Why do we move forward in time?

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This week, the New Scientist magazine gave me a big compliment by making my latest letter to them their Editor’s letter of the week. Here it is:

Your article 'Why do we move forward in time?" (Issue 3037, 5th Sept 2015, pg34) makes it clear that physics has no clear answer as to why time passes. The article reminded me of an ancient Zen Koan. Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving." The other replied, "The wind is moving." A Zen master, walking nearby, overheard them. He said, "It is not the flag nor the wind that is moving but your minds." The idea that our minds experience the four-dimensional 'landscape' of physical reality in a chosen time direction would explain the phenomenon of time passing without violating any physics. Perhaps the Zen master was right philosophically and scientifically?


The article concerned was one of a series of articles in the New Scientist that week (issue 3037) about aspects of physics that non one had yet solved. The tricky nature of time is definitely one of these big conundrums. We all experience time flowing; we do things, one after the other, day after day. Around us clocks tick and cars drive and birds fly etc. We can't seem to stop or alter this flow of time. We can't make time stand still. It can certainly sometimes seem as if time is flowing more slowly than at other times. For example, waiting to go into an exam can seem to last forever, but while you're doing the exam, time can seem to scream by. I remember once starting a strategy board game, then becoming completely engrossed and then looking up and finding out that two hours had gone by, as if in a flash.

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The tricky thing is, according to the physics, is that there is no scientific or mathematical reason for time to flow at all. The universe, according to the science, is really just a big, four-dimensional 'thing', a bit like an enormous diagram. Events occur and these events are connected by actions. Electrons give off photons, nuclei emit radiation, stars burn, planets orbits and asteroids hit gas giants and explode (yes!) but there is no reason to say, scientifically, that all these events occur in a particular time direction. They're just a big load of connected events and actions. We could just as easily perceive the whole universe going in reverse. Such an experience would make sense, be scientifically sound and be just as reliable. It would also look pretty cool, but we don't, so why is that?

One key point that may explain this is that we all seem to perceive the universe going in one direction and that is the direction of increasing entropy (which is an increase in the disorder of things). Why this direction? Here's a possible answer:

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We're living creatures and all living things increase order in the universe as they progress forward. This increase in order neatly counteracts the increase in disorder caused by entropy. All living things therefore perceive time passing in one direction because a fundamental part of their existence is counteracting entropy.

I think it's an elegant and beautiful idea - life acts in one time direction to maintain and increase order in a decaying universe; it's quite poetic, like some sort of cosmic gardening. I could write a lot more on this topic, but I'd inevitably end up talking about my Influence Idea, so to save the extra typing, pop over and read the Influence Idea page if you're interested.

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While I'm talking about the New Scientist articles on aspects of physics that non one has yet solved, I feel duty-bound to mention another article in that collection; 'Where does quantum weirdness end?' This is the territory of 'Schrodinger's Cat'. The article seems to make out that no physicists have come up with an answer to the riddle of how the weird world of quantum superpositions turn into normal reality.

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In fact, John Von Neumann, one of the most brilliant mathematicians and theorists ever (if there was a Nobel prize for maths, he'd have got at least one), stated that logically, minds must cause the ghostly quantum superpositions of fundamental particles to collapse into real events. Thirty-or-so years later, Eugene Wigner (who did win a Nobel prize), re-iterated Von Neumann's idea in a paper and discussed eloquently the idea's validity and why he thought it was being rejected by the scientific establishment. The Neumann-Wigner hypothesis, to my knowledge, has still not been refuted and needs to be mentioned. Fortunately, it has been mentioned before in the New Scientist magazine and hopefully, it will again. I didn't write to the New Scientist about this matter. One letter a week is probably enough!

Right, back to the garden, to sit in rags in a tree. OMMMMMMMMM……