Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time: Bohm, Prigogine, and
edited by David Ray Griffin, Albany: The State University of New York
Press, 1986, Chapter 1, “Introduction,” 1-48.
Time and the Fallacy
of Misplaced Concreteness
David Ray Griffin
Time, Physics, and Metaphysics
In the title of this
book, and especially in this introductory essay, “time” means time as
known and understood in human experience. What exactly this is, of
course, is by no means obvious! But there is considerable consensus, even
among writers who disagree radically about the ultimate significance of
time so understood, that time as experienced involves at least the
following characteristics: (1) a one-way direction that is in principle
irreversible, (2) categorical differences between past, present, and
future, and (3) constant becoming.
It is commonly held
that physics provides no basis for any of these features. The so-called
fundamental laws of physics are often said to require “time” only in the
very abstract sense of the t-coordinate, on which events are strung out.
Not only do they provide no basis for a distinction between past,
present, and future, and a sense of an irrevocable ongoing; they do not
(with possibly one minor exception)1
even allow for “anisotropy,”2
the phenomenon in which the order of events when read off in one direction
can be objectively distinguished from the order when read off in the other
direction. And it is often considered entirely a matter of convention
that the vector points from the “past” to the “future” (Davies, 1976,
provide for anisotropy and hence, as K. G. Denbigh (1981, 167) says,
brings “the concept of ‘time’ a little closer to what we have from our own
experience.” The thermodynamic “gradient of monotonically changing
entropy states . . . appears to correlate completely with our own
judgement of the temporal order of events.” However, according to the
dominant interpretation (at least prior to Prigogine’s influence), there
is still no distinction of past, present, and future and no “one-way”
going. “For although thermodynamics finds the two directions of time to
be distinguishable, it does not display the one direction as being in any
sense ‘more real’ than the reverse direction. . . . The question ‘Which
direction along the t-coordinate is the real direction?’ just doesn’t
arise in physical science” (Denbigh 1981, 167). Furthermore, the
anisotropy provided by thermodynamics is said to be a property of large
numbers of entities or events, not of these individual entities or events
themselves, and hence it is considered a statistical matter.3
Even at this level there is said to be no irreversibility in principle.4
In time as
experienced, however, that today comes after yesterday, that earlier
events come before later ones and not after them, is not a matter of
interpretation of statistical data. Rather, the irreversibility of time
seems to be analytic, a necessary aspect of what we mean by time.5
There seems to something qualitatively different about time as we
experience it and “time” as defined by theoretical physics or even
according to heretofore dominant interpretations.
In time as we
experience it, the past, present, and future are categorically distinct.
The past is composed of all those events which are totally
determinate, in which all options have been eliminated. As the epigraph
says, once time’s moving finger has writ, neither piety nor wit can cancel
a word of it. The future, on the other hand, is that realm in
which at least some indetermination remains; decisions remain to be made
from among various possibilities. Although absolute determinists say that
there are in reality no alternative possibilities, beyond what will
actually occur, everyone in practice lives as if the future is in
some sense open, as if there are real decisions to be made—which brings us
to the present. The present is the realm in which decisions are
being made: some possibilities are being turned into actualities while
other possibilities are being excluded from actualization. So, we have
these categorical differences: the past is the fully determined, the
present is what is becoming determined, and the future is the
still-to-be-determined. In classical physics there was no basis for these
categorical distinctions. Some now say that quantum physics provides a
basis for this tripartite division,7
but this issue is still debated. The dominant view has been that
fundamental physics is timeless. In any case, few thinkers deny that human
experience of time includes this threefold division into past, present,
and future—or at least the illusion of it.8
The term constant
becoming is used to point to the fact that the present, or “now,” does
not “stand still,” as some put it. More precisely, the present “now”
never divides the same sets of events into past and future. In each new
“now” there are events in the past that were not there before and that
previously had been at most anticipated as possible, or perhaps probable,
events. This is the feature of time that has been asserted by many
writers to be most totally absent from physics. Physical theory is
usually said to be indifferent to any idea of becoming, of events
previously “in the future” coming into present existence.9
This would be all the more the case if this idea were taken to include
the idea that this coming into existence involves the transformation of
potentialities into actualities.
These three widely
agreed-upon aspects of time as we experience it,10
at least as I have explicated them, all presuppose each other. Hence,
none of them really provides any “stronger” sense of time than the others.
For example, part of the reason that time is irreversible is that the
past is composed entirely of totally settled, determinate events; it would
be self-contradictory for those events somehow to come to be in the
future, for that would mean they would be in the realm of the still
partially indeterminate. Likewise, it is because the present involves the
transformation of possibilities into actualities that there is constant
becoming, which means that time cannot “stand still.” Once some
possibilities have been chosen and others excluded, one cannot face these
same options. Those decisions are, as we say, now “behind us,” and we now
confront new options.
This book is
concerned with the ultimate significance of time in this sense. The
epigraphs at the head of this chapter were chosen to illustrate several
points. One is that humanity has harbored greatly different attitudes
about time, with its irreversibility and incessant becoming. Some people
focus on the aspect of time that leads them to call it a “devouring
tyrant”; others see it as a “refreshing river.” Some see it in theodical
terms, as ultimately healing all wounds and wounding all heels; others see
its “perpetual perishing” as constituting the ultimate problem of evil.
Some passionately believe the universe would be an aesthetic failure
unless it were symmetrical in all respects; others with equal passion
believe that unless the relations of the present to the past and to the
future are asymmetrical, so that we have genuine freedom partially to
create the present and hence the future, life would be meaningless. Some
believe that a life of wisdom and happiness requires coming to terms with
the ultimate significance of time; others see it as requiring an
appreciation of time’s insignificance, even illusoriness. These various
attitudes toward time are not directly the subject of this volume.
However, they are not irrelevant to the subject, since what we want to
believe, for moral, religious, or aesthetic reasons, usually conditions
the types of evidence to which we attend and the relative weight we give
to the various considerations.
A second purpose of
the epigraphs is to illustrate the point that thinkers differ greatly on
the subject of this volume: the ultimate significance of time. Finally,
many of the epigraphs directly reflect the more complete topic of this
volume: the bearing of physics upon the question of the ultimate reality
of time. Here again, thinkers differ drastically. They can be divided
into three major groups.
First, there are
those who hold that time is to be ascribed no other nature, and no more
reality, than it has in the fundamental laws of physics. This position
has had much strength in the last two centuries, because of widespread
acceptance of the metaphysical position of reductionistic materialism
among physicists and philosophers (even if it was not acknowledged as a
“metaphysical” position) and because of widespread abdication on the part
of philosophers from involvement in the philosophical issues in physical
theory. The majority of philosophers who have concerned themselves with
these issues, the “philosophers of science,” have done so from a viewpoint
(e.g., operationalism) that has sanctioned the tendency of physicists to
give terms no larger meaning than that vouchsafed by the methods, data,
and theoretical formulations of their own discipline. In any case, those
holding this position have tended to speak of time as an illusion (see the
epigraphs by Russell, Einstein, de Broglie, Gold, de Beauregard, Griinbaum,
Weyl, Mehlberg, and Davies).11
A second position is
constituted by those who agree with those in the first group that time,
like all meaningful concepts, must be defined by science, but who hold
that, although the concept of time is not grounded in the fundamental laws
of physics, it is grounded in some other feature of the world that
is susceptible to scientific treatment. The most popular form of this
position is the view of time as rooted in the laws of thermodynamics.
From this point of view, it is arbitrary to say that time is unreal
simply because it is not reflected in the “fundamental (timeless) laws” of
the universe. Science also deals with historical contingencies and so can
include the “initial conditions” of the universe (which are presumed to be
the source of “time’s arrow”) among its fundamental data. From this
viewpoint, it is fundamentally the direction of entropy that defines the
reality of time. Our own experience of time is taken to be derivative
from the fact that we are composed through and through of entities
involved in the universal entropic process.12
approaches are possible within this general position. Time could be
regarded as first arising in living processes and hence would be
established by the biological sciences. Or it could be thought a
mind-dependent property and hence to have arisen only when organisms with
minds sufficiently analogous to our own had emerged (often thought to
occur only with the development of a central nervous system). Proponents
of these views would tend to stress the reality of time to the degree that
they consider living, or psychological, processes as genuinely real—not
some frothy epiphenomena on the surface of the really real, strictly
In fact, within this
second position as a whole the sense in which time is spoken of as real is
a matter of degree, seeming to depend not only upon the author’s
systematic position but also upon his or her desire to regard the universe
as essentially temporal or timeless. None of those in this group regard
time as of strictly ontological or metaphysical significance, i.e., as
rooted in the very nature of reality. They all see it as something
contingent, as something that depends upon particular features of our
universe that conceivably could have failed to occur—or at least they
believe that they as scientists can only so regard time. Since time is
therefore regarded as a contingent feature of reality, it can be regarded
as more or less “real” or “illusory,” depending upon the other interests
and biases of the author. Hence, the difference between this and the
first position is ultimately a difference of degree, so the question of
which writers would be classed in the second as opposed to the first
position is somewhat arbitrary. However, it is a difference of degree
that becomes virtually a difference in kind, as some advocates of this
second position stress the reality, universality, and significance of time
so strongly as to make their difference from the third position
discernible only by careful reading. This would be true, for example, of
Ilya Prigogine—if he is to be understood as exemplifying the second rather
than the third position (see section 1.3).
The third position
is constituted by those who hold that it is not the task of one of the
special sciences to define and account for the reality of time. For one
thing, the methods adopted by the sciences are, at least thus far, said to
be such as to preclude treatment of the temporal features of reality;
hence, looking to physics to learn about time is like asking a computer to
answer a question it has been programmed to ignore. Furthermore, every
attempt to explain temporality in terms of some physical characteristic of
the world involves, it is claimed, the fallacious procedure of reducing a
more fundamental concept to a less fundamental one (see epigraphs by Gale,
Bridgman, and Whitrow). Within this third group, some would say that time
is simply a “primitive” concept that need not and probably cannot be
explained in any sense, either physically or metaphysically. It suffices
to see that time (as, e.g., Gale would claim) is an inevitable feature of
our experience, as reflected in our ordinary language, which is
presupposed by all our technical languages, so it is senseless to try to
explain it away on the basis of any of those technical languages.
However, some within this third group would say that time is a topic for
metaphysics, or ontology,13
meaning thereby that an approach is required that does not limit itself to
the methods and abstractions of any of the special sciences, but that
attempts to synthesize the presuppositions and results of all the special
sciences with each other and with the knowledge and especially
presuppositions of human experience in its fullness (which may include
features not in the province of any of the special sciences).
in Process Philosophy
There are many
ontologies or metaphysical systems that fit the general characterization
given in the previous sentence. (There are also some that do not, since
they ignore the results of the special sciences; but they are themselves
ignored here, just for that reason.) This introductory essay is written
from the point of view of one of them, the “process philosophy” derived
primarily from the writings of Alfred North Whitehead. From this
perspective, the natural sciences, at least as practiced thus far,
methodologically abstract from the full concreteness of the entities or
processes they study. Therefore, to jump from the mere fact that time is
not present in natural science to the conclusion that time is not real at
the fundamental level of nature is to commit the “fallacy of misplaced
concreteness.” The fallacy is to treat the abstractions from certain
things—as abstractions focused on because of certain interests and
methods—as if they were the concrete things themselves.14
It is to treat the map as if it were the territory, assuming that what is
not on the map is not in the actual terrain itself.
