Fast Post: Towards a Science of Consciousness, TSC, 2015

Due to work commitments, I have been incredibly slow and irregular at updating this site.

Or, alternatively, I have been very regular and quick in updating this site but, from a typical point of view, my method of measuring time is relatively slow/irregular with respect to standard time.

Who can say?

This month, I gave a talk at Towards a Science of Consciousness (TSC) in Helsinki, as part of a symposium with other philosophers of time (chair: Valtteri Arstila, other speakers: Bruno Moelder, Michal Klincewicz, Julian Kiverstein).

My paper was titled ‘Arguments Against Illusions of Duration’. It is going to be an upcoming paper. A PDF of the slides is on my site.

It went well I think–although you can never really tell with these things. People were unsatisfied with my answers to their questions, but I was satisfied with the way they were unsatisfied; it kind of spoke to the point of the paper, one way of putting it which is:

If you describe your experience of time in terms of clock time, it is common that your description fails to match that of any standard clock. But that should be no surprise; your experience of time is not a clock, is not calibrated to standard time, should not be judged by it. It is no error that your experience of time diverges from a clock, and so this divergence is no example of illusion. It is an error to hold that whatever you are describing in describing experienced time should be an example of clock time.

I also talked a bit about the conditions of illusion (an topic which is unexamined but which has implications for the metaphysics of perception). At least one psychologist changed his way of describing differences between clock time and experienced time. This made me proud and boastful, and disparaging of others. For a bit.

Everyone else’s papers were great, and seemed to go down well. They were also part of an earlier pre-conference workshop (I arrived too late), there was a dinner (I didn’t attend), and many stayed on to the very end (I left early). Unfortunately, I thought I would not be able to spend long there, so I kind of snuck in for my own talk, then set myself to leave as soon as possible. I figured I’d be very uncomfortable there, given that I am not academically employed. But I was generally fine, and could have stayed longer.

Keynote speakers that stood out for me: Susan Blackmore, David Chalmers, Patricia Churchland — all fascinating and engaging; Deepak Chopra also a keynote speaker, indifferent in his own talk, not particularly insightful, then kind of rude during question time.

Churchland was combative and disagreeable about the philosopher’s viewpoints, attacking modal/possible world arguments outright, then remarkably sensitive when a nervous audience member claimed to have had experiences of her dead son.

There were lots of other symposia with time in them — two at the same time, at 9am on the Saturday morning, which meant, after only 3 hours post-many-beers sleep, I had to run between two rooms on separate floors. The topics I caught were:

  • The most common contemporary metaphysical positions on time (Adrian Bardon). Very clear talk, covering all the main points–although how others took it I can’t say because I had to run out during question time to get to the other session….
  • Chronesthesia and illusions of duration (Ronald Gruber, Bloch, Bach)….which was interesting, although I didn’t see much need for their definition of illusion (‘percept irrespective of stimulus source’). A basic concept of illusion is easy: illusion of x means seemingly x, but not x. Any development beyond that should still contain that, and their definition doesn’t.
  • The difference between duration appearances/judgements in cases where one acts voluntarily and involuntarily (Matti Vuorre). Nice paper it was: evidence suggests that we can discriminate finer durations between events when we interact with them voluntarily than when we don’t.

Reminded me of  Eagleman’s experiment to see if we could discriminate more events under stress. In that case, he dropped people off a crane, and they couldn’t discriminate; maybe he should have asked them to jump…

  • A paper arguing…..(Jonathon Schooler) I must confess I came in half-through and didn’t grasp it. Something about how subjective time perception can be explained using the interaction of events — and then something involving multiple universes.

There was a nice bit about how human and fly perceptions of time are very different – fly ones being much faster (which is why it’s difficult to swat them). But I didn’t see what had to do with the particular argument. Such differences seem explicable in all models of perception.

(The only ones they wouldn’t work for would be those that hold the human limit of temporal discrimination (when two non-simultaneous events seem simultaneous) to be real limits. No-one thinks that now. They might have thought it once–but not since decades before the photographer Muybridge.)

  • An argument from experience and intuition for holding that there is a privileged frame of reference, and abandoning relative simultaneity (Tam Hunt). This was a good talk, although It seems to me everything the speaker said has been said before.

Hunt started with the typical claims that: our experience of time should be met by physics etc.; eternalism doesn’t do it; presentism does; relativity doesn’t do it; privileged frames does. Except for the first, I disagree with a lot of those claims (as I’ve argued….pretty much in all of my publications).

