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"What happened to then?" "We passed it." "When?" "Just now. We're at now now."
February 10, 2009 6:44 PM   Subscribe

"It doubtless seems highly paradoxical to assert that Time is unreal, and that all statements which involve its reality are erroneous. ... I believe that time is unreal. But I do so for reasons which are not, I think, employed by any of the philosophers whom I have mentioned, and I propose to explain my reasons in this paper." ~McTaggart, The Unreality of Time, 1908. (Bonus: The Kant Song.)
posted by voltairemodern (96 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Time is money.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:53 PM on February 10, 2009


This is frying my brain banana.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:59 PM on February 10, 2009


My young lad, who was 3 at the time, was particularly amped about an event that was to take place on Saturday. Quite a few times on Friday he asked if it was to happen soon.

"Saturday" or "tomorrow" we would answer.

I woke him up on Saturday and said "guess what day it is?!" to which he replied "Tomorrow?"

Superb work!
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:00 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


"The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."
posted by empath at 7:07 PM on February 10, 2009


I used to like stuff like this, but then one day I realised: it isn't worth thinking about. It literally isn't worth a single calorie of mental energy. "What is time? Is time even real?" Who gives a fuck?

Philosophy is designed (I am tempted to say that it is philosophy's conceit) to help us understand the world we live in, and to provide us with guidance on how to live well in that world. Arguments about the reality or unreality of time - the time invented by man, to help us track the linear progress of events within the universe - are completely valueless, even as intellectual exercises. "A series time"? "B series time"? This provides me with nothing. It provides me with no insight into anything other than one man's dedication to the futile depletion of ink.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:10 PM on February 10, 2009 [9 favorites]


Positions in time, as time appears to us prima facie, are distinguished in two ways. Each position is Earlier than some, and Later than some, of the other positions. And each position is either Past, Present, or Future. The distinctions of the former class are permanent, while those of the latter are not. If M is ever earlier than N, it is always earlier. But an event, which is now present, was future and will be past.


The finger is not the moon.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:11 PM on February 10, 2009


What does have value?
posted by voltairemodern at 7:14 PM on February 10, 2009


What does have value?

To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:16 PM on February 10, 2009 [30 favorites]


Hm. You win this round.
posted by voltairemodern at 7:17 PM on February 10, 2009 [9 favorites]


As a philosophical amateur, it seems to me a lot of these kinds of arguments fail to distinguish examinations of the existence of reality from examinations of the the underlying nature of reality.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:17 PM on February 10, 2009


This problem formed the opener to the first metaphysics class I ever took in university, and remains dear to my heart even though I'm not nearly as interested in analytic philosophy now as I was then.

The best criticism of McTaggart that I've seen developed is to attack the idea that the B series is inferior to, or depend somehow on, the A series. If you can then turn around and derive our experience of the A series from the B series, the whole argument he makes turns into a pseudoproblem. McTaggart doesn't really have good reasons for rejecting that line of reasoning, except that he was writing before Relativity became widely adopted, and because the conclusion that our perception of time is distinct from our true thoughts about time would be philosophically untenable for him due to his Idealist philosophy.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 7:19 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Reminds me of a book I've read where a scientist discovered that time runs in the opposite direction than we think it does. Therefore, we are born out of our corpses and then grow down into babies and disappear into wombs. The nice touch was that he was hunted throughout the book by 1984-style government because all governments are sustained by our illusion of forward current of time. Mono no aware follows the realization that we're bound to lose knowledge and wisdom as time goes by.

Compare: There is no three periods of time, no past, no future and no present.
posted by rainy at 7:25 PM on February 10, 2009


Dense. Impenentrable. Odd-sounding jibber-jabber.

... and yet, makes more sense than Pepsi's marketing docs.
posted by barnacles at 7:26 PM on February 10, 2009


Oh, and it was a Brian Aldiss book, and a good one too.
posted by rainy at 7:27 PM on February 10, 2009


Who let the eschatons out?
posted by doobiedoo at 7:27 PM on February 10, 2009


I don't think the questions are at all futile, by nature meaningless, uninteresting, or useless. However, the methods may well be.

Although written 3 years after Einstein's 1905 paper on Special Relativity, this paper makes no mention of it! Einstein showed that events separated so that a light ray couldn't go from one to the other can be put into any valid order. So maybe A, B, and C, or maybe A, C, and B in temporal order; it's relative to the observer. So science may provide the answers instead of philosophy (though I'm not sure anyone could PROVE that philosophy couldn't answer them; if so that would be a useful philosophical proof).

So I wouldn't say "who cares?" because it's so unrelated to immediate problems. In fact it's an escape from immediate problems to think about the context of our lives, and the search for context gives meaning.

However, I may concede that the methods of intuition, introspection, and verbal argument are poorly suited for the understanding of time. Julian Barbour seems to be a modern researcher--although outside of the mainstream--who takes a point of view that time is unreal and tries to relate that more concretely to science.
posted by Schmucko at 7:30 PM on February 10, 2009


Hey presentists! Stop confusing natural language semantics with metaphysics, and keep your tense operators out of my ontological description of the world. Kthxbye.
posted by painquale at 7:35 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't have time for this. Or do I?
posted by jamstigator at 7:40 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Schmucko> Einstein's theory of special relativity wasn't widely accepted until a few years later. The wikipedia article on the history of special relativity goes into this a bit. The potted version is that some early experiments were ambiguous, or were interpreted to provide results hostile to Einstein's theory. At the time McTaggart was writing, special relativity was still contentious, new, and many of the metaphysical implications of it were still being worked out.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 7:40 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


It was then that I carried you.
posted by swift at 7:42 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is frying my brain banana.
That's because time flies like a banana.
(I think I did that wrong).

A really good introduction to philosophy of time is Huw Price's Time's Arrow & Archemedes' Point. The table of contents and Chapter one are online.