The thesis implied
by the title of Whitehead’s major book, Process and Reality, is
that process is the concrete reality of things and, conversely,
that concrete realities are processes.15
From this viewpoint, time, or temporality, is an ultimate feature of
reality. It is not itself an actual or concrete entity; it is a
relation—a relation of conformity to and inclusion of the past. This
is a version of the relational theory of time. However, many relational
theories make time a contingent feature of reality, since time is presumed
to depend upon a kind of relation that may or may not exist. For example,
time in Augustinian theology—according to which the world was created
ex nihilo in a sense that made the existence of finite things as such
purely contingent, dependent upon the voluntary decision of God—was purely
derivative, a relation among such contingent things. Of course, if the
everlastingly existent creator had itself been a temporal being, as in
Isaac Newton’s thought (as Milič Čapek points out),16
then time could be considered to be a relation and yet everlastingly real,
as it would most fundamentally be the relation between the creator’s
successive states of consciousness. (Most commentators have ignored
Newton’s heterodox theology, and his talk of “absolute time” has generally
been misunderstood to mean that time is not in any sense a relation and
hence can exist apart from actual events.) But since traditional theology
held God to be nontemporal in every sense, time was itself considered part
of the contingent creation. Much modern science-based philosophizing, in
thinking of time as a derivative, emergent reality, has thereby held to
this fundamental dictum of traditional theology, that time or process has
no ultimate reality.
philosophy, while it speaks of the present world as creation, emphatically
rejects this notion of creatio ex nihilo, according to which there
might be no plurality of things whatsoever, and the related idea that
temporality or process is a derivative feature of the world. Although
time is a relation, there have always been processes or events having the
twofold structure of inclusion and anticipation (i.e., anticipation of
being included by future events). The existence of such events or
processes is hypothesized to be ontologically necessary, simply part of
the ultimate nature of things, which just is.17
In answer to the question, for example, What existed before the “big
bang?” process philosophy would claim—assuming the correctness of this
theory of the origin of our universe—that such events or processes
existed. Hence, process philosophy can be characterized as
perspective, the relations and objections of process philosophy to the
other basic options for the ultimate reality of time can be clarified.
The three options would be: reductionistic nontemporalism, dualism, and
pantemporalism. Reductionistic nontemporalism can be summarized in the
following three propositions. (1) The fundamental laws of physics tell us
all the fundamental characteristics of the universe. (2) These laws do
not include time. (3) Therefore time is unreal, an illusion fabricated
and projected onto reality by human experience.18
One objection of
process thought to this reductionistic position has already been
suggested: there is no good reason to suppose that the fundamental laws of
physics, especially of physics in its infancy (a few hundred years is not
very long), give us all the fundamental characteristics of the universe,
even of the most “elementary”19
entities or processes constituting it. There is much more reason to
suppose that physics, at least as developed thus far, involves significant
abstractions from the concrete realities of things. A second objection is
that, according to the reductionistic viewpoint, human experience, with
its inherently temporal structure, is an epiphenomenon, not a full-fledged
actuality; and yet it is credited with the power of creating the illusion
of time. This attribution of such enormous creative power to unreal
things should be taken as a reductio ad absurdum of reductionism.
A third objection is based on an idea that process philosophy shares with
the “commonsense” and “pragmatist” schools of philosophy. This is the
idea that the ultimate criteria for testing philosophical doctrines are
those notions that all people in fact presuppose in practice, even if they
deny them verbally. I call these the “hard-core commonsense” notions, to
distinguish them from those ideas which are often thought of as “common
sense” but which belong to the “soft core” of one’s repertoire of common
sense (that is, they are really rather provincial ideas and are definitely
not ones that all human beings inevitably presuppose in all
they do). Because the hard-core commonsense notions cannot be
consistently and hence meaningfully denied—since the very attempt to
refute them would presuppose them—they should provide the ultimate
constraint upon philosophical opinions.20
We should accept no doctrine in our theory that we cannot consistently
live by in practice (as the pragmatists put it).
The doctrine of the
ultimate reality of time is one of those doctrines.21
very act of living, including the activity of articulating and defending
scientific and philosophical ideas, necessarily presupposes the dimensions
of time as described above: that we can affect the future, but not the
past; that there is an irreversible directionality to reality; that the
present involves turning some possibilities into actualities and excluding
others; and that—however inadequately this formulation puts it—the present
“now” constantly moves. Rejecting this temporal aspect of reality as an
illusion is done on the basis of accepting the truth of some other
proposition as the major premise for a syllogistic argument. For example,
the proposition used above was: “The fundamental laws of physics tell us
all the fundamental characteristics of the universe.” This is obviously
not one of the “common notions” that all human beings inevitably
presuppose in practice. On what grounds do we say that we are so certain
that this proposition is true that we will deduce from it the falsity of a
proposition that is among the universal presuppositions of human practice?22
There is a fourth
basis on which process philosophy considers reductionistic nontemporalism
unworthy of belief: the widespread acceptance of a materialistic
metaphysics and of a corresponding sensationalistic epistemology,
according to which anything knowable is knowable through the physical
senses, has led to the supposition that all meaningful concepts apply only
to objects of sensory experience. But our ordinary notion of time is
emphatically not derived from sensory experience; we do not see
(hear, smell, taste, or touch) the past, we do not see unactualized
possibilities, we do not see a moving “now.” Since from a sensationalist
perspective, as Richard Gale points out (1968, 69f.), the factual
content of all assertions can be equated with their sensible
content, it is assumed that assertions about time can be stripped of those
features arising from nonsensory experience without loss of anything
essential. However, Whitehead (1966, 72-75, 133, 152-62) argues that
scientific theory presupposes a set of concepts, time being only one among
them (“causation” is another), that is rooted in a kind of perception
(which he calls “prehension,” or “perception in the mode of causal
efficacy”) that is not sensory and that is in fact more basic than sensory
perception. Sensory perception provides precision of observation,
but not the meaning of the concepts employed in scientific theory.
Once it is realized that scientific theory in general cannot survive on
the basis of a rigidly applied sensationalist epistemology, there should
be less compulsion to regard as “phoney”23
characteristics of time that are derived from nonsensory aspects of
experience, such as memory and anticipation.
The second position
in contrast to pantemporalism, dualism, might at first glance seem the
most reasonable. According to this view, there is no time, no temporal
process, at the level of the most elementary entities constituting nature,
such as that of individual atoms and subatomic particles. Time is said to
emerge only as a result of the emergence of certain conditions or types of
events. Some dualists, as indicated earlier, locate this at fairly high
levels, e.g., with the emergence of life, consciousness, or, in extreme
cases, human consciousness. But others locate the emergence of
time at a much more primitive level, in some cases so primitive that to
insist upon a distinction between this view and that of pantemporalism may
seem like quibbling. However, there is an important philosophic problem
involved—the same problem that plagues every form of ontological dualism.
This is the problem of how two ontologically different types of
entities can interact. The best-known form of ontological dualism
is the one responsible for the “mind-body” problem, the Cartesian dualism
between experiencing mind and non-experiencing matter. Most philosophers
have given up this view of the mind-body relation precisely because it has
proved impossible to understand how mind and body, so understood, could
interact (at least without resorting to the appeal, less acceptable now
than in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to a divine omnipotence
that is not deterred by mere impossibilities). But the problem of
understanding how temporal and nontemporal things could causally interact
(emergence presupposes a type of causal influence) is at least as
difficult, as Čapek points out.24
How can we even think coherently about events for which the distinction
between past, present, and future obtains as interacting with events (or
things, since the term events already presupposes time) for which
this distinction does not apply? This difficulty is one of the major
reasons process philosophers urge pantemporalism as a more reasonable
pantemporalism is articulated in several essays in this volume, including
those by Bjelland, Hurley, Stapp, Cobb, Čapek, and me. However, the
crucial point, mentioned earlier, needs to be developed here. For
Whitehead, the reality of time, with its irreversibility, is based on the
fact that the actual world is composed exhaustively of momentary events
that include, partially but really, preceding events, which had in turn
included previous events, and so on back. In Whitehead’s words: “This
passage of the cause into the effect is the cumulative character of time.
The irreversibility of time depends on this character” (1978, 237).
Because of this
character of events, a present event is not independent of previous
events; rather, it presupposes just those events, since it includes them
and is largely constituted by this inclusion. Because of this essential
inclusion of prior events, the idea of successive events occurring
independently of each other arises only by abstracting from the full
reality of the events.
Time in the concrete
is the conformation of state to state, the later to the earlier; . . .
pure succession is an abstraction of the second order, a generic
abstraction omitting the temporal character of time. . . . The immediate
present has to conform to what the past is for it, and the mere lapse of
time is an abstraction from the more concrete relatedness of
“conformation.” (Whitehead, 1959, 36)
It is therefore a
fallacy to think of the real events or things making up the world as
having the property of “simple location,” which would mean that they could
be satisfactorily described without reference to prior and following
This is no small point, since the traditions of Humean and thereby
Kantian philosophy have presupposed just this idea of events as “simply
That is, the events in themselves were held to have no inherent conformal
relationship to prior events. These philosophical traditions are thereby
based on the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.
The same is true of
those materialisms or dualisms that think of nature as composed of
“self-contained particle[s] of matter.”28
Rather than thinking of enduring particles as the fundamental entities of
the world, Whitehead sees each enduring object as composed of a rapidly
occurring series of events, each of which includes aspects from its
predecessors in that enduring object but also aspects from other prior
events as well. Hence, Whitehead opposes the widespread view that an
individual atom is timeless; rather, it is a “temporally-ordered society”
of actual occasions.29
the mistake is to confuse an abstraction (the form of energy, which
remains relatively the same through time) with the concrete reality, which
is a series of momentary events, each of which derives its form largely
through conformity with predecessors and passes it on to successors.
Since an individual atom (or even electron) has a temporal structure,
time or temporality does not first arise as a statistical effect of the
interactions among a multiplicity of atoms.
I previously drew an
analogy between three views on time and three views on the mind-body
problem. I now suggest that the relation between them is more than an
analogy. The two issues are finally one. I will introduce this idea by
reference to the thought of a philosopher who argues for the ultimate
unreality of time in the physical world. Adolf Grünbaum contends
tirelessly that time, in the sense of becoming, is a mind-dependent
property. From this he concludes that it cannot exist in the physical
universe. However, although he sometimes speaks as if he meant only human
minds, since he speaks of time in the sense of becoming as
“anthropocentric,” in more careful formulations he makes clear that he
does not limit the requisite mind to that of human beings (Grünbaum, 1967,
152, 179-80). Although most process thinkers see Grünbaum as one of their
as indeed he is in most respects, I want to stress the agreement between
his thought and process thought on the mind-dependent nature of time. Of
course, process philosophers generalize “mind” much more broadly than
Grünbaum would countenance; he is hesitant even about cockroaches (Grünbaum,
1967, 179f.), whereas process philosophers generalize “mindlike”—or,
better, “experience”—to all actualities whatsoever. We agree with
Grünbaum that time is experience-dependent. But since we hold that all
actualities are units of experience and that a plurality of such
actualities necessarily exists, we hold that time exists necessarily, not
as a contingent emergent. (“Actualities” here refers to genuine
individuals, not aggregates; see 9.3.2, below.)
philosophy’s pantemporal-ism and its panexperientialism are ultimately one
and the same thing (as Andrew Bjelland’s essay makes clear). Likewise, it
is consistent for reductionistic materialism, which denies experience
except as an epiphenomenal illusion, to deny time except as an illusion
created by an illusion. And it is consistent for dualists on the
mind-matter issue to be dualists in regard to time.30a
Finally, process philosophy’s pantemporalist, panexperientialist position
stands as a clear alternative both to reductionistic, materialistic
nontemporalism, and to temporal-nontemporal, mind-matter dualism. It
holds that temporality as such and experience as such do not emerge at
some point, that becoming is not somehow generated from nontemporal being,
nor experience from nonexperiencing matter; indeed, it holds that such
generations are unthinkable. However, in contrast with reductionism, it
does not thereby regard experience and time as illusions that magically
appear at some point. Accordingly, it denies that it is the task of a
special science, whether physics or some other, to determine when and how
time, or its illusion, first appeared.
The relevance of the
fallacy of misplaced concreteness to this discussion of the relation
between panexperientialism and pantemporalism must now be clarified.
Whitehead, in one of the quotations at the head of this essay, speaks of
that science which finds no creativity (and hence no time) in nature as
ignoring half the evidence. He means this literally, for he regards each
momentary event as having two modes of existence. It comes into existence
as a process of becoming (called “concrescence,” the process of becoming
concrete). In this mode of being it has experience—not usually
self-consciousness, or even consciousness, but an emotional
internalization of the environment nevertheless. In this mode it is a
subject. This is what the event is in and for itself. In this mode, it
is known only to itself; it cannot, in principle, be perceived by any
other subject. However, this mode of existence is quickly over—it may
last from (perhaps) a tenth of a second in some cases (e.g., in human
experience) to a billionth of a second in others (e.g., in a subatomic
particle that vibrates a half-billion times per second).31
When this process of concrescence is completed, the event begins its
second mode of existence: it becomes an object for others, an object to be
felt by subsequent events—which might include being perceived by a human
observer or the instruments thereof. In other words, it becomes a cause
influencing later events.
