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Rob Sheldon on the meaning of time

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Rob Sheldon

Rob Sheldon:

RE: Einstein vs Bergson, science vs philosophy and the meaning of time:At the risk of making the waters muddier, I think the problem we are all addressing by different methods is that of Dualism–the incompatibility of material and spiritual existence. When the Enlightenment put the emphasis of the objective experience, it produced an explosion of scientific and technological progress that misled the inte lligentsia into embracing Materialism.

The 20th century showed the fruit of a materialist, atheistsociety, which wasn’t pretty. But the solution–attempted many times, for example by Romanticism in the 19th century– of grafting a spiritual dimension onto the material, never really took. The graft just never got enough sustenance to survive, and so Romanticism, Gnosticism, Liberalism all failed to stem the monomaniacal nature of materialism.

What the 21st century began to do, was to show that Materialism was inconsistent on its own terms. The post-modernists didn’t argue that materialism was sterile, immoral, ugly, maniacal (as Chesterton does in his brilliant opening chapter of “Orthodoxy”), rather, PoMo argued that all these criteria were ethical and aesthetic criteria that are assumed by both Materialists and Theists. That is, Materialism is just one of many worldviews that cannot justify their own existence without invoking external ethical criteria. Ethics, the PoMo argues, is always external, always arbitrary, always a decision each person makes for himself.

Without entering into a debate with PoMo, we should observe what they are doing. They are using recursive logic to show that neither Materialism nor Dualism is complete, or linear, or necessary, or logical. PoMo are doing exactly what Kurt Goedel did to math, when he demonstrated that logic was
incomplete, non-linear, and arbitrary. After all, the desire for self-consistency is an external aesthetic, why should self-consistency be superior to any other arbitrary aesthetic criteria? For example, string theorists argue that their theory is superior because “it is so beautiful it
has to be true”, which is about as arbitrary as it gets.

Therefore, I propose that we stop trying to “fix” the Enlightenment paradigm by attempting to recover objectivity. The one thing that objectivity cannot describe, is recursive, self-referencing systems. The one thing that PoMo attacks over and over again, is this fixation on “objective truth” using subjective criteria. Nor can we fix “objectivity” by dividing the world into “objective facts” and “subjective feelings”. Nancy Pearcey has several books on this approach, and the short version is that it doesn’t work.

What does work? I would argue that it is a Trinitarian metaphysics, that gives equal weight to the objective, the subjective, and the personal, where “personal” is defined as recursive, self-aware systems. As I have suggested before, this neglected personal aspect of metaphysics changes the entire dynamics of the “objective versus subjective” debate, and avoids the “dialectic” destruction that plagues Hegel and Kant and Descartes solutions. It permits ethics to be developed from epistemics and metaphysics, connecting the “is” to the “ought”. It avoids the pitfalls of arbitrary “authoritarian” ethics. It is also very ancient–having been worked out in the 4th-6th centuries by the Cappadocian Fathers.

This does not mean that we lose objective facts like the speed of light in a vacuum. On the contrary, it allows objective facts to live happy, contented lives surrounded by a subjective universe that gives them meaning.

Nor does it mean that we lose subjective benefits like beauty, awe, and wonder. Rather it connects those subjective experiences into a mesh of interconnected persons, grounding that subjective experience in a community of self-aware beings that encompass all humanity, the angels, the seraphim and God. This is crucial, because it means we can’t invent our own transcendent experiences the way Burning Man does for Silicon valley workers, but rather subjectivity must also be objective.

So in the end, everything is subjective, and everything is objective, and everything has meaning. Even time is both objectively real — Einstein’s block universe — and subjectively real — the eternal now. But only because time is also recursive. If we use Einstein’s terminology, then the great metaphysical verses: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” combined with “I am the Alpha and the Omega”, becomes “I am the Space, the Causality, and the Time” because “I am the Meaning of Time”. Or saying this in 21st century terms, “The Truth is a Person” and now “Time is a Person” too.