Philosophy has moved on since "what is it to live well?" was the only question.
posted by GeckoDundee at 7:53 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I always liked this guy.
posted by Alex404 at 7:54 PM on February 10, 2009


Philosophy has moved on since "what is it to live well?" was the only question.

"Moved on" in the A Series or B Series sense?
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:55 PM on February 10, 2009


Arguments about the reality or unreality of time are [...] completely valueless, even as intellectual exercises. "A series time"? "B series time"? This provides me with nothing.

That's because you don't understand it.

Goddamn. Every time something philosophical comes up on Metafilter, small-mindedness and anti-intellectualism reign.

For those who want to relate this topic to Einstein and GTR, here's Thoroughly Modern McTaggart: Or, What McTaggart Would Have Said If He Had Read the General Theory of Relativity [pdf]. But it's by John Earman, one of those philosophers who is more comfortable with the physics than most physicists, so heavy lifting is required.
posted by painquale at 8:07 PM on February 10, 2009 [10 favorites]


Love McTaggart. Further reading at Steve Savitt's UBC site, including a pretty decent rebuttal. Again, symbolic logic, so heavy lifting required.
posted by mek at 8:51 PM on February 10, 2009


painquale, that's a fantastic link, thank you!
posted by voltairemodern at 8:53 PM on February 10, 2009


Did McTaggart have anything to say which was:

1) testable,
2) falsifiable,
3) would, for a given testable experiment, produce results measurably different from currently reigning theories?

As soon as you're out of the "time is like" or "time is not like" section of poetry class and onto talking about "reality" (reality is the only word in the language that should always be used in quotes), I'd like it if folks would just preface any *cough* "theory" they have with a statement as to whether or not those three are present. It'd save me a lot of time.
posted by adipocere at 8:56 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Philosophy like this isn't pointless becuase I think being confused about something you thought you understood well, can sometimes be valuable on its own, even if you don't come to a new understanding of it right away. And even if what you're reading is ultimately bullshit, figuring out why it's bullshit is sometimes worthwhile.

If stuff like this isn't worth thinking about, what is?
posted by empath at 9:06 PM on February 10, 2009


adipocere: Is everything which is true testable and falsifiable?
posted by empath at 9:08 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


More interesting perhaps, is the claim that everything which is true is testable and falsifiable itself testable and falsifiable?
posted by GeckoDundee at 9:13 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


empath: I don't care so much about true as I do about potentially useful. We've had thousands of years of arguments about what is or is not true, and so far, nobody has come to any firm conclusions, just ... more and more argument. That should tell you something.

I'm sure someone will nip in and tell me that I need to study all of philosophy from Plato on to even consider having a valid opinion on the matter. That's like telling me I need to read the collected works of Dion Fortune, Madame Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, and the like to have an opinion about astrology.

You see, testable and falsifiable is definitely useful. Are they themselves testable and falsifiable? Don't know! Don't care! What I care about is utility, and those criteria have definitely proven their utility.
posted by adipocere at 9:18 PM on February 10, 2009


That's because you don't understand it....every time something philosophical comes up on Metafilter, small-mindedness and anti-intellectualism reign.

You're correct, I don't understand it. Problem is, nobody is giving me any impetus to do so. What will I have an understanding of, once I understand what McTaggart is attempting to say, apart from an understanding of what McTaggart is attempting to say? Will I be able to sleep in? Will it give me a greater appreciation for...anything?

I will however give that pdf you link a shot, out of deference.

Further, I may be small-minded, but I am distinctly not anti-intellectual. Below is an excerpt of a paper I am working on, in the subsection titled Hermeneutics of Classical General Relativity:

"It is in Einstein's general theory of relativity (1915) that the radical conceptual break occurs: the space-time geometry becomes contingent and dynamical, encoding in itself the gravitational field. Mathematically, Einstein breaks with the tradition dating back to Euclid (and which is inflicted on high-school students even today!), and employs instead the non-Euclidean geometry developed by Riemann. Einstein's equations are highly nonlinear, which is why traditionally-trained mathematicians find them so difficult to solve. Newton's gravitational theory corresponds to the crude (and conceptually misleading) truncation of Einstein's equations in which the nonlinearity is simply ignored. Einstein's general relativity therefore subsumes all the putative successes of Newton's theory, while going beyond Newton to predict radically new phenomena that arise directly from the nonlinearity: the bending of starlight by the sun, the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, and the gravitational collapse of stars into black holes."

Is everything which is true testable and falsifiable?

My contention is that it is. How else are we to measure or establish its "truthiness"?
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:30 PM on February 10, 2009


Who gives a fuck?

I give a fuck, and as to what it provides: it provides an interesting intellectual exercise and perhaps, with some reflection and additional reading, some insight into the nature of reality. It may provide you with nothing, and you may be more interested in things that have an immediate and readily apparent practical application, but that doesn't make it worthless by any means.

The value of ink aside, I'll take well-thought out abstract philosophy over contrarian snark any day.
posted by paradoxflow at 9:32 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


On Steven Savitt's page (linked by mek) is a link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page on being and becoming, which seems both excellent and accessible.
posted by painquale at 9:35 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


What is "well thought out abstract philosophy"?
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:38 PM on February 10, 2009


If there is no time, then nothing is testable or falsifiable. All tests and falsifications of known theories rely on the laughably fragile axiom that there is time.
posted by rainy at 9:40 PM on February 10, 2009


Is everything which is true testable and falsifiable?
My contention is that it is.

Is that a testable, falsifiable hypothesis?
posted by empath at 9:42 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


By the way, this theory has some notable implication on the subject of ultra-expensive, $100k+ watches. Because, if there is no time, what the hell are you paying to measure?
posted by rainy at 9:43 PM on February 10, 2009


err, implications
posted by rainy at 9:44 PM on February 10, 2009


Further, I may be small-minded, but I am distinctly not anti-intellectual.

