If time doesn’t exist, can we no longer say the book pushing the theory came just in time? Can children hold it up when parents try to put them in time-out? Do we have any time left? There are many more questions waiting to be answered with the publication of “Out of Time: A Philosophical Study of Timelessness” in which the authors make their case for the idea that time does not exist. It’s deep, but fortunately lead author Dr. Sam Baron took the ‘time’ to explain it in somewhat layperson’s terms in The Conversation.
Baron starts by describing the big ‘crisis’ in physics today – the conflict between Einstein's general theory of relativity and the tiny world of quantum mechanics where particles seem to be trying to defy Einstein and the larger world of physics. The battleground where this fight is taking place is “quantum gravity” – whose existence would replace both general relativity and quantum mechanics with a new theory that works at the particle level. Baron explains that string theory – replacing particles with vibrating strings – can’t do it because its models can’t be tested by experiments. Other mathematical theories have been developed, but they depend on eliminating time. Baron decides to look the idea that time does not exist at all, how that would be possible … and what the consequences would be.
“It’s complicated, and it depends what we mean by exist. Theories of physics don’t include any tables, chairs, or people, and yet we still accept that tables, chairs and people exist.”
You can’t get much more basic than tables and chairs, right? We sit down without worrying about the how and why of a thing shaped like four legs, a seat and a back – Baron says we just accept that chairs “emerge” from particles. In a similar way, we accept the existence of a clock made out of fundamental particles. But what are the fundamental particles of time?
“We believe ourselves to be agents (entities that can do things) in part because we can plan to act in a way that will bring about changes in the future.”
In other words, we can ‘cause’ things to happen in the future, and things in the present were ‘caused’ by something in the past. But … do we need a past and a future to ‘cause’ something to happen? Is time essential to causation?
“Perhaps what physics is telling us, then, is that causation and not time is the basic feature of our universe. If that’s right, then agency can still survive. For it is possible to reconstruct a sense of agency entirely in causal terms.”
Well, when you put it that way …
Does Baron’s simple explanation that the world could continue to go on without the existence of time make sense to you? Or does it sound like a ‘cause’ to move you to buy the book?
Only time – or no time – will tell.