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Spacetime Worms

Except for the occasional sceptic, we all believe that things persist through time (Loux, Readings, p. 321).

Endurantism and perdurantism are the views that temporal persistence of a thing is respectively explained either by its existing wholly and completely at different times or by its having three-dimensional parts at different times, which constitute a four-dimensional whole – or ‘spacetime worm.’ Since these two views usually arise from two different temporal ontologies, namely that of presentism – only the present exists – and eternalism – time is a dimension on par with the spatial dimensions – I shall treat endurantism and perdurantism as interchangeable with their intuitively corresponding ontologies.

Since I am torn on this issue rather than trying to convince the reader I shall devote this essay on an analysis of why perdurantism, which is the view to which I lean the most, appeals to me but why I am still hesitant to embrace it fully.

Scientific Considerations

I should be a perdurantist because I believe that GPS is reliable and that the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old. The connection to persistence is not immediately obvious. However, both beliefs are reliant on Einstein’s theories of relativity. In his book, Parallel Worlds, Michio Kaku explains how crucial relativity is to the reliability of GPS.

Michio Kaku

…in order to guarantee such incredible accuracy, scientists must calculate slight corrections to Newton’s laws due to relativity, which states that radio waves will be slightly

shifted in frequency as satellites soar in outer space. In fact, if we foolishly discard the corrections due to relativity, then the GPS clocks will run faster each day by 40,000 billions of a second, and the entire system will become unreliable (p. 257).

Likewise other physicists will tell us that at least some of their methods for ascertaining the age of the universe (Kaku mentions three experimental “proofs,” p. 282) are derived from Einstein’s theories. Another iconic example of relativity impinging upon us is the famous experiment conducted by astronomer Arthur Eddington in 1919, which verified that the Sun distorts spacetime around it and thereby deflects rays of light as predicted by Einstein (French, pp. 44-45).

The crux of the matter is that the results of relativity are seemingly so inescapable to anyone living in the 21st century that we all take them more or less for granted. Yet few of us ever follow up on this acquiescence by allowing it metaphysical ramifications. I should perhaps not speak so readily on behalf of everyone else. However, I – for one – am painstakingly aware of my own cognitive blind spots. To be sure, relativity is built around a four-dimensional model of space and time.

The salient question is to what extent it makes sense to ignore the connection between the results and the assumptions that produced them. Loux, while explaining that this connection used to be a common line of perdurantist argument, expeditiously diffuses it again in the same breath.

The claim is that the endurantist account fails to square with our scientific understanding of that world. The claim is that a four-dimensional picture of the world is implied by the physics of relativity theory. Since the idea that time is just another dimension on par with the three spatial dimension leads so naturally to a theory of temporal parts, the claim is that the only way of accommodating our scientific beliefs about ourselves and the world around us is to embrace a perdurantist theory of persistence through time. This line of argument was once quite popular. It is not, however, the one we characteristically meet in recent writings of perdurantists. In part, I suspect, recent perdurantists are sensitive to the very real difficulty of extracting an ontological theory out of the mathematical formalisms of physics; but the more central reason recent perdurantists do not rest their case on facts about scientific theories is that they are anxious to show that our ordinary, prescientific beliefs about the world are not, in fact, at odds with the perdurantists’ talk of temporal parts (Loux, Introduction, p. 243).

Now, I readily concede Loux’ point that it is problematic to extract ontology out of mathematics. I ought to clarify that I am not proposing the reliability of GPS as a persuasive argument for perdurantism nor do I pretend to understand theoretical physics. It is not within this essay’s scope to venture into the quagmire of scientific realism versus instrumentalism. And any philosopher worth her salt knows that one might arrive at a factually correct conclusion by valid inference from false premises. From the fact that certain assumptions make physicist’s numbers add up, nothing need follow about the veracity of those assumptions.

However, my proposal is that if I were to deny four-dimensionality on these grounds simply because I do not care for the metaphysical implications, while still happily retaining other fruits of relativity, it would make me hypocritical at worst and incongruously compartmentalised at best. As such, this is not an argument for perdurantism but an account of its pull on me personally. I feel I ought to accept it – at least tentatively – unless I have a particularly good reason not to, simply for the sake of intellectual integrity. How persuasive this is to anyone else depends whether the person in question shares a similarity in disposition.

