Saving the Present

Two months ago I posted on how the theory of Special Relativity refutes the idea of a flow of time or a universal present moment. You can read that post here.

Today as promised I put forward the arguments from modern-day Theoretical Physics which seek to push back and restore our intuitive notion of an objective passage of time and a universal now.

Two of these arguments come from, no surprises here – Quantum Mechanics (quantum theories and relativity theories have always been bitter rivals) however an argument can also be produced from General Relativity – Special Relativity’s big brother. I will present these arguments as briefly and as concisely as possible, but as we all know the workings of theoretical physics are far from simple so I hope the advanced readers amongst will not seek to crucify me too much over my wording at times. If you are so inclined to hear such arguments more comprehensively and for some reason you miraculously aren’t bored of me already here is my full dissertation on the topic with the very verbose title:

“In light of the theory of Special Relativity is a Passage of Time and the argument of the Presentist untenable?”

Rescuing the present moment is all about finding a privileged reference frame. (A reference frame of an observer is just a system which constitutes of an observer who is considered to be at rest and the events around him.) In Special Relativity all reference frames are equal; an observer moving away from a platform at constant speed on a train is equally as justified to claim he is “at rest” as an observer standing still on the platform.  Due to this differing of opinion and the measurement of events, Special Relativity highlights to us that no observer is more justified in claiming the events he measures as happening instantaneously around him are justified to constitute the ‘present moment’ than any other. Events happening in the present moment as perceived by one observer may be regarded as past or future for another and all reference frames are equal. If you’re confused I urge you to go back and read (or re-read) the first post – it is rather mind bending stuff. However if we can find a privileged reference frame we can claim that the moment that is considered to be the present in that frame is actually the true universal present moment and the state of affairs that this reference frames regards as happening instantaneously really are happening in the present moment.

Remember the image of the block universe we spoke of before?

slide03

Well you can still think of different slices through this block as representing the present state of affairs for different observers but what these two arguments are trying to say is there is one preferential slicing which represents the true present in the universe and with reference to this, all events can be distinctly divided into past and future. Some would argue that with this universal present the future side of the block no longer pre-exists and this is similar to idea of the growing block universe.  But how do we find this preferential slicing? Well let’s discuss.

The  first claim for the privileged reference frame is from Quantum Mechanics and the wave-function. If you need a refresher on what this is, check out this post. Taking a summary from my co-author: “The wave function is a complex valued probability amplitude; which in essence is a mathematical expression of all the things something may be with probabilities assigned to them. The wave function describes all the states a particle may occupy and the probabilities associated with being in each state.” Now during measurements these wave functions are understood to collapse to produce single outcomes as opposed to the messy previous state of affairs where many possibilities are represented with different associated probabilities.

wfc

Now the key point is that Quantum Mechanics insists that these collapses happens instantaneously but this conflicts directly Special Relativity. As the collapse of the wave function is an event like any other surely it cannot coincide with an overarching now across all reference frames as all observers are moving at different speeds relative to the wave function. Only those at rest with respect to the wave function, would regard it as instantaneous. Thus the plane of simultaneity which represents the true present moment in spacetime is the one in which is at rest with the wave function. As a wise man once said (my dissertation supervisor, Nicholas Maxwell) “Collapses of quantum states are all that there is in the constitutions of things that pick out ‘there reference frame at rest’ and thus ‘the associated cosmic now.'”

However, there is much speculation in this argument as the nature of the wave function is a highly controversial issue. If one adopts the deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics such as the Bohm or Many Worlds Interpretation which we’ve talked about here the wave function goes off to realise all the different outcomes represented as different probabilities in alternative universes – we just assume the function is collapsing because it’s all we can “see” from the confines of our own universe. Furthermore perhaps the wave function does not actually correspond to anything physically real in reality, it could just be a product of the mathematics of Quantum Theory. If this is the case and the wave function is not actually tangible the collapse could be made reconcilable with Relativity Theory, preserving equivalence across all reference frames. However, this interpretation of the Quantum world where the wave function is physically real and we accept what is known as the ‘probabilistic interpretation’ of Quantum Mechanics, this instantaneous collapse poses a great problem to the equality of all reference frames as postulated by Special Relativity. And I should note this interpretation of the Quantum world is the most popular – a universal present might be back on the cards.