Apologies for the snark. Snark begets snark. I will end the cycle of snark and snark no more, and also make 'snark' no longer look like a word.

BTW guys, falsifiability is a popular criterion of meaningfulness or usefulness among scientists and people on the internet for some reason, but it was long abandoned by philosophers of science. The problem that GeckoDundee brings up was one of the many problems that the verificationists were aware of in the early fifties, but the real nail in the coffin was delivered by Quine in 1953. Here it is in a nutshell. (A nail in a nutshell?) I'm definitely an empiricist, but falsifiability is a poor criterion for pretty much anything. You can be an empiricist without it. I'd like to hang on to truths of logic and mathematics, thank you.
posted by painquale at 9:48 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


I mean, let's take a simple yes or no question:

Is there a purpose to existence?

It's either yes or no. I'll be damned if I can figure out how to test or falsify either answer, but one of them is right.

You can say it's a meaningless statement, but "X is a meaningless statement" is also an assertion of truth that isn't testible or falsifiable.

And it's also the case that you can't even start to answer the question without defining terms: 'purpose', 'existence', 'is'. None of which are easy things to define. But they nonetheless do have meaning, unless you're willing to say that vast swathes of human discourse are meaningless babble.

Philosophy is not science, but science isn't everything. In fact, science doesn't even make sense without a philosophical foundation.
posted by empath at 9:51 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


1908, now there's was a good year. I remember we were sitting there, and after about ten hits I was all like: "Why old chaaaap, I do believe time is, verily, not reeeeeeal!" and he was like: "My woooord!"
posted by Krrrlson at 10:06 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


having graduated with a ba or whatever in phil, i can only say this about time-
when you read a novel or hear a song that brings you somewhere else, or spend a moment with a girl that lasts way too long or short, or look at your mother or father when they suddenly appear old to you. that is time.

it is no more than a word game, and when we use the word 'time', it is most usually understood by those we share it with in that context. taken out of context the concept becomes meaningless.
posted by localhuman at 10:09 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


What is "well thought out abstract philosophy"?

Abstract as opposed to applied; metaphysics versus applied ethics, for example. Well thought out, as in thoughtful, as in addressing and answering a question that requires more than a couple of seconds of thought.

Perhaps I was being a little opaque, next time I'll throw in a little sciolism (and maybe even some exclamations in parentheses!) to elucidate.
posted by paradoxflow at 10:40 PM on February 10, 2009


Turgid, mate, you're a funny bloke and I'm sure you mean well, but please don't piss about in threads where getting anyone to stay on topic is like herding cats anyway. The fact that painquale was too polite to tell you that your intellectual "credentials" are a load of bollocks doesn't make you right.
posted by GeckoDundee at 10:40 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Paradoxflow, the "abstract philosophy" remark is a reference to a game show.

Why does MeFi do philosophy so badly?
posted by GeckoDundee at 10:43 PM on February 10, 2009


Well hell, according to Hume's problem of induction, there ain't a hell of a lot out there that's testible and falsifiable anyway.

I already can predict the rain of snark that will come from this, but I'll go ahead and quote from Dead Poets' Society: "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."

Hey, I'm not the one who equated philosophy and poetry first.

Anyway, I don't want to shit on adipocere and turgid dahlia here - I like both of them - but just between us nerds, I'll never understand the subspecies of nerd that's so obsessed with order and sterility as to reject the value of anything that doesn't fit into their worlds. Most of the nerds I've known (and how I would classify myself) are obsessed with bringing everything else in, with letting things be messy so that expertise becomes more special. It's just strange to me, is all. It's the same instinct which has led to the now-commonly-held misinterpretation of Schroedinger's Cat, which was written as a response to the EPR article, trying to make the common-sense point that of course the cat isn't dead and alive simultaneously, and has morphed into "isn't that super-cool that the cat is alive and dead simultaneously? Hooray for the fyutcha!"

To claim that there's no "truth" which is not testable and verifiable takes arrogance at mankind's capacity for research and knowledge beyond the realms of common sense, in my opinion. Hell, just look at the damn four-color map problem for something that we basically know to be true, but for which no proof has yet been devised. Yes, it's testable. Yes, it's theoretically falsifiable, though no one has done it. Is it proven? No. And that's about the most mundane of all human experience which can't be adequately handled by science.

There's also a lot of "science" out there that has already been falsified but still holds much of it's usefulness. Geocentric astronomy, for instance, is better for crossing an ocean. Newtonian physics beats out quantum physics if you're trying to build a bridge. That sort of thing.

But that's not even the point, because philosophy isn't even designed as a stand-in for science, filling in the gaps that science hasn't gotten to yet, but rather as the study of those things which it seems naive to imagine that science could ever truly prove or disprove. Empath's question above is the most basic example, but they abound. "What is consciousness" may indeed be determined by science, for instance, but science doesn't seem to look at it in the same way as philosophy. What is moral? What is just? What is worthwhile in life? Whether or not any of these questions arrive at a definitive answer, to think that the debate is useless is to retreat from half the question of humanity: one mustn't simply know the world they live in, but one must also decide how best to act within it.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:06 PM on February 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


Also: I love this (honestly!) -

My contention is that it is. How else are we to measure or establish its "truthiness"?

You are now engaging in philosophy, TD. How does it feel? Does it make you feel dirty?
posted by Navelgazer at 11:09 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


adipocere: Is everything which is true testable and falsifiable?

Everything that is meaningful is testable and falsifiable.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:18 PM on February 10, 2009


The value of ink aside, I'll take well-thought out abstract philosophy over contrarian snark any day.

