Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy [draft]

Below is a very rough draft of a paper I’ll be presenting at a conference in L’aquila, Italy in April. The conference aims to revisit important philosophical issues related to the famous 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson. HERE is the conference site (it is in Italian, so you’ll need to ask Google to translate it for you).

Any feedback on what I’ve shared below would be greatly appreciated, as I’ll be working to improve the draft for the next couple months.

“What is time?” Reflecting on this ageless question stretches my imagination in several directions: I first consider the time of my own most direct and intimate experience of being alive: I was born, I live and age, and I will die, necessarily in that biographical order. My interest in physics then leads me to ponder the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory: I wonder what, if any, significance my personal biography has given the deterministic mechanism and time-reversibility of Nature’s fundamental laws. Finally, my incurable philosophical itch lures me into a metaphysical spiral of generalization in search of a wider interpretive context within which the laws of physics might find a place alongside my lived experience.

It is this quest to understand time that has brought us here together today. Physicists, theologians, businessmen, philosophers, artists—really every thoughtful human being—has at one point or another been struck by this question and struggled to answer it in their own terms. Nearly a century ago, time was at the center of Einstein and Bergson’s debate in Paris. Centuries earlier, another influential intellect, Ben Franklin, had tried to settle accounts: “Time is money.” Centuries earlier still, Augustine had to confess that he did not know what time is (though he offered a few conjectures). And Plato, as he stared in wonder at the starry heavens above him while inwardly contemplating the perfections of geometry, offered at least a likely story: time is a moving image of eternity.

The passage of time is both inescapably obvious and profoundly mysterious. Nothing gets to the heart of who and what we are more than time. We are born, we age, we die; civilizations rise and fall; stars ignite, burn their atomic fuel, and go supernova, and never the reverse. And yet, there is a strong consensus among physicists that the time of human experience, let us call it “phenomenal” or “lived time,” is, as Einstein once put, a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” In the equations of physics—whether classical, relativistic, or quantum—it doesn’t matter which direction time flows, if it can even be said to “flow” at all. The one exception, perhaps, is the 2nd law of thermodynamics, to which I will return later.

In what follows, I first revisit the crucial bifurcation between natural science and human experience that has informed not only our views of time but so much of modern thought and culture. Alfred North Whitehead will be my principle guide in this endeavor. Along the way I distinguish Whitehead’s process philosophy from Henri Bergson’s understanding of temporality. Though Whitehead affirmed much of Bergson’s critique of scientific materialism, he departs in crucial respects from the Frenchman’s vitalism. Finally, I draw Whitehead into conversation with the work of loop quantum gravity theorist and popular science author Carlo Rovelli. While the convergence is by no means complete, I believe there are some hopeful signs in Rovelli’s professed natural philosophy that align him with Whitehead and thus bring us closer to a philosophical reconciliation between human experience and the Nature known to science.

Einstein and Bergson: The Clash between Physics and Philosophy

The canonical interpretation of the 1922 debate that our conference is meant to revisit is that Einstein the mathematical physicist won out over Bergson the philosopher by dismissing any role for the latter’s special faculty of intuition in cosmological investigations. This view of what happened has had lasting consequences for how the general public understands the relationship between scientific knowledge and human experience. It was reiterated in Bertrand Russell’s widely read A History of Western Philosophy (1945), wherein Russell challenged Bergson’s understanding of mathematics and dismissed his philosophy as “anti-intellectual.”1 This triumphalist interpretation continued to echo in the “Science Wars” of the mid-1990s, when Sokal and Bricmont published their book Intellectual Impostures (1997), which devoted an entire chapter to the debate between Bergson and Einstein (at least in the French edition).

As more sympathetic interpreters have recently made clear (e.g., Val Dusek2, Milic Capek3, Bruno Latour, Jimena Cannales, Melanie White4), contrary to the canonical interpretation it must remembered that Bergson had no qualms with Einstein’s mathematical logic or with the empirical data supporting it. Bergson accepted the epistemological importance of Einstein’s relativity physics and conceived of his own intuitive philosophy not as a competitor but as a metaphysical supplement. Einstein, on the other hand, rejected the metaphysical importance of Bergson’s philosophy, dismissing it as a subjective psychological illusion. Bergson’s main point of contention with Einstein concerned whether relativity theory tells us more about the behavior of clocks than it does about concrete or lived time. For Bergson, the vital energy and creative metamorphosis of lived time will always remain invisible to the spatializing methods of scientific measurement and mathematical representation. For Einstein and his inheritors, the invisibility to their methods of Bergson’s so- called “lived time” signals only its nonexistence. “The philosopher’s time does not exist,” Einstein insists.

Bergson’s refusal to accept Einstein’s dismissal as the final word on real time does not mean he denies the practical utility of relativity theory’s spatialization of time. Clearly the measurements and models of 20th century physics have produced untold technological miracles that have transformed human life and society. Einstein came of age just as newly erected steam engine train tracks began to criss-cross the European landscape, forever warping the time-consciousness of pre-industrial peoples. Trains linked cities and towns across the continent at faster speeds than ever before. The newly linked stations needed to invent evermore ingenious ways of synchronizing their clocks in order to remain on schedule, and to avoid collisions. As is well known, prior to becoming the world’s most famous scientist, Einstein worked as a patent clerk reviewing the latest signaling technologies to assist in establishing the (at least approximate) simultaneity of clocks across long distances. In today’s globally interconnected and increasingly digitized world, this convenient way of measuring time has become nearly all-encompassing. We have all of us been swallowed alive by mechanical clock-time. The daily and seasonal rhythms of Sun, Moon, and stars have faded away into the background of our electrified routines. It is, in Dickens’ words, “as if the sun itself had given in” to the ordering power of clocks and the network of machines they coordinate.5 A convenient tool has thus become our master.