Now, when Whitehead
says that it is inherent in scientific methodology to ignore half the
evidence, he means that such methodology considers things only as they are
perceivable—either directly or by means of magnifying instruments. This
means that it considers things only when they are objects, after
their period of subjectivity, or experience, is over. In other words, it
considers things only on their extrinsic side and ignores their intrinsic
natures. It may consider a “thing” as a process, but it deals only with
its extrinsic process, which Whitehead calls “transition,” since
there is a transition of energy from the one event to another. But it
ignores the event’s intrinsic process, which is “concrescence.” In
fact, as Whitehead states elsewhere, physics does not even deal with half
the evidence, since it contains the extrinsic side of things only in
regard to their spatiotemporal effects upon other things (1926, 220). In
any case, all the features of time discussed earlier are rooted in the
intrinsic reality of events, in the process by which they become
concrete, or determinate, for it is here that the event includes the past
events into itself and it is this inclusion that makes time irreversible.32
Accordingly, any approach that commits the fallacy of misplaced
concreteness by equating the extrinsic side of events with their complete
reality will necessarily miss the roots of time in those events.
Behaviorism was the
result of the decision that, to be a science, psychology had to ignore the
intrinsic reality of human beings, which is known only by being one, in
favor of looking exclusively at the features of human beings that can be
known from without, through the sensory perception and magnifying
instruments of the exterior observer. Those who promoted this form of
psychology tried to get along without using experience, consciousness,
purpose, aim, desire, feeling, or any other “subjective” terms. They
wanted to exclude all “anthropomorphic” categories from the study of human
beings, so that psychology could finally become a genuine science, like
physics and chemistry.33
But now it is generally accepted that an exclusively behavioristic
approach cannot deal with the most important features of human beings. If
we think of human experience as fully natural, why should it be excluded
from psychology as a natural science? The most adequate approach to the
study of human beings comes from combining behavioral and introspectionist
But if this point is
accepted, and we are nondualists, should not the twofold approach be
extended to all levels of actuality? Of course, we cannot ask
nonlinguistic entities what it feels like to be one of them in order to
get at their intrinsic natures. But likewise we need not study them on
the basis of the assumption that they have no intrinsic side, that
they have no experience, that they are nothing but objects. For
that assumption is pure speculation, no less “metaphysical” than its
contrary. By reasoning from analogy—the grounds of which have been
greatly strengthened by acceptance of an evolutionary perspective—it is
more reasonable to speculate that all individuals have an intrinsic
nature, with some degree of experience, than to speculate that some of
them do not, for we do; we know this directly. I know that there is more
to me than the behaviorist psychologist can describe. And you know the
same about yourself. And you presume it about me in practice, no matter
how solipsistically you may rhapsodize in theory. Is it not less
arbitrary to assume that this twofold mode of existence applies to all
individuals, rather than to assume that it “emerged” at some point in
the evolutionary process? To assume the latter would be to assume an
ontological dualism—no matter how vehemently one might reject the label.
To say that some things have an intrinsic as well as an extrinsic
reality, and that other things have only an extrinsic reality—i.e., to say
that some things are subjects as well as objects, whereas other things are
only objects—is to affirm an ontological dualism, regardless of the name
(such as “mind-brain identism”) with which one seeks to disguise it.34
The widespread idea
that physical events could in principle start running backwards
presupposes the idea that temporal order is pure succession. We know that
it is nonsense to think of our own experience as running backwards because
we know, at some level, that the order of our experiences is not that of
pure succession, but of the partial derivation of later from earlier
experience, with partial conformation of later to earlier. In Whitehead’s
Time is known to us
as the succession of our acts of experience. . . . But this succession is
not pure succession: it is the derivation of state from state, with the
later state exhibiting conformity to the antecedent. Time in the concrete
is the conformation of state to state, the later to the earlier; and the
pure succession is an abstraction from the irreversible relationship of
settled past to derivative present. (1959, 35)
Most people would
agree that this correctly describes human experience, but they do not see
how it could apply to “purely physical” processes. Yet Whitehead suggests
that it does: the deleted words in the above quotation are: “and thence
derivately as the succession of events objectively perceived in those
acts.” Because he, on the basis of an evolutionary, nondualistic outlook,
takes unitary “physical events” to be not different in kind from the
“mental events” constituting our own immediately known experience, he can
hold that time as “known to us in the succession of our acts of
experience” can be attributed by analogy to “the succession of events
objectively perceived in those acts.” I put “physical events” and “mental
events” in scare quotes to indicate that this dualistic language is
mistaken from the perspective of process philosophy. The difference
between the proton and the psyche is one of degree, not of kind (in an
ontological sense). One who holds otherwise is a dualist, no matter how
odious such a designation may be.
If this outlook were
to become the accepted framework (or paradigm) within which science is
practiced, in place of the ontological materialism and dualism between
which most scientific work in the modern period has oscillated, one of two
consequences would follow for the question of the reality of time in
physics. One possibility would be that physicists would retain the
methodological limitation to the extrinsic nature of events. Only now
they would see this to be a self-imposed limitation and would assume that,
apart from the aspect of events upon which they focus qua physicists, the
events also have an intrinsic side, which is analogous in some remote way
to our own experience and in which the basis for temporal relations at the
most elementary level of nature is located. Hence, they would be freed
from the assumption that it is their task, qua physicists, to
define the meaning of time and account for its existence—or, failing this,
to deny its reality.
A second possibility
would be that they would reconceive the nature of physics so that it
could, in principle, take account of the intrinsic as well as the
extrinsic nature of events. If this occurred, the result could properly
be called the beginning of “post-modern” science, since it can well be
claimed that the most significant feature distinguishing modern from
pre-modern science is the exclusion of all categories of subjectivity or
experience from consideration, either as data or for use in explanatory
However, the resulting science would be postmodern, not a return to
pre-modern, insofar as the gains in rigor and precision acquired during
the modern period were retained.36
In such a science the reality of time, with its features as known through
human experience, could be included within science itself.
in the Work of Bohm and Prigogine
I turn now to the
question of how the programs of Bohm and Prigogine are related to the
issues involved in physics and time as seen from the perspective of
process philosophy. Bohm seems closer to developing a post-modern physics
in the above sense. He, like Whitehead, understands apparently enduring
particles to be “world tubes” composed of rapidly occurring series of
events. Furthermore, he sees each momentary event as enfolding or
“implicating” the whole of reality within itself. Finally, he says that
physics thus far has stressed the “explicate order,” but that it now needs
to deal also with the “implicate order.” At least in some of his
formulations, this implicate order seems to involve that phase of the
momentary events in which they enfold the whole of reality within
Thus, Bohm would
seem to be developing a physical theory corresponding to Whitehead’s
metaphysical hypothesis that each momentary event has a subjective side
and that this subjective side is a process of concrescence in which the
whole past world, under abstraction, is included. However, sometimes Bohm
has spoken as if the “whole” that is enfolded in each event were not
simply and directly the past events, but a nontemporal order in which the
future as well as the past is contained. If this were his position, the
reality of time would be denied, for from the ultimate point of view
(i.e., of the “superimplicate order”), what is future to us would already
(eternally) be as determinate as what is past. I will not discuss this
and other issues in Bohm’s thought any further here, however, since they
are explored in my essay and Cobb’s, below.
presents the process philosopher with something of the inverse situation.
On the one hand Prigogine rejects, at least so far, any revision of the
basic nature of natural science so as to allow it to include subjectivity
among its data or to speak of any aspect of events that is not in
principle observable. On the other hand he is as intent as any process
philosopher on insisting upon the ultimate significance of time, and this
has led him to develop a “post-classical” science.
that the problem of time has been at the center of the research he has
been pursuing all his life (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984, 10).37
He says that the problem of the “two cultures” has not been that
scientists have not read enough humanities and humanists enough science,
but that there has been nothing in common between the two thought worlds.
At the root of the cleavage has been the fact that, while the humanities
and social sciences are necessarily time-oriented, classical science has
been nontemporal (xxvii). Furthermore, this nontemporal view has been
part and parcel of an alienating science that has portrayed a dead,
debased nature, creating an inevitable opposition between humanity and
nature (3, 4, 6, 89). This portrayal of nature has led, by reaction, to
antiscientific metaphysics (3, 7, 31 ff., 79). Overcoming the dualism
between physics and philosophy, between matter and life, between science
and the humanities, between nature and humanity, requires an enlarged
science, with a new idea of time (14, 96, 175, 298). This in turn
involves a new concept of matter, a return in a sense to one aspect of
pre-modern naturalism, in which matter was seen as active and
self-organizing (22, 32f., 36, 75, 82, 287, 291). Matter now should be
seen as capable of “perception” and “communication” (33, 145, 163, 171,
180, 181) and as manifesting behavior that depends upon its special past
history (153, 161). Furthermore, we should beware of speaking of
“elementary” particles, since this term suggests an autonomy from context
that is untrue (287).
All of this adds up
to a post-classical science, taking “classical” science to be that which
emphasized time-independent laws and deterministic processes, thereby
portraying nature as a grand tautology (2, 77, 213). The new science,
which forges a new alliance between humanity and nature (to replace the
animistic alliance broken by modern or classical science), stresses
nondeterministic processes, in which there is intrinsic randomness—i.e.,
randomness due not only to our ignorance of deterministic causes (234,
239, 298)—for only genuinely nondeterministic processes can be
irreversible (xxvii, 16, 276, 277). The fundamental character of
irreversible processes is Prigogine’s key thought; only this kind of
process gives science the kind of time that is presupposed in all human
experience, and hence in philosophy and the humanities in general. Prigogine’s
program is to reveal the existence of irreversibility at all levels,
including and especially the microscopic level (16, 232, 258, 288, 289):
there must be something at the microscopic level that provides the root
of irreversibility at the macroscopic level. This latter irreversibility
cannot intelligibly be thought to emerge, as a miracle, from fully
reversible processes (285, 289, 298).
On all these points,
Prigogine is in complete agreement with Whiteheadian process philosophy.
Indeed, he often stresses his agreement with Whitehead as well as with
Bergson (93-96, 129), seeing his own task to be that of giving scientific
content and precision to their metaphysical speculations (24, 310).
However, beyond these agreements there are some differences. These
differences can be read as merely methodological—reflecting the different
criteria and resources to which Prigogine, qua physicist, and
Whitehead, qua philosopher, can and must appeal—or the differences
could be read as more radical.
I will begin with
the more radical interpretation. According to this reading, whereas
Whitehead would exemplify the third position on the bearing of physics
upon the ultimate reality of time (see above, section 1.1), Prigogine
would be seen as exemplifying the second. The crucial difference would be
whether human experience as such were used to establish the fundamental
meaning and nature of time. For the later Whitehead (see Hurley’s essay,
below) it is, and the irreversibility in nonhuman nature is accounted for
by the postulate that it is composed of processes that are analogous to
our experiential process.38
The adoption of this position by Whitehead was part of his move from the
“philosophy of nature” in his pre-1925 works, in which the human subject
is excluded and nature is regarded only as the object of sense experience,
to “metaphysics,” in which experience and the experienced are to be
integrated into one scheme of thought, and inquiry about nonhuman events
is extended beyond the description and correlation of their appearances to
the question of what they might be in themselves.
Prigogine, on the
other hand, sometimes speaks as if a post-classical science can reconceive
time and nature adequately without breaking with classical science’s
dictum that “the soul which counts” lies outside the province of physical
science (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984, 22). He sometimes (e.g., near the
end of the paper in this volume) seems to account for our experience of
time on the basis of the fact that we are examples of those highly
unstable dynamic systems in which randomness and hence irreversibility
arise—which seems to make his procedure the opposite of Whitehead’s.
