Closer to Truth

A couple of years ago at the Setting Time Aright conference, I sat down for an interview with Robert Kuhn, who has a program called Closer to Truth. Time passed, as it will, and I never knew what happened to the interview. But apparently it’s up on the web now, freely available to anyone wishing to click (although apparently not embeddable).

So go here if you want to see some short clips of me sitting in a dark, atmospheric setting, declaiming earnestly about various profound topics, from atheism to infinity.

Oh, and I suppose it’s possible you might want to hear other people as well. They’re all here — there are some great people, from Nima Arkani-Hamed to Marvin Minsky. (More than a few clunkers, as well, but you get what you pay for.)

  1. Sean,
    I am not a physicist. I am a writer. Words matter to me. Something I have never understood is, if you distil the meaning of “Time” from the various (and often, frankly, unsatisfactory) dictionary definitions, you arrive at two core meanings:-
    1. It is the abstract framework of calibrating, measuring and referencing events and interval (i.e. change); and
    2. it is a mass noun referencing an unspecified set of events and intervals (i.e. change).

    Clearly the abstract noun is specific, the mass noun is general.

    I have never seen any attempt by any scientist talking about time to explain which of these two definitions they are referring to. Surely not to do so, and hence oscillating uncontrollably between the two distinct meanings, gives rise to serious risk of disappearing into the void between?

  2. Great stuff Sean. But one point, surely the universe could be infinite , in which case it was infinite at the big bang. So isn’t it better to say the “observable universe” is big and getting bigger but not necessarily the universe is big and getting bigger?

  3. The definition of time is in both of those nouns listed. Time is change from one event to another (like Sean’s attempt to explain it to children). If you move your finger from the position it is currently in to another position, then you need time to describe that transition. The way I have been explaining it (maybe incorrectly) in basic math, is that algebra is the mathematics of space without time, the calculation of a moment. Calculus is the mathematics of space as it is affected by time, the calculation of a transition from one moment to another. This is a high school level explanation though, so of course 11 year old kids would have no idea what I was saying; I’m also not a scientist.

  4. God exists, you just have to have faith, but He isn’t going to allow Himself to become a scientific experiment just for curiosity sake, either you believe or you don’t. He works in the personal lives of those who have the eyes to see. If you really want to find out you have to make an effort to believe, then you may finally out what is the Truth. In other words pray to that God to give you the faith to believe.

  5. I love your talk “What would an infinte universe mean”, it succinctly raised a lot of good points.

    I’d like to put in a plug for the “finite space and infinite time” option which is one you considered not viable. Your argument was along the lines: finite space and infinite time (FS+IT) means that there’s only a finite number of things that can happen and infinitely long for them to happen. (By the way this assumes strict finiteness in the sense that there aren’t an infinite number of points between any two points in space).

    FS+IT has the appeal that you do not require the *existence* of an infinitely large set. The universe can be of finite size but forever growing, and it will never reach a point where it has existed infinitely long or is infinitely large and yet you never run out of things that can happen. IS+FT and IS+IT both require an infinite set to exist, which would mean that the Axiom of Choice must be true.

  6. Sir,i don’t know where to ask his question.I had this question in mind from a long time but i didn’t get any satisfactory answer.So that why i want to ask an expert-
    Can a quantum black hole exist inside or outside blackhole .
    If it does then will it not become like an ordinary blackhole as the schwarzschild space has a tension which can tear the quantum blackhole apart and make it bigger which can also happen inside the blackhole.
    Does it disobeys entropy?
    Please correct me if i am wrong.

  7. @meh. Thanks for your response. Respectfully, you avoided my point.
    You say the definition of time is in both. Well, I think that’s what I said too, so we agree on that – Time has two core meanings. My point is, how can you have any hypothesis using time as a component without explicitly stating which of these two different definitions you are referring to. They might seem very similar, but they are subtly and crucially different. The framework calibrates, measure and references. The mass noun merely aggregates. You can’t “merge” the two without fudging, it doesn’t work.
    Any hypothesis that includes Time that isn’t definable as one or the other is therefore a fudge itself…academic rigour and all that (yes, that could be an awful lot of physics down the drain, but hey, let’s boldly go…)

    And in both cases Time is merely an intermediary word, a convenience words, for describing an aspect of change/change rate – as you pointed out. Shouldn’t any fundamental hypothesis really refer directly to the underlying actuality, change (or even the cause of change – energy differential isn’t it)?

