Is our common sense view of time an illusion?

Tam Hunt
16 min readAug 21, 2018

A conversation with Prof. Carlo Rovelli about the nature of time

So much has been written and said about the nature of time that one must wonder what new could be said?

Well, Carlo Rovelli, a professor of physics focused on quantum gravity and other foundations of physics questions, has some new things to say on this issue. And he says them rather beautifully. His new book, The Order of Time, is a short and elegant book. But Rovelli packs a lot of ideas into his pages and covers a good chunk of modern physics as he takes the reader on a journey to explore the nature of time.

He starts by stating that the passage of time changes based on the earth’s gravity field, faster in the mountains and slower at sea level. He goes on to describe how modern physics, based on various lines of evidence, has rendered the universe a “windswept landscape almost devoid of all trace of temporality.” Then he attempts to show how the human experience of time, a passage of ever-changing moments, emerges from a more fundamental reality where there is no such passage.

While I enjoyed his book very much, I am not convinced by Rovelli’s arguments. I am of the view that there are a great many issues with the empirical evidence as well as the logical structure of the various theories that lead us to this “windswept landscape” (itself a metaphor that of course requires the passage of time for that wind to do its sweeping) and a world without time. I don’t delve into the empirical evidence issues in the below interview but I do press Rovelli on the logical structure a little, as well as competing ideas.

I am a “presentist” (an unfortunately small minority, as Rovelli points out below) in that I view the passage of time not only as real at the human level (he would agree with this) but also real at the level of fundamental reality. In fact, the container of time is the most fundamental feature of our universe in my philosophical school of thought.

The below is an interview, however, not a debate, so I don’t get into my own views much. Rather, we explore Rovelli’s views and discuss potential issues with the views he presents in his book.

Rovelli is a professor of physics at the Centre for Physique Theoretique in Marseille, France, focused on quantum gravity and foundations of physics questions, and author of numerous previous books as well as dozens of peer-reviewed papers.

We conducted the below interview via email in mid-2018.

Let me start by asking why discussions about the nature of time should matter to the layperson?

There is no reason it “should” matter. People have the right to be ignorant, if they wish to be. But many people prefer not to be ignorant. Should the fact that the Earth is not flat matter for normal people? Well, the fact that Earth is a sphere does not matter during most of our daily lives, but we like to know.

Are there real-world impacts with respect to the nature of time that we should be concerned with?

There is already technology that has been strongly impacted by the strange nature of time: the GPS in our cars and telephones, for instance.

What inspired you to make physics and the examination of the nature of time a major focus of your life’s work?

My work on quantum gravity has brought me to study time. It turns out that in order to solve the problem of quantum gravity, namely understanding the quantum aspects of gravity, we have to reconsider the nature of space and time. But I have always been curious about the elementary structure of reality, since my adolescence. So, I have probably been fascinated by the problem of quantum gravity precisely because it required rethinking the nature of space and time.

Your work and your new book continue and extend the view that the apparent passage of time is largely an illusion because there is no passage of time at the fundamental level of reality. Your new book is beautifully and clearly written — even lyrical at times — and you argue that the world described by modern physics is a “windswept landscape almost devoid of all trace of temporality.” (P. 11). How does this view of time pass the “common sense” test since everywhere we look in our normal waking consciousness there is nothing but a passage of time from moment to moment to moment?

Thanks. No, I do not argue that the passage of time is an illusion. “Illusion” may be a misleading word. It makes it seem that there is something wrong about our common-sense views on time. There is nothing wrong with it. What is wrong is to think that this view must hold for the entire universe, or that it is valid at all scales and in all situations. It is like the flat Earth: Earth is almost perfectly flat at the scale of most of our daily life, so, there is nothing wrong in considering it flat when we build a house, say. But on larger scales the Earth just happens not to be flat. So with time: as soon as we look a bit farther than our myopic eyes allow, we see that it works differently from what we thought.

This view passes the “common sense” test in the same way in which the fact that the Earth rotates passes the “common sense” view that the Earth does not move and the Sun moves down at sunset. That is, “common sense” is often wrong. What we experience in our “normal waking consciousness” is not the elementary structure of reality: it is a complex construction that depends on the physics of the world but also on the functioning of our brain. We have difficulty in disentangling one from the other.

“Time” is an example of this confusion; we mistake for an elementary fact about physics what is really a complex construct due to our brain. It is a bit like colors: we see the world in combinations of three basic colors. If we question physics as to why the colors we experience are combination of three basic colors, we do not find any answer. The explanation is not in physics, it is in biology: we have three kinds of receptors in our eyes, sensible to three and only three frequency windows, out of the infinite possibilities. If we think that the three-dimensional structure of colors is a feature of reality external to us, we confuse ourselves.

