may help to explain some common intuitions about death.

Dying vs. Death, & The Loss of An Intrinsic Value

Remember that Kagan began his article by distinguishing between how one dies, the prospect of dying and death itself.  He asked us, how can the prospect of dying be bad if death itself (which is only true when we no longer exist) isn’t bad for us. Well, perhaps we should consider that when people say that death is bad for us they tend to mean that dying itself is bad for us.  That is to say, the prospect of dying isn’t unpleasant because death is bad for us, but rather because dying itself is bad for us.  If dying occurs while we’re still alive, resulting in one’s eventual loss of life, then dying can be bad for us even if we accepted the bold existence requirement — that something can only be bad for us if we exist at the same time as that thing.  So if the “thing” we’re referring to is our dying rather than our death, this would be consistent with the deprivation account of death, would allow us to put a date (or time interval) on such an event, and would seem to resolve the aforementioned problems.

As for Kagan’s opening question, when is death bad for us?  If we accept my previous response that dying is what’s bad for us, rather than death, then it would stand to reason that death itself isn’t ever bad for us (or doesn’t have to be), but rather what is bad for us is the loss of life that occurs as we die.  If I had to identify exactly when the “badness” that we’re actually referring to occurs, I suppose I would choose an increment of time before one’s death occurs (with an exclusive upper bound set to the time of death).  If time is quantized, as per quantum mechanics, then that means that the smallest interval of time is one Planck second.  So I would argue that at the very least, the last Planck second of our life (if not a longer interval), marks the event or time interval of our dying.

It is this last interval of time ticking away that is bad for us because it leads to our loss of life, which is a loss of an intrinsic good.  So while I would argue that never having received an intrinsic good in the first place isn’t bad (such as never having lived), the loss of (or the process of losing) an intrinsic good is bad.  So I agree with Kagan that the deprivation account is on the right track, but I also think the problems he’s posed are resolvable by thinking more carefully about the terminology we use when describing these concepts.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

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Previously, I’ve written briefly about some of the cosmological arguments for God.  I’d like to expand on this topic, and I’ll begin doing so in this post by analyzing the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), since it is arguably the most well known version of the argument, which can be described with the following syllogism:

(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause;

(2) The universe began to exist;

Therefore,

(3) The universe has a cause.

The conclusion of this argument is often expanded by theists to suggest that the cause must be supernaturally transcendent, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and perhaps most importantly, this cause must itself be uncaused, in order to avoid the causal infinite regress implied by the KCA’s first premise.

Unfortunately this argument fails for a number of reasons.  The first thing that needs to be clarified is the definitions of terms used in these premises.  What is meant by “everything”, or “begins to exist”?  “Everything” in this context does imply that there are more than one of these things, which means that we are referring to a set of things, indeed the set of all things in this case.  The set of all things implied here apparently refers to all matter and energy in the universe, specifically the configuration of any subset of all matter and/or energy.  Then we have the second element in the first premise, “begins to exist”, which would thus refer to when the configuration of some set of matter and/or energy changes to a new configuration.  So we could rewrite the first premise as “any configuration of matter and/or energy that exists at time T and which didn’t exist at the time immediately prior to time T (which we could call T’), was a result of some cause”.  If we want to specify how “immediately prior” T’ is to T, we could use the smallest unit of time that carries any meaning per the laws of physics which would be the Planck time (roughly 10^-43 seconds), which is the time it takes the fastest entity in the universe (light) to traverse the shortest distance in the universe (the Planck length).

Does Everything Have a Cause?

Now that we’ve more clearly defined what is meant by the first premise, we can address whether or not that premise is sound.  It seems perfectly reasonable based on the nature of causality that we currently understand that there is indeed some cause that drives the changes in the configurations of sets of matter and energy that we observe in the universe, most especially in the everyday world that we observe.  On a most fundamental physical level, we would typically say that the cause of these configuration changes is described as the laws of physics.  Particles and waves all behave as they do, very predictably changing from one form into another based on these physical laws or consistent patterns that we’ve discovered.  However, depending on the interpretation of quantum mechanics used, there may be acausal quantum processes happening, for example, as virtual particle/anti-particle pairs pop into existence without any apparent deterministic path.  That is, unless there are non-local hidden variables that we are unaware of which guide/cause these events, there don’t appear to be any deterministic or causal driving forces behind certain quantum phenomena.  At best, the science is inconclusive as to whether all phenomena have causes, and thus one can’t claim certainty to the first premise of the KCA.  Unless we find a way to determine that quantum mechanics is entirely deterministic, we simply don’t know that matter and energy are fundamentally causally connected as are objects that we observe at much larger scales.

The bottom line here is that quantum indeterminism carries with it the possibility of acausality until proven otherwise, thus undermining premise one of the KCA with the empirical evidence found within the field of quantum physics.  As such, it is entirely plausible that if the apparent quantum acausal processes are fundamental to our physical world, the universe itself may have arisen from said acausal processes, thus undermining premise two as well as the conclusion of the KCA.  We can’t conclude that this is the case, but it is entirely possible and is in fact plausible given the peculiar quantum phenomena we’ve observed thus far.

As for the second premise, if we apply our clarified definition of “began to exist” introduced in the first premise to the second, then “the universe began to exist” would mean more specifically that “there was once a time (T’) when the universe didn’t exist and then at time T, the universe did exist.”  This is the most obviously problematic premise, at least according to the evidence we’ve found within cosmology.  The Big Bang Theory as most people are familiar with, which is the prevailing cosmological model for the earliest known moment of the universe, implies that spacetime itself had it’s earliest moment roughly 13.8 billion years ago, and continued to expand and transform over 13.8 billion years until reaching the state that we see it in today.  Many theists try to use this as evidence for the universe being created by God.  However, since time itself was non-existent prior to the Big Bang, it is not sensible to speak of any creation event happening prior to this moment, since there was no time for such an event to happen within.  This presents a big problem for the second premise in the KCA, because in order for the universe to “begin to exist”, it is implied that there was a time prior in which it didn’t exist, and this goes against the Big Bang model in which time never existed prior to that point.

Is Simultaneous Causation Tenable?

One way that theologians and some philosophers have attempted to circumvent this problem is to invoke the concept of simultaneous causation, that is, that (at least some) causes and effects can happen simultaneously.  Thus, if the cause of the universe happened at the same time as the effect (the Big Bang), then the cause of the universe (possibly “creation”) did happen in time, and thus the problem is said to be circumvented.