    Unless, of course, you still think Time has its own independent “existence” – a third definition from somewhere, not derived from change – but please don’t say “it’s a dimension”! [A ‘dimension’ should refer to the thing that is being quantified, NOT the method of quantifying it. The dimension ‘Space’ is quantified by distance; as the dimension ‘change’ is quantified by time – in other words, the fourth dimension is change, not time – I blame Einstein!].

    By the way, the key to understanding all this is the word “interval”. It’s such an important word. Once you see though it, hey presto, time disappears. Before you write me of as crackpot, you’d do well to understand ‘interval’, it’s a corker.

  8. Can an interval exist without discrete points? Prove a definitive answer and you win. Otherwise you’re just going to end up thinking yourself in circles over semantics.

  9. @meh. OK, interval then – the gap between two events. Because there is a gap between two events, this is therefore assumed to be the proof that an independent “time” dimension must be. It’s the sticking point people have that prevents them perceiving change to be the base phenomena, not time.

    So when we say event we are referring to a specific object, in other words ‘interval’ is specific to an object (even if that object is a composite object).
    If, for a moment, we isolate our object, and ignore the outside world. The object has an event (the start of our interval) and then another event (the end of our interval). But, because this is a closed environment, the gap between the two events has no duration. Nothing changes inside this closed environment between these two events. There is no “time” there is nothing to measure – no change. Event, nothing, event.
    It’s not until you let the outside world in, with its continual change and resultant calibration, that the interval has a measured duration. It’s measured against the change of other things. In other words, It’s only when the environment is opened up, and external changes are referenced, and hence calibration appears, that the interval period of the initial closed object is then measured by reference to external change.

    This is subtle, I realise. But it is a beauty.

  10. For a person riding a photon, if it were possible, from the very first stars to the present no time would have passed?

  11. Time passing is a figure of speech. If we agree that time is defined by one or other of the above meanings, time passing refers to the mass noun – the indeterminate set of change. So time is a shorthand for change. ‘Time passing’ means change happening. So, in one sense, yes time has passed, because change has happened, and we ascribe a meaning to the word ‘time’ of ‘change happening’. But if, suddenly, all the quantum particles in the universe were to stop moving, oscillating, or doing whatever else they do, i.e. change stops…hence time ceases to have any meaning. Time only occurs when change happens.

  12. Did our universe originate from the original, far into the eternal past, first inflation, big bang, or perhaps one of many worlds that originated from the very first of all inflation, big bangs, and is their any way of knowing?

  13. Doesn’t infinite, in regards to the universe we inhabit, mean all that exists and other universes that exist could also be infinite in this regard, at least to the inhabitants of those universes?

  14. read this article and buy his book

    pay attention to the following paragraph…

    “Smolin said he hadn’t come to this concept lightly. He started out thinking, as most physicists do, that time is subjective and illusory. According to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, time is just another dimension in space, traversable in either direction, and our human perception of moments passing steadily and sequentially is all in our heads.”

  15. Meh
    Yes, interesting book. But I have to say, having already read it, it saddened me to see such a desperate attempt, using a clearly insufficient set of hypotheses, to find some personal closure on this subject (reminiscent of Julian Barbour and The End of Time).
    To oscillate so desperately between “time is illusory” and “time is real” is simply an astonishing admission of failure.
    The book reminds me of the attempts to define the structure of DNA – desperate, ugly uber-abstraction.
    Back to basics. He never actually differentiates between the separate definitions of time as an abstract noun and time as a mass noun. A chronic mistake, he’s probably not aware off. (And they are neither subjective nor illusory, they are crystal clear).
    And, despite what Einstein said, time can’t be a dimension – dimension refers to that being quantified, not the quantifier, as stated earlier.
    And he probably hasn’t considered the notion of specific interval (also mentioned earlier) as being important.
    But if he’d grab these ideas together – the dual definitions, the notion of specific interval, the dimension being ‘change’ – then suddenly time ceases to be a necessary concept – it melts away. Everything can be explained outside of the need to for the word time – ‘puff’ – time disappears.
    If only Smolin stuck to these simple basics, he could have a double helix moment awaiting him.
    By the way, as Smolin touches on this – which of the two definitions of time – the specific (abstract noun) or the general (the mass noun) was Einstein referring to in his Quantum and General theories?

