A Rant on Time and Causality
Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on August 31, 2007
It is often said, when speaking of the world as the physics describes it, that the state of the world at some time t which is fully described through its physical properties, through causal relation determines the state of the universe in the time that follows.
I take it this to be confused speech, for several reasons… First there is no such thing as self-subsistent “state of the universe at time t fully described through its physical properties”, because:
a) there is no absolute time. One measures time within the universe by comparing some repeating change, which is taken as regular, with some other change. Measurement is done by observer at some point, moving with some speed. Because of that, event A might be before event B for some observer, but not for another. So, that “universe at time t” abstraction, where it is imagined that there is absolute time becomes senseless when we correctly understand time and measurement of time.
b) the properties are not self-subsistent anyway. The view that what we have is some little particles, which are characterized by certain properties which have precisely determined values, i.e. the “bundle view” of properties is, I think, metaphysically naive. But let’s not go into the metaphysical analysis if those properties can’t be self-subsistent or they exist only as aspects of the object (and as such show more complex relation than the relation that multitude of fruits have in a bag). Just consider how the pair of conjugate variables like time and energy of the system can’t be measured to a given precision. One can give metaphysical speculation that this is because the energy of the system and the position in time of the system aren’t actual and self-subsistent properties of the object – they are aspects of the object which are not just related to the object itself, but to the notion of measurement – so to comparing to the properties of other things in some way! (I think lot of the weirdness that are related to measurement in the contemporary physics point to the weirdness of the naive reductionist picture which takes atoms and their properties as self-subsistent. Instead of blaming this naive metaphysical picture, people are blaming the nature for being non-intuitive and hosting contradictions! It is “unintuitive” and “unreasonable” if our intuition and reason are limited to the picture of small balls in the void ruled by some “laws”.
Now, to this atomistic metaphysical view, the notion of ‘causal relation’ is added, which serves as a glue between those abstract “state of the universe as certain time”. Even if we ignore the unintelligibility of “physical state of the universe at time t” idea, there are problems with this view about causal relations. The relation between the state and how it evolves is seen as external, as if the laws are contingent rules which take this “state at time t”, and determine the new state to which it will change. As if gravity and inertia are completely separate from mass, time and space, as if electromagnetic forces are separate from electric charge, time and space, and so on. It is ignored that without those ‘forces’ and those changes, there wouldn’t be sense in talking about electric charges, mass, and indeed about space and time.
Also, one can point that the physical equations of the modern physics as a sign that this view of ‘external causal relation’ is wrongly assigned to the world. What we have in physics are differential equations which give us the necessary relation between those different abstractions (time being one of them), and one can talk about ‘state at time t’ only as a product of arbitrary decision to assign some number to the variable of time in the equation. Indeed the system described by those equations present themselves as deterministic – in the sense that the behavior of those abstractions (though not of the system as a whole!) through time is fully dependent by their nature which is described with those equations, but those equations don’t speak of states, they are merely describing the nature of the system, through describing how different (abstract) aspects of it correlate given some observer (as the measurement will require observer always).
The cause we need to talk about is then, not the Humean one (in which two type of events would necessarily be connected one to another), but Aristotelian one (where to specify the cause, is to answer ‘why’ question) – we say that system at measured time t2, will be such and such, because the nature of the system (at least it’s physical aspect) is described by the given differential equation, and that different properties had those specific measured values at the time t1.
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