Category Archives: Time

The four dimensions

Preparatory to analyzing J. W. Dunne’s theory of multiple temporal dimensions, as laid out in his book An Experiment with Time, I am trying to clarify my understanding of the four “regular” dimensions of spacetime. This post represents my first stab.

I am very definitely in over my head on this particular topic and would greatly appreciate any helpful comments my readers can offer.

What is a dimension?

Dunne defines a dimension as “any way in which a thing can be measured that is entirely different from all other ways.” This definition requires some modification, since there is no way of measuring which is entirely different from all other ways. Consider, for example, the “ways” indicated by the different colored lines on the below diagram.


Each “way” consists of a pair of complementary directions. For example, the way indicated by the red line is that corresponding to the directions “up” and “down” on your monitor, while the blue line indicates the “left-and-right” way. We do not have convenient words for the ways indicated by the other three lines. In what follows, I will refer to these ways by the colors I have used to represent them above. Thus, Red and Blue refer to up-and-down and right-and-left, respectively; and Green, Yellow, and Purple refer to the other three ways.

If we imagine these lines extending arbitrarily far in each direction, then any motion which would bring something closer to one of the line’s endpoints and farther from the other, constitutes motion in that way.

For any two ways, A and B, A is considered to be “entirely different” from B if it is possible to move in way A without moving in way B at all. Therefore, Red is entirely different from Blue because it is possible to move up or down without moving right or left at all. However, none of the other ways is entirely different from Red, because any movement in the Green, Yellow, or Purple way entails moving “up” or “down.” Likewise, Green and Yellow are entirely different from each other, but neither is entirely different from any of the other ways.

In short, “entirely different” turns out to mean perpendicular. Two ways are entirely different if and only if they are at right angles to each other.

So, which of the lines in the diagram should be considered “dimensions”? According to the literal meaning of Dunne’s definition, none of them — because none of the lines is perpendicular to all the other lines in the diagram, let alone to all the other lines we might conceivably draw.

In fact, dimensionality is not a property of a way, but of a set of ways. Modifying Dunne’s definition, we might say that a set of ways constitutes a set of dimensions if and only if all of the ways in the set are mutually perpendicular. Thus, the set {Red, Blue} is a set of dimensions, and so is the set {Green, Yellow}. No other sets of dimensions are possible using only the lines in the diagram, but of course there is nothing to stop us from drawing other lines. If we drew a pink line perpendicular to the purple one, then {Pink, Purple} would also be a set of dimensions. Infinitely many such sets are possible. However, if we restrict ourselves to ways which correspond to lines on the surface of your monitor, no set of dimensions can ever contain more than two members. That is what is meant by saying that the monitor is a two-dimensional surface. Any motion on the monitor is motion in two dimensions — but if you ask what two dimensions those are, there is no one correct answer (though there are of course many incorrect answers, since no two non-perpendicular ways can constitute a set of dimensions). We tend to think of up-and-down and left-and-right (i.e., Red and Blue) as being the dimensions of the monitor — but this is simply a bias of human psychology; in geometric terms, there is nothing special about that particular set of perpendiculars.

Our three-dimensional world

Once we move off the surface of your monitor and into the world we inhabit, we are in a three-dimensional space, meaning that it is now possible to create a set of three mutually perpendicular ways.

As with the two-dimensional world of the monitor, there are infinitely many possible sets of dimensions, no one of which can be privileged over the others in strictly geometric terms. (Take the three mutually perpendicular ways defined by the edges of a cube. You can rotate the cube every which way, but the edges remain mutually perpendicular and therefore correspond to a set of dimensions.)

In practice, though, one of these infinitely many ways is singled out by us as “special” and is virtually always considered a dimension. This is the vertical dimension of up-and-down, the one defined (for each person) by a line which passes through that person’s body and the center of the earth. The other two dimensions are lumped together under the heading “horizontal,” and it is understood to be fairly arbitrary precisely which two horizontal ways are to be considered dimensions. We might think of the other two dimensions as north-and-south and east-and-west, or as forward-and-backward and left-and-right, or any number of other possibilities — but these ways lack the distinctive character of “up” and “down.”

The specialness of verticality has nothing to do with geometry, but is a consequence of the fact that we live in a gravity well. “Down” is the direction in which things fall, and “up” is its opposite. All of the things we interact with in daily life behave as if “up” and “down” were quite different from all other directions, and so we naturally think of them as different.