There is something similar with time. Our “common sense” feeling of the passage of time is more about ourselves than the physical nature of the external world. It regards both, of course, but in a complex, stratified manner. Common sense should not be taken at face value, if we want to understand the world.

But is the flat Earth example, or similar examples of perspectival truth, applicable here? It seems to me that this kind of perspectival view of truth (that the Earth seems flat at the human scale but is clearly spherical when we zoom out to a larger perspective) isn’t the case with the nature of time because no matter what scale/perspective we use to examine time there is always a progression of time from now to now to now. When we look at the astronomical scale there is always a progression of time. When we look at the microscopic scale there is always a progression of time.

What indicates that our intuition of time is wrong is not microscopes or telescopes. It’s clocks. Just take two identical clocks indicating the same time and move them around. When they meet again, if they are sufficiently precise, they do not indicate the same time anymore. This demolishes a piece of our intuition of time: time does not pass at the same “rate” for all the clocks. Other aspects of our common-sense intuition of time are demolished by other physics observations.

In the quote from your book I mentioned above, what are the “traces” of temporality that are still left over in the windswept landscape “almost devoid of all traces of temporality,” a “world without time,” that has been created by modern physics?

Change. It is important not to confuse “time” and “change.” We tend to confuse these two important notions because in our experience we can merge them: we can order all the change we experience along a universal one-dimensional oriented line that we call “time.” But change is far more general than time. We can have “change,” namely “happenings,” without any possibility of ordering sequences of these happenings along a single time variable.

There is a mistaken idea that it is impossible to describe or to conceive change unless there exists a single flowing time variable. But this is wrong. The world is change, but it is not [fundamentally] ordered along a single timeline. Often people fall into the mistake that a world without time is a world without change: a sort of frozen eternal immobility. It is in fact the opposite: a frozen eternal immobility would be a world where nothing changes and time passes. Reality is the contrary: change is ubiquitous but if we try to order change by labeling happenings with a time variable, we find that, contrary to intuition, we can do this only locally, not globally.

Isn’t there a contradiction in your language when you suggest that the common-sense notion of the passage of time, at the human level, is not actually an illusion (just a part of the larger whole), but that in actuality we live in a “world without time”? That is, if time is fundamentally an illusion isn’t it still an illusion at the human scale?

What I say is not “we live in a world without time.” What I say is “we live in a world without time at the fundamental level.” There is no time in the basic laws of physics. This does not imply that there is no time in our daily life. There are no cats in the fundamental equations of the world, but there are cats in my neighborhood. Nice ones. The mistake is not using the notion of time [at our human scale]. It is to assume that this notion is universal, that it is a basic structure of reality. There are no micro-cats at the Planck scale, and there is no time at the Planck scale.

You argue that time emerges: “Somehow, our time must emerge around us, at least for us and at our scale.” As such, how do you reconcile the notion of emergence of time itself with the fact that the definition of emergence necessarily includes change over time? That is, how is it coherent to argue that time itself emerges over time?

The notion of “emergence” does not always include change over time. For instance we say that if you look at how humans are distributed on the surface of the Earth, there are some general patterns that “emerge” by looking at a very large scale. You do not see them at the small scale, you see them looking at the large scale. Here “emergence” is related to the scale at which something is described. Many concepts we use in science emerge at some scale. They have no meaning at smaller scales.

But this kind of scale emergence is a function solely of an outside conscious observer, in time, making an observation (in time) after contemplating new data. So aren’t we still confronted with the problem of explaining how time emerges in time?

There is no external observer in the universe, but there are internal observers that interact with one another. In the course of this interaction, the temporal structure that they ascribe to the rest may differ. I think that you are constantly misunderstanding the argument of my book, because you are not paying attention to the main point: the book does not deny the reality of change: it simply confronts the fact that the full complexity of the time of our experience does not extend to the entire reality. Read the book again!

I agree that common sense can be a faulty guide to the nature of reality but isn’t there also a risk of unmooring ourselves from empiricism when we allow largely mathematical arguments to dictate our views on the nature of reality?

It is not “largely mathematical arguments” that tell us that our common sense idea of time is wrong. It is simple brute facts. Just separate two accurate clocks and bring them back together and this shows that our intuition about time is wrong. When the GPS global positioning system was first mounted, some people doubted the “delicate mathematical arguments” indicating that time on the GPS satellites runs faster than at sea level: the result was that the GPS did not work [when it was first set up]. A brute fact. We have direct facts of evidence against the common-sense notion of time.

