Monday, July 15, 2013

Feser on Maudlin on the Nature of Time

I know, I know: what does this esoteric subject have to do with economics?

It turns out that the general subject of the philosophy of time has (in my view, anyway!) a lot to do with the theory of uncertainty and human decision making in economics, albeit at a fundamental, theoretical level.

Feser comments on an interview with the philosopher Tim Maudlin here, and in the first part (which interests me) on Maudlin’s view of time:
Edward Feser, “Maudlin on Time and the Fundamentality of Physics,” July 10, 2013.
Maudlin is the author of two important books (Maudlin 2009 and 2012) that attempt to lay out a metaphysics informed by the best current knowledge of physics.

Although I do not think Maudlin is a “Presentist” with respect to time in the way that the cosmologist George Ellis is, nevertheless Maudlin’s view of time is rather interesting, because he thinks that the flow of time is not illusory, in contrast to the widespread ”Eternalist” or “Block Universe” view of time, which actually tells us that the flow of time must be illusory in some sense.

The reason is that the “Eternalism” tells us that the all events, things and objects (including people and living things) in the past, present and future have real existence. That is, past, present and future are all equally real: the whole present, past, and future of the universe already exists in a massive “block”. The future has already happened, and if one could look at the universe from “outside” (as it were), it would look like one huge, unchanging four-dimensional “block”. This view seems to entail that there is no objective “present” (for where would you locate it in the Block Universe?), and that the passing of time is just illusory. And this is a quite orthodox and mainstream view in physics. As Ray Monk has recently written on the pages of the Guardian, “the view that the passing of time is an illusion is now the orthodoxy among theoretical physicists.” Or just observe the respected physicist Paul Davies proclaim that the flow of time is an illusion (Davies 2002).

Despite that, for some reason, human beings have the (allegedly illusory) perception of a “moving present.” This raises all sorts of troubling issues. For example, how can a dynamic process like an experience of conscious life and moving time be derived from a universe that is ultimately timeless and static?

At any rate, I do not think Post Keynesians realise what a threat this “Eternalist” view of time is to their theory of uncertainty. If true, it suggests that neoclassical economics might be right about uncertainty being only “epistemological,” in the sense that a fixed future already exists and our ignorance of it is only an epistemic matter. For it implies that all human decisions about economic life have already happened, and indeed all future states of an economy already exist. If that were true, what place is there for G. L. S. Shackle’s “crucial decisions,” decisions that shape a future that does not yet exist and is created by contingent human action.

Well, it turns out that there are respective physicists and philosophers of time who present significant arguments against Eternalism, and support a “Presentist” view of time (also called the “Growing block Universe,” “Crystallizing Block Universe” or “Emergent Block Universe” theory) that seems consistent with a Post Keynesian view of uncertainty:
“The Nature of Time, Science and Economics,” April 15, 2013.
Anyway, for those interested enough George Ellis presents a fascinating defense of the “Emergent Block Universe” theory in this video below.

As I have noted before, from 4.30 Ellis describes something that strikes me as remarkably consistent with the Post Keynesian vision of the economic and social world. George Ellis asserts that at the macro level of the universe with its complex systems (that is, neither quantum nor micro levels of reality) it is remarkable how limited precise scientific prediction is: even in the natural sciences we cannot precisely predict the past or future from present and past data for many complex macro level phenomena. So non-calculable uncertainty is not just confined to elements of the social realm.

Davies, Paul. 2002. “That Mysterious Flow,” Scientific American 287.3: 40–47.

Maudlin, Tim. 2009. The Metaphysics within Physics. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Maudlin, Tim. 2012. Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.


  1. Good piece, although as I insisted to you over at my blog, this is all about metaphysics. Eternalism doesn't "threaten" Post-Keynesian economics because Eternalism is a metaphysical doctrine. It has no higher status because it parades itself in quasi-scientific language. I can show you this in about two seconds. Look:

    "The future has already happened, and if one could look at the universe from “outside” (as it were), it would look like one huge, unchanging four-dimensional “block”."

    That assumes that someone, somewhere (a God? a human with God-like powers?) can actually look at the universe from outside. Furthermore, it implies that humans might one day be able to do so -- and that they can already start theorising this now to get ahead of the game.

    These are manifestly metaphysical propositions. And without them the theory says nothing -- because if we cannot imagine a universe from the "outside" (which in my opinion we cannot) then none of the Eternalist propositions make any sense.

    They're all just metaphysical statements using physicist language to give them an aura of scientific prestige and enable scientists to pretend like they're not doing what they're doing; which is metaphysics.

    1. Thanks for the (always!) enlightening comments.

      (1) When you say "Eternalist" speculations "are manifestly metaphysical propositions," do you mean that they are not verifiable or falsifiable?

      I suppose they might be at present, but maybe in the future there will be some way to actually test the hypothesis?

      (2) When you say "because if we cannot imagine a universe from the "outside" (which in my opinion we cannot) then none of the Eternalist propositions make any sense," I have to say I do not follow. Surely we can "imagine" it -- I've just done so?

      (3) I know you are partial to idealism, but I highly recommend the video by George Ellis. As I said above, there are times when his comments on uncertainty -- and I think basically his is uncertainty in the fundamental and Keynesian sense -- really do apply even to phenomena in the natural sciences, which for Post Keynesians should be a startlingly insight.

    2. (1) Yes, the fact that they are not falsifiable is one way of putting it. Another is that they are making assumptions about the underlying structure of reality -- i.e. they assume that there is an outside to the universe that some conscious being inhabits or can inhabit.

      (2) I mean that they are imagining this as something that exists in some tangible way. "Imagine" is a bad way of putting it. More accurately: they are making a metaphysical proposition that there is an outside to the universe that can be occupied by a conscious agent, divine or otherwise. Further, they are making the proposition that humans can "know" of this outside -- i.e. that what we call the "universe" is not just a product of our own consciousness because if it was then to say that there would be an "outside" would be, well, unusual. (Need I remind people here that the general definition of "universe" is "the totality to existence" -- these people are effectively claiming that there is an "outside" to existence... this might not just be metaphysics, but particularly bad metaphysics).

      (3) LK, while I object to wrapping metaphysical arguments in scientific garb because I think it dishonest, I am not against what these people are saying per se. I read your piece and the article you linked to in the comments of my blog. I think that the guys who insist that time is real are right.

      The problem is that they are just scratching the surface of these problems. Because they pretend that they are discussing science and not metaphysics they limit how far the debate can go and I find that very constrictive. For example, to my mind any discussion of the nature of time would logically lead to, oh I don't know, a consideration of the major work of 20th century philosophy to deal with the problem []. But the scientists tend to limit the debate. It's like a kid opening a present and then being told that they are not allowed play with the toy. And it is having detrimental effects on human cultural progress.