Less of an issue–but I must think about it — I don’t think we get rid of such disparities if we move to privileged frames, because–given the likelihood of our relationship to the privileged frame, the real spacetime values won’t correspond to any apparent values for us–unless what constitutes us is point-like or rigid, and at rest in privileged frames (meaning we are not parts of our bodies….I’ve talked about this in my JCS,  a note in EJOP and, in more detail, my PhD thesis).

Hunt also talks about the astronomical concept of cosmic time as maybe being a good privileged frame. Following Godel, I think is a bad idea if cosmic time is what I think it is: something derived from the mean motion of matter in the universe. This is an abstraction, like the average global salary; it would be a hell of a coincidence if it was also the privileged frame.

There were a lot of talks which showed me, at least, that there isn’t yet a shared set of research on time and consciousness. Husserl and James, maybe, but even they seemed to be ignored here –

For example, Timo Laiho spoke on music and perceived time. Laiho seems to be well-established, thoughtful and interesting – yet he raised a puzzle which seemed to just be the puzzle of the specious present.

Then again, this may have been due to the speaking times – 25 minutes each, 5 minutes for questions – combined with a mixed audience.  You may not want to explain concepts which you don’t know if they are needed or if you can explain to a mixed audience (still, the specious present is really quite simple, even if it is commonly misunderstand…. ok, maybe there’s more to it….).

There were lots more talks I missed. If I ever go to such a thing again, hopefully I’ll have more energy, time and money to engage more fully. Despite enjoying it, I don’t feel I did it right this time (my first time).

As an example, I didn’t book to go to the dinner. I came later when non-diners were invited to attend, to an after event at 10.30 billed as a night of ‘zombie poetry’ or something like that. It turned out it was indeed a night of poetry and music on the themes of consciousness (and philosophical zombies). This was my second proper night there, my first properly mixing with the general crowd (our symposium – and friends! – went out on our own the night before), and I was interested to talk to many people from other backgrounds. So I was talking to people at the back of the hall. I and others there were asked to go out (by, incidentally, a quite famous academic) because we were talking and the people at the front couldn’t hear the poetry/music.


Fast note on Scientific Principles, Bell’s Inequality, Relative Simultaneity

I’ve not posted in a long time. There’s about seven draft posts still sitting there waiting to be finished. I don’t have much time since last October. I’ve a 9-6 non-academic job, and any time outside that I’ve been spending on projects with other people.

So, I’ve decided to do a few fast posts. The first one is about the physics of time. It’s a thought I have about it, involving changing my basic views of simultaneity.

At Christmas, I had two discussions with, first, a well-established very-good-at-it professional physics friend and, second, a friend who is equally a very good at it professional philosopher of physics. With both, I brought up a question about relative simultaneity and what Tim Maudlin tells me is the violation of Bell’s Inequality.

Without going into it too much–I am not a physicist and do not want to pretend that I fully understand the physics–the problem is this: One implication of quantum entanglement is that two particles created by the same event–e.g., in a lab–can have properties with values dependent on the values of the other. You can change the value of one particle’s properties by changing the value of at least one of the properties belonging to the other particle.

So, for example, one particle might have a spin of 1 and the other a spin of -1 (don’t worry what it means to have spin ‘-1’. It isn’t really spinning being discussed here).

The two particles – 1-spin and -1-spin – are created and speed away from each other into space. Say they’re now 90,000,000 miles apart. Now we change the spin of the one of the particles, e.g., the 1-spin to -1-spin. The other particle’s spin also changes.

The problem I had with this is it seems to violate relativistic physics. Not the maths as such, but the underlying interpretation.

Fundamental to relativistic physics is the principle of equivalence: the idea that the laws of physics are the same in all frames (Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the principle). Each frame is equally correct for describing physical phenomena.

Included in this equivalence are the descriptions of space and time, e.g., that two events are simultaneous. If two events are simultaneous in one frame, and not simultaneous in another frame, both are as equally correct. This is not incoherent. The events are relatively simultaneous.

This solves some problems. For example, one can discount a physical aether. It is also very like similar relative physical phenomena–for example, some objects are at rest and in motion without contradiction because they are at rest to relative to one frame and relatively in motion to another frame.

As Galison describes it, Poincaré and Lorentz came up with similar mathematical descriptions to the maths in Einstein’s relativity (see Galison’s book). The difference is that they still took there to be a matter of fact whether or not two events are really simultaneous beyond how they are described in a frame. This would make it the case that:

– There’s real simultaneity (or motion/rest) beyond frame-relative simultaneity (or motion/rest).