I think you may have come to the wrong place, then.
posted by Davenhill at 11:24 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Blazecock Pileon,

Oh goody! Please do tell, what is meaningful, Blazecock Pileon? I'd like to know the sorts of things it's worthwhile to think about and what isn't, so could I get your list?
posted by Sangermaine at 11:38 PM on February 10, 2009


I must have missed the show where the topic heading (I'll take Well Thought Out Abstract Philosophy for 500, Alex) was also an answer to one of the questions (What is "well thought out abstract philosophy"?). So either it is a pretty artless reference, wasn't a reference at all, or I was being a little obtuse. Probably the latter.

And though I'm sure it was rhetorical (and I don't entirely agree), I might as well continue making an ass of myself and answer:

Why does MeFi do philosophy so badly?

Because an area of discussion that relies so much on the careful reading of articles that are dense, lengthy, and often unrewarding, is generally incompatible with an audience whose first impulse seems to be to get into the thread quickly and make a witty and/or pandering comment to accumulate favorites.

Don't get me wrong I love MeFi, and I admire and enjoy the pithy, humorous remarks as much as the next guy, the likes of which (even in the case of turgid dahlia) I wish I could emulate. Hell, I'll even admit my first impulse was to think of something clever and eponymous to get in the thread quickly (mission failed, by the way).

However, I much prefer the sober, in-depth replies that add to the conversation, and it irked me that the comment seemed to assert that any further serious discussion of the subject would be a waste of time.

I'll go back to lurking now. AND SILENTLY JUDGING.
posted by paradoxflow at 11:44 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


It would be a shame if you went back to lurking, paradoxflow, as your contributions definitely enhance this thread. My question wasn't intended as rhetorical, but after reading your explanation, I can see that I did indeed already know the answer.

There's also a lot of scope for misunderstanding. Sangermaine for example seems to think that Blazecock Pileon is judging which things are or are not worthwhile or something. Far more likely, he's merely pointing out that verificationism is a theory of meaning rather than a theory of truth.
posted by GeckoDundee at 12:36 AM on February 11, 2009


For those who have expressed interest, and those who've professed to be willing to learn if only the matter could be made engaging, I will share my current intellectual crush, the seemingly forgotten French philosopher Henri Bergson. Wiki here, and a good write up in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy here. He writes about time from a very phenomenological perspective speaking in terms of duration, speaking of tense as literally tensile, an infinite of layers of compression and expansion which collapse all that has ever occurred into the present moment. The present moment, which of course, is always in fact just off the present, just having happened, a penultimate instant. It's really grand stuff and matches well with Henry James' writing on consciousness, which Bergson was affiliated with but not always in concurrency with. If this tickles your fancy, I highly recommend Deleuze's regurgitation and assimilation of Bergson's thought in his book Bergsonism. It's really compelling stuff, and for those who question what possible use such idle seeming prognostication could have... might I suggest it's contemplation offers, in fact, everything? Everything and more. To me, this is what it is to be human, and I think I will stop myself at saying only that.
posted by kaspen at 1:03 AM on February 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also big ups to Steve Sevitt, linked above by mek, that man pretty much is the philosophy of space and time. I'm still digesting all he has to say, but he's pretty accessible and has a lot of papers posted free on his site.
posted by kaspen at 1:13 AM on February 11, 2009


Anyway, I don't want to shit on adipocere and turgid dahlia here - I like both of them - but just between us nerds, I'll never understand the subspecies of nerd that's so obsessed with order and sterility as to reject the value of anything that doesn't fit into their worlds...

I appreciate this, and I wasn't trying to be a prick, honestly (I don't need to try, after all, because it comes to me quite naturally). It's just that after the thirtieth half-cut discussion about the "purpose" of existence - which strikes me, personally, as a profoundly egotistical question for a species to raise in the first place - I become quite disenfranchised with the entire puddle of abstract philosophical meandering.

One of my very favourite books is Straw Dogs by John Gray. The final paragraph reads thus:

"Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction in itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?"

I have no obsession with order and sterility (I abhor a clean desk) but I do have a profound dislike for humans anthropomorphizing a universe which is completely beyond understanding, beyond comprehension, and then debating things like "truth" and "time" as though the universe cared about our long-winded insight into these matters. We are a lucky (or unlucky) accident, yet we spend our time brow-furrowing over human inventions like "time" and "truth", blissfully ignorant or merely labouring to ignore the fact that, well, it doesn't matter.

We invent things that we believe we will have some control over - truth, time, purpose, reason, ethics, beauty, the soul, all in quotes - because we are too fucking frightened of facing the fact that nothing is within our control.

Am I proposing that we give up? I don't know. I like to think that I am not, and it is certainly not my place to begrudge people their personal intellectual passions. But we're trying to understand an infinite chasm by digging trenches around the periphery.

Disclaimer: I'm very drunk, and while this spastic tirade will be cut to pieces within seconds by people far smarter than me, I am not a slave to my ego, and I honestly do love you all.
posted by turgid dahlia at 1:16 AM on February 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


TD, a virtuoso performance in your state it is then! Lovely quote, don't think I concur though. Fundamental problematic assumption: "Other animals don't need a purpose in life." This is not only contestable, but from my perspective wholly false. Look at dogs who lose the will to live after their masters die. The curiosity of animals is verisimilar to that of infants. I mean, we are animals, duh, so that invalidates the premise completely for me right off the bat. All us animate beings are in this together, I'm afraid, if only we could advance our philosophy to the stage where we could encapsulate it in kibble!
posted by kaspen at 1:43 AM on February 11, 2009


Well, regarding doggies, anecdotally I suppose it could be convincingly argued that dogs become depressed when their masters die. But then dogs, as we tend to know them today, have been engineered over thousands of years to become domesticated, to essentially depend on their masters for water, food, shelter, safety, and companionship (dogs are pack animals after all, and wolves in the wild will lament the death of a pack member much as a human family will lament the death of a member, but does that mean that member is their "purpose"?).