Default Intuitions

Let us turn to what Loux’ central reason for casting aside the scientific argument for perdurantism. Throughout ‘Concrete Particulars II’ in Introduction (pp. 230-56) Loux consistently describes endurantism as cohering more than perdurantism with ‘commonsense,’ ‘intuitive conceptions,’ ‘prephilosophical beliefs’ etc. Taking this line of thought further in Readings (pp. 321-29) Loux states:

So endurantists take theirs to be the account of persistence that conforms better to our prephilosophical intuitions. Evidently, perdurantists agree; for whereas endurantists are content merely to state their view, perdurantists feel the need to present arguments on behalf of a temporal parts account of persistence.

This reasoning strikes me as all sorts of odd. An image of a boulder-pushing Sisyphus vividly springs to mind – wherein the very act of increasing his efforts immediately slopes the hill ever so more to his detriment. Surely, any endeavour of philosophy is wrongheaded if the act of arguing one’s view entails a proportional opposition of intuitive common sense. The game-breaking strategy would be to never budge an inch from offering only a ‘says me!’ in one’s favour, since anything more would constitute tacit concession of loss.

The Burning Armchar, symbol of the Experimental Philosophy  movementNevertheless – burden of proof aside – it is not simply obvious that Loux is right about our intuitions. At the risk of committing armchair arson and becoming an ‘experimental philosopher’ I asked a few of my non-philosopher friends where they stood on the existence of the past, the present, and the future. While this can hardly be considered statistically significant the divisiveness of their answers was still astounding. The only consistent agreement was on the existence of the present – the oddest answer being the existence of present and future but not the past.

However, appeals to our shared intuitions – though illuminating – do not exert much toll when it comes to the fundamental structure of reality. I am not even convinced by my own intuitions. Although neither would they help Loux since they align themselves with perdurantism to a certain extent.

Past Events

I should be a perdurantist because I believe past events are a matter of fact. Intuitively once something has happened it stays happened. Even if no one remembers it and it imparts no influence on current events, there is still a fact of the matter. This to me can only be sufficiently accounted for by the reality of the past.

An obvious presentist contender would be a very strong determinism – i.e. A determined the occurrence of B, determining C etc. So even if A is long forgotten, we might be able to infer it. However, while determinism is intuitively understandable, it is not so obvious that backwards-working determinism makes sense in a universal context. Consider this by analogy of addition; while adding three to three strongly determines an outcome of six, working our way backwards from six is impossible. The outcome of six could not have been otherwise. But looking back from six we are unable to decide whether the correct six-producing mechanism was indeed three plus three and not, say, five plus one. It is hardly obvious that there is one, and only one, chain of events that could possibly have produced the current state of affairs of our universe.

Backwards Determinism

Yet the mere conceivability of backwards determinism could still serve as a counterexample wedge between my intuition of past events and the requirement of perdurantism. Let us therefore, for the sake of argument, assume backwards determinism. Would that be enough to account for the factuality of past events? I would say no. To return to our alphabetical series, we can imagine that A occurred simultaneously with another event, – also producing a simultaneous . However, at the advent of C, somehow failed to produce a . No event in our second series ever had any interaction with our first series. Even given backwards determinism we would have no way of inferring that and ever happened.

Fatalism

I should not be a perdurantist because it commits me to fatalism. Now, it is a glaring omission that my preceding considerations said nothing of the future but – not unlike people – dwelt only on the past. Indeed, I am unable to intuitively commit to perdurantism based on the reality of the past because my intuition balks at the notion of an already existing future. Loux would have me believe that I could hold this view in unproblematic consistency.

