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:
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: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.