Through the Wormhole: Is time real?

After watching a video on ‘Is Time Real’, part of a ‘Through the Wormhole’ series narrated by Morgan Freeman, … i can’t believe how far most physicists are ‘off the trail’ and have lost the scent.  But then, one shouldn’t be too surprised since Mach, who didn’t believe time was real ‘quit the Church of Physics’ back in 1913, and when we look at physics now, we’re pretty much looking at the ‘post-Machean Church of Physics’, apart from rare Machean’s like Julian Barbour.


No wonder we are so screwed up!  i.e. by taking advice from science.  Sure science is good for technological stuff but science is all about ‘what things-in-themselves do’ and it never helped us become more aware of the ‘transformation of space’ we are included in, and that we are inadvertently contributing to, usual in negative ways; i.e. making things happen in the sense of ‘what things-in-themselves do’ is ‘blind’ to how our relations with one another and the living space are transformed in the process.   John Lennon might as well have said; ‘life is something that happens to us, while we are taking advice from scientists’ [what he actually said was; ‘while we are busy making other plans’].


This is not ‘rocket science’ and Mach is not saying that ‘time’ is going to disappear if we acknowledge that it is ‘illusion’.  The illusion is spoken of in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, ‘The Method of Nature’; i.e. the smooth and persisting shapes we see derive from the underlying dynamics.   Emerson says;


“[The smoothness we admire in the order of the world] is the smoothness of the pitch of the cataract. Its permanence is a perpetual inchoation. Every natural fact is an emanation, and that from which it emanates is an emanation also, and from every emanation is a new emanation. If anything could stand still, it would be crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted” – Emerson, ‘The Method of Nature


Can you imagine a human being as a form that takes shape from stuff flowing through it?

How about within a complex ecosystem where are all kinds of cycles of things eating other things (men eating plants and plants eating nutrients in the water and sunbeams and stuff) and then one starts to wonder if the dynamics of the web of relations does not take precedence over the forms that develop within the relational web.


The relational configuration predominates over the participating forms




Everything seems to depend on everything else!  That is Mach’s point.  Space is relational.  The relations between things predominate over the things; i.e. the energy relations give rise to the forms in the web of relations.   As Julian Barbour says;


“It would be much more natural to specify our distances to all objects. They define our position. This conclusion is very natural once we become aware that nothing is fixed. Everything moves relative to everything else.  Taking this further, thinking about the position and motion of one object is artificial. We are part of Mach’s All, and any motion we call our own is just part of a change in the complete universe. What is the reality of the universe? It is that in any instant the objects in it have some relative arrangement.   … It [the universe] does not move in absolute space, it moves from one configuration to another.”  — Julian Barbour


So, ‘time’ does not ‘disappear’.  ‘Time’ relates to the changing of the shapes that gather in the relational web.  Meanwhile, the physical reality, as Mach points out, is the transforming relational space, the transforming configuration within which the dynamic figures form.  As Emerson says, in the same paragraph as the above quote;


“[The smoothness we admire in the order of the world] is the smoothness of the pitch of the cataract. Its permanence is a perpetual inchoation. Every natural fact is an emanation, and that from which it emanates is an emanation also, and from every emanation is a new emanation.  … In all animal and vegetable forms, the physiologist concedes that no chemistry, no mechanics, can account for the facts, but a mysterious principle of life must be assumed, which not only inhabits the organ, but makes the organ.” – Emerson, ‘The Method of Nature’


So, if the world is a continuously reconfiguring relational flow-space, ‘things-in-themselves’ are no longer ‘foundational’ to ‘change’.  And it was from ‘things changing’ that we got the notion of ‘time’.  We don’t need ‘time’ if ‘change’ is instead, the continual reconfiguring of the relational world.  Sure, we still have those ‘dynamic figures’ or ‘Dinge an sich selbst betrachtet’ (‘things considered in themselves’) but because we acknowledge that the continuous reconfiguring of relational space as ‘primary’ [‘physical reality’], we also acknowledge that the ‘dynamic forms’ and their ‘time-based changed’ are ‘appearances’ (‘schaumkommen’), ‘illusion’ that we, for our own convience [‘economy of thought’] reduce to ‘Dinge an sich’ (‘things in themselves’).  ‘Time’ is illusion because dynamic forms-that-change-and-move are illusion.


We are immersed in a continually transforming relational space.  That that is physical reality is Mach’s point.  Yes, we see persisting forms within the transforming relational space, such as ourselves, but that is not the physical reality.  We are forms that continually gather and are regathered within the transforming relational space.   The persisting visual appearance of these forms doesn’t stop us from assuming they are forms within the greater physical reality of a transforming relational space.  In the food web picture, the nematodes can be secondary to the evolving relational web [ecosystem].  As with the relationship of hurricanes to the flow of the atmosphere, we are not obliged to assume that ‘the hurricanes are what is stirring up the flow of the atmosphere’.  The hurricanes are gathering in the flow of the atmosphere, and thus it can also be for the nematodes in the earth’s ecosphere.


What Mach and Barbour and Schroedinger are saying is that our physical experience is of the reconfiguring of the world, and we use language and intellectual devices to reduce the dynamic forms that gather and are regathered to ‘thing in themselves’ and then re-render the dynamics [the continually transforming relational space dynamics] to the more easy-to-mentally-manage ‘what things-in-themselves are doing over time’.  There are two architectures here, the non-dualist architecture which we manage using the logic of the included middle, and the dualist architecture which we manage using the logic of the excluded middle.


‘Time’ didn’t entirely ‘go away’.  What we did was to restore our awareness of, the orienting of our understanding to,  a greater physical reality than the artificial ‘what things-in-themselves are doing over time’ reality.  So it is both the ‘things-in-themselves’ and ‘time’ that get ‘demoted’ from ‘reality’ to ‘illusion’ in the process.  According to ‘pragmatist idealists’, it is of course very ‘useful illusion’, but ‘illusion’ all the same.  But according to ‘realists’ who are the stewards of institutionalized ‘realism’ that is now globally dominant, ‘time’ remains ‘real’ because; (a) it delivers a convenient ‘economy of thought’, and (b) it is foundational to our institution-regulated global society.

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