Category Archives: Metaphysics

The Present

I run an astronomy course for homeschooled children of elementary and middle school ages.Last night’s session wasmy lecture entitled “Distance and Time”, dealing with the rather fascinating fact that in astronomy we are always observing events in the past. Although most educated adults “understand” this fact superficially, spending a couple hours talking about the ramifications of this fact as I expand the range that we’re discussing from the Moon (at about 1.25 light seconds from Earth) to the most distant objects observed by the Hubble Space Telescope (at about 13,000,000,000 light years from Earth) creates a lot of discussion in the class.

Last night, near the very end of the lecture, the youngest member of this class – age 8 I think – asked a very, very profound question. I had driven home the point repeatedly that everything we see happened in the past – even watching me across the room, the light they were seeing had left me a few nanoseconds before they “saw” it. His question (slightly paraphrased):

If everything we see and experience happened in the past, does the Present exist?

This question amazed me on several levels. In his actual phrasing of the question, it was clear to me that this was not an accidental stumbling upon a deep question – he really did have an inkling of what he was asking. The amount of experience he attempted to integrate in that instant was a huge surprise. I am still trying to follow how his mind could have created that question at such an early age.

I had no real hope of answering him in a manner he could understand, but that didn’t stop me from trying. Here is an expansion of what I told the class, in which I tried to explore the issue of observing very short time intervals. Although this was a somewhat technical answer (that no one in the room understood, perhaps including myself at the time), it has lead me further to consider just what the concept “Present” may actually represent.

Similar to how a computer functions, the human mind has a “clock rate”. Unlike a computer, which can perform billions of elementary calculations per second, the human brain’s neurons can fire at most 500 times a second.To receive and recognize visual information may require the firing of dozens of neurons, which brings our visual “frame rate” to maybe 10-50 frames per second. (This makes some sense, since a movie shot at 15 frames a second will appear visually “jerky”, while one shot at 30 or 60 frames per second generally looks smooth). For concreteness, let’s say the mind can receive one frame in 1/50th of a second. That means that anything happening in less than 1/50th of a second will be experienced as simultaneous.

Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. So, using our 1/50th second frame rate, anything that we observe within a range of about 3720 miles at a given instant in “global time” will appear to happen simultaneously. In some psychological sense then, our experience of “Now” has a range of 3720 miles.

As I said, this argument confused us all. And what I’ve written here is much clearer than what I said in the class last night – yet I’m still musing over what it means epistemologically, and what it means for our concept of Time.

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Its About Time

The ideas I am going to express about the nature of Time are based on the thoughts of Emmanuel Foroglou, as presented in a series of posts in a Yahoo group he ran from 2001 into 2002. As of this date, the Yahoo Group in question is still available, though inactive, as “Rational_Values”, and can be viewed by the public. The thread in which the discussion on time occurs is entitled “The Universe and Time”. The whereabouts of Dr. Foroglou are less certain, and more can be discovered about his history through any Web search. Although inspired by Foroglou’s discussion (which I have not fully reviewed as of this date), I do not mean to say that Foroglou has stated what is said below, nor that he would necessarily agree with all of my ideas.

Time is not a metaphysical property of the Universe. It is, rather, an experience of a conscious mind observing change in the Universe. Change, and more specifically, causal change, is a metaphysical attribute of the Universe. The experience of Time is the comparison of two differingperceived states of being. In order to compare two states of being, the capability of storing and retrieving perceptions must be present – the entity experiencing Time must have a memory.

A concept of Time must arise from an ability to measure the relative rates of change of multiple streams of perception. This is a complicated (though accurate) statement of the requirement for a “clock” against which to measure Time. An absolute clock is not required, merely a periodic occurence within one’s perceptions which has a time interval remaining roughly constant, and which occurs in parallel with the stream of perception to which a time interval is to be assigned. Simple clocks that are generally available to Man include the length of a day, the duration of seasons, or at the other end of the scale, one’s heartbeat. Note that these “clocks” need not be perfectly periodic, nor absolute. I’ll have much more to say about the experience of intervals of time in later discussions, in the presence or absence of an external clock.