The concept of simultaneous causation has been proposed for some time by philosophers, most notably Immanuel Kant and others since.  However, there are a few problems with simultaneous causation that I’ll point out briefly.  For one, there don’t appear to be any actual examples in our universe of simultaneous causation occurring.  Kant did propose what he believed to be a couple examples of simultaneous causation to support the idea.  One example he gave was a scenario where the effect of a heated room supposedly occurs simultaneously with a fire in a fireplace that caused it.  Unfortunately, this example fails, because it actually takes time for thermal energy to make its way from the fire in the fireplace to any air molecules in the room (even those that are closest to the fire).  As combustion is occurring and oxygen is combining with hydrocarbon fuels in the wood to produce carbon dioxide and a lot of heat, that heat takes time to propagate.  As the carbon dioxide is being formed, and the molecule is assuming an energetically favorable state, there is still a lag between this event and any heat given off to nearby molecules in the room.  In fact, no physical processes can occur faster than the speed of light by the principles of Relativity, so this refutes any other example analogous to this one.  The fastest way a fire can propagate heat is through radiation (as opposed to conduction or convection), and we know that the propagation of radiation is limited by the speed of light.  Even pulling a solid object causes it to stretch (at least temporarily) so the end of the object farthest away from where it is being pulled will actually remain at rest for a short time while the other end of the object is first pulled in a particular direction.  It isn’t until a short time lag, that the rest of the object “catches up” with the end being pulled, so even with mechanical processes involving solid materials, we never see instantaneous speeds of causal interactions.

Another example Kant gave was one in which a lead ball lies on a cushion and simultaneously causes the effect of an indentation or “hollow” in the cushion.  Again, in order for the ball to cause a dent in the cushion in the first place it had to be moved into the cushion which took some finite amount of time.  Likewise with the previous example, Relativity prevents any simultaneous causation of this sort.  We can see this by noting that at the molecular level, as the electron orbitals from the lead ball approach those of the cushion, the change in the strength of the electric field between the electron orbitals of the two objects can’t travel faster than the speed of light, and thus as the ball moves toward the cushion and eventually “touches” it, the increased strength of the repulsion takes some amount of time to be realized.

One last example I’ve seen given by defenders of simultaneous causation is that of a man sitting down, thus forming a lap.  That is, as the man sits down, and his knees bend, a lap is created in the process, and we’re told that the man sitting down is the cause and the formation of the lap is the simultaneous effect.  Unfortunately, this example also fails because the man sitting down and the lap being formed are really nothing more than two different descriptions of the same event.  One could say that the man formed a lap, or one could say that the man sat down.  Clearly the intentions behind the man were most likely to sit down rather than to form a lap, but nevertheless forming a lap was incidental in the process of sitting down.  Both are describing different aspects of the same event, and thus there aren’t two distinct causal relatum in this example.  In the previous examples mentioned (the fire and heated room or ball denting a cushion), if there are states described that occur simultaneously even after taking Relativity into account, they can likewise be shown to be merely two different aspects or descriptions of the same event.  Even if we could grant that simultaneous causation were possible (which so far, we haven’t seen any defensible examples in the real world), how can we assign causal priority to determine which was the cause and which was the effect?  In terms of the KCA, one could ask, if the cause (C) of the universe occurred at the same time as the effect (E) or existence of the universe, how could one determine if C caused E rather than the other way around?  One has to employ circular argumentation in order to do so, by invoking other metaphysical assumptions in the terms that are being defined which simply begs the question.

Set Theory & Causal Relations

Another problem with the second premise of the KCA is that even if we ignore the cosmological models that refute it, and even ignore the problematic concept of simultaneous causation altogether, there is an implicit assumption that the causal properties of the “things” in the universe also apply to the universe as a whole.  This is fallacious because one can’t assume that the properties of members of a set or system necessarily apply to the system or entire set as a whole.  Much work has been done within set theory to show that this is the case, and thus while some properties of the members or subsets of a system can apply to the whole system, not all properties necessarily do (in fact some properties applying to both members of a set and to the set as a whole can lead to logical contradictions or paradoxes).  One of the properties that is being misapplied here involves the concept of “things” in general.  If we try to consider the universe as a “thing” we can see how this is problematic by noting that we seem to define and conceptualize “things” with causal properties as entities or objects that are located in time and space (that’s an ontology that I think is pretty basic and universal).  However, the universe as a whole is the entirety of space and time (i.e. spacetime), and thus the universe as a whole contains all space and time, and thus can’t itself (as a whole) be located in space or time.

Since the universe appears to be composed of all the things we know about, one might say that the universe is located within “nothing” at all, if that’s at all intelligible to think of.  Either way, the universe as a whole doesn’t appear to be located in time or space, and thus it isn’t located anywhere at all.  Thus, it technically isn’t a “thing” at all, or at the very least, it is not a thing that has any causal properties of its own, since it isn’t located in time or space in order to have causal relations with other things.  Even if one insists on calling it a thing, despite the problems listed here, we are still left with the problem that we can’t assume that causal principles found within the universe apply to the universe as a whole.  So for a number of reasons, premise two of the KCA fails.  Since both premises fail for a number of reasons, the conclusion no longer follows.  So even if the universe does in fact have a cause, in some way unknown to us, the KCA doesn’t successfully support such a claim with its premises.

Is the Kalam Circular?

Yet another problem that Dan Barker and others have pointed out involves the language used in the first premise of the KCA.  The clause, “everything that begins to exist”, implies that reality can be divided into two sets: items that begin to exist (BE) and items that do not begin to exist (NBE).  In order for the KCA to work in arguing for God’s existence, the NBE set can’t be empty.  Even more importantly, it must accommodate more than one item to avoid simply being a synonym for God, for if God is the only object or item within NBE, then the premise “everything that begins to exist has a cause” is equivalent to “everything except God has a cause”.  This simply puts God into the definition of the premise of the argument that is supposed to be used to prove God’s existence, and thus would simply beg the question.  It should be noted that just because the NBE set must accommodate more than one possible item, this doesn’t entail that the NBE set must contain more than one item.  This specific problem with the KCA could be resolved if one could first show that there are multiple possible NBE candidates, followed by showing that of the multiple possible candidates within NBE, only one candidate is valid, and finally by showing that this candidate is in fact some personal creator, i.e., God.  If it can’t be shown that NBE can accommodate more than one item, then the argument is circular.  Moreover, if the only candidate for NBE is God, then the second premise “The universe began to exist” simply reduces to “The universe is not God”, which simply assumes what the argument is trying to prove.  Thus if the NBE set is simply synonymous with God, then the Kalam can be reduced to:

(1) Everything except God has a cause;

(2) The universe is not God;

Therefore,

(3) The universe has a cause.

As we can see, this syllogism is perfectly logical (though the conclusion only follows if the premises are true which is open to debate), but this syllogism is entirely useless as an argument for God’s existence.  Furthermore, regarding the NBE set, one must ask, where do theists obtain the idea that this NBE set exists?  That is, by what observations and/or arguments is the possibility of beginningless objects justified?  We don’t find any such observations in science, although it is certainly possible that the universe itself never began (we just don’t have observations to support this, at least, not at this time) and the concept of a “beginningless universe” is in fact entirely consistent with many eternal cosmological models that have been proposed, in which case the KCA would still be invalidated by refuting premise two in yet another way.  Other than the universe itself potentially being an NBE (which is plausible, though not empirically demonstrated as of yet), there don’t appear to be any other possible NBEs, and there don’t appear to be any observations and/or arguments to justify proposing that any NBEs exist at all (other than perhaps the universe itself, which would be consistent with the law of conservation of mass and energy and/or the Quantum Eternity Theorem).

The KCA Fails

As we can see, the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails for a number of reasons, and thus is unsuccessful in arguing for the existence of God.  Thus, even though it may very well be the case that some god exists and did in fact create the universe, the KCA fails to support such a claim.

Here’s an excellent debate between the cosmologist Sean Carroll and the Christian apologist William Lane Craig which illustrates some of the problems with the KCA, specifically in terms of evidence found within cosmology (or lack thereof).  It goes without saying that Carroll won the debate by far, though he could certainly have raised more points in his rebuttals than he did.  Nevertheless, it was entertaining and a nice civil debate with good points presented on both sides.  Here’s another link to Carroll’s post debate reflections on his blog.

Consciousness and the Laws of Physics

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When most people hear the word “consciousness”, they tend to think of what I refer to as “mental consciousness”, that is, the mental process of awareness, self-awareness, or experience in general.  However, I prefer to think of consciousness as a fundamental type of awareness (i.e. an ability to respond to stimuli).  On top of this, I believe this property of awareness applies to “non-living” systems as well.  One idea I’d like to discuss in this post is the idea that “consciousness”, or a “universal consciousness” exists as some driving force in the universe such that experience, awareness, response to stimuli (e.g. physical motion), etc., precipitate from it.  In a nutshell, I equate this universal consciousness with the laws of physics.

Traditional Consciousness

If we look at the traditional view of consciousness, it seems to be the “I” (a combination of an unconscious and conscious driver) or more appropriately the “me”, that is, it is some concept of “self” that subsequently experiences and/or drives all of the constituent processes that constitute our experience.  If we look at consciousness from a physicalist perspective, we are led to the idea that consciousness is nothing more than particular physical processes produced and mediated by the brain.  What is important here is that the fundamental physical processes that produce and mediate consciousness, are processes which are ultimately driven by the laws of physics.  That is, the motion of all molecules, atoms, electrons, ions, etc., which are intricately interacting to produce this mental consciousness, are all governed by the laws of physics.

Mental Consciousness

Looking at mentally conscious beings such as ourselves, we have incoming sensory data/stimuli leading to perceptions which eventually coalesce with our pattern recognition systems such that cognitive processes (e.g. concepts/thought, language, problem solving, learning, memory, etc.) begin to drive our behavior based on our brain’s response to not only this incoming information, but also to its relationship with any information that has been previously acquired.  We could summarize this by saying that we have conscious thoughts or motivations (as well as unconscious motivations) serving as complex stimuli which we physically respond to by behaving in various ways.  In other words, we started with elementary stimuli which led to more complex stimuli finally driving our behavior as mentally conscious beings.

Consciousness of Fundamental Living Systems

If we then look at brainless organisms (e.g. bacteria, etc.), we see some similar properties of responding to stimuli thus driving micro-scale motion and any other aspects of behavior at that scale.  We seem to have lost the possibilities of perception and self-awareness with this type of organism, but the property of sensation and awareness, that is, the ability to respond to its environment (through electro-photo-chemical signals), is conserved.

Consciousness of Non-Living Systems

Finally, if we look at energy quanta (e.g. photons, gravitons, etc.) as well as the smaller-scale constituents of matter (e.g. atoms, electrons, subatomic particles, etc.), we see that they respond to the fundamental forces governed by the laws of physics.  If the magnitude and direction of those forces change, the response changes.  Once again, the property of awareness (i.e. an ability to respond to stimuli) is conserved.

An Evolving Consciousness

Looking at this in terms of consciousness evolution, we started with particles and energy quanta that were fundamentally “aware” of the fundamental forces.  When organized a particular way (given a particular environment), this led to a higher level of awareness (e.g. electro-photo-chemical sensation) as seen in cellular organisms.  Then upon further organization, an even higher level of awareness was reached (e.g. perception and thought) as is seen in the multi-cellular organisms that possess brains.  Eventually, this led to particular brain configurations which yielded the highest level of awareness we’ve observed thus far (e.g. self-awareness).  It is at this point (self awareness) that a being’s mental consciousness includes the experience of realizing that it is a mentally conscious being.  One could perhaps describe this type of awareness as a profound way that the universe has become aware of itself.

Final Thoughts and Questions

We could say that every “level” of consciousness or awareness that seems to exist is but one step in a series driven by the fundamental universal consciousness which increasingly approximates complete awareness of the universe (or at least some maximal level).  This leads me to several questions:

– Are there any other levels of awareness that we are not aware of?

– If there are other types of awareness in which we are constituents of some “higher” level, can we come to know those higher levels, or are certain epistemological limitations in place to prevent this kind of knowledge (analogous to brain cells being unaware of the self-producing brain that they constitute)?

