The View From Nowhen

Victor J. Stenger

Time's Arrow and Archimedes Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time, by Huw Price (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 306 pp., $25.00 cloth

September 30, 1997

Human progress has always been hindered by our tendency to put everything in human-centered terms. The greatest advances we have made in our understanding of the universe have happened when individuals climbed a ladder, peered down on the rest of humanity, and then courageously leaped over the horizon. The modern scientific revolution was triggered when Copernicus discerned, against all tradition, that the earth is not the center of the universe. Physics took huge strides after Galileo recognized that motion is relative, and then again when Einstein drastically altered our preconceptions about space, time, and matter. Biology prospered after Darwin stepped out of his human skin and noticed that it was not greatly different from the skin of a chimpanzee. They all took their cue, as Huw Price explains in this important book, from Archimedes who said that he could move the earth from a vantage point where it looks like a simple pebble, if he were provided with a suitable lever.

 Science is often decried for "dehumanizing" nature. But that is when it is its most successful. We do not want a surgeon to "feel our pain" while operating. We cannot expect an astronomer to gaze only at the pebbles in the solar system. And, we should not ask scientists to tell us how wonderful we are, when the evidence indicates otherwise, that humans make a negligible contribution to the cosmic scheme of things. If that's the way things are, then so be it.

 Certainly, human-centered perspectives as applied to our personal and social activities are subjectively important to us as humans. The arts, humanities, and social sciences contribute to improving human life. But, because of their distorted anthropocentric perspective, these endeavors are inessential, indeed form obstacles, in our quest to understand the nature of the cosmos.

Although most physicists agree on the necessity for an anti-anthropocentric perspective, they still often fail to apply this perspective in practice. Even quantum physicists, who are used to thinking about strange new worlds, continue to insist on casting their theories in terms of a human-centered concept of irreversible time that is not required by the data they gather from their own instruments. This restricted vision leads them to see "paradoxes" where none are present, and to wittingly or unwittingly offer encouragement to those who want us to believe that modern science supports mystical notions. Only after removing from physics all vestiges of subjectivity, can we expect to have a chance of glimpsing the objective reality that lies beyond human desires and fantasies.

 Looking down from the top of their ladders, physicists enjoy what philosopher Thomas Nagel called the view from nowhere, an unrestricted perspective in space. Price, a University of Sydney philosopher, urges that they must also take in the view from nowhen, an unrestricted perspective in time. Thanks to Einstein's relativity, we have known for almost a century that time is another coordinate in a four-dimensional spacetime, and that an objective "now" cannot be meaningfully defined for all observers. Relativistic concepts are built into all modern physical theories. However, most of modern physics still retains a narrow perspective on the direction of time, implicitly assuming that time "flows" in a unique direction we call the arrow of time.

 According to basic physics, the reversal of time's arrow is not impossible on the everyday, macroscopic scale--just exceedingly unlikely. On that scale, air will rush in to fill an evacuated container; but the time-reversed process, in which the air escapes through a small opening leaving behind a vacuum, has not happened in the age of the universe. Such observations lead us to regard time irreversibility as an immutable law of physics. However nothing we know in physics prevents the air in a chamber from escaping. Such an observation would not violate any law of physics. The molecules simply have to be all moving in the same direction toward the opening. This would not be surprising for three molecules, but is exceedingly improbable for the 1024 or so in a macroscopic volume.

None of the basic principles of physics, classical or quantum, and no fundamental processes such as the interactions of elementary particles indicate any basis for the common intuition that time flows in a singular direction. Indeed, we have no reason for assuming that it flows at all, like some kind of cosmic river. Nevertheless, physicists continue to describe phenomena in terms of the direction of time of commonsense experience. They persist in talking about causal influences that act only in that direction, rarely acknowledging that they have made additional assumptions not required by the data in asserting an arbitrary direction for time and causality. Meanwhile, their fundamental laws work equally well in both temporal directions.

 With your theory thus prejudicially formulated, you are bound to draw paradoxical conclusions. In quantum mechanics, where many attempts to resolve its alleged paradoxes produce bizarre results, this has led to immense confusion.

