January 22, 2005

Einstein and Gödel, at the Königsberg café

Posted by Curt at 04:38 PM in Science | TrackBack

About a month ago I wrote this entry which was, I think, somewhat misunderstood, at least by the one confirmed reader of it. In it I tried to argue that there are some fundamental problems involved in conceptualizing time which, in my mind, appear intractable, and hence its existence as a concept contradictory, impossible. To which it was replied that of course time has an existence, as a social convention, a mental framework. Of that I have no doubt-it would be impossible for me to refute even if I wanted to. My point was about metaphysics, not sociology, and in that regard I don’t think it was that much different from that expressed by St. Augustine regarding time: “if no one asks me what it is I know what it is, but if someone asks me I don’t know.” Or, even more notably, Kant, who regarded time, in addition to space, not as an entity, process, or property of the physical world, but as a filter of percpetion, the mental framework which orders our experience of the world.

Which brings me back to science. I just finished reading The Evolution of Physics, by Einstein and Leopold Infeld. Of course Einstein is justly famed for, among many other things, pioneering the idea of space-time. However, I was quite intrigued to discover, while perusing the science section at the National Library in Paris, that Gödel claimed that his late work on relativity and physics, upon which I touched in my earlier post, was inspired by an intense study of Kant. Now, assuming such a dour man as Gödel was not simply being facetious, the implications of this are immediate. In the (apparent) somewhat paradoxical act of tearing down the structure of Einstein’s work while bringing some of its deepest tendencies to fruition, he was working under the influence of a theory which denies the type of external, property-based existence which Einstein implicitly ascribes to time (and space)! As I understand special relativity (always a dubious premise, I grant you), it holds that space and time, as properties of the universe, are perceived differently at every point of view, or coordinate system, as he calls them. But for me it seems a question of the simplest explanation: if everyone is in a relative frame of reference with respect to space and time, is it simpler and more likely that time and space are real properties which are different at every point in the universe, or simply that they are perceived differently by each observer? It seems to me that if one takes Kant’s idea of space and time as elements perception and not of external reality, none of these problems come up, although there may of course be others. Again, it’s hard for me to say what Gödel’s interpretation of all of this is, since no one seems to have engaged and propogated his work on this subject much, but if he was following in the line of Kant’s thinking as well as the tradition of relativity, it would be interesting to see the resuscitation, by “a commodius vicus of recirculation,” of a very powerful and cogent point of view which has nonetheless been largely dismissed by scientists as non-pertinently metaphysical. Perhaps interesting also to note that, in dealing with Kant last year, I protested against his classification of space as a perceptual framework, and even managed to convince my philosophy professor that it is rather the fundamental visual property, before reversing myself and concluding that light is actually the fundamental visible property. Light is also in some ways the fundamental property in Einstein’s system, or at least the one constant in all of the warping of space-time, which somehow doesn’t seem so surprising now…

p.s. For all of those intersted in Spanish literature (which at this point probably composes nearly 100% of our readership), I also came across this article with the following sub-headline: “It is the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, a more important work than all of Einstein’s theories.” To the extent that the article follows up on this point, I think the claim about the inevitability of scientific discovery is at the very least highly disputable (and even if Cervantes’ work is more inimitable, that does not in itself mean that it is more “important”), but nonetheless a provocative idea, and gratifying to my humanities-leaning heart.


I'm not entirely sure what you're saying here, although I've read the whole thing, and the previous entry along with the article on Einstein and Godel. There are some references I don't understand because I have essentially no formal instruction in philosophy. However, I'll take a stab at it by providing a few related thoughts.

Time is the process of irreversible change. It may be that time is a macroscopic phenomenon, that at the quantum or fundamental (whatever that turns out to be) level, all interactions are reversible so the direction of time is essentially meaningless. However, at macroscopic (by which I mean interatomic or bigger) levels, irreversible reactions seem to occur, allowing unambiguous assignment of cause and effect. This gives a direction for time.

For this reason, we can remember the past, and not the future. The future is incapable of causing memories of itself because it is defined that way.

Posted by: Andy Stedman at January 24, 2005 04:23 PM

Oh, and if shonk comments you'll have two confirmed readers of this entry. That's, like, double.

Posted by: Andy Stedman at January 24, 2005 04:25 PM

However, at macroscopic (by which I mean interatomic or bigger) levels, irreversible reactions seem to occur, allowing unambiguous assignment of cause and effect.

I don't dispute the first part of that, but the second in no way proceeds necessarily from it.

Posted by: Curt at January 24, 2005 06:15 PM

Perhaps "unambiguous" is too strong of a word. However, the concept of "irreversible" implies that cause and effect, and therefore a direction of time, exist. We may not be able to tell from observation exactly what caused something, but if we do correctly identify a (cause, effect) relationship, we can tell which is which. If we can't, the process was reversible after all.

Posted by: Andy Stedman at January 25, 2005 02:44 PM

Hmm. It seems to me that the "irreversibility" argument is only persuasive if the irreversibility of a cause-and-effect relationship is one of the premeses, rather than the conclusion. In other words, when we observe two events, one of which precedes the other, the ONLY incontestable clue in establishing causality is that the second must be effect and not the cause, which in turn can only be the case if it is assumed that time has a direction, as you say.

p.s. I apologize for any obscure references I may have made. The only one of which I'm aware is my allusion to Kant, but I think my brief description of his views of space and time should prove sufficient, except of course for purposes of verification. If you desire further clarification, please let me know; I should be quite happy to provide it.

Posted by: Curt at January 25, 2005 03:40 PM