Event Detail

Mon Mar 11, 2024
Howison Library
4–6:15 PM
Townsend Visitor
Jenann Ismael (Johns Hopkins University)
Time: The Arrow Most Difficult to Comprehend

Most day-to-day physics involves modelling other systems: cells, gases, fluids. In those contexts, we maintain a provisional separation of subject and object, or of investigator and system being investigated. When we are dealing with the universe as a whole, we are part of the subject matter, but we tend to adopt a god’s eye view, treating the universe imaginatively as though it were an object we were looking at the universe from the outside.

This is a convenient and mostly harmless fiction but it pushes out of view a phenomenon that I’m going to call interference. Interference arises because we are part of the universe. That means that our representational activity is connected in the domain that we are representing and it is going to be impossible to stabilize some facts or events in the world independently of the act of representing them. This fact turns out to be important in some philosophically contested contexts. I’ll be exploring its fallout.

Lecture 1: Time: The Arrow Most Difficult to Comprehend

There has been enormous progress in the last 100 years in the resolving the puzzles raised by the manifest temporal asymmetries in our world given the symmetry of the underlying mechanical laws. Work in the foundations of thermodynamics has clarified the temporal asymmetries embodied in the Second Law. Those are connected to asymmetries in our knowledge of the past and future. The arrows of cosmology and radiation have begun to fall into place. One piece of the puzzle remains unresolved. Penrose called it “the arrow most difficult to comprehend” and described it as “the feeling of relentless forward temporal progression, according to which potentialities seem to be transformed into actualities.” I’ll argue that this sense of becoming is the signature of interference against the background of a thermodynamic gradient.