If You Had the Time, Could You? — Recommended Readings

Barbour, Julian. The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Carroll, Sean. From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. New York: Dutton, 2016.

Skow, Bradford. Objective Becoming. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015.

If I had the time, I would…  How would you complete the sentence?  Why does it seem like time can go by very slowly, at times, and sometimes it can go by very quickly?  How do we get lost in time?  How can we have such different experiences, and often different from others having the same experience, with this thing we call time?  What is it?

The short answer is that nobody knows.  What time is and why it exists have perplexed people for as long as people have asked questions.  We know that we can measure it.  Until we can’t, because it is relative to the observer, as Einstein taught.  At least we know it exists.  Until we don’t, as physicists have taught us.  So, what do we experience, why do we experience it, and is this experience useful?  Or does this experience mislead us?  In these recommended readings, two physicists and a philosopher explore these questions.

MIT philosophy professor Bradford Skow guides us through frameworks that describe our experience of time with the block universe and moving spotlight theories.  These theories provide possible ways of understanding, robustly, what it means to experience the passage of time.  Is time moving, or are we moving?  Is there one time or branching time?  Why does time seem to speed up or slow down?  Professor Skow invites us to explore the rigor of the underlying philosophical claims that these frameworks bring to these questions about our experience.

Physicist Julian Barbour invites us to explore time as a series or set of “nows,” where “time is nothing but change…change is the measure of time, not time the measure of change” (p2).  How can we understand our experience of time, if “time does not exist at all, and..motion itself is pure illusion” (p4)?  Building on Einstein and Mach, Barbour suggests that “The proper way to think about motion [change in space over time] is that the universe as a whole moves from one ‘place’ to another ‘place’, where ‘place’ means a relative arrangement, or configuration, of the complete universe…the universe…does not move in absolute space, it moves from one configuration to another…History is the passage of the universe through a unique sequence of states” (p69).

Cal Tech professor of physics Sean Carroll provides a relatively user-friendly exploration of the physics of the arrow of time, through an understanding of entropy, Einstein’s special and general relativity, quantum theory, and black holes.

For me these readings have opened up my awareness to what I am experiencing when I think it is time.  Seeing choice points, choices that otherwise I tend to lose in time.

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Orbiting or Crash and Burn — Belief-planets and the Gravitational Pull of Coherence

We stick with many things because they seem to work.  Or because that is just the way it is.  That is the hand of cards you were dealt, so stop whining, join in, and play. If and when we even try to rise above the daily slog and question why–why we play by these rules, if I don’t like the experience or outcome–the world’s response slaps us back down to the ground.  If we try and try, again and again, the response gets stronger and stronger, experienced eventually as a crash and burn.  Gravity wins.  In this case, the strength of the argument that slaps us back down is in its coherence, the way it holds together and the way it corresponds with our experience.  “See.  Here is the evidence.  This is the way life really works.  And, because of that, this is also true.  See.  It works.”  This internally consistent story is very hard to argue with, thus the crashing back to the ground.

And, the experience of the questioning mixed with the experience of a crashing back down might also be indicating not that gravity always wins, rather that you haven’t risen high enough to get into outer orbit.  Gravity wins; until it doesn’t.

In recent reading on a different topic, I came across a really helpful characterization of this phenomenon, described by a writer I have cited a few times recently, for the ideas that he has sparked in me.  So, while he applies this idea to another context, I thought his description was so well written, that I would rather cite it in full than try to paraphrase it.  In The Big Picture (2016), a theoretical physicist at Cal Tec, Sean Carroll writes:

No analogy is perfect, but the planets-of-belief metaphor is a nice way to understand the view known in philosophical circles as coherentism. According to this picture, a justified belief is one that belongs to a coherent set of propositions.  This coherence plays the role of the gravitational pull that brings together dust and rocks to form real planets.  A stable planet of belief will be one where all the individual beliefs are mutually coherent and reinforcing.