Time as a fourth dimension

Whatever set of three spatial dimensions we choose, time is perpendicular to them all — because something can extend from past-to-future without affecting its extension in any of the spatial dimensions. Time would thus appear to be a fourth dimension of our world, no geometrically different from the other three — though, like verticality, it is considered “special” or “different” for non-geometric reasons.

As H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller explains it,

any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and–Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives…. There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.

Is that really true, though? Time seems to be really different in a way that the vertical dimension is not.

Consider our cube. We can rotate the cube so that the edge which once extended north-to-south  now extends east-to-west — or up-to-down, or northeast-to-southwest, or (to coin a couple of words) northup-to-southdown. But can we rotate it so that it extends past-to-future? We can turn a cube such that what was once called its “height” is now its “length” — but can we turn it such that its height becomes its duration? Of course not.

Another problem is that, while all other dimensions can be measured using the same units — inches or centimeters or whatever — time cannot. Can we conceive of a tesseract (four-dimensional analogue of a cube) for which time is the fourth dimension — that is, a shape whose length, width, height, and duration are all equal? What could that even mean? How many seconds or minutes or days should be considered equal to an inch? Duration appears to be incommensurable with all other dimensions, which casts serious doubt on the proposition that it is just another dimension.

Sir Arthur Eddington, in Space, Time, and Gravitation (quoted by Dunne), makes the implicit claim that time and space are commensurable:

An individual is a four-dimensional object of greatly elongated form; in ordinary language we say that he has considerable extension in time and insignificant extension in space. Practically he is represented by a line . . .

Eddington’s statement makes sense only if we take it for granted that threescore years and ten is much longer than six feet — implying that there is some common standard of measurement which is applicable to both space and time. But there is no such standard. We consider 70 years a fairly “long” duration as durations go, and six feet is a “short” distance, and so in a metaphorical way we can speak of them as if they were commensurable — just as we might say someone is “as honest as the day is long” or “even more intelligent than she is beautiful.”  Eddington’s characterization of the four-dimensional individual as “greatly elongated,” while it presents itself as an objective scientific description, is in fact just an imprecise metaphor, a figure of speech. However, I will concede that it is a particularly natural metaphor, one that seems like it could be literally true in a way that “Milton was as puritanical as a pig is fat” does not.

But the theory of time put forward by Dunne seems to require that time and space be commensurable — that it be possible to compare a temporal duration and a spatial distance and say which is longer — for, according to Dunne, this difference in length is precisely what makes time time, what distinguishes it from space. In making “an artificial distinction between time and space,” any given observer

would regard Time as stretching in the direction in which his body line extended. It would follow that his body line would seem to him to be running straight up this Time dimension of his, and not bending this way and that in Space — i.e., sitting in a railway train, he would seem to himself (until he began to speculate about it) to be at rest.

Dunne’s language is again somewhat imprecise here. We cannot speak of “the” direction in which a person’s “body line” extends, because it is not a true geometric line but rather a solid extended in four dimensions. However, looking at this four-dimensional object, we see that its extension in one particular direction is very much greater than its extension in any other direction, and we therefore identify that direction as being the time dimension as perceived by that person. This is meaningless unless all four dimensions can be measured in the same units.

Einstein’s idea of the relativity of simultaneity — which states that precisely which direction is “time” may be slightly different for different observers — also implies that time and space must be commensurable. Time and space are fundamentally the same thing and must therefore be measurable in like terms. I’m sure there’s a Nobel Prize waiting for whomever can discover precisely how many days there are to a cubit, because as far as I know no one has heretofore done so. (If I’m simply displaying my ignorance here, more physics-literate readers are encouraged to set me straight in the comments. I freely admit that my understanding of relativity is roughly three times as shallow as my eyes are blue.)

Clearly, then, time is very different from the other dimensions, and not just by virtue of the fact that “our consciousness moves [sic] along it.” The other three dimensions are arbitrary; provided only that they are mutually perpendicular (and perpendicular to the non-arbitrary dimension of time), any three ways we care to choose will serve equally well. But the fourth dimension must be time. North-and-south is an arbitrary dimension; northeast-and-southwest would serve just as well. Up-and-down is somewhat less arbitrary, but still we could in theory choose to use upeast-and-downwest or some similar “diagonal” way instead. But “spatiotemporally diagonal” dimensions are inconceivable. There can be no such dimension as northpast-and-southfuture, because things can’t be rotated that way and we have no units for measuring extension in those directions.


