Time and its metaphorical surrogates

For those few of you who have enjoyed my book “the picnic at the edge of the universe“. or with whom I’ve had a conversation about it, you may recall that I spent a modicum of time and space discussing time, itself. Particularly I expressed that Einstein, in creating the weltanschauung of General Relativity did us a great disservice in implying that time is a spatial dimension. That is, he used the metaphor that “Time is a spatial dimension” to enable his invention of the general relativity model for how the universe might work. And, of course, it did make the math work, and we’ve been living with it that way for a hundred years now.

In writing my book, I became very conscious that I was  myself creating a metaphorical model of the universe and its surroundings and began to wonder about the mechanisms in the brain that were enabling me to do this. I named it “the contemplative mind” and it became my newest research goal; to try to find in the literature and history where that capability might have come from in the long history of human evolution and how it could have arisen so late in that continuum. I hope that will be enquiries second publication “A Place of Dreams and Delusions“.

That search has led me though several thousand pages of reading (and re-reading) over several months now, and I just stumbled on a link between these two fields of thought, the mind and the universe, that I want to share. Don’t worry, this is not a diversion from the rational to the mystical as many of our contemporaries are wont to do lately.

The piece I’d like to give you comes out of a discussion between one of the editors of Edge.com, (a treasure-trove of intelligent discussion on all aspects of art and science,) and George Lakoff, s a Professor of Psycholinguistics and a Fellow of the Rockridge Institute. This is an excerpt from the interview, recently published in The Mind, a collection of essays and interviews edited by John Brockman and published by Harper Collins.

(LAKOFF:) “We are neural beings. Our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything – only what our embodied brains permit.

Metaphor appears to be a neural mechanism that allows us to adapt the neural systems used in sensory-motor activity to create forms of abstract reason. If this is correct, as it seems to be, our sensory-motor systems thus limit the abstract reasoning that we can perform. Anything we can think or understand is shaped by, made possible by, and limited by our bodies, brains, and our embodied interactions in the world. This is what we have to theorize with. Is it adequate to understand the world scientifically?

There is reason to think that our embodied conceptual resources may not be adequate to all the tasks of science. We take case studies from physics and discuss them in our sections on Time and Causation. General relativity is a good example.

JB(Editor): So, what’s the big change here?

LAKOFF: In characterizing space-time, Einstein, like Newton before him, used the common metaphor that time is a spatial dimension. My present time and location is metaphorically conceptualized as a point in a four-dimensional space, with the present as a point on the time axis. In order for there to be curvature in space time, the time axis must be extended – it cannot be just one point, the present. In addition to the present, the time axis must include portions of the time axis understood as future and past if there is to be enough of the time axis to form a curved space time. This seems to imply, as philosophers have repeatedly observed, that at least portions of the future and past coexist with present. And if the future exists at present, then the universe is deterministic. Frankly, it seems nutty to say that the past, present, and future are coexistent – and yet the curvature of space-time seems to imply it.

JB : Does the problem lie with the physical theory or the mathematics used to express it?

LAKOFF: It lies with the common metaphor “Time Is A Spatial Dimension”, which is used to understand Einstein’s mathematical theory of the physical universe. The philosophical entailment of determinism is coming not out of the mathematical physics, but out of that metaphor applied to the mathematical physics. Does that mean that we should-or can-try to jettison the metaphor?

For better or worse, we cannot get rid of it – even if it does have a nutty entailment. Physics is about something. We need to link the mathematics of relativity to an understanding of space and time. “The Time Is A Spatial Dimension metaphor does that job.” We have no better metaphor and no literal concept arising from our embodied minds to replace it with. The commonplace metaphor may be imperfect in having a nutty entailment, but it’s the best that embodied human conceptual systems are likely to come up with. What this means is that it is important to separate the mathematical physics from the commonplace metaphors used to comprehend it. And it is vitally important not to take those metaphors literally, even if that leaves us with no literal understanding at all. We should not take time literally to be a spatial dimension; we should recognize that we are using a common metaphor, and that the metaphor has the unwanted baggage of determinism-the entailment that present, past, and future coexist.

The moral is that you cannot take conceptual systems for granted. They are neither transparent nor simple nor fully literal. From the perspective of the science of mind, science itself looks very different from what we are commonly taught it is. Scientific understanding, like all human understanding, must make use of a conceptual system shaped by our brains and bodies.”

It’s always marvelous to find a corroborating view on a subject you feel strongly about, especially from an authoritative source who expresses it far more eloquently than you’ve been able to! I only question the idea that it is “the best that embodied human conceptual systems are likely to come up with”.


About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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One Response to Time and its metaphorical surrogates

  1. Hi Chuck – I’m back in the fold after a thoroughly enjoyable trip. While I came to see Robert he clearly had a nefarious plan to place me at your house. I have only had time to briefly go through your book. Remember, I’m still a working man. I have a travel photo show starting Aug. 1 and observatory improvements and data analysis for the rest of the summer. Plus, as I mentioned, I have a new NASA proposal in that would take me through 12/20 and this will be my swan song in astronomy. I am the only private corporation to receive NASA money in the area of near earth asteroid research and in this last proposal is asking for a whopping $2.2 million so I need to tread lightly in the small NEO community and actually have to wear real clothes and give a paper at the AAS (American Astronomical Society = “World” Astronomical Society). All of my grant reviewers will be there and I will be judged according to the rules.
    Out of all the all we talked about I see two major cracks in the world as presented by observational astronomy: (1) Dark Energy, (2) Dark Matter. We have patched General Relativity (reintroducing Einstein’s self admitted blunder, the Cosmological Constant, but this time with a function rather than a number.) It is, in effect, the admission that there is some pervasive force that is everywhere in the universe. Starts to sound like a bit like aether to me. I believe that Dark Matter (or better called Dark Gravity) is either somehow related or is part of the (endless?) particle zoo that may be available if we ever get an accelerator to high enough energies.
    Finally, there is the enigma of quantum entanglement. Something not fully understood is going on. You clearly take off in an intelligent way where mathematics can’t tread.
    I also enjoyed have some brief moments to talk to Ursula about worldly concerns, always our children, that we desperately hope to solve but really can do little or nothing. Physics aside, we are the evolutionary experiment in big brains and only separated from all apes about 6 million years ago. We have *feelings*. I am revving up for a town talk about human evolution and will make every attempt to be amusing, simple, informative … I am constantly shocked how little the general public knows about ANYTHING.
    I also appreciate the introduction to your coffee clutch. I love this sort of thing and have my own version in Patagonia. I could tell that if I had been there 1 more day I would be at loggerheads with the other Michael but that is the way of our unquantifiable world. Better to have talked and argued than never have talked at all. My bastardized version of “Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.”
    I am a slightly better than average travel photographer: http://www.tenagraphotography.com. The astronomy site is http://www.tenagraphotography.com, recently woefully neglected. If you really walk on the wild side: http://www.facebook.com/tenagraobservatories and http://www.facebook.com/tenagraphotography.com.
    Thanks for everything! I hope to see you again sometime next summer!

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