Sunday, November 30, 2008

The reality of time and a doodle of me

My mom blogs our post-Thanksgiving trip to a Madison cafe:

Others may read about metaphysics. Me, I'm making a puppet out of the sugar packet drawing on the recycled-paper-brown napkins...
If you look at a closeup of the photo in that blog post, you can see a doodle she drew of me:

doodle of John Althouse Cohen by Ann Althouse

She adds:
The question arose: Is time not an illusion?
That was spinning off an essay I was reading called "Some Free Thinking About Time"* by the philosopher Arthur Norman Prior. He makes this pithy argument:
All attempts to deny the reality of time founder, so far as I can see, on the problem of explaining the appearance of time's passage: for appearing is itself something that occurs in time. Eddington once said that events don't happen, we merely come across them; but what is coming across an event but a happening?
That's why he "believe[s] in the reality of the distinction between past, present, and future" -- "that what we see as a progress of events is a progress of events, a coming to pass of one thing after another, and not just a timeless tapestry with everything stuck there for good and all."

That seems so trivially true -- why would anyone deny it? Well, certain scientific types will say that the theory of relativity shows that our common-sense view of time is simply mistaken. Prior has an elaborate response to this -- I can't get into the details of his argument here, but I'll just say I love how he concludes by cutting the Gordian knot:
We may say that the theory of relativity isn't about real space and time, in which the earlier-later relation is defined in terms of pastness, presentness, and futurity; the "time" which enters into the so-called space-time of relativity theory isn't this, but is just part of an artificial framework which scientists have constructed to link together observed facts in the simplest way possible, and from which those things which are systematically concealed from us are quite reasonably left out.
By the way, isn't Prior a perfect name for someone who thinks about these questions for a living? Reminds me of the scene in The Office where Michael reveals that Dwight was lying about having to leave work for a dentist appointment:
Michael: What’s his name?

Dwight: [long pause] Crentist.

Michael: Your dentist’s name is Crentist ... huh. Sounds a lot like dentist.

Dwight: Maybe that’s why he became a dentist?

* The essay is in the anthology Metaphysics: The Big Questions -- you can see it in the photo.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I once had surgery performed by a Dr. Richard Chopp.

Ann Althouse said...

I had an endodontist whose name was -- phonetically respelled -- Strife.