Time and Human Embodiment

December 22, 2007 at 6:28 pm 1 comment

I was wondering around the internet as a distraction from my inability to think of a gift to give to my grandparents, and I ended up reading a few articles on eternalism and block time. A friend of mine, Tom, has been expressing his interest in the subject for a while and urging me to investigate the topic. It hasn’t come up academically, but now, as I’m currently on vacation and engaging in procrastination through blogging, the time seems right.

The idea of block time has to do with the ontology of time. Many contemporary physicists and philosophers have posited it as a way to understand the nature of time in a manner compatible with their understanding of relativity. I can’t claim to have the understanding of relativity that any of the citations in either the Stanford Encyclopedia or Wikipedia display, but it seems fair to say that many people understand an implication of relativity to be the subjectivity of time.

Or is that our perception of time? Block time allows for a sort of time that is independent of individual experiencing agents. It is a conception of time that declares all points of events to exist on something like a landscape rather than a linear direction. Time does not fly like an arrow or meander like a river; it exists, radiating out from the perceived moment into eternity. Block time is certainly more compatible with Einstein’s theories, but I’m uncomfortable with one of its premises.

Let’s think of an argument in favor of block time that goes like this:

1) We (humans) perceive the passage of time. In other words, we perceive temporal asymmetry. We remember events from the past, but not from the future. The present is a fleeting moment that is impossible to get a hold of due to time’s constant movement.

2) According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, one’s perception of time is spatially dependent. For example, if one person is located on Earth and the other on Mercury, one can never measure what the other is doing at the same instant.

3) Because of this, temporal asymmetry seems to be a quality of the human perception of time rather than a quality of time.

4) Therefore, a more accurate model of time will deflate time-related concepts like “past”, “present”, and “future”. Events may have some temporal connection (has anyone explored the implications an eternalist view has for causation?), but this can be analyzed on something closer to a landscape than a single, objective, linear flow.

My problem is simple: 1 and 2 do not entail 3. We, the humans described in line 2, are the ones describing how time might be if it does not flow as generally supposed. We generally perceive time to flow. We have made an observation that shows that this perception is spatially dependent. Based on this, we can say that most of our experience with time is limited by how our consciousness is embodied. But after that, what can be said about the nature of time? We’ve revealed something about humans, not the nature of time!

And so an attempt is made to transcend our humanity and create a model which is then fundamentally imperceptible to us- the block theory of time. It is a theory which describes how time might work, but it is also a theory that we, as humans, cannot perceive. This is hardly fatal for block time; after all, we don’t seem to directly perceive gravity or causation. Unfortunately, this says that we do not have a satisfactory account of gravity or causation. Block time doesn’t do much for our understanding of time in the same way that our accounts of gravity don ‘t do much for our understanding of gravitation.

I think that a better place to start than block time would be an exploration of if, and then how, we can square relativity and its challenge to our regular perception of time. But before this work can be done, we need a better understanding of our capabilities. There needs to be further investigation into the limits of human understanding and perception to figure out what it is we can know about time. In other words, more work needs to be done on how human embodiment affects our consciousness and our ability to know anything about time at all.


Entry filed under: Embodied Cognition, Limits, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Physics, Time.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. trev  |  February 3, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    Damn, dude, you sound EDUCATED! I mean, like, Wittgenstein is in HUGE letters on the right of the page! Yahahahahaha.

    Don’t forget to like, go outside, and you know, have fun or something. And then tell us about it. Right? I don’t know if the weather is safe to go outside out there, but it can’t be colder than Alaska, and I do have a friend or two who are bears from up there.

    I don’t truck with theories that rest on the shaky ground of examining the one independent variable as some sort of absolute, topologically linear continuum. As I recall that was thoroughly trounced back when they were considering a luminiferous aether. What I’m saying is, the attempt to create a new ontology to define time to better reflect the findings of relativity etc., suchlike, is a failure from the beginning if the way of thinking and epistemology don’t come along for the ride too. If you’re going to change the focus to tell you about the scope, then you’d better change the lens too.

    Then again, I like pie, sunlight, the ocean, sand, and people.

    Unleash the Albannach, by the way.


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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