The purpose of an animal - humans included, though I resent having to announce that condition - is to live. Why then do we humans concern ourselves so comprehensively with things that are immaterial to life?
posted by turgid dahlia at 1:50 AM on February 11, 2009


Well, matter and time being one and the same, I would say its study is far from immaterial (rimshot!). As far as puppies go, perhaps that is too contentious a selection, I only reached for the easiest animal exemplar. Shudder as we might to face it, we are not very dissimilar to the simian races, who in turn are not far off other mammals, etc. I think if you ask anyone who's ever spent much time around animals, they would attest that behaviourly they exhibit most every trait we do. But my point was less that they can become despondent, but that they can exhibit intense curiosity and interaction with their environment. I don't see how my interactions with matter and phenomena, varied as they are by moods and chemicals, can be differentiated from that of any other living being.
posted by kaspen at 2:01 AM on February 11, 2009


Broadly then: What is it to live, and what is immaterial to this? Personally I would not discount something so broad as time from this question.
posted by kaspen at 2:05 AM on February 11, 2009


I don't shudder at all to find myself beneath the biological and, essentially, geneological umbrella of other animals. I find them all beautiful and essential and am proud to be in their company. Who decided, after all, that the noblest or most vital trait is the capacity to intellectualize? Why not the ability to fly, or breathe underwater, or create beautiful networks with the comparable strength of steel, or eat stones like a cassowary?

I also don't disagree with your assertion that non-human animals (NHAs) exhibit similar patterns of behaviour and even emotions to humans. And I believe our interactions with natural phenomena are fundamentally similar, if not objectively identical.

Humans have a few tricks up their sleeves, though. Through a miraculous stroke of luck, we figured out complex communication, and tangentially to that we figured out introspection. Not to say that NHAs can't communicate with one another (demonstrably, they can) or introspect (I have no immediate evidence for this but I would be quite surprised if they didn't), but not on the same level as humans. We talk, and think, about everything. I guess all I'm saying is we ought to be more discerning with our subjects of examination. This wine isn't very good.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:10 AM on February 11, 2009


What is it to live?

To understand that our answer to this does not matter.

However, if you were to phrase it thus:

What is it to live well?

I would say that to live well, I would need to employ a plethora of saccharine cliches: life is beauty, and life is precious. All life, from fungus to whale. It is truly astounding. But we don't understand what it is to be a part of it. Whether it be religion or mere human ego, we consider ourselves apart from it, above it, more capable or worthy than it. Because we can think about things, we can also decide what not to think about. Witness cruelty, to one another and to every other species of plant and animal. I did not participate, thus I need not devote my mental energies to it. Instead, let me formulate an explanation of two different varieties of time.

I just have a difficult time respecting these amorphous, endless discussions about the "nature" of human constructs like time and truth. There is no answer. Literally, no answer exists. We are never going to reach consensus. So why do we spend so much time with them?
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:19 AM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I agree completely, while standing by my statements as not being contradictory. And yet just try stop spending so much time with them. What are you doing now? Does it have a nobler purpose than philosophical analysis? Can it be said to be not philosophical analysis itself? But you're right, the rest is silence, and I'm perfectly ok with that. Wittgenstein said "all that we cannot put into language we must consign to silence", and I sensed a real mournfulness in those words. But, this is where I'm at right now, it seems to me that the only purpose of all our speech is to convince each other to reasonably shut up. Talk, or empty talk at least, is what's killing our world. On that note, I will shut my mouth/laptop and attempt sleep. (there is always inner talk, again, though) (ps I am not a pro-philosopher and kind of despise them myself. sorry guys!)
posted by kaspen at 2:31 AM on February 11, 2009


Sleep is a fine idea.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:37 AM on February 11, 2009


McTaggart joined Metafilter in 1905 and has been posting this "unreality of time" nonsense since 1908. Also, Immanuel Kant should be banned for violating the Terms of Service with his postulate that outside the sphere of causal reasoning there could be material objects that cannot be discussed, let alone ridiculed.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:53 AM on February 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Ah, Navelgazer, it's not an interest in order and sterility at all.

It's simply that I have seen a very long pageant of philosophers proclaiming things. They come, they say weighty things, and then they go. The next says something different, and so forth. This can be fine and interesting if the people coming and going are giving us poetry, or stories, or news articles. Here, we look for no single truth, and variety is pleasing.

But when it comes to truth, or that Capital T Truth, and most especially science, we know that not everyone can be right. For any N different Truths about a specific scientific topic, and I mean truths that can be used to build TV sets, for example, we know that N - 1 of them must be wrong, at the least. A good argument means nothing. For centuries, we said "heavier objects fall faster" on the basis of a good argument, and it all comes tumbling down because someone went and bothered to actually look. It's a lesson we must never forget in science: reality wins every discussion, if only you will take the time to ask.

If you are interested in understanding, head for a physics discussion board or channel sometime. There are always a stream of philosophers who are made uncomfortable by relativity, those for whom God must not play dice, and so on. You can show them the evidence ("no, we checked that out"), but they've got this great argument, see. After a while you come to understand that a great argument means little, because they all have great arguments, but the transistors go on working despite their proof that quantum mechanics cannot be true. This happens year after year after year.

Let the philosophers restrict themselves to ethics or morality; that's a large enough playground where nobody can ever be proven right or wrong. When it comes to science, philosophy is always there, trying to make itself look relevant and important, but mostly it gets in the way and sounds like a quarrelsome old medical doctor attempting to revise diagnoses on the basis of the four humours. After a while, you realize you're tired of hearing all of the nonsense about leeches and would like to spare yourself yet another tedious plow through someone's strange argument. To do so, you come up with a handful of criteria, and those, for me are:

1) testable. 2) falsifiable. 3) produces measurable results in a given experiment that are different from those predicted by competing theories.

