Sunday, October 11, 2009

All at once or not at all?

[After reading this, please follow up with a related post for elaboration.]

According to special relativity (SR), there is no single, absolute frame of reference for all physical descriptions of phenomena. Literally, nothing happens all at the same time, since, in a bizarre sense, there is no single time. This means, to invoke a common illustration, that what we are seeing "now" in the starry skies, actually portrays celestial happenings from millions of years ago. The stars' distant "now" is still "on its way" to become our very distant future picture of the heavens. As James Ross argues in his essay on the eschatological annihilation of the world in St. Thomas' writings, the world literally could not be destroyed "all at once," not even by God, since there is no "all at once" frame of time in which the act of total annihilation could occur.

This concept raises two interesting considerations for me at "present" (heheh). Or perhaps I should say it is a single consideration with two nested elements. First, it seems that acts of intellection defy SR precisely by "actualizing" truth in a physically exhaustive way, and thus "make true" certain things which hold at all points in spacetime, and thus "all at once," albeit not in a temporal manner. Second––perhaps as just a nested example of this, let us say, Scholastic qualification of SR––it seems our own grasp of SR demands it is in some way violated if SR is construed as a realist theory of science.

In the first case, consider what we call "timeless" truths, like analytic definitions and mathematical operations. By intellectually grasping that a bachelor is always and at every moment "an unmarried male," am I not actualizing something, namely, a truth proposition, which is true "all at once" everywhere throughout the cosmos? It seems an excessively high price to pay for SR as a total metaphysical principle to say that analytic truths are not true as such just because they can't be uttered or written "all at once" in material reality. Likewise, grasping that 2 + 2 makes 4 actualizes a truth which holds eternally (and/or-at-least "omnitemporally.") Probably the most vivid example of an intellectual truth which defies SR is SR itself! To wit, as a theoretical set of truths, or even as just a single proposition (e.g., "All frames of empirical reference are relative to the constant speed of light."), SR stipulates that its truth holds at all points––and therefore at all times––in the cosmos. So, our intellectual grasp of SR as true must hold for all of spacetime, or SR itself is untrue. This feature of intellectual operations indicates that such truths, while wholly real, are not strictly physical realities. Alternatively, we might say that if they are defined as physical realities, presumably on account of some deeper commitment to, say, physicalism, then SR is not a true description of reality, since it cannot account for intellectual operations which transcend its spatiotemporal strictures by their very universality. Or to phrase it more like Wolfgang Smith does in The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology, because intellection is not something that happens in time, it is something that can and does happen throughout time. (As Thomas More argued, not being any-place is equivalent to being every-where.) The 'verticality' of intellection both frees it from the limits of 'horizontal' spacetime and frees it to the fullness of spacetime, much like a 3D agent can access multiple points of 2D space.

In any case, to turn to the second consideration above, let us consider what it means to say the things we observe "now" are not actually happening "now," but actually represent long-past celestial phenomena. This deflationary phenomenology, if I may call it such, contains a subtle self-contradiction as soon as it is made into a realist description of the natural world. For in the very act of denying that what science observes "now" is really what is happening "now" (i.e., in the physical parameters of the objects themselves), we are simultaneously (!) acknowledging at least that something-as-yet-unobserved is happening right now in the same moment in which we qualify our naive perceptions based on SR. In other words, by deflating the phenomenological authority of our perceptions of y at time t1, based on our theoretical awareness that the phenomena at t1 correspond to events at 'pre-time' t1-n, we are simultaneously positing, in place of t1's phenomena, some as-yet-unspecified (and empirically unspecifiable) set of events happening at t1 (which future ages would perceive at time t1+n). In other words, the very idea that unobservable natural events are really happening presupposes that they are happening at the same time we make that claim. The upshot is that to uphold SR as a realist theory of nature, is to admit that parts of reality can exist actually but non-empirically. It is not––and, according to SR, can never be––an empirical truth that "x is 'really' happening behind the phenomena observed at t1." It is an empirical truth that y is happening at t1, and it may be true that "x is really happening at t1" (as scientists at t1+n might verify), but this is not even in principle an empirical claim.

Interestingly, for the purposes of this post, at t1 two things in different frames of reference are true at the same time, namely, the reality of our SR-qualified phenomenology and the undergirding events actually happening as we formulate our SR-qualified claims. Further, these two things, although in vastly disparate temporal frames of reference, must be true at the same time. If x were not actually "what's happening" at t1, then our true, deflationary claims about observables (y) at t1 would not be true. In other words, if there were not something-other-than-what-we-observe-at-t1 (i.e., something-but-not-y) really and simultaneously occurring when we make our claims, then our claims would have no basis in reality. The paradox is that, in order to say that what we observe "now" is not "really" what is happening "now," our claim must be grounded by events which, ex hypothesi, have not even happened yet in "now"! If x were not actually happening when we employ it to deflate y, then our SR-deflations of y would not be true when we utter them at t1. We would have to suspend our SR-deflations of y until we had empirical confirmation of x at t1+n. And yet, in the very moment we invoke SR to deflate, we know it is true despite a lack of empirical backing at t1.

The solution I propose to this paradox is simply that the spatiotemporally transcendent powers of the intellect enable the dual nature of truth (as being in things and as being in the mind), to synthesize polytemporal realities into a single frame of reference. This would tie the second consideration back to the first. This is just a rough draft and I need to thinker more with this. …


Agellius said...

I only got about half of it, but wow. Basically, if SR is true, then the intellect must transcend space-time; and if the intellect doesn't transcend space-time then SR is unknowable?

The Cogitator said...


I'm glad you got at least half of it. That's more than I got! ;)

Yes, the upshot of this post seems to be that intellectual agency transcends spacetime. It's actually not a novel claim on my part, since an ancient, key tenet of Aristhomism is that, insofar as actions actualize (dematerialize) proportionate organs (i.e., "the right 'tools' for the job"), and insofar as no corporeal organ is proportionate to intellectual acts, intellection actualizes a non-corporeal organ (i.e., the intellect). Cf. ST I, qq. 76-80 (if memory serves).

It is perhaps a slightly novel application of this tenet to SR on my part, but I believe I got the seed (at least) of the idea from Wolfgang Smith's _Quantum Enigma_ and _The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology_. I'd like to add the relevant citations from Smith to supplement this post. Basically, because intellection (as opposed to cognition) does not occur "over time," but instantaneously, it does not occur *in* time. If intellection required temporal duration, there would be no unity in the concept as a formal whole. Sort of like "viewing" a work of art one segment at a time. Unless you see the whole thing as one Gestalt, you don't see it at all. The epistemological conundra I address for SR here entail, I believe, a transcendence of general relativity as well, which I should have stated towards the end of the post. In other words, our (intellectual) knowledge of SR (as a realist theory anyway), is the means by which we both 'refute' its strictures against spatiotemporal simultaneity and 'refute' the Minkowskian strictures of GR (block universe, etc.).

I'd love to hear more of your thoughts.


Agellius said...

It's marvelous. It seems to provide a proof of the overlapping of the spiritual and the material within the universe. In other words it seems to show that knowledge itself is not material, since not subject to SR; and if not material, then by definition it's spiritual. If the materialist wants to argue that knowledge is material then he has to show that it's subject to SR, which you show is not the case. In short, it would be a disproof of materialism.

Since you say this is only a draft, I will be interested to see whatever refinements you are able to make.

The Cogitator said...


I'm glad at least someone "gets it." As for those who might get it and yet "return to sender," well….

I went through a few books and articles last night from which I drew my insights, and I will transcribe the quotations as time permits. Suffice to say I have indeed only slightly specified the mechanics of what Henry Stapp, Wolfgang Smith, James Ross, Mortimer Adler, David Braine, et al. have argued vis-à-vis SR.

Also, read well the essay by James Ross I finally "documentized" out of PDF and posted above. "Immaterial Aspects of Thought"–– it's a philosophical time-bomb only some dare to recognize.