Category Archives: Time

Everything Happens at Once

Everything happens all at once.  Inching forward, at a steady rate of one second per second. When we tell a causal story, such as describing the action of a machine, we pick out one strand in that whole, prioritising it over all others, and generating an artificial cleft between foreground and background. But everything is part of everything, all flowing together.  Heraclitus’ vision, I think.  Among that we pick out agents and the inanimate, and bring into being shitty gods, minds, subjects.  

This is not a moving slice through a 4-dimensional manifold, as Parmenides and Newton would have it.  This has very many more dimensions, for it must accommodate your unfolding locus of experience and mine.  The number of dimensions is not at issue, really.  Professor Bohm seems to assure us of that.  What matters more is how one treats the divide between subject and object.  How we apply the carving knife, for the image we are carving is our self portrait.  Like a mewling infant, we do not know what we look like, but we react anyway, sticking out our tongue at the world as it sticks its tongue out at us. 

And the walls came crumbling down . . .

The subject-object dichotomy needs to be overcome.  Insisting on its trumps-everything-else realness is not sustainable.  But language starts to fail at that point.  The term “experience” arises, and we do not know what to do with it.  But how else do you ground any tale of worlds and minds?

Happily the term “language” itself is crumbling for me.  A rather old-fashioned faculty psychology has insisted that there be language, with syntax at the non-beating heart of it’s computational breast.  In insisting on systematicity, it forgot about voice, and the power of uttering.  Subjects now start to abound.  They are collective, and partial, and overlapping, and meaningful.

How then to speak?

Blind spots and black holes

Time is not what we take it to be.  We are suckled with a story of time as a scale stretching from the big bang, extending to the big crunch (or some other unknowable) and somewhere in between is the present moment, the singular now of the subject, slowly advancing towards an uncertain future.

That cosmological picture is a folk creation that serves some purposes, but as a framework for understanding who and what we are, it is entirely unworthy of us.

Scientifically, it is simply inaccurate.  The black hole is not a beginning.  It is a singularity; a point at which the theory that led to its articulation is mute.  There is no point asking what it is, because it is what that story can not express.  A blind spot is not a beginning.  The physical picture is complicated by the assumed presence of other singularities, within black holes, where the theory likewise reaches its limits and must stop pretending to provide a full account.  The space-time picture is not exhaustive, and it is essentially incomplete.

We have another significant gap in our knowledge with the origin of life.  Now maybe this is not a fundamental gap.  That would be an orthodox position.  However if we choose to adopt the view that having a now, a subjective present, is a condition of the living, then it is at least worth considering that this too may represent a finite bound on our ability to see and to understand.

If we stubbornly insist that the true story of our origin is to be told within a space-time framework in which the big bang is a beginning, then somewhere in that framework life happened, and furthermore brains evolved, and lo-and-behold here we are today.  Magnificent, mysterious, and incomplete.  For brains do not secrete consciousness, and life is not non-life with something extra.  Consciousness is not some detail to be added to our almost complete picture of what is.  In taking sentience/experience/living seriously, we must somehow learn to spin more varied stories, to live with alternative, complementary, non-unifiable narrative structures.  We need many stories, not just one.  As beings in time, for whom the past and the future are both entirely conceptual, this really ought to be dear to our hearts.

Of historical time

We subscribe to a belief that the past is more certain than the future.  The evidence for this is rather scant . . .

Nobody owns history. Those entities that seem to persist over historical time must be limited to that which we tell communally.  The fact that France invaded Russia is not a fact on par with the fact that two chemicals, treated thus and so-ly, will change thus and thusly.

To help us differentiate here, we need to interrogate the way measurement functions within a narrative domain. How is consensus arrived at?

The future structure of knowledge

I look at the relations among the current mainstream disciplines, and their mutual relations and differences, and I then project slightly forward into the future, say 50 years or so, and imagine how they might look then.

On many views, physics holds the foundation place in the structure of knowledge. It is closely related to the absolutism and rationality of mathematics, and it also grounds our consensus view of reality. Chemistry is mostly applied physics, with a few structural constraints thrown in, that are visible in the periodic table. But organic chemistry is different, by virtue of two things: on the one hand, the chemicals play a role in the alchemy of life – a process for which we have no fundamental understanding. Life arises, but that is a novelty of an unparalleled sort. Identity irrespective of materiality. Exchange all the atoms, but keep the processes, and you retain identity. On the other hand, the exchanges and processes in which the molecules partake are geometrically extended in three dimensions. The 3-D shape of the molecule determines its fit to another element, say as neurotransmitter to receptor, or body to antibody. Continue reading

Thermodynamics and time

(This post is inspired by dipping into people like Heinz von Foerster, Scott Kelso, Mike Turvey, Francesco Varela, and many others, including the modest, but so insightful, Wei Wu Wei.)

When I first heard cognitive scientists talk about thermodynamics, I was perplexed.  I did not see what this arcane belief in physics had to do with cognition.  It has taken a while to dawn on me.  The second law is the one that says that entropy, or disorder, must increase in a closed system, such as, for example, the whole frigging universe.  And it’s a peculiar law.  There is no experiment you can do to test it, as the only closed system is, many believe, that which we call the whole universe.  It is more of a belief.  And it is a peculiar belief too.  Scientists cling to it dearly, and it underwrites the distinction between far-from-equilibrium systems, like life forms, from the dead stuff, which has a tendency to fall apart.  Believe me, I know.  Most scientists, I fear, have no idea why they subscribe to this belief.  It’s just taken to be the thing we know absolutely.  But, if we hold our knowledge of it as true or false in abeyance for a moment, what exactly hangs on this issue?  What does the question mean?