Bergson believed that an intuition of lived time is necessarily presupposed in all the physicist’s intellectual operations, including his mathematical reflections and empirical measurements. Einstein regarded Bergsonian intuition as an illusory artifact of our human perception and thus as irrelevant to the objective truths revealed by physics. For Einstein and the physicists who inherit his way of thinking, there simply is no such thing as a “philosopher’s time,” that is, the living duration through which evolution continually generates novel forms, as Bergson might say. Instead, Einstein distinguished two kinds of time: psychological time, which is a subjective illusion generated by relative motion, and physical time, which is an objective quantity measured by clocks that ultimately reduces to a 4-dimensional block universe wherein all time exists eternally because no real distinctions can be made between past, present, and future. Einstein’s is a deterministic universe that leaves no room for divine dice rolls, creative evolution, or real becoming, since in the 4th dimension, everything has always already occurred. Nothing is held in reserve or in potentia. It is as though the whole life of the universe were already contained on a cosmic movie reel.

Like all modern scientists since Galileo, rather than situating science within human experience as one of its possible expressions, Einstein opposed his theoretical model of space-time to our experience of being alive, dismissing the latter’s importance for our understanding of the universe. Though Bergson said the following of Kant’s transcendental philosophy, it could just as easily have be said of Einstein’s gravitational epistemology: “Knowledge is presented to us in it as an ever-open roll, experience as a push of facts that is for ever going on. But…those facts are spread out on one plane as fast as they arise; they are external to each other and external to the mind. Of a knowledge from within, that could grasp them in their springing forth instead of taking them already sprung, that would dig beneath space and spatialized time, there is never any question. Yet it is indeed beneath this plane that our consciousness places us; there flows true duration.”6

Bergson and Whitehead: Confluence and Divergence

Bergson was not the only early 20th century philosopher to protest against this sort of greedy reductionism. In Germany, Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenological inquiries undermined the epistemic and existential ground of scientific materialism. In England, Whitehead articulated an alternative philosophy of Nature that avoided the metaphysical incoherence of what he called the “bifurcation of nature.” While he would eventually leave his home country and travel to Harvard to take up the philosophical task of constructing a full-fledged metaphysical cosmology, it was Einstein’s relativity theory that first drew Whitehead out of his early work on the foundations of mathematics and into the philosophy of Nature. While Whitehead praised Einstein for the relativistic paradigm shift he initiated, he did not accepted Einstein’s particular way of formalizing relativity; nor, like Bergson, did he accept the implicitly metaphysical interpretation that Einstein attached to his theory.

In his 1922 book The Principle of Relativity, Whitehead explicitly rejected Einstein’s bifurcation of nature “between psychological time which is personal and impersonal time as it is in nature” (66). He also claims to have uncovered a significant contradiction in Einstein’s philosophical account of relativity that, if left unaddressed, threatens to undermine the possibility of spatial measurement. In short, if Einstein’s hypostatization of 4-D geometry is to be believed and space-time really is a “fabric” warped by the presence of massive objects, then the accurate measurement of distances would require precise and complete knowledge of the distribution of all masses in the universe. The problem is that this knowledge cannot be gained in advance of measurement, so we are left having to know everything before we can know anything. Einstein briefly mentions issues of spatial measurement raised by general relativity in a 1921 paper “Geometry and Experience,” but he does not appear to believe they represent a problem worth dwelling on, much less a fundamental contradiction in his interpretation of relativity. To avoid this problem, Whitehead developed his own empirically equivalent tensor equations that did not rely upon the idea of a curved space-time geometry.

The historical controversy about how Bergson’s work is to be received has left its mark on Whitehead scholarship. There is a rich literature trying to sort out the extent and nature of the former’s influence upon the latter. Whitehead’s biographer Victor Lowe downplayed the significance of the influence, while more recent scholarship by Randall Auxier, Pete Gunter, and Carl Hausman has amplified the relation to the level of a fundamental confluence of ideas.7

According to Whitehead, the measured clock-time of the physicist and of conventional civilized life “merely exhibits some aspects of the more fundamental fact of the passage of nature.” On this point Whitehead claims he is in “full accord with Bergson.”8 Bergson took notice, writing that Whitehead’s The Concept of Nature (1920) “is certainly one of the most profound [works] ever written on the philosophy of nature.”9 Almost a decade later, Whitehead affirmed in Process & Reality that “the history of philosophy supports Bergson’s charge that the human intellect ‘spatializes the universe’; that is to say, that it tends to ignore the fluency, and to analyse the world in terms of static categories.” But, continues Whitehead, “Bergson went further and conceived this tendency as an inherent necessity of the intellect. I do not believe this accusation.”10 In the preface to the same book, Whitehead says he was lured into his adventure in cosmology in part to save Bergson’s “type of thought from the charge of anti-intellectualism, which rightly or wrongly has been associated with it.”11

According to Gunter, Whitehead is not reacting to Bergson’s true view here. Bergson is not anti- intellectual and does not believe the scientific intellect is inevitably mechanistic and bound to falsely spatialize the universe in all its attempted explanations. In Creative Evolution (1907), Bergson himself attempted to initiate an organic reformation of the abstractions of science. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism can be understood to have brought this project to fruition. Whitehead and Bergson’s views diverge in places, but this may be more a divergence of emphasis than of substance.

