Showing posts with label Sean Carroll. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sean Carroll. Show all posts

Sunday 8 December 2019

Understanding Time . . . and the River


When I was a kid, every spring there would be a massive invasion that looked like a snowstorm of big floppy-winged snowflakes.  We euphemistically called them "Mayflies."  When I was told that these flocks of shadflies only lived for 24 hours, I remember thinking "why bother?"  If you are only going to live for 24 hours, why bother living at all?

Other "Creatures of a day"

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I'm reading Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound.  Prometheus is being tortured for giving fire to mankind (bound to a mountainside, an eagle comes to eat his liver every day).  The gods ask him, "Why did you give this property of the gods to creatures of a day?" Wait a minute!  "Creatures of a day"--that's us; we human mortals.


Another couple of decades later, I'm watching the television series Cosmos:  A Spacetime Oddessy and Neil deGrasse Tyson is explaining that the history of our planet is barely a blink of an eye in relation to cosmic time.  The history of humanity is so minuscule there is no word in the English language to describe its brevity.  Okay, I get it, time is a matter of perception.  My apologies to the Mayflies.

What is time?

But I still don't get, I still don't understand, "what is it?"  What is time?  Like everyone else, I use the word and, like everyone else, I always pretend I know exactly what it means.  "Spacetime," oh yeah.  "The spacetime continuum," got it.  "The beginning of time," "the end of time," time's up," "on time," "overtime," "once upon a time"--sure, sure.  Is there anything more important to a mortal than time?  Shouldn't I know what it is?

A Brief History of Time

I've even read Steven Hawking's Brief History of Time. It was interesting to learn about black holes and quantum theory and time travel, and to get confirmation that "there is no unique measure of time that all observers will agree on." Yet, I was left to wonder, "What is this thing that everybody measures differently?"  "Brief history of time" is a cute title, but isn't there a paradox here?  Or is it redundant? Isn't "history" another word for "time"?  The "time of time"? I'm reminded that physicists escape answering what came before "the big bang" because "the big bang" was the beginning of time, and there can be no "before."  I just find this answer irritating.  (Probably why I'm not a physicist.)

Physics versus philosophy

Sean Carroll argues that physicists and philosophers have different kinds of answers to "what is time?"  Once physicists have an answer that works, they stop asking the question.  Only philosophers keep digging.  Julian Barbour is a physicist, and he offers a description of time that almost makes sense to me.  According to Barbour time is change, and if there is no change, time does not exist.

Time is an arbitrary system of measurement

I'm going to go one step further, and if I'm right, someone please contact the Nobel committee. What?  There's no Nobel for philosophy?! Okay, I'll accept the Nobel for physics.  Time does not exist as a thing that is measured.  Time is primarily a system of measurement, various arbitrary units of measure that we use to describe and calculate movement, change and velocity.

"Time" is a word

As I make seemingly bombastic, counterintuitive claims like "time does not exist," I need to remind you (and myself) that "time" is first and foremost a word.  It is a common error in thinking to assume that if a word exists, there must be some thing (an essence) existing in the world that corresponds to the word.  (The error even has a name:  it's called essentialism. Deconstruction is the fairly simple project  of displaying how words/concepts are "constructed" over time rather than being "essential."  See The Postmodern Hoax and Deconstruction and "Ways of Talking.")

Where do words come from?

In answer to the question "Where do words come from?", I would typically invite my Introduction to Literature students to create a new word.  The first steps were for them to give me a sound or series of sounds that were not a known word, then we would agree upon a series of letters that could represent the sound.  (The linguist de Saussure called these sounds/letters the "signifier.") Then I would invite the students to use this new "word" in a series of made-up sentences.  For example:  the students might give me something like "ugghwamp."  Then they would create a series of sentences:

"People with ugghwamp are always more attractive."

"I got drunk and lost my ugghwamp on Thursday night.'

"Ugghwump is the source of social inequality."

After we had created enough sentences, I would point out that the concept of "ugghwamp" was beginning to emerge.  (De Saussure called this the "signified.")  Ultimately, I would ask the class "Does 'ugghwamp' exist?"  The existence or non-existence of ugghwump in the world (de Saussure's "referent") would have no effect on the meaning or our usage of the word.  (This fact inspired de Saussure to postulate a new, independent science of signs called "semiology.")

There are many phenomena that we perceive and talk about--duration, sequence, pace, rhythm, persistence, history, movement.  From this collection of perceptions and statements, we have come up with the word "time."  

Heraclitus:  "You can't step into the same river twice"

In the very first philosophy lecture I ever attended, the professor presented Heraclitus's claim that "you can't step into the same river twice."  We live in a river of ever-changing particles on a planet swimming in a changing universe.  In terms of relative size, we are 7 billion souls living on a dust mite. We invented the concept of time to preserve the illusion that we can call "time out" and make the world stand still, and, like shadflies, to imagine our 24 hours of existence is an eternity.