Empiricism does not mean taking what we see with the naked eye as the ultimate reality. If it was so, we would not believe that there are atoms or galaxies, or the planet Uranus. Empiricism is to take seriously the delicate experience we gather with accurate instruments. The idea that we risk unmooring “ourselves from empiricism when we allow largely mathematical arguments to dictate our views on the nature of reality” is the same argument used against Galileo when we observed with the telescope, or used by Mach to argue against the real existence of atoms. Empiricism is to base our knowledge of reality on experience, and experience includes looking into a telescope, looking into an electronic microscope, where we actually can see the atoms, and reading accurate clocks. That is, using instruments.

I’m using “empiricism” a little differently than you are here; I’m using the term to refer to all methods of data gathering, whether directly with our senses or indirectly with instruments (but still mediated through our senses because ultimately all data comes through our human senses). So what I’m getting at is that human direct experience, and the constant passage of time in our experience, is as much data as are data from experiments like the 1971 Hafele-Keating experiment using clocks traveling opposite directions on airplanes circling the globe. And we cannot discount either category of experience. Does this clarification of “empiricism” change your response at all?

We do not discount any category of experience. There is no contradiction between the complex structure of time and our simple human experience of it. The contradiction appears only if we extrapolate our experience and assume it captures a universal aspect of reality. In our daily experience, the Earth is flat and we take it to be flat when we build a house or plan a city; there is no contradiction between this and the round Earth. The contradiction comes if we extrapolate our common-sense view of the flat Earth beyond the small region where it works well. So, we are not discounting our daily experience of time, we are just understanding that it is an approximation to a more complicated reality.

There have been, since Lorentz developed his version of relativity, which Einstein adapted into his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, interpretations of relativity that don’t render time an illusion. Isn’t the Lorentz interpretation still valid since it’s empirically equivalent to Special Relativity?

I think you refer here to the so called neo-Lorentzian interpretations of Special Relativity. There is a similar case in the history of science: after Copernicus developed his systems in which all planets turn around the Sun and the Earth moves, there were objections similar to those you mention: “the delicate mathematical arguments” of Copernicus cannot weight as much as our direct experience that the Earth does not move.

So, Tycho Brahe developed his own system, where the Earth is at the center of the universe and does not move, the Sun goes around the Earth and all the other planets rotate around the Sun. Nice, but totally useless for science and for understanding the world: a contorted and useless attempt to save the common sense-view of a motionless Earth, in the face of overwhelming opposite evidence.

If Tycho had his way, science would not have developed. The neo-Lorentzian interpretations of Special Relativity do the same. They hang on to the wrong extrapolation of a piece of common sense.

There is an even better example: the Moon and the Sun in the sky are clearly small. When in antiquity astronomers like Aristarchus come out with an estimate of the size of the Moon and the Sun, it was a surprise, because it turned out that the Moon is big and the Sun even bigger than the Earth itself. This was definitely the result of “largely mathematical arguments.” Indeed it was a delicate calculation using geometry, based on angles under which we see these objects. Would you say that the fact that the Sun is larger than the Earth should not be believed because it is based on a “largely mathematical argument“ and contradicts our direct experience?

But in terms of alternative interpretations of the Lorentz transformations, shouldn’t we view these alternatives, if they’re empirically equivalent as they are, in the same light as the various different interpretations of quantum theory (Copenhagen, Many Worlds, Bohmian, etc.)? All physics theories have two elements: 1) the mathematical formalisms; 2) an interpretive structure that maps those formalisms onto the real world. In the case of alternatives to Special Relativity, some have argued that we don’t need to adopt the Einstein interpretation of the formalisms (the Lorentz transformations) in order to use those formalisms. And since Lorentz’s version of relativity and Einstein’s Special Relativity are thought to be empirically equivalent, doesn’t a choice between these interpretations come down to a question of aesthetics and other considerations like explanatory power?

It is not just a question of aesthetics, because science is not static, it is dynamic. Science is not just models. It is a true continuous process of better understanding reality. A better version of a theory is fertile: it takes us ahead; a bad version takes no part. The Lorentzian interpretation of special relativity assumes the existence of entities that are unobservable and undetectable (a preferred frame). It is contorted, implausible, and in fact it has been very sterile.