Whitehead attempted to re-imagine science so that it would no longer be forced to resort to “heroic feats of explaining away.”12 His response to Einstein’s reductionistic metaphysical interpretation of the physics of relativity was really aimed at a philosophical postulate that long preceded Einstein: the so-called “bifurcation of nature” first articulated by Galileo in the 17th century. In Galileo’s terms, this bifurcation was a division between primary quantitative or material characteristics and secondary qualitative or mental characteristics of reality. This bifurcation is the founding metaphysical gesture of modern scientific materialism. For centuries, it proved to be a tremendous boon to natural scientific investigation, freeing researchers from Scholastic metaphysics by encouraging parsimonious explanations based in mathematical calculation and empirical measurement. But as with all abstract models meant to capture some aspect of concrete reality, its limits will eventually be reached and must be understood and accepted. While immensely useful for elaborating the broad outlines of physical nature, the bifurcation between primary and secondary characteristics severely handicapped inquires into not only fundamental ontology but the biological and psychological sciences, where the role of perception and consciousness can no longer be ignored. Disturbed by Einstein’s dismissal of the place of consciousness in the cosmos (“For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one”13), Whitehead realized he needed to challenge this founding metaphysical gesture and search for a more adequate replacement.

In Whitehead’s new organic philosophy of Nature, human experience must be understood as an especially intense expression of rather than a miraculous exception to the more widespread vibratory rhythms shaping the physical universe. Replacing the old gesture of bifurcation, Whitehead offers the following founding proposition for a new kind of natural philosophy to undergird physics:

“For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.”

I quote Whitehead at length on this issue, as it is central to his criticism of scientific materialism’s attempt to explain away time:

“In making this demand [that everything perceived is in nature], I conceive myself as adopting our immediate instinctive attitude towards perceptual knowledge which is only abandoned under the influence of theory. We are instinctively willing to believe that by due attention, more can be found in nature than that which is observed at first sight. But we will not be content with less. What we ask from the philosophy of science is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known….What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.”14

Healing the bifurcation of Nature allows natural philosophy to avoid committing what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” which is what Einstein falls prey to when he dismisses lived experience (“the dream”) in favor of an abstract geometrical model (“the conjecture”). Of course, as the history of modern science has made evident, appearances are often deceiving. Taking lived experience seriously doesn’t mean accepting reality as it first appears to us. The Earth is not flat and is not orbited by the Sun. As Whitehead says in the excerpt above, we instinctively search for deeper realities and are not satisfied with superficial appearances. There is often more than what at first meets the eye. But the dismissal of our lived experience of temporal becoming in favor of an atemporal theoretical model asks us to accept that Nature is less than our experience tells us it is. To do so would be to lose the thread of experience that makes science possible in the first place. Even the mind-bending paradoxes of contemporary theoretical physics are, according to Latour, “child’s play in comparison with the multiplicity and complexity of the dimensions that are simultaneously accessible to the most minimal experience of common sense.”15 Inheriting the protests of Bergson and Whitehead, Latour invites us to return from outer space to re-inhabit the solid ground of our common sense experience. The interlacing ecological complexity of our everyday experience of standing on earth beneath the sky, enveloped within an atmosphere amidst plants, animals, and other persons, makes the mathematizable quantum and relativistic realms of theoretical physics look like toy models in comparison. The world of common sense experience is even more difficult to fathom than the abstract micro- and macroscopic worlds described by physicists, since, as Latour reminds us, the former “has been infinitely less explored than the other!” We have as much to learn from artists and philosophers as from scientists about the textures of this world, our world.

One of Whitehead’s apparent divergences from Bergson concerns the latter’s emphasis upon the continuity of becoming, while the former affirms an atomic or epochal theory of the “becoming of continuity.”16 Lowe17 emphasizes this as an irreconcilable difference, but Gunter18 and Capek19 insist that the divergence is only a difference in emphasis. The latter two thinkers point out that Bergson’s duration was no simple continuity, but a multiplicity of overlapping rhythms. As Bergson describes his view in Duration and Simultaneity (1922), duration is “multiplicity without divisibility and succession without separation.”20 This account resonates with Whitehead’s epochal theory, which rejects both the metaphysical fairy tale of “Nature at an instant” (which is still residual even in Einstein’s notion of the relativity of simultaneity) and the idea that time is simply a homogeneous flow. Instead, Whitehead inherits William James’ notion of a concrete time that grows “dropwise, by discrete pulses of perception.”21 In Whitehead’s mature philosophy, our experience of apparently continuous becoming is thought to be composed of historical routes of “actual occasions of experience” that each arise from the settled past to achieve their subjective aim in the present before superjectively perishing into the future to be resurrected by subsequently concrescing occasions. Concrescence is a phasic process but it does not occur “in” an already actualized and mathematically continuous space-time fabric. Rather, Whitehead describes a universe wherein a vast society of electromagnetic occasions is actively weaving and re-weaving the fraying fabric of space- time as a field of potential relationship.

Still, some Bergsonians may be tempted to view Whitehead’s epochal theory of time as another intellectual falsification of duration. But Whitehead’s understanding of time as epochal is not another “cinematographic” model of reality, where juxtaposed instants are translated into a cartoon- like illusion of the creative flow and musical rhythm of our inner life. Whitehead affirms the reality of continuous transition, but because his speculative scheme is an effort to reform the scientific intellect so that it acknowledges the evidences of intuition, he asks us to imagine another fundamental form of process alongside that of transition: namely, the process of “concrescence” described earlier. Time becomes continuous through the social coordination achieved by transitions between actual occasions of experience. The continuous time of transition is real, but only as a field of potentiality for future relations. Epochal time is also real: arising out of the real potentiality established by past actual occasions, each newborn drop of experience achieves some concrete actualization of value before perishing to gift its novel value-potency back to the cosmic community. There is continuity and there is individuality. There is established, through the synthesis of inherited feeling and anticipatory expression, a continuity between past and future. But this continuity is achieved in the present by an individuating act of valuation. Time, like living organization, grows in a cellular way.