Consistent with this interpretation of Prigogine’s position is the fact
that he sometimes appears to regard time as a contingent rather than
universal feature of the physical world because it requires a minimum
complexity (16, 239, 251, 298, 301). There was, he says, a movement “from
being to becoming”; i.e., becoming or time-irreversibility originated in
the first stages of our universe (xxx, 278, 298, 300, 310). Hence, the
forward direction of things is only a tendency, not a necessary truth
(xxvii, 300). The world, accordingly, is pluralistic (xxvii, 251), or
what I earlier labeled “dualistic,” involving a mixture of reversible and
irreversible processes (xxvii, 251, 232, 258, 289).
interpretation, Prigogine would differ only in degree from previous
thinkers who regarded the task of physical science to be to establish the
meaning of time and who considered lime a contingent feature
that arose at some point in the development of our universe. Prigogine
would, of course, differ greatly in degree, since he stresses the
priority of irreversible processes, in contrast to those who have regarded
irreversible processes as exceptional and hence have had to see the origin
of life, with its irreversible processes, as a virtual miracle. Prigogine
stresses that irreversibility occurs at every level of nature (285) and
that reversibility is based on highly artificial, simplified
situations: nature in the raw is not simple even at the most fundamental
level, and in nature irreversibility is the rule, not the exception (8, 9,
But even on this
point (to continue this interpretation of Prigogine’s meaning), the
difference with Whitehead, while it may seem subtle, is important. For
Whitehead, reversibility is the result not of the artificial, but of the
abstract. That is, there is no true reversibility, not even in
artificial, isolated conditions. The idea that time could be reversed
results from mistaking abstractions for the fully concrete entities. In
Prigogine’s framework, however, it seems that genuine reversibility can
occur: in artificially constructed contexts there can be processes that
are fully deterministic, hence symmetrical and reversible. If time is
defined in terms of the direction of physical processes, one would
have to say that in those situations time itself is reversible.
The crucial question
in regard to the correctness of the above interpretation of Prigogine’s
position is just this, i.e., whether he means that the
far-from-equilibrium processes provide the basis for a definition
of time. If he does, then, even though he says that the entropy barrier
is infinite so that reversibility could never in fact occur, his
position would suffer from the paradoxes afflicting all the other attempts
to define time in terms of physical processes (see note 4, above).
However, there is
another way to interpret Prigogine’s position. This interpretation is
based on his statement that the distinction between past and future is a
primitive, i.e., prescientific, concept, which science must simply
presuppose (1973, 590; 1980, 213). Under this interpretation, Prigogine’s
view would be not that it is science’s task to provide an adequate concept
of time, but that science must become consistent with the primitive
“commonsense” notion of time we have from our own experience. Prigogine’s
work would move physical theory toward this consistency by showing that
reversible time is not a good tool even for complex dynamical systems and
that irreversibility is primary at every level of reality.
In harmony with this
interpretation, the movement “from being to becoming” would not be a
physical one (which would make irreversibility contingent), but a
conceptual one, signifying the move from a physical theory in which
simple, reversible systems have an autonomous and fundamental status
within complicated systems to a theory in which they become singular
limiting cases of an asymmetrical model. The pluralistic “mixture” of
which Prigogine speaks would not refer to a true or ontological
mixture, but would reflect his desire to make sense of the
phenomenological difference that made classical dynamics possible,
i.e., that some systems in fact behave—as a first approximation—in a
reversible way. Finally, under this interpretation Prigogine’s
“artificial” would be the same as Whitehead’s “abstract.” That is,
“artificial” systems would be those which had been conceptually
simplified to make them conform to the conceptual tools of a reversible
According to this
second interpretation of Prigogine’s meaning (which I owe to the coauthor
of Order Out of Chaos, Isabelle Stengers),39
there would be no difference in principle between the positions of
Whitehead and Prigogine. They would agree that the basic meaning of time
is rooted in a primitive level of experience, which it is the task of
metaphysics to articulate. The differences would be due solely to the
fact that, whereas Whitehead moved explicitly into a metaphysical or
ontological context, Prigogine has sought to remain within the constraints
of science, in which the meaning of all terms must be defined
operationally (without confusing this operational meaning with an
interpretation be the correct one, Prigogine’s work is extremely
significant from the viewpoint of process philosophy. For one thing,
under either interpretation it goes a long way toward overcoming the
dichotomy between the “two cultures,” insofar as this dichotomy has been
based on the assumption that physics, as the basic natural science, is
essentially nontemporal. Also, Prigogine’s work provides some
verification of the Whiteheadian hypothesis, for if this hypothesis is
correct—that cumulative and hence irreversible processes constitute the
very nature of actuality as such, and hence of the processes at every
level of our particular world—then the more physics advances, the more
evidence of irreversible processes it should find. That is, the
metaphysical or ontological irreversibility pointed to by Whitehead should
give rise to precisely the kind of empirically detectable irreversibility
focused upon by Prigogine.
If the second
interpretation of Prigogine is accepted, then his position and Whitehead’s
are complementary, as physics and metaphysics, each providing what the
other cannot. But if the former interpretation of Prigogine be accepted,
then there is a basic philosophical difference: whether “time’s arrow” is
to be regarded as rooted in a kind of process that is irreversible not
only contingently, and hence whether at the deepest level of the world
irreversibility reigns supreme. This could be regarded as the issue as to
whether the very meaning of time is to be provided by metaphysics, as
Whitehead holds, or whether physics begins with a metaphysical notion of
time but then has the task of improving upon it, as Prigogine sometimes
seems to say (1973, 590).
However, there is
another way of viewing the fundamental issue. Instead of a contrast
between science and metaphysics, a contrast between a modern and a
post-modern science could be entertained. From a post-modern perspective
one could challenge the modern assumption that science cannot speak of
subjectivity or experience, that the human soul and its analogues must be
left outside of natural science as if they were, as in Descartes’s
dualism, outside of nature itself. Whitehead himself was ambivalent on
this subject. He often spoke as if natural science had to remain with the
categories of objectivity (see note 31, above); his protest against the
fallacy of misplaced concreteness was a reminder that, to get at the
fuller truth, we must include the scientific description of nature within
a fuller metaphysical account (e.g., 1966, 18, 156). However, Whitehead
also said that science’s categories are not irreformable, and that he was
raising his protest on behalf of science itself (1926, 121, 122, 128). In
this latter mood he seemed to be saying that a more inclusive science
could include categories of subjectivity, such as “experience,” “concrescense,”
and “prehension.” Prigogine’s drive is certainly to find time rooted more
and more deeply in the nature of reality. For example, he has said: “It
would be quite appealing if the atoms’ interaction with photons (or
unstable elementary particles) already carried the arrow of time that
expresses the global evolution of nature” (Prigogine and Stengers, 288).
Whether he will move on to a physics that is more fully post-modern or
post-classical, rooting time in something like Whitehead’s “concrescence”
or Bohm’s “enfoldment,” remains to be seen.
Physics and Pantemporalism
Thus far I have
written as if physics could be perfectly compatible with a pantemporalist
perspective. But is this so? What of the arguments of those who claim
the opposite—that physics entails the rejection of the view of time
outlined above, with its closed past, open future, and creative present?
For example, Willard Quine has said that the principle of relativity
“leaves no reasonable alternative to treating time as space-like” (Quine,
1960, 172). Costa de Beauregard has said:
There can no longer
be any objective and essential (that is, not arbitrary) division of
space-time between “events which have already occurred” and “events which
have not yet occurred.” . . . Relativity is a theory in which everything
is “written” and where change is only relative to the perceptual mode of
P. C. W. Davies
has shifted the moving present out from the superstructure of the
universe, into the minds of human beings, where it belongs. . . . The
four-dimensional space-time of physics makes no provision whatever for
either a “present moment” or a “movement” of time. (Davies, 1976, 2f., 21)
Davies then quotes
with approval Herman Weyl’s statement that “the objective world simply
is, does not happen.” Fritjof Capra says:
theory of particle interactions shows thus a complete symmetry with regard
to the direction of time. . . . This, then, is the full meaning of
space-time in relativistic physics. Space and time are fully equivalent.
. . . To get the right feeling for the relativistic world of particles, we
must “forget the lapse of time.” (Capra, 1975, 183-85)
A clearer example of
the spatialization of time could not be wanted. First time and space are
said to be equivalent; then this equivalence is taken to mean that time is
eliminated. Capra then quotes with approval the famous statement of de
Broglie (which is included among the epigraphs at the head of this essay).
However, it appears
that the fallacy of misplaced concreteness has been committed again. The
abstractness of the time in the abstract space-time of physical theory is
forgotten, and it is treated as if it could be equated with the temporal
structure of reality itself. As Whitehead says, “an abstraction is
nothing else than the omission of part of the truth” (1966, 138). The
same point was seen clearly by Mary F. Cleugh. In Time and Its
Importance in Modern Thought, published in 1937, and still one of the
best books on the topic, she asks the crucial question:
feature of time as experienced is its irreversibility: is this really so,
or is it merely an anthropomorphic prejudice, and is physics right in
abstracting from this? (Cleugh, 1937, 49)
Her answer is that
we need to distinguish between legitimate and falsifying
abstraction and that the physicist’s abstraction from time’s
irreversibility becomes a falsifying abstraction when it is taken to be a
It cannot be too
often emphasized that physics is concerned with the measurement of time,
rather than with the essentially metaphysical question as to its nature. .
. . We must not believe that physical theories can ultimately solve the
metaphysical problems that time raises, or that they have any special
relevance to these problems. (51)
In support of the
abstractness of the physicist’s time, she quotes A. A. Merrill’s article,
“The t of Physics”:
while created originally from our direct experience with real time, is
subsequently handled in a way that has no relation to real time at all.40
She then concludes:
If it is claimed,
whether openly or by implication, that the characteristics of “t”
give a finally satisfactory account of time, that claim is unfounded. . .
. The pliable, reversible “t” may be very useful and important in
its own sphere, but its sphere is not that of metaphysics. (Cleugh, 1937,
(Lest some be
tempted to consider this type of point irrelevant, on the grounds that
they are not interested in metaphysics, it should be emphasized that any
attempt to state something about the true nature of time is
“metaphysical,” as the term is being used here.)
In an article
entitled “Time Represented as Space,” Nathaniel Lawrence argues similarly,
addressing “the vanity which holds that the abstract considerations of
material science provide an adequate framework for understanding our
experience of temporality” (Lawrence, 1971, 123f.). Physics, he says, is
a mode of practice focused upon measurement. For this purpose, it
abstracts from time’s passage, its additive (or cumulative) character, its
absolute difference from spatiality, and its qualitative aspects. The
result is time represented as space. There is justification for this
abstract representation in the need for measurement. But there is also
danger, especially because in certain respects physics has been so
The great danger in
these restricted enterprises is success. Success in one’s own particular
practice convinces him that he has got his hands on the primary reality.
And therefore the more he will argue that other visions of reality are
best tested by one’s own particular discipline. (123)
But the truth,
Lawrence says, is that
There is no mode of
practice whose presuppositions are adequate for generating a total
philosophy. . . . Measurement is almost as hopelessly partial as an
approach to reality as is the marketing of peas. (123, 129)
reflects that of Whitehead (1958, 27; 1958, 11), who stressed that we must
distinguish between the authority of science to establish its own
methodology and its competence (i.e., lack of it) to establish our
ultimate categories of explanation.
In the same vein is
the thought of Arthur Eddington, who points out that the abstractness of
time in physics is not unique to it.
Physics has no
concern with the feeling of “becoming” which we regard as inherently
belonging to the nature of time, and it treats time merely as a symbol;
but equally matter and all else in the physical world have been reduced to
a shadowy symbolism. (Eddington, 1968, 22)
Eddington is trying to warn people not to equate these shadowy symbols, or
abstractions, with the concrete realities of the world. With reference to
relativity theory in particular, Eddington says:
Those who suspect
that Einstein’s theory is playing unjustifiable tricks with time should
realize that it leaves entirely untouched that time succession of which we
have intuitive knowledge, and confines itself to overhauling the
artificial scheme of time which Römer first introduced into physics. (Eddington,
Mary Cleugh comments
on the widespread idea that relativity reduced time to a dimension of
In the new physics,
when it is said that the dimensions of “space-time” are at right angles to
each other, that does not mean . . . that time is somehow reduced to a
dimension of space. It means precisely the contrary. (Cleugh, 1937, 69)
For support, she
cites Einstein himself:
of the four-dimensional continuum of events does not at all, however,
involve the equivalence of the space co-ordinates with the time
co-ordinate. On the contrary, we must remember that the time co-ordinate
is defined physically wholly differently from the space co-ordinates.
