Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Dreaming the past

My novel In the Midst of Lions opens with a character named Mary Hansard -- an ordinary forty-something high school physics teacher -- suddenly realizing she can see the future.

More than that, really; she now has no reliable way of telling the future from the past.  She "remembers" both of them, and if she has no external context by which to decide, she can't tell if what's in her mind occurred in the past or will occur in the future.  Eventually, she realizes that the division of the passage of time she'd always considered real and inviolable has changed.  Instead of past, present, and future, there are now only two divisions: present and not-present.  Here's how she comes to see things:

In the past two months, it felt like the universe had changed shape.  The linear slow march of time was clean gone, and what was left was a block that was unalterable, the people and events in it frozen in place like butterflies in amber.  Her own position in it had become as observer rather than participant.  She could see a wedge of the block, extending back into her distant past and forward into her all-too-short future.  Anything outside that wedge was invisible...  She found that it completely dissolved her anxiety about what might happen next.  Being not-present, the future couldn’t hurt her.  If pain lay ahead of her, it was as removed from her as her memories of a broken arm when she was twelve.  Neither one had any impact on the present as it slowly glided along, a moving flashlight beam following her footsteps through the wrecked cityscape.

 I found myself thinking about Mary and her peculiar forwards-and-backwards perception while I was reading physicist Sean Carroll's wonderful and mind-blowing book From Eternity to Here: A Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, which looks at the puzzling conundrum of what physicists call time's arrow -- why, when virtually all physical laws are time-reversible, there is a clear directionality to our perceptions of the universe.  A classic example is the motion of billiard balls on a table.  Each ball's individual motion is completely time-reversible (at least if you discount friction with the table); if you filmed a ball rolling and bouncing off a bumper, then ran the recording backwards, it would be impossible to tell which was the original video and which was the reversed one.  The laws of motion make no differentiation between time running forward and time running backward.


If you played a video of the initial break of the balls at the beginning of the game, then ran the recording backwards -- showing the balls rolling around and after a moment, assembling themselves back into a perfect triangle -- it would be blatantly obvious which was the reversed video.  The difference, Carroll explains, is entropy, which is a measure of the number of possible ways a system can exist and be indistinguishable on the macro level.  What I mean by this is that the racked balls are in a low-entropy state; there aren't that many ways you can assemble fifteen balls into a perfect equilateral triangle.  On the other hand, after the break, with the balls scattered around the table seemingly at random -- there are nearly an infinite number of ways you can have the balls arranged that would be more or less indistinguishable, in the sense that any of them would be equally likely to occur following the break.  Given photographs of thousands of different positions, not even Commander Data could determine which one was the pic taken immediately after the balls stopped moving.

Sure, it's possible you could get all the balls rolling in such a way that they would come to rest reassembled into a perfect triangle.  It's just extremely unlikely.  The increase in entropy, it seems, is based on what will probably happen.  There are so many high-entropy states and so few low-entropy states that if you start with a low-entropy arrangement, the chances are it will evolve over time into a high-entropy one.  The result is that it is (very) strongly statistically favored that entropy increases over time.  

The Arrow of Time by artist benpva16 [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 license:…]

The part of the book that I am still trying to parse is chapter nine, "Information and Life," where he ties the physical arrow of time (an example of which I described above) with the psychological arrow of time.  Why can't we all do what Mary Hansard can do -- see the past and future both -- if the only thing that keeps us knowing which way is forward and which way is backward is the probability of a state's evolution?  After all, there are plenty of cases where entropy can locally go down; a seed growing into a tree, for example.  (This only occurs because of a constant input of energy; contrary to what creationists would have you believe, the Second Law of Thermodynamics doesn't disprove evolution, because living things are open systems and require an energy source.  Turn off the Sun, and entropy would increase fast.)

So if entropy actually explains the psychological arrow of time, why can I remember events where entropy went down -- such as yesterday, when I took a lump of clay and fashioned it into a sculpture?

Carroll's explanation kind of made my mind blow up.  He says that our memories themselves aren't real reflections of the past; they're a state of objects in our environment and neural firings in our brain in the present that we then assemble into a picture of what we think the past was, based on our assumption that entropy was lower in the past than it is now.  He writes:

So let's imagine you have in your possession something you think of as a reliable record of the past: for example, a photograph taken of your tenth birthday party.  You might say to yourself, "I can be confident that I was wearing a red shirt at my tenth birthday party, because this photograph of that event shows me wearing a red shirt."...

[Is] the present macrostate including the photo... enough to conclude with confidence that we were really wearing a red shirt at our tenth birthday party?

Not even close.  We tend to think that [it is], without really worrying about the details too much as we get through our lives.  Roughly speaking, we figure that a photograph like that is a highly specific arrangement of its constituent molecules.  (Likewise for a memory in our brain of the same event.)  It's not as if those molecules are just going to randomly assemble themselves into the form of that particular photo -- that's astronomically unlikely.  If, however, there really was an event in the past corresponding to the image portrayed in the photo, and someone was there with a camera, then the existence of the photo becomes relatively likely.  It's therefore very reasonable to conclude that the birthday party really did happen in the way seen in the photo.

All of those statements are reasonable, but the problem is that they are not nearly enough to justify the final conclusion...  Yes, the photograph is a very specific and unlikely arrangement of molecules.  However, the story we are telling to "explain" it -- an elaborate reconstruction of the past, involving birthday parties and cameras and photographs surviving essentially undisturbed to the present day -- is even less likely than the photo all by itself...

Think of it this way: You would never think to appeal to some elaborate story in the future to explain the existence of a particular artifact in the present.  If we ask about the future of our birthday photo, we might have some plans to frame it or whatnot, but we'll have to admit to a great deal of uncertainty -- we could lose it, it could fall into a puddle and decay, or it could burn in a fire.  Those are all perfectly plausible extrapolations of the present state into the future, even with the specific anchor point provided by the photo here in the present.  So why are we so confident about what the photo implies concerning the past?

The answer, he says, is that we're relying on probability and the likelihood that the past had lower entropy -- in other words, that the photo didn't come from some random collision of molecules, just as our surmise about the billiard balls' past came from the fact that a perfect triangular arrangement is way less likely than a random one.  All we have, Carroll says, is our knowledge of the present; everything else is an inference.  In every present moment, our reconstruction of the past is a dream, pieced together using whatever we're experiencing at the time.

So maybe we're not as different from Mary Hansard, with her moving flashlight beam gliding along and spotlighting the present, as I'd thought.

Mind = blown.

I'm still not completely convinced I'm understanding all the subtleties in Carroll's arguments, but I get enough of it that I've been thinking about it ever since I put the book down.  But in any case, I'd better wrap this up, because...

... I'm running short on time.


No comments:

Post a Comment