Friday, January 8, 2010

Philosophical Musing 2: Brain-dump on the Nature of Time

***This is the second in a series I call "philosophical musings".
It's meant to be speculative and exploratory - enjoy***
On and off this fall I've been extremely interested in the nature of time. The immediate interest was sparked by a few things. First, I've been refocused on the work of John Maynard Keynes as a result of the financial crisis. Time is very important for him for several reasons: (1.) the uncertainty of the future underpins his liquidity preference theory of the interest rate and investment, (2.) his differentiation between the long and the short run (not the first to do this, but one of the most emphatic about the importance of it, and (3.) despite his quip that "in the long run we're all dead", Keynes is very preoccupied what he elsewhere called the "economic possibilities for our grandchildren" - social organization in the far future. In addition to Keynes, I also have a personal interest in human social organization in the very long run: space colonization, further political unification on Earth, changes to the structure of production along the lines that Keynes was concerned with, etc. I'm particularly interested in the problems that the very long-run poses - namely that market actors don't respond to far distant incentives. The state may act on these incentives, but elected officials can have notoriously short-run planning horizons as well. So the question is - given the vista of possibilities in our distant future, how do we prepare, given the extent to which we are anchored in the present? And finally, my very basic introduction to Martin Heidegger's work, through my brother, has piqued my interest in time as well. In Heidegger's ontology, what it meant "to be" was crucially dependent on a Being's existence in time. As Heidegger says: "The existential and ontological constitution of the totality of Dasein [Being] is grounded in temporality". Moreover, Heidegger sees a purposiveness or intentionality as being central to our understanding of being, and this intentionality essentially means the use of an object in time. For example, pre-Heidegger you might ask "what is the reality, the 'thing-in-itself' of this hammer, independent of my perception of the hammer". Heidegger points out that the ontological significance of these objects is our intentions for them in time. He says "I experience this hammer as something that I use to hit nails - that is my phenomenological experience - and then maybe later I consider it's essential reality". So the temporal intentionality that pervades our experience has to be meaningful when we ask "what is this hammer"?, because it is temporal experience and intentionality that define our phenomenological experience of the hammer. I know that's quite an introduction, and Keynes and Heidegger will both show up below as well, but this post will basically be a collection of bulleted thoughts and links on things I've stumbled across regarding the nature of time.
-- First, this post was most immediately motivated by something I read in The Watchmen, a graphic novel about a group of superheroes that was recently made into a movie. Dr. Manhattan, a physicist disembodied in an experiment gone awry, experiences reality in a very unique way. Time is not unidirectional for him, he can make quantum leaps across the universe, and he can understand and reform objects at the atomic level. Midway through the story he finds himself on Mars (I won't say why - it's a major plot theme), and he muses:
"Through my blue fingers, pink grains are falling, haphazard, random, a disorganized stream of silicone that seems pregnant with the possibility of every conceivable shape. But this is illusion. Things have their shape in time, not space alone. Some marble blocks have statues within them, embedded in their future." I read that and thought "I've really been entranced by time for too long - I think this needs to be a second 'philosophical musing'."

-- I found these very interesting - it's a series on the philosophy of time that relies heavily on physics, which is nice. Here are parts one, two, and three.

-- This is William Lane Craig discussing the "tensed theory of time". This is basically about how we divide time into "tenses" - past, present, and future. What constitutes the "present", exactly. And whether we can objectively divide time this way [a side note - I was surprised to find out Evan isn't particularly impressed with William Lane Craig. I'm not sure exactly why - I thought he was pretty good, although I didn't agree with everything he said].

-- An entire semester of lectures on Heidegger by Hubert Dreyfus, who I suppose is considered the world's foremost expert on Heidegger (certainly one of them at least). I haven't listened to this at all yet, but I have heard other interviews of Dreyfus about Heidegger. So eat your heart out - I imagine the only way to get a more thorough treatment would be to read Heidegger's Being and Time yourself. I guess I'll say here that one of the things that interests me most about Heidegger is how he makes temporality central to reality, and the applications this might have to political or social philosophy. A lot of Anglo-American political philosophers take a "de-temporalized" view - Anglo-American philosophy is notoriously de-contextualized in general. When it comes to political philosophy, think of a Hobbesian state of nature or a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance". There is no (1.) temporal context, and more importantly to me no (2.) recognition of the importance of political and social institutions for deliberately creating a future. Society is or should be timeless for most of these Anglo-American conceptualizations. Heidegger is nice because he breaks out of that: history is important and intentions for the future are important.

-- A Keynes quote I've always liked about time: "The social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelope our future". Keynes's system is dependent on uncertainty about the future, which causes fluctuations in liquidity preference and the propensity to invest.

-- A Scientific American piece about why we experience time in one direction.

-- This is a one-pager I wrote around Thanksgiving about space-time and value theory. Very speculative - sort of a "why do we think about things in this way" piece. Nothing came of it and I'm guessing nothing will.

-- Finally, it's worth noting another reason why time has been on my brain lately - I'm taking a partial differential equations course this Spring (starting next week actually), so time will probably come up a lot there. Differential equations are often used to model dynamic systems of variables: in other words, the interaction and behavior of variables over time. One of the most classic dynamic systems to model, for example, is the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey model, where you look at the oscillation of something like the rabbit population and the fox population over time.

1 comment:

  1. On William Lane Craig, my lack of enthusiasm has more to do with the wider frame of mind from which he approaches problems. I'm sure he has plenty of good things to say, but he is the sort of philosopher with whom a very many theologians cannot readily relate, on account of his apologetic and analytic proclivities. It's one of those things where you may be personally embarrassed at a thinker because of your disciplinary proximity and personal knowledge of their work, although an uninitiated person might very well find plenty of good thoughts in them. Further, I haven't read too much of Craig, so my reaction was a decidedly uneducated one, and probably mostly from the gut.


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