Speculations on the End of Time: Gratton, Harman, Barbour

The primary dualism in the world is not between matter and mind, but between objects and relations, and most relations will be unrecognizable as anything mental, just as objects turn out not to resemble what is usually called the physical.

– Graham Harman, Time, Space, Essence, Eidos

Harman’s work must deny the reality of time in order to make his own claims for a certain realism…

– Peter Gratton, Post-Deconstructive Realism It’s about Time

I suggest that our belief in time and a past arises solely because our entire experience comes to us through the medium of static arrangements of matter, in Nows, that create the appearance of time and change. Tensors relate different things and bring them into lawful connection.

– Julian Barbour, The End of Time

Recently Peter Gratton’s essay in Speculations IV (which I’ve already written of here) reminded me of Julian Barbour’s book The End of Time which I’d read a few years back and found some interesting parallel’s on the theory of Time within a metaphysics of presence. What you see below is just bringing out the comparisons, this is not a defense of Harman, Gratton, Barbour or anyone else. Time is a philosophical bombshell, and not a notions that has a perfect solution: at least, not yet, in my honest opinion.  Time is still one of the grand mysteries for science and philosophy, along with ideas on causality, and we need to be open to the strange and unfounded speculations even if they appear at first as counter-intuitive or against the grain of one’s common sense experience. Even Einstein’s conceptions on relativity were not accepted outright, but were debated for years before becoming central to physics. What I show below is just such a comparison between a working scientist, Julian Barbour (quantum gravity theorist), and the speculative philosophy of Graham Harman. To draw comparisons is not to defend either side of the coin. Quantum Gravity Theory is not even the most accepted theory in physics: that being String Theory at present. But all these ideas are hotly debated with no perfect solution. It is to tease out speculative thought and see things differently from our usual habitual modes of thinking. My attitude toward philosophy is to keep an open mind, to take off my ideological blinkers, my philosophical presuppositions, and let the philosopher bare his or her conceptual framework without some ultimate judgment. Judgment is for critique, not commentary. What I try my best to do on this site is commentary rather than critique. You’ll find plenty of critique on a thousand other blogs.  Time is a hobby for me, so I find things interesting in crossovers between systems, even if those systems are true or not true, its the strangeness of the ideas that fascinates. In fact Graham can and will defend his own position in a new book from a comment on this post and on Gratton’s conceptions: here.

* * *

Peter ultimately critiqued both Meillassoux and Graham Harman as metaphyscians of presence: philosophers for whom time is the cosmic illusion (my post on this: here). Harman considers himself a substantial formalist. In an early essay Time, Space, Essence, Eidos he lays out most of the themes that have from the beginning haunted his discourse on Objects and the fourfold tensions between real objects and real qualities, and sensual objects and sensual qualities. Every time I begin thinking about Harman’s system I want to pull out my nephew’s tinker set and start building objects in patterns that will somehow match his diagrammatic imagination.  Peter Gratton in his essay he remarks in otherwise frank terms tells us that neither Meillassoux or Harman believe in Time:

Meillassoux and Harman mark a return to the real that is anything but, as long as they treat the time of becoming as epiphenomenal, and thus deny the reality of time however aporetic it is, as we well know—at the beating hearts of thinkers they too quickly disparage while ignoring what were their central insights.

In this short essay Harman tells us that his notion of substantial form differs from the earlier philosophers conceptions in three ways:

First, they are infinitely withdrawn and cannot be brought into any relation without significant distortion; truth cannot be correspondence, since knowledge is a translation of real things rather than a copy of them. Second, substances do not need to be so-called ‘natural kinds’. It hardly matters that sharks have existed for millions of years, iPhones for just two, and the Obama Administration for less than a year; all can be substances if they have an autonomous reality inexhaustible by any relations, as I hold that they do. And third, while the classical difference between substance and aggregate gives us a world with only two levels, the Heidegger-inspired model of object-oriented philosophy gives us countless levels.

So Harman starts with a dualism of objects rather than of the mind/world split. He see objects as totally independent of each other, and that they can never be directly accessed but only indirectly known through distortion and translation rather than direct contact. Objects are not bound to one kind, they can be both natural or artificial kinds. Animals, rocks, stars are natural kinds. Comic books, Ideas, dragons, gargoyles, angels, unicorns, etc. are artificial kinds. Finally, objects exist not on just two levels of reality but are multiplex and exist in infinite levels all the way up the macro ladder or all the way down into the micro ladder of existence.