As Whitehead puts it: “Time and space express the universe as including the essence of transition and the success of achievement. The transition is real, and the achievement is real. The difficulty is for language to express one of them without explaining away the other.”22

By rejecting the bifurcation of Nature, Whitehead is also rejecting the idea that time is merely “inner,” whether transcendental or psychological, leaving the physicist to reduce the objective universe to a timeless block. While in his response to Einstein’s relativity theory in Duration and Simultaneity (1922), Bergson confusedly presents his theory of duration as a phenomenological defense of “direct and immediate experience,” the Bergson of earlier works like Matter and Memory (1896) and Creative Evolution (1907) affirms that duration reaches beyond the subject and is also intrinsic to the evolution of all life on Earth and indeed to the unfolding of the physical universe itself.23 As Bergson put it in Matter and Memory, there is another pathway open to philosophers after the transcendental critique of experiential time as merely a form of “inner” intuition: they must “seek experience at its source, or rather above the decisive turn where, taking a bias in the direction of utility, it becomes properly human experience.”24 Like the Bergson of these earlier works, Whitehead’s process philosophy attempts precisely such a return to the source to uncover a more primordial form of temporal experience that can no longer be anthropocentrically claimed as the unique province of human or even living beings but which must be understood to permeate the universe to some degree at every scale of its actualization, from its earliest to its latest evolutionary expressions. Whitehead tells us that “the primordial element” of the universe itself is “a vibratory ebb and flow…an…energy, or activity” that is “nothing at any instant” and that “requires its whole period…to manifest itself.”25

This vibratory activity unfolds through its concrescent phases of sensitive reception and creative expression. Further, as Whitehead puts it (unambiguously rejecting the dualism Bergson sometimes slips into), “ultimate concrete fact is an extended process.” “If you have lost process or lost extension,” he continues, “you know you are dealing with abstraction.” Extension is essentially processual, and process is essentially extensional. This is Whitehead’s reformulation of the principle relativity.

Whitehead and Rovelli: Reconciling Physics and Philosophy

The final part of this paper marks some preliminary connections and divergences between Whitehead’s cosmological scheme and the quantum gravity theory of Carlo Rovelli. Aside from a few comments here and there across the philosophy blogosphere26, I have found exactly two mentions of a possible Whitehead-Rovelli nexus in academic publications. The first is a frustratingly brief footnote in Epperson and Zafiris’ Whitehead-inspired Foundations of Relational Realism, wherein they suggest that Rovelli’s “relational quantum mechanics” is “sufficiently compatible for fruitful conversation” even if the underlying philosophical frameworks turn out to be very different.27 The second is in Ronny Desmet’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Whitehead, where he writes that Rovelli’s relational interpretation of quantum mechanics is “strikingly Whiteheadian.”28 I agree with Epperson, Safiris, and Desmet that many passages in Rovelli’s popular works align with the process-relational perspective; but it is not yet clear whether Rovelli has fully overcome the modern bifurcation of Nature.

Unlike many popular physicists who regularly disparage philosophy (e.g., Neil deGrasse Tyson, Laurence Krauss, Steven Weinberg, Steven Hawking), Rovelli laments the “narrow-mindedness” displayed by his scientific colleagues when it comes to considering the importance of philosophy for their discipline.29 To be fair, he is equally critical of philosophers who don’t want to learn about science. Rovelli, like Whitehead, is one of the rare thinkers who is capable of making meaningful connections linking mathematics, theoretical physics, philosophy, and human life more generally.

In his most recent book, The Order of Time, Rovelli not only lucidly summarizes the latest findings of contemporary physics, including his own loop quantum gravity theory, he also skillfully weaves these theories together with the philosophical insights of Augustine, Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger (who each thought time had more to do with human nature than with physical nature). Rovelli criticizes some philosophers, like Parmenides, Plato, and Hegel, for allegedly fleeing to eternity in an effort to escape the anxiety time causes us.30 Heraclitus and Bergson, on the other hand, are criticized for allowing an overly emotional veneration of time to cloud their vision.31

In Rovelli’s view, contemporary physics has revealed the time of our conscious experience to be, at best, an “approximation” resulting from our limited perspective on the universe. Several centuries of modern scientific investigation have left us with “an empty, windswept landscape almost devoid of all trace of temporality.”32 Rovelli rejects Newton’s conception of absolute time as well as the “block universe” idea often associated with Einstein: “The absence of time does not mean that everything is frozen and unmoving…[forming] a four-dimensional geometry”; rather, Rovelli claims, the world is an “incessant happening … a boundless and disorderly network of quantum events.”33 After recounting the “epic and magical” distortions of time created by the ingestion of cannabis or LSD, Rovelli reminds his readers that “it was certainly not our direct experience of time that gave us the idea” of a purely continuous time passing “at the same rate, always and everywhere.”34 This an abstract and relatively recent idea of time reflecting our immersion in a modern civilization ruled over by mechanical clocks, rather than an intuition of either psychological or physical reality. So far there would appear to be plenty of overlap between Rovelli’s quantum network of events and Whitehead’s process-relational ontology.