If we want to preserve the idea of time as just another dimension, not fundamentally different from the other three, it seems we must commit to the assumption that time and space are commensurable in theory — but that for some extrageometric reason or reasons (e.g., some inconvenient facts of physics or psychology) we are unable in practice to measure them in the same units. Can we make sense of such a supposition?

Imagine a world in which, due to some obscure law of physics, the verticality of everything is fixed. In this world, things can be rotated only on a horizontal plane. You can turn a cube such that its north face becomes its west face, for example, but not such that its top and bottom cease to be its top and bottom. In such a world, it would be impossible to measure a cube’s height with the same ruler used to measure its horizontal dimensions. There would be vertical rulers and horizontal rulers, and neither could be so rotated as to become the other. It would follow that vertical and horizontal distances would have to be measured in different units. We could never discover how to convert horizontal units into vertical ones, because we could never lay the two rulers side by side and see how they lined up.

Still, it seems intuitively that even in such a world we would be able to “eyeball” things and get a rough sense of the ratio of height to width, without any need to use actual rulers. But maybe it would be harder than I imagine; maybe that “eyeballing” ability depends on the ability to mentally rotate things, which in turn depends on past experience actually rotating things. Maybe the inhabitants of our hypothetical world would have very little ability to compare vertical and horizontal lengths even in approximate terms.

So perhaps some analogous state of affairs holds in the real world. Perhaps some contingent fact of physics makes it impossible to rotate things spatiotemporally, and perhaps that in turn makes it impossible for us to compare temporal and spatial distances with any precision. And perhaps Eddington’s intuitive sense that a year is much longer than an inch represents a rudimentary “eyeball” measurement which is valid as far as it goes despite its lack of precision.


Well, this post has gotten quite long enough, so I think I’ll take a breather. Next I’ll be going through Dunne’s argument that there is more than one dimension of time.


Filed under Time

Dunne’s theory of infinite temporal dimensions

In addition to detailing his experiments with precognition, J. W. Dunne’s book An Experiment with Time proposes a theory of time — which he calls “Serialism” — to account for his observations. Although it was his precognitive experiences that motivated Dunne to rethink the nature of time, he maintains that his theory is not dependent on empirical evidence of that nature but rather follows directly from certain commonsense propositions about the nature of time which are universally accepted by non-philosophers everywhere.

It is never entirely safe to laugh at the metaphysics of the ‘man-in-the-street’. Basic ideas which have become enshrined in popular language cannot be wholly foolish or unwarranted. For that sort of canonization must mean, at least, that the notions in question have stood the test of numerous centuries and have been accorded unhesitating acceptance wherever speech has been made. . . .

[The man-in-the-street’s] conclusions regarding the character of his discovery seem to have been very emphatic in detail, if slightly uncertain in synthesis. His idea was that temporal happenings involved motion in a fourth dimension.

Of course he did not call it a fourth dimension — his vocabulary hardly admitted of that — but he was entirely convinced:

  1. That Time had a length, divisible into ‘past and ‘future’.
  2. That this length was not extended in any Space that he knew of. It stretched neither north-and-south, nor east-and-west, nor up-and-down, but in a direction different from any of those three — that is to say, in a fourth direction.
  3. That neither the past nor the future was observable. All observable phenomena lay in a field situated at a unique ‘instant’ in the Time length — an instant, dividing the past from the future — which instant he called ‘the present’.
  4. That this ‘present’ field of observation moved in some queer fashion along the Time length; so that events which were at first in the future became present and then past. The past was thus constantly growing. This motion he called the ‘passage’ of Time.

There is a point here worth noting. . . . An examination of the last paragraph will show that many of the words therein [those in boldface above] refer to another Time, and not to the Time stretch over which the passage of the ‘present’ field of observation was supposed to take place.

I find this to be a very compelling argument for the existence of a second temporal dimension, a sort of “meta-time.” The only way to avoid the necessity of a “time behind time” is to flatly deny our hypothetical pedestrian’s problematic fourth axiom, insisting that some of the most basic, immediate features of our conscious experience are entirely illusory or even meaningless. It is possible to do this, and I have taken such an approach to time in the past (see my post on “Two solipsisms“), but this is in the end a cop-out, a failure of philosophy to take into account all the relevant data. A theory of time which simply denies that time elapses is unacceptable; better even to give up and write time off as an insoluble mystery than to smooth over its apparent contradictions by simply throwing away some of the explicanda and pretending that the problem has been solved. “Eternalism” as I have presented it in the past is simply dysfunctional philosophy.

