Time: Between Metaphysics and Psychology

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Philosophy

Abstract

"I remarked that all that occurs objectively can be described in science; on the one hand the temporal sequence of events is described in physics; and, on the other hand, the peculiarities of man's experiences with respect to time, including his different attitude towards past, present, and future, can be described and (in principle) explained in psychology." (Rudolf Carnap, philosopher and logician, reporting a conversation with Albert Einstein)

Carnap's words describe a general idea that has recently once again moved to the forefront of debates about time in philosophy: that the understanding of time that modern science (in particular physics) provides us with differs radically from how we ordinarily think about time. The idea is that in our everyday understanding, we think of time as 'passing' or 'flowing', and in distinguishing between past, present and future events, we take ourselves to be describing a difference in the nature of those events themselves. By contrast, scientists typically operate with a picture of reality in which the idea of time passing or flowing does not figure, and which treats past, present, and future events exactly the same. Given this, many philosophers, just like Carnap, believe that our everyday understanding of time rests on a profound mistake about the nature of reality.

However, Carnap's words also indicate a crucial role for psychology to play in informing philosophical debates about this claim. By helping properly describe and explain how we ordinarily think about time, research in psychology can contribute to a better understanding of how deep the gulf between the everyday and the scientific notions of time actually runs, and what is responsible for it. Yet, so far, there is very little by way of research on time that genuinely crosses the boundaries between philosophy and psychology in this way. Philosophers rarely consult actual empirical research to back up their claims about core features of our everyday thinking about time, and psychologists studying time have not typically taken their task to be to unpack the basic commitments of our everyday understanding of time that are the subject of philosophical debate. This project will be the first to provide a genuinely interdisciplinary investigation of our everyday understanding of time and its diverse aspects. It will ask as yet underexplored questions under three main themes:

1. How does an understanding of time develop in children, and how should we characterize any developmental changes in this understanding? To what extent does young children's understanding of time already involve ideas such as that time 'passes' or that past, present, and future are different from one another in their nature?

2. How should we interpret the results of research in psychology that indicate close connections, on the cognitive level, between time and space? Might such research point to aspects of the way people think about or experience time that are actually more in line with how time is conceived of in the sciences, where time is often assimilated to space?

3. Does research in psychology bear out the idea of fundamental differences in people's attitudes toward the past, the present and the future, and should such differences be interpreted as indicating implicit commitments about the nature of time itself? Is it possible to construe such differences as rational, and if it is not, what might explain them?

In addressing these questions, the project will provide a completely new agenda for conducting interdisciplinary research on time, one that will pave the way for innovative future directions of research in both philosophy and psychology.

Planned Impact

There is widespread concern amongst government and educationalists that science lacks popular appeal. The British Science Association (2014) has stated that "despite science's importance to society, it has ended up in a cultural silo [and the challenge is] to take science out of its cultural ghetto and make it something that belongs to a wider community". One way to tackle this issue that is gaining momentum is to try to fuse science with the arts ("putting the arts into STEM to make STEAM"). However, attempts to mainstream science may have limited scope if people believe that scientists view the world in a way that is fundamentally incommensurate with their own world-view. This makes it pressing to consider whether there are aspects of the scientific picture of the world that, even if accessibly articulated, fly in the face of everyday understanding. This is precisely what is sometimes claimed about the way science portrays time. Our project will explore the extent to which there is indeed a deep gulf between common sense and the scientific picture of time, by identifying the psychological sources of divergences between the two, as well as potential ways in which research on the psychology of time may actually point to ways of bridging them. Because of this, the project can contribute in a novel and distinctive way to ongoing discussion about whether and how science can be mainstreamed.

This way of considering the project's aim and its broader importance has shaped our impact activities, which focus on both science and the arts. One strand will be aimed at members of the public who already have some interest in science. We will collaborate with leading theoretical physicists and a cartoonist to provide accessible descriptions of time as understood by scientists. At the same time, we will examine how people's perception of a gap between these descriptions and their own understanding may be influenced by getting them to focus on different aspects of their own thinking about time. Getting people to think differently about time may not just be important in the context of facilitating an understanding of science, but also because it may provide for a way of influencing the extent to which people's everyday judgements are influenced by a number of temporal biases documented in the literature on decision-making.

