Precious Time and The Einstein Revolution

What is time?  

We talk about mechanical (scientific) time, psychological time (time as our minds perceive it), and physiological time (the time of bodily processes). But are any of these things really Time with a capital T?

Psychological Time and Physiological Time

Time seems to fly by when we are enjoying something and it seems to slow down when we are standing in line or at work. We are often startled to see that our mind’s estimate of the current time does not match the clock. We don’t trust out minds to tell us the correct time or even the correct passing of time. We tend to dismiss psychological time as not real.

But, whether time seems to go fast or not, we cannot escape our biological clock. It keeps on ticking to its own time, whether we like it or not. And since physiological time appears to have some one to one connection with mechanical time – we think that is more real than psychological time.

Mechanical (Scientific) Time

As communication and transportation technology grew over the past two centuries, reliable mechanical time became increasingly important to our everyday lives. We rely on our clocks and by extension, our computers and phones to tell us the correct time. We plan our days and our nights by the dictatorship of clock time. It is so much a part of our mental framework that we often confuse clock time with Time itself.

Mechanical or scientific time is clock time. We measure space in yards or meters, but we don’t confuse the measuring stick or other device such as our car’s odometer with the road we are measuring or the houses we pass by. Space is something we think is separate from its measurements. So, why is it that don’t we think more expansively about Time?

What happened to philosophical time?

Philosophical time belongs to a branch of philosophy called metaphysics. Many scientists and secularists believe metaphysics is an illusion or a construct of the brain. Science replaced metaphysics and anyone who challenges that fact is considered anti-scientific. To them, if metaphysics belongs anywhere it should be studied as a psychological disorder.

But is this true? Has science truly and finally replaced metaphysics? Is philosophy dead?

The Debate That No One Remembers

The Physicist & The Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, And The Debate That Changed Our Understanding Of Time by Jimena Canales was published in 2016. It documents a face-to-face debate that took place on April 6, 1922 between two giants of the 20th century, Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson. They met in Paris to debate Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Bergson’s objections to some of its conclusions about the true nature of Time.

The fact that Einstein’s name is still well known almost a century after the debate and hardly anyone knows the name of Bergson attests to widely held opinion, among those who do know these names, that Einstein “won” the debate.

According to Einstein, philosophy had been used to explain the relation between psychology and physics. “The time of the philosopher, I believe, is a psychological and physical time at the same time,” he explained in Paris. But relativity, by focusing on very fast phenomena, had shown just how off-the-mark psychological perceptions of time really were. Psychological conceptions of time, Einstein insisted, were not only simply in error, they just did to correspond to anything concrete. “These are nothing more than mental constructs, logical entities.” Because of the enormous speed of light, humans had “instinctively” generalized their conception of simultaneity and mistakenly applied it to the rest of the universe. Einstein’s theory corrected this mistaken generalization. Instead of believing in an overlapping area between psychological and physical conceptions of time (where both were important although one was admittedly less accurate than the other), he argued that they were really two distinct concepts: a mental assessment (the psychological one) that was wholly inadequate when compared to the “objective” concept: physical time.

The Physicist & The Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, And The Debate That Changed Our Understanding Of Time; Canales p 47

What is the “lived time” of the philosopher? Is the future waiting to be created? Does the past flow into the present as Bergson explain? Does the past fade away – never to be repeated?

Or is time laid out in discrete units like feet or meters as Einstein believed? Does time really slow down as we travel closer to the speed of light? Does space-time bend as we come close to large objects like the sun?

Which time is an illusion and which is real time?

I was an undergraduate majoring in Physics in the late 70s. The first two years of study covered classical physics and this older understanding of physics did not present any conceptional problems for me, but in the third year we were introduced to the subjects of Relativity and Quantum Physics which challenged more than just my math skills.

The university was (and still is) something like a big dysfunctional family. One found, as a student, certain questions dismissed in a way that a parent answers a child who asks an uncomfortable question. The child feels that his/her concerns are not important and that any further discussion is off limits. Some have described the atmosphere towards students was to “shut up and calculate.”

I don’t think that every professor was like that and there were even a few who admitted it was not clear to them what it all meant. But, no one really knew how to fix the problem either. Below is a video by the famous physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman, given in the 60s. It was typical of the attitude at that time about “understanding” and “accepting” the new physics. He makes a joke out of it, but what else could one do? Simply accept the new reality and move on. There were no other options but to get your mind right about it.