Harman in his essay speaks of the Scholastic philosopher Francisco Suarez as one of the precursors of Occasionalism in Europe. The prime precursor was al-Ash‘ari and his followers in medieval Iraq. Suarez was familiar with Averroës, Avicenna, Avicebron but not of al-Ash’ari’. Harman emphasizes how Suarez taught us that substance not form is prone to accidental change: “The work of individuation belongs to form alone; each thing is a highly specific modal compound. But this means that no form can shift from one material to another and still remain what it was: forms are untranslatable, immobilized in place, incommunicable. Hence Suárez must place especial emphasis on the old Scholastic principle that things affect one another through accidents, not through some impossible direct contact between substantial forms.” Ultimately this leads to a problem:

There is a universal problem in the relation between any two entities, since they withdraw into concealed depths, yet they must somehow break out of those depths to engage in the interactions that characterize our world. This cannot be done with the deus ex machina of the Malebranchian God, but also not with the mens ex machina of Hume’s customary conjunction. For Heidegger these would be merely ‘ontic’ solutions, choosing a sole princess entity to be granted all relational power in the cosmos. A more likely solution would resemble that of Suárez, with accidents forming the glue between incommunicable substantial forms.

Peter Gratton in his essay equates Harman’s sense of time with the Platonic metaphysics of presence in which time is illusory. He quotes a passage from Harman’s

According to the object-oriented model only the present exists: only objects with their qualities, locked into whatever their duels of the moment might be. In that sense, times seems to be illusory, though not for the usual reason that time is just a fourth spatial dimension always already present from the start. Instead time does not exist simply because only the present ever exists. Nonetheless, time as a lived experience [i.e, within the sensuous—here he follows Husserl to the letter, as he does with a tradition of equating the sensuous with the temporal] cannot be denied. We do not encounter a static frame of reality, but seem to feel a passage of time. It is not pure chaos shifting wildly from one second to the next, since there is chance with apparent endurance. Sensual objects endure despite swirling oscillations in their surface adumbrations, and this is precisely what is meant by the experience of time. Time can be defined as the tension between sensual objects and their sensual qualities.

Something that could almost be overlooked in the passage above it Harman’s definition of Time as the tension between sensual objects and their sensual qualities. He subtly elides something in this definition: the real objects and their real qualities. When Peter critiques Harman he leaves this particular facet out of his argument:

Above we find precisely what Heidegger and Derrida diagnose as the “metaphysics
of presence”: the view that there is an eternal present beyond or behind the appearance of things, whether that’s the forms in Plato, the cogito in Descartes, the transcendental ego in Husserl, or indeed, the non-material, transcendental objects in Harman. In the eternal present, the “real” object cannot change, cannot give itself over to the passage of time, and all we get is what “seems to be” an “illusory” or “apparent” change of time never happening in the reality of things. Time is thus epiphenomenal.

Harman remarks in his essay that “if we speak of enduring units that subsist beneath outward changes, this is exactly what we mean by the experience of time”. But of course the experience of time is not time itself, just the perception of one of Harman’s tensions. Harman goes further and

Space and time are certainly not empty containers, as Newton and Clarke believed. But neither are they systems of relations generated by objects, as Leibniz believed. Instead, they are the tension of identity-in-difference, the strife between real objects and their accidents (space) or intentional objects and their accidents (time). And since under this model both space and time involve accidents as one of their poles, in a sense it is true that both are forms of perception, and Kant was right to say so—though only in a Kantianism extended beyond humans to flowers and inanimate things.

Harman has expounded in depth on all these differing tensions and his four-fold of time, space, essence, and eidos in his books and essays so I’ll not continue formatting that for the reader.