Later in the book, Dunne illustrates the need for a second temporal dimension by means of an elegant metaphor.

He [i.e., our man-in-the-street] symbolized this general conception of Time in several ways; most exhaustively, perhaps, in his sheets of piano music. In these, the dimension running up-and-down the page represented Space, and intervals measured that way represented distances along the instrument’s keyboard; while the dimension running across the page from side to side represented the Time length, and intervals measured that way indicated the durations of the notes and of the pauses between them. But that did not complete the symbol. So far, the page represented merely what we should, today, call a ‘Space-time continuum’. In order to complete the symbol, it was intended that the player’s point of vision should travel from left to right along the model Time dimension, and that the written chords should be played as this moving point, representing the moving ‘Present’, reached them.

The key point here is that the motion of the pianist’s eyes over the sheet music is something that cannot be represented in the two dimensions of the sheet music itself. The horizontal dimension of the page represents time — but the motion of the pianist’s eyes takes place in a distinct temporal dimension, in a time behind that time.


However, it quickly becomes apparent that two temporal dimensions are no more adequate than one. Suppose we were to create three-dimensional sheet music — the vertical dimension representing space, the horizontal representing time, and a third dimension (represented diagonally below) representing the motion of the pianist’s eyes in meta-time.


It’s clear that this still doesn’t capture the necessary element of motion, of time passing. It now contains the idea that the notes must be read from left to right — but only if we assume the motion of the pianist’s eyes in the third dimension which has been added to the score. Modeling that motion would require the addition of a fourth dimension, and so on ad infinitum.

No matter how many dimensions of time, meta-time, meta-meta-time, etc. (I may as well adopt Dunne’s more convenient terminology and call them T1, T2, T3, etc.) we add to the diagram, the element of motion is still absent. We still have nothing but a static “space-time continuum” — eppur si muove! Somehow the idea of motion and the “moving present” must be modeled, and yet it seems impossible to do so.

Dunne proposes that the problem can be solved by accepting an infinite number of temporal dimensions. For most purposes we need only concern ourselves with a few of these, but the theory implies that, however many temporal dimensions we may include in a given model, there is necessarily another such dimension behind it, one which cannot be depicted in the model.

I’m not really satisfied with this model, in which each dimension passes the buck to the next, and motion or change is never actually modeled or explained. Nevertheless, given the inadequacy of every other model of time of which I am aware, I am willing to entertain it.

Dunne maintains that, in addition to dealing with the problem of motion, his theory of time, Serialism, also sheds light on a number of other thorny philosophical problems. Near the end of his book he lists his theory’s advantages.

  1. Serialism discloses the existence of a reasonable kind of ‘soul’ — an individual soul which has a definite beginning in absolute Time — a soul whose immortality, being in other dimensions of Time, does not clash with the obvious ending of the individual in the physiologist’s Time dimension, and a soul whose existence does not nullify the physiologist’s discovery that brain activity provides the formal foundation of all mundane experience and of all associative thinking.
  2. It shows that the nature of this soul and of its mental development provides us with a satisfactory answer to the ‘why’ of evolution, of birth, of pain, of sleep, and of death.
  3. It discloses the existence of a superlative general observer, the fount of all that self-consciousness, intention, and intervention which underlies mere mechanical thinking, who contains within himself a less generalized observer who is the personification of all genealogically related life and who is capable of human-like thinking and prevision of a kind quite beyond our individual capabilities. In the superlative observer we individual observers, and that tree of which we are the branches, live and have our being. But there is no coming ‘absorption’ for us; we are already absorbed, and the tendency is towards differentiation.
  4. Its proof of the unity of all flesh in the Superbody and of all minds in the Master-mind supplies the logical foundation needed by every theory of ethics.
  5. It accounts for dreams; it accounts for prophecy; it accounts for self-consciousness and ‘freewill’; while, in its disclosure of the relations between the general and the individual fields of presentation, it provides the first essential to any explanation of what is called, loosely, ‘telepathic communication’.
  6. It does not contradict either modern physics or modern physiology.

