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Time, the Universe, and Everything? February 15, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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I am always optimistic when I hear that a new Philosophy of Everything is making its debut. Why not? Why should the time of the great system builders be over? Let’s have some sweeping new thinking, to go hand in hand with the rapid expansion of the natural sciences. (Douglas Adams does deserve credit for at least trying.) And when I ran across Robert Lanza’s theory of Biocentrism in the Huffington Post recently, I thought I’d be in for a fun time. Robert Lanza is an interesting scholar; he’s been working with stem cell research and cloning, and is willing to explore radical new ways of thinking. But this article wasn’t nearly as much fun as I’d hoped for.

Immanuel Kant declared in 1781 that space and time were real, but only indeed as properties of the mind. These algorithms are not only the key to consciousness, but why space and time − indeed the properties of matter itself – are relative to the observer. But a new theory called biocentrism suggests that space and time may not be the only tools that can be used to construct reality. At present, our destiny is to live and die in the everyday world of up and down. But what if, for example, we changed the algorithms so that instead of time being linear, it was 3-dimensional like space? Consciousness would move through the multiverse. We’d be able to walk through time just like we walk through space. And after creeping along for 4 billion years, life would finally figure out how to escape from its corporeal cage. Our destiny would lie in realities that exist outside of the known physical universe.

… Time is simply the summation of spatial states – much like the frames in a film – occurring inside the mind. It’s just our way of making sense of things. There’s also a peculiar intangibility to space. We can’t pick it up and bring it to the laboratory. Like time, space isn’t an external object. It’s part of the mental software that molds information into multidimensional objects.

 For one thing, this idea is not really new. What if Time is a fourth dimension? How might we be able to watch events along the arrow of time before they have actually happened ? Can we double back and watch ourselves from a higher vantage point? Can we travel back in time and change the present? Etc, etc. I can’t expect that everyone who speculates about the nature of time has read Henri Bergson, but since Bergson proposed the (at the time) ultimate critique of existing time theories, it would be appropriate to see his theory acknowledged by a scientist who apparently wants to take the connection between natural science and philosophy seriously. In his day, Bergson was considered one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. In 1889 he pointed out in his watershed of a book, Time and Free Will (and continued with his analysis in the 1896 book Matter and Memory), that time is misunderstood because we assume that it is quantifiable into spatial units (like the hands of the clock moving—through space). We are taken in by the brain’s predilection for externalizing and spatializing our experiences—but the true understanding of time is an internal flow, a duration which belongs to consciousness alone, and which has no equivalent in the spatial universe. As such, Bergson’s time concept may actually not be too far removed from Lanza’s—but for Bergson, time is not “the summation of spatial states” any more than it is like “frames in a film,” because that, in itself, is a spatialization. According to Bergson, we can’t “walk through time just like we walk through space,” and time is not “linear” in any directional sense. These are merely metaphors for the brain to cope with the experience of time passing, useful metaphors—but with no bearing on the lived experience of our life-time. Einstein himself engaged in critiquing Bergson, but he really didn’t get Bergson’s point. Of course this doesn’t mean that Bergson is right and Lanza wrong, but for Lanza to launch a philosophical theory of time, apparently bypassing Bergson’s theory (he isn’t even mentioned in the index of Lanza’s Biocentrism book) seems insufficient and incomplete.

But there is an additional element to Lanza’s theory: narrative theory:

But most of these comprehensive theories fail to take into account one crucial factor: We’re creating them. It’s the biological creature that fashions the stories, that makes the observations, and that gives names to things. And therein lies the great expanse of our oversight, that until now, science hasn’t confronted the one thing that’s at once most familiar and most mysterious – consciousness.

And that caught my attention at least as much as his time theory did—because this is right down my alley, viewing storytelling (narrativity) as the human invention of meaning, superimposed on a chaotic life. Indeed we are the story-telling animals, as Alasdair MacIntyre said. We tell the stories, we make the observations, and we name things. Absolutely. However, it would be a mistake to assume that we therefore create our entire universe through storytelling. We create stories and theories, right—but we don’t create the universe that the theories are supposed to explain—not all of it, at any rate. Postmodern perspectivism is wearing a bit thin: we may choose how we view our world, but we’re still stuck in (or thrown into) a reality that we have little control over. I am willing to concede that I may be jumping to conclusions, reading more into Lanza’s article than his book may actually claim (because I have not yet read his book), but judging from Lanza’s comments below the article it appears that he hopes the narrative angle can open up for the possibility of God’s existence, at least as a reality created (co-created?) by the storyteller. Those are fine ideas to bat around for philosophers—but I’d feel much better if a scientist would please leave philosophy of religion out of his or her professional, scientific theories.

There is of course another possibility: that Lanza is a philosophical idealist more than he is a natural scientist, at least in this context. We haven’t had many of those, and it would be entertaining to have a philosopher with a scientific background claim that the world is mainly mind rather than matter…



1. Paul J. Moloney - February 17, 2010

If we could travel back in time, it would take time to get there. as all travel in space takes time. If we could go back in time, it would be a different time by the time we got there. If it took no time to go back in time then it would not be time travel.

Time can seem linear, even if there is no actual linear motion measured by time, because the measurement of time is mathematical and is always in the direction of increase because of the possibility of the infinity of time.

It pains me to say this little but I am constrained by time.

2. Greeenman - January 23, 2011

Not if there a parallel time events. You could fold the points in time like paper airplanes and bring those point together and choose which to move to next without entropy.

Asur - January 23, 2011

That doesn’t even make sense; what are “points in time” embedded in that it can be folded to bring them together?

