Time

This post will pretty much sum up various thoughts which popped into my head during the last week of the Physics and Reality course I’m currently on, specifically my impressions from the lecture and thoughts I had during the seminar.

In advance, I apologise for the confusion with terms relating to time – the english language is simply not set up for explaining such things well. I would put markers in where problems exist, but they’re probably pretty self-evident anyhow.


Why I don’t like Leibniz time (and why I possibly do, too)

During the lecture, Dr. Barlow introduced the two viewpoints of time held in the 17th century – one by Newton, one by Leibniz. (This relates to the whole Leibniz/Clarke correspondance thing from earlier in the course).

Newton’s time is something that is continuous – think of how we tend to view space, as something that can be split up into infinitesimal pieces, and you can just keep on splitting it up. It acts as a background to everything that goes on in the universe.

Leibniz’s time, on the other hand, is far from continuous – it consists of a series of events, which follow on from previous events in a certain order. There’s no specified interval between each event, no metric. The example given in the lecture was that of a chess game – the actual playing of the game is Newtonian time (on the surface – more about that later), while the list of moves is Leibniz time.

So, why don’t I like Leibniz time? Let’s look at space briefly. It’s generally considered to be continuous, infinitely divisible (again, see later). On top of this, we typically introduce some coordinate system. Let’s stick with cartesian coordinates, and restrict our thinking to one dimension. So we have x = 0, 1, 2, 3, … . You can equally well look at the case when x = 0, 0.25, 1.34, 1.35, … – i.e. remove the metric from the problem. I would consider this to be Leibniz time. My point is that it’s possible to start with a Newtonian time, and reduce it to Leibniz time – so Leibniz time is just a reduced form of Newtonian time, with some information lost.

The problem comes when you look at time on the smallest units possible. I don’t know whether on this kind of scale it becomes quantized or not – Planck timescales would seem to indicate that it does, but they’re just a mathematical argument not a scientific proof. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, dEdt <= h-bar, probably has something to say before we get to those scales, anyhow. But for the sake of this argument, let's say that time is somehow quantized. Wouldn't this be Leibniz time? There would be no way to identify whether or not there's any sort of metric involved here. So what I considered to be Newtonian time above would in fact reduce to Leibniz time.


That pretty much sums up what I was discussing with Kei on the way back from the lecture. I guess it’s a fairly circular argument, with no clear winner, but I generally come down on the side of Newtonian time – at least, while I’m lacking evidence to the contrary.I want to go on to discuss something related (i.e., it’s about time), but which came later in my thinking – it was sort of brought up in the seminar, but I hope to show the divide more clearly here than then.


Two viewpoints on time

There’s two different viewpoints from which you can view time. These represent something much more fundamental in the world, which should become obvious shortly.

The first is the physics viewpoint. This is the standard, accepted one by pretty much any scientist out there. It says that time, and space, are something through which we are passing – it has existence separate to humans, existed before humans, and will continue existing well after humans have become extinct. I guess this’s related to the Newtonian viewpoint of time above.

The second is the personal viewpoint. This is probably the more natural, less abstracted viewpoint – but very much more paranoid, I guess. I would state this as: I was born 21 years ago. I have no proof that the universe before I was born defiantly existed. For all I know, it might all be a big con set up by some god on me, to fool me into thinking that I’m just part of something larger. So the universe, as I see it, came into existence when I was born, and will end its existence when I die.

(In the seminar, this was brought up slightly differently – it was discussed whether time existed before humanity, not before the individual person. I prefer my approach, as it’s much more personal and easily applicable).

The second viewpoint is very much an egotistical viewpoint of the universe – but try to prove that it isn’t the case. Personally, as an aspiring scientist I naturally subscribe to the former, but my mind keeps bringing up the latter. Either way, they’re both just theories – and both are fundamentally unprovable, as the majority of philosophy is. I guess I’ll either find out when I die (read: pass on from this reality), or I’ll never find out. For now, I’ll just stick with theorizing – at the very least, it’s interesting.


