Einstein’s greatest blunder wasn’t the cosmological constant, and neither was it his conviction that god doesn’t throw dice. No, his greatest blunder was to speak to a philosopher named Carnap about the Now, with a capital.“The problem of Now”, Carnap wrote in 1963, “worried Einstein seriously. He explained that the experience of the Now means something special for men, something different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics”
I call it Einstein’s greatest blunder because, unlike the cosmological constant and indeterminism, philosophers, and some physicists too, are still confused about this alleged “Problem of Now”.
The problem is often presented like this. Most of us experience a present moment, which is a special moment in time, unlike the past and unlike the future. If you write down the equations governing the motion of some particle through space, then this particle is described, mathematically, by a function. In the simplest case this is a curve in space-time, meaning the function is a map from the real numbers to a four-dimensional manifold. The particle changes its location with time. But regardless of whether you use an external definition of time (some coordinate system) or an internal definition (such as the length of the curve), every single instant on that curve is just some point in space-time. Which one, then, is “now”?
You could argue rightfully that as long as there’s just one particle moving on a straight line, nothing is happening, and so it’s not very surprising that no notion of change appears in the mathematical description. If the particle would scatter on some other particle, or take a sudden turn, then these instances can be identified as events in space-time. Alas, that still doesn’t tell you whether they happen to the particle “now” or at some other time.
The cause for this problem is often assigned to the timeless-ness of mathematics itself. Mathematics deals in its core with truth values and the very point of using math to describe nature is that these truths do not change. Lee Smolin has written a whole book about the problem with the timeless math, you can read my review here.
It may or may not be that mathematics is able to describe all of our reality, but to solve the problem of now, excuse the heresy, you do not need to abandon a mathematical description of physical law. All you have to do is realize that the human experience of now is subjective. It can perfectly well be described by math, it’s just that humans are not elementary particles.
The decisive ability that allows us to experience the present moment as being unlike other moments is that we have a memory. We have a memory of events in the past, an imperfect one, and we do not have memory of events in the future. Memory is not in and by itself tied to consciousness, it is tied to the increase of entropy, or the arrow of time if you wish. Many materials show memory; every system with a path dependence like eg hysteresis does. If you get a perm the molecule chains in your hair remember the bonds, not your brain.
Memory has nothing to do with consciousness in particular which is good because it makes it much easier to find the flaw in the argument leading to the problem of now.
If we want to describe systems with memory we need at the very least two time parameters: t to parameterize the location of the particle and τ to parameterize the strength of memory of other times depending on its present location. This means there is a function f(t,τ) that encodes how strong is the memory of time τ at moment t. You need, in other words, at the very least a two-point function, a plain particle trajectory will not do.
That we experience a “now” means that the strength of memory peaks when both time parameters are identical, ie t-τ = 0. That we do not have any memory of the future means that the function vanishes when τ > t. For the past it must decay somehow, but the details don’t matter. This construction is already sufficient to explain why we have the subjective experience of the present moment being special. And it wasn’t that difficult, was it?
The origin of the problem is not in the mathematics, but in the failure to distinguish subjective experience of physical existence from objective truth. Einstein spoke about “the experience of the Now [that] means something special for men”. Yes, it means something special for men. This does not mean however, and does not necessitate, that there is a present moment which is objectively special in the mathematical description. In the above construction all moments are special in the same way, but in every moment that very moment is perceived as special. This is perfectly compatible with both our experience and the block universe of general relativity. So Einstein should not have worried.
I have a more detailed explanation of this argument – including a cartoon! – in a post from 2008. I was reminded of this now because Mermin had a comment in the recent issue of Nature magazine about the problem of now.
- Physics: QBism puts the scientist back into science
A participatory view of science resolves quantum paradoxes and finds room in classical physics for 'the Now', says N. David Mermin.
In his piece, Mermin elaborates on qbism, a subjective interpretation of quantum mechanics. I was destined to dislike this just because it’s a waste of time and paper to write about non-existent problems. Amazingly however, Mermin uses the subjectiveness of qbism to arrive at the right conclusion, namely that the problem of the now does not exist because our experiences are by its very nature subjective. However, he fails to point out that you don’t need to buy into fancy interpretations of quantum mechanics for this. All you have to do is watch your hair recall sulphur bonds.
The summary, please forgive me, is that Einstein was wrong and Mermin is right, but for the wrong reaons. It is possible to describe the human experience of the present moment with the “timeless” mathematics that we presently use for physical laws, it isn’t even difficult and you don’t have to give up the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics for this. There is no problem of Now and there is no problem with Tegmark’s mathematical universe either.
And Lee Smolin, well, he is neither wrong nor right, he just has a shaky motivation for his cosmological philosophy. It is correct, as he argues, that mathematics doesn’t objectively describe a present moment. However, it’s a non sequitur that the current approach to physics has reached its limits because this timeless math doesn’t constitute a conflict with our experience. observation.
Most people get a general feeling of uneasiness when they first realize that the block universe implies all the past and all the future is equally real as the present moment, that even though we experience the present moment as special, it is only subjectively so. But if you can combat your uneasiness for long enough, you might come to see the beauty in eternal mathematical truths that transcend the passage of time. We always have been, and always will be, children of the universe.