Arrived in Sydney for a 2-month Fellowship

[Quite jet-lagged, so can’t vouch for the clarity of what’s written here. Probably re-edit or delete this in the future some time.]

Since early Sunday morning Sydney-time, I’ve been in Sydney. Arrived at 5am following a 19-hour flight where I slept only a few hours. Stayed awake when I got here until last night about 8.30pm. Spent  the day in daylight in a park outside the city. (The wildlife and the light very different here. I’ll write about that soon on my other, more personal site).

I’ve come to Sydney for a 2-month fellowship to the Centre for Time, funded by the SCFS ( , with the intention of doing collaborative research with…everyone I can, I guess, on time, and in particular on the (a) issues bothering me about time and (b) solutions offered by the most plausible positions on time.

What issues bother me about time? In brief, issues which arise from either ignoring or assuming plausible concepts of (especially physical) time, concepts which have significantly different ontological implications from those which are alleged to be intuitive concepts of time.

Similarly, solutions offered by the most plausible positions on time are those driven by physical concepts of time. So: relativistic physics.

The issues and solutions I focus on are those related to (i) how to conceive of these concepts of time and (ii) how one’s concept of time may affect modelling and thinking about other things. Out of all these, I pick out experience — but I’m also thinking of experience as a exemplary case, not a unique case.

Here are some of the specific issues:

1. Relativistic Physics
Nonsymmetric velocity time dilation

(a)…and the Structure of Human-Scale Things

….in particular, the structure and models of experience in general. If there’s no simultaneity, or simultaneity is only relative, why ever assume it in a model of anything? Wouldn’t you have to assume some frame of reference? And why assume a particular frame of reference?

This was my main concern in my early work. Generally, I don’t think we should assume simultaneity in any of this. As such, when I think about the structure of things and the explanations of phenomena — even things and phenomena  we might otherwise think we can explain —  I never consider simultaneity to matter at all.

In contrast, that things happen or seem to happen at different times is not something that should be explained. It is how thing are. Instead, we need a reason to hold that two things happen at the same time, and we need to explain why they seem to happen at the same time, e.g., as I argue in my 2010 regarding Libet’s evidence of apparent (volition being simultaneous with a clockhand’s position): we don’t assume this apparent simultaneity is simultaneity; it isn’t (and so the typical conclusion is irrelevant). But need to explain its appearance (which is easy, as it seems only to be a non-appearance of duration or order).

Given how much we experience seems non-simultaneous, thinking about things in terms as involving simultaneous elements is a problematic mistake, and one which needlessly complicates models of experience (although, also — I bet it’s intuitive, and so is a common mistake to assume simultaneity, explicit as that assumption might be).

In short, modelling things — even slow and macroscopic things — with simultaneous elements is pointless. Do it if it’s handy, but don’t treat it like you’ve actually gotten at the structure of things.

I’m interested to know is thinking this way about it is mistaken itself actually, and if so in what way.

(b)… and Entanglement

We might be wrong because — for some reason — big things aren’t constrained by relativity. I don’t think that’s likely — but anyway.

Here’s another reason: Given the Aspect experiments, Bell’s inequality, and relativistic simultaneity, I worry that we must deny relative simultaneity and hold that there is absolute simultaneity (privileged frame-type or otherwise), even if we can — and should — abandon tense theory or presentism. I’ve spoken about this here.


2. Static/Dynamic Time vs Static/Dynamic World

The way in which some philosophers of time refer to the opposing theories of tense theory and tenseless theory as, respectively, a dynamic and static theory. What bothers me here is the idea that this static/dynamic concerns the structure of the world or things in it.

For example, one might think the tenseless theory is the position that the world (or something in it) is static or the world (or something in it) does not change. Yet, the tenseless theory has change in the world; it’s tenseless change (what I’ve called elsewhere B-change).