I agree with Ms. Canales that the date, April 6, 1922, should be considered the day that the humanities and the sciences split into two cultures. It had been heading that way since the days of Descartes, but this day marked the full divide. The consequences of which are still felt today, even though most people are unaware that the debate even occurred.

“The entire Debate (and its over-arching significance) came as news to me,” wrote one of the first reviewers of my [Jimena Canales] manuscript, who then dutifully “checked the usual biographies of Einstein to what had been reported there. He found almost nothing.

The Physicist & The Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, And The Debate That Changed Our Understanding Of Time; Canales p 359

New Straw for an Old Broom

In a previous post on Essence and Existence, I spoke of a psychological condition called “blindness blindness” where a blind person is not aware that he/she is blind. This, I believe, is the current state of our culture’s understanding of the true nature of time and space. Many of us are blind to the fact that a debate exists at all.

There is a book review for The Philosopher and The Physicist written by another historian of science, Joseph D. Martin. He titles it: “New Straw for the Old Broom

I really like this word play on an old proverb for the following reasons:

  1. “A new broom sweeps clean” is how the old English proverb goes. Scientists believe that Einstein’s relativity theory swept the superstitions of philosophical thinking out of the house. Science is the “new broom” that replaced the “old broom.”
  2. “A new broom sweeps clean, but an old broom knows all the corners” is the Irish version of this proverb. The new broom, science, knows nothing about what the old broom, philosophy, knows. This is the attitude of the philosophers. And so, “new straw for the old broom” means the old dear isn’t quite dead yet.

As for me, I only knew about the new broom. I am grateful that the old broom exists and is not a figment of my imagination.

The Children of The Divorce

It’s said that divorce is like throwing scalding water on the children. The wounds heal, but the scars remain.

Children can sense “something missing” from their parents or mentors discussions with them. Students at universities are usually in their late teens and early 20s. They are at an age between childhood and full adulthood. However, as they age and have children of their own, they realize that parents sometimes have difficulty being candid and open about big problems with their children.

At the time I attended classes there, physics had become less of discipline (a branch of knowledge to be studied) and more of a technical program. I did not take philosophy courses because philosophy courses were no longer required by the university for a degree in science. And because the faculty in the science departments had accepted that Einstein had the last word on Time, there was no need to take on a philosophical discussion of the subject. Besides, the course of study in Physics was already heavily loaded with mathematics classes and there was no time to slip anything “extra” into a four-year degree. So, I was completely unaware that the scientific and theoretical issues causing me to rethink my career were part of a debate that had been raging between the humanities departments and the science departments for decades.

After a time, I began to think I was simply too stupid to get beyond some of the ideas about reality we were expected to accept. There were some indications that all was not well within the discipline, but a growing feeling of unease that I could not put into words eventually led me to conclude that I would need to add more computer science classes so that I could find a job in that field when I graduated. My days of studying physics were soon to be over.

There were economic issues to consider as well. Jobs, in physics, had begun to dry up after World War II. The costs of ever larger accelerators need to study particle physics made it difficult to get access to the equipment necessary to do original research. Also, in the 70s a deep recession was in progress. The viability of the physics department at many universities was in doubt. Add all that up and you get the picture that no one was in a position to rock the boat.

Over the years I have found that I am not the only one who has emotional issues about how physics was taught.  I may write about them and something about the math and science for those interested in a more technical discussion. But for now, I would like to add that I did not then, nor do I now, believe that there was a deliberate effort to mislead students about the true nature of time and space. I think that it was inevitable that we are divided into different camps about the true nature of the physical universe and reality itself from the time of the Enlightenment and Descartes. What happened during the 20th Century was that the divide had become so great and the sides so entrenched in their positions that by the time I was attending classes they were no longer speaking to each other. Physics had all but cut off discussion of philosophy.

Time for Reconciliation

We are children no longer. The mistakes of the past do not need to have any lasting power over us. We need to find a way to reconnect these two disciplines, philosophy and science, in a way that our ancestors could not.

I am truly grateful for the scholarship of Ms. Canales for revisiting the past and bringing the existence of this great debate back to light and life. I hope it brings a new age of rapprochement between the humanities and the sciences.

P.S. If you don’t have time to read the book, here is an excellent lecture by Ms. Canales below: