Time as a chessboard, not an arrow. Ballet on Time Chessboard by Lawrence Alfred Powell. Image Source: Redbubble.
In my post from November 25th, I discussed Stephen Hawking's assumption that time travel backwards is impossible. From MSNBC's report: "'Down at the smallest of scales, smaller even than molecules, smaller than atoms, we get to a place called the quantum foam. This is where wormholes exist. Tiny tunnels or shortcuts through space and time constantly form, disappear, and reform within this quantum world. And they actually link two separate places and two different times. The tunnels, unfortunately, are far too small for people to pass through — just a billion-trillion-trillionths of a centimeter -- but physicists believe it may be possible to catch a wormhole and make it big enough for people, or spaceships, to enter,' Hawking writes. 'Theoretically, a time tunnel or wormhole could do even more than take us to other planets. If both ends were in the same place, and separated by time instead of distance, a ship could fly in and come out still near Earth, but in the distant past. Maybe dinosaurs would witness the ship coming in for a landing. ... Ultimately, scientists may find that only travel into the future is possible, as the laws of nature may make travel to the past impossible so the relationship between cause and effect is maintained.'"
I noted Hawking's reservations in my earlier post, "that time, the entire Fourth Dimension, must follow the rules of cause and effect. Incidentally, the principle of causality underpins the entire conception of western civilization, so it's interesting that Hawking has run headlong up against that brick wall and steadfastly backed away from it." Two things struck me here: first, that Hawking's assessment is so dependent upon the notion of this causality that he had to invent a wall of radiation or similar force to prevent the universe from acting in a way that he considers to be illogical. It looks like there is room for a blind spot here. Second, the principle of causality underpins practically every area of human inquiry, especially in the Western tradition, in everything from theology to the scientific method.
Western philosophy is driven in part by Aristotle's logic, which defined the principles of causality; the idea is also evident Chinese and Indian traditions. Causality is a principle in physics and several other disciplines, from engineering, to biology, to history, to economics. But is it possible to conceive of an illogical, non-causal universe? This is a worthwhile question, since Hawking has debated the existence of God, usually conceived of (literally or not) as the 'ultimate cause' or 'Prime Mover.' Given recent debates around quantum physics and the philosophy of time, there seem to be indications that there is a 'larger logic' of which we are not aware. Wiki: "according to Sowa (2000), 'relativity and quantum mechanics have forced physicists to abandon these assumptions as exact statements of what happens at the most fundamental levels, but they remain valid at the level of human experience.'" In other words, we are not just talking about moving to a larger level wherein causality is ultimately encapsulated in our ideas of divinity. The reality of post-causality probably extends beyond our understanding of God - or anything else - because God still requires an acceptance of the principle of causality. That is, there is not as much difference as we would expect between faith and reason. Both rest upon the same core expectation of causality. Moving past that mode of thinking transcends our current understanding. Yet moving to a new way of thinking is precisely what researchers in quantum physics as well as other fields are slowly doing.
Hawking's reference to causality is a variant of the Arrow of Time problem, which I have discussed here. Causality is critical to our understanding of a flow of time from the past, through the present, into the future. From Wiki: "A cause precedes its effect: the causal event occurs before the event it affects. Birth, for example, follows a successful conception and not vice versa. Thus causality is intimately bound up with time's arrow. An epistemological problem with using causality as an arrow of time is that, as David Hume pointed out, the causal relation per se cannot be perceived; one only perceives sequences of events. Furthermore it is surprisingly difficult to provide a clear explanation of what the terms 'cause' and 'effect' really mean, or to define the events to which they refer. It does seem evident, however, that dropping the plate is the cause while the plate shattering is the effect. Physically speaking, this is another manifestation of the thermodynamic arrow of time, and is a consequence of the Second law of thermodynamics. Controlling the future, or causing something to happen, creates correlations between the doer and the effect, and these can only be created as we move forwards in time, not backwards." Yet correlation between doer and effect does not imply causation. You may be standing next to a burning building. That doesn't mean you started the fire. It seems to me that the loophole here, or the blind spot, is the need for our perception to lend sequences meaning through assuming causation out of correlations between related events. Is our perception flawed or incomplete?
In the episode of Hawking's series Into the Universe which deals with time travel, Hawking assumes that causality must be the core principle driving time and thereby the whole universe. Other scientists and philosophers are questioning whether time behaves in a linear fashion, which I've blogged about here. They are exploring non-linear causation in extremely complex scenarios such as weather systems. Is time a collection of chaotic, unrelated points - or is it a chessboard, as Philip K. Dick suggested, where one could move laterally or diagonally from square to square, as well as forwards and backwards (see my posts on this here and here)? Are there frozen past and future moments of your life, sitting in stasis, waiting for you to land on that square? Is this the source of our concept of déja vu or similar supernatural phenomena? Are there alternate versions of you from different times in your existence, subsisting on a spatial continuity? And is our experience of time merely a line drawn through a much larger reality that we cannot perceive?
From what Hawking says, causality is more fundamental than death as a factor in shaping how we understand time. What does it mean to say that our concept of time rests on our absolute acceptance of the principle of cause and effect? And what would it mean to move beyond even non-linear causality and either expand or dismiss the whole principle of cause and effect? This is a question I'll return to in later posts. I'll look at the cultural meaning of causality in the West, along with further digging into what kinds of research are being done on this subject.
In earlier posts (here and here), I noted that many thinkers have conceived of causality and time by starting with our primal awareness of death. That awareness shaped our whole development of language, especially verbal conjugations, and that in turn has shaped different branches of religion and whole schools on the Philosophy of Time. This awareness of death seems to be the one thing that separates us from other animals - another claim meant to support humanity's supposed connection to divinity and time. But as a starting point, I wonder if we really are separated from animals. I'll ask whether they are aware of their own and others' deaths in my next post.
See all my posts on Time Travel.
See all my posts on the Philosophy of Time.
See all my posts on Hawking.
Click to read my post on Chess and symbols of time here.