Saturday, April 04, 2015

Confessions of an eternalist

Confession: I am an eternalist.

Eternalist Sean Carroll has a post up commenting on recent books by Lee Smolin and philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger who argue to the contrary. Reading the comments there is depressing  - people either don't understand the issue at all, or don't appreciate how to think about the subjective nature of 'now'. Physicists!

One physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, has written an excellent and definitive analysis: here's an extract.
"The decisive ability that allows us to experience the present moment as being unlike other moments is that we have a memory. We have a memory of events in the past, an imperfect one, and we do not have memory of events in the future. Memory is not in and by itself tied to consciousness, it is tied to the increase of entropy, or the arrow of time if you wish. Many materials show memory; every system with a path dependence like eg hysteresis does. If you get a perm the molecule chains in your hair remember the bonds, not your brain.

"Memory has nothing to do with consciousness in particular which is good because it makes it much easier to find the flaw in the argument leading to the problem of now.

"If we want to describe systems with memory we need at the very least two time parameters: t to parameterize the location of the particle and τ to parameterize the strength of memory of other times depending on its present location. This means there is a function f(t,τ) that encodes how strong is the memory of time τ at moment t. You need, in other words, at the very least a two-point function, a plain particle trajectory will not do.

"That we experience a “now” means that the strength of memory peaks when both time parameters are identical, ie t-τ = 0. That we do not have any memory of the future means that the function vanishes when τ > t. For the past it must decay somehow, but the details don’t matter. This construction is already sufficient to explain why we have the subjective experience of the present moment being special. And it wasn't that difficult, was it?"
I'm not so much into perms as my preferred physical model of subjective temporal experience. If you imagine a robot with an updating model of observed-reality obtained from its internal and external sensors, it's easy to see that examining its own memory store at any instant at all the robot can persuade itself that this instant "now" is special. But all introspective moments are like that. If we saved each database-state where:
"the robot notes that it is aware of itself and its environment now"
to disk, there would be nothing fundamentally distinct about any of them.

That robot is, functionally, me and you and sits easily in the block universe.

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