For a brief moment, try to unweave time and consciousness as much as possible. As Carlo Rovelli once titled an essay — forget time; consider only consciousness.
Without it — without any observer —reality exists in a state of meaningless and disordered chaos whereby the rules of thermodynamics rein supreme and whereby entropy is the main agent and conductor of causality.
Consciousness is the one and only thing that can break these rules. It orders reality, it senses its way through nonsense to arrive at sensible observations about the surrounding world. It redefines everything under a lens of what means or matters however it needs to mean or matter.
Consciousness creates time both as a temporal perception and as a necessary variant to make logical deductions about how our world works; time then begins to exist not only on paper but also in practice.
And so the concept of time, and our interactions with time, aren’t only malleable based on whatever prerogatives we have, but they’re subjective on countless levels. We’re creatures who coherently navigate through space with, and because of, time.
Time, to someone in the last days before death or their first days after birth, flows in ways indescribably different.
All this to say that it really makes a difference in how we perceive it; unfortunately, time has been misappropriated by various elements of our existence, engrained within us from the rings of school bells to the due dates of debt payments.
But if you ask those who have gone into the deepest ends of trying to decipher the very nature of time - I'm convinced that, like Rovelli, they'll all say the same thing: the reward at the end of the weird tunnel through which we deconstruct our conceptualization time is surely worth the effort.
Below is a Q&A with Professor Carlo Rovelli, who has authored some of the most effective works (The Order of Time, Reality is Not What It Seems) to helping guide the curious minds through that tunnel.
“The ability to understand something before it’s observed is at the heart of scientific thinking.”
In The Order of Time, you discuss how our perception of time is intimately linked to thermodynamics. Can you explain how the concept of entropy and the arrow of time relate to our conscious experience of past, present and future events?
Rovelli: Our “conscious experience” is the name we use to denote very complex phenomena that happen in our brain. These phenomena, in turn, are thermodynamical. They increase entropy and produce heat. So, we ourselves are - so to say - thermodynamic phenomena.
The thermodynamic phenomena that happens around us are irreversible because we live in a world with a marked entropy slope: we are very far from an equilibrium situation. It is this slope that determines all orientated aspects of time.
For instance, there are memories of the past (and not the future) because of this slope; we can decide some aspects of the future (but not the past) for the same reason. In a world in equilibrium, or in a purely mechanical context without heat and a slope of entropy, there would be no memory and no agency. A mechanical clock does not remember the past and has no hopes of concerns for the future, as we do.
The idea of 'thermal time' challenges the traditional conceptualizations of time as being universal and objective; how does this prompt new considerations in our ongoing philosophical debate over free will and determinism, considering the subjectivity of time perception in different contexts?
Rovelli: In my opinion, the philosophical debate over free will and determinism is based on silly conceptual confusions.
The issue was solved by Baruck Spinoza four centuries ago: there is no contradiction between our common sense free will and the determinism of classical mechanics.
The confusion only appears if we misunderstand what is it that we call free will. To say that the discovery of determinism in physics challenges free will is like saying that after the Copernical revolution there are no more sunsets. Of course there are sunsets after Copernicus: only, we have realized that a sunset is not the sun that moves down, it is a more complicated underlying story (the Earth spins….).
Of course we are free to choose: only we have realized that this is not a violation of physics, it is a more complicated underlying story, that has to do with the fact that we necessarily have incomplete accounts of ourselves. Which is Spinoza’s insight.
Emergent space and time are intriguing concepts that you've explored. How do these ideas affect our understanding of the nature of consciousness, especially in light of the suggestion that space and time themselves may emerge from more fundamental quantum processes?
Rovelli: The problem of the nature of space and time is a problem in physics. It is affected by the advances of physics in the last century, in particular in gravity and quantum phenomena.
Sometimes we get confused, because we assume that certain aspects of temporality are universal, when they are instead very much dependent on contingencies: the entropy slope, and even the specific features of our mammal brain.
To understand consciousness is largely the problem of understanding this complicated system that is our brain. This is why the two problems get mixed and confused, sometimes.
In your view, how might the relationship between thermodynamics and time influence the development of future quantum theories or impact our quest to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics?
Rovelli: The three domains, quantum, gravity, and thermodynamics, are deeply linked.
The reason is that gravity affects what is accessible and what is not, while thermodynamics is about the distinction between what is accessible (work) and what’s not (heat) and quantum theory is (among else) an intrinsic limitation on what is accessible.
The full relation between these three domains is not yet entangled, in my opinion.
What are the potential implications for our understanding of consciousness within these new theories?
Rovelli: Nothing direct. Consciousness, I am much convinced, has nothing to do with fundamental physics. Consciousness is just a very complex phenomenon, that we will slowly disentangle, bit by bit, like we are doing with another phenomenon that seemed magic only half a century ago: life.
Indirectly, however, I think that getting a better understanding of quantum theory could help us come out of the recurring confusion about consciousness.
The claimed “mystery” of consciousness is based on two false premises. The first is that the “self” is a single entity. The second is that physical reality is like many bouncing stones. The second of these has been demolished by quantum physics.
On a more personal level, what helps you get past the limitations of perspective with regards to counter-intuitive concepts like emergent space? Given your field of work, it's probably a default modality of thought for you, but for those of who spend most of their days perceiving time as a linear/objective concept, what would you recommend to help deconstruct that kind of perception or to help expand on the conscious perspective of how time really seems to work?
Rovelli: Oh, the way we think is just habit. If you only live in a small region, it is hard to conceive that the Earth is round. But if you travel often around the world, or even if you stay home and read about traveling people, a round Earth becomes familiar. It is the same with all advances in our understanding.
What visualization or shape, if any, would you suggest best represents time?
Rovelli: When I study relativity, my image of time is a huge net with different temporalities flowing independently along the ropes of the net. When I think about quantum gravity my image is like an immense see of flashing dots. When I think at the years of my life, time is like an ellipse with the summer in the upper half and the winter in the lower half. When I think at my life, time is like a line moving up, vanishing in the distance. When I think at eternity, time is a single flash of light. When I think at the universe, time is a direction in each point of a large sheet, when I think at the present moment, time is like a collection of presents…