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A Defense of the Reality of Time

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Time isn’t what it used to be, and Tim Maudlin is partly responsible. George Musser interview Maudlin in Quanta:

Physicists and philosophers seem to like nothing more than telling us that everything we thought about the world is wrong. They take a peculiar pleasure in exposing common sense as nonsense. But Tim Maudlin thinks our direct impressions of the world are a better guide to reality than we have been led to believe.

Not that he thinks they always are. Maudlin, who is a professor at New York University and one of the world’s leading philosophers of physics, made his name studying the strange behavior of “entangled” quantum particles, which display behavior that is as counterintuitive as can be; if anything, he thinks physicists have downplayed how transformative entanglement is. At the same time, though, he thinks physicists can be too hasty to claim that our conventional views are misguided, especially when it comes to the nature of time.

He defends a homey and unfashionable view of time. It has a built-in arrow. It is fundamental rather than derived from some deeper reality. Change is real, as opposed to an illusion or an artifact of perspective. The laws of physics act within time to generate each moment. Mixing mathematics, physics and philosophy, Maudlin bats away the reasons that scientists and philosophers commonly give for denying this folk wisdom.

The mathematical arguments are the target of his current project, the second volume of New Foundations for Physical Geometry (the first appeared in 2014). Modern physics, he argues, conceptualizes time in essentially the same way as space. Space, as we commonly understand it, has no innate direction — it is isotropic. When we apply spatial intuitions to time, we unwittingly assume that time has no intrinsic direction, either. New Foundations rethinks topology in a way that allows for a clearer distinction between time and space. Conventionally, topology — the first level of geometrical structure — is defined using open sets, which describe the neighborhood of a point in space or time. “Open” means a region has no sharp edge; every point in the set is surrounded by other points in the same set.

Maudlin proposes instead to base topology on lines. He sees this as closer to our everyday geometrical intuitions, which are formed by thinking about motion. And he finds that, to match the results of standard topology, the lines need to be directed, just as time is. Maudlin’s approach differs from other approaches that extend standard topology to endow geometry with directionality; it is not an extension, but a rethinking that builds in directionality at the ground level.

Maudlin discussed his ideas with Quanta Magazine in March. Here is a condensed and edited version of the interview.

Why might one think that time has a direction to it? That seems to go counter to what physicists often say.

I think that’s a little bit backwards. Go to the man on the street and ask whether time has a direction, whether the future is different from the past, and whether time doesn’t march on toward the future. That’s the natural view. The more interesting view is how the physicists manage to convince themselves that time doesn’t have a direction.

They would reply that it’s a consequence of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which holds that time is a fourth dimension.

This notion that time is just a fourth dimension is highly misleading. In special relativity, the time directions are structurally different from the space directions. In the timelike directions, you have a further distinction into the future and the past, whereas any spacelike direction I can continuously rotate into any other spacelike direction. The two classes of timelike directions can’t be continuously transformed into one another.

Standard geometry just wasn’t developed for the purpose of doing space-time. It was developed for the purpose of just doing spaces, and spaces have no directedness in them. And then you took this formal tool that you developed for this one purpose and then pushed it to this other purpose.

When relativity was developed in the early part of the 20th century, did people begin to see this problem? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 May 2017 at 11:30 am

Posted in Science

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