 

Now let’s take a look at an argument from a theory much closer to home for Special Relativity, its big brother General Relativity. Special Relativity, is as its name indicates, special as it is only valid in ‘inertial’ frames of reference, which move with constant velocity with respect to each other. General Relativity however applies to curved spacetime and can accommodate references frames moving at accelerating velocities. Although in Special Relativity there are no frames of reference that can be considered privileged, some believe that in General Relativity could produce a case for one. How so? Well certain theoretical physicists believe grounds for such privileged reference frames can be found on the astronomical scale. Lee Smolin in his book ‘Time Reborn’ writes ‘the universe is arranged in such  way that it naturally picks out a preferred state of rest… the motion of the galaxies pick out a preferred observer, hence a preferred state of rest at each point in space.’ Godel agrees that time could regain its objective existence on this astronomical state when he says ‘the existence of matter, as well as the particular kind of curvature of space-time produced by it, largely destroy the equivalence of different observers and distinguish some of them conspicuously form the rest, namely those which follow in their notion of the mean motion of matter.’ (Godel: A Remark about the Relationship between Relativity Theory and Idealist Philosophy).

andromeda-galaxy

So it’s all about weighing up the overall matter distribution in the universe to find this preferential frame. Of course, on the local scale we have no detection of this and the principles of Special Relativity apply with sufficient accuracy. We cannot move fast and we cannot see big and therefore we have the illusion that all our reference frames are equivalent because we are only considering our local vicinity which can pretty much be modelled as flat spacetime. But… once we consider the matter on an astronomical scale and we think about curved spacetime we might be able to find the grounding to pick out a preferred reference frame in the universe and thus rescue a true passing of time.

So either the salvation for a universal present moment and the absolute flow of time comes from the world of the very tiny or the world of astronomically huge. When being stuck in our mediocre middle ground which can be modelled approximately as flat spacetime Special Relativity works very well – and it stubbornly tells us the present moment isn’t real. But if we keep experimenting and testing our theories in the other domains we may realise the present moment is indeed rescuable. After all, Special Relativity isn’t a theory of everything, it’s just a theory that works very well in certain applications when studying this vast mysterious universe. So, as far as theoretical physics stands today you have the choice in whether you believe an objective present does or doesn’t exist as both are academically respected. Which viewpoint I prefer, I’m not too sure.

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35 responses to “Saving the Present

  1. In your concluding sentence I believe you have made an error. You wrote, ” So as far as theoretical physics stands today you have the choice in whether you believe an objective present doesn’t or doesn’t exist as both are academically respected, which I prefer i’m honestly not too sure.” Did you mean does or doesn’t exist?

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  2. I am somewhat uneasy about the graphic depiction as a flat plane passing through the block universe since the speed of light is involved with the sense of the present time. The sensed “present” should, I think, be not a flat plane but a curved surface sort of shaped like the shock wave of a bullet passing through the air so that our “present” extends into the past of the many astronomical phenomena that happened millions of years ago along the surface of that wave surface in time. Another thing that sort of bugs me is a suspicion that time may be multidimensional and that each of us may not be moving perceptually in the same time dimensional direction. Although the parallel universe idea assumes multiple universes side by side, I wonder if this universe which we perceive has multiple configurations and each of us may be wobbling back and forth through several time dimensions and we each see a slightly different version of this universe. But, like any object in three dimensions, the variations we each perceive are only slightly different since the time wobble is very small. I hope this makes sense as it is not easy to explain.

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    • Interesting idea about there being multiple dimensions of time Jiisand – it is a real area at the forefront of modern Physics right now; what should these extra dimensions we talk about in string theory actually be… spacial? Time? Something we can’t appreciate? Obviously I don’t know or I would be spending my Nobel prize winnings but a very interesting idea. Sorry I have been a little slow on the comments, I am currently in Germany.

      Mekhi – this is my new favourite article on the site.

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      • Although I have had a psychological theory on why, as we get older. we perceive time to move more rapidly so that one year at five years old seems like about ten years when we are fifty years old, with multiple time dimensions time could be a plane of time which, as we get older, we attack at a different angle than when we are younger.