So why do we talk about static/dynamic theories of time? Here’s maybe why:  (a) the tense is a dynamic view because it is the view that events change their positions in real time; (b) the tenseless is a static view because it is the view is that events do not change their positions in real time. Then, there’s the idea that the latter is denying change while the former is allowing change. And since it is intuitive to believe that there is change, the former is intuitive and the latter is not.

That would be fine as it stands if both theories had the same idea of what real time, the time in which events do or do not change, is conceived to be. But they don’t:

  1. Real time for the tense theorist is the A/tense series: the past, present and future. As such, events change their positions in being in the past, present and future.
  2. But real time for tenseless theorists is the B/tenseless series: the before, after, or simultaneous. As such, events do not change their positions in being before, after, or simultaneous.

Understood like this, if we’re going to go on about intuition, it is as intuitive to deny change in the sense of ‘2’ as to admit it in the sense of ‘1’.

  • It is weird to counter-intuitive that events change in their positions in a tenseless series, e.g., that my birth changes from being before my death to being after it.
  • And actually, I don’t find the idea that events really change positions in time intuitive at all. If we’re going to go there, my intuition that an apple is raw before it is ripe is more intuitive and clear than any intuition I might have that the ripening of the apple is becoming past. The latter seems at best metaphorical (and I think that this is why some linguists think we frequently think of time in metaphors).

This makes the accusation of tenseless theory as counter-intuitive because it is a static concept of time baffling to me. (Recently, Oaklander has begun thinking something similar, although he decided to treat it as separate to standard tenseless theories —  calling it R-theory instead — but I don’t see a need to do that.)

So what am I missing in the views of those who say such things?


3. Time and Experience

How does the study of time (e.g., of temporal order, duration, tense, and more broadly, simultaneity) relate to the study of experience (or perception, memory, introspection)?

  1. Is it just some kind of content, of which the study of time and experience is merely a subset of  the study of experience? In thinking about time and experience, we just fill in the ‘x’ in ‘the experience of x’ with something to do with time (e.g., ‘the experience of simultaneity’ or ‘the experience of duration’) — just as we might, in thinking about colour and experience, just fill in the ‘x’ in ‘the experience of x’ with something to do with colour (e.g. ‘the experience of red saturation’).
  2. Or is it only something which itself structures experience, in which the study of time and experience is only about time as it structures experience, e.g., the temporal order of the constituents (or elements, or parts) of experience. It is never about time as content. We don’t experience time.
  3. Or is it both? The study of time and the study of experience concern time as content and time as constituent; it also includes a study of the relationship between temporal content and temporal constituent (and so extends to time as it relates to the ‘obvious parts‘ (or what I once called ‘phenomenal parts’) of experience.)

I think it’s both, although I’m more interested in ‘2’, as it generalizes much more than ‘1’. However, I also suspect it isn’t something many people have thought about, so I guess I’d like to see where I’ve gone wrong in thinking it’s more interesting (or, even possibly, where others have gone wrong….)

There are lots more I’m thinking about than this (I’ve started thinking about the relationship between memory experience and perceptual experience, for example). But this is a start which indicates some of the things I am thinking about.


Practice and Practicality

[This post isn’t about anything to do directly with time or illusion (except perhaps the loss of the latter over the former), but it’s still about things I think are important in academia.]

Here’s a story I’ve never told anyone, and am not proud of. But it’s been years and it illustrates something I think is important.

I started off doing Physics, taking it along with Maths and Computer Science in my first year. I continued into my second year but only to ordinary level. I was a lazy undergraduate. I did almost no work, and continued falling to that standard throughout. Even when I switched to philosophy — which was and is much more suited to me — I did not work. On my graduation, the head of my department told me they had to give me the grade I got because I handed up no assignments in my second year, and that year’s result was a part of my final grade. And I didn’t do much work in third year either.

During this time, I was pretty much indifferent to this failure, since I was going through a subjectively much deeper – but in the long run less important – crisis. During college — especially in the last year — I was in the makings of a band. We practiced three times a week. A few months before finals, the band fell apart (for unavoidable reasons which was no one in the band’s fault).