The last paragraph would be a really nice place to end this post, but I still have one more point I want to make. I tried to explain this in the seminar, but it didn’t go down well. While this is possibly for good reason, I didn’t hear a good explanation why it is wrong – the lecturer just pointed out the english problems, and left it at that.The question was brought up – if space is expanding (i.e. the expansion of the universe), then is time also expanding? My approach to answering this was that it’s two sides of the same coin. Either space is expanding, while time remains “constant” (this is where the english problems really kick in), or equally well you can say that space is constant while time is “expanding”.This is probably an odd way to look at the problem. If space is remaining constant, then that implies that the various scales are also remaining constant – so for example, atomic scales are constant, but the time they exist in is expanding. What does this do for quantum mechanics? I’m not sure it’s in a good position to answer, but hopefully I’ll find the answer someday.Addendum: another idea which I mentioned in the seminar, but didn’t go anywhere, was Wheeler’s view of electrons and positrons – basically, as positrons can be viewed as electrons going backwards in time, all electrons and positrons can be viewed as a single electron constantly going backwards and forwards in time. If I’d have thought about this a bit longer, I’d have presented it differently. I’d probably have pointed out that antiparticles can be viewed as going backwards in time – so could the fact that the universe is dominated by matter rather than antimatter be the reason why we only travel forward in time? If the universe was made of antiparticles, then we’d only be going backwards in time. As a universe with a mix of particles and antiparticles would be unstable, there can be no long-lived universe where both forwards- and backwards-time travel is possible.

7 thoughts on “Time”

  1. from the example that you picked up that you have no proof of what whether the universe existed before you were born is slightly flawed. you know your parents. you also know that the human infant needs a nine month incubation period in his mother’s womb. so the world existed for atleast 9 months before you were born. consequetly, your parents. the human replroductive system needs 12-13 years to become completely functional. so you know that the universe must have existed atleast that much longer, you parents too come from somewhere… so beginning of mankind is the better viewpoint.

    as for the self centered viewpoint, i think that is what Kant and Hume were talking about. Kant said that everything in this world that requires an understand by the human brain can be split into 2 things, observables and unobservables. things that you pick up from your physical senses are interpreted by your brain and hence are observable, things like the mind, soul, and the ever elusive “time” are unobservable. and it is these unobservables that constitute to the human a priori knowledge, i.e. the knowledge that we are born with, the knowledge that’s inate.

    which begs to question then that are we really born with a newtonian idea of time. a few centuries ago, the popular concept of time was eventual, episodic, a year comprised of 4 seasons, seasons comprised of months, months of days and days of periods like dawn, morn, noon, afternoon, eve, dusk and night. so it was only after watches became commonplace that this inate perception of continuous time that could be measured, came about. then we divided the world in time-zones, the riots in england when the calendars were changed, “give us back our 11 days”, the introduction of summer-time… humans now have an inate a priori understanding of time as newtonian time.

    but as we get closer and closer to the pinnacles of theoretic physics, new ideas are leaning more towards an acception of leibniz’ time. einstein himself swayed this way and lorentz and others added to this with time dilation and length contraction.

    besides, i think newton came up with his idea of time as a universal constant to aptly explain his own theories of mechanics where the rate of change was needed. besides, like i said the other day, newtonian time is based on leibniz’s time because the principle metric, the second, is derived from an event ie the rotations of a cs atom. so if out measurement of time is based around our observation of the world, then isn’t time dependent on the universe defining states at every instant which is another way of saying that the “universal time” is episodic.

    the idea of constant time also brigs forth the idea that if time is outside the universe, then what came before the universe as surely time would have still existed. the big bang theory says that time started at the big bang… isn’t that in itself a confirmation of time being leibnizian? plato believed so, i agree.

    ive been reading a lot recently, not just the notes from the lectures, but loads of other books… plus my natural philosophy bibles, ‘utopia’, ‘the mind of god’, and the supplement ‘other worlds’, by paul davies.

    looking forward to next week’s lecture where we’ll hopefully start discussing ideas of being and existance.

    kei ^_^

  2. I’ll do the Leibniz/Clarke thing, and number your paragraphs as I answer to them.

    1. Yes, I can reason that time existed before I did, but there is no direct proof. This ties heavily into the philosophical viewpoint that the universe could just be in your imagination and that it doesn’t actually exist at all. To get out of this, you have to assume that your senses aren’t lying to you, and that the universe really is how it appears to be through your senses.