– If the universe has a finite amount of time before all “higher” levels of awareness are reduced to the fundamental form from which they came (due to the second law of thermodynamics leading to an inevitable heat death), what will the climax of awareness consist of, or at the very least, what are some plausible climaxes of awareness?

– If the universe is cyclical (e.g. Big Bang and Big Crunch ad infinitum), will every iteration consist of the same climax of awareness, even if the laws of physics change (e.g. physical constants), and despite the possibility of there being some level of ontological randomness?

Written by Lage

November 16, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Essay on Time – Part III: Time Travel and its Limitations

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Time travel and the Laws of Physics

As the “Twin Paradox” and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity implied, time travel to the future is possible if enough energy is available.  As for time travel to the past, while it seems to be the most envied hypothetical time-travel capability, it also seems to be the only one that is impossible (in my opinion).  I will discuss why I believe this to be the case, specifically how it pertains to certain physical laws and theories including: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, The Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy, and The Law of Causality.

One method proposed by some, in order to be able to travel back in time, is to utilize Einstein’s theory of relativity to take time dilation “one step further”, that is, by traveling faster than the speed of light the time dilation may theoretically reverse the arrow of time.  To better picture this, recall that traveling closer to the speed of light slowed down the passage of time, and reaching the speed of light appeared to stop it.  If time dilation or the deceleration of time were to continue in the direction implied (slowing down to a stop), then continuing this deceleration by traveling faster than light would cause the arrow of time to reverse, thus making time travel to the past possible.  Unfortunately this “faster than light-speed” travel would violate Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as one of the primary elements of the theory is the assertion that the speed of light is the fastest speed that can be attained by anything moving in space.  Furthermore, Relativity asserts mathematically that it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a mass (e.g. a time traveler) to the speed of light, which implies that it would take even more energy to accelerate a mass to a speed higher than that of light.  Since you can’t have an infinite amount of energy, let alone more than an infinite amount of energy, traveling at or faster than the speed of light is impossible.

Relativity aside, if we found some other way to travel back in time and were to able to exist in a previous “version” of the universe, I think that we would violate the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy, because we as the time traveler would be adding our own mass to a previous version of the universe which should have a fixed amount of mass and energy over time.  The only way around this would be to somehow sacrifice matter in the previous version of the universe that one travels to, that is, the time traveler’s body would have to be assembled out of matter already located in the past version of the universe.  If this occurred however, we would no longer exist in a previous version of the universe and would by definition have failed to time travel to “the past”.  It would appear to be close to matching the past, but it would be a moment in time that had never existed, and the causal chain would be altered beyond what we can possibly comprehend.  So time travel to the past appears to be impossible even if this particular law of physics was upheld, as we would be forced to alter the past (in order to satisfy the law) thus preventing us from traveling to a real moment of the past.

Finally, if we were to find a way to travel back in time and somehow solve the aforementioned issues, we’d still have a problem with causality.  If a time traveler were to go back to the past, and actually exist in that causal chain, the “Butterfly Effect” would immediately change the course of history such that the “present” time from which the time traveler came from would no longer exist.  If this was the case, then it seems unreasonable to assume that the time traveler would still have time traveled in the first place.  Let’s take a look at a simple causal diagram to appreciate this scenario.

From this diagram, we can see that time traveling to the past would create a new causal chain up to and including a new “present”.  This new causal chain would no longer be causally connected to the old “present”.  This would mean that the time from which the time traveler initially left (i.e. the old present) would no longer exist.  Wouldn’t this imply that the time traveler (their sense of self, the “I”, the “me”, etc.) as well as the trip itself never would have been?  I see no way around this dilemma.

So it appears that time travel to the past is physically impossible for a number of reasons.  At least time travel to the future has some promise as it doesn’t appear to violate any of these physical laws and is implied as a possibility due to consequences of Relativity.  This type of time travel seems to only be limited by the energy requirements needed to accelerate the time traveling matter to a high enough velocity for a long enough period of time, and return the time traveler back to the previous frame of reference (e.g. Earth).  Or if the time traveler utilized the effect of gravitational time dilation, their time travel would be limited by the gravitational field of the celestial body they chose to travel to as well as the time it would take them to get back to the previous frame of reference (e.g. Earth).  Either way, time travel to the future is possible simply by moving through space in a particular way.

Final thoughts

Regarding temporal experiences, it appears to me that memory is the most important of the mental requirements in order to have a mental frame of reference, that is, to make an experience of the past and present possible (as well as a concept of the future).  I think that how this memory is stored and retrieved in the brain, the amount or types of memory available as well as the psycho-pharmacological substance-induced or otherwise caused physiological changes to this memory no doubt affect our temporal experiences in profound ways.  Memory also appears to transcend physical time by providing a means for experiencing an ever-changing temporal rate.

The Theory of Relativity suggests that physical time does not exist for entities moving at the speed of light because entities moving at the speed of light (which is a constant in all frames of reference) have no physical frame of reference, and have an infinite time dilation between themselves and all inertial frames of reference.  All physical time for entities that are not moving at the speed of light would be relative to one another based on relative velocity, acceleration, and gravity.  Time also appears to pop in and out of existence due to Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence, as matter is converted into energy and vice versa.

Thus, both mental and physical frames of reference are needed in order for a temporal experience to exist.

As for time travel, it appears to be possible but only if traveling into the future, if we are to uphold the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the Law of Causality.

Essay on Time – Part II: Temporal Experience and Space-time

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Physical Frame of Reference

Relativity

Memory may be one of several mental requirements for any experience of the temporal dimension, but how exactly is time objectively related to the physical universe (i.e. 3D-space)?  As I mentioned in the first post, I believe that we can consider time to be a dimension if we find a proper way to relate time to the existing dimensions, such that we have a foundation to work off of.  To begin, let’s consider an inductive definition of a dimension so we can at least see one foundation we have for defining our three spatial dimensions.

If we start out with an empty space and place one discrete point in it, we can refer to that point as a zero-dimensional object.  If we take this object and drag it in any direction, the path it takes can be collectively described as a one-dimensional object (e.g. line, ray, or segment).  By dragging this object in a new direction, the path it takes can be collectively described as a two-dimensional object (i.e. a plane).  Finally, by dragging this object in yet another direction, the path it takes can be collectively described as a three-dimensional object (e.g. polyhedron, ellipsoid, etc.).  In general, we can drag an n-dimensional object in a new direction and collectively describe the path this object takes as an (n+1)-dimensional object.