(Einstein, 1950, 31)
Likewise, in reply
to Emile Meyerson’s complaint against the tendency of many to reduce time
to a fourth dimension of space (see introductory epigraph), Einstein
insists on the error of many expositions of Relativity which refer to the
“spatialization of time.” . . . The tendency he denounces, although often
latent, is nonetheless real and profound in the mind of the physicist, as
is unequivocally shown by the extravagances of the vulgarizers and even of
many scientists in their expositions of Relativity.41
Phillip Frank also
points out that the metaphysical “extravagances” regarding relativity
theory are not only due to the “vulgarizers,” but “have their origin in
the insufficiently clear formulations which can be found in treatises of
physics themselves” (Frank, 1976, 388). In the article entitled “Is the
Future Already Here?” Frank’s target is the attempt to justify from
relativity theory the metaphysical view “that everything that happens is
determined from all eternity, and that there is no development and nothing
really new in the world” (387). As an example of an extravagant
metaphysical claim based upon confusion, he cites (389) James Jeans’s
It is meaningless to
speak of the facts which are apt to come . . . and it is futile to speak
of trying to alter them, because, although they may be yet to come for us,
they may already have come for others.42
Milič Čapek has
devoted the most attention to this topic in recent times. He rejects as
confused those inferences from relativity theory according to which the
relativization of simultaneity destroys the objectivity of temporal order,
so that events succeeding each other in one inertial system could appear
in reverse order in another system (Čapek, 1976, 506, 507, 511). The
truth is, he argues, that there is much absoluteness in relativity theory:
of the world lines has an absolute significance, independent of
conventional choice of the system of reference. . . . Since the universe
consists of the dynamical network of the irreversible causal lines, their
irreversibility which remains absolute in the relativity theory is
conferred to the universe as a whole. (514, 515)
Since (the causal)
“before-after” relation is invariant in all systems, it follows that in
no frame of reference can my particular “here-now” appear simultaneous
with any event of my causal future or with any event in my causal past.
The idea expressed
in the above quotation from Jeans is categorically rejected by Čapek:
No event of my
causal future can ever be contained in the causal past of any conceivably
real observer. . . . No event which has not yet happened in my present
“here-now” system could possibly have happened in any other system.
virtualities of our future history which our earthly “now” separates from
our causal past remain potentialities for all contemporary observers in
the universe. Something which did not yet happen for us could not
have happened “elsewhere” in the universe. (521)
Hence, whether one
sees the “time” of relativity theory to be too abstract to be of direct
relevance for the philosophical discussion of time, with Cleugh, Eddington,
and Lawrence, or whether one sees relativity theory as having
philosophical significance, with Čapek and Prigogine, there is good reason
to question the counterintuitive ideas that some physicists, speaking as
metaphysicians, have claimed to be warranted by it.
What about the claim
that, according to elementary particle physics, particles can move
backwards in time? This notion has come into circulation largely through
the influence of Richard Feynman’s diagrams and suggestions. Feynman
suggested that, rather than interpreting certain interactions as the
production and annihilation of particles, it is simpler and preferable to
speak of some of the particles as going backwards in time. However, P. J.
Zwart has argued convincingly that the original interpretation in terms of
pair production and pair annihilation is much less problematic than the
interpretation based on time reversal (Zwart, 1976, 155-59). Insofar as
the idea of the production and annihilation of particles is thought to be
problematic, since it suggests creation out of nothing, Milič Čapek
comment (1976, 517) is relevant:
It is not true that
the process described above involves “creation from nothing” and
“vanishing into nothing”; the pair of particles arises from
electromagnetic radiation, into which it can be reconverted.
As pointed out
earlier, Whitehead’s suggestion that a particle is really a
temporally-ordered society of momentary energy events makes the idea of
the emergence and disappearance of “particles” from a background field of
relatively chaotic energy events seem less counterintuitive than it would
Hence, there is no
good reason to hold that any conventions in physics should lead us to
think that time is unreal, or reversible, on the grounds that there are
things that really “move backwards in time.” Even if we had no other
reason for rejecting this suggestion, the mere fact that no one can say
what that conjunction of words means should give us pause.
I close this section
by pointing out that Prigogine emphatically rejects the view that quantum
and relativity theory should give any aid and comfort to eternalists, even
if they could have once been so interpreted. As he sees it, quantum
theory now describes the transformation of unstable particles, and general
relativity is now seen to describe the thermal history of the universe (Prigogine
and Stengers, 1984, 9). Although Einstein’s own 1917 picture of general
relativity presented a static, timeless, Spinozistic vision of the
universe, it was soon shown that there are time-dependent solutions to his
cosmological equations (215). Finally, instead of regarding the joining
of space and time in relativity as implying the spatialization of time,
Prigogine agrees with those, such as Bergson and Čapek (1983), who say
that it is more accurate to speak of the temporalization of space (17).
Importance of the Topic
Why is the topic of
this volume important? That is, why is it important whether time, with
its asymmetry, becoming, and irreversibility, is ultimately real or
illusory? And why is it important to get clear about the relevance of
physics to time and of time to physics? I shall conclude this
introductory essay with some reflections on these questions—still from a
perspective that is deeply shaped by process philosophy. I shall organize
this discussion in terms of six reasons for the relevance of the topic.
(I) The importance
of a temporalized physics for overcoming the dichotomy that has existed in
the modern world between the natural sciences and the humanities has
already been discussed in relation to Prigogine’s thought; it need not be
elaborated upon further.
(2) However, there
is also the problem of the dichotomy within the natural sciences, between
fundamental physics and everything else. For, as Stephen Toulmin and June
Goodfield (1965, 247) point out in The Discovery of Time,
sciences had stood aside from the historical revolution which transformed
the rest of natural science, taking it as axiomatic that certain aspects
of the world remained fixed and permanent throughout all other natural
changes; and though. . . the list of these timeless entities. . . is much
shorter than it was in 1700, the existence of unchanging physical laws, at
least, is still regarded as one enduring aspect of the natural world.
Toulmin and Goodfield see that this idea of physics was conditioned by
theological ideas: “since God Himself was regarded as changeless and
eternal, it was presumed that the ‘laws of nature’ which were an
expression of His will were correspondingly fixed in their form” (264).
They see it to be “still an open question whether physics will ever
become a completely historical science” (247).
question now, is whether the laws of Nature themselves—the last
a-historical feature of the physicists’ world-picture—will in their
turn prove to be subject to the flux of time. (250)
This idea had been
developed by Whitehead, who suggested that we look upon the so-called laws
of nature as simply the most long-lasting and widespread “habits of
nature,” i.e., the habits taken by the most elementary processes
constituting our particular universe (1938, 154). This means that
“natural laws” and “sociological laws” would be different only in degree,
not in kind. They would be more or less universal patterns of behavior
which tend to be transmitted from generation to generation, but which can
also undergo more or less gradual changes. In Whitehead’s view the
so-called elementary particles, such as electrons, protons, and neutrons,
which emerged at some point in the past (1958, 24f.), are really
temporally-ordered societies of momentary energetic events that
have been stable enough to endure for billions of years. They did not
emerge from absolute nothingness, but from a realm of chaotic events.
Surely it is hard to think of the laws that describe the behavior of all
such “particles” as preexisting them. Accordingly, if the idea that the
“elementary particles” of nature have evolved is accepted, it is most
natural to think of the laws of physics as themselves having developed at
some period in the past. And, once this thought is accepted, it is
natural to assume that their validity will be for a limited duration
(1926, 65), i.e., that they will evolve some time in the future, when the
entities whose behavior they describe evolve.
The idea that
electrons, protons, and neutrons have evolved historically from a
relatively chaotic field of events has been given additional support by
more recent developments in elementary-particle physics, as now there are
considered to be over a hundred forms of such “particles.” But most of
these forms exist only very briefly, many for less than a billionth of a
second. This constant appearance of other particles from the background
field and disappearance back into it supports the notion that electrons,
protons, and neutrons also emerged from such a background and are simply
much more stable forms of temporally-ordered societies of momentary
energetic events—but not so stable that they will not eventually
Also, we have
learned that the various forms of elementary particles, including photons,
can be transformed into other types. This further supports the notion
that all the basic forms of matter are only partially stable “societies”
of momentary events, which have evolved into their present forms and which
may presently be undergoing some slow and subtle evolution. Again, if
what we call “matter” has itself evolved, is still evolving, and will some
day no longer exist, how can it make sense to speak of the “laws of
matter” as themselves timeless? Must we not assume that these laws
evolved correlatively with the entities whose behavior they describe, just
as biological laws evolved along with the living things whose behavior
they describe and as sociological laws evolved with the types of human
beings whose behavior they describe? If this idea is accepted, then time,
with its difference between past, present, and future, its “moving now,”
and its irreversibility in principle, will have to be recognized as
applying to the fundamental laws of physics, for it will thereby be
recognized that the so-called fundamental laws themselves have a history,
that their importance in the actual world had a beginning and will have an
When this occurs,
then physics will finally, with the rest of the physical sciences, have
discovered time, and one more absolute dichotomy which prevents our
developing a unified world view on the basis of the evolutionary paradigm
will have been overcome.44
(3) The dichotomy
between temporal and nontemporal is correlative with a dichotomy between
freedom as real and as illusory, for without becoming, in which the
present involves turning potentiality into actuality, there can be no
freedom (as stressed in Frederick Ferré’s concluding essay). This
dichotomy has led to tragic divisions within human experience. On the one
hand, the natural sciences in general, and physics in particular, have
gained such authority in our culture that it is very difficult to believe
something wholeheartedly if physical theory seems to contradict it. On
the other hand, it is also impossible, as I have suggested, consistently
to deny those “hard-core commonsense” notions which all people presuppose
in practice, as evidenced by their behavior. “Freedom,” the idea that we
are to some degree free to determine our own responses to events, is one
of those notions. It implies the partial openness of the future, and yet
many have taken physics to imply that the “future” is already as fully
determinate and actual as the past; see, for example, the epigraphs at the
head of this essay by de Broglie, Weyl, Grünbaum, and Einstein. Hence,
people have been torn between contradictory ideas. Einstein himself
proves an example. In one of the epigraphs, he says that freedom is an
illusion, but then adds tellingly: “even if a stubborn one.” His own
life displays a marked contrast with his writings. In his writings he
portrays a Spinozistic universe, in which all things are eternally
determined (Einstein, 1954, 48-50, 55-56); but he devoted much of his
energy to the passionate quest to avert atomic war-showing by his practice
that he knew that our fate is not already in the stars (121-67). Finally,
Rudolph Carnap reports that, near the end of his life, Einstein was deeply
worried by the awareness that there is something about the present Now
that makes it essentially different from the past and the future, but that
this is a difference which “does not and cannot occur within physics” (Carnap,
1963, 37f). (For more on Einstein’s views, see Popper, 1982, II, 2-3n,
(4) The tension
between fate and freedom is only one aspect of the dichotomy between the
sciences and the humanities. As Prigogine stresses, the dichotomy of the
temporal and nontemporal is at the root of a more general opposition
between humanity and nature, which involves the clash between the
qualitative and the purely quantitative, between the active and the
passive. The idea that the world of nature is a passive realm, devoid of
aesthetic qualities and intrinsic value, has led to a devaluation of these
values in modern life. Hence, the issue of the ultimate status of time is
part of the overall problem of modern thought, which has, among other
things, contributed significantly to the ecological crisis of our time.
(5) Another issue is
the tension between modern physics and traditional religions. In much
semipopular writing, the impression is given that traditional Christian
thought has affirmed the asymmetry, and hence ultimate reality, of time,
whereas modern physics gives us this great, new, liberating idea that the
relations of the present to the past and to the future are symmetrical, so
that time is unreal; and that, on this point, modern physics agrees with
Buddhism and other forms of mystical and perennial philosophy.
However, as the song
puts it: “It ain’t necessarily so.” On the one hand, traditional
Christian theology has portrayed God as eternally and immutably knowing
the world. This means that what is future to us has to be as present to
God as what is past and present to us. Indeed, God was said to know the
entire history of the world in one simultaneous now (simul nunc).
