About time

Last Spring, the Perimeter Institute (for foundational studies in physics) hosted a conference on the meaning and the role of time in physics (Ontario).

It seems there is a view, perhaps a predominant view among people who think about these things, that time is an illusion, in the sense that there is nothing special about the “present moment”, and that the history of the universe is most economically represented as a map in the 4 dimensions of space-time.  Implicit in this view is that the future is determined by the past.

It baffles me why anyone would want to think this way.  It is so counter-intuitive, such a slap in the face to our direct experience, that there ought to be a strong presumption against it.

We know the past, but cannot change it.  We don’t know the future, but we can affect it with our freely-chosen actions.  These are the parameters of our experience, and without a very compelling scientific reason to reject them, we ought to take them as primary facts about reality.time_web_1024Nineteenth century physics did provide such a compelling reason, but with quantum mechanics the situation is less clear.  Physicists cannot agree how to interpret the picture of the world provided by QM.  There are some interpretations in which the present moment is a choice point and the future is not unalterably contained in the past.  It seems to me that, since we have a choice, we ought to follow our experience and adopt a world-view that preserves our intuitions about what time is.  The quantum world is strange enough—why make it stranger?


For an alternative view, read this <ahref=”http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/07/the-debate-over-times-place-in-the-universe/492464/”>article in The Atlantic.


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