A theory which can achieve all this is not lightly to be set aside.

I will admit that, after my first reading of Dunne’s book, I do not properly understand the reasoning behind most of these points — and I’m not sure whether this is because I am not bright enough to “get it” the first time around or because Dunne’s ideas are crazy. (Certainly his theory of time, though apparently quite popular in its day, has since been rejected and forgotten by both the scientific community and the general public.) It is my intention to go through Dunne’s book a few more times in my plodding way until I am confident that I understand him, and then to evaluate the plausibility of his theory. So expect future posts on this topic — but don’t expect them too soon!


Filed under Philosophy, Time

The Kalam Argument

The next argument for God on my list is the Kalam Argument — the argument that the universe cannot always have existed and therefore must have been created. Kreeft & Tacelli summarize it as follows:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its coming into being.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause for its coming into being.

In establishing the first premise, K & T rest content with the dubious assertion that most people “outside of asylums and graduate schools” consider it obvious — a one-liner which (to quote C. S. Lewis, who was speaking of someone who had named his country after himself) “was meant to be witty but really only showed his conceit.”

For the second premise, the argument is as follows:

  1. Time elapses finite step by finite step — one day at a time.
  2. No number of finite things can add up to something infinite; therefore, it is impossible for an infinite amount of time to elapse.
  3. But if the universe is infinitely old, an infinite amount of time must have elapsed before the present.
  4. Therefore, the universe is not infinitely old.

So something must have caused the universe to come into existence. And that something must be outside of the universe, non-spatial and non-temporal in nature, and must therefore exist eternally. But is the cause personal? Can we really call it God? K & T argue that it must be personal.

Suppose the cause of the universe has existed eternally. Suppose further that this cause is not personal: that it has given rise to the universe, not through any choice, but simply through its being. In that case it is hard to see how the universe could be anything but infinitely old, since all the conditions needed for the being of the universe would exist from all eternity. But the kalam argument has shown that the universe cannot be infinitely old. So the hypothesis of an eternal impersonal cause seems to lead to an inconsistency.

Is there a way out? Yes, if the universe is the result of a free personal choice. Then at least we have some way of seeing how an eternal cause could give rise to a temporally limited effect.

I was very impressed with this part when I first read it, since it’s the first real argument I’ve found for the paradoxical idea of free will — of causation without determinism. If the rest of the kalam argument holds, then, yes, it would seem to follow that the universe must be the result of free will. It must have been caused by conditions which could just as well not have caused it — by conditions which did in fact hold for an eternity without causing the universe to come into existence, but which then suddenly did cause the universe to come into existence. (The very same conditions, mind you. Nothing changed. Nothing could have changed, since we are talking about non-temporal things here.) This sounds an awful lot like complete gibberish, a gross abuse of the word cause, but it nevertheless has two things going for it: (1) it fits with many people’s intuitive idea of “free will” and (2) it seems to be the only way out of the corner the kalam argument paints us into.

But is the kalam argument valid? Here are a couple of criticisms.


Does everything that begins have a cause?

Certainly it’s common sense that every change has a cause, and that the change from no-universe to universe should be no exception. But in fact it’s not clear that the logic of change and causation really applies in this particular case.

If the universe (that is, the system of space-time and matter-energy) had a beginning, that means that time itself had a beginning. The commonsense idea of causation (which is what is being appealed to here) is that any given change must have caused by something which took place before the change occurred. But if we’re talking about the creation of the universe, there was no “before the change occurred.” The logic of causation — that B was preceded by A, and that B would not have happened if it had not been preceded by A — simply doesn’t apply here. No time, no causation — at least, not as we understand it. There may of course be some obscure atemporal mechanism which is analogous to causation, but if that’s what we’re talking about K & T need to make a case for it; it’s not enough to appeal to the common knowledge of all non-institutionalized persons.


Does time need to “elapse”?

We experience time as “passing,” but actually (according to one theory) time is just another dimension, not fundamentally different from the spatial dimensions. A particular dimension can be infinite, even if it is not possible for any actual thing to traverse an infinite distance. No “traversing” needs to have taken place.

A temporally infinite universe is no more or less problematic than a spatially infinite one. Of course the latter is problematic as well, since there are philosophical problems with the idea of an actually existing infinity. All in all, I think I agree that the universe probably has to be finite (I’m not entirely confident in that judgment) — but K & T’s particular argument for its temporal finiteness is not a good one.