Suddenly, I was lost, uncommitted to college and no other idea what to do with my life. After that came a bad time, especially as I felt then like I certainly deserved it (I felt like a complete fool and a parasite). And I continued like that in that mindset for several years.

But back up a little bit, to the transition from physics.

I didn’t simply drop from honours first year to second year. In a hem-hawing fashion typical of myself as an undergrad, I actively dragged myself down. I did no study, panicked in the exam,  but got a second chance to repeat in the Autumn. I met the department head. He told me if I got more than 60% I could continue into honours. I didn’t. I got 50%. Yet, I worked quite hard in the Autumn. I did better in other repeat exams (remember, I was doing badly in everything, doing no work at all).

So did this mean I was no good at physics? I don’t know. But I was no good at exams, or understanding what was wanted.

If I remember it right, here’s what happened: I got enough answers right to get more than 60%. However,  for one question  — I remember it involved a rotating wheel — although I got the answer right (and the dept. head agreed afterwards), the examiner didn’t give me full marks. Here is why: I didn’t answer the question properly.

I remember the question (will probably never forget it in general terms): I looked at the question and realised the question could be answered using relatively simple, pass-level physics. There was no need to use relatively complex, honours-level physics. So I answered it using pass-level physics. And the examiner knocked marks off because I didn’t solve it using the more complicated physics.

Afterwards, talking the dept head, I explained myself, and he suggested I call down to the examiner to explain what happened. I headed down there, got as far as his door, then withdrew. I’m not sure why, but the fight was out of me. At the time, I’d a hard time believing that failure wasn’t deserved. (I believed that a lot those days.)

Okay, so what’s the reason for this glum little story?

It’s this:

If I were working in a physics lab, or under a deadline, maybe it would be better if I used the pass-level analysis. This is what satellite scientists do sending things to other planets. They don’t draw on relativity, they draw on Newtonian physics. It’s simpler. It works, so it will do.

The physics department didn’t want this from me. I wasn’t actually sending anything real anywhere. I was doing an exam. They wanted to know could I do complex physics, not could I answer the question in as simple way as possible.

Whatever about the second ability, I failed the first in their eyes. As that’s what the exam was for, and what they were looking for in an honours student, I failed to show I could be an honours student.

The moral is about practice vs practicality. As a student, you are showing that you have practiced. What you do is a sign of your ability, of your knowledge, your grasp of concepts and so on. But as a professional, or post-student, this is assumed. Now you must show that you can use these to go further.

As a student, you show your grasp of the hammer; as a professional, you hit the nail.

Simplicity and complexity.

Of course, even professionally, you want to show you know your stuff. And you also want to understand it more deeply. So you’ll continue to practice. But you are also using it for something, and knowing the difference between practicing and doing is important.

In philosophy (and maybe other disciplines), this difference is as follows:

Sometimes, there are very complex ways of thinking through a problem to a solution. Engaging with that requires skill and understanding.  It can also be fun. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to the solution.

Sometimes, it’s better to be simple. To use pass-level philosophy, as it were. The important thing is to recognise when the honours-level is unnecessary.

Like in my summer exam: I recognised that it was unnecessary to use honours-level for the correct answer. However, I wasn’t a professional physicist being asked to come up with the answer as efficiently as possible. I was a student being asked to show my understanding of complex solutions.

As is typical with many arrogant kids, I didn’t think of myself as a student really. I gave them the practical answer. My failure — and indeed failure for at least a few more years to come — was in my recognition of what I was in the situation. I was blind to my position, to what others want from me.

Lots of people can be like that one time or another — that is, blind to their position and to what others want. I think it can be useful to be this way. It is itself more efficient to be this way, to ignore what others think about or want from you.

It works when you’re defining a position, when what is happening is determined by what you want. Like when you are the only expert in the room about what works.

But that is not common roles to play in most of social discourse. Furthermore, even if it is right — you are the one who is the expert, for example — you only get that social position, and such things as relevant credit, if others recognise you for that.

A lot of practice is constrained by others’ summed opinions, rather than your own ability.