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5 Replies to “Rob Sheldon on the meaning of time

  1. 1
    Mapou says:

    What does work? I would argue that it is a Trinitarian metaphysics, that gives equal weight to the objective, the subjective, and the personal, where “personal” is defined as recursive, self-aware systems.

    So in the end, everything is subjective, and everything is objective, and everything has meaning. Even time is both objectively real — Einstein’s block universe — and subjectively real — the eternal now. But only because time is also recursive. If we use Einstein’s terminology, then the great metaphysical verses: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” combined with “I am the Alpha and the Omega”, becomes “I am the Space, the Causality, and the Time” because “I am the Meaning of Time”. Or saying this in 21st century terms, “The Truth is a Person” and now “Time is a Person” too.

    You know, I think I am finally beginning to understand the purpose of UD. UD is or has become a tool for Catholic metaphysics, none of which makes any sense and never did.

    Caveat: No, I’m not Catholic and I can’t stand all this Trinitarian voodoo nonsense, especially when someone is hellbent on force fitting it into the duality of “Alpha and Omega” or “I and the Father are one”. Come on, people.

  2. 2
    mike1962 says:

    “I would argue that it is a Trinitarian metaphysics”

    It doesn’t work. In fact, no metaphysic works because metaphysics are utterances of human reason. Reality is beyond human reason, and this should be obvious to anyone who has dispassionately surveyed the subject.

    Timeless transcendentalism?

    Or infinite regress.

    Take your pick.

    Both are irrational.

  3. 3
    tarmaras says:

    If I can further participate in the water-muddling fest, I would like to bring up some ideas from Indian philosophy regarding time and also the semantic treatment of reality as meanings and not just objects. From A.Dalela’s Uncommon Wisdom: Faultlines in the Foundations of Atheism:

    Logic and Time

    “One of key problems in understanding the rational behavior of nature is: How is this logic computed? Science, for instance, describes nature in terms of mathematical laws, which have to be computed to determine the evolution of the universe. If an object is at state X and its next state Y is determined by a formula F, then F must be computed with X as its input to determine the next state Y. How are these computations being carried out? Where is the computer that computes the natural laws? Note that when all of nature is described mathematically, then if such a computer were to materially exist then it would also be governed by the same (or some other) mathematical laws. Before this computer can compute the laws for the rest of the universe, it must be functional as a computer, which would require the computer itself to be computed by some yet another computer, and so forth, ad infinitum. The idea that nature is logical and mathematical is therefore not as straightforward a thesis as it seems at first sight, because the laws themselves have to be computed, which require some machine to compute them, which would in turn have to be computed by another machine, etc.

    The only way this problem can be avoided is if there is a machine that computes its own behavior and does not depend on another machine outside of it. No such machine can be conceived materially because matter needs to be driven to compute, and if that drive is determined by a mathematical law, then there must be another driver to drive the machine that first computes those laws.

    In Vedic philosophy, there is a driver—a form of God—who self-computes. While the form of logic in each realm is called Vasudeva, the self-computing form of this logic is called Sankarshana. This latter form of God appears in the material world as time and He is a form of consciousness that converts logic into computation. The material universe is said to be a manifestation of this self-driven computer who computes and controls the entire universe. The computer in the universe is therefore not another material object; it is rather time. Time drives the creation, conservation, and annihilation of the universe. During creation, two opposite ideas are created simultaneously thereby manifesting a distinction. During annihilation, the distinction between the opposite ideas is destroyed. During conservation, the opposite ideas may be used to modify other ideas. Whether two ideas are created, destroyed, or modified is determined by the nature of time. While the semantic properties of nature can be understood by the theory of sat, chit, and ananda, how these properties produce an evolving universe requires an understanding of how the logic of nature is being computed by time.

    Time is said to be consciousness because it is self-driven, and its choices are beyond the material objects. While the material objects are defined as opposites, time is the creation, annihilation, and mutation of these opposites . The creation, conservation, and annihilation of opposites form a cycle of change, and time is therefore said to be cyclic; the life of the universe is quite like our lives—we are born, we grow and sustain, and eventually we die. The cycles in the universe are more sophisticated because they operate at several levels of abstraction: the abstract levels of matter undergo a slower evolution relative to the contingent levels of matter.”


