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Thread: The Nature of Time: A-Theory vs. B-Theory

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    tWebber Boxing Pythagoras's Avatar
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    The Nature of Time: A-Theory vs. B-Theory

    What is Time?

    Despite being something which nearly everyone appeals to throughout the entirety of his thinking life, the idea of Time is not very easily understood. Most people have never even thought to ask the question, "What is time?" let alone put serious effort into seeking an answer. Those who have quickly realize that the topic is far more complex than they'd thought.

    When the average person thinks about time, they have this sense of something flowing ever forward. The past is behind us and gone. The future is ahead of us and unwritten. The present is the only thing that is real and it constantly slinks away into the past.

    This sort of description is the basis for Tensed theories of Time-- sometimes also referred to as "Temporal Becoming" or "A-Theory." While there are specific models within the overarching group of Tensed Theories which have slightly different implications, the main idea is this notion that the future is not a thing which really exists. We can speculate about the possibility and potential of what may happen in the future; but those potentialities are not real, existing events until they are instantiated in the present.

    In contrast, we can look at Tenseless theories of Time, sometimes called "Block Universe" or "B-Theory." Certainly far less intuitive, Tenseless models treat past, present, and future all as being equally real. The future is set in stone and though we seem to only experience it sequentially, one moment at a time, the things that will happen tomorrow are no less real than the things which are happening right now and the things which happened yesterday.

    Given the fact that the A-Theory accords so well with our common experience, one might ask why anyone would ever ascribe to the B-Theory.

    A Bit of Autobiography

    My own journey in this regard may be somewhat unique. I was born into an Evangelical Christian home with devout parents, so I grew up with a very active religious education. One of the things which I had been taught, as is common within Christian theology, is that God is omniscient and all-knowing. God knows the entire story for everything, including all of the past, present, and future. In my mind, having been raised with this notion of omniscience since before I was even able to speak, it only made sense that if God knows the future then the future must be something real, something which exists and therefore can be known. While I certainly had the same experiential notion of time's flow that everyone has, it just seemed obvious to me that the future must already be fixed in some way. If God knows what I will do in the future, then it is logically impossible for me to do otherwise.

    Whenever I talked to other people about these ideas, I found that they were really attached to the idea that the future is not set in stone and that the common-experience version of time must be true. However, I found my questions were very often hand-waived away with glib responses about "free-will" or "mystery" or other things which really didn't satisfy me. To be fair, I was just a little kid, so the only people I talked to about this were my parents, my friends, and my Sunday School teachers. It's hardly surprising that none of them were able to give me sophisticated answers to my questions.

    As I got older, I started to have a boyish fascination with science. I loved my Math and Science classes in grade school and any time I could, when doing a History report, I chose to focus on a famous scientist. One of my particular heroes, at that time, was Einstein and I remember doing a massive report on him. We were supposed to come up with a 5-minute report to present in front of the whole class. After 15 minutes, the teacher cut me off and said we had to move on to other students. While I was still very young and didn't have the tools to completely understand what I was reading, I remember being absolutely ecstatic when discovering Relativity. It was the first time I had ever seen an explicitly tenseless idea of time laid out anywhere and it seemed like every weird thought I had conceived about how time works was suddenly being confirmed by science.

    When I eventually started learning algebra, geometry, calculus, and physics, I began to realize that there were a lot of implications from Relativity on Time which I had not yet considered. Learning about these only bolstered my feeling that Time couldn't be as simple as the naive, common-experience approach to which my friends had all seemed so thoroughly attached.

    Now that I am no longer a theist, obviously God's omniscience is no longer one of the reasons that I am convinced of the B-Theory. However, I find the evidence from philosophy, Special Relativity, General Relativity, and even more obscure areas of science to be so compelling that I remain a committed B-Theorist, to this day.

    Relativity and Time

    If you are unfamiliar with the science, you may now be wondering what Einstein's Relativity has to do with how we understand Time.

    On the common-experience idea of time, we have this notion that the passage of time is the same for everyone and everything. If one second passes for me, then one second also passes for you and for a tree outside and for the Sun and for everything in the universe. Because of this, we have this notion that two different events can happen at exactly the same moment in time; that is to say, two different events can be simultaneous with one another.

    In 1905, a young Albert Einstein published a paper describing what we now call "Special Relativity." I won't get into the specifics here, for the sake of brevity, but there are tons of amazing resources available on the Internet for anyone interested in learning precisely how Einstein came to his conclusions, and it is actually far easier to understand that reasoning than most people seem to believe. If you can handle some very basic, grade-school level algebra, you have all the math you need to understand the basics of Special Relativity. Long story short, Einstein's Special Relativity completely overturned these common-experience ideas about how time passes and whether two events happen simultaneously. The very strange truth of the matter is that time can pass differently for different observers depending upon how quickly they are in motion relative to one another. Because of this, two events which appear to be simultaneous for one observer might not be simultaneous to others seeing the same thing.