Rovelli briefly discusses the heretical view of another philosophically adept physicist, Lee Smolin, whose recent book with Roberto Unger The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time (2014) argues forcefully, against the scientific consensus, for the fundamental reality of time. Smolin and Unger approvingly cite Whitehead in their introduction as an exponent of the ancient but dissident tradition of becoming in Western philosophy (others mentioned are Heraclitus, Hegel, Peirce, and Bergson).35 Whitehead shares with Unger and Smolin the conviction that the so-called “laws” and “constants” of physics, far from being eternal and necessary are in fact contingently evolved habits. Rovelli and Smolin were collaborators on loop quantum gravity for a time and remain close friends, but they diverge sharply on the question of time’s place in physics. Like Whitehead, Rovelli views the “gelatinous” space-time continuum as a second-order emergent property of quantum events.36 Space-time, he says, “has loosened into a network of relations that no longer holds together as a coherent canvas. The picture of spacetimes (in the plural) fluctuating, super-imposed one above the other, materializing at certain times with respect to particular objects, provides us with a very vague vision. But it is the best that we have for the fine granularity of the world.”37 Rovelli’s projective topological account of the quantum network underlying space and time sounds a lot like Whitehead’s notion of the relational complex he calls the “extensive continuum.”38 But unlike Whitehead, Rovelli reduces his relational quantum events to mere transitions of “physical quantities from one to another,”39 thus robbing them of any experiential quality or explanatory value. Whitehead’s actual occasions, in their atomization of the extensive continuum, are not timeless “quanta” mutely crunching an algorithm. What sense is there in rejecting Newton and Einstein’s clock-work universe only to then computerize the cosmos, instead? Whitehead lamented the way “The divergence of the formulae about nature from the appearance of nature has robbed the formulae of any explanatory power.”40 Whitehead’s cosmos is composed not of blind algorithms but of social relations among creaturely occasions seeking to intensify their value-experience. These occasions do exemplify certain measurable and mathematical patterns, but it is the experience that explains the equations, not the equations that explain the experience. If Rovelli’s theory is not just a convenient model and there is really a network of quantum spin foams at the base of Nature, Whitehead’s philosophy of organism requires that there be something it feels like to spin foam, to endure the topological fraying and folding of the creative activity of these quantum events.

Are life and consciousness in any sense an expression of something more primordial in Nature? Or are they just peripheral accidents? Rovelli appears to take the latter view, giving physical models precedence over lived experience as regards ontology. He rejects views like Smolin’s because he believes they lean too heavily on an emotionally charged intuition about time’s role in physics. “The choice,” Rovelli tells us, “is between forcing the description of the world so that it adapts to our intuition, or learning instead to adapt our intuition to what we have discovered about the world.”41

Certainly, as we saw earlier, Whitehead affirms the need to “look again” at the world, and to experiment with our perceptions, in order to assure that our abstract accounts of its operations remain in accord with the concrete happenings of Nature. But how are we to access concrete reality except through experience or intuition? Rovelli is careful elsewhere to clearly reject the classical idea of a “view from nowhere”: “A point of view is an ingredient in every description of the observable world that we make”42 and “The world is…a collection of interrelated points of view…there is no ‘outside’ to the world.”43 So while Rovelli’s statement in the prior quotation seems like a re- entrenchment into the bifurcation of Nature between objective science and subjective dream that Whitehead so forcefully protested against, it is also out of step with his broader commitment to a relational reality. Such a splitting of our embodied experience from the “scientific discovery” of a toy model of the physical world would neglect the relational essence of reality by succumbing to what Auxier and Herstein call “model-centric thinking”:

“For what are we left with to test our models, other than the formal and recondite cleverness of those models? What standards might we apply to test our models when our model-centric approach demands that we measure experience by those models, rather than those models by experience?”44

Whitehead once wrote that “The physical world is in some general sense of the term a deduced concept. Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world.”45 This statement may seem a bit strange coming from a professed realist. But we must not misunderstand Whitehead’s meaning. He is, as Auxier and Herstein make clear, a radical empiricist in William James’ sense. The universe is relational and esemplastic: it grows from the inside out, each part containing the whole in potentia. Whatever it is, it is happing not just “out there” but right here inside of me, too. We do not and cannot experience the universe in is integrity as a child observes a snow globe, from outside and above it. The “big bang” model of inflationary cosmology is often discussed at least in popular science books and by science journalists precisely in this way, as though we were holding the world around at arm’s length to have a good look at it. Where are we as observers in these acts of cosmological imagination?

Rovelli suggests that our perception of a cosmic evolution through irreversible time results from our perspective at the bottom of a thermodynamic heat sink. Inflationary models of the observable cosmos suggest a very low entropy state at the beginning of the universe gradually running down toward heat death. Our vision of the cosmos as such is “blurred” by our special position in this entropic process. “If a subset of the universe is special in this sense, then…memories exist, traces are left—and there can be evolution, life and thought…We observe the universe from within [this subset], interacting with a minuscule portion of the innumerable variables of the cosmos. What we see is a blurred image. This blurring suggests that the dynamic of the universe with which we interact is governed by entropy, which measures the amount of blurring. It measures something that relates to us more than to the cosmos.”46 It is not only our special cosmic position that creates this blurring, according to Rovelli. It is also our special form of biological organization, with the web of negentropic chemical processes that power it. Life is poised at the cresting wave of a thermodynamic gradient, feeding on light from the Sun and ultimately producing dramatically more entropy than would otherwise be possible on a dead Earth.