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Filed under God, Philosophy, Time

What is eternal?

In a recent post entitled “Everything matters or nothing matters: Original sin versus nihilism,” Bruce Charlton (whose blog has grown tremendously more interesting these days; I really can’t recommend it highly enough) makes the case that any coherent view of the world must fall under one of the two headings given in the post title.

The concept of “mattering” is a slippery one which I won’t even attempt to engage directly here, but I think I can say with some confidence that two of the necessary conditions for anything really mattering are (1) permanence and (2) consciousness. Whatever is fundamentally temporary, neither eternal in itself nor exerting any eternal influence on the cosmos, is nothing but a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t illusion and cannot possibly matter. In the same way, nothing can possibly matter unless it matters to someone; in a world without consciousness — or with only temporary consciousness — nothing can possibly matter. These two conditions may not turn out to be sufficient, of course, but they at least give us somewhere to start. In this post I want to look at four possible answers to the question “What is eternal?”

1. Nothing

One possibility is that, as Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh, “there is no permanence” — that not even the universe itself is eternal, that everything will eventually come to an end and be as if it had never existed. Obviously, nothing could possibly matter in such a universe; nihilism would be inescapable, though I suppose we could console ourselves with the thought that, after all, it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.

2. Stuff

As Dr. Charlton puts it in a comment on the post linked above:

Of course an atheist can believe that everything is eternal, in the sense that stuff is eternal (like the steady state theory of cosmology). And most pagans also believe this – that the universe always has been always will be.

But in that world view nothing matters.

In such a world, there would be permanence but no permanent consciousness, so it would still be impossible for anything to really matter. This would, I think, be largely true even if the presence of non-permanent conscious minds were a permanent feature of the universe — that is, if the universe were such that it generated an endless succession of consciousnesses, no one of which was permanent. Did your tenth-great grandfather have a good life? Does anyone know or care anymore? Does it matter? If the line of his infinitely-great grandchildren continues for all eternity, will it matter then? The only way such a scenario could be consistent with mattering would be if each in the infinite series of transient minds cared about the same things — mind you, not corresponding things (I care about my happiness, you care about yours), but the very same things. And this they manifestly do not.

3. Souls

A world populated by deathless consciousnesses — immortal human souls and/or God — is the “everything matters” scenario Dr. Charlton has in mind. In this universe, “nothing is forgotten, we are never alone, souls are eternal, reality is endless, awareness is total.”

Would everything really matter in such a world, though? An eternal soul need not have eternal concerns, after all. Most of the things that “mattered” to me as a toddler, even as a teenager, later turned out not to have mattered at all. If my soul still exists a billion billion billion years in the future, will there be anything at all about my current life about which it will be able to look back and say, “This mattered. It matters still”? Will that soul even still be “me” in any interesting sense? Personal immortality isn’t actually so different from the endless succession of consciousnesses considered above.

God, to the extent that his course is one eternal round, would be an exception. If he exists and is the same yesterday, today and forever — if the same things have always mattered and will always matter to him — then then it is possible for everything to matter. (Of course, the very characteristic which makes God’s concerns permanent — the impossibility of anything changing or affecting him in any way — leads one to wonder what could possibly matter to him one way or the other, but I digress.)

4. Even this spider and this moonlight between the trees

The allusion is to Nietzsche’s Gay Science and the hypothesis of the eternal recurrence of the same events — not history repeating itself in some general sense, but the exact same sequence of events playing out again and again infinitely many times. If true, it means that everything has an infinite (if non-contiguous) duration — not just changeable abstractions like “the soul”, but every event, every moment, every feeling, every single component of existence. Dr. Charlton considers eternal recurrence a “nothing matters” scenario, but I’m inclined to think quite the opposite. At least it fulfills the minimal necessary conditions (permanence and consciousness) which we’re considering here.

Dr. Charlton is also of the opinion that no one has ever actually believed in eternal recurrence, least of all Nietzsche himself. This is probably correct. Nietzsche did take the idea very seriously, though, and referred to it in The Will to Power as  “the most scientific of all possible hypotheses.” According to Nietzsche, if (1) time is infinite and (2) space is finite, eternal recurrence necessarily follows. Actually, a third assumption (not recognized by Nietzsche) is also necessary: (3) that space is in some sense “digital” — that is, that there are only a finite number of positions any given particle could possibly occupy; otherwise, matter would still be able to form infinitely many non-repeating configurations even in a finite space (Georg Simmel proved this). I don’t believe in eternal recurrence myself, since I don’t think those three prerequisites are especially likely to be true, but it’s certainly possible. Physicists may yet discover that we live in such a world.