    The oppositions between meanings define the structure of universal space—namely, that locations in space represent types. The oppositions between creation and destruction define the structure of universal time—namely, that instances in time also represent types. The duality of the spatial structure entails the duality of the temporal structure, and vice versa. The structure of space represents all that can exist, while the structure of time constructs these things. The construction represents computation, and these computations select the possibilities to create the existents. This selection of actuality from possibility is time; it is a type of choice and it evolves cyclically: the same possibilities become real (appear) and unreal (disappear) at different times. They are, therefore, logically possible always, but they are created and destroyed (manifest and unmanifest) in time. None of these possibilities is, however, disproved.

    Any empirical theory of nature can therefore unprove ideas if they are not discovered in nature, but it cannot disprove them; those ideas would be proved at another time when time manifests them as realities. In classical logic, if X is true, then not-X must be false. In semantic logic, X and not-X are always simultaneously defined by their mutual opposition. Of course, if we find X and don’t find not-X, we can conclude that X is true and not-X is false, but that would be a mistake of using classical logic which relies on consistency. In a semantic system, if we can prove X then we can also prove not-X because both are defined simultaneously. The focus now cannot be whether X or not-X is true; the focus must be how the pair of opposites (X and not-X) are simultaneously created.

    The semantic view alters not just our view of matter, the notions about space-time, the nature of cognition and perception, the ideas about soul and God, but ultimately, the nature of logic itself. The conflict between religion and science is a consequence of this profound difference between these two views. However, this difference can be rationally understood and empirically confirmed. Those who have argued that religion has nothing to say about the nature of the material world need to take a closer look at Vedic philosophy. The religious ideas cannot be reconciled with those in modern science because they involve different presuppositions about matter, perception, consciousness and ultimately logic. However, the religious ideas can be expressed using a new kind of semantic logic, which will significantly differ from the logic of modern science. The semantic logic will also make predictions although these predictions will differ from those made by modern science. The confirmation of the new predictions of semantic logic represents a new science in which soul, God, and morality, will be essential scientific ideas.

  4. 4

    It’s actually Eastern Orthodox theology, who claim that the Catholics messed it all up with the “filioque” clause and turned a Trinity into a Duality. Protestants, for all their rejection of Catholic doctrine, accepted filioque. But that’s a history lecture.

    Mike, your answer is precisely what Materialists have been saying for 300 years. Glad we agree.

    tarmaras, your Delela is a smart man. The attack on materialism begins with recursion–as Goedel demonstrated in 1931. Where Dalela fails to go beyond Vedic philosophy is to see that Trinities solve both the conundrum of recursion, but also the insoluble tension of Dualism. Yes, I know that some Vedic philosophers find a Trinity at the heart of Vishna, but many do not. It is perhaps the problem with Vedic philosophy that it does not go far enough.

  5. 5
    tarmaras says:

    @Robert Sheldon

    I’m glad you found the info interesting. It is fascinating to discuss these things. This site is rare indeed. I’d be curious to know more about the Christian Trinity and its relation to science. Do you have a book recommendation?

    Indeed, the notions of Trinity in Vedic philosophy is kind of confusing — many speak about the Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva trinity for instance, but that’s not the deepest notion of a trinity.

    In fact there is one that is much deeper in the Vaishnava circles, which is the Catur-Vyuha notion, which consists of a Trinity + Causal Time (described above). So basically three forms of God plus another form of God that serves the three as the computer of the logical landscape defined by the three forms. These three forms of God are called Karanadakasayi Vishnu/Mahavishnu (God outside space), Garbhodakasayi Vishnu (God as the origin of space) and Ksirodakasayi Vishnu/Paramatma (God as all possible choices within space, aka the Supersoul). This theology is presented in Chapter 7: Space Time and God of Dalela’s Is the Apple Really Red? 10 Essays on Science and Religion. It’s a vast section that I will not try to sum up since my brain will probably overheat.