Some planets are not stable.  People go through life with a a very large number of beliefs, some of which may not be compatible with others, even if they don’t recognize it.  We should think of planets of belief as undergoing gradual but constant churning, bringing different beliefs into contact with one another, just as real planets experience convection in the mantle and plate tectonics near the surface.  When two dramatically incompatible beliefs come into direct contact, it can be like highly reactive chemicals being mixed together, leading to an impressive explosion–possibly even blowing the entire planet apart, until a new one can be reassembled from different parts.

Ideally, we should be constantly testing and probing our planets of belief for inconsistencies and structural deficiencies.  Precisely because they are floating freely through space, rather than remaining anchored on solid and immovable ground, we should always be willing to improve our planets’ old beliefs and replacing them with better ones…The real problem is that we can imagine more than one stable planet–there can be multiple sets of beliefs that are consistent within the sets, but not among them (117-118).

Is the scarcity-only-based planet-of-beliefs the only experience we have?  Or is there another planet-of-belief forming, one based in abundance also?  What will it take to rise high enough to orbit one, to see the other?

How Likely Is It that You Are Creative?

How many times a day do you think of something new, see a different way of doing something, choose an alternate path to your destination?  That is a real question.  Think of your own experience.  Once every 7 days?  Once a day?  Twice a day?  Every hour?  All day long?

My colleagues and I observe that most people seem to be “thinking up” new ideas, new questions, new observations, new possibilities, new answers all day long.  In actuality, everyone does all of the time.  It is in our nature as human beings, whether we consciously see it or our unconscious mind automatically does it–we are constantly otherwise-attracted (what others call distracted) by a constant stream of new inputs, some of which we share, and some of which we work through.  This is what we observe, as do our colleagues who focus on creativity.

Yet, it seems that most of the organizing forms prominent today assume the exact opposite.  The recent studies on the vast majority of people who are disengaged at work suggest that people are generally not seen as fountains of creativity, rather as meat suits of employable capacities.  From this perspective, it is very unlikely that you are creative, as only very few, very special people are.  The rest are here to implement what the gifted see.  “Do as I say.”

And, as I have shared throughout this blog, we have found thousands of groups that see that it is absolutely definite that you are creative, since everyone is, all of the time.  We find that in these groups, nobody tries to motivate and nobody worries about engaging people, because people come hardwired for creativity, engagement, and motivation.

I was reminded recently of a very technical field of statistics with a very deep insight into human observation, initially developed by the Rev. Thomas Bayes in the 1700s.  Essentially, he suggested that we should see what our individual, initial beliefs are about how probable something is (our priors) and then update those beliefs with the likelihoods of confirming or disconfirming evidence.  As described by Cal Tech physicist Sean Carroll,

“When we are trying to understand what is true about the world, everyone enters the game with some initial feeling about what propositions are plausible, and what ones seem relatively unlikely.  This isn’t an annoying mistake that we should work to correct; it’s an absolutely necessary part of researching in conditions of incomplete information.  And when it comes to understanding the fundamental architecture of reality, none of us has complete information.  Prior credences are a starting point for further analysis, and it’s hard to say that any particular priors are ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ (Carroll, 2016. The Big Picture, p.79).”

“To every proposition that may or may not be true about the world, we assign a prior credence.  Each such proposition also comes with a collection of likelihoods: the chances that various other things would be true if that proposition were true.  Every time we observe new information, we update our degrees of belief (Carroll, 2016. The Big Picture, p.78).”

Applying this Bayesian insight to whether you are creative or not, you can start with your prior beliefs.  From one end of the spectrum, you can start with the belief that you are not creative, and most people are not–only a very few, special people are.  Then look for the evidence.  If you are not creative, what else would also likely be true.  What evidence do you find, with which to update your belief?  Do you find that, indeed, people around you do not have ideas and are not creative, updating your prior beliefs that people are not creative?  Or do you find that people are having ideas all of the time, whether or not they share them, thus updating your beliefs more towards the belief that people are creative?  How would you know? [Hint. You might have to ask.] From the other end of the spectrum, you can start with the prior belief that people are creative.  You can then look for evidence of the likelihood that they are indeed creative, updating your beliefs.

What do you see, from your own prior beliefs, from your own experience?