So this is one foundation for our three spatial dimensions.  It doesn’t appear to be possible to take this induction one step further, as we have trouble even trying to conceptualize a four-dimensional (or higher dimensional) object.  So we can assume for now that our spatial dimensions are limited to a quantity of three.  Now this begs the question:  How can we reconcile these spatial dimensions with time?  Isn’t time independent of space?  Not exactly.

I believe that time has been reconciled with the three spatial dimensions in at least one way, most notably within Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  Within this theory, Einstein suggested that these four dimensions were unified, and were thus eventually referred to as “space-time”.  Up until relativity was discovered, all physical motion and causality in space were seen to operate or progress uni-directionally along an arrow of time (i.e. from past-to-present-to-future) and presumed to elapse at a fixed rate throughout the entire universe.  The three extensions of space were our physical universe and the rate of all motion within that space was, or was mediated by, time.

So classical physics (i.e. “pre-relativistic” physics) implied that there was indeed an “absolute time” or “absolute present” that existed.  It was believed that if a person experienced one minute of time (and even confirmed it with an extremely precise atomic clock), that everyone else in the world (let alone any location throughout the universe) also experienced or underwent one minute of time elapse.  To put it another way, it was believed that “clock time” or “proper time” was a 100% objective attribute that was also constant in any frame of reference.  Once relativity was discovered, the intuitive concept of an objective (and constant) time was replaced with the much less intuitive concept of a relative time (albeit still objective in some ways).  This relativity is demonstrated in several bizarre phenomena including relative velocity time-dilation, gravitational (and other non-inertial) time-dilation, and length contraction.  I plan to discuss the first two of these phenomena.

Relativity and the speed of light

It should be noted that one of the main reasons for this physical/temporal relativity and the resultant phenomena is the fact that the speed of light is the fastest speed that anything can travel in space and is also a constant speed measured by all frames of reference.  To illustrate the importance of this, consider the following example.

If a driver were in a race-car driving at 200 m.p.h. and a bullet was traveling head-on toward the car also moving at 200 m.p.h., a stationary bystander would measure the speed of the bullet to be 200 m.p.h., but the driver would measure the bullet to be traveling at 400 m.p.h.  This is because the race-car is moving toward the bullet and thus the velocities (car and bullet) are additive from the driver’s inertial frame of reference.  The impact on the car would be the same (ignoring wind resistance) if the car was stationary with the bullet moving towards it at 400 m.p.h., or if the car and bullet were traveling towards each other at the same speed of 200 m.p.h.  If we replace the bullet in this example with a pulse of light, this additive property of velocities disappears.  Both the race-car driver and the stationary bystander would measure the light pulse traveling at the speed of light (roughly 300,000 km/s), although the frequency of the light pulse would be measured to be higher for the driver in the race-car.  It is the time dilation that compensates for this, that is, time appears to pass by more slowly for any frame of reference in motion relative to the observer, such that the “additive velocity” paradox is resolved.  If both the driver and the stationary bystander were holding clocks that the other person could see, both would see the other person’s clock as ticking more slowly than their own.  It makes no difference whether we say that the driver or the bystander is the frame of reference that is “moving”.  The point is that there is motion relative to one another.  If we start the observations after the driver has reached a constant speed, we could just as easily assume that the race-car driver is “stationary” and it is the bystander, race track, and earth that are “moving” relative to the driver.

Motion is relative, and thus time is relative as well.  This temporal relativity is a concept that goes completely against all common sense and everyday experience, but has been empirically verified to be true many times over.  As opposed to the example with the race-car driver traveling at a constant speed of 200 m.p.h., the consequences of relativity are dramatically different when any of the frames of reference under consideration are non-inertial frames of reference, that is, if the frame of reference is accelerating (i.e. non-inertial) relative to any other.  When non-inertial frames of reference are considered, relativity has much more bizarre consequences.

Space-time and the “Twin Paradox”

The most bizarre example of non-inertial frames of reference, coinciding with the Theory of Relativity, is that of the supposed “Twin Paradox” or “Traveling Twin”.  There are two basic versions of this story, so I’ll start with the most commonly used.

Let’s imagine that there are two 20-year old identical twin sisters, Mary and Alice, where one twin travels into outer space (e.g. Mary) at near light speed and the other remains on Earth (e.g. Alice).  It just so happens that the speed that Mary was traveling at, in combination with her non-inertial motion (i.e. acceleration) when leaving and when returning to Earth, caused a permanent time dilation such that she aged less when she finally returns to Earth (faster travel speed creates a more noticeable effect).  Let’s say that at some point Mary stops her journey in outer space, turns around, and eventually makes it back to Earth with Alice having waited for 50 years.  We can also assume that Mary traveled at a speed such that she has only aged 1 year by the time she returns to Earth.  Alice is now 70 years old, but Mary steps off of the space shuttle and is only 21 years old!  It is worth noting that both twins experienced their time elapsing in a normal fashion (i.e. neither of them would experience a feeling of time moving in slow-motion).  To both Mary and Alice, nothing strange is going on as they wait.  Mary ages one year and Alice ages 50 years.  We can define the “time” that Mary experiences (or observes passing by on her clock) during her space travel as the “proper time”, while the “time” that Alice experiences (or observes passing by on her clock) on Earth as the “coordinate time” (the “proper time” within a defined stationary frame of reference).  It is the relative difference between these two times that is the measured time dilation.  This time dilation is one of the consequences of relativity and it demonstrates a very clear relationship between space and time.  What I find most amazing is that the only requirement to accomplish this “time-travel” to the future was the ability to move through space at high enough speeds (and return back to the stationary reference frame).  This would require large amounts of energy, but the point is that it is physically possible nevertheless.  It should be noted that this same result could have been accomplished if the traveling twin (i.e. Mary) simply went to a planet that had a significantly larger gravitational potential than that of Earth.  Any non-inertial frame of reference, whether due to a changing velocity or due to gravity, produces this time dilation (and future time travel) phenomenon relative to any inertial frame of reference.