It was only with recent process philosophies and theologies that we have
Christian theological systems that genuinely allow for the reality of
time. It is the reality of time, not its denial, that is the new idea in
Western philosophical and theological thought.44a
On the other hand,
Buddhism by no means unambiguously affirms the symmetry of past and
future. The mutual interfusion of past, present, and future, which
Fritjof Capra stresses in The Tao of Physics, was mainly advocated
by one school of Chinese Buddhism, Hua-Yen,45
which then influenced some branches of Japanese Buddhism, including Zen.46
There are Buddhists who strongly disagree with the idea of temporal
symmetry and who see it as antithetical to Buddhist religion.47
For one thing, this idea that the future is as influential upon the
present as is the past stands in strong tension with the idea of karma,
which pervades all Buddhist thought, according to which the causal
influences upon one arise from the past, but that one can so act in the
present as to become liberated from bad karmic influences.
Finally, Ken Wilber,
one of the leading theoreticians of transpersonal psychology, which is
based on mysticism and the so-called perennial philosophy, emphatically
rejects the idea that the relation of the present to the future is no
different from that to the past. In fact, Wilber endorses Whitehead’s
views on this subject: an event prehends only its predecessors, not its
descendants; Christopher Columbus affects us, but we do not affect him
(Wilber, 1982, 286-88). Evidently neither Buddhism, nor mystical
experience, nor the “perennial philosophy” can be appealed to as an
unambiguous witness to the mutual interpenetration of past, present, and
future and hence to the ultimate unreality of temporal distinctions. Just
as it is not a question of what “physics” says, but of what individual
physicists or philosophers of physics say (as pointed out in the
introductory epigraph by Gale), so it is not a simple question of what
“mystical experience” or “enlightenment” or “Buddhism” says, but of what
is said by individual interpreters, with their particular histories,
biases, preconceptions, and selective attentions. As Whitehead says, if
you want uninterpreted experience, ask a stone for its autobiography
Wilber also makes
reference to so-called precognitive experiences, indicating that, however
they are to be interpreted, they must not be interpreted so as to deny the
reality of free will in the present (Wilber, 1982, 287). This is a point
upon which I want to enlarge. We could probably not exaggerate the extent
to which ideas of the ultimate unreality of time in religious thought have
been based on such experiences. Such experiences—in which a vision turns
out to correspond with a later event—have been widespread, especially in
contexts out of which religious writings arose. The most common
interpretations of these experiences have been these: (a) God reveals to a
prophet what God “already” knows is going to happen; (b) in meditation,
one comes into contact with a level of existence in which all things,
which in ordinary consciousness seem to be distinguishable as past,
present, and future, exist simultaneously in an “eternal now”; or (c) a
future event causes the present vision. All three of these
interpretations imply that that realm which appears to be future from the
standpoint of any present “now” is in reality as filled with fully
determinate events as is the past. Hence, there is no categorical
difference between past and future, so it is purely arbitrary, as Bertrand
Russell says, that we remember only the past and not the future.
So-called precognitive experiences are widely taken as evidence that this
arbitrariness is sometimes overcome, as some people “remember” events in
However, these are
all tendentious interpretations. Purely phenomenologically, what is
experienced is (i) a vision followed by (ii) an event that corresponds
closely to the vision (too closely to be dismissed as mere coincidence).
That is, there is nothing in the experience as such that dictates that
when the vision occurred the event already existed or that the (later)
event caused the (prior) vision. It would be equally compatible with the
evidence to say that the vision caused the subsequent event to occur.
In fact, there are thoughtful interpretations of so-called precognitive
experiences that employ this notion (Eisenbud, 1956, 23-25; Ebon, 1968,
224; Tanagras, 1967). However, most so-called precognitive experiences
can be explained within a pantemporalist framework without resort to such
a drastic idea. For example, most so-called precognitions of disasters
can be accounted for in terms of unconscious clairvoyant knowledge of
present structural defects (e.g., a leaky ship, a cracked wing, a short
circuit in electric wiring, a weak heart, a cancerous growth), plus
unconscious inference of the probable outcome, resulting in a dreamlike
vision rising to conscious awareness.
Most other so-called48
precognitions can be accounted for by unconscious telepathic knowledge (of
other people’s knowledge, feelings, or intentions—perhaps unconscious on
their part), plus unconscious inference. For other cases not easily
explainable in one of these three ways, there are several other ways that
do not require reverse causation, or an already actual future, or anything
else implying the unreality of time.49
So, again, there is nothing about these special experiences that should
encourage us to deny the temporality of reality, which is suggested by the
overwhelming majority of our experience, secular and religious alike.
To sum up the main
point of this discussion: in response to the claim of Prigogine and
process philosophers that a nontemporal interpretation of physics isolates
it from the rest of human culture, some might reply, “Not entirely.
Certainly, it isolates physics from conventional interpretations of
experience and reality, including conventional Western religious thought,
but it puts physics in harmony with those experiences in which human
beings have transcended conventional consciousness and plunged more deeply
into the nature of reality. On the basis of those experiences have arisen
interpretations of reality that are remarkably similar to those arising
from modern quantum and relativity physics.” Over against this view, my
argument has been that a nontemporal view of reality is not unambiguously
supported by any kind of nonscientific experience—ordinary, religious, or
parapsychological. Accordingly, there is good reason to hold to the
original point: nontemporal interpretations of physics will continue to
stand in contradiction with the rest of human experience and the best
interpretations of reality based on it.
(6) There is special
reason for focusing upon the question of physics and the ultimate
significance of time at the present moment. There has recently been a
spate of popular interpretations of physics that have reached wide
audiences. These books have spread quite widely the idea that the
authority of physics supports the notion that time is unreal. Reference
has already been made to Fritjof Capra’s immensely popular Tao of
Physics. Gary Zukav’s Dancing Wu Li Masters has also been a
best-seller. In it, the reader learns that the preferred interpretation
of quantum field theory is to speak of anti-particles as particles
traveling backwards in time (Zukav, 1979, 236, 237). The reader
encounters a quotation from de Broglie and learns that it is an illusion
that events “develop” in time (238). Zukav’s moral is similar to Capra’s:
since the flow of time has no meaning at the quantum level, and
consciousness itself may be a quantum process, we can perhaps experience
timelessness (240). Fred Alan Wolf, whose Taking the Quantum Leap
was quite popular, now tells us in Star Wave not only that time is
unreal (1984, vii, 230), but that it is in our power to create the past
(vii, 109, 110, 187), so that what “really happened” is determined by a
majority vote (230, 326). Accordingly, it is within our power to
determine whether the Nazi Holocaust occurred—not just epistemically, but
ontically: we could make it so that it really had not happened.50
specul’ations, which claim to be warranted by the “new physics,” are
particularly egregious examples of the havoc that can be created in
people’s thinking by the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. The
interpretation of quantum physics from which this conclusion of the
unreality of time is drawn is one which methodologically abstracts
from the question of what is really going on in the microscopic realm. It
rejects the attempt at a realistic interpretation in favor of a
phenomenalistic one. That is, it restricts itself to formulae that
successfully correlate the macroscopic observations, i.e., the instrument
readings. (Bohm’s long interest in “hidden variables” was less motivated
by the desire to confirm Einstein’s and de Broglie’s deterministic vision
than to find a theory that would describe the real processes going on.)
But then interpreters forget the abstraction from reality and start
applying details of the intentionally phenomenalistic account to the
operations of the real world. In Wolfs case, the crucial idea is that no
quantum reality has determinate status until it is measured, it being the
measurement that is said to “collapse the wave function.” The paradoxical
implication, drawn unflinchingiy by some interpreters, is that there can
be no determinate reality apart from human observers, so that even what we
normally think of as the distant past is dependent upon present
This would mean that the entire theory of evolution would have to be
abandoned, for that theory (which virtually all of contemporary science
presupposes) assumes that quite determinate processes did occur for
billions of years prior to the rise of human (or humanlike) observers.
Such a conclusion should alert us that something is amiss somewhere.
However, there is
little danger that masses of laypeople are going to be led to believe that
the past is under their control and hence to begin taking their decisions
less seriously on the grounds that, if they do not like the results (e.g.,
a nuclear war) they can simply revise the past so that those events did
not occur (assuming that there are any of us left to carry out the
revision). Our sense of the immutability of the past is too strong to be
shaken, even if we be told that we are rejecting the authority of physics.
After all, classical theists, never shy about affirming divine
omnipotence, would not even ascribe to God the power to undo the past.
Accordingly, affirming the symmetry of past and future52
usually means regarding not the past as open but the future as closed.
The introductory epigraphs by de Broglie, Weyl, Gold, Griinbaum, Russell,
and Einstein all reflect this view. The effect these ideas can have upon
the intelligent layman, even with some scientific training, is illustrated
by a book by Larry Dossey, M.D., entitled Space, Time and Medicine.
Dossey begins his
chapter on “Modern Time” with the introductory epigraphs by Gold and de
Broglie, after another by Bertrand Russell, which reads:
A truer image of the
world . . . is obtained by picturing things as entering into the stream of
time from an eternal world outside, rather than from a view which regards
time as the devouring tyrant of all that is. (Russell, 1917, 21)
the idea of creativity, Dossey draws these conclusions:
This concept of
creativity as a feature of a timeless, eternal world is hard to swallow,
especially if one wishes to see his creative act as a literal making of
some new thing. But in the modern context of a nonlinear time, as de
Broglie states, events exist prior to us in time. We create nothing,
since all things exist already. (Dossey, 1982, 34)
As the beginning of
that statement shows, Dossey is keenly aware that this view of time goes
directly counter to our ordinary notion of time—what I have called our
“hard-core commonsense” view. But, illustrating my earlier point about
the authority generally granted to physicists in our culture, he shows no
hesitation as to which view to adopt: “The view of time from modern
physics tells us our ordinary notions of time are wrong” (41). After
quoting the famous statement from Weyl, he says: “This view is an affront
to common sense. . . . [But we] must assimilate it,” for “we cannot ignore
what modern physical science has revealed to us about the nature of time”
(152, 153). He justifies this rejection of “common sense” by quoting
Einstein’s statement that “common sense is merely the deposit of
prejudices laid down in the human mind before the age of eighteen.” This
is probably true of most of those notions that are usually classed as
“common sense” and that I have called “soft-core common sense.” But is
there not an important difference between those culturally conditioned
ideas, out of which we can be educated, and the true (i.e., hard-core)
commonsense ideas which belong to the sensus communis of humanity
and which we all inevitably presuppose in practice? Do we not have good
reason to have more confidence in them than in any ideas from which their
contraries can be deduced? And does it not belong to our hard-core common
sense that the future is not totally determined? If so, then we should
take those ideas as the criteria for evaluating the alleged “revelations”
from modern physics, instead of the other way around.
The power of the
physicalist conception, that if something cannot be detected by the
methods of science then it does not exist, is shown by the fact that
Dossey repeatedly cites with approval the statement of P. C. W. Davies
that no physical experiment has ever been performed that detects the
passage of time (Dossey, 151). Dossey then provides a summary of an
“incontrovertible lesson” from modern physics, which amounts to a complete
endorsement of Davies’s views:
The notion that time
flows in a one-way fashion is a property of our consciousness. It is a
subjective phenomenon and is a property that simply cannot be demonstrated
in the natural world. This is an incontrovertible lesson from modern
science. . . . A flowing time belongs to our mind, not to nature. We
serially perceive events that simply “are”. . . . (151)
are practical. He believes that this view can help people overcome the
anxiety, and related health problems, caused by looking upon time as “the
devouring tyrant” (146). He suggests that we learn from modern physics
that time is a chimera and that “length of life is meaningless for the
reason that passage of linear time does not occur” (145). His conclusions
are well-intentioned, but whereas it may be healthy, in some sense, to
apply to oneself the idea that “length of life is meaningless,” to take
this as a generally true statement, and to apply it to one’s enemies, or
to humanity as a whole, could be extremely dangerous—especially in this
So, if time is real,
and if each moment is an opportunity to decide which among a variety of
potential values will become actual, thereby conditioning the entire
future of the universe for good or for ill, then the idea that time is not
real in this sense is a false and dangerous one. It will lead us to take
our enormous power for decisionmaking, and hence value-realization, less
seriously than we should. The same is true for the idea that the past can
Given the tremendous
authority granted to physics and hence physicists in our culture, and the
importance that our ideas about time have in our attitudes toward life and
the way we live it, it is crucial that we become clearer about what
contemporary physics does and does not entail about the nature and
ultimate significance of time. It is my hope that this volume will make a
helpful contribution toward this end. In this introductory essay, I have
pointed out various paradoxes about time that have plagued human thought,
especially in the modern period. I have sought to give reasons for taking
seriously in each case the suggestion of Whitehead that “the paradox only
arises because we have mistaken our abstraction[s] for concrete realities”
This is the behavior of the K meson; see Whitrow (1980, 355f.); Davies
Some writers unfortunately use the term asymmetry for anisotropy.