    There was a significant catch, however. Einstein realized that his mathematical formulation of these phenomena only worked when discussing objects which are moving at constant velocities. The mathematics breaks down when we try to consider things which are accelerating or decelerating or not simply moving in straight lines. This is why we call it "Special Relativity," because the theory only applies to special cases.

    Though it took Einstein more than a decade, lots of help from his friends, and much, much more complicated mathematics, in 1916 he managed to publish another paper which generalized his ideas about relativity so that they applied even in cases of acceleration, deceleration, and non-linear motion. The implications of this work on Time were even weirder than those of Special Relativity. On General Relativity, Time is a dimension of positional measure, very similarly to the way the three dimensions of space are. This alone implies the B-Theory-- just as all possible positions in space exist together, General Relativity indicates that all possible positions in time exist together. Rather than talking about 3-dimensional Space and a completely different thing called Time, General Relativity cemented the notion that our universe seems to be made up of a 4-dimensional space-time. This space-time has its own geometry-- a geometry which might seem a bit alien to anyone whose only experience with the field is the plane geometry they learned in high school. Space and time can curve and bend, and it is this strange shape of space-time which account for gravity and motion.

    Subsequent developments in physics have piled even more weirdness onto our understanding of how Time works and what Time actually is. All of this, taken together, is why I am still a convinced B-Theorist with regards to Time.

    Objections Against the B-Theory

    Here are just a few of the objections to the B-Theory which I have seen, along with some commentary for why I don't find them convincing.

    ACT and POTENCY as a means of understanding Change
    Neo-Aristotelian philosopher and Thomas Aquinas expert, Ed Feser, wrote an essay called, "Actuality, Potentiality, and Relativity’s Block Universe," for an anthology work, Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science, published in 2018. In the essay, Feser defends A-Theory conceptions of time-- particularly Aristotle's ideas about act and potency-- in light of modern science. He states:
    The way that relativity is supposed to pose a challenge to that theory is not by showing that it is mistaken as an analysis of the preconditions of change and temporal passage, but by showing that there are no such things as change and temporal passage in the first place.
    He defines "change" in this context as “the gain or loss of an attribute, but also the persistence of that which gains or loses the attribute.” However, on that definition of "change," it is not at all true that Relativity shows that there is no such thing as change. On Relativity, it is perfectly consistent to say that an entity which persists over some interval of time would have attributes in later moments which it did not display in earlier moments (and vice versa).

    The only way in which one might argue that Relativity rejects the notion of "change" is when considering the universe as a whole, since that necessarily means considering Time as a whole. Feser's change requires us to compare one state to another state in order to assess the gain or loss of attributes. But the universe as a whole is only one state. There's no other state to which it can be compared.

    Many of the rest of Feser's arguments in the paper center around this misconception regarding "change," so I won't treat them any further, here.

    LORENTZIAN RELATIVITY
    William Lane Craig often notes that there is another model of Relativity which had originally been developed by Hendrik Lorentz which is empirically equivalent to Einstein's Relativity and which yet posits the existence of a frame of absolute time and space which, he argues, could restore the notion that reality moves along a common universal progression of time. Unfortunately for Dr. Craig, empirical equivalence most certainly does not mean the same thing as "exactly as reasonable." In fact, empirical equivalence doesn't even mean that the theory is plausible.

    To illustrate my meaning, imagine someone took Newton's mathematical formalism for Gravity but was puzzled by the idea that two objects could be attracted to one another despite being at a distance. So, this well-meaning thinker now posits that the cause of this attraction is the presence of invisible, intangible, and wholly undetectable fairies which are actively pushing the two objects together. This Fairy Theory of Gravity is completely empirically equivalent to Newtonian Gravity. Does that make it just as reasonable? Certainly not.

    This is precisely analogous to Lorentzian Relativity. The only thing which Lorentzian Relativity adds over against Einsteinian is the notion that there exists some inertial reference frame which is correct while all of the others are only illusory. Except that this Lorentzian aetherframe is in an even worse logical position than the gravity fairies were. It's not just the case that the aetherframe is wholly undetectable; the aetherframe is entirely indistinguishable from any other frame. Even if someone could somehow detect this aetherframe, there is nothing which would make that frame "correct" and all others "incorrect" other than a completely arbitrary label. To say that it is "correct," in such a case, is a totally meaningless distinction.