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    • The reason for a flat plane is a product of the mathematics and as such i’m sorry if I explain it poorly qualitatively. The ‘plane of simultaneity’ represents the time coordinate in the four dimensional set-up and it must be orthogonal (perpendicular) to the other spatial dimensions. However we cannot draw a four-dimensional object, therefore one dimension collapses and as such it has to becomes parallel to one of the three spatial dimensions i.e the width, height or length of the block. The coordinates must be set up as orthogonal unit vectors for the mathematics to work and hence the plane must be flat in order to satisfy this condition! Apologies if this isn’t especially clear. I agree with Joe very interesting idea about multiple dimensions of time. Although I believe we are all are moving in the same time dimensional direction, as we humans are stuck (unfortunately) to moving forwards through it, the idea of time being traversable in other directions through other dimensions is a wonderful thought.

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      • As I indicated, since the speed of light is not infinite, it seems to me that the plane of simultaneity cannot be flat since our perception looks out to the distant galaxies as they were millions and billions of years ago. Our perception through space and time is the surface of a paraboloid where only the tangent to the peak of the form is normal to the direction of our time travel (or illusion of our travel). Or so it seems to me.

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      • I have been thinking about what might be the confusion where you indicate time must be orthogonal or at right angle to the space dimensions and suddenly realized that I was presuming that there might be two time dimensions and, of course, any additional dimension must conform to the the geometric demand of orthogonality of any additional dimension. But with a plane of two time dimensions, it is possible to have variations of direction on that plane so that a 45 degree progress on that plane becomes possible which slows its movement if there were only one time dimension, All sorts of progress on that time plane then becomes possible, curves, zigzags, etc and speculations on what types of impediments for motions in various time direction might be comparable to motions in space, especially if there are three time dimensions as we perceive space.

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  3. Pingback: Saving the Present | Rationalising The Universe – eddyarengkuan·

  4. I’m not too good at following all this, but I get the distinct impression, from my vague scanning, that human perception, particularly our inability to envision non-standard Dimensions, leads us astray when trying to reconcile ‘scientific’ Observation with a universe that contains more than human perception can observe, or even imagine. I’ve always felt this way about the dimensions postulated, beyond the standard four–the four dimensions we observe have special characteristics and relate to each other in some way–how can we extrapolate other dimensions without any concept of their character or relation to the other dimensions? For instance, does the 3-d definition of loci have any real meaning, if some other dimensional aspect renders x, y, and z as dependent-ranges rather than specific values?
    But, as I said, this whole subject is way over my head.

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    • Your comment is actually very astute! Yes our confinement to the perception of four dimensions may render us trapped in being able to understand only a fraction of the workings of this universe (if extra dimensions do indeed exist). We cannot believe to know anything about the nature of additional dimensions unless we can probe them. However I personally do not think extra dimensions would render our spatial dimensions as dependent on them, perhaps I do not understand what you mean by this though? Do not stop asking questions because you believe the subject is over your head, these kind of questions are over most people’s head! Thanks a lot for reading

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      • I just meant the way the dimensions build up–one-D is a point, two-D is infinite points in one plane, three-D is infinite planes in a volume, and four-D is that whole mess moving through temporal points–shouldn’t five-D then be something that builds on that, and six-D, and so on? How else would dimensions have meaning?

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  5. I have a rudimentary knowledge of physics and deal primarily in the study of human body and mind. So please forgive me if this sounds completely senseless.😓
    Won’t you consider that the human body is made up infinite of such miniscule universes for which an absolute flow of time exists. But as a whole we follow a flat special relativity in which present is not absolute?
    Against my better judgement I still decided to ask the question with the risk of embarrassing myself.
    Thank you in advance.

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    • No need to ever hesitate about asking questions! The only stupid questions are the ones we do not ask. The idea of parallel universes is something very speculative in theoretical physics and as the body is something we can perceive to exist and interact with objects in this world it would not be thought to be comprised of multiple miniscule universes. What is interesting though is what happens to time on the quantum scale and quantum building blocks make up the human body. The nature of time on the quantum level is likely to refute special relativity’s idea about the present moment. Either it will, as I mentioned above, strive to re-instate the present moment, or more dangerously it may oppose the idea of any time at all. Thank you very much for stopping by and your comment!

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      • Thank you for the answer Mekhi☺ and good luck for your masters degree (read your profile.) Hopefully I would also be starting mine next year.
        Have a nice day. – Jia

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  6. A brilliant piece of work on a very deep subject which is very difficult for the layman to grasp. I think I’m right in saying no definite conclusion has been reached and that is hardly surprising. Something in our make up craves an objective present because we live in one night and day. A walk through any graveyard hammers home the passing of time and our civilisation relies on the clock. It shook us up when that old wizard Einstein declared all reference frames are equally valid. It’s the job of physics to investigate and often to overturn our rational beliefs. The interesting thing is that physicists are among the most rational of humans yet they don’t trust themselves.