I use asymmetry to mean that the present’s relation to the past is
categorically different from its relation to the future. When P. C. W.
Davies speaks of “the physics of time asymmetry” he does not have
asymmetry in this sense in mind, but only what others (e.g., Grünbaum,
1967) less ambiguously call “anisotropy.” For example, Davies is at pains
to distinguish “the real, physical asymmetry” from “the controversial
phenomenon of psychological time,” which divides time into the past and
the future separated by a now (Davies, 1976, 3, 20-22).
“Nothing yet discovered in nature requires individual atoms to experience
time asymmetry, the very essence of which is the collective quality of
complex systems, like life itself’ (Davies, 1976, 4).
Richard Feynman says that “irreversibility is caused by the general
accidents of life. . . . It is not against the laws of physics that the
molecules bounce around so that they separate. It is just unlikely. It
would never happen in a million years. . . . Things are irreversible only
in a sense that going one way is likely, but going the other way, although
it is possible and is according to the laws of physics, would not happen
in a million years” (Feynman, 1965, 112). Writers who so derive the
irreversibility of time from entropy hold that our memory is irreversible
only because we are ourselves complex systems exemplifying entropic
principles (Feynman, 1965, 121; Davies, 1976, 19-22). Accordingly, if
thermodynamic systems were to reverse directions, our memory would
presumably reverse too, with the result that we would remember the future
but only predict the past. One should consider this conclusion a
reductio ad absurdum of the position. Percy Bridgman agrees (see
epigraph at head of this introduction; Bridgman, 1955, 251); so does P. J.
Zwart, who considers it absurd to think the temporal order is based on the
entropic order (Zwart, 1973, 144). He says: “One thing is quite
inconceivable: that we could perceive a later event before an earlier one.
. . . This kind of proposition is self-contradictory, that is to say, time
reversal in this sense is logically impossible. Reversal of the
entropic ordering is not logically impossible, however, though highly
unlikely. But even if it occurred, we should only have to adjust our
laws, not our concepts” (Zwart, 1973, 145). Likewise K. G.
Denbigh: “Mental processes display irreversibility of a kind not shown by
physical processes—that is, in the sense that it is not conceivable that
they could ever occur in the reverse temporal sequence” (Denbigh, 1975,
39). He points out that, if we had settled upon some physical process as
a standard for deciding the before-after relationship—e.g., an apple
falling from a tree to the ground—and then found that the event sequence
went in reverse order, we would simply decide that the “standard” was
fallacious. “In other words, is it not the case that what we really
mean by the before-after relation is the relation as it is
offered by consciousness?” (Denbigh, 1975,41). My only difference with
Denbigh here is that, from the viewpoint of process philosophy, the notion
that “physical processes” are reversible results from conceiving of them
at an abstract level and hence in effect conceiving of them as types
of processes. If we took experiences, or what he calls “mental
processes,” at the same level of abstractness, they also would be
Richard M. Gale (1968, 107) says that it is an “analytic truth that a
present cause cannot have a past effect.” Process philosophers agree,
while rooting this truth of language in the structure of experience and
finally of actuality in general.
Even Einstein evidently came to believe this; see the discussion in
section 1.4 in the text below.
See, for example, H. Bondi (1952) and H. Reichenbach (1956, 269).
Henry Mehlberg (1980, 202) asks how we can reconcile the fact that our
knowledge of the past differs so greatly from our anticipation of the
future with the fact, vouchsafed by science, that time is isotropic,
having no intrinsic difference between past and future. He suggests that
“the only possible answer is the realization that temporal words like
‘past,’ ‘future,’ ‘planning,’ etc. have no independent meaning,” but
depend upon the usage of one’s linguistic community. “What I remember
belongs to my past, by definition, and what I desire or am planning for,
belongs to my future, by definition .equally. But this need not prevent
somebody else from desiring what I remember and, thus, from having his
future overlapping with my past.” Should such a conclusion not lead one
to suspect that something is amiss?
Adolf Grünbaum (1967, 152f.) says that “the transient now with respect to
which the distinction between the past and the future of common sense and
psychological time acquires meaning has no relevance at all to the time of
physical events.” Accordingly, “coming into being (or ‘becoming’)
is not a property of physical events themselves but only of human
or other conscious awareness of these events” (I 54).
The foregoing account was meant as an explication of those features that
are largely agreed upon by authors from diverse perspectives, not as an
adequate account of time as we experience it. For it excludes the crucial
feature, discussed below in the explication of Whitehead’s view, that time
as experienced always involves conformity to the past (and anticipation of
the future’s conformity to the present). It is this conformity to (and in
fact inclusion of) the past that is the strongest reason for the
irreversibility of time. The theory of time including this feature is a
causal as well as relational theory. My one major difference from P. J.
Zwart arises here, in that Zwart (1973, 131-33, 144) holds that time is to
be understood relationally but not causally, as he regards the temporal
order as more fundamental than the causal. However, the difference seems
to arise because he thinks of events, causes, and effects as abstractions,
i.e., types of events. This is clear in his argument that if “we
should suddenly perceive that all the events we used to call the effects
of other events were preceding these latter events, it is inconceivable
that we should adjust the temporal order to the causal order, instead of
the reverse” (144). Apparently for this reason he can say: “If temporal
order could be reduced to causal order ‘A precedes B’ would have to imply
‘A is the cause of B’ which, of course, is not at all true” (144). But if
we understand A and B not as types of events but as concrete, singular
events, and also that by calling A a “cause” of B we mean that it was an
event without which B could not have been precisely what it was, then
Zwart could perhaps accept the equation of causal and temporal order.
As K. G. Denbigh says, the view that the universe is symmetric temporally
would lead to the idea that the “happening” or “taking place” of events
must be thought of as a sort of illusion of consciousness that has no
objective counterpart (1975, 7). In the introduction to a symposium on
time, Thomas Gold (1967, 2) asks whether the notion of a flow of time,
which we get from introspection, is “only a deception of a biological sort
which ought to have no place in physics.” Later he reveals that this is
indeed what he holds: “We ought to eliminate this flow idea from the real
picture [of the world], but before we can eliminate it we ought to
understand how it arises. We should understand that there can be a
self-consistent set of rules that would give a beast this kind of phoney
picture of time” (182). He closes the volume with a hope for “some new
physical theory” that will give a “better description of nature, one that
is less dependent on our subjective notions” (243). P. C. Davies (1976,
22) speaks of “the apparently illusory forward flow of psychological
time.” His reductionistic position is especially revealed in a statement
following his observation that, although the laws of physics do not
provide a time asymmetry, the world as a matter of fact is asymmetric
(i.e., anisotropic; see note 2) in time. He concludes from this that the
world’s anisotropy is hence “extrinsic” or “fact-like” rather than
“intrinsic” or “law-like.” These equations show that, for him, nothing is
intrinsic to the world unless it is contained in the fundamental laws of
physics. My object is not to criticize those who hold these positions but
to show, first, that many people have adopted such positions and,
second, to suggest a framework in which both their concerns and a more
adequate view of time can be combined.
See note 4.
For example, Mary F. Cleugh (see the first epigraph by her) and Robert S.
Brumbaugh (1984, 6,10): “The study of time is a metaphysical enterprise,
not a physical one.. . . The nature of time is a philosophic
problem. In physics, time is an undefined basic notion.”
Whitehead describes the fallacy as “mistaking the abstract for the
concrete” (1926, 74f.) One major form of it is the description of actual
things as if they exemplified “simple location,” i.e., as if they could
adequately be described as simply being at one place in space-time, apart
from any essential reference to other regions of space and other durations
of time (1926, 74f., 84).
“The reality is the process” (1926, 106); “the very essence of real
actuality—that is, of the completely real—is process (1933, 354).
In this volume; and Čapek (1976, xxxiv-xxxv).
I have focused on this aspect of process thought in relation to the
problem of evil in Griffin (1981).
See notes 8 and 11, and the first epigraph by Einstein, above.
I have put “elementary” in scare quotes to indicate distance from the
notion of “elementarism,” which is discussed in Bjelland’s essay in this
volume. Elementarism implies that there are fundamental particles out of
which more complex things are created but which themselves undergo no
essential changes by becoming part of this new environment. This is
exactly the notion of autonomous bits of matter with “simple location,”
which process philosophy rejects as a fallacy based on misplaced
concreteness (see note 14). The term “elementary particles” also suggests
that these entities are ultimate, i.e., that they do not require
explanation, and are not thought to have evolved out of something more
ultimate. Process philosophers share with Karl Popper (1982, III, 139,
158) the rejection of this notion of elementary particles.
For Whitehead, the “metaphysical rule of evidence” should be “that we must
bow to those presumptions which, in despite of criticism, we still employ
for the regulation of our lives” (1978, 151). It is these presumptions,
which are inevitably presupposed in practice (Whitehead, 1978, 13), that I
call our “hard-core commonsense notions.” The chief problem with the
so-called empiricist philosophies of Locke and Hume and their followers
was that they did not take these empirical facts as basic but
instead began with certain a priori dogmas about experience from
which they either deduced the falsity of these hard-core commonsense
notions (13, 146), or at best added them as presuppositions of practice
as supplements to their metaphysical or epistemological theory (133f.,
Although Richard Gale (1968, 103f.) does not explicitly distinguish
between hard-core and soft-core commonsense, his position is very similar
to mine. In his words, “many of our fundamental concepts, such as
causality, action, deliberation, choice, intention, memory, knowledge,
truth, possibility and identification, logically presuppose an asymmetry
between the past and future. . . . These logical asymmetries interlock . .
. such that one of them cannot be jettisoned without giving up the others
as well. Together these asymmetries form the basis of our common-sense
conceptual system.” Karl Popper also points out that a major reason for
rejecting a symmetrical view of past and future is that it conflicts with
our common sense, which regards the past as closed but the future as not
completely fixed. He says: “We should not be swayed by our theories to
give up common sense to easily.” But, failing to distinguish between
soft-core and hard-core common sense, he does not consider common sense
the ultimate arbiter, and hence would be willing to give it up in the face
of a good scientific theory supporting the symmetrical view (1982, II,
This is Roderick Chisholm’s way of stating the “commonsense” approach: “I
assume that we should be guided in philosophy by those propositions we all
do presuppose in our ordinary activity. . . . Any philosophical theory
which is inconsistent with any of these data is prima facie
suspect” (Chisholm, 1976, 15, 18).
See Thomas Gold’s statement cited in note II.
Čapek (1976, xlvii); see also G. J. Whitrow (1980, 350).
This would be one of my main reasons for rejecting the view of Robert
Brumbaugh (1984, 9, 11, 125, 131, 138, 139), according to which there are
four kinds of time in the world. I agree with the statement of G. J. Whit
row with which he distinguished his own position from that of J. T. Fraser
(1975), which is similar to Brumbaugh’s: “at all levels time is
essentially the same, although certain aspects of it become increasingly
significant the more complex the nature of the particular object or system
studied” (Whitrow, 1980, 375). See also the discussion of Karl Popper’s
position in note 30a.
See note 14.
“[The] Kantian doctrine accepts Hume’s naive presupposition of ‘simple
occurrence” . . . for the mere data. I have elsewhere called it the
assumption of ‘simple location,’ by way of applying it to space as well as
to time. I directly deny this doctrine of ‘simple occurrence.’ There is
nothing which ‘simply happens.’ Such a belief is the baseless doctrine of
time as ‘pure succession.’ . . . Pure succession of time is merely an
abstract from the fundamental relationship of conformation” (Whitehead,
Whitehead (1966, 138). Whitehead uses the term matter to refer to
anything with the property of simple location (1926, 72). He does not
think that matter in this sense is a total fiction; rather, he holds that
“by a process of constructive abstraction we can arrive at abstractions
which are the simply-located bits of material” (1926, 85). Again, the
error is taking the intellect’s abstraction from actuality to correspond,
without essential loss, to the concrete actuality itself.
