Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy [draft]

Below is the introduction of paper I presented at a conference in L’aquila, Italy in April 2019. The conference aimed 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).

Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy

“What is Time?” Bergson-Einstein Conference in L’Aquila, Italy April 4-6, 2019

By Matthew D. Segall

“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 biological order. Each year, I watch as winter frost melts to make way for spring flowers. My interest in fundamental 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. I reflect on whether my experience of seasonal rhythms is reducible without remainder to the mechanical effect of a slight tilt in the rotation of our dust mote planet as it revolves in warped space-time around a massive ball of radiating plasma. Finally, my incurable philosophical itch compels me to search for some more general metaphysical scheme or wider interpretive context within which the laws of physics might find a place alongside  lived experience.

It is this quest to understand time that has brought us together for today’s conference. Physicists, theologians, businessmen, philosophers, artists—really all thoughtful human beings—have 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 stars 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. Stars ignite, burn their atomic fuel, and go supernova, creating the heavier elements needed for conscious lifeforms like us to take shape. We are born, we age, we die. Civilizations rise and fall. None of these processes is intelligible in reverse. And yet, there has been a strong consensus among physicists for at least a century that the time of human experience, let us call it “phenomenal” or “lived time,” is, as Einstein once put, a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” Everyday time is not at all what it appears to be. As Augustine admitted, time is plain as day until someone asks us to explain how it works: suddenly, we find ourselves having a hell of a time trying to make any sense of it. A recent New York Times article chronicled the growing controversy (and confusion) about seasonal changes in clock-time, so-called “daylight savings” time.1 Back in the 1920s, changes to local clock-times in US cities like Boston and Detroit led some residents to worry that an extra hour of sunlight in the evening would dry up their gardens and disturb their farm animals. The article quotes Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving’s Time (Counterpoint, 2005):

“The idea of losing or gaining an hour is itself such a fantastically bad philosophical proposition that nobody knows what they’re talking about…Most people don’t even understand whether moving the clocks forward gives them more sunlight or less sunlight in the morning. They just can’t remember what it does, because it so defies logic.”

As if the time of everyday experience wasn’t strange enough already, in the equations of physics— whether classical, relativistic, or quantum—it doesn’t even 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 return later.

I cannot promise that the paper to follow won’t make an even bigger mess out of time. I can only offer a few potential pathways through the thicket in the hopes of finding some new perspectives on a very old question. 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 principal 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.


  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.

    1. Thank you for this insightful comment. Indeed, the relationship between potentiality and actualization is crucial. In addition to Peirce and Whitehead, Heisenberg also tried to get physicists to accept potentia back into science’s naturalistic picture of the world, but the massive confusion around how to interpret both relativity and QM suggests his call either wasn’t understood or was rejected because of its revolutionary implications.

  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….

    Click to access semfreedemergforce.pdf

    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.

    1. Thanks for these great comments. I am particularly interested in the connection to Levinas. I took up his works years ago for a brief time and this gives me all the excuse I need to return to them.

  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…

    Click to access Manifolds.pdf

    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?

    1. Greetings, Thomas! The connection to music is a very fruitful one. I was just reading some passages from Susan Langer’s “Feeling and Form” (1953) wherein she discusses Bergson’s ontology of temporality as essentially a musical conception of becoming. As for the extreme musicians you mention, I will have to think more on the relationship. I imagine that the music of the cosmos would not necessarily always align with our melodic expectations.

  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”}

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s