  16. For some reason the videos will not play for me. The webpage displays:

    “PHP has encountered an Access Violation at 02BA311A”

  17. Pingback: Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » “Closer to Truth”

  18. any argument over the way words are used in a single language out of the hundreds of languages that do and have existed, is a ridiculously short sighted and shallow argument rooted so firmly in ignorance that it’s embarrassing to watch.

  19. As embarrassing as the appalling knots of nonsense science has tied itself in trying to explain time? And failed dismally.

    Open your mind Meh. You may have a lot of vested interest in this not being explained outside science, but you haven’t refuted one argument – you attempt to discredit rather than disprove.

    Bad science.

  20. name 1 example of science being tied in knots about time and I will concede that you are not completely arrogant over your ignorance of all things science beyond simply labeling you stupid.

    this 1 example is not allowed to come from a science fiction movie or sci-fi book. It also cannot be based on word play.

  21. Offer something to refute and I’ll refute it.

    You are arguing that you’re description of time is more accurate than the current description of time, yet your description of time IS the current description of time.

    There are also 2 different scientific concepts of Time. The dimension of Time and the arrow of Time. Within the dimension of time, there are further questions.

    any half-wit can argue that science is wrong without including any facts or logical proof. Most people will steer clear of such a person, but I’m interested in the mentality of a person like that. What are you thinking? Why do you want to invest so much into something while not making any effort to research it?

  22. Sincerely and respectfully, I understand your annoyance at this uppity left-field intervention into something that you are such a renowned expert in, and my provocative stance isn’t mean’t in any way to undermine. But from where I stand, I can see through the need for the word time (for me time doesn’t exist other than as a convenient shorthand). And it is frustrating that others are blocked by it. I certainly don’t wish to offend.
    I am not sure what research (other than a dictionary and some rational thought) is required. Time is just a word. We use it according to its agreed definitions and the rational relationships that provides.
    So, to answer your questions:

    1. As I have said, Time can’t be a dimension. A dimension is that thing that is being quantified (like space is a dimension) not the quantifier (distance quantifies space).
    Time is a quantifier, it measures interval/event i.e. change. Hence, shouldn’t the fourth dimension be change, not time?
    Sure, I get that to question one of the fundamentals of 20th century scientific thinking is “a bit rich” from a non-scientist. But, in my humble defence, may I respectfully suggest I am not shackled by institutionalised group think. Something radical needs changing if you want to move on (as Prof. Smolin has pointed out); challenging any previous assertion must be legitimate.

    2. The arrow of time. This uses the definition of time as a mass noun – I don’t like to presume on this – but presumably refers to the universal set? As mentioned in my dictionary reference earlier, time as a mass noun references change (i.e. events and intervals). So Arrow of Time refers to the universal set of change. Seems reasonable? I can elaborate.
    So, do you mean that the universal set as a whole has an arrow? Or should the arrow be applied to the underlying fundamental – i.e. change. Arrow of change?
    Time is not an agent of change. Energy differential is the agent of change [Julian Barbour in The End of Time (Phoenix, London, 1999), says (p231):-“All true change in quantum mechanics comes from interference between stationary states with different energies. In a system described by a stationary state, no change takes place”] and time merely measure the outcome.
    So, again respectfully, I ask should “arrow of time” actually be “arrow of change” or even “arrow of outcome of energy differential.”
    [A bit of a mouthful, maybe. And using ‘time’ as a shorthand might be easier, but that then infers an ‘existence’ to time that isn’t correct].

    I am not trying to suggest huge amendments to either notion (Dimension or Arrow) by replacing time (I’ve no right, I’m not a scientist), though of course I realise it might cause significant amendments. My point is, this removes the need for the notion that Time has its own “existence”. I don’t believe it does, it can be explained away. It’s a derived abstract, not a fundamental.
    What I’m offering is subtle, for sure, but my whole point is everything can be explained without need to reference ‘time’. The word time proffers no intrinsic existence, it’s not a “thing”. Time is an abstract, and a blocker that has got in the way of extending scientific understanding.
    The fundamental is ‘change’ – or indeed ‘energy differential’. Surely the universe becomes easier to explain if we remove an unnecessary and very slippery middle-man.

    Time is actually very simple; a bit slippery, but simple. And redundant.