Rethinking what Harman is up too I kept thinking of Julian Barbour’s work The End of Time which one critic remarked in an interview:  “Barbour argues that we live in a universe which has neither past nor future. A strange new world in which we are alive and dead in the same instant. In this eternal present, our sense of the passage of time is nothing more than a giant cosmic illusion.” (here) As Barbour himself said:

If you look at the history of physics, surprisingly few people have really thought about time and what it truly is. Even Einstein only thought about certain aspects about time; he never asked what it means to say that a second today is the same as a second tomorrow. This is a very fundamental question. Einstein somehow assumed that it is meaningful, but he never actually asked how does that come about and how can that be? He never defined the notion of duration. So there are aspects of time that haven’t been fully studied, in my opinion. (ibid)

Barbour tells us that he is trying now to develop into a complete cosmology, a complete explanation of what the universe is. The key in the passage above is “The challenge has been to create a theory containing genuine relationships between genuine things, and not relationships between real things and unobservable things.” The idea here is obviously the overcoming of the old correlationist circle again, of Kant’s phenomenal/noumenal, appearance/reality, etc.  split or gap. It’s all about Time and Causality. For Barbour time as such does not exist. As he says: “There is no invisible river of time. But there are things that you could call instants of time, or ‘Nows’. As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows, and the question is, what are they? They are arrangements of everything in the universe relative to each other in any moment, for example, now.”2 He tells us that instead of admiring a bunch of flowers on the table and all their relations to each other and every other object he begins a to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this “idea of many different things coexisting at once in a definite mutual relationship. The interconnected totality becomes my basic thing, a Now. There are many such Nows, all different from each other. That’s my ontology of the universe — there are Nows, nothing more, nothing less.”

Is this or is it not a modern refashioning of the Occasionalist conception of time, a series of independent snapshots withdrawn (unconnected, independent) yet capable of mutual relationship. Here we have a physicist who could probably use a little more philosophical input. Carlo Rovelli of the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille, France, one of the founders of loop quantum gravity, entitled his FQXi essay “Forget Time.” He and English physicist Julian Barbour are the most prominent proponents of this idea. They have attempted to rewrite quantum mechanics in a timeless manner, as relativity appears to require.1

The reason they think this maneuver is possible is that although general relativity lacks a global time, it still manages to describe change. In essence, it does so by relating physical systems directly to one another rather than to some abstract notion of global time. In Einstein’s thought experiments, observers establish the timing of events by comparing clocks using light signals. We might describe the variation in the location of a satellite around Earth in terms of the ticks of a clock in my kitchen, or vice versa. What we are doing is describing the correlations between two physical objects, minus any global time as intermediary. Instead of describing my hair color as changing with time, we can correlate it with the satellite’s orbit. Instead of saying a baseball accelerates at 10 meters per second per second, we can describe it in terms of the change of a glacier. And so on. Time becomes redundant. Change can be described without it. (Kindle Locations 1300-1307).

This vast network of correlations is neatly organized so that we can define something called “time” and relate everything to it, relieving ourselves of the burden of keeping track of all those direct relations. Physicists are able to compactly summarize the workings of the universe in terms of physical laws that play out in time. Yet this convenient fact should not trick us into thinking that time is a fundamental part of the world’s furniture. Money, too, makes life much easier than negotiating a barter transaction every time you want to buy coffee, although it is an invented placeholder for the things we value, not something we value in and of itself. Similarly, time allows us to relate physical systems to one another without trying to figure out exactly how a glacier relates to a baseball. But it, too, may be a convenient fiction that no more exists fundamentally in the natural world than money does. (Kindle Locations 1307-1313).

Getting rid of time has its appeal but inflicts a good deal of collateral damage. For one, it requires quantum mechanics to be thoroughly rethought. Consider the famous case of Schrödinger’s cat. The cat is suspended between life and death, its fate hinging on the state of a quantum particle. In the usual way of thinking, the cat becomes one or the other after a measurement or some equivalent process takes place. Rovelli, though, would argue that the status of the cat is never resolved. The poor thing may be dead with respect to itself, alive relative to a human in the room, dead relative to a second human outside the room, and so on. (Kindle Locations 1314-1318).

French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued that time itself does not really flow and that its apparent flow is a product of our “surreptitiously putting into the river a witness of its course.” That is, the tendency to believe time flows is a result of forgetting to put ourselves and our connections to the world into the picture. Merleau-Ponty was speaking of our subjective experience of time, and until recently no one ever guessed that objective time might itself be explained as a result of those connections. Time may exist only by breaking the world into subsystems and looking at what ties them together. In this picture, physical time emerges by virtue of our thinking ourselves as separate from everything else. (Kindle Locations 1343-1348).