Whitehead describes the emergence of special “cosmic epochs” from out of the more general extensive continuum.47 While the “laws” and “constants” of physics, as well as the metrical properties of space-time, the particles described by the standard model, and all larger structures like stars, galaxies, and planets, have emerged within our epoch, the extensive continuum’s minimal topological properties hold across all such epochs. Whitehead thought the properties of this extensive continuum were truly metaphysical or fundamental in nature, much as Rovelli thinks his quantum network is fundamental. Whitehead’s notion of a “cosmic epoch” also bears some resemblance to Rovelli’s account of thermodynamically improbable subsets of the wider universe. However, Whitehead does not shy away from the sort of speculative ideas that would be necessary for such an account to count as a coherent explanation. While Rovelli is content to explain away basic features of our universe like memory, causation, and the irreversible flow of time as “nothing but names”48 that we give to describe our statistically improbable egress from a low entropy event in the past,Whitehead would agree with Smolin that the fact that such accounts pass as “explanation” is only a “measure of the depth of the current crisis” faced by scientific cosmology.49 Rather than dismiss the profoundly beautiful forms of complexity achieved by our self-organizing universe as nothing but accidental smudges in the flow of entropy, Whitehead grants reality to a “counter- agency” infusing the physical universe with a tendency toward order.50

At this point, many scientists are probably unable to follow Whitehead. Even he admits that this counter-agency “is too vast and diffusive for our direct observation.”51 But in the course of constructing his speculative scheme, which seeks to offer a satisfying explanation for the astonishingly organized universe that we do directly observe, Whitehead found it necessary to make reference to what some contemporary physicists are beginning to call “extropy.”52 Which is more improbable, that the universe is tilted toward organizational complexity, as Whitehead wagers, or, as Rovelli supposes, that the directly observed facts of a time-developmental universe, including everything from physical causation to galaxy formation to mental capacities like memory and anticipation, are just mirages arising in our blurred vision of an exceedingly improbable low entropy state at the origin of our thermodynamic subset?

Even if the irreversible temporality of cosmic evolution and human life is not metaphysically fundamental, as both Whitehead and Rovelli agree, this does not mean causality, memory, and purpose are merely nominal. These are real features of the universe, as real as energy, entropy, and indeed, should loop quantum gravity turn out to be correct, as real as spin foams. According to Whitehead, “the extreme rejection of final causation from our categories of explanation has been fallacious.”53 A satisfactory cosmology, he insists, must explain the interweaving of entropy and extropy, of dissipation and organization, without attempting to reduce one to an epiphenomenon of the other.


“[The] antagonism between philosophy and natural science has produced unfortunate limitations of thought on both sides,” according to Whitehead. “Philosophy has ceased to claim its proper generality, and natural science is content with the narrow round of its methods.”54 While the original rejection of Scholastic metaphysics and formulation of the mechanical categories and empirical methods of physical science in the 17th century has proved tremendously successful, the advances of the last century and a half (including evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories) have brought us into a critical period of general reorganization of the categories of scientific thought. Not only our concept of time, but space, matter, life, and mind must all be rethought and brought into accord. The old mechanical definitions of these terms and their relations are simply no longer relevant. The needed reorganization of fundamental ideas is not a task that natural science can undertake on its own, as should be clear from the simple fact that after more than a century a coherent integration of relativity and quantum theories remains as elusive as ever (though there are several contenders, major obstacles stand in the way of their widespread acceptance). Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an effort to construct a new organic metaphysics for natural science to replace the now defunct mechanistic ontology. Whether Whitehead has succeeded remains to be seen. There is already plenty of important work going on at the intersections of new paradigm natural science and Whiteheadian philosophy. While the true nature of time undoubtedly remains as mysterious as ever, I hope this brief essay at least contributed something to these efforts.

1 History of Western Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1996), 720.
2 https://physics.nyu.edu/sokal/dusek.html
3 Bergson and Modern Physics (1973)
4 https://socialepistemologydotcom.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/white_reply_riggio1.pdf
5 Charles Dickens, “Dombey and Son”
6 Creative Evolution, 241.
7 See Process Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3/4, Fall-Winter 1999, “Special Focus: Bergson and Whitehead.”
8 The Concept of Nature, 54.
9 Duration and Simultaneity, note 10.
10 Process & Reality, 209.
11 Process & Reality, xii.
12 Process & Reality, 23.
13 Einstein to Vero and Mrs. Bice, March 21, 1955. Einstein Archive, reel 7-245; reprinted in Albert Einstein- Michele Besso Correspondence, 537-538.
14 The Concept of Nature, 29-30
15 Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 120.
16 Process & Reality, 35.
17 Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 10, No. 2 [Apr., 1949], 283; https://www.jstor.org/stable/2707418
18 “Bergson, Mathematics, and Creativity” in Process Studies Vol 28; http://www.religion-online.org/article/ bergson-mathematics-and-creativity/
19 Bergson and Modern Physics, 120.
20 Duration and Simultaneity (1922/1965), 45.
21 A Pluralistic Universe, 231. Quoted in Capek, Bergson and Modern Physics, 140.
22 Modes of Thought, 102.
23 See “Introduction,” H enri Bergson: K ey Writings, ed. by K. A. Pearson and J. Mullarkey (New York: Continuum, 2002); see also Capek, Bergson and Modern Physics, 154.
24 Matter and Memory, trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 184.
25 Science and the Modern World, 37.
26 See especially this post by astrophysicist Geoffrey Edwards: https://www.infiniteconversations.com/t/rethinking-time/2014
27 Foundations of Relational Realism: A Topological Approach to Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Nature (2013, xxn3).
28 https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whitehead/#PhilScie
29 Carlo Rovelli, ‘Science Is Not About Certainty,’ in The Universe, ed. John Brockman, New York: Harper Perennial, 2014, p.215, 227 & 228
30 The Order of Time, 173.
31 The Order of Time, 174.
32 The Order of Time, 3.
33 The Order of Time, 92.
34 The Order of Time, 53.
35 The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, xv.
36 The Order of Time, 168.
37 The Order of Time, 80.
38 Process & Reality, 66-67.
39 The Order of Time, 168.
40 Modes of Thought, 154
41 The Order of Time, 190n14.
42 The Order of Time, 132.
43 The Order of Time, 108.
44 The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism (2017), 111.
45 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity” in Aims of Education, 166.
46 The Order of Time, 130, 134.
47 Process & Reality, 91.
48 The Order of Time, 147.
49 A Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, 355.
50 The Function of Reason, 25.
51 The Function of Reason, 25.
52 Entropy, Extropy, and the Physical Driver of Irreversibility by Attila Grandpierre (http://indecs.eu/2012/indecs2012-pp73-79.pdf)
53 The Function of Reason, 28.
54 The Function of Reason, 61.