Time is not independent of the entities in the universe

The “Traveling Twin” scenario illustrates several interesting things about our universe.  It shows that physical time as well as temporal experiences are elapsing at different rates across the entire universe as a consequence of Relativity.  It also suggests that rather than existing independent of us, time actually “travels with us” in a way because it is unified with the space we are moving through (and how we move through it) as well as the curvature of that space due to gravity.  In my opinion, since the time dilation is infinite if the velocity of an entity is equal to the speed of light, this suggests that no time exists for anything moving at light-speed, that is, the proper time is zero even if the coordinate time (of a sub-light-speed frame of reference) is infinite.  This may imply that all bosons (e.g. photons, gluons, gravitons, etc.) exist with no proper time even though an infinite amount of time may have passed for all inertial frames of reference.  So time does not appear to exist for all entities, only for matter (e.g. fermions, hadrons, etc.).

Time creation and destruction

For those that are familiar with Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence, we can see that photons with sufficient energy can give rise to matter/anti-matter pair production.  For example, two gamma ray photons can combine to form an electron-positron pair.  This means that particles traveling at the speed of light (e.g. photons) can combine to form matter which travels much slower than light.  If this is true, then particles that exist with a proper time of zero can change to particles that exist with a non-zero proper-time, that is, due to the pair production, the proper time becomes non-zero and thus time is created (due to a reference frame being definable at sub-light-speed) as soon as bosons are transformed into matter.  If proper time is limited to matter, then temporal experiences must also be limited to matter, as no processes or experience can exist if there is no proper time elapsed for that experience.

There is a flip side to this coin however.  Let’s say we take the aforementioned electron-positron pair that was produced and they are re-combined within a certain range of momentum, etc.  They will collide, annihilate each other, and two gamma ray photons will be produced.  So, as matter is transformed into energy (e.g. photons, etc.), time is destroyed in a sense (due to the absence of a reference frame at light-speed).  Thus, matter and photons are interchangeable and that means that proper time (a requirement for temporal experiences) can “pop” in and out of existence for the entities considered.  Thus there appears to be no conservation of proper time (unlike mass and energy which must be conserved in a closed system).  If we imagine all matter transforming into a form of bosonic energy, and thus all proper time disappearing, this lack of conservation of time becomes quite clear.

Here is the link for Part III: Time Travel and its Limitations

Essay on Time – Part I: Temporal Experience and Memory

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In this post, I will consider some of the objective and subjective elements of time, including some requirements, and how they relate to temporal experiences.  I think that it’s safe to say that time involves both a mental and physical component which is evident when we recognize the lack of consistency between our subjective or mental experience of time relative to an external objective standard (i.e. “clock time”). It is this objective standard that most people call “time”, although there are quite a few people that consider the subjective experience of time to be the only “time” there is.  Some believe that time is an illusion, that is, that time itself or the arrow of time that we experience is nothing more than an experience and doesn’t exist outside of consciousness or otherwise.  I’d rather simply focus on what we experience and how it appears to relate to the physical universe.  For the purposes of this post, we can assume that time exists in some objective way and we are able to experience it in a subjective way.

Time is often thought of as a dimension and I think that it’s reasonable to consider time to be a dimension as long as there is an appropriate relationship between said time and the existing physical spatial dimensions, for without this relationship, I can’t see any foundation to build off of such that we can justify time as being a dimension per se.  One theory that demonstrates this type of relationship is well-established within the field of physics, namely Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  I plan to discuss this theory of time and space as well as some of its implications.  I find it interesting due in part to the paradoxical temporal phenomena it manifests as well as its unique relationship with 3D-space.  I think that this theory also demonstrates that time travel to the future is possible if enough energy is available.  I also plan to discuss time travel and what I believe its limitations are in order to satisfy some laws of physics.  All of these various elements are relevant to a temporal experience and, needless to say, time in general.  I decided to separate this post into three parts:

1) Temporal Experience & Memory

2) Temporal Experience & Space-time

3) Time Travel and its Limitations

Keep in mind that these posts are just some of my recent thoughts on time based on what I’ve read as well as my own two cents on the matter.  Anyways, here begins part 1 of this essay.

Requirements for temporal experience

I think that the most important mental requirement for a temporal experience is memory (storage and retrieval).  I think that memory provides a mental frame of reference, which seems to be necessary in order to have some concept of the past, present, as well as a concept of the future (albeit through inferences made from the past).  In addition to a mental frame of reference, I also think that a physical frame of reference is necessary for a temporal experience since “clock time” or “proper time“, which appears to govern the speed of all processes (including mental processes), is dependent on this reference frame.  It is these physical and mental frames of reference that allow time to exist both objectively and subjectively.  Together these two frames of reference appear to be what mediates a temporal experience.

Mental frame of reference

Memory Requirement

If an entity had no memory, I don’t think it could have any experience of time because there would be no way to relate one moment of thought, sensation, perception, etc., to a previous moment, that is, there would be no “mental relativity”.  It is memory that serves as a mental frame of reference from each moment of time to the next, thus allowing a sense of causality or change, that is, a sense of time.  Can a temporal experience occur with out a sense of change?  I don’t think it can, but if I hear a compelling argument that suggests otherwise, I may reconsider.  As for how much memory is required, I don’t think that there is any minimum amount of memory needed, so any arbitrary amount should suffice.  After all, some insects may only have a 30 second memory span (or less), but I see no reason to believe that even with a memory span as short as this (or shorter) that the insect is incapable of any kind of temporal experience at all.  Thus, it seems reasonable to believe that there should be no minimum amount of memory required for this experience, as long as there is at least some memory.

If memory is truly required for a temporal experience, then it should be clear that different temporal experiences can result from storing, retrieving, or processing those memories in various ways as well as increasing the amount (or type) of memory that an entity possesses.  For simplicity, I will limit my use of the term “memory” to that which is present in brain-utilizing living organisms (as opposed to that of A.I.).

Memory storage, retrieval, and processing

If memory is stored and/or retrieved differently (e.g. method used, rate, etc.), it may lead to the experience of time passing by or having passed by at different rates.  I think that this subjective temporal “rate” is another important feature of the mental frame of reference that memory seems to produce, and I also think that this temporal rate is at least partially a function of change in some kind of a temporal baseline over time.  I’ll explain more about this theory in the points that follow.