Even setting that aside, for you to bring two points in time together requires that they both exist. In other words, the past, present, and future states of everything would have to be existing simultaneously — how could the perception of time even exist in such a reality?

I guess I should thank you, though, for giving me something to do for the past three minutes.

3. Eric - February 14, 2011

This article caught my eye too, and I just started reading his book as a result.

I’m only into the first few chapters, but the thrust of his argument seems to be that science keeps running into walls when trying to go too far in any direction, from impossible-seeming implications at the quantum level, to theoretical gymnastics necessitated by the breakdown of known physics close to the moment of the Big Bang.

He takes these things as signs that our model of the universe (or reality; he seems to conflate the two) is flawed and/or incomplete at some level.

I think this is a great idea to bring up, and this has been in the back of my head ever since my college physics-for-English-majors instructor performed the experiment in class that showed light behaving as wave or particle, depending on observation. The implications of that are pretty amazing.

His main point seems to be that incorporating consciousness into physics will make everything fall into place, in a unified field theory sort of way.

But I don’t see how such a thing could be done, both because I don’t understand the physics involved, and because he doesn’t seem to offer any real theory of consciousness that would be a guide (even Dennett’s “let’s just say it ain’t really there” approach at least tackles the problem).

He really does seem to take the stance that consciousness itself creates the universe, or at least is a fundamental property of it, but as far as I’ve read he doesn’t seem to have any interest in explaining what consciousness is.

So it’s interesting, but I think he’s trying to go too far with too little. Worse, he tends to dive into mysticism, and to also insist on biology as the supreme science (just look at the title) without any real justification; his personal biases are obvious. And the book seems to lack any real philosophical rigor, though he’s not a philosopher.

I’m enjoying the read so far, but it’s not very novel from a philosophical angle, and I doubt that many scientists will gain any practical new insight from it.

4. forrest noble - April 4, 2011

Concerning explanations of time in modern physics, according to Special and General Relativity time can be defined as “the distance a ray of light travels during an event(which) serves as the best clock to measure the time of the event.” This is accordingly because light has a constant speed in all directions and time frames. As Einstein and others have pointed out time changes at different rates in moving time frames. For instance time moves more slowly for astronauts circling the Earth than it does for people on the surface of the Earth. Not by much but there is a difference. This slowing of time (dilation) can be large when speeds approach the speed of light relative to the center of gravity in a field.

Einstein also used time as a forth dimension creating the concept of space-time. This concept is needed because galaxies move relative to each other so how could one ever determine one particular point in space. You can’t. All you can do is to define a point in space relative to its observable material surroundings at a particular time. This is the basis for the calculations of gravity in General Relativity where time is used congruently with the 3 well-known spatial Cartesian dimensions, length width and depth, A.K.A.: X, Y, & Z.

A simpler and more general definition of time would be that accordingly time is equivalent to change. Without change time does not pass or exist. The rate of change in today’s Cesium clocks are related to motions at the atomic scale as measured by the frequency of microwave emissions. This clock is accurate to 2 billionths of a second per day, or one second in 1,400,000 years. Two of the most accurate clocks in the world are orbiting in space and are part of our GPS system.

If temperatures and pressures are at prescribed levels, changes at the atomic level can act as the most accurate clocks. So seemingly for both science and philosophy time can be equated with change and I believe has no better definition or meaning than this. From this perspective and explanation one could never go back in time since changes have already occurred and are on-going.

Space can also be simply defined as the volume which matter occupies as well as linear space being the distances between matter.

By this definition there is no space outside the bounds of the universe of matter and field (the Zero Point Field). As Descartes explained and defined it: space is an extension of matter.

The writings of Douglas Adams, as you have quoted him, are certainly philosophical but I believe are unrelated to science.

5. Nina Rosenstand - April 5, 2011

Forrest, you have to read Bergson. And Douggie Adams–well, that was a bit of tongue-in-cheek. He wrote great titles.

6. Paul J. Moloney - April 13, 2011

As TCM has its “movie essentials”, I believe that philosophy has its reading essentials, and I think that Henri Bergson is one of them. Bertrand Russell said something to the effect that it was impossible to categorize Bergson. Though influenced by other thinkers, Henri was an independent and original thinker.

Speaking of TCM, I can’t help but think that Martha Nussbaum looks more like a movie star than a philosopher in her photos in the latest issue of tpm.

Also, Mesa is connected to the international scene via Nina being quoted by Ophelia Benson in an article in the same issue of tpm.

7. forrest noble - April 14, 2011


I will have to check out Bergson as you suggest. I am unaware of his writings, thanks. Also Paul is recommending him as a “reading essential,” cool 🙂

8. forrest noble - April 21, 2011

Wow, I read of Begson on the web. A very interesting person. From a Jewish heritage he entertained Catholicism along with seemingly countless perspectives of reality.

I see many parallels to my own thinking.

In deference I am a pure atheist. I am an animal, an opinion of humanity three generations after him.

Perspectives are another word for philosophies in my opinion. Accordingly there are as many valid perspectives of reality as there are valid philosophies.

In my opinion perspectives of reality are not truths. Neither are any philosophy in my opinion. Some can be better relate/ understood by some people but all that linger have their following. But accordingly none are absolute truths.

“Reality just sits there” begging for a description of it which necessarily contains a perspective which can be described as metaphysical, which can be explained as a philosophy. All science, whether they know it or not, requires a perspective (philosophy) which in one form or another involves points of view. Many differing points of view can be derived from the same observations 🙂

— as can theories in general.

9. Victor - May 13, 2011

Nice interesting read.

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