To my knowledge, Whitehead never used the term temporally-ordered
society. Instead, he spoke of enduring objects with purely temporal
or serial order as having “personal” order (1933, 259, 263; 1978, 35).
However, he himself pointed out that the term person has
connotations of consciousness (1978, 35), whereas his societies with
personal order need not even be living (1933, 264), and indeed most of
them—e.g., electrons, protons, atoms, molecules—are not. Hence I find the
term temporally-ordered society preferable.
For criticisms of Grünbaum’s thought on time, see Milič Čapek (1961, 377);
and Frederick Ferré (1972).
30a. Karl Popper’s
thought provides an interesting counter example to the general
correlation, since he is a dualist in regard to the mind-matter issue but
not in regard to time. He agrees with process philosophers that the
defense of realism requires the affirmation of the reality of time (1982,
II, 3n.), that time’s arrow is not derivative from entropy, that in any
case there is more to time’s asymmetry than its arrow, and that this
asymmetry is incompatible with determinism (1982, II, 55-56). He grounds
indeterminism and hence the nonderivative reality of time in the notion
that all material particles realize and are “propensities”: each thing is
a realization of a prior potentiality and in turn a potentiality for
another becoming (1982, III, 205, 207). This way of affirming the
ultimate reality of time, and hence the temporality of physics, is very
similar to the Whiteheadian notion that each actual entity is first a
partially self-determining actualization of potentialities proffered it by
past actual occasions and then in turn provides potentialities for future
actualizations. However, although Popper attributes consciousness to
amoebae, and an elementary memory to crystals and even to DNA molecules,
he insists that atoms and subatomic particles are totally devoid of
experience (1977, 29, 71). In his terminology, World I, which consists of
purely material entities, existed prior to World II, which consists of
psychological qualities (1982, 114-17). World I objects seem to have
ontological as well as temporal priority: Popper shares “with
old-fashioned materialists the view that . . . solid material bodies are
the paradigms of reality” (1977, 10; cf. 1982, II, 116, 117). But this
raises two questions: The first question is the traditional one: how can
non-experiencing matter interact with experiencing mind? Popper simply
ignores this problem, saying that “complete understanding, like complete
knowledge, is unlikely to be achieved” (1977, 37). That is true, but
there is an enormous difference between lacking complete understanding of
how something occurs and affirming a position that makes the occurrence
seem impossible in principle. The second question is based on the fact
that “propensity,” as Popper recognizes (1982, III, 209), is a
psychological term. How are we to think of “solid material bodies” as
having “propensities” even though they have nothing even remotely
analogous to experience? The only statement I have found relating to this
question is that the propensities are, like forces, “properties not so
much of the particles as of the total physical situation; they are, like
forces, relational properties” (1982, III, 127). But I do not see how
this helps. Popper himself would evidently agree, since he says: “We
take indeterminism as a cosmological fact which we do not attempt to
explain” (1982, III, 181). Both of these problems are avoided if we
assume that, below cells and DNA molecules, experience simply becomes less
and less complex rather than disappearing altogether. Hence, I maintain
my thesis that pantemporalism can be consistently defended only on the
basis of panexperientialism.
Whitehead’s is an “epochal” theory of time, meaning that time is
derivative from the succession of actual events, each of which has a
finite (i.e., noninstantaneous) duration. Although there is a
space-time continuum, this is a structure of potentiality.
The temporal process is not in fact continuous; it is not
constituted by a series of instants. For a defense of Whitehead’s
position against criticisms, see David Sipfle (1971).
G. N. Lewis, who was perhaps the strongest advocate of time symmetry of
all time, saw this point clearly. He saw the importance of conceiving of
matter as strictly atomic, in the sense of being made of discrete
particles that in no sense entered into each other, for if two things were
allowed to diffuse into each other, “such a diffusion would in principle
be a phenomenon which by no physical means could be reversed.” But with
discrete particles, the recurrence of every particular state will
eventually come about. See Lewis (1930, 571) and the discussion in Roger
See the discussion and quotations in Floyd Matson (1966, 38-56).
That H. Feigl’s identism was really a dualism is evident. After saying
that, instead of two types of events, “we have only one reality which is
represented in two different conceptual systems,” he makes this qualifying
explanation: “on the one hand, that of physics and, on the other hand,
where applicable (in my opinion only to an extremely small part of the
world) that of phenomenological psychology” (1960, 33; emphasis
added). In other words, all events have physical qualities, but only a
few have psychical qualities. Feigl says this explicitly: whereas “at
most something very much less than a psyche is ascribed to plants or lower
animals” (which implies no dualism), “nothing in the least like a psyche
is ascribed to lifeless matter” (which does imply dualism).
Jacques Monod (1972, 21) has called this the “postulate of objectivity”
and proclaimed it to be the hallmark of science itself. However, this is
to dictate either that psychology must be behavioristic, eschewing all
references to purpose, feeling, and the like, or that it cannot be a
science. The same would be true of ethology. Do we really want to
define science in such a way that it is forever excluded from speaking
about subjectivity? At first glance, to say that science presupposes the
“postulate of objectivity” seems unexceptional: of course science
is to be objective! But this is to assume only one of the two meanings of
this ambiguous term. That is, as long as the term is taken to refer to a
method of approach, the postulate is a commonplace. But the term
can also refer to the categories used to describe the objects of study.
Monod takes the postulate of objectivity to include both meanings, with
the result that science can use only categories of objectivity (e.g.,
mass, energy) as opposed to categories applicable to subjectivity (e.g.,
feeling, purpose). Science is thereby limited to treating all things as
if they were objects in the metaphysical sense, i.e., objects as opposed
to subjects. This limitation is arbitrary and is really nothing but an
attempt to enshrine a particular metaphysics (materialistic or dualistic)
into the permanent methodology of science. But, presuming that it is
possible to be objective (methodologically) about subjectivity (as
phenomenology and nonbehavioristic psychology maintain), should we not
define science in such a way that it is able to deal with whatever kinds
of things the world contains? On the question of treating subjectivity
objectively, see Schubert Ogden (1966) and Roger W. Sperry (1976). On
modern science’s commitment to the categories of objectivity alone,
see Frederick Ferré (1976, chap. 1 and 2).
For suggestions as to what a post-modern science might be like, see Ferré
(1976, chap. 5) and Stephen Toulmin (1982).
All references to Prigogine’s writing in the text, unless otherwise
indicated, are to Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature,
by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers (New York: Bantam Books, 1984).
See the discussion near the end of section 1.2, above.
Letter to the author, November 1, 1984.
Merrill, p. 240. A similar point, quoted by Emile Meyerson (1976, 353),
was made by W. Wien: “Although the relationship between space and time as
revealed by relativity theory is very important, one must always bear in
mind . . . that it is not time itself which plays this role, but imaginary
Quoted by Čapek (1976, 366f.). However, as Čapek points out, Einstein was
not much interested in this point, and vacillated on it. For example, the
first epigraph from him at the head of this essay suggests that time is a
space-like dimension that can be fitted into a geometrization of reality.
The quotation is from James Jeans, Man and the Universe (1935).
This does not mean that every feature of the present universe is
contingent. Rather, on the assumption that there has always been a
plurality of events, in some state or other, it follows that there are
some strictly eternal, or metaphysical, principles these events exemplify.
Whitehead calls Process and Reality “an essay in cosmology.” The
task of cosmology is to describe the most general features of our cosmic
epoch, while trying to distinguish the truly metaphysical aspects of
reality from those aspects which apply only to our cosmic epoch. See
Whitehead (1978, 287-88).
See Toulmin,and Goodfield (1965, 247-65).
That this fact is not widely understood is suggested by this statement by
Karl Popper (1982, II, 5): “Since St. Augustine, at least, Christian
theology has for the most part taught the doctrine of indeterminism; the
great exceptions are Luther and Calvin.” In reality, Luther and Calvin
only differed from Augustine, Aquinas and others by being more explicit
about their determinism. See the relevant chapters in Griffin (1976).
For an excellent account of the Hua-Yen school, with a critique of its
idea of the symmetry of time from a Whiteheadian perspective, see Steve
Odin, Process Metaphysics and Hua-yen Buddhism: A Critical Study of
Cumulative Penetration vs. Interpenetration (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1982).
Capra (1975, 179) quotes this statement from D. T. Suzuki’s explanation of
the Zen perspective: “In this spiritual world there are no time divisions
such as the past, present, and future; for they have contracted themselves
into a single moment of the present. . . . the past and the future are
both rolled up in this present moment of illumination.” Suzuki goes on to
say that “this present moment is not something standing still with all its
contents, for it ceaselessly moves on.” One cannot help wondering, if the
past and future (as it actually will be) are already rolled up in the
present, what it “moves on” into. Capra admits this difficulty; in fact,
it is this difficulty that provides the rationale for his book, as he
adds: “But modern physics may help” (179). But there is good reason to
doubt that it can. For one thing, empirical evidence cannot resolve a
logical contradiction. Also, the suggestion of process philosophy is that
the aid can mainly go in the other direction. That is, it is time as
known in our experience in its fullness, in which the future is in the
present in a different mode than is the past, that can help us understand
the reality of time in that aspect of the world physics studies.
See, for example, Ryusei Takeda, “Some Reflection on Yogacara Philosophy
in the Light of Whitehead’s Metaphysics,” unpublished essay, on file at
the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College, Claremont, CA 91711.
I use the qualifier so-called because the term precognition imposes
an unwarranted interpretation upon the experience. The term suggests that
an event can be cognized (known) before it has occurred, which
implies that the event in some sense already exists to be known before it
has appeared in the present. As G. J. Whitrow puts it: “unless we live in
a ‘block universe’ in which everything in our future is pre-ordained so
that we are mere automata completely unable to influence any of our future
actions—a situation that seems to conflict with our actual experience—a
future event is nothing but an unrealized possibility until it happens and
therefore cannot give rise to genuine precognition” (Whitrow, 1980,
367f.). My only qualification would be that there are objective
probabilities, and some so-called precognitive experiences might result
from having an intuition of these. But this would not be genuine
precognition. On the one hand, it would not be cognition of the
future event as such, since cognition means knowledge and, so long
as an event is merely probable, something could happen to prevent
its occurrence; hence, that it is to occur cannot be known in
advance. On the other hand, knowing a probability is knowing something
that already exists and hence is not precognition.
Of course, many people reject all so-called paranormal occurrences out of
hand. For them, there is no problem to be solved, since there are no
precognitive experiences. Any “solution” that involves an appeal to
psychokinesis and extrasensory perception is necessarily as absurd as the
imagined problem it means to solve. However, my point here is only that
those who do accept the reality of paranormal experiences in
general can hold to the ultimate reality of temporality without
arbitrarily denying the genuineness of that class of paranormal events
that has led people to speak of “precognition.” Those forms of paranormal
events which do not suggest the causal influence of the future upon the
present can adequately account for that one form which does, at first
glance, seem to suggest this.
This example of the Holocaust was given by Wolf himself in a lecture for a
meeting of the World Futures Society held at the University of Southern
California on April 28, 1984. Although the idea of re-creating the past
is not strongly featured in Star Wave, in this prepublication
lecture, and in private conversation, he lifted up this idea as one of the
chief implications of the book.
This kind of idea has been around for several decades. For example, G. N.
Lewis (who coined the term proton) suggested that we could prevent
light from having been emitted from a star a thousand years ago (Lewis,
1926, 25). Wolf is dependent primarily upon John Archibald Wheeler, who
has defended the idea more recently. For a popular account, see Wheeler
(1982, esp. 14-18).
Wolf says he does not affirm that the past and future are
symmetrical, but that the past is open while the future is closed, i.e.,
strictly predestined (I984, vii, 326). However, in other passages,
especially exhortatory ones, it is clear that he, like everyone else, in
practice assumes that the future in part is still to be determined.
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Posted May 8,