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Physics’ silence on time


In this paper I argue that physics is, always was, and probably always will be voiceless with respect to tense and passage, and that, therefore, if, as I believe, tense and passage are the essence of time, physics’ contribution to our understanding of time can only be limited. The argument, in a nutshell, is that if "physics has no possibility of expression for the Now", to quote Einstein, then it cannot add anything to the study of tense and passage, and specifically, cannot add anything to the debate between deniers and affirmers of the existence or reality of tense and passage. Since relativity theory did not equip physics with a new language with which to speak of tense and passage, I draw the further conclusion that relativity theory has not generated the revolution to our conception of time that is attributed to it. In the last section I discuss the motivations behind the continued but misguided attempts to integrate tense into a relativistic setting, and assess the manners in which relativity theory has nevertheless enhanced, albeit indirectly, our understanding of tense and passage.

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  1. Einstein’s actual words, uttered in French, were: “Il n’y a donc pas un temps des philosophes.”

  2. Jimena Canales’s The Physicist and The Philosopher (2015) is a must-read which studies and details not only the personal and philosophical relations between Bergson and Einstein but also the broad impact this clash had on twentieth century thinkers and culture.

  3. Bergson 1946, p. 2.

  4. Importantly, all these thinkers were influenced by Bergson.

  5. For instance, in A Pluralistic Universe, a thoroughly Bergsonian text, James approvingly quotes Bergson’s characterization of “real time” as “that which flows throughout the intervals” (1909, pp. 236).

  6. “The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion” wrote Einstein to Michael Besso’s widow. In this paper I take the distinction between past and present and future to be synonymous with time’s passage: passage just is the becoming of future events present and then past.

  7. I thank Carl Hoefer for stressing this point.

  8. God is mentioned in the General Scholium 29 times.

  9. Many thanks to Jimena Canales for this reference.

  10. As is known from the frequently quoted passage in Carnap’s autobiography, Einstein himself never came to terms with this fact. That the Now does not enter physics was something that “worried him seriously”, The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap: Intellectual Autobiography (1963), pp. 37–8.

  11. Barbour, who denies the reality of time, should more aptly be referred to as a “timelessist”.

  12. I thank Yemima Ben-Menachem for prompting me to consider it.

  13. It must be noted that the rehabilitation of causation and direction as “emergent” from physics is highly controversial. This, however, is not the place to delve into this issue.

  14. I’m not speaking of uses of the word “passage”, which like uses of “cow” involve brain events.

  15. I think the same can be said of causation and temporal direction. They too are omnipresent, but as constituting “eventhood”, and not in the form of an object or an event that could be perceived and studied scientifically. Again, however, this thesis exceeds the scope of the present paper.

  16. In Durée et simlutanéité (1922, p. 47) Bergson states that Einstein’s theory is “a metaphysics grafted upon science, it is not science” (“Mais c’est. là une métaphysique greffée sur la science, ce n’est. pas de la science”).

  17. Contributing to this misrepresentation is, I think, Smolin’s gravest fault. Smolin is critical of Einstein’s block universe. But he is propagating Einstein’s much deeper error, which was to suppose that physics has the last, and probably only, worthy word to say about time. With his mission to resurrect passage from within physics, Smolin is committing the same fallacy on which the conclusion he wants to debunk relies, namely, that of expecting physics to have a say on something that is completely outside of its jurisdiction.

  18. They are of course in motion with respect to each other.

  19. I have argued in previous publications that the “real”/"not-real” distinction plays no role in connection with tense and passage, and is utterly unhelpful in analyzing them. Present events are not distinguished from those that are not present by being “real” or “more real”. I offer an alternative to this ontological approach in my Time and Realism (2007).

  20. Recall, by the way, that Putnam ends his paper with the declaration that the problem of time has been solved, and not by philosophy but by physics! That is, he takes his argument to be one derived from science, exemplifying quite blatantly the presentation of a metaphysical thesis as a scientific result.

  21. By, for example, the logician and theologian Heinrich Scholz.

  22. I’m emphasizing this also in response to a previous referee who proudly pointed out that those versed in relativity, can in thought strip events of their tense properties. That’s like claiming that mastering quantum mechanics enables one to fathom the superposition of a car in Chicago and a cat in Hanoi. No, even for those well versed in relativity theory, it is possible to ignore tensed properties, but not to remove them from how we apprehend, think and speak of events.

  23. Exceptions are, e.g., events occurring on distant stars, where once the physical facts are established, corrections are introduced and the seen is re-described as having occurred in the past. Note that in this context events we see on TV cannot be regarded as directly experienced.

  24. An insistence that our conception of time requires that this question be a meaningful one can also be found in Whitehead. In the course of his critical discussion of relativity he states that we must appeal “(1) to the immediate presentation through the senses of an extended universe beyond ourselves and simultaneous with ourselves, (2) to the intellectual apprehension of a meaning to the question which asks what is now immediately happening in regions beyond the cognisance of our senses” (1925, 127, italics in the original).

  25. Elsewhere I elaborate on this thesis.


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I thank Liat Lavi for many useful comments

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Dolev, Y. Physics’ silence on time. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 8, 455–469 (2018).

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  • Relativity theory
  • Tense
  • Passage
  • Time
  • Block universe
  • Einstein
  • Bergson