What I do believe in is eternalism — block time, McTaggart’s C-series, temporal antisolipsism. Time is just another dimension, all points in time are equally and permanently real, and the idea that time “passes” is an illusion. I reached this conclusion on my own, only to discover later that it is implied by Einsteinian physics (due to the relativity of simultaneity) and that McTaggart had also argued for it. Like Nietzschean eternal recurrence, eternalism means that everything is eternal and allows for the possibility that everything matters.

In fact, since eternalism’s implications are so similar to those of eternal recurrence, and since the latter is easier to visualize, I find Nietzsche’s hypothesis to be a useful mental hack, a tool I can use to keep myself looking at things sub specie aeternitatis. “You will live through this again and again and again, infinitely many times,” I tell myself from time to time — knowing that this is (probably) not literally true, but that what follows from it is the same as what follows from the truth. Since I am an antisolipsist in the more literal sense as well, I sometimes expand my memento aeternitatis to “You will live through this infinitely many times — as yourself, and as your wife, and as your neighbor, and as that cat over there, and as the cockroach you just killed,” and so on.


Filed under Philosophy, Time

Two solipsisms

Though I’m generally leery of coopting the vocabulary of theism to refer to non-theistic philosophical ideas, I find it irresistably appropriate that the King James translators chose to represent the name of God, the ultimate mystery, with the words “I AM” — existence, first person, present tense — a trinity of incomprehensibles economically expressed in three letters. Setting the issue of existence aside for the moment, I find that the other two — the two solipsisms — can profitably be considered together, that thinking about the one sheds light on the other.

I know, in theory, that there are billions of conscious minds in this world, each with its own subjective experience, but one of them, the one known as Wm Jas Tychonievich, stands out from the others because I am Wm — and by that I don’t mean anything as simple as “Wm is Wm” or “Wm wrote this sentence.” What I mean is that Wm is in some sense the person; that his is the point of view; that qualia are experienced only when he sees or hears or feels something; that when he closes his eyes the world goes dark; that while others have subjective experience in theory, only he has subjective experience in fact. Others no doubt feel that the same is true of themselves, and to some extent I can grant that. From Joe Schmo’s point of view, Joe Schmo is the person; ditto for every other sentient animal in the universe. There’s nothing special about Wm. And yet, and yet — there undeniably is something special about Wm. “From Joe Schmo’s point of view” is a counterfactual. When I say, “What would it be like to be Joe Schmo?” (or a bat, or whatever), I’m imagining a possible world which is different from the real world — not different in any objective way that could be detectable by a third party, but different nonetheless.

The same goes for time. Time is a vast and perhaps infinite continuum, but one particular point on that continuum, the one called “the present,” is the time, more real than any other. While few people subscribe to literal solipsism with regard to persons, temporal solipsism is much more mainstream. Many people would be quite comfortable saying that the past and especially the future do not have actual existence, that only the present moment is real — an odd point of view, given that the present is infinitesimally small and impossible to pin down with any precision. And just as there is nothing objectively different about the person called Wm, there is nothing objectively different about any particular point on the timeline. Just as every person thinks he is the person, people have at every point in history thought that that point was the present — and are we going to say they were wrong? As I write this, I feel quite sure that the present is a point contained within the span of time referred to as the year 2009, but last year I felt just as sure about 2008. You can say, “In the past 2008 was the present year, but now it’s 2009,” but that doesn’t really mean anything. As used here, “in the past” and “was” are counterfactuals analogous to “from Joe Schmo’s point of view,” and the sentence means something like, “If the past were the present, then 2008 would be the present,” an uninteresting near-tautology. In fact 2008 “is” not the present (a fact which would be easier to express if English didn’t require every verb to have a tense).

If I say, “I wish it were tomorrow,” I’m wishing that something were different about the world — but, again, the difference is not anything objectively observable. If my wish came true, not a single objective fact about the history of the universe would be different. I’m not wishing that two days become one day or that the calendar skip a day; I don’t want to change the timeline of history at all. All I’m wishing is that a different point on the timeline be the time, the present, the only point in time which is really experienced (and only by the person). It’s a comprehensible wish, just as comprehensible as “I wish I were a bat,” but neither wish can mean anything at all unless you take for granted the quasi-solipsistic idea that there is one particular mind and one particular point in time which exist more directly — are more real — than any others. The wish is that a different mind, or a different time, be the special fully-existent one.

