Posts filed under ‘Limits’

Time and Human Embodiment

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.

December 22, 2007 at 6:28 pm 1 comment

Averroes and the Limit of Thought

In criticizing Al-Ghazali, Averroes “insisted that the reality of causal operations could be inferred from sensory experience and argued that knowledge itself depended upon causality, since the distinction between what is knowable and what is not depends upon whether or not causes can be assigned to the thing in question” (John Henry, “Causation.” Gary Ferngren, “Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction.” 2002.)

This seems to blend epistemology and metaphysics together. It is critical in the sense that it draws a limit; in this way, it foreshadows both Kant and the Tractarian Wittgenstein. Averroes apparently draws the limit to what is knowable from a metaphysical principle—knowledge is based on the ability to assign a cause. I wonder if it might be better put that knowledge must be based on a justification. Averroes could have meant that when challenged on how it is we know a fact, we relate something that seems like its cause. I’m not sure that cause was the root of justification in Averroes’ philosophy. It isn’t Henry’s goal to be more specific on this point, but it seems like it could be a major failing in Averroes’ epistemology.

A theological approach to this might be what I’m finding so perplexing. For the early Wittgenstein, for example, no limit to thought can be drawn for to draw a limit is to know what is on the other side of it. To draw a limit to thought is to think, as he puts it, what cannot be thought (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Introduction). If, however, one accepts a certain amount of inscrutability in the nature of God then one can declare that much of God exists outside of human thought. We can contemplate God as Aristotle contemplated the Prime Mover, incapable of knowing its totality because of the limits of matter. As Aristotle had a tremendous influence on Averroes, this might be more fitting.

December 2, 2007 at 3:40 pm 1 comment

The Limits of Science

I wrote this in response to a question on the class blog for my Science and Religion class. I would link to it, but it’s a private blog. The prompt asked if there was a limit to science, or topics which were better left to religion than science (with questions about the origin of the universe as an example). Here’s my response:

  There are no questions which should fall outside the range of scientific inquiry.

 To explain, let me say this: my understanding of science is my understanding of a method of thought aimed towards understanding the world. Not pieces or parts of the world, but the world as it exists, has existed, and will exist. Because of this, I do not think that it is correct to declare some questions about anything, including origins, to be out of the range of science. Because science exists as a method, an activity, a framework, and a worldview, rather than an object, I think that if one draws a limit to science one draws a limit to human thought. A better question to ask than “are there some questions that science cannot answer” is “are there some questions which we as humans cannot answer.”

 An objection to my point regarding science has already been posted on this thread by Chris. It’s a tough post to follow. That being said, I do not think that “the Bible is attempting to answer fundamentally different questions than science” or that science fails to ask “why” questions that Chris suggests are better left to religion. Indeed, this is part of why I perceive science and religion as being in competition—they are two methods of thought which are in competition over the same goal: explanation.

 I might be accused here of conflating science with philosophy. Another point that Chris made is that there are separate ways in which scientists themselves might think that their work does or does not explain why something like the big bang occurs. Separate from that, I’m sure that there are many people who would say that, outside of religion, philosophy is the discipline that should answer the why questions of the events and objects that science describes.

 I do not understand why there should be any such distinction between science (at least as I understand it) and philosophy. I think that the best philosophy is conducted in a scientific manner. This is not to say that philosophy needs to be written in the traditional scientific method (indeed, many scientific studies are conducted in a method which does not mirror the 5 bullet points on the wall in many classrooms). Sometimes the best expression of a good scientific thought might be achieved with more poetic language.

 What I mean when I say that philosophy should be conducted in a scientific manner is that philosophy should adhere, at every step, to a careful self-examination to make sure that the conclusions drawn about any subject depict reality as closely as possible. When making normative (“should”) claims, philosophy should similarly strive to depict the best of what is possible. Epistemology and metaphysics should describe the universe as it exists, has existed, and will exist as well as why it exists. Kind of like… science. Ethics and other human affairs (including some branches of philosophy of science) should describe the best that is possible for us as humans to achieve. Hence, fields like… political science. There are many different topics and types of scientific inquiry in the world, and it almost seems unfair to lump them under the same label. But it seems to me that science, in the abstract (unhinged from earth science, psychological science, computer science, political science, or anything else described in the same form) is foremost a method, a way of thinking. What compares to this way of thought? How can we draw a limit to it?

 The discipline which compares to science is religion. One can borrow from the other in practice, but they are in competition over how to explain the world, how to describe what is best and possible and why it is all here. There can be religious incorporation of scientific discoveries, and scientists who believe in god, but these actions do not necessarily tell us about science or religion themselves. Religion has a method for investigating and answering questions about the world that are different than science, and it is just as difficult to draw a limit to it as it is to science. But the two are in no way the same. Scientific explanation is separate from religious explanation, much as the two mirror one another because they share a goal.

 What then, of the limits to science and religion? I think that to draw a limit to either is to draw a limit to human thought. It seems obvious that we are limited by virtue of being humans. We each exist separate from one another in space and time. We exist only for a short period in comparison to some beings and a long period in comparison to others. Hopefully, we can continue to accumulate and stockpile knowledge that helps us to understand the world, but we can never know it all. It’s a necessary condition of being embodied that we cannot. We are limited, and as we are limited so is science, religion, and anything else we can use to increase our understanding of the universe.

October 7, 2007 at 3:24 pm Leave a comment


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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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