Psycho-pharmacological substance-induced or otherwise caused physiological changes to a brain could very well be associated with a change in this “mental relativity” or “temporal baseline” and thus could produce a far from normal temporal experience.  When I use the term “normal” to describe a temporal experience, I am defining it to be the feeling of time passing by at a normal rate, that is, there is not a significant change made to the previously established temporal baseline (which I’ll explain shortly).  I want to point out that while someone may feel that time isn’t passing by at the same rate that it once did years ago, I want to distinguish any short-term temporal rate changes from the long-term temporal rate changes.  For now I also want to focus on the idea of a temporal baseline and how it relates to short-term, or working, memory.

I believe that we establish this temporal “baseline” (i.e. “mental clock”) over time based on our duration of physiological constancy (and most importantly the memory or record of it), and thus is more easily defined when physiological changes are relatively small for extended periods of time.  One could analogize a well defined temporal baseline as a mental clock that has been synchronized such that the temporal experience feels normal.  When the physiology of memory and other brain processes are changing less over time, this rate of resynchronization slows down until it approaches a state of synchronicity (a point in time after the absolute-value derivative of physiological change falls below some threshold similar to the “Just Noticeable Difference” or JND).  To illustrate this idea, let’s assume that the following graph represents a physiological change over some interval of time.

As you can see in the graph above, a physiological change is shown over a time interval of one second.  I omitted labeling the y-axis with any metrics or units since physiological changes can be quantified in numerous ways.  If one were so inclined, the concentrations of certain chemicals in the brain or the speed of certain mental faculties could be measured and used as a quantifiable metric.  Regardless of the units or metrics used, the idea here is that a physiological change in the brain starts to occur at some rate (which may be seen as the start of a temporal incoherency or baseline shift), gradually increasing to a maximum rate (when t = 0.5 in the graph above) and finally slowing down until the new physiological state is established (coinciding with a temporal baseline re-synchronization).  My theory is that as the rate of physiological change starts to decrease, the temporal baseline starts to re-synchronize.  Even though the physiological state is not what it used to be, as long as the amount of change is decreasing, the new physiological state will eventually feel “normal” as the previous state did.

So we could say that during the time interval where the absolute-value derivative of the physiological change curve is above some “Just Noticeable Difference” (JND) threshold, we experience an abnormal temporal rate and vice versa.  The derivative of this curve, f ‘(x), might look something like what is displayed in the graph below.

We could say that a y-value of zero (on the graph above) defines a perfectly synchronized baseline.  Either way, when the absolute-value derivative of the baseline synchronization is some value below the JND threshold, we start to have a feeling of normalcy.  Once we have a well defined baseline, we should be able to say that as one minute of time passes by on a clock, that we also feel approximately one minute of time passing by.  During a physiological change to memory however (where the absolute-value derivative is above this JND threshold), one minute of time passing by on a clock could feel as long as many minutes or hours.  This leads me to believe that memory transcends physical time in at least two ways:

1) A temporal experience provided by memory is not fixed as the physical or objective passage of time is (i.e. “clock time”), that is, an entity’s temporal baseline is always changing (resynchronizing after a physiological change to memory occurs in order to return the temporal experience to a state of “normality”) which means that we don’t experience time elapsing at a constant rate, even if it is a constant rate according to a physical clock.

2) Memory can store certain aspects of an event such that they are accessible in the future whereas physical time passes such that certain aspects of “the present” are eventually and inevitably inaccessible as “the past”.

I think that number one (listed above) seems reasonable based on our experience.  If you’ve ever ingested a mind-altering drug (e.g. caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, THC, psilocybin/psilocin, etc.) or felt extremely tired or hungry, you may remember how time did not pass by in a normal fashion.  Stimulants have been known to increase our estimation of time intervals (i.e. increase our subjective temporal rate), whereas depressants have the opposite effect.  It has even been shown that by simply increasing the temperature of our brain (even unintentionally with a fever), that we tend to over-estimate the rate of time elapse, presumably due to the fact that the speed of all chemical reactions remain proportional to temperature.  However, if one was in a particular physiological state for a long enough time, it may start to feel increasingly normal.  If one returns to a previous physiological state (e.g. after the drug wore off, after sleeping, after eating, etc.), more than likely time passed by in an abnormal fashion once again until you adjusted to that new physiological state (re-synchronized your temporal baseline).

I should note that for number two (listed above), in theory, we may have some access to the past by inferring it based on reversing the deterministic causal chain we are aware of.  However, we are only aware of a limited portion of that causal chain and memory provides the possibility to instantly retrieve aspects of the past which are otherwise not easily (if at all) accessible to us.  On top of this, the implied randomness that exists within the quantum realm suggests that we can’t predict a reversed causal chain beyond some level of determinism.

Matters become even more complicated when we take into account the fact that our bodies are trying to restore some sense of equilibrium and respond to physiological changes in the brain by taking chemical compensatory measures.  The important point here is that if one is in a new physiological state that is not changing much (i.e. minimum compensatory measures taken by the body, intake versus metabolism of a chemical/drug is nearly constant, etc.), we can start to feel normal, even if our new state is not the physiological state that we previously identified as “normal”.

While our temporal experience may vary due to physiological changes, physical and mental (i.e. subjective) elements of time are definitely correlated with one another.  If you double the rate of physical time elapsing (i.e. “clock time”), it should also double the subjective duration of the temporal experience, even if that subjective duration (which I believe may be mediated by some temporal baseline) can never be quantified or measured.  For example, if a human brain produces a temporal experience that feels like one hour but in actuality only one minute of “clock time” has elapsed (based on the entity’s temporal baseline), then two minutes of elapsed “clock time” should be correlated with a temporal experience that feels like two hours (assuming the baseline hasn’t changed significantly during this time).  While this may seem obvious, I think it’s important to note this correlation.

Amount of memory

Increasing the amount of memory an entity possesses, that is, by increasing the range between the earliest accessible memory and the most recent and/or increasing the amount of information stored within that range should also be correlated with a unique temporal experience.  If we compare humans that have lived for different lengths of time, we can see how the amount of long term memory acquired suggests that they are having different long term temporal experiences.

The number of long term memories would vary from individual to individual, and it would seem that by living longer, one would also increase the range between the earliest accessible memory and the most recent.  I would expect this to be associated with differences in their temporal experiences.