"I Didn't Know What Time It Was"

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Deconstruction and “Ways of Talking”

Derrida denied deconstruction was of any importance

As I’ve mentioned previously, the last time I saw Jacques Derrida, who is credited with coining the term “deconstruction,” being interviewed he was quite adamant that “deconstruction” was not a concept of any importance, not even a theory, not even a word that he used anymore. ( See "Critical Thinking Skills" and "Family Values")  Nonetheless, the word has taken on a life of its own and, while it may have gone out of fashion, it is still with us and showing no signs of disappearing from the language.  (See footnotes.)

Postmodernist deconstructionist smuggery

If you have ever tried to confront a postmodernist deconstructionist by pointing out that his work was contradictory, illogical, duplicitous, nonsensical and hypocritical, you would likely find him responding with glee, “Exactly!”—as if he were personally responsible for your recent intellectual epiphany.  Given the deconstructionist stance that language is guaranteed to fail and is ultimately meaningless, you might wonder why Derrida seemed so happy with the tens of books (meaningless books, obviously) he had published.  Why write at all?  If you asked your postmodernist deconstructionist friend that question, the conversation would inevitably lead to a tangential monologue about a recent grant application winning hundreds of thousands of dollars, an upcoming publication in a prestigious journal, a conference in Hawaii, and high expectations of promotion.

"Ways of talking" in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself

So how can we confront deconstruction?  How can we address the malaise of postmodernist deconstructionist smuggery?  Recently I found an answer in an unusual source, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by a physicist named Sean Carroll.  The answer lies in an expression that Carroll uses quite frequently:  “ways of talking.”  However, before we get there we need to have a better grasp of what deconstruction is/was.

Deconstruction begins with "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"

Whenever I taught deconstruction (no, I didn’t only teach the stuff I admired), I would focus on the definition that Derrida provided when he was being cross-examined after his seminal conference paper “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at Johns Hopkins University in 1966.  (Excuse all of my ellipses which follow but I find they are necessary if you want to pick out what Derrida is saying from the obfuscating verbiage.  I’ll put the full quote in a footnote, so you’ll know I’m not fudging.) Derrida said, “[. . . .] déconstruction [. . . . .] is simply a question  of being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use [ . . .  .].”* 

Deconstruction is a very old, and not very complicated, idea

“Being alert to the historical sedimentation of language” is good advice.  In fact, “being alert to the historical sedimentation of language” is exactly what generations of lexicographers and scholars have done over centuries in creating The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) since the project was first begun by Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1746.  If you peruse the OED, you will notice that the meanings of words change over time, until every word in the language seems to have, on average, five or six different meanings. If you imagine a sentence in English with ten words and each of those words has five potentially different meanings, and the meaning of the sentence can be affected by connotation, figures of speech, interpretations, intertextuality, tone of voice and punctuation, you can begin to appreciate postmodernist deconstructionist claims that the language fails, that its meanings are “indeterminate,” “deferred,” even “infinite”—and therefore meaningless.

Deconstructionist ways of talking about language create meaninglessness

How do these claims work?  How is it possible that this deconstructionist idea that language fails to communicate seems so logical and convincing, even though I remain absolutely confident that when I read or hear ten words of a sentence in English I understand the meaning, even if it contains some ambiguity or irony.  The explanation I now see is that there are different “ways of talking” about language.

"Ways of talking" is a profound concept

Carroll’s description of that “innocuous sounding but secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole” helps us to understand how deconstructionist claims about the meaninglessness of language can be convincing even as we hold onto the strong conviction that we do manage to understand the meaning of language on a daily basis.  

The "way of talking" can determine meaning or meaninglessness

The easiest and most obvious way to reflect upon different “ways of talking” is to consider that the average human being is comprised of seven billion billion billion atoms (7 followed by 27 zeros).  Consider the claim that “I don’t understand Mary because she is comprised of billions of billions of billions of atoms and they are constantly changing.”  It’s pretty hard to argue with the science and the logic of this claim but, at the same time, it seems obvious that this is not an appropriate or meaningful way of talking about Mary or any human being for that matter.  

As Carroll explains,"There is one way of talking about the universe that describes it as elementary particles or quantum states [ . . . .] There is also another way of talking about it, where we zoom out a bit and introduce categories like ‘people’ and ‘choices’.”

Mary may, with scientific certainty, be an octodecillion of atoms and be 99% oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, but talking about her this way will certainly make her appear impossible to understand and, in fact, meaningless.  In truth, I can sometimes understand Mary and may sometimes misunderstand her, but overall I know that she is comprehensible and meaningful.

Deconstructionists' "way of talking" about language makes it meaningless

Similarly, postmodernist deconstructionists’ way of talking about language reduces it to marks on the page or collections of morphemes and phonemes.  This way of talking precludes understanding and meaning.  To get understanding and meaning you have to use these words in the way of talking in which people--who aren't just clumps of molecules--usually use them.


*”Here or there I have used the word déconstruction, which has nothing to do with destruction.  That is to say, it is simply a question of (and this is a necessity of criticism in the classical sense of the word) being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use—and that is not destructive”  (Derrida in Contemporary Literary Criticism 497).

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