    Following up on your Godel remark, with how recursion defies materialism, I’d like to quote how that reasoning is extended to the idea that meanings exist in nature and how that acknowledgement would lead us to the idea of God. I’d be curious to know how/if one can arrive at this from the Christian perspective as well.

    From Chapter 6: Why God’s Existence is a Scientific Question

    The Role of God in Science

    The atheistic challenge to the existence of God is based on a rather premature and incomplete understanding of material nature. When nature is understood as a representation of meaning (in order to solve paradoxes and address issues of completeness), then science will require the hypothesis of a consciousness that can inject meanings in matter and thereby produce material objects. At that point, we will realize that no individual being is capable of creating all possible meanings, even though we are capable of producing different sides of the opposites. Since meanings are defined by opposites, one side of the meaning cannot exist by itself. Since no ordinary consciousness can create these opposites, only a being capable of thinking the opposites simultaneously can create them.

    The existence of God follows from the problems that arise in the creation of meanings. Current science is three steps removed from that problem. First, current science does not understand the role meanings play in matter. Second, once this problem is solved, science would still not understand the origins of meanings, and would require the postulate of consciousness. Third, even when we postulate conscious choices, we still cannot explain the creation of opposites, because choice implies selection of only one side. The existence of God becomes a scientific question when we ask about the origin of a semantic universe containing multiple opposites.

    In Vedic philosophy, God is the originator of the language of opposites. He creates all possible distinctions, so that a living being can choose some logically consistent subset of these possibilities. All living beings—including God—can understand the same language of opposites, but only God can create all of them at once.

    The existence of God therefore brings the following important difference to science: nature is comprised of semantic distinctions which become the basis of objects distinctions, and the individuality of things. This changes how we conceive theories of nature; specifically, all areas of modern science have to be revised to incorporate meanings. Current scientific challenges to the existence of God are based on physicalist theories about nature, which are in themselves incomplete so long as they don’t explain the origin and creation of meaning and are bound to be inconsistent if meanings were epiphenomena of physical aggregations. If the theory based on which science challenges the existence of God is itself inconsistent or incomplete, then how can the conclusions be useful and viable?

    The existence of God has scientific implications and His existence makes an empirical difference to the world. To understand this difference we need semantic theories of matter, which can overcome the incompleteness and inconsistencies in modern science. These theories will point towards the existence of consciousness which can choose and produce subsets of meanings. However, this choice and creativity itself depends on the possibility for the existence of opposites, which only God can create. The study of meaning within matter not only illuminates the nature of matter, but it also provides a definition of consciousness and that of God.

    Now, consciousness is the ability for choice and we can conceive of two types of choices—those that pick one side of a distinction at any time and those that pick all the sides of the distinction simultaneously. Choices of the former type still belong in the domain of logic and laws of nature can describe the effects and consequences of choices that pick only one side of a distinction. God’s choices, however, cannot be logically described because they choose the opposites simultaneously. However, God’s choices must exist for a semantic universe to come into existence and for logic to operate in that universe! Thus, while God cannot be described logically, His existence would be indicated by meaning and logic.

    The atheistic stance in current science is not a problem for religion but a problem for a theory of mind and meaning. Science has not and cannot explain the origin of meanings by supposing that meanings are epiphenomena of objects. The starkest proof of that impossibility was demonstrated by Gödel’s Incompleteness in which objects and their meanings cannot exist simultaneously if meanings are produced from the objects. However, if objects are produced from meanings, then objects and meanings can exist simultaneously although this requires a new type of theory.

    Once problems of meaning within science have been fixed, the natural question would not be about the origin of matter but about the origin of meanings. God as the originator of meanings becomes relevant in science when science itself will have transformed to address problems of meaning. The existence of God can therefore be scientifically discussed, but only when science has been suitably transformed.

    Link to book:

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