Passage of time in the block universe

Bullet point notes for now… To be continued.

  • Minkowski posited a structure of four dimensional spacetime which treated time as another dimension like the three dimensions of space. “From now onwards space by itself and time by itself will recede completely to become mere shadows and only a type of union of the two will still stand independently on its own.”
  • One way to think about spacetime, known as eternalism or the block universe, is that everything that ever happened, is currently experienced by someone as happening (at a point in spacetime), or is going to happen, has a location in this 4D structure.
  • This challenges the idea that we have free will, since our future selves already exist somewhere in the 4D structure. But free will left us long before anyway if we assume that all events have causes (see Spinoza’s, 1677, Ethics Part 2 Proposition 48; or Strawson, 1994, on the Basic Argument). It is apparently very difficult to defend the possibility of free will.
  • Each point in spacetime depends on others close by (potential headaches here caused by quantum entanglement), and the dependencies stretch back to the Big Bang, which is down one end of the structure. For “dependencies” think information, passed between the points in spacetime, and satisfying the weird geometries of general relativity.
  • Time is ordered according to these dependencies. (And because of something about entropy which makes zero sense to me.)
  • Consciousness is part of the physical world, located in points in spacetime alongside bodies (and there is a lot of conscious stuff about according to panpsychism). Regions of spacetime containing someone from birth till death have millions of conscious experiences along the time dimension, each one frozen in time.
  • But if each conscious experience at each point in spacetime is frozen, how come it feels to us that the world is moving…?
  • The feeling of time passing is produced by us using perceptual memories, passed along the causal chain with everything else, and a comparison of these memories with whatever is perceived at a given location in spacetime.
  • It’s a hyper-complicated variation on how we recognise change in a graph of something changing over time, even though the graph itself is stationary. The graph has a record of what happened and we can use it to infer change.
  • So, although each conscious experience is frozen in time, it can feel like that conscious experience is moving if it is different to a perception – or series of perceptions – in memory.
  • If you have no perception, no memory, no way to compare memory representations, or if there is no information passed between two points in spacetime, then you have no sense of a passage of time between those two points.
  • This is a very rough sketch of how you could have a feeling of movement in an instant at a point in spacetime. BUT it doesn’t explain how all those instants are piped together. There would be millions of instants across spacetime, not a journey between them.
  • Possible way out: “some approaches to these questions center on the idea that an experience of something temporally extended is itself temporally extended. The experience itself takes time to unfold – in fact it takes as much time as the process that it is an experience of. Arguably, this makes it easier to understand the nature of temporal experience. We no longer have to ask how it is that multiple individual experiences, each succeeding the other, can add up to an experience of succession. Instead, we recognize that the fundamental experiential unit is itself temporally extended, and use this to explain how there can be an experience of a temporally extended content.” See Deng (2019).

Maybe more clues here…?

Pop sci

What Einstein May Have Gotten Wrong (2020)

Time’s Passage is Probably an Illusion (2014)

Does Time Really Flow? New Clues Come From a Century-Old Approach to Math (2020)

Journal articles and other peer-reviewed work

Dainton, Barry,  Temporal Consciousness, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Deng, N. (2017). Making Sense of the Growing Block View. Philosophia, 45(3), 1113–1127.

Deng, N. (2019). One Thing After Another: Why the Passage of Time Is Not an Illusion. In The Illusions of Time (pp. 3–15). Springer International Publishing.

Lee, G. (2007). Consciousness in a Space-Time World. Philosophical Perspectives, 21, 341–374.

Gruber, R. P., Smith, R. P., & Block, R. A. (2018). The Illusory Flow and Passage of Time within Consciousness: A Multidisciplinary Analysis. Timing and Time Perception, 6(2), 125–153.

Prosser, S. (2012). Why Does Time Seem to Pass? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 85(1), 92–116.

Skow, B. (2009). Relativity and the Moving Spotlight. Journal of Philosophy, 106(12), 666–678.



Understanding unconscious processes is easy…

“Six decades ago our psychoanalytically oriented predecessors wrestled with the problem of formulating a credible account of the unconscious. Paradoxically, perhaps, having gathered such convincing evidence in recent years to support the existence of extensive and elaborate nonconscious information processing, contemporary psychologists now are faced with precisely the reverse problem. A major challenge confronting modern psychology is the need to develop an adequate account of the nature and function of consciousness”

Williams et al (1997 [Cognitive psychology and emotional disorders, 2nd ed.], p. 260), via an article by Mick Power (2000) in the Psycholologst

“Conscious” reasoning

Read this:

For us, however, a key difference is that only conscious reasoning can make use of working memory to hold intermediate conclusions, and accordingly reason in a recursive way (Johnson-Laird, 2006, p. 69): primitive recursion, by definition, calls for a memory of the results of intermediate computations (Hopcroft & Ulmann, 1979). [… example task omitted …] The non-recursive processes of intuition cannot make this inference, but when we deliberate about it consciously, we grasp its validity (Cherubini & Johnson-Laird, 2004). Conscious reasoning therefore has a greater computational power than unconscious reasoning, and so it can on occasion overrule our intuitions.

There’s no evidence that whatever bits of memory intuition uses cannot do recursion.  Hunting through semantic memory structures can be viewed as a recursive process and the process is not (at least always) accessible to consciousness.  Aside from this, you can impose recursion on just about any process you care to analyse, and you can often remove recursion from a process description depending on what primitives are available.  Questioning whether a process “is” or “isn’t” recursive isn’t a healthy activity.  Also the jump from “recursive” to “primitive recursive”, as if they were one and the same, is deeply confusing.  See the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy for details of other flavours of recursion.

Bucciarelli, M.; Khemlani, S. & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2008). The psychology of moral reasoning. Judgment and Decision Making, 3, 121-139

Half of Autechre on intuition and will

“Disagreements only happen when you enter the conscious world, when you try to consider things.”

“Sometimes you have to accept that you’re a product of your environment and no matter what input you want to put into that environment, that’s just your personal taste, the culmination of all your influences, being creatively voiced one way or another, like a painter might do.”

“Some people are so tied up with the whole issue of understanding — they think you need to understand something in order to like it.”

“You don’t realise where routine and schedule become habits, and then become rules. […] It’s good sometimes to remove a lot of the conscious process.”

—Sean Booth, of Autechre, an interview, Wire (2008, March)