There are different ways to approach these two issues, varying degrees of actual solipsism. The most extreme solipsism, the kind we usually have in mind when we use the word, denies that anything or anyone other than “I” exists in any sense at all. The same extreme solipsism could be applied to time. An intro-to-philosophy staple is the speculation that perhaps the universe sprang into existence five minutes ago, complete with false signs of antiquity and false memories of a nonexistent past. We can whittle that five minutes down until we reach the logical limit: that perhaps the universe has no past at all, that perhaps the present moment is the only moment and all else is illusion.

A more moderate solipsism tries to have it both ways, usually with the help of possibly meaningless expressions like, “The past was once the present, and the future will be the present anon.” This takes advantage of the tense system of English to ascribe some sort of existence or reality (“was,” “will be”) to the whole continuum of time, while at the same time singling out the present moment as different, because it alone is the present. Various verbal tricks can be used to do the same thing with regard to persons, admitting the reality of other people and their subjective experience while still seeing oneself as somehow different and “What would it be like to be Bill Gates?” as a counterfactual. This kind of moderate solipsism seems to be what comes naturally to most people.

The final option is to reject solipsism completely, accepting that every person and every point in time is equally real and that the idea of one special person called “I” and one special time called “now” — the idea implied in the appropriately monotheistic words “I AM” — is an illusion. It’s probably a logically inevitable illusion — since, while my subjective experience and your subjective experience are both real and are both experienced, they cannot both be experienced by the same person — but an illusion nonetheless.

My natural tendency has always been to be more solipsistic about person than about time, and I think this is probably a near-universal proclivity for which there are good Darwinian reasons. A high degree of reality is ascribed to other points in time, particularly to the future, but not to other subjectivities — other points in time will be the present, but no other person will ever be “I.” This lopsided solipsism is where the fear of oblivion comes from: the horrifying realization that there will be “real” points in time at which the one “real” person no longer exists. That’s what we’re really afraid of when we fear death — not just that one particular person will cease to exist, but that, because that one person is “I,” the only “I,” subjective experience itself will cease with his death. When “I” dies, the whole universe might as well have come to an end. Philip Larkin expresses it well in “Aubade”:

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

But if we are but consistent in our solipsism, approaching time and person in the same way, this fear turns out to be unfounded. Under pure solipsism, there is only one real person — but there is also only one real point in time, so the imagined future in which that one real person no longer exists is an illusion; it will never come. Pure anti-solipsism acknowledges that the future is real — but also that other minds are real and that each is equally an “I”; subjective experience will continue for as long as sentient minds — any sentient minds — exist.

Actually, pure anti-solipsism goes further. Even if there comes a time, as there almost certainly will, when all intelligent life is snuffed out, there is no need to fear oblivion, because time does not actually pass. Past, present, and future are all equally real, just as all points in space are equally real. The fact that life exists during this time period and not during that one is no more significant than the fact that it exists on this planet and not that one.

Acknowledging the past as fully real is probably the hardest part of maintaining a consistently anti-solipsistic point of view, because (again, for good Darwinian reasons) we naturally focus on the present and future, considering something not to exist at all if it exists only in the past. But the whole continuum of time is equally real. It exists as a unity. Designating a particular point “the present” doesn’t make everything to the left of it disappear. To adapt a catchphrase from my Mormon upbringing, everything that exists, exists for a time and for all eternity. Good poets like Byron remind us of this:

I die — but first I have possesst,
And come what may, I have been blest;
(The Giaour, 1114-1115)

And so do bad poets like James Blunt:

And though time goes by, I will always be
In a club with you in 1973

Recently, in coming to terms with the death of someone who had been close to me, I found myself thinking in very Giaouresque terms: “She will always have existed.” Though it may sound like just so much grammatical prestidigitation, conjuring up an “always” where there is none, it was nevertheless only that — not turning to pipe-dreams of heaven or reincarnation, not settling for memory as a substitute for existence — that in the end had any real power to console. Eternity isn’t about things continuing for an infinite span of time; it’s about the recognition that all time is equally real.


Filed under Philosophy, Time