Saves a fabulous amount of time, really. They're also a great deal of fun for nose-tweaking, because the puffery of the philosophical pageant is irritating. I don't mind of the emperor has a parade to show off his new clothes, but I'd rather he held it in a different part of the neighborhood.
posted by adipocere at 5:31 AM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, technically, heavier objects *do* fall faster. If it's an object, it has mass. If it has mass, it has its own gravity. A heavy object has more mass, and thus more gravity, than a light object. The object's gravity, based on its mass, is added to the Earth's own gravity to determine the rate of acceleration of the two objects toward each other.

They just couldn't measure that tiny difference hundreds of years ago. Not sure we can now either. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
posted by jamstigator at 5:48 AM on February 11, 2009


I think if you are a classical relativist, you must believe that the passage of time is really an illusion. Because according to relativity, the arena of physics is spacetime, which is fixed and exists outside of time. Spacetime doesn't evolve, it just is (it has structure which must be consistent with the distribution of energy in the universe at all places/times, but this is all completely determined and fixed once boundary conditions are specified). There is no "plane of time" which sweeps up through spacetime defining "now" - any attempt to define such a "now" is just a semantic convenience. So to a relativist, everything that has happened, and everything that will happen, exists already (and forever) in the arena of spacetime. There's no room for non-determinism or free-will in this picture. However, quantum theory may introduce it, by the mechanism of conscious observation collapsing the wavefunction.

How can a relativist account for the inconvenient fact I appear to be aware that my watch says such-and-such right now? I suppose my brain is a mechanism moving along a timelike worldline through spacetime, which gives my consciousness the sensation that "now" is where it happens to be on the worldline. Why do I experience this "now" right now, instead of some other "now"? Why do experience them in sequence? I think that's where metaphysics (or quantum theory) comes in.
posted by snoktruix at 5:57 AM on February 11, 2009


So why do we spend so much time with them?

I realised a little while ago that despite a persistent interest in contemporary philosophy and theory, I am a tourist in a foreign land looking for intellectual sights and not an autodidact holding his commitments up to the light. The things I take away from a text are immediately applicable snippets, rhetorical devices, turns of phrases, a little mechanism of virtue or perception here, as many pithy aphorisms that will fit in the trunk and so on. This is why people like Zizek and Nietzsche are so casually popular, they are very entertaining, perfect material for regaling friends and family when you return from a little contemplative sojourn, you pass around the kaleidoscope of the obscene underside, pour everyone a little more scorn, look at the yuppie reading whatever and let the wrinkle roll across your brow etc. etc.

I don't want to come over all passion of the punchline, but I do want to say that there is an immediacy and feeling to philosophy born out of social display and exchange that prevails over the private contemplation of a perfect order. It's therapeutic but then perhaps the insistence to have it out serves group therapy more than consensual truth. Maybe this is a vulgar way of putting Kant's "public use of reason" as the highest good, wherein public use is valued not as consensus machine but as agonic, conflictual middle ground for the tension between always pre existing differences (unless I'm mangling Kant there too).

I was going to write a big ass second bit on more serious pursuits and the Gnostic/Christian origin of linear time (daddy of [Spinozan?] Modern, empirical time) vs Ancient/Classical regenerative time but who's listening? Anyway, I think ask does a much much better job of philosophy than vanilla metafilter, which is dominated by scientific blowhards.
posted by doobiedoo at 7:08 AM on February 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


urgid dahlia, I disagree with your position as expressed here, but I have to award you the prize for Best Drunken Commentary in a MeFi Thread. Too bad the wine wasn't good, but remember, it's all in your mind.
posted by languagehat at 7:10 AM on February 11, 2009


Er, turgid dahlia. I don't know any "urgid dahlia," and I don't want to give him, her, or it compliments that belong to you.
posted by languagehat at 7:11 AM on February 11, 2009


This is only tangentially relevant, but: I read this blog, which I've linked to before, called the Varieties of Unreligious Experience. Recently, Conrad, the author, wrote a post about how he attended a lecture by Hayden White and was left disappointed. Hayden White is one of the most influential living theorists working on the philosophy of historical writing (he thinks it's impossible to separate history from the rhetorical tropes used to write it). Conrad complained that White wasn't "donnish" enough, so we had a little back-and-forth about British donnishness.

And then a pissed-off Hayden White showed up in the thread.
posted by nasreddin at 8:10 AM on February 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


I hope this guy didn't get paid for writing this.
posted by wayofthedodo at 8:18 AM on February 11, 2009


And his opinion of the Hylean Theoric World?
posted by GuyZero at 8:32 AM on February 11, 2009


I do have a profound dislike for humans anthropomorphizing a universe which is completely beyond understanding

Anthropomorphizing is really the only way we understand anything. We relate everything to our own humanity. It's a perfectly natural thing for human beings to do.

Why does MeFi do philosophy so badly?

Because the most interesting parts of philosophy are the questions, but many people prefer to talk about the answers.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 8:38 AM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.

Also, it helps to drink their mead before their hearthfires. But if time doesn't exist, how can you be sure you aren't being driven behind them?
posted by steambadger at 8:46 AM on February 11, 2009


I am late to this party, but I am shocked at the lack of Dogen in this thread. Hark ye:

"Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes past and future and is independent of past and future. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes future and past. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death.

"This being so, it is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death. Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth. It is an unshakable teaching in Buddha's discourse that death does not turn into birth. Accordingly, death is understood as no-death.

"Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring."

See also.
posted by everichon at 8:49 AM on February 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


And then a pissed-off Hayden White showed up in the thread.

I was going to rhapsodise about "a roomful of art history graduates" on the comments page before I scrolled down to, and remembered, the missive. Actually I wonder what he'd make of an anonymous hard on as rebuttal.
posted by doobiedoo at 8:57 AM on February 11, 2009


*clears throat* Barring any interference, objects fall at the same rate in a uniform gravitational field, if you want a more precise formulation. And let's not kid ourselves that Aristotle thought that heavier objects might fall an immeasurably slightly bit faster — you know what he meant, and it certainly wasn't "oh, perhaps thousands of years from now we might be able to build devices capable of measuring that itty bitty difference."