For a 100 year old individual, one year passing by would only be another 1% of the total objective time experienced, where in the case of a 1 year old infant, one year passing by would be another 100%, or an effective doubling, of the total objective time experienced.  In other words, as we age, each day that passes by becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of the total number of experiences.  This suggests to me that subjective time probably passes by more slowly when there have been a smaller number of memories accrued and vice versa.  I’ve heard many times before that as you age, time flies by, and I think that this is at least one factor involved.  For those that have doubts about subjective time passing by at different rates as you age, try to think back to when you were a child and you thought that it would take “forever” to turn 18 years old.  Once you became an adult however, more than likely your experience of time began to speed up a little.

There are certainly other factors involved with this age-related change in subjective temporal rate.  For example, in the case of humans there seems to be a decrease in the amount of day-to-day change as we age due to the routines that we start to follow as well as the decrease in exposure to new information and novel experiences, thus making one day harder to distinguish from another.  If this is true then memories may somehow begin to “blend” together or compress into a representative albeit truncated temporal chunk, or it could also be the case that less memories are stored altogether due to the lack of novelty within the redundant experiences.  If a novel experience somehow tags an event such that it is remembered better, this may be analogous to looking at our mental clock more frequently (e.g. t = 1, t = 2, t = 3, t = 4, t = 5, etc.).  When an experience is redundant, there is little or no tagging involved and this is analogous to infrequently looking at our mental clock (e.g. t = 1, t = 5, etc.).  This would mean that over time our attention to time based on memories decreases.

There is also a decrease in the number of age-related goals since an adult is no longer age-restricted from drug and alcohol consumption, driving privileges, watching R-rated movies, etc.  In this last example, it seems reasonable to assume (based on our experience) that when we are expecting a positive stimulus at some known time in the future (e.g. an age-related privilege, positive reinforcement, etc.), that the rate of time passing by feels reduced.  On the flip side, when we are expecting an unpleasant event to occur at some known time in the future (e.g. an obligation, negative reinforcement, etc.) we may expect to feel an increase in the rate of time passing by.  So how we mentally or emotionally tag events appears to affect our temporal experience as well.

Here is the link for Part II: Temporal Experience and Space-time

Time

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What is Time?

What are people referring to exactly when they speak of “time”?  Is it simply change ?  Is it some objectively existing uni-directional arrow of causation, or is it merely the collection of all past, present, and perhaps future events regarded as a whole?  Is it an objective physical property of the universe, a subjective mental experience (e.g. consciousness), or both?  Does time exist independent of our mental experience or is it some kind of perceptual illusion?

McTaggart and the “Unreality of Time”

John McTaggart argued in his “Unreality of Time” that time is not real and is merely a result of our perception (i.e. time is an illusion).  I wouldn’t have expected any less from such an idealist.  In particular, he argued that due to our descriptions of time being either circular, contradictory, or insufficient, that time must not be real.  His argument was based on the following three descriptions or “series” of time:

A-series: series of events ordered continuously by their properties of being past, present, or future.

B-series: series of events ordered in terms of two-place relations such as “earlier than” and “later than”

C-series: series of events ordered in terms of “between”

Then he basically argued that the B-series and C-series were insufficient for time to exist because time demands change and neither the B-series nor C-series involve change (since they are defined to be static due to the place relations and lack of continuity), and thus time must be described with the A-series.  He also argued that the A-series leads to contradiction because every event that occurs will at one time be in the future, at another time be in the present, and eventually will forever be in the past.  Every event exemplifies or instantiates every possible temporal property: pastness, presentness, and futurity.  Since these properties are mutually exclusive, this leads to a logical contradiction, and thus time must not be real.

While I think that McTaggart’s argument is thought provoking, its success is dependent on two premises: that time requires change, and that all temporal properties are mutually exclusive.  Let’s consider these premises briefly.

Time requires change

I think that “change” being a requirement for time seems reasonable and I believe that most people would agree with this.  If there was no change at all in the universe, then defining time would be synonymous with defining the static state of a system (and the only state of a system).  There would be no past, present, or future — because all of those tenses would be identical and meaningless.  There would be no causality at all.  Thus, I think we can all agree that time requires change, no matter how small that change is.  I think that Shoemaker’s counter-argument that “time does not require change” is unsubstantiated as his hypothetical scenario does not appear to obey the laws of physics (e.g. frozen time zones with no causal chain) and thus has little if any merit against McTaggart’s argument.

Temporal property exclusivity

As for temporal property exclusivity, any event described as being of the past, present, or future certainly can’t be in more than one of those states simultaneously.  This seems to be what McTaggart implied when he said that temporal properties were mutually exclusive, and this also sounds perfectly reasonable.

Contradiction leading to the “unreality of time”

It is McTaggart’s final assertion that these premises suggest that time is an illusion due to a contradiction or a circular reasoning arising in trying to describe time.  If every event eventually instantiates all three temporal properties, but they are all instantiated at different times, then what is the contradiction exactly?  He proposed that we couldn’t describe temporal relations without using more temporal relations.  For example, if we said that a future moment will eventually be a present moment once time passes, then we are using time in our explanation of time.  To use another example if we said that “an event was future at some moment of the past and will be past at some moment in the future” we are using mutually exclusive temporal properties to describe one another.  I don’t see this as much of a problem, but he thought that this was circular.

Rebuttal

Certainly we can think of properties of particulars that change to mutually exclusive properties.  I was pondering over this dilemma this morning and I finally thought about an example that seemed worth mentioning.  I thought about the relative locational property of a moving object being “above”, “at the same height as” or “below” some frame of reference.  At one point the object may either be above, at the same height as, or below, that frame of reference.  If “above”, “at the same height as” and “below” are also mutually exclusive locational properties flowing in a continuous fashion (as is the case of past, present, and future temporal properties), then do we conclude that “location” for this object is unreal?  I think that McTaggart is using similar reasoning.  I do acknowledge that his example is referring to explaining an event’s temporal properties over time which is seen as circular, whereas my example involves describing locational properties over time, but perhaps time is a property that either has this circular property, or we just haven’t figured out the correct “series” or description of time.  Alternatively, there may be no adequate or sufficient description of time (as McTaggart asserted), but this shouldn’t necessarily imply logical contradiction.  Even if it did imply a logical contradiction, this is also the case when explaining space and time.  Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is a perfect example of this.  Do the logical contradictions of temporal relativity imply that time is an illusion?  Couldn’t it be the case that time is in fact real but is counter-intuitive and lies outside any logical or rational explanation?

Written by Lage

July 6, 2012 at 8:33 pm