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    • Thank you very much indeed kertsen! Very well said, we crave an objective present moment because it is so intuitive to our everyday experience of reality. Perhaps, as such, we let a dangerous element of bias into our scientific method if preferentially trying to find theories which support our experience. However, I have faith in the physicists who investigate to overturn our rational beliefs as you say and long may they continue to prove us wrong!

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  7. The interpretations of QM is where many of the problems lie. Probably the most common view is called the Copenhagen Interpretation, after Bohr’s place of research. It holds that the wavefunction exists as a superposition of all possible probabilistic states. But after a measurement or observation, we now know where something is with 100% probability, so the wavefunction is “collapsed” to just one of those states. I’ll admit that I only have a working knowledge of physics but would like to comment and ask for positive or negative comments on mine.
    Some New Agers have imposed a mushy, mystical, and moral-relativistic view of QM, asserting that reality is not objective but depends on conscious observers. Both Einstein and Schrödinger didn’t like the mysticism of a supposed “observer collapses the wavefunction”. Einstein argued that a barrel of unstable explosive would contain a superposition of exploded and unexploded states. Schrödinger applied this idea to one of the most famous illustrations of QM, now called the Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox. But this was a thought experiment intended as a reductio ad absurdum of what he thought was a ridiculous type of interpretation of QM, since he rightly thought that the law of non-contradiction trumped the interpretation.
    However, Bohr never claimed any ‘collapse requires consciousness’ view; all that was required for an “observation” was a thermodynamically irreversible change. While a watched pot proverbially never boils, I found no difference in spectra whether I watched them or just set up the experiment to run. Also, the nuclear fusion reactions in the sun’s core work by QM but there is no conscious mind watching, unless you count spiritual beings which Copenhagen generally does not. From a biblical standpoint, there were plenty of things happening uniformly before God created man on Day 6 to observe any of them.
    Thus some biblical (and non-biblical) physicists accept QM but propose a more realist interpretation just as Einstein and Schrödinger advocated. Physicist Dr Russell Humphreys explains in a personal communication to members of creation.com:
    In contrast with the Copenhagen interpretation, the Causal interpretation says that all particles have a definite location and speed at all times, even if we cannot measure both those numbers precisely at the same time. It further says that quantum-mechanical waves are real, and that they can influence the motion of the particles. Like a motorboat moving on a lake, the motion of a particle generates waves in the space nearby it, and those waves influence the path of the particle through space.
    For example, in the famous two-slit experiments (described in most quantum mechanics textbooks), the Causal interpretation says that a particle approaching the slits only goes through one of them, but that the waves moving with the particle go through both slits. On the far side of the slits, the waves interfere with each other, setting up a pattern of peaks and troughs that guide the particle as it travels. The precise path it travels depends on precisely where it passed through the slit. This view of what is observed in experiments is far more straightforward than what the Copenhagen interpretation claims.
    The Causal interpretation, held by a minority of well-known physicists since the 1920s, has become fairly well-developed in recent years. One of the best presentations of it for physicists is The Quantum Theory of Motion: An Account of the de Broglie–Bohm Causal Interpretion of Quantum Mechanics, by Peter R. Holland. Unfortunately, I know of no exposition of the Causal interpretation for laymen.
    Any further thoughts?

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  8. There is a definition of Dimension that I have had thought of but unfortunately sure of objective proofs.
    “A dimension is a point or a coordinate or any number or quantity that is used to specific what exists in reality.

    Why do we see things the way there are?
    What gives matter the shape it is in?

    On an object there are forces that act and we know these forces as Nuclear forces, Atomic Forces, Electromagnetic force.
    Where these force balance or in other words where these forces agree with each other we get a shape.So, anythings that
    we can measure or use to define a reality should be called a dimension. So, accordingly there can be infinite dimensions
    governed by a master dimension called Time.”