Other great hits from the philosophers: We can see in the dark. Democritus. The sun is a large, hot rock; Anaxagoras. And Aristotle was responsible for a great deal of incorrect ideas, like objects ceasing motion as soon as a force was no longer applied. That one delayed the acceptance of Copernican physics for some time. Perhaps Anaxagoras was right, for sufficient amounts of argument about what "rock" means.

Most of these musings on time come off as a wheezy, slightly more sober version of "and, dude, what if the whole universe is just an atom in some giant's thumbnail?" And people are free to make them; I'd just like to know if some basic criteria are satisfied before I decide I will either read it for entertainment or read it and attempt to follow the various contortions of what might as well be closing arguments from a lawyer.
posted by adipocere at 9:20 AM on February 11, 2009


I do have a profound dislike for humans anthropomorphizing a universe which is completely beyond understanding, beyond comprehension, and then debating things like "truth" and "time" as though the universe cared about our long-winded insight into these matters. We are a lucky (or unlucky) accident, yet we spend our time brow-furrowing over human inventions like "time" and "truth", blissfully ignorant or merely labouring to ignore the fact that, well, it doesn't matter.

We invent things that we believe we will have some control over - truth, time, purpose, reason, ethics, beauty, the soul, all in quotes - because we are too fucking frightened of facing the fact that nothing is within our control.


But, turgid dahlia, the universe is not "completely" beyond comprehension or understanding, only partially so, and therein lies the tremendous mystery of existence as a conscious being and the inescapable need to consider these things. How can "time" and "truth" be dismissed as human inventions if the utter meaninglessness of the universe is considered a "fact" that is independent of our consciousness? It seems to me that you have your standards of reality almost precisely backwards. On the other hand, adding my voice to the growing chorus of approval, I have to say that your drunken performance here has certainly outshone anything I might be capable of in any state, altered or not. Bravo, sir!
posted by newmoistness at 9:32 AM on February 11, 2009


I'm confused -- do we have to determine that an idea is testable and falsifiable before we're allowed to think about it at all, or only before we post it to MeFi?
posted by steambadger at 10:05 AM on February 11, 2009


Up until the 17th century there was no real difference between philosophy and science (natural philosophy). Science was something that came about as a development of philosophy. All of your precious scientific knowledge would never have come about without Aristotle, Plato, etc, laying the ground work. A lot of them were wrong, but a lot of scientists were wrong, too. Do we need to cherry pick stupid ideas from great scientists? Phlogiston Theory? Alchemy?

Philosophy is just about playing with ideas. Sometimes it's fruitful, sometimes it's not, but it's rarely a waste of time, even semantic game-playing that ultimately goes nowhere, can lead to new ideas, or at least stop people from wasting further time on it down the road.
posted by empath at 10:22 AM on February 11, 2009


snoktruix...

I have been thinking about such matters lately. Thinking about a "block universe" and what it means to be a conscious observer appearing to "move" throught such a universe. What is will and choice in such a universe? How is my "self" located and transmitted within this larger field of play (Space/Time)?

I don't know. And I've tried to read some things about the block universe, and I think the key questions for me really revolve around what, exactly, it means to be conscious entity within this plane of existence and experience some flow of time whether illusory or real. I perceive something...

Also, I'm quite tired and listless, and on lunch break right now and I have to head back to work, so... feh.
posted by symbioid at 11:36 AM on February 11, 2009


And then a pissed-off Hayden White showed up in the thread.

Heh. Conrad is young and enjoys slashing attacks without much in the way of nuance; as one who used to suffer from that syndrome but has mellowed over the years, I expect he'll learn to ease up a bit, especially when the victims of his onslaughts show up and give him what-for.
posted by languagehat at 1:47 PM on February 11, 2009


Nice post, voltairemodern. Here's some more debate on the (un)reality of time:

What is Time? : Lee Smolin

Previously (only ref to Peter Lynds on mefi)
Peter Lynds: It all began with an end - New theory on origin and future of the
universe

PhilSci Archive - Zeno's Paradoxes: A Timely Solution (Peter Lynds)
Subjective Perception of Time and a Progressive Present Moment: The Neurobiological Key to Unlocking Consciousness - Cogprints (Lynds)

FQXi Community: The Nature of Time by Julian Barbou
FQXi Community: Time as an Emergent Phenomenon: Traveling Back to the Heroic Age of Physics by Elliot McGucken

YouTube - Flow of Time (1 of 4)
Are we missing a dimension of time?

from my collection of Time and Temportality links.
posted by psyche7 at 2:27 PM on February 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Whoo, boy.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:32 PM on February 11, 2009


But if time doesn't exist, how can you be sure you aren't being driven behind them?

Because I'm the fucker with the bigass sword!
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:33 PM on February 11, 2009


A CBC radio program about time featuring Barbour, Penrose & al. I thought this was pretty interesting when I heard it last year. If time is a human construct, what the heck is Dogen talking about above?
posted by sneebler at 2:40 PM on February 11, 2009


man, i just finished that series of papers and boy did i feel enlightened.

last night i was discussing the aspect of time as it relates to boundaries or how it is a form of boundedness to a friend of mine. this led to her asking me how i felt about free will and my taking potshots at god/fate/karma. this morning i come into my little shop and my neighbor sits me down and goes off on the value of never forgetting that we construct our own cages thus determining our own conception of fate/karma/god and thus dogma is born(e).

what does this have to do with our pal McTaggart? Thomas Kuhn, dude, and 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.' I think McTaggart and a lot of other folks can't reconcilliate what they think is happening to what theory says must be happening. and when i say theory i mean that which can be tested and verified. you know, some science, man.

