Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Time and the Philosophers 1: Death, Language, Time Travel

From spiritual gurus and pop culture icons to geneticists and physicists, I turn to how philosophers approach time and space.  A good overview of the theories of time is here at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  First up of course is our awareness of death, from which come the principles of Fatalism, that is, a faith in predetermined destinies.  From that awareness of death comes our whole awareness of reality and past, present and future - and from that comes the syntax of human languages, the structure of consciousness - the whole framework of our thought.  Since Postmodernists argue that we cannot conceive of anything outside the game system of language, it's worth penetrating to the foundation of that system to see if we are, as they claim, well and truly trapped.  Or does time grant us agency?

A World of Talent, by Philip K. Dick, first published in Galaxy Magazine (Oct. 1954).

At a 2003 conference at Bryn Mawr College, one of the Philosophy professors, Cheryl Chen, cited physicist Paul Davies's summary of the contrast between two views of time.  These comments come from a 2002 article by Davies in Scientific American:
1) The Conventional View
"In daily life we divide time into three parts: past, present, and future. The grammatical structure of language revolves around this fundamental distinction. Reality is associated with the present moment. The past we think of having slipped out of existence, whereas the future is even more shadowy, its details still unformed. In this simple picture, the "now" of our conscious awareness glides steadily onward, transforming events that were once in the unformed future into the concrete but fleeting reality of the present, and thence relegating them to the fixed past." --Paul Davies, "That Mysterious Flow"

2) The "Block Universe" View
"Physicists prefer to think of time as laid out in its entirety - a timescape, analogous to a landscape - with all past and future events located there together ... Completely absent from this description of nature is anything that singles out a privileged special moment as the present or any process that would systematically turn future events into the present, then past, events. In short, the time of the physicist does not pass or flow." --Paul Davies, "That Mysterious Flow"
In the first case, time is forward moving and tenses are distinguished from one another; in the second case, past, present and future are united on one plain. I believe that this contrast provides the foundation for fundamental differences in perspectives and methods between the humanities and the sciences. From the Conventional View ensue the fields of linguistics, ethics, history - and music, literature and film, with their innate temporal senses of progression and narrative. Religion appears to follow the Conventional View, then switches to focus on all-encompassing eternity.

In the 1954 story "A World of Talent" about a maturing precog, Philip K. Dick crossed that conceptual boundary between these two views of time, showing the terrified young precog encountering his future self. The boy in Dick's story is able to travel through time, moving laterally through time as on a chessboard, with different frozen moments 'awakened' as he lands on each chess square.  Philosophers, contemplating the distinctions and their overlaps, have broken down these two views into two debates each:
1) Presentism vs. Eternalism
Presentism: only things in the present exist.
Eternalism: things in the past (e.g., dinosaurs) and future (e.g., human outposts on Mars) exist too.

2) The A-Theory vs. the B-Theory
A-properties: happening now, happened a week ago, happened in the past, will happen two years from now, happening in the future
B-properties: being two years after the 2000 Presidential Election, happening on July 4, 1776

The A-Theory: A-properties are genuine features of the world. Time passes. The present moment has a special status.
The B-Theory: A-properties are reducible to B-properties. Time doesn't pass or flow. No moment in time has any special status.
Like the precog in Dick's story, philosophers have begun crossing that conceptual boundary, and are tending to agree with the 'chessboard' image that physicists accept.  In other words, they are breaking the association between 'reality' and the 'present' time.  This is why famous philosophers like Arthur Prior, the founding father of Temporal Logic (the logic of tenses) began asking why we feared death, how we could conceive of an event as being 'over,' and how we could think about anything without imagining the flow of time.