My own understanding of the relevance of the question came about thus: As I studied movement, and coordination, I came to see that we must understand time if we are to understand that which we are.  Because the arrow of time–which is our favorite story about the eternal present–is the fabric upon which intentional behavior is woven.  Things that are meaningfully coordinated provide scintillating, alternative operationalizations of the notion of time.  Define lawful change, or a dynamic, so, and you see one kind of regularity.  Define it another way, and different things come into focus.  The locus of agency shifts as you redefine time, and questions of the locus of agency and our belief in ourselves as subjective agents, are two sides of the same coin.

The second law of thermodynamics is the belief that there is one way to measure the arrow of time.  It is the only foundation stone of physics where time is necessarily directional, and the direction is given by the concept of order or structure.  Here, too, we see a belief that that which deserves the appellation “real”  is that which is revealed if we get our notion of time right.

Heinz von Foerster seems to have a nice illustration that if we subscribe to the arrow of time, as defined by the Second Law, to be a description of the universe, then there can be no self-organizing system, no entity that is worthy of the name “real”.  Here a link remains to be made to the experiential domain.   The subject.  For von Foerster, like I, does not buy into the notion of Mind, that is distinct from an outside world.  As he says in his introduction to the book Understanding Understanding,

I am unhappy with this discrimination between objective and subjective: How do I know the objects? Where are they? Of course, I can reconfirm or establish a rich connection with an object by touching or by smelling it or talking about it, and so I had the idea to make the object a representation of the activity or behavior of the observer, instead of the passive being looked or just sitting there.

He speaks here of the impossibility of finding the subjective if you insist on one definition of time, or, equivalently, of objectivity.  Of course self-organizing systems can be identified, but each requires a different definition of time.  This relativizes their claims to be the origin of agentive cause.

Wei Wu Wei, as ever, is very clear about this:

As long as anyone tacitly accepts Time either as really existing, or even as the basis of consideration, he is only concerning himself with objectivity.  (source)

Wu Wei and Control

If you believe in something called “motor control”, then the non-volitional action underlying the concept of Wu Wei will appear odd.

Imagine a busy road in which many cars manage to drive at high speed, without crashing. If now, one driver makes a very serious error, his car goes places it should not go, maybe turning over, and crashing. In a conventional account, we say he “lost control”. In the account suggested here, you might better say he “regained control”. For all those cars that do not crash, clearly they are not being controlled. Rather, they are integrated as components within a larger system, the trafic flow. The conditions that allow optimal traffic flow include clear road markings, good visibility, road-worthy cars, non-drunken drivers, etc. When one driver crashes, that system has collapsed, and the car is now acting independently. So the car+driver system has, in a slightly odd sense, reasserted its autonomy, made itself independent, and regained control. But with that, there is clumsiness, ineffectiveness, and a crash.

Wu wei is action without the clumsiness of a locus of control.

Postscript: This distinction parallel’s Terrence Deacon’s account of orthograde and contragrade processes. The cars that act as components within a superordinate domain of autonomy illustrate the former. The car that makes itself independent, and then collides with and threatens the domain of ordered driving, illustrates the contragrade.

Prothetic-Metathetic and the sixth sense

The buddhists have a fairly well worked out description of 6 senses, which are (oddly) the 5 familiar in the West: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, and a sixth, which is thought.

First off, note that the familiar five provide a bad description of the sensory component of our being. Smell and taste are not separate. Touch is not one, but a whole host, of senses, including heat, vibration, pain and gentle touch, and then there’s all the proprioceptive and vestibular stuff. OK. But to Western eyes, the notion of thought as a sense is a bit peculiar. We actually don’t have a good account of what thought is, so this is interesting. How do we make sense of thought as a sixth sense?

Most notions of sense are predicated upon a split between organism and world. But everything we know about consciousness assures us that the domain of present phenomenal experience arises from the embeddedness of an organism in a world, without a dualistic, causal split between these two co-defining things.

In psychophysics, there is an old distinction between prothetic and metathetic features of a stimulus, or a sensory channel. Consider sound. Some features of sound are of the “how much” variety. Loudness, for example. Sound can be overly loud. But frequency of a pitched sound is not of this kind. There, the discriminations we make are of the “what kind and where” type. A note cannot be unbearably high pitched in the same way that it can be unbearably loud. The “too much” features are prothetic (brightness is another such), the “what kind” features are metathetic (color or hue belongs here).

If we reject the inner/outer distinction, and acknowledge the difficulty in trying to force a divide between subject and world, then much of thought appears as a primarily metathetic modality specific way of bringing forth a world, not really different from many aspects of vision or audition. Perhaps we should talk to the Buddhists.

Formal and Efficient Causation

When bandying the word ‘causal’ in light-hearted conversation, most folk mean cause-and-effect, or efficient cause, in which one cause precedes a subsequent effect. They are distributed in time. Our best science does not provide this kind of account. It instead provides a formal causal account, as exemplified in the association of a vector field, or dynamic, over some set of observables. Feynman points this out nicely:

Feynman on Formal vs Efficient Cause

Relational thinking

This little quote from Thomas Fuchs makes an important point:

The brain does not generate a mind. It mediates a relationship between organism and environment. This gives rise to the P-world. Phenomenologists call this being-in-the-world. But that domain is not co-extensive with the person. Those elements of meaning that contribute to the disparate facets of the person arise in many such relations, not only those of organism and environment, but among organisms, and in complex interactions among individuals and collectives at many scales.

Just as the cells in a liver lead very free lives modulo the constraint that they act in a manner suitable for maintaining the liver, so we too see ourselves as free, while we simultaneously constitute a dynamic reality at many scales, each with its own limited form of lawfulness.