– There’s at least one frame–a privileged frame–which has values of simultaneity (or motion/rest) which correspond to the real simultaneity (motion/rest).

The point is that a cornerstone of Einstein’s revolutionary thinking is the abandonment of an aether and absolute motion/rest. To do it, and make sense of the experimental evidence, he also abandoned absolute simultaneity (and, as a consequence, any privileged frame).

I have a problem with this when it’s coupled with current quantum theories and the evidence that supports it–that is, experimental evidence from Aspect et al. (Aspect et al’s paper on the much-discussed experiment, discussion on the philosophy of Bell’s Theorem). After discussing it with my physicist friends, I then cold-mailed Professor Tim Maudlin. He sent me a quick, but thorough and helpful reply.

I described the problem to Maudlin as follows:

Part of the typical description of a scenario implied by [Bell’s Inequality] is the claim that, if the spin of an entangled particle is changed, then at the same time, the spin of the particle’s entangled partner also changes. As the particles are spatially separated from one another, this is a description of simultaneity between spatially separated events.

Yet, there seems to be no mention of relative simultaneity here. For example, there is no reference to some frame for the simultaneity and then, say, a further clarification that, to some other frame, the events would be non-simultaneous.

Physicists I’ve discussed it with tell me there is no problem. It is not possible for information about these states to be communicated faster than light. So the speed of light is not met or crossed. Although I can see how this might make the issue experimentally irrelevant [..] it does not, I think, solve the problem. The problem is not what we can know about the entangled state; it is that the state involves frameless simultaneity.

Then I asked him: if this is right, then don’t we have to give up relative simultaneity?

Maudlin replied to me, making two points:

1) He agreed that my problem is a problem–and the typical physicist response tends to miss the point.

2) It doesn’t mean you have to give up relative simultaneity–it’s not a matter of logical necessity. It’s just easier to re-introduce absolute simultaneity. By easier, I take him to mean that it is simpler.

There is at least one alternative which keeps relative simultaneity: Roderich Tumulka’s ‘Relativistic Flashy GRW’ theory.* But many theorists find such an alternative quite odd. Which I take to mean: it is less intuitive than re-introducing absolute simultaneity.

I won’t repeat what he said exactly in his mails to me (nothing problematic in it–it was very helpful. It’s just I didn’t tell him I would make a post from it, and am not comfortable about quoting a private mail from without informing him).

Scientific Principles

I generally hold the following (many do):

a) A scientific theory–including a physical theory– should satisfy scientific principles such as simplicity, intuitiveness and actually being supported by empirical evidence. Given two competing scientific theories, the simpler, more intuitive position with more evidence is better.

b) All of those principles in ‘a’ are trumped by necessity. If denying it leads to incoherence and nonsense, a scientific theory can be complex, counter-intuitive and have no evidence** for it.

However, where competing theories are coherent and somewhat sensible (even if weird), the principles in ‘a’ can select between them.

c) Between the principles in ‘a’, I take it that there is the following trump order:

– ‘Evidence’ trumps ‘intuition’: evidence for quantum physics beats its weirdness reputation).

– ‘Intuition’ beats ‘simplicity’: the simplest view is there is absolutely nothing at all, you’re hallucinating all existence, and this doesn’t need to be explained (that x doesn’t need to be explained is always the simplest view).

d) It can be much more complicated between theories. Choosing between theories, one has to make a kind of global choice (something Maudlin points out to me).

Still, a global choice is about using the set of principles together. It doesn’t involve an extra principle which trumps all of the more local/specific principles (unlike necessity). You weigh up competing theories in terms of simplicity, evidence, intuitiveness, and see what you get.

e) There may be other principles beyond simplicity, evidence, intuitiveness.

The following are not principles of science or physics for a theory: that the theory has been around a long time; that its theorist is charismatic; that the maths is hard; that you can explain it at a party; that it’s getting you published; that the experiments are carried out in the Bahamas (what are you? The ’80s Michael Caine of Science?).

f) If Maudlin is right, it is simpler and more intuitive to re-introduce absolute simultaneity than to take on the alternative position.

That is, it is better to go back on Einstein’s abandonment of absolute simultaneity and a non-privileged frame.

I’ve been working on the assumption of relative simultaneity in most of my work. So that is an important conclusion for me.


*Here’s a paper on that: (not by Tumulka). Here’s a video of a lecture on that:

**Although without evidence I’d tend to call that a metaphysical or philosophical theory–or, if evidence is possible, a speculative theory–but let’s ignore that for now.