That last line sounds a lot like Harman’s objects that are independent of each other, withdrawn but capable of relation (thinking). One wonders if relation itself is the medium of time. So is it time that begets change or change that begets time? Are maybe it is our thinking the difference between the two is what produces the very sense of both time and change otherwise known as becoming.

In the interview with Barbour the interlocutor asks: Didn’t Einstein abolish Nows? Barbour answers:

There is no absolute simultaneity in the universe, or at least not in the classical universe. But relative simultaneity remains, and Nows as I define them form an integral part of Einstein’s theory. Actually the discovery of Dirac that started all my interest in time was that Nows appeared to be far more significant in the quantum world than one might have expected coming from the normal interpretation of Einstein’s relativity.

What really intrigues him is that the totality of all possible Nows of any definite kind has a very special structure. You can think of it as a landscape, or country. Each point in the country is a Now. He calls it Platonia, because it is timeless and created by perfect mathematical rules. Most strikingly, it is lopsided with a most definite end and frontiers that are there by sheer logical necessity. As he tells us if you consider triangles as Nows, the land of these Nows comes to an absolute end in the degenerate triangle in which all three particles coincide. This point is so special I call it Alpha. Other frontiers, like ribs, are formed by the special triangles in which two particles coincide and the third is at some distance from them. Finally, another kind of frontier is formed by collinear configurations — all the three particles are on one line. The Platonia for triangles is like a pyramid with three faces. Its apex is Alpha. All the points on its faces correspond to collinear configurations, and the faces meet in the ribs formed by the triangles with two coincident vertices. He goes on to describe Platonia:

Platonia is a special case of a very basic concept in physics called a configuration space. It has been around for a long time, long before relativity. The technical name for any Platonia is a stratified manifold — the strata are what I call frontiers. Stratified manifolds are what remain if you take the potentially redundant absolute structure out of configuration spaces. Stratified manifolds have been recognized as significant for at least sixty years. But somehow configuration spaces, or the leaner stratified manifolds, have never acquired the glamor of Einstein’s space — time or the Hilbert space of quantum mechanics. They are the Cinderellas of theoretical physics. I see quantum cosmology as the Prince Charming that cannot live without them. It’s a hunch I have come to from thinking so much about those basic questions: What is time? What is motion?

People found it very difficult to make sense of the static universe that seemed to emerge. However, as he remarked “I find the arguments that lead to it are strong. There is support for it in the structure of Einstein’s theory and in the structure of quantum mechanics. The equation would never have been found if that were not the case. So I take the picture seriously and try and make sense of it, and ask how can we nevertheless recover from it a picture of our world; how can it be that I can sit here and see my own hands moving, yours too, if the world is completely static?”

He suggests that our belief in time and a past arises solely because our entire experience comes to us through the medium of static arrangements of matter, in Nows, that create the appearance of time and change. As he describes it geologists certainly deduced that the earth has an immensely long history from structures frozen in rocks. He goes on:

That is, evidence for time and motion in static form. Our long — term memories must also be hard — wired in the patterns of the neural network in our brains. Again, we have mutually consistent records in static form. It is even possible that when we see motion the material counterpart of the phenomenon is a pattern of neuronal connections that codes several different positions of a moving object at once, and the appearance of motion arises from their simultaneous presence in one brain configuration. As I have no expertise in neuroscience, I do not want to push this idea hard. I merely want to suggest that the appearance of time arises exclusively from very special matter configurations which we find can be interpreted as mutually consistent records of processes that unfolded in a past in accordance with definite physical laws that involve time. I call such configurations time capsules and take the perfectly conventional realist view that they do exist in an external world. However, I think they may arise in a lawful manner that does not involve time at all. If we take the Wheeler — DeWitt equation at its face value, this is what must happen.

