∆ Introducing Time. Callender + Edney.

I have a lot of the 'Introducing' series of books...
... and thoroughly recommend them all.

Introducing 'Introducing'...

The 'Introducing' series are highly illustrated, 'cartoon' introductions to various fascinating subjects. As such they contain clear and concise text that is always  accompanied by an illustration to make the point. With things like time, and relativity, this is essential. 

 Introducing Time, by Craig Callender (great name) and Ralph Edney, is excellent, and does begin by seeming to justify times existence, before going on to explore its apparent, nature.

However, (unsurprisingly) I have a problem with the opening pages of the book...

Introducing Time, Page 11.
In my opinion people typically won't argue much about the ordering of 'impressions in their minds' - But I think that all these impressions prove, is that matter can exist and interact 'now'.

The problem I have is with the opening suggestion shown above...The suggestion is that as the two people leave a basketball game that they have both just watched together there are some things they can sensibly agree about concerning time and its passing. Without access to clocks or watches the two sports fans may not easily know or agree on what the actual time is as they walk home, but they may sensibly agree about the ‘temporal order’ of the various events they witnessed together.

They could agree for instance, that before any points were scored in the game a whistle was blown, and the game was officially started. They could agree that in the first half team A scored the first 15 points, then team B scored 5 points. And agree that the bought coffee after the whistle marking the end of the first half was blown, and not before. And agree that one of them had spilt their coffee after they had returned to their seat, and before the second half officially started. So it is suggested that while we as humans aren’t very good at accurately measuring durations of time, we can accurately log the order of clear and distinct events.

We can also in normal circumstances[1] discuss and agree the order of events with perfect agreement. So it is said that these very consistent records of the order of events and reliable agreement between various records are a proof that there is more to time than it just being a human idea or notion, because there clearly is a scientifically observable, testable, repeatedly provable temporal order to events. The rest of introducing time goes on to discuss mans observations of the cosmos, the laws of physics, his ability to harness these laws to make clocks etc, and an excellent description of relativity. All of these discussions seeming to add legitimate meat to the bone of time really existing.

But here, because the remainder of introducing time rests on this one reason for seeing time as more than just an idea, we have to be very careful and precise. Some readers may think we are even nit picking or splitting hairs too much but it is not always the case that too much attention to detail is a bad thing.

The critical point to examine here is that on the way home the two spectators of the game do not actually compare the ‘temporal order’ of the events that they witnessed. What they actually compare is the contents of their own minds. While walking home, unless time, and the past really exist, and each spectator has access to a machine that can receive information from the past and show it in the present – then they can only be looking at the simple physical mental formations held in their respective minds.

This seems to be the same thing as examining the past, because, well surely those memories were made in the past, and made in temporal order, what else? The problem is that as shown in the ‘simple diagram experiment’ for the contents of our own minds to be changed all that is needed is for matter to be able to exist, move, change and interact. 

Sound from a whistle being blown hits our eardrums, and our human physiology allows the vibrating eardrums to send electro-chemical signals to the brain that can be processed and used to change groups of brain cells in some sophisticated way. Light from a basket ball entering a hoop, or a score display flipping to show ‘15’ can reach our retinas and a similar reaction can cause similar changes to other parts of our brains.

Figure: This famous footprint proves that with a bit of energy, one collection of matter can leave an impression in another. 

Whether the ability of one piece of matter to move another proves that 'the temporal past' also exists in anyway at all, I very much doubt.

Amazing as these reactions are, the impressions created and stored are in essence no more mysterious than the way a boot creates an impression in some mud, and the way the nature of the mud hold a record of the event. If a second, different foot or shoe print impacts the mud then not only will the event be stored but a good tracker should be able to work out the order of the two events.   (if an elephants foot print is found with a mouse’s foot print within it it’s pretty obvious why we can still see the latter).

The consistent and correlating nature of two peoples memories of an event do prove that there is an order to events. But what these internal mental representations do not prove is that time, exists or that a temporal order of events exists. That is to say memories do not prove

  • That a thing called time is needed for things to move and interact.
  • that anything other than energy is needed for one object to affect another (and thus possibly create a trace of that interaction).
  • Or that any other record of motion or interactions is ever created or stored anywhere other than in the matter simply existing around us.