Consider what we called the growing block theory of time. On that view, reality consists of the past and the present. What counts as the past and present is always changing, so the view is an instance of the A-theory; but as we have seen, the view endorses a four dimensionalist picture of what it calls reality; reality is a four dimensional block that is constantly growing. Within this framework, then, concrete particulars turn out, once again, to be spacetime worms. Accordingly, we once again have a theory of time that is not just compatible with perdurantism; the theory Depiction representing a 4D spacetime worm of a personprovides a natural home for that theory of persistence (Introduction, p. 235).

However, Loux might have failed to convince himself.

Endurantists will argue, for example, that the perdurantist claim that the spatiotemporal boundaries of a familiar particular are essential to it runs counter to intuitions we all share. We all believe, for example, that it was possible for Winston Churchill to have lived a day longer than he actually did; and we all believe that each of us could, at any time, have been in a place other than the place we actually were in at that time (p. 256).

I am quite convinced though that a growing block cannot be the case. A four-dimensional view of spacetime necessarily entails fatalism. The reason is that growth requires the very time we have done away with literally into empty space. When a three-dimensional block grows it is, according to the perdurantist, a progression through temporal parts of its four-dimensional self. The only way a four-dimensional block could grow would then have to be by progression through temporal parts of yet a higher fifth-dimensional self. One could argue for timeless change but I have no idea what that means.

I now face a dilemma of accommodating all my intuitions. I should not only have to spatialise time but I should also have to introduce yet another dimension – possibly even more. Alternately I could bite the bullet and accept a fatalistic universe – in which case I have no choice in the matter, so I might as well refuse. Incidentally Einstein seems to have taken seriously both the entailments of his theory and the stubbornness of his intuitions.

Picture of Albert Einstein with his tongue out

I am a determinist, compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society, I must act responsibly. I know philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crimes, but I prefer not to take tea with him

(Kaku, pp. 154-55)

A Multiplicity of Entities

In a past essay of mine about the teleological argument I said that:

Picture of meAccepting the actual existence of many worlds in order to escape the existence of God seems arbitrarily discriminatory (unless you are a quantum physicist and therefore believe that there is bona fide evidence for a multiverse).

Similarly I was disinclined to arbitrarily discriminate against only one aspect of relativity – namely four-dimensionality – merely on the grounds of disliking the metaphysical implications. However, turning this on its head I should be disinclined toward perdurantism because it is quite arbitrary to continually populate my ontology with ever more dimensions simply to appease my gluttonous intuitions.

I have argued that my everyday beliefs and intuitions (layman’s scientific and prephilosophical) ought to demand of me perdurantism. However, I have also argued that perdurantism has counter-intuitive implications, which complicate my ontology to accommodate. Ultimately I should like some more tangible evidence of higher dimensions than intuitive reasoning and mathematical convenience before making a metaphysical commitment.

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9 Responses to “Spacetime Worms”

  1. xoanon93 says:

    You are illicitly conflating Presentism with Endurantism and Eternalism with Perdurantism.

    In the case of Endurantism it’s tempting to think that this requires a Presentist view (otherwise an Enduring thing would instantiate incompatible properties at different times and violate non-contradiction). However this difficulty can be sidestepped by option for a time-indexed or time-mediated property instantiation. So Endurantism, while perhaps fitting more intuitively with Presentism in no way _requires_ it.

    Similarly for Perdurantism, the fact that the view makes use of a single object (a spacetime worm) existing at different times might lead one to think this requires Eternalism since those ‘other times’ had better be ‘real’ if the temporally-extended object exists at them. But this too can be circumvented by supposing (e.g.) that the spacetime worm only exists ‘now’ and at other times merely subsists. This view is perhaps even less intuitive than the Endurantist case, but it’s not incoherent.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful comment and you are absolutely right. If you want to view it as illicit conflation, you’re welcome to do so. However, I think that is a bit harsh since I view it as an unfortunate word-limit constraint and since I did start out the essay by being entirely clear about what I was doing.

    Every philosophy essay is a delicate word-limit balance between clarity and precision. In this case I sacrificed the latter for the sake of the former. Perhaps I should have done the opposite but then again that would have robbed me of an awesome commenter.

  3. I did insert the words “usually” and “intuitively” at the beginning of the essay for your benefit. It might not be much but it’s the best I can do.