If the universe really is governed by something like the Wheeler—DeWitt equation (see Does time exist?) and we interpret it as determining the relative probabilities for the various different possible configurations of the universe to be realized, or experienced, then a major factor in determining how those probabilities are distributed must be the overall shape of the arena on which it acts. He concludes, saying:

My conjecture is that this static bias in the structure of the arena funnels the higher probabilities onto the special configurations that are time capsules, which, being more probable, are the ones that we are most likely to experience. The overall structure of the arena is reflected in the experienced configurations and interpreted by us as time and a past. This may seem fantastic, but I think the arguments for a timeless universe are quite strong. If we accept them, then we must look for something really radical and powerful that does put the appearance of time into the universe. The difference between past and future is a massive asymmetry. I believe that it can only arise from some other massive asymmetry, which I find in the structure of Platonia.

– from The End of Time an interview on the Edge: here

Timeless Explanation: A New Kind of Causality, Julian Barbour

1. Scientific American Editors (2012-11-30). A Question of Time: The Ultimate Paradox (Kindle Locations 1297-1300). Scientific American. Kindle Edition.
2. THE END OF TIME  A Talk With Julian Barbour: The Edge (8/15/99).

4 thoughts on “Speculations on the End of Time: Gratton, Harman, Barbour

  1. Hmm, are you familiar with Bergson’s and Whitehead’s critiques of Einstein’s philosophical interpretation of relativity theory? They would make a distinction between clock-time (the quantifiable time of physics) and duration (the qualitative time of psyche). Einstein was willing to make such a distinction as well, but only to then reduce psychological time to physical time. For Bergson and Whitehead, on the other hand, the physicist’s clock-time is a high abstraction, tremendously useful no doubt (it helped put footprints on the moon and rovers on Mars), but for this very reason liable to mislead us in our theoretical judgments and practical activities back here on earth. We forget, because of the tremendous promise of ever more accurate measurements made by ever more powerful machines, that concrete time (=duration) cannot be measured “objectively” by a clock, since the clock itself is aging. Nor can concrete space be measured objectively by a rigid rod, since according to Einstein’s own ontology, space is everywhere warped by gravity.

    I think time is misinterpreted as a series of “Nows,” at least if each is understood to stand on its own without any intrinsic or internal relation to the other. I think this understand of each present moment blatantly covers over our daily and nightly experience of the qualitative reality of something like “duration” or “creative advance.” I cannot bring myself to believe that yesterday has no intrinsic relationship to tomorrow. Certainly, time has discontinuities; but the “cuts” between these discontinuities are always bleeding, making each “now” porous to every other “now’s” past, so that they eventually all come to share one another’s wounds in a living present. In this way, each present “now” (James called them “drops of experience”; Whitehead called them “actual occasions”) is internally related to every already actualized “now.” Each “now” is also open to future becomings-with other “nows” through its latent (still potential) anticipations, dreams, and ideals. Time is intrinsic to everything we are and experience, since without time, there would be nothing here to experience itself. Everything emerges in time, with time, from time. Without it there would be nothing, no physical objects or metaphysical subjects (there wouldn’t even be any of Harman’s metaphysical objects). Not even space can expand “before” time intends it.



    • Yea, Michael, I’m not defending the position, obviously anyone who has followed my blog knows I’m a fairly strict dialectical materialist. As for Whitehead I’ve read his and Bergson, etc. Time is a hobby of mine…

      Because of Gratton’s critique of Meillassoux and Harman’s metaphysics of presence based on their opposing ideas on time and causality (which are different from each other, as from Gratton’s defense of Derrida). Gratton’s argument, which is excellent by the way, will obviously await a return bout from those two philosophers.
      All I was doing was remembering my reading of Barbour years ago so drew comparisons and refreshed my memory.

      What I was doing is showing a comparison between Harman’s philosophy and Barbour’s quantum gravity theoretic and his ideas on Time, which believe it or not are actually taken seriously as one of the other contenders and antagonists of String Theory. Along with Lee Smolin (who has his own ideas of time.).

      I don’t think you are anyone else can actually defend a pure position on Time: it’s a position that has yet to be solved, there are more questions that answers to it. And, it is all centered own the question of What is causality, and what is change?

      But I do think it is interesting to see some cross-overs between philosophy and science. Even Zizek in his latest book brings in physics, as well as the recent work of Karen Barad. Time is fascinating to any and all and cannot be reduced to any one dogmatic appraisal: Whitehead or Bergson, et. al.

      Time is an open question…


  2. Pingback: noir realism on time | Object-Oriented Philosophy

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