Returning to the consideration of the relationship between the Universe and Time, we must be very careful with the definition of Universe. I define the Universe to be equivalent to Being, and to include all that has existed, currently exists, and will exist in the future. Note that with this definition, there can be no discussion of “multiple” or “parallel” Universes – as if these exist, they must not be separate from the Universe as defined. More relevant to the current discussion – and an opportunity for significant semantic confusion – the Universe as defined does not change. Change occurs within the Universe, but the Universe (encompassing past, present and future existence) cannot be said to change. This leads to a confirmation of the assertion that the Universe is time-less. The Universe as defined has no past nor a future – past and future are contained in the Universe.

This is not to imply that the future is pre-determined. The future is not determined by the past nor the present, though it is caused by the past and present. The source of confusion in associating pre-determination with a time-less unchanging Universe is purely a lack of grasping the meaning of the definition of the term Universe.

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The Plenum

The Universe is a continuous plenum of Existence, containing no voids. A void would constitute an area of nothingness, a non-existent within the realm of Existence. Such a concept is an inherent contradiction. Indeed logically, “a non-existent” is what I’ll term an improper noun – it has no referent. [I run the risk here that there is a prior definition of “improper noun”, but for this post I’ll take that risk].

The difficulty in integrating the statement that the Universe is a plenum often lies in a confusion between a void and a vacuum. A vacuum is an area of space containing no matter, while a void contains nothing with an identity – this is a far greater restriction than a lack of matter. Vacuums can and do exist in the Universe, while a void cannot.

Bringing this to a concrete example, consider two spheres not in contact with one another. By “not in contact” is meant there exists a distance between them. A distance is a difference in position. To have a difference in position there must be “space” between them. This space may be occupied, with matter, or not occupied, as is the case in a vacuum. In either case, the space itself is a non-void, and existent.

A description of the structure and behaviour of space is in the realm of Physics, and beyond the context of Philosophy. Nonetheless, a consideration of some of the attempts to represent the Plenum in physics can serve as illustrative examples that can help the process of integrating the concept of a vacuum as an existing entity, and therefore completely different in principle from the non-existent void.

Here I will mention only briefly four representations of the Plenum. In pre-Relativistic physics, we have the Ether described as a “fluid” through which electromagnetic waves propagate, permeating – consisting – of all of space. In “modern” “accepted” physics the concept of the Ether is replaced by the quantum field. This field is the substrate for not only electromagnetic propagation, but all energy and matter in the Universe. There are severe philosophical issues with the quantum field (it itself relies upon false concepts of the non-existent), but it is again identified with all of “space”. Lastly, I’ll list two alternatives to the accepted theories. The elementary wave theory of Lewis Little presents an approach to modern physics which rests upon firmer philosophical grounds, and has been accepted by many Objectivists as an alternative to quantum mechanics. Finally, there is the view of the Universe as computation. In this framework, the Universe consists of a vast array of computational cells, plus a “program” of evolutionary rules which determine the content of these cells through time. This alternative framework has been pursued by Edward Fredkin, Steven Wolfram, and others.

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Convincing the Determinist

A being whose thoughts and actions are “determined” in the sense discussed previously, has no control over those thoughts. The very process of “reasoning” is therefore not under the being’s control. Logic, being the art of proper reasoning, therefore has no meaning to this entity, as it cannot willingly apply the practice to its thinking process.

I will use the term “determinist” to indicate a person who claims a belief in determinism, though I maintain that a person who truly “believes” determinism and has therefore integrated all of his knowledge and actions with this fundamental belief, embodies a contradiction, and therefore cannot truly exist. Such a person would not feel that decision making, no matter how trivial, is necessary as a conscious effort – indeed no “willful” effort can exist. In the attempt to be internally consistent to determinism, the individual will see every action and thought as “instinct”, and will be reduced to acting on instinct alone. In human form, such an individual will not long exist. Nonetheless, I will adapt the use of the term “determinist” as indicated above, although those who typically call themselves “determinists” are far from consistent in their actions and thoughts, and therefore would not be represented by this label. Specifically, most of the engineers and scientists who claim to believe determinism are not worthy of this label.