I may say, there is an order, but it is not a temporal order. To which you may say, this is splitting hairs too finely, i.e. to the point of absurdity where a rational argument is lost because it is dissected too far and destroys itself. – And this is possible, and it may be the case.

However it may also be the case, that because this point has not been thoroughly dissected elsewhere, it is points exactly like this behind which the persistent illusion of time hides.

We can further remove the human complexity of this matter if we consider if each witness to the game took a simple film based movie camera with them. The cameras are turned on together and run nonstop for the whole game. Even though the spectators may have different seats, and points of view, the processed reels of film would still fundamentally agree on the order of every minute detail of the game they filmed.

Different films of any event, (in this case a bottle rocket taking off  -because its easier to draw than a basket ball game), will concur.

But this doesn't prove that a 'Temporal record' , or temporal order, is anything other than memories of the launch in your head.

Now these two reels of film could be sent off to some completely remote and arbitrary observer who had never seen the actual game, and they too could completely confirm that apparently the ‘temporal order of events’ throughout the game was simple fixed and unambiguous. But here in this attempt to prove beyond doubt that time exists, we have actually undermined the idea further. Because with the two reels of film processed and simply laid out side by side on a long table we can see that the observer is again not actually examining the ‘temporal order of events’. They are actually examining the physical order of pictures on physical strips of film that simply exists tangibly here now, from the first frame to the last.

So all these strips of film prove is that matter (and in this case light) can exist and interact in complicated ways, and not that time also exists and flows, or that ‘events’ pass and sink into the unchangeable ‘past’.

The idea that, of course these strips of film exist here now, but that they are also tangible proof of the temporal order of events, is not actually a proof, but a suggestion that rests on the assumption that time exists.

In other words if time does exist, then events do happen in temporal order, and the strips of correlating film confirm this. But if time does not exist, and things just move and change and interact, then the results we get from pointing cameras at the game and comparing processed strips of film are entirely possible to produce.

So, despite what we may first assume. filming an event, and seeing how the frames of film concur with other films of the event, or even spectators memories,  neither proves that time exist, or disproves that time exists!

So it may seem as if this discussion has been a ‘waste of time’ (or rather effort and energy), but it is not, because it has shown that the agreement between people, of the order of events, is not a proof that as events happen the sequence in which they happen is ‘recorded’ in any (mysterious) way – other than in the way they leave physical tracks and trails here, now.

This leaves us with a final problem, ‘If events happen, but the sequence in which they happen is not recorded (in ‘the past’) at all – then is there a ‘sequence’?

If you try to insist that the idea we had ‘that time exists’, must be right, and must be shoe-horned into connecting with any observations of the world we make, then this question will seem confusing, and seem to prove and disprove different aspects of time all at once.

But, if you remove biased thinking, and just ask,

’if things in the universe do just exist, move, change and interact, would that explain all I observe’?  

Then we find the answer here is yes.

In that, if things in the universe, basket balls, light, film in cameras, spectators brain chemicals etc can all just exist and move and interact (not over time, or leaving any temporal past behind themselves as they do so)  - then this would be enough to explain how two people could walk home with similarly ordered images in their minds.


If we still insist – “yes – but you are missing the point, it is this order of events (recorded temporally or not)- that we say is ‘time’”

Then this is the ‘Timest’ view, again ‘changing their story’ to keep Time seeming to be more than just a word or notion. Because in saying this order – recorded or not- is time. We are saying, ok, there is only, matter and motion. And no future, and no past, and no flow of a thing that has a mysterious one way direction to it. And Time doesn’t pass us, and the present isn’t moving through time…but time still exists’.

– Effectively agreeing that time has no substance to it all, while still insisting it exists and has an order – which I find unnecessarily complicated.

[1] Special Relativity suggests that people traveling at different relative speeds, discussing far distant events, may be able to scientifically disagree about the actual order of 2 separate events, this detail comes from confusing events with their consequences and seeing both as the same thing when it is not sensible to do so. This detail is not relevant here but is discussed elsewhere.

I did write to Mr Callender and sent him a full draft of my book, but heard nothing back, perhaps his calendar was full.