“Time as a Quality”


and… “An Algorithm for the Social Sciences”


(Prague, Czech Republic—February 8, 2003)

I’ve been reading lately about quantum theory. Can’t do the math, of course, but conceptually it’s fascinating. And the notion that whether one treats quanta as particle or wave is dependent on the means of perception leads one to the intuitive notion that the “reality” we experience is shaped by the structure of the human mind. It sounds obvious, put that way. But in ordinary experience we tend to assume that the qualities we perceive in the “objective” world are intrinsic to that world; we tend to overlook that those qualities are the result of the interaction between perceiver and perceived.

Color is a good example. We humans all see “green” more or less the same because our optical rods and cones are mostly similar, but a frog or bird sees something else when it looks at “green.” That something we call “green” exists is not at issue. What’s at issue is that what we call the experience of “green” is as much a part of our means of perception as it is a part of the “objective” world; “green” is not an objective quality, it’s a relational quality.

This relational factor poses no concern at the ordinary level of human experience (just as classical physics can handle the movement of falling bodies with no problem), but it does pose problems at very macro and very micro levels, when dealing with phenomena like curved space and speed of light or sub-atomic behavior. And it also poses a challenge to our philosophical assumptions, all of which are couched in classical concepts like body, mind, soul, free will, determinism, nature, etc. The limits of usefulness of these philosophical concepts seem apparent, but most folks find them workable enough and disregard (or simply don’t understand) the havoc they wreak: overpopulation, pollution from industrial technology, etc.

The social “sciences” like economics and political science muddle along using the antiquated classical paradigm of Descartes/Newton long after the physical sciences have deemed them inadequate. Systems theory is an improvement—at least it does fold in more variables—but its limitations are both practical (choosing the right variables, choosing enough variables, finding a way to compute their interactions, etc.) and philosophical: it still treats the world as a complicated machine with humans standing outside it manipulating the controls.

The big problem is that the factors which most matter for the quality of human life can’t be easily quantified and fed into the machine; they are human values. Compassion, for example. Or justice (fairness). These values are very difficult to quantify, so they are assigned to the realm of “religion” or “ethics” as if they don’t matter, when in fact they are crucial factors in determining what happens in the real world; they exist as integral parts of the structure of the real-world social paradigm, and if the system-as-representational paradigm and the computing machine ignore them, the results will be poor. Which is why the social sciences like economics and political science (as well as sociology and psychology) have proven so inadequate in solving human problems; they are ignoring crucial variables. I think it would be better to include these values/factors in the system algorithm even if the quantification of them is very approximate, very rough; better to have them there in some rough form than not at all. If they are included, the pressure to develop an algorithm which produces better accuracy will become very great, and the necessary mathematics will be discovered.

But enough of that, I’m going off on a tangent. The question I have concerns the phenomenon we call time, and it goes like this:

Color is not an objective quality, but is a quality of the relationship between the perceiver and the perceived. Similarly, time is a quality, right? The world is dynamic, ceaselessly changing, yet we are able to abstractly “freeze” two moments/points in the motion and measure the difference as “time”. But those two moments/points are not real, they are fictions. So time is a fiction, too, an invention of the human mind. Or, more precisely, a relational invention of the human mind in collaboration with the world.

Because we perceive time, we live within it. But a frog lives in the eternal present, and so it lives outside time. I’m assuming frog consciousness differs from human consciousness, though I can’t prove it; I’m extrapolating in the same way that I assume a frog’s different rods and cones cause it to experience “green” differently. I’m assuming that “time” as experienced by humans is connected to complex cerebral structures a frog doesn’t have. Maybe a chimpanzee experiences “time” in a way that is partly like a frog and partly like a human. In other words, there’s some sort of continuum that’s a function of cerebral complexity (and thus conceptual ability and language and symbol manipulation). The big brains of the dolphin and whale have to be considered, though I’m not sure how.

Anyhow, my main concern here is about how humans experience time. Intellectually, since Einstein’s breakthrough, we know the perception of time is subjective. But what I’m pondering is why we experience time at all. The more I write about this, the more stupid I feel, as though I’m stating the obvious. But it seems important to understand that time becomes a quantity when we measure it, but such measurement is an arbitrary (if agreed upon) fiction… that actually “time” is not a quantity but a quality of perception.

Or does time only exist as a measurement?



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