    2. This sounds reasonable, but again is making the assumption that your senses are telling you the truth. I’m not sure I like the whole idea of a priori knowledge, though – I think that our perceptions of these things are probably more gained from others – e.g. someone came up with the idea of a mind, and a soul, and imprinted these into the human consciousness as a whole. Not being a historian of philosophy, though, I don’t know how to defend this well.

    3/4. True, I guess. But my point still sort of stands – that we’re imposing a leibniz time on top of a newtonian time. As an aside, at the end of the seminar, we had a sort of quick vote as to which sort of time relativity subscribes to. Most of the class said leibniz; I think it was me, and one other, that said Newtonian. The lecturers said newtonian, too.

    5. This is true – time as science defines it nowadays is episodic. I could once more point out that this could only be an ovelay onto a newtonian time, but I guess there’s no real way to be definite of that. This’s one of the reasons why I find myself starting to dislike philosophy, and be more keen on physics – the latter has proof, while the former generally has circular arguments and no way to decide ultimately what the correct viewpoint is (hence why we’ve had arguments lasting since the time of the ancient greeks…).

    6. I’m not sure of this argument. I’ve heard several approaches to the problem – Hawking suggested that the big bang is actually an artificial singularity, akin to the north pole of earth being a singularity, so time doesn’t really have a proper start and end. Another argument would potentially lie in saying that the big bang is a proper singularity – in which case, you get time dilation etc. which would cause a whole lot of problems defining when time started. That could be flawed, though – I currently have a cold, which’s affecting my thinking. ๐Ÿ™

    Finally, I would be pretty impressed if Plato had even considered the big bang – isn’t the big bang a theory which’s only around 100 years old at the most?

  3. i shall also follow the numbered paragraph theme ^^

    1. the idea of our senses honestly conveying to our concious information about the universe as we “sense” it or lieing about it is an interesting albeit cynical viewpoint don’t you think. for argument’s sake, if they are then all of existence and thinking itself is rendered nullified. you would have to go hide yourself in a cave where there are non humanly sensory interactions and then think about this problem. in fact you’ll still be biased from your life’s experiences. you need to infact be plato’s prisinor in his cave to think about existance uninfluenced by any senses or preconcieved dogmas. however, be that the case, how would you ever be able to rightfully judge the world if you have no experiences of it? it is our interpretation of the world around us on the basis of our senses that we humans have achieved our level of intellectual provice. you make the senses out to be bain when infact they are our one true providence. you also spoke of a couple of examples of this in films like the truman show or the matrix. well, like i told you then, both the truman show and the matrix dont have lieing senses as their centered themes; the centered themes in those films is deception on the part of a greater controlling force that emulates a facade to mimic the truth. so unless you’re willing to stand by your claim that it might all be a big con set up by some god on you, to fool you into thinking that you’re part of something larger, your argument doesn’t work. the very existance that you’re argueing for is that facade, you don’t know any better and the questions of existance and time are still just as relevant to you in this fake universe as they would have been had the universe “been” different.

    2. a priori knowledge talks of a more general “instinctive” understanding of the world. and this has been proven scientifically in the form of survival instincts “coded” into the gnome. a child knows to make a noise to gain attention when it’s hungry. that’s a priori isn’t it? concurrently, our understanding of time maybe a priori too. i remember reading about a study where a large number of people were tested for their sense of flowing time. they were asked to tap once a second. the results were amazing, the concept of a second is so far engraved into our subconcious by the time we reach adulthood that the majority of the people kept time on the second with an average error of about 0.1s. Although I’m not saying that this is proof for a priori understanding of time, i will argue that this has to show to some extent that there is something in our brains that allows us to keep time . as for ideas of “mind”, “soul”… by saying their understanding is a priori is saying something like: “i can’t explain what my mind is in words, but I know what it is…”. that’s the philosophical idea of a priori i think. that’s what Kant was talking about.