    COSMIC TIME and symmetries of General Relativity
    Another thing which Dr. Craig often cites as a "[restoration of] our intuitive notions of universal time and absolute simultaneity" is a particular symmetry in the geometry of space-time which he refers to as Cosmic Time. This refers to a particular way of dividing or "slicing-up" space-time into invariant incremental intervals between different spatiotemporal locations. This is a very well known and widely used idea in the physics of General Relativity, and Dr. Craig argues that it's unique symmetry is enough for us to distinguish it as being "correct" as opposed to any other method for slicing-up space-time.

    It does not seem that Dr. Craig has any real understanding of what these invariant incremental intervals are, however. For one thing, they certainly do not match up, in any way, with the Lorentzian aetherframe which he also suggests is the correct reconciliation of the A-Theory with Relativity; but more importantly, there is absolutely no way in which someone familiar with the concept could reasonably say that it "restores our intuitive notions of universal time." For example, think of a photon leaving a star 8 light years away from us which reaches the Earth at the precise moment to be captured by a telescope. Now, using our intuitive understanding of time, we would say that it took 8 years for that photon to travel from the star to our telescope. However, using the definition of “cosmic time” which Dr. Craig proposes, there has been absolutely no passage of time between the photon leaving the star and reaching its destination. That single photon exists simultaneously at every single point along the path which it is traveling, essentially placing a single object in an infinite number of places at once.

    However, one need not even need to explore that far to see that Dr. Craig's idea of "cosmic time" is incoherent. Again, he is defining "cosmic time" as a particular way of dividing up the geometry of space-time. In order to divide the geometry of space-time in this way, one must presume that time is a completely extant dimension of measure-- that is, one must presume the B-Theory. So Dr. Craig is essentially arguing that one must presume the B-Theory in order to restore the A-Theory, which is fairly obviously contradictory.

    DETERMINISM
    The nature of the B-Theory seems to entail that some form of Determinism must also be true. Those who are committed to the Libertarian notion of free-will are therefore likely to find B-Theory understandings of Time to be entirely unpalatable.

    I am not a Libertarian, with regards to free-will, so this objection doesn't really exert much power, in my eyes. However, I can certainly understand how it might be much more concerning to other people.

    PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPERIENCE of Temporal Passage
    This is, by far, the most difficult challenge to the B-Theory to address and the biggest stumbling block which most people have when considering the idea. The arguments from physics are well understood but far removed from our common experience. In contrast, psychological experience is not well understood and is the entire foundation of our common experience. Thus, the basic question goes, "If all moments of time exist together, then why is it that we seem to only experience them one at a time and in a constant, sequential order?"

    I will not lie. I do not have a complete and scientifically well-supported answer to this question. I do have some thoughts on the matter, and I do believe that there is a path towards reconciling the B-Theory with the psychological experience of temporal passage. Though I'm sure we will get into this more as the thread progresses, for now I will simply note that my particular ideas towards reconciliation build upon the memories and stimuli available to a psychological state at particular moments in time.

    Let's Talk It Out!

    I know that's quite a lot of information to take in, while still not being anywhere near completely explanatory. When I was asked to write a post on my views about Time, I knew it was going to be a bit daunting. But I'm looking forward to discussing it! Whether or not you agree with my position, I hope everyone enjoys this thread.
    "[Mathematics] is the revealer of every genuine truth, for it knows every hidden secret, and bears the key to every subtlety of letters; whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom."
    --Thomas Bradwardine, De Continuo (c. 1325)

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    Troll Magnet Sparko's Avatar
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    I subscribe to the B-theory.

    But one thing you forgot to mention was the "many worlds" theory, where every choice basically branches off into parallel time lines. That would allow for a B-theory universe with out having a set future. In fact, all possible futures could exist. Or perhaps, even, maybe God chooses which possible future becomes the "real" one and then the others are only "possible" - which would account for Molinsim, the idea that we all have free will, but God still is in complete control.

    If you were to have the choice of eating chocolate or vanilla ice-cream, either one would be your free choice, right? Well, what if God lets the timeline where you chose vanilla to become the "real" one, and the chocolate one isn't? Then God actualized the universe where you freely chose vanilla. spooky, huh?

  3. Amen Boxing Pythagoras amen'd this post.
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    Professor and Chaplain Littlejoe's Avatar
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    As an Open Theist and a proponent of Liberterian free will, I've always ascribed to the A theory. Though you downplay the determinism factor as not much of an issue for you, you don't really dwell much on your view. But, ISTM that B theory completely destroys any notion of free will including compatibilism since all time already exists so, not just determinism comes into play but downright fatalism....
    "What has the Church gained if it is popular, but there is no conviction, no repentance, no power?" - A.W. Tozer

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    tWebber TheLurch's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sparko View Post
    Well, what if God lets the timeline where you chose vanilla to become the "real" one, and the chocolate one isn't?
    Then God is far more cruel and capricious than i'd ever imagined.
    "Any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from trolling."

