Time as a Frozen River

A Radio Lab production with science reporter Robert Krulwich called "Beyond Time (link is external)," the section on "No Special Now," explores the somewhat discomfiting implications of the Einsteinian 4-dimensional "block universe" for free will.

Courtesy of physicist Brian Greene, who questions the idea that the future is open, and neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, who discusses the famous Libet experiments on the timing of readiness potentials, Krulwich discovers that he isn't perhaps quite "in charge" the way he thought he was.  Greene is sympathetic to Krulwich's concerns, but can't honestly reassure him about free will, and tries to distract him with multi-verse cosmology.  But Krulwich doesn't buy it; he wants his free will back.  Ramachandran is trenchantly definitive: the unconscious readiness potential precedes the conscious choice to move one's finger by .5 seconds, so consciousness can't be in control the way we thought.  No solace for Krulwich.

Green talks about time in his terrific book The Fabric of the Cosmos, chapter 5, "The Frozen River," and chapter 15, "Teleporters and Time Machines," (see pp. 451-8 re free will).  Each moment we experience as flowing from future to past is actually "an eternal and immutable feature of spacetime," so past, present, and future co-exist in the block universe.  Time as a dimension is simply there, just as up/down, left/right and forward/back are all there, laid out in front of us.  This means all our past, present and future actions co-exist as well, strange as it may seem.  But this can be understood as a time neutral re-statement of what science, from our (illusory) time-bound conscious perspective, describes as causal relations over time.  The way one moment effortlessly gets transformed into the next – no hindrance or obstacle, just a smooth transition – suggests the next moment was (is) simply there, waiting for the mind to experience. 

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