  4. xoanon93 says:

    Thanks for your response, (and for the article, I hasten to add) — sorry if my comments came across as harsh that wasn’t my intent — it’s just that I had _just_ read a discussion [which was news to me] that presentism != endurantism and eternalism != perdurantism/exdurantism so it was fresh in my mind.

  5. Well, you were quite right to point it out and I could have been clearer about it. I do feel like I never do the topics in these essays as much justice as they deserve. But I suppose if I didn’t draw some arbitrary line I wouldn’t be finished before I had written out a complete philosophy of everything.

  6. Our universe can be said to be infinitely large whilst the microscopic world is infinitely tiny. But just what is infinitely large and tiny in truly mathematical terms?

  7. Stephen Wysong says:

    Sketch,

    Here’s a major excerpt from an email “Consciousness in Block Spacetime” I recently sent to a Philosophy PhD at the University of California Riverside near where I live. Comments?

    ====================================

    The heart of the matter is this: in Block Spacetime, the events in what we call past, present, and future are all equally real (a proposition referred to as Perdurantism). To emphasize that point with statements from prominent physicists, in Brian Greene’s video, “The Illusion of Time” and his book “The Fabric of the Cosmos”, he states: “Just as we think of all of space as being ‘out there,’ we should think of all of time as being ‘out there’ too. Everything that has ever happened or will happen, it all exists, from Leonardo da Vinci laying the final brushstroke on the Mona Lisa; to the signing of the Declaration of Independence; to your first day of school; to events that, from our perspective, are yet to happen, like the first humans landing on Mars.” All of the supportive statements for my proposal are in Chapter 5 of Greene’s book “The Fabric of the Cosmos” […]

    To further illustrate the support of physicists for the proposition that the flow of time is illusory, in the same video, Sean Carroll says, “If you believe the laws of physics, there’s just as much reality to the future and the past as there is to the present moment.” Max Tegmark said, “The past is not gone, and the future isn’t non-existent. The past, the future and the present are all existing in exactly the same way.” Dr. Tegmark himself writes that we are in “a four-dimensional place called spacetime that simply exists, unchanging, never created, and never destroyed.”

    This perduring** character of objects in Block Spacetime is familiar to the general public – in the spacetime of nearly all science fiction time travel stories, the past and future exist and, in fact, are the time travelers’ destinations. Many protagonists have traveled to the past to find their younger selves alive and well and engaging in activities remembered by the time traveler, a perfectly reasonable discovery in Block Spacetime – the only impossible element in these stories is the time travel itself.

    [[Attachment: “Endurantism, Perdurantism and Special Relativity” by Steven D. Hales and Timothy A. Johnson]]

    In 1955, after the death of his lifelong friend Michelangelo Besso, Einstein famously stated, “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

    Interpreted from the perspective of my proposal, Einstein’s “stubbornly persistent illusion” is the illusion of the flow of time as the future appears to become the present. Not only is this flow of time an illusion, the perception of “Now” is an illusion as well – there is no Now in the universe or in the laws of physics. I believe that the experience of Now is the default condition of our generated consciousness (which is essentially the experience of a personal existence centered in a world). All of our conscious experiences occur “Now”.

    The conclusion that all of the perceptual moments of your life are tied to these two illusions seems inescapable – you have memories of experiencing them as such. You have continuously experienced this illusion of forward movement through time, where “Future” instants become perceived as “Present” instants – as “Now”, and the “Past” is inaccessible except for encoded experiences in memory.

    During my research, I have noticed that physicists typically proceed from their descriptions of our perduring spacetime to discussions about simultaneity, entropy and the “arrow of time”, and other related topics of obvious interest to physicists. Most surprising to me, however, is the complete lack of statements about what the perduring nature of Block Spacetime might mean for consciousness and for our human experience.

    Einstein himself set this pattern of silence, never mentioning his thoughts on the subject aside from a few significant quotes, all of which, in my opinion, have been wildly misinterpreted in some mystical or metaphysical context – clearly incorrect interpretations given Einstein’s well documented philosophy.