The determinist sees no meaning in Logic. Hence, logical arguments, such as I have been describing, will have no interest to him. In his opinion, I am pre-determined to make this argument, and he is pre-determined to reject it. He need not think about it logically, indeed that action would be non-sensical. The entire discussion, then, would be reduced to a series of meaningless sounds exchanged between individuals. This is clearly what the nominalist philosophers concluded – the “meaning” of a word is arbitrary and deeply subjective. Humans build their internal representations of the World in a determined manner. Two such knowledge systems may or may not share elements in common. Hence, the meaning of specific words may not be assumed to be consistent between any two individuals. True communication of ideas is consequently impossible to verify for the participants in a conversation. And that which cannot be verified (according to this school of thought) cannot constitute knowledge.

Hence, the determinist is left on his own to experience the truth or fallacy of his beliefs. In daily life, the very presence of free will permits him to evade focusing thought on the evidence presented to him by his perceptions. He, of course, fails to see this. Should he engage his rational faculty, and should it draw the conclusion that his actions are not and need not be arbitrary, he will reject this conclusion as the product of Logic, and resume his unfocussed “belief” in determinism. There would appear to be no way out of the determinist’s contradictions.

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To “believe in determinism” entails a fundamental contradiction.

By “determinism” is meant a hypothesis that all of the actions, perceptions and – most importantly – thoughts of any living being are caused by physical processes. This is a generalization of the proper notion of causality as applied to all physical entities in the Universe, and is a commonly accepted tenet among scientists and engineers who have been educated in the fields of physics and mathematics. When confronted with the phenomena of the human mind, these individuals who have been intellectually reared upon the strict use of logic feel a compelling need to explain its observed functionality. In the absence of an accepted explanatory theory for the human mind, generally this results in either an appeal to religion (God, the all-powerful, need not require the action of physics to create a mind), or physics itself – the mind is formed by a machine which rigidly obeys the law of causality, and whose actions must therefore be determined.

I myself have struggled with understanding the necessary invalidity of determinism, and the axiomatic nature of its opposite – free will. Although I have “internalized” an acceptance of the axiom some years ago, I had forgotten the logical arguments proving the self-evident nature of human free will. It is the purpose of this post to present and expound upon this very simple argument, and to investigate its use in attempting to refute determinism to its adherents.

I must give credit to our discussion group [visitors to this blog can read notes from various meetings at the bottom of this page] for raising this perennial issue again last week, after which there ensued a lively discussion, part of which is paraphrased here.

The argument against determinism is actually quite simple to state. If all thoughts are determined, one can never be certain of one’s “knowledge” – for all that one apparently “knows” has also been pre-determined. Reflexively applying this to the assumed knowledge of determinism, one cannot be certain that determinism is an accurate hypothesis.

Expanding this argument further, a being whose “thoughts” are exclusively determined through mechanical actions of physical processes can have no personal control over the content of his “mind”. In particular, what he feels he knows of the real world is not under his personal control, and therefore cannot be validated by him independent of yet more determined actions and thoughts. Under no circumstances can this being attain certainty in knowledge, and therefore cannot be properly said to have knowledge of anything. This being’s sense of certainty or uncertainty with respect to any proposed truth is in itself determined, and may therefore be at odds with reality. Specifically, then, the validity of the hypothesis of determinism must itself be in question, despite the most adamant statements from the being that he “knows” or “believes” it to be true.

This then is the argument that leads to the declaration that free will is axiomatic and inescapable. Every statement of certainty invokes the necessity of free will. This is the meaning of the statement heard in Objectivist literature that in asking the question itself, one invokes free will. A determined being is incapable of actually questioning his reality – the question he asks cannot be validated as an honest question (he is determined to ask the question whether he cares to have it answered or not), and the answer he accepts is arbitrary with respect to the Truth, as he is determined accept it as True.

Going further, he who claims a belief in determinism must reject the concept of learning, and with it the validity of Logic. Logic is the art of correct thinking; however, if one’s thoughts are pre-determined, there is no right or wrong manner of thinking – there is merely the action of a machine over which one has no personal control.

There will be more on this topic to follow…

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