    Srinivas Ramanujan said, “We don’t invent, we just discover, everything is already around us”, Keep Posting…

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    • I have thought about dimension in this way and my understanding of time is a concept out of movie film where each frame represents a moment in time and if, instead of the frames being attached end to end as on the film, they are piled one on top of the other in proper order the dimension of the pile is time and this is the four dimensional universe. To go beyond this, as each succeeding dimension is an accumulation of all the preceding dimensions, the fifth dimension would be multiple related four dimensional piles side by side infinitely to form parallel universes. And, in another direction, if these parallel universes formed a kind of plane, the planes could be piled vertically to form parallel multiple universes in a sixth dimension. This is as far as my mnd can take it for now.

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    • Although I have poked my mind into various odd corners I have come to the conclusion that our views of what we term reality are assemblages of possibilities that stand temporarily in the fierce winds of novel insights until their structures are blown away with a few assemblages of new information require some bright thinker or two to try again to make sense of how to fit things back together. The idea we discover, not invent, is the assumption that what we perceive is reality, not fragmentary views of bits of sensation. Basically we are still a gang of blind explorers fingering a wiggly trunk and a small tail and inventing an elephant to fit between them.

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  9. Yesterday I had the privilege of seeing the new film “Arrival” which depicts the possible coming of an alien contact between extraterrestrials with humanity. The film is unusual in the same way that the Kubrick film “2001” was unusual in that it was far more realistic than the run of the mill SF films are in depicting what alien contact may be in its understanding of how difficult and wildly strange the event most surely will be. It is relevant to this discussion in presenting the basic differences human fundamentals may be to the relationship if time to that of an alien culture. The central problem of the film deals with communication and two linguists are shown attempting to speak with the aliens. Normally, in idiotic SF films like Star Trek or Star Wars these problems are glossed over to permit the standard conflict plots of conflict and action to take placebut this fil touches on reality much more deeply and refers to some of the linguistic concepts of Benjamin Whorf and even Alfred Korzybski (who is not mentioned) in that human language limits greatly our abilities to see the real universe and its relationships to time. It has been noted by Whorf that language is the doorway to perception. Chinese, for instance, is far more sensitive to tone in speaking and by that far more Chinese have a precise tone sensitivity. There is another human language called Karuk which is far more sensitive to special relationships and speakers orient themselves in precise ways to space that other language speakers fail to do. Even here in Helsinki there are distance words in Finnish far more specific than the English “here” and “there” which give Finns a better grasp of distance. So the linguistic references in the film to understanding time and perhaps other dimensions may, at least in part, limit our understanding of the universe hugely in comparison to a hugely human comprehension.

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  10. Reblogged this on Richard's Watch and commented:
    Continuing our on-going foray into the nature of Time (and space) with another most informative summary and discussion of principles by Mekhi and participants, I’m reminded of Apostle Paul’s brief remarks about his own extra-dimensional experience, as recorded at 2 Cor 12 (where else, in view of my personal connection to / experience with ‘212’? – see my Reflection upon First Sundays in Advent).

    Paul writes, “I know a man in Christ who 14 years ago – whether in the body or out of the body I don’t know, God knows – was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this man…was caught up into paradise and heard utterances beyond the power of man to put into words, which man is not permitted to utter…”

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  11. Modern science fiction on the screen and in many of the stories has, to me, degraded into much triviality wherein the exploration of the basics of existence so vital in early SF with its entanglement with novel physics and mathematical theory that gave it the strangeness of Lewis Carroll’s wonderful creations based on real fundamental thought explorations has mostly disappeared into the standard thud and blunder of standard storytelling. Robert Heinlein in his stories “by His Bootstraps” and “All You Zombies” explored the surreal possibilities of being able to move freely in time and in his novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” his hero has learned from his Martian teachers to obliterate enemies by suddenly make them disappear. But he doesn’t leave it at that. He has a sequence wherein his hero experimentally “disappears” something while taking a high speed film of the action and the slow motion analysis of the event shows the object rapidly decreasing in size as it vanishes and this is a marvelous comparison to the way any object that we toss away at high speed becomes visually smaller as it moves into the distance. But the distance in the Heinlein story is in a dimension we cannot see and therefor all we can see is the diminution of the object as it vanishes. It led me to wonder if, as in space, somehow objects in time somehow seem smaller as they are further away.

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  13. Pingback: When nothing seems to change | Rationalising The Universe·

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  15. Does the present really exist, you asked. That’s a subject that could consume several evenings in a coffee shop. And when every stone has been upturned, so to speak, we will be no closer that I am typing this response. In my opinion.

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  16. Pingback: Every Now and Zen: Time – Daedelus Kite·

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