    I propose to remedy this inexplicable avoidance by physicists of the implications of the perduring reality of Block Spacetime, with the following logic in support of my hypothesis. All of these numbered statements are supported by Greene’s Chapter 5 material, although he does not state the conclusion I have drawn in statement 7.

    Hypothesis: Each of us re-experiences our lifetime repeatedly and endlessly.

    1. At each moment of your life, the “You” that persists in Block Spacetime is the complete collection of matter and energy that comprises “You”.

    2a. That precise collection of particles/energy at each moment, your physical self, constitutes the substrate for your consciousness.

    2b. For the moments in spacetime when you are conscious, your consciousness is a feature of your physical self in Block Spacetime, a feature as everlasting and unchanging as everything else in those moments.

    3. “Now” is completely subjective and is the default state of all conscious moments. All of our conscious experiences occur “Now”.

    4. All conscious moments persisting in Block Spacetime are always experiencing a “Now”

    5. None of the “Now’s” experienced over a lifetime lock into a persistent, unchanging experience of a moment. Rather, the persistent illusion of a flowing present always proceeds repeatedly and continuously from each conscious “Now” as we all have experienced it throughout our lives.

    6. Each and every “Now” moment persisting in Block Spacetime is subject to the illusion of a flowing present – the experiencing of those moments and the experiencing of the flow of time cannot change.

    7. Each of us re-experiences our entire lifetime repeatedly and endlessly.

    With this conclusion, which I believe Einstein originated and accepted, we can now find clarity in his statements on the subject. I present my interpretations of his statements below.

    1. “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing.”

    Besso dies. His death is real, but death has no sting. “That means nothing” because Besso and the rest of us are always living and always experiencing our lives in Block Spacetime.

    2. “… nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death ; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life.”

    Clearly, Einstein conceived of the endless re-experiencing of our lives as the “eternity of life”, an interpretation consistent with his statement:

    3. “An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.

    A restatement of 2.

    4. “I believe the mind is immortal in the same sense as the body for it is difficult to doubt that the capacity to build living bodies and consciousness is connected with matter. But I see no justification to extend personality beyond the span of life of the individual.”

    Here he says clearly that the “eternity of life” has nothing to do with a soul surviving the death of a body, in addition to which he states that the body is immortal!

    5. From Greene’s Chapter 5: “Rudolf Carnap recounts a wonderful conversation he had with Einstein on this subject: ‘Einstein said that the problem of the now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics.'”

    Carnap’s statement indicates that Einstein seriously contemplated the “Now” as an artifact of consciousness, rather than a feature of the physical universe.

    In my researches, I located many attempts to co-opt Einstein’s remarks to support mystical propositions, but I could find no credible interpretation of any sort for these statements by Einstein … none. I think it significant that my hypothesis, which I suspect was also his, is so effective in illuminating the meanings I believe he intended in the statements above.

    Regarding the “Problem of the Now”
    ============================

    Every conscious moment of our lives is a Now. There is no single, special “Now” among the set. There is no special significance to the “Now” I’m experiencing as I write these words on March 26, 2016, or your “Now” as you’re reading them, because all of our subjective “Nows” in Block Spacetime all exist and are continuously being experienced.

    It’s a bit unsettling to observe that, because there is no “Now” in the physical universe or the laws of physics and all future moments persist in Block Spacetime, none of us is living at the “cutting edge” of the unfolding development of the universe! Not even persons up the timeline in our “future” are at some “cutting edge”. Instead, we are continuously experiencing our existence in a fixed interval at the spacetime coordinates that bound our lives. And so are all of our ancestors. And so are all of our descendants. Everyone that has ever existed or will exist is embedded in Block Spacetime and is continuously experiencing existence from birth to death.

    In closing, I suggest it’s an illuminating perspective to consider that each of our lives is a Recording in Block Spacetime, played back repeatedly from every point of the recording, so that the universe encodes an infinite number of life stories, continuously and repeatedly experienced.

  8. Stephen Wysong says:

    There is no need for time to flow. Consciousness flows.

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