  6. Amen Boxing Pythagoras amen'd this post.
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    tWebber Boxing Pythagoras's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sparko View Post
    I subscribe to the B-theory.
    B-Theory Bros! Woot!

    But one thing you forgot to mention was the "many worlds" theory, where every choice basically branches off into parallel time lines. That would allow for a B-theory universe with out having a set future. In fact, all possible futures could exist.
    Without a sort of selection feature like you propose God might employ, it seems that on that sort of Branching B-Theory such branching futures not only could exist but would exist. That would CERTAINLY be a fun one to watch the theologians try to hash out!

    Quote Originally Posted by Littlejoe View Post
    As an Open Theist and a proponent of Liberterian free will, I've always ascribed to the A theory. Though you downplay the determinism factor as not much of an issue for you, you don't really dwell much on your view. But, ISTM that B theory completely destroys any notion of free will including compatibilism since all time already exists so, not just determinism comes into play but downright fatalism....
    I actually am a Compatibilist. I don't see any inherent contradiction between B-Theory Determinism and the idea that a person is in control of his own decisions.
    "[Mathematics] is the revealer of every genuine truth, for it knows every hidden secret, and bears the key to every subtlety of letters; whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom."
    --Thomas Bradwardine, De Continuo (c. 1325)

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    tWebber lee_merrill's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TheLurch View Post
    Then God is far more cruel and capricious than i'd ever imagined.
    It is however possible that God might have a good purpose. Though I am not a Molinist, I don't believe that God controls the world primarily by using his knowledge of how people would freely choose in any given situation.

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    tWebber shunyadragon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Littlejoe View Post
    As an Open Theist and a proponent of Liberterian free will, I've always ascribed to the A theory. Though you downplay the determinism factor as not much of an issue for you, you don't really dwell much on your view. But, ISTM that B theory completely destroys any notion of free will including compatibilism since all time already exists so, not just determinism comes into play but downright fatalism....
    I would not go by A nor B theory that leads to a wooden rigid view of whether there is libertarian free will or hard determinism. The concept of libertarian free will is not even remotely descriptive of the nature of human will. I go with some version of compatibilism where there is a potential of a degree of Free Will within a Deterministic framework. The evidence is overwhelming that the nature of our physical existence is fundamentally deterministic. First, the fractal nature (described by chaos theory) of the cause and effect nature of outcomes indicates the limited degree of deterministic nature of the outcome of cause and effect events, which only occur within the limits of Natural Laws, environment, and the limits of the outcomes of chain of prior cause and effect events.

    Good research has demonstrated the limits of human will decision making process, but has not determined that there is no Free Will. It is fairly certain that the individual cannot put a value judgement on the degree of free will concerning their own decisions.

    I support the concept of the 'potential of limited free will' in the context of determinism. The extent of the limited free will is not determined, though we always make decisions within a very limited choice of options.
    Last edited by shunyadragon; 05-15-2020 at 08:20 PM.
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    tWebber
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    I'd have to agree with littlejoe here as far as B-theory goes, it's all there as Boxingpythagoris put it, past, present and future are all just as real, nothing really changes, the change we experience is just some kind of illusion, so we're not really making choices, we're just experiencing them as we and the choices we make forever exist at every point along the static timeline. That said, and though, just as everyone does, I feel as though A-theory is the reality, but, Einstein and physics seem to indicate otherwise. Who knows!

    I would though like to hear BP's, or anyone else who thinks it, their explanation of compatibilism and how that could fit together with B-theory

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    tWebber TheLurch's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lee_merrill View Post
    It is however possible that God might have a good purpose. Though I am not a Molinist, I don't believe that God controls the world primarily by using his knowledge of how people would freely choose in any given situation.
    Except i would so clearly choose chocolate. (Ben and Jerry's chocolate fudge brownie, to be specific).
    "Any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from trolling."

  12. Amen lee_merrill amen'd this post.
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    tWebber 37818's Avatar
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    I ascribe to the A-theory of time. I also hold to theism where God knows the absolute future. But the Son as the Son limits His omniscience to the unbound omnipresent and the omnipresent past and is reason the A-theory is true. Truth is absolute.

    What can be shown is true that requires the B-theory to be true?

    From where we are at in our known universe. We experiicance and can test a here and now. But anything of any distance is from our perceived past. Our Sun is a distance of about 8 light minutes away. The Andromeda Galaxy has been measered to be some 2.5 million light years away. The far reaches of our oberved universe is meserd to be some 13.7-13.8 billion years, and calculated to be some 46 billion light years or 92 billion light years across. Note the dichotomy.
    Last edited by 37818; 05-16-2020 at 08:52 AM.
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