8 thoughts on “Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy [draft]

  1. “Ben Franklin, had tried to settle accounts: “Time is money.” Centuries earlier still, Augustine had to confess that he did not know what time is (though he offered a few conjectures). And Plato, as he stared in wonder at the starry heavens above him while inwardly contemplating the perfections of geometry, offered at least a likely story: time is a moving image of eternity.”


  2. This is a critical question for our time (pardon the pun!). It relates to the issue of ‘manifold’ which originally was an innovation of Bernard Riemann that Einstein incorporated into General Relativity. But I would recommend checking out Deleuze with respect to this and the philosophy of time that Deleuze developed together with Felix Guattari based on the concept of ‘Duration’ developed by Henri Bergson, who was the other person in the famous debate of 4/6/1922. So here is the catch line for me: Einstein makes the broad proclamation that ‘The ‘Time of the Philosopher’ does not exist!’ (in his broken German-inflected French), and this very bold and expansive statement supposedly ends the discussion. Actually, the truth of the matter is that it is a true statement that ought to have STARTED the debate. What is really at stake here is the issue of REALITY and ACTUALITY, and whether universals or ‘generals’ can be REAL even if they do not EXIST, per se. Which is equivalent to the question of whether one considers POTENTIALITY to be REAL in that it PRE-SHAPES what CAN become ACTUAL. Which is a really important issue from a process-relational perspective. The Nominalist says NO, it is only what I can see, touch, hear, etc that is real which traces back to materiality as the occupier of space. But then a relation cannot be real. It can be traced all the way back to the debate between Heraclitus and Parmenides. The trick is not to get caught up in these ‘binarisms’ of EITHER/OR. And to recognize that it is through the TRIADIC that one can recover the MONADIC. Which was the deep insight that comes from CS Peirce and his triadic semiotics.

    This sounds like it is going to be a GREAT conference.

  3. Another question that relates to this is WHY does the mammalian brain have TWO interconnected cerebral hemispheres?? See Iain McGilchrist and the ‘Theory of the Divided Brain.’ So, the one hemisphere (called ‘Dominant’ in modernist postCartesian nomenclature–pardon the pun!) is for ‘Nomadology’, the separation of foreground from background that narrowed focal attention accomplishes–and for the SEMIOTIC ANIMAL (ie Homo Sapiens–‘US’), this becomes ‘Nominalism’–the naming of stuff, while the other is for ‘Monadology’, the relational integration of the Gestalt of the experiential (ie. the ‘true’ Totality) and the tracking of the global situation through global attentiveness–CS Peirce, in his concern with Cartesianism and ‘the threat of Nominalism’ that he labelled ‘Necessitarianism’, referred to this recognition of the primacy of the relational as ‘Synechism.’ To survive, as McGilchrist maintains, the organism must do both at once, but when it comes down to action, it can only do one thing at a time. And, to survive, it must do the RIGHT thing at the RIGHT time. So, if it focuses on pecking for grain in the dirt while a predator is sneaking up, it BECOMES lunch instead of HAVING lunch. Which is why, when it comes to the necessity of FOCUS on what is central, there is a complementary necessity of attending to the peripheral. Much more about this in terms of how this fundamentally spatial issue relates to time, but no time to dive into that right now….

  4. Correction to previous comment (sorry!)…. it should read… “the one hemisphere (called ‘Dominant’ in modernist NEOCartesian nomenclature–pardon the pun!) is for ‘Nomadology’,…” That is, we call the languaged hemisphere DOMINANT in modernity because Descartes privileged language over experience thus giving the languaged (for most people, the LEFT) cerebral hemisphere a major ‘leg up’, so to speak–precisely because it CAN speak (and think)… (ie. “I think, therefore I am” which is very different from “I am, therefore I can think” which would privilege experience over thought/language and thus make the experientially dominant hemisphere–currently called ‘NON-DOMINANT’ (in accordance with modern nomenclature) and most often the RIGHT one–DOMINANT). And if we trace our evolutionary history through the course of phylogenesis, it is clear that organismic EXPERIENCE comes into play a long long time before LANGUAGE, although COMMUNICATION by way of SEMIOSIS (ie. the INTERPRETATION of and extraction of MEANING from experience) was originary! Some even claim that SEMIOSIS, the action of signs, was in play BEFORE the origin of life.
    One other distinction that is important for Deleuze in his philosophy of time is the idea that Riemann, in positing the concept of the ‘manifold’ (ie. via the idea of Mannigfaltigkeit), proposed both a DISCRETE and a CONTINUOUS form. This becomes a critical distinction in considering distinctions between a spatial and a temporal manifold.

  5. One additional quick thought about the concept of a ‘counter-agency’ or ‘extropy’ as an evolutionary selective force that favors the emergence of organisms of greater and greater complexity in direct defiance of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and that is to consider the concept of ‘semiotic freedom’ proposed by Jesper Hoffmeyer and the related idea that there is an evolutionary trend toward the selection of organisms that have greater ‘semiotic freedom’ understood as capacity for communication and the adaptive functional utilization of information which is a basis for the mysterious ‘counter-agency’ that Whitehead postulated….