As has been known for seventy years, quantum phenomena depend not only on the initial conditions of an experimental setup but also on the final conditions. This observation already signals that the quantum world is time-symmetrical. Quantum phenomena do not distinguish between "initial" and "final." These are commonsense designations that can be interchanged without making any changes in the basic theory. When we ignore the time symmetry of quantum mechanics, and insist on an anthropocentric, time-directed perspective at the quantum level--because common experience says so--we are then forced to invent aetheric quantum fields that communicate instantaneously throughout all of space, parallel universes that spring into existence at every blink of an eye, or other fantastic schemes in order to remain consistent with the data.

 All the alleged paradoxes of quantum mechanics result from the unnecessary use at the quantum scale of the singular time direction of common experience. No doubt the arrow of time we all experience in our lives is an objective reality. But it can be shown to be a consequence of the statistical behavior of systems of large numbers of particles. The probabilistic behavior observed on large scales does not apply for the small numbers of particles involved in quantum phenomena.

 Time reversibility in quantum mechanics does not imply that time travel by humans, with all its attendant paradoxes, is feasible. At the quantum scale, however, time travel is commonplace and paradox only occurs when we assume it is not possible or insist on applying causal notions that are meaningless at this level.

 The view from nowhen makes quantum phenomena much easier to understand. For example, it allows you to visualize quantum particles as following definite paths in space and time, just as common sense suggests. This is in variance with the orthodox quantum view that bodies do not have definite paths unless those paths are measured. Quantum mechanics is well rid of this concept, which has the solipsistic implication that reality is all in our heads. Several fortunes have been made by authors shamelessly asserting that quantum physics has shown that we make our own universe, and so we can cure our illnesses ("Quantum Healing") and indeed perhaps even live forever ("The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old") if we just think the right thoughts. A whole industry has developed which attempts to connect quantum mechanics with consciousness, equally shamelessly claiming evidence for this in so-called psychic phenomena and then bending the data to support that claim. All this flim flam comes crashing down in, which they are trying to prove, the view from nowhen.

 In Time's Arrow and Archimedes Point, Price provides an extensive review of the attempts that have been made over the past hundred years or so to find a physical source for the arrow of time of common experience. Being such a powerful intuition, most scientists and philosophers have taken the view that time irreversibility must be a fundamental law of nature, as codified in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Price describes the efforts to locate the arrow of time in fundamental physics and cosmology, from Ludwig Boltzmann's H-theorem in the nineteenth century to modern tries by luminaries such as Ilya Prigogine, Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose. The author explains why all these endeavors fail: they unwittingly build temporal asymmetry, which they are trying to prove, into their assumptions.

 Price identifies the flaw in the reasoning of those who claim to derive an arrow of time from basic physics or cosmology as a "double standard." People simply have great difficulty applying the same rules to backward-time as forward-time. Yet this is precisely what must be done to acquire the view from nowhen. Price suggests how to go about developing this perspective: you simply describe a phenomenon in terms of the usual time direction, and then reverse its direction. If what you are describing suddenly seems counter-intuitive, then you most likely have fallen prey to the double standard fallacy.

It is sort of like looking at yourself in a mirror. You see an image that is noticeably different from the one you see in a photograph, hair parted on the other side, mouth slanted the other way, and so on. Clearly the mirror world looks different from the familiar one, but it would be wrong to conclude that such a world, with a preponderance of left handed screws and right-handed DNA, is impossible.

Time's Arrow and Archimedes Point is a must-read for anyone interested in philosophical issues concerning the nature of time or who has been puzzled by the claimed paradoxes of quantum mechanics. While Price does not get into the mis-uses of quantum mechanics (please see my own book, The Unconscious Quantum), anyone who thinks that quantum mechanics provides a basis for mystical thinking needs to be made aware of this simple way out of the so-called quantum paradoxes. If you have heard physicists say, as many have, that experiments require the universe to have nonlocal (superluminal) connections, don't believe them. The view from nowhen shows no such necessity.

 The author says his book is written for physicists, but I recommend it to anyone who is familiar with the debates over time's arrow or quantum mysticism. Price writes very clearly and with minimal jargon, although he has the philosopher's need to tie up every possible loose end he can think of. In places the text is admittedly "dense," but every chapter has an excellent summary at the end so that you can often read quickly through the complicated parts and then find out what he is trying to say. He also has a good final summary at the end. You need not be a philosopher nor a physicist to get a lot from this unique and thought-provoking book.

Victor J. Stenger is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. He is the author of Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe (Prometheus Books, 1988), Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Prometheus Books, 1990), and The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (Prometheus Books, 1995).