    3/4. unfortunately i wasnt in the lectures, so i cant say much about the responses and what drove the people to say that. the reading material we were given, i think encourages the idea that ideas of relativity do infact lean towards leibniz’ time. the maths however i agree is in newtonian. measurements of the rate of change of any quantity is in newtonian time. using calculus means you’re using newtonian time.

    6. im not too convinced myself either … which is to say that i haven’t yet formed a solid opinion on this topic. must defrag brain more!

    i’m enjoying these “blog-correspondences”. maybe one day they’ll publish these as peel-kumar correspondences ^_^

  4. 1. Yes, it’s very cynical, and pretty paranoid too. It’s probably the most cynical you can actually get. I should say that I don’t subscribe to this worldview – but it is still a possibility, for all we know. It is true that the examples I raised don’t have this as their central theme, but it’s still there to a certain extent. There’s a better example I dimly remember, but I can’t recall its name.

    I would say that having either your senses lying to you, or being the butt of a huge joke thanks to (a) god, is pretty much the same from your point of view.

    I’m pretty sure this lies at the heart of philosophy – for example, “I think, therefore I am” probably came from something like this. But I could be wrong.

    2. I would disagree with your example – I would expect a child to discover that making a noise when it’s hungry is actually an observable – child is hungry, wants to get food, experiments and finds that making noise brings food. Ergo, from then on when the child is hungry it makes noise.

    Survival instincts are an interesting area, though – I guess this falls under evolution, and a priori knowledge through your genetics, as those people that didn’t have survival instincts wouldn’t have lasted long in the old world (e.g. those that say “aww, isn’t that a pretty T-Rex, can I keep it?” wouldn’t be around much longer…).

    With time – we’ve all grown up around clocks, so since we were children we’d have been absorbing the tick of a second, and hence we’d be able to reproduce it later. You could make the same argument for music, and I’d give the same response. I’d probably argue more that our brains have developed the ability to keep time, rather than having it built in – one long-running thought I’ve had on this is the rate at which we talk, and think while we’re talking; we’ve developed a sort of group sense of the appropriate speeds. There are people that fall outside of this, but they aren’t too common (especially at extremes).

    If you had never encountered the idea of a mind, or a soul, would you still know innately what it is?

    3/4: Calculus could be considered to be based on leibniz time – it’s founded on infinitesimal changes. It’s generally assumed to be newtonian, though – i.e. these infinitesimal changes can be made as small as you want; they’re just labels on top of newtonian space.

    Welcome to the modern world – we don’t need to put these in a book; they’re already available to everyone in the world that wants to access them. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  6. Time, space. Space, time which came first the chicken or the egg.Ive heard it all before its a stupid argument or debate.
    The fact is.
    TIME was invented by the SWISS, to make the rest of us all feel insecure!

    When will you all stop trying to make yourselves look so intelligent and just except the fact that. Time is time, its a human creation of measurement.
    Space is space, its what we are all floating in, a gigantic vaccume.
    They have no relationship.

  7. The simple answer: that’s only one possibility.

    The more complex answer: this relates to the next post I did – there’s two different viewpoints, one personal and one scientific. What you’re describing there is the personal viewpoint, generalized to the whole of humanity. The scientific viewpoint says that time and space are interlinked – spacetime. We fundamentally can’t seperate them. That’s something that does affect every day life – GPS systems have to compensate for it all the time (pun unintended).

    If time was invented by the swiss (presumably you’re referring more generally to watches), then what about before it was invented? Did Mr. Ug back in the cave era not see or feel time? Did everything happen in an instant to him?

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