On the other hand, realizing that the geometrical structure of spacetime is altered has led to general relativity, to the prediction of black holes, gravitational waves, the expansion of the universe. Science is not just mathematical models and numerical predictions: it is developing increasingly effective conceptual tools for making sense and better understanding the world. When Copernicus, Galileo and Newton realized that the Earth is a celestial body like the ones we see in the sky, they did not just give us a better mathematical model for more accurate predictions: they understood that man can walk on the moon. And man did.

But doesn’t the “inertial frame” that is the core of Einstein’s Special Relativity (instead of Lorentz’s preferred frame) constitute worse “sins”? As Einstein himself states in his 1938 book The Evolution of Physics, inertial frames don’t actually exist because there are always interfering forces; moreover, inertial frames are defined tautologically (p. 221). Einstein’s solution, once he accepted these issues, was to create the general theory of relativity and avoid focusing on fictional inertial frames. We also have the cosmic frame formed by the Cosmic Microwave Background that is a very good candidate for a universal preferred frame now, which wasn’t known in Einstein’s time. When we add the numerous difficulties that the Einstein view of time results in (stemming from special not general relativity), the problems in explaining the human experience of time, etc., might it be the case that the sins of Lorentzian relativity are outweighed by Special Relativity’s sins?

I do not know what you are talking about. Special Relativity works perfectly well, is very heavily empirically supported, there are no contradictions with it in its domain of validity, and has no internal inconsistency whatsoever. If you cannot digest it, you should simply study more physics.

You argue that “the temporal structure of the world is not that of presentism,” (p. 145) but isn’t there still substantial space in the scientific and philosophical debate for “presentism,” given different possible interpretations of the relevant data?

There is a tiny minority of thinkers who try to hold on to presentism, in the contemporary debate about time. I myself think that presentism is de facto dead.

I’m surprised you state this degree of certainty here when in your book you acknowledge that the nature of time is one of physics’ last remaining large questions. Andrew Jaffe, in a review of your book for Nature, writes that the issues you discuss “are very much alive in modern physics.”

The debate on the nature of time is very much alive, but it is not a single debate about a single issue, it is a constellation of different issues, and presentism is just a rather small side of it. Examples are the question of the source of the low initial entropy, the source of our sense of flow, the relation between causality and entropy. The non-viability of presentism is accepted by almost all relativists.

Physicist Lee Smolin (another loop quantum gravity theorist, as you know) argued views quite different than yours, in his book, Time Reborn, for example. In an interview with Smolin I did in 2013, he stated that “the experience we have of time flowing from moment into moment is not an illusion but one of the deepest clues we have as to the nature of reality.” Is Smolin part of the tiny minority you refer to?

Yes, he is. Lee Smolin is a dear friend for me. We have collaborated repeatedly in the past. He is a very creative scientists and I have much respect of his ideas. But we disagree on this. And he is definitely in the minority on this issue.

I’ve also been influenced by Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine’s work and particularly his 1997 book, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos and the New Laws of Nature, which opposes the eternalist view of time as well as reversibility in physics. Prigogine states in his book that reversible physics and the notion of time as an illusion are “impossible for me to accept” He argues that whereas many theories of modern physics include a reversible t term, this is an empirical mistake because in reality the vast majority of physical processes are irreversible. How do you respond to Prigogine and his colleagues’ arguments that physics theories should be modified to include irreversibility?

That he is wrong, if this is what he writes. There is no contradiction between the reversibility of the laws that we have and the irreversibility of the phenomena. All phenomena we see follow the laws we have, as far as we can see. The surprise is that these laws allow also other phenomena that we do not see. So, something may be missing in our understanding — and I discuss this at length in my book — but something missing does not mean something wrong.

I do not share the common “block universe” eternalist view of time either. What I argue in the book is that the presentist versus eternalist alternative is a fake alternative. The universe is neither evolving in a single time, nor static without change. Temporality is just more complex than either of these naïve alternatives.

You argue that “the world is made of events, not things” in part II of your book. Alfred North Whitehead also made events a fundamental feature of his ontology, and I’m partial to his “process philosophy.” If events — happenings in time — are the fundamental “atoms” of spacetime (as Whitehead argues), shouldn’t this accentuate the importance of the passage of time in our ontology, rather than downgrade it as you seem to otherwise suggest?

“Time” is a stratified notion. The existence of change, by itself, does not imply that there is a unique global time in the universe. Happenings reveal change, and change is ubiquitous, but nothing states that this change should be organized along the single universal uniform flow that we commonly call time. The question of the nature of time cannot be reduced to a simple “time is real”, “time is not real.” It is the effort of understanding the many different layers giving rise to the complex phenomenon that we call the passage of time.



Tam Hunt

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