    The concept relates to the idea that communication and the enhanced capacity for the ability to communicate and manage and deal with information has critically important survival value and that, as a result, evolution selects for this capacity. And thus evolution favored the emergence of Homo Sapiens as the Semiotic Animal ‘extraordinaire’, an organism that not only utilizes semiosis in the general context of its functional biology, like all other extant organisms, but has evolved a capacity for reflecting upon and studying the fact that it does so through the meta-cognitive capacity of language. See John Deely’s book titled ‘Semiotic Animal’…


    …and now has evolved the capability of producing impressive digital tools that greatly enhance and magnify semiotic capacity.

    But what expense has been exacted in this process of expanding communicative capacity? I think the question of the ethical imperative in connection to the ‘deformalization of time’ (which is the way that Emmanuel Levinas labelled the goal of his philosophical project) is the critical question of our time. Because together with meta-cognition and the capacity to reflect, as Deely pointed out in his discussion of ‘semioethics’ that concludes his book in a section addressing what is entailed in being the Semiotic Animal, comes the responsibility to rectify.

  6. In terms of the underpinning of Einstein’s General Relativity as well as Bergson’s philosophy of time (and what Deleuze subsequently referred to as ‘Bergsonism’ in the context of his further development of the philosophical basis for experiential time) check out this very cool paper by Arkady Plotnitsky…


    Riemann is recognized as a key contributor to the underlying issues in the debate between Einstein and Bergson. These ideas can be traced back to a much earlier debate between Newton and Leibniz near the point at which Newtonian science diverges from ‘Goethean’ science with Newtonian concepts of absolute time and space leading to the construction of the conceptual ‘block universe’ in which physical time is ‘spatialized’ in its becoming a 4th spatial dimension of the space-time manifold, and the consciousness–the subjective nature–of the observer is basically eliminated from the experimental paradigm, up to the point at which it becomes clear that, in the context of quantum physics, this is recognized as a significant source of error.
    With respect to the question of the role of TIME (which I think is where this all started! 🙂 ), the distinction that Riemann makes conceptually between a discrete (ie ‘digital’) manifold and a continuous (ie ‘analogue’) manifold plays a role in distinguishing between time as an ‘illusion’ (as in cinematographic and video illusory motion–see Deleuze’s philosophy of cinema wrt this) and time as real (ie. in the phenomenological context of ‘lived’ experience), respectively. Deleuze and Guattari use the terms ‘striated’ and ‘smooth’, respectively, in making this topological distinction, in their book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (also see paper by Plotnitsky referenced above connecting this distinction to Riemann’s manifolds). And one can similarly make the distinction between ‘Synchronous’ and ‘Diachronous’… and this can also be related to the search for a ‘true’ continuum that occupied CS Peirce most of his entire life, until he realized, late in his life, the connection between his concept of the non-countable ‘supermultitudinous’ continuum and his ‘logic of relatives’ in developing a logic of continuity (see book by Fernando Zalamea ‘Peirce’s Logic of Continuity’).

    And then there is the connection of all of this to Iain McGilchrist’s theory of the ‘Divided Brain’ (mentioned in a previous comment) which I will be exploring further in other contexts…

  7. Fascinating essay! I’m looking forward to the final draft of it. Interesting to me is the connection between Whiteheadian thought and the notion of final causality, which for me is essential (Scholasticism? maybe). But where I now think most fruitfully is in the context of extreme musical languages, such as those of Edgard Varese, Elliott Carter, and Iannis Xenakis. These are fruible only when the right brain hemisphere is allowed full freedom to follow their non-melodic, non harmonic thread, which of course was impeded in most music after Bach and before Debussy. What may the connection be with what you present in this essay?

  8. Matt, I won’t venture to comment on the substance of your paper (though I enjoyed reading it very much), but I noticed some typos & have a couple of other editing suggestions regarding form, which I’ve put in { }.

    Physicists, theologians, businessmen, philosophers, artists—really every thoughtful human being—{have} at one point or another been struck by this question and struggled to answer it in their own terms. {still awkward, perhaps “—really all thoughtful human beings—have”}

    Alfred North Whitehead will be my {principal} guide in this endeavor.

    Though Bergson said the following of Kant’s transcendental philosophy, it could just as easily have {been} said of Einstein’s gravitational epistemology:

    While Whitehead praised Einstein for the relativistic paradigm shift he initiated, he did not {accept} Einstein’s particular way of formalizing relativity;

    The world of common sense experience is even more difficult to {fathom} than the abstract micro- and macroscopic worlds described by physicists,

    This is Whitehead’s reformulation of the principle {of} relativity.

    Whitehead shares with Unger and Smolin the conviction that the so-called “laws” and “constants” of physics, far from being eternal and necessary{,} are in fact contingently evolved habits. {suggest adding the comma for clarity}

    So while Rovelli’s statement in the prior {paragraph} seems like a re- entrenchment into the bifurcation of Nature between objective science and subjective dream that Whitehead so forcefully protested against, {recommend for clarity, or perhaps “Rovelli’s statement quoted in the prior paragraph seems”}

    Whatever it is, it is {happening} not just “out there” but right here inside of me, too. We do not and cannot experience the universe in {its} integrity as a child observes a snow globe, from outside and above it. The “big bang” model of inflationary cosmology is often discussed at least in popular science books and by science journalists precisely in this way, as though we were holding the world around {?} at arm’s length to have a good look at it. {“around” seems out of place, or maybe it’s an expression I’m unfamiliar with}

    While Rovelli is content to explain away basic features of our universe like memory, causation, and the irreversible flow of time as “nothing but names”48 that we give to describe our statistically improbable egress from a low entropy event in the past,{ }Whitehead would agree with Smolin {a space needs to be inserted}

    While the original rejection of Scholastic metaphysics and {the} formulation of the mechanical categories and empirical methods of physical science in the 17th century {have} proved tremendously successful, {recommend adding “the” just to help reinforce that “formulation” parallels “rejection,” not “metaphysics”}

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