Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Each of us creates the illusion of the passage of time inside our own heads, or so most modern cosmologists would have it.  

Einstein called the idea of a moving present moment a ‘persistent illusion’. How this works has been succinctly explained by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. I will paraphrase a bit...

I’m skyping with a friend back in the UK. During the conversation we both use the word ‘here’, in his case to mean his room in a flat in London and in mine to refer to my own room here in La Antigua. We understand that our use of ‘here’ is contextual, subjective. But then we use the word ‘now’ and in this instance there is an unacknowledged assumption that we are referring to something out there in reality, a fixed present moment that we both have access to despite the spatial distance. Yet what is really happening is that our mutual, subjective sense of nowness is similar enough to give us the illusion that it is something objective. 

Part of the shock of bereavement is the break-down of this illusion in the specific case of one very meaningful relationship. After my father died in January someone asked me ‘Where do you think he is now?´ and my answer was that he is where he has always been. It’s just from a temporal perspective at least, no longer the place where I am. 

There’s nothing like mortality when it comes to revealing just how alone we really are inside our heads. Our subjective experience has a beginning and an end, but it is also, in a sense, infinite — for the very reason that the passage of time itself is subjective. 

I’ve mentioned to someone trying to comfort me that the death of my parents has left me feeling ‘cut adrift’, but some deeper reflection has led me to the understanding that this is really every person's natural state. 

Thinkers through the centuries — men like Heraclitus and Hobbes — have insisted that the fundamental quality of this world is motion and flux. Einstein seemed to want to shore things up a bit, commending to us an image of the cosmos that was essentially fixed in four dimensions for all eternity. 

‘God doesn’t play dice’ was his original discomfited response to developments in particle physics. Motion in time he could account for, but flux in the space part of space-time suggested an underlying game of chance, and this he could not at first abide. 

Nevertheless, in one of his oft-quoted soundbites, he did also refer to the whole of reality as a ‘peristent illusion’, so might he perhaps also have intuited that one needs to fathom the material part of reality in terms of its interactions with mind? 

Back to my skype conversation analogy. I fly to London and have dinner with my friend. In the conversation we then have ‘here’ seems to refer to something more inter-subjective. We both appear to mean the same thing as long as we don’t get too granular about it. 

But let’s do just that - let’s get granular. At the very wee-est level, my reality consists of particles making what appear to be choices. Dead cats. Live cats. 

Adherents of the so-called many world interpretation of quantum phenomena would advocate that each of these choices results in a new and separate version of reality.  

But it would be wrong to use the language of causation here. One could only call this the ‘spawning’ of a new universe subjectively, because from an objective perspective it has always been there, hasn’t it? 

Yet in the manner of what is now known in cinematic parlance as a Sliding Doors moment, our conscious awareness passes from one universe to another without any actual awareness of this significant shift. 

Now my question is, when I am chatting to my friend at his dinner table, is the nano state of his reality the same as mine, objectively-speaking, or like the state of his timeline, does it only appear to be so due to our proximity? 

Are we taking a stroll through the same garden of forked paths? (Or to further the Borgesian analogy, are we both seeking the same book in the Library of Babel?!) 

Could I have actually been keeping company with a multitude (...In an effect not unlike that experiment when a subject fails to notice a change of interlocutor when two men carrying a wooden screen pass between the pair.) 

I think I know which answer  Heraclitus would feel more comfortable with. Einstein was nothing if not rather un-comfortable in this thought space. I imagine this is because he felt that the implication tended to be that randomness was somehow the more fundamental aspect of reality. In other words, the only way you get from cats that are both alive and dead at the same time to definitively living or deceased felines was when God — or the universe itself — rolled some dice. 

Yet as I conjectured in my last lengthy post of philosophical musings, there is no reason to suppose that the fully-determined and indeterminate natures of reality are not of essentially equal importance — and maybe also somehow intervolved, to borrow one of those self-coined words that John Milton (OP) tried and failed to introduce into common usage. 

Perhaps Einstein created a conceptual-impediment for himself here with this uncharacteristic reversion to deistic language. But even if he’d dropped the ‘God’ part, it would have remained pretty clear that he was inferring that the dice are being rolled somewhere well beyond human consciousness. 

He would not be the first scientist to presume for no good reason that reality is something which can be described objectively, and that we are just accidental observers within the cosmos we inhabit. 

Yet what if it is us rolling the dice? 

For decades neuroscientists have been telling us that human consciousness appears to be an after-the-event narrative that our minds concoct to give us a sense of agency. This does not mean we lack ‘free will’, just that the freedom is more complex and that it is working out at least partially beneath the threshold of awareness. Choices are being made at every level, all the way down to the most miniscule. 

At each moment we are in a state of flux, not so much a cat in a box, but an individual in transition different realities and when one steps back and contemplates this as motion, the moving present moment is revealed to have a spatial as well as a temporal component.  'Here', just like 'Now', is always subjective. 

And I have been left pondering if these transitions — the particulate equivalents of the wave of personal movement through spacetime —  are happening out there wholly independently of us, or whether they are all part of some as yet unfathomable co-dependent interaction between minds and universe(s).

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