that whole conundrum of 'as above, so below' just won't go away. if it happens on the subatomic then it happens on the base material. probably not unless you wanna start coaxing psy and god and angels dancing on pinheads (the pope) and techno-mechanical elves and all the rest of that crap (and i do believe in telepathy and prognostication cuz it happens too often to me personally to not). if you can just register that the only way we can understand and work with the quantum tantrum the universe is constantly throwing is to accept a belief in things which are impossible (cough cough entaglement anyone?) and yet verifiable and functional then it all works out. like believing in heaven and hell and walking on faith from sheer height to sheer height.

where did McTaggart go wrong? simple: If the B series thus the A series. The A series is the baloney. the future doesn't exist for us until it happens. when that little kid said "it's tomorrow?" way early in the thread he got it right or as Grant Morrison would say, "write." if this paragraph doesn't follow for you (agreeing or dis-agreeing) then you need to read the McTaggart document from the op and the thread.

thank you. i am an ass. i am shutting up. please take drugs, go crazy and bring down the man.
posted by artof.mulata at 2:45 PM on February 11, 2009


Heh. Conrad is young and enjoys slashing attacks without much in the way of nuance; as one who used to suffer from that syndrome but has mellowed over the years, I expect he'll learn to ease up a bit, especially when the victims of his onslaughts show up and give him what-for.

I think it's unlikely that this little incident will teach him anything--White's response was very defensive, and I don't think it will persuade anyone who doesn't already agree with him. (The digression on Momigliano's fascism was a bit over the top, I'd say.) Conrad's trump card is that he's almost always smarter and more articulate than the people he's criticizing, so until someone manages to really trounce him polemically, he probably won't mend his ways.
posted by nasreddin at 2:57 PM on February 11, 2009


as one who used to suffer from that syndrome but has mellowed over the years

Really, languagehat? Judging by some of your past comments, I should say that the mellowing process still had some way to go.

Personally I hope that Conrad never mellows. Conrad would not be Conrad, the Varieties would not be the Varieties (nor half so entertaining) without that touch of arrogance, that steely contempt, that superb disdain for intellectual fashion, that insolent erudition putting the rest of us to shame. May he never mend his ways.
posted by verstegan at 1:12 PM on February 12, 2009


I should say that the mellowing process still had some way to go.

I didn't say it didn't.

Personally I hope that Conrad never mellows. Conrad would not be Conrad, the Varieties would not be the Varieties (nor half so entertaining) without that touch of arrogance, that steely contempt, that superb disdain for intellectual fashion, that insolent erudition putting the rest of us to shame. May he never mend his ways.


Ah, one pretentious twit admires another, how distingué!

Let me be clear: I am not objecting to Conrad's attacks on public intellectuals. They are, after all, public figures, and even if his attacks are smug and lacking in nuance, he's perfectly within his rights to make them. Unlike you, I hope he grows out of them, but they are merely symptoms of youthful excitability. What I object to is things like this:

A ghastly introduction from a fawning ex-student
,

...with "fawning ex-student" helpfully linked so we know exactly who he is sliming with his contempt. He's done this before, too, devoting a post to blackguarding some poor woman who'd had the misfortune to be a classmate of his years before. This is not "superb disdain for intellectual fashion," let alone "insolent erudition." It's just being a jerk. If you admire it, well, that's your prerogative, but it doesn't say good things about you.
posted by languagehat at 2:05 PM on February 12, 2009


Dear languagehat, don't be cross; I love you really, you great big cuddly bunny. You are at your best when praising things you really like, so it's no wonder you don't see eye to eye with Conrad, who is at his best when ripping into things he really dislikes. But I love you both, and I hope you will take my remarks in the frivolous spirit in which they were intended.
posted by verstegan at 4:21 PM on February 12, 2009


Oh, well, all right then, ya big galoot!
posted by languagehat at 5:03 PM on February 12, 2009


McTaggart's argument is a bit of trickery depending on language (and specifically, tensed language) and most rebuttals of it depend on using other models (such as symbolic logic) instead of the English language, to observe that what we mean when we say "is" can vary wildly. So I understand the mefi grief at encountering McTaggart, it's exactly how I felt. And how a lot of other philosophers feel. But it still resulted in a very valuable argument, and relativity obviously complicated things a bit (relativity of simultaneity anyone?)

A good starting point for those concerned with the nature of time is this encyclopedia entry on the concept of "becoming" and how philosophy and physics are heavily intertwined: Being and Becoming in Modern Physics

And if a mysterious benefactor could buy me a copy of this book on the Ontology of Spacetime (150 usd, ugh) I would be much obliged.

Why do I experience this "now" right now, instead of some other "now"? Why do experience them in sequence? I think that's where metaphysics (or quantum theory) comes in.

We can answer the "how" of this question very well at this point, thanks to poking people's brains etcetera and observing how they work. The contents of our minds are open to scientific analysis. But as for "Why do we experience?" - this question is IMHO impossible to answer. We can't get from physical stuff to phenomenological stuff - we can explain the relationship, sure, but why a relationship? Why not? It just is. It's like asking why is there gravity, why is there matter, why is there spacetime, why is there anything at all instead of nothing. There just is. Maybe there are universes where other things occur instead of these. Maybe not. How would we know either way?

But there are still questions we can handle. "Why do I experience now now, and not some other now" answers itself, anthropically. If you experienced another now now, that now would be now. The now you experience is now. That now is actually about 300ms ago, thanks to something called the "spaciotemporal hold" - when you consciously take an action, it actually takes 300ms to process. If we perceived ourselves as being constantly laggy, well, that would be pretty damn confusing. So we all live in the world as it was 300ms ago and appear to act/think instantaneously - it makes for smooth operation, I suppose. For more on the neurological side of time, see Karl Pribram (in fact, just see him anyway, what an amazing scholar.)
posted by mek at 7:03 PM on February 12, 2009


"If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." - Witt.
posted by ageispolis at 2:31 PM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


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