The second strand involves collaborating with groups of artists and will be aimed at people who may have no pre-existing interest in science. For such an audience, we need to use a novel and creative approach to prompt different ways of thinking about time. We will work with three different groups of artists (a performance art group, a dance ensemble, and a physical theatre company) to produce a set of performances entitled "About Time". The starting point for developing these performances will be an initial workshop with the artists in which the investigators will discuss scientific notions of time, the associated metaphysical debate, and relevant psychological research. The Co-I will then work closely with the artists to develop new pieces of work sparked by this initial discussion; when these performances are presented to audiences, they will be accompanied by an introduction to the academic work on time provided by the investigators. The impact of this strand will be three-fold. First, this will enrich the artists' own practice, particularly with regard to thinking about how time as it features in physics, philosophy, and psychology relates to how they think about time as a dimension of their own artistic medium. Second, the artists work with a range of community groups, and they are committed to using their experience in this collaboration to inform that work. Third, the audiences at the performances will gain the sort of insight into science and philosophy they would not gain by other means, and will also be challenged to reflect on their own notions of time.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title 'About Time' Performing arts evening 
Description A performance art evening on the theme of time, featuring performances by Bbeyond Performance Art (Belfast), BigTelly Theatre Company (Portstewart), and Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company (Derry/Londonderry) as well as talks by Christoph Hoerl (University of Warwick) and Teresa McCormack (Queen's University Belfast). This event was held on four occasions: On 8th and 9th February at Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, on 12th February at Black Box, Belfast, and on 16th February at Echo Echo Studios, Derry/Londonderry. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Following the performing arts evening, two of the performing arts groups will carry out further workshops locally with members of the local community on themes inspired by our collaboration. 
URL http://www.unravellingtime.net/about-time.html
 
Title Artwork for 'About Time' 
Description Posters and flyers for the performing arts evening 'About Time', created by Zoocreative Design 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Publicity for 'About Time' performing arts evening 
URL http://www.unravellingtime.net/about-time.html
 
Title Leaflet "What it Time really Like" 
Description This leaflet (by Artist Brian John Spencer) was produced in the context of an event at W5 Science Discovery Centre in Belfast trying to get children to think about the topic of time. This event was part of the Northern Ireland Festival of Science. 
Type Of Art Image 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact Around 100 children visited the display, and then drew their own images on the topic of time. Where possible (taking demand into account) Brian John Spencer first drew a live cartoon of the specific child which had a thought bubble in it, which the child then filled with images that they associated with the topic of time. 
URL http://www.unravellingtime.net/uploads/1/1/9/8/119818248/leaflet_combined.pdf
 
Title Panels for W5 event 
Description A series of seven panel images created by cartoonist Brian John Spencer for our event at W5 Science Discovery Centre in Belfast. They are intended to illustrate some questions about time, and some facts about time, for a lay audience. 
Type Of Art Image 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact Around 200 visitors (adults and children) visited the event at W5, and children from each family took part in a short talk explaining the issues illustrated in some of the panels. 
URL http://www.unravellingtime.net/impact.html
 
Description 1. We developed a new theory of how humans (and animals) think about time, which we call a dual-systems theory of temporal cognition. This theory distinguishes between a 'temporal updating system' and a 'temporal reasoning system'. The temporal updating system basically just maintains a representation of how the environment is at present. This representation contains no temporal dimension, it does not represent how things are at times other than the present. However, this representation can be updated as new information comes in, leading to a new representation of how things are in the present environment. The temporal reasoning system, by contrast, involves the capacity to think about the relations between events happening at different times and having a linear conception of time, in which each particular time is represented as coming round once. We argue that animals only possess a temporal updating system, and that even sophisticated forms of animal behaviour that might suggest an ability to think about the past and the future can be explained on the assumption that animals only possess such a temporal updating system. We also argue that characteristic difficulties that young children display in thinking about things in time can be explained by the idea that they fall back to a temporal updating system. Furthermore, we argue that a characteristic way in which adult humans think about time - that they believe the present moment in time to have an objectively special status - might be explained in terms of the fact that both the temporal updating system and the temporal reasoning system are still present in them alongside each other.

2. We have carried out a number of novel empirical studies probing into human's everyday conception of time, and of their own experience of time. Theories of human's 'naive theories' already exist for a number of cognitive domains, but so far humans' 'naive theory of time' has not been explored.

3. We have also carried out studies on human children's and adults' attitudes towards the past and the future. These were prompted by philosophers' claims that humans discount past experiences - leading them to prefer pains to lie in the past and pleasures to lie in the future. Our studies so far show only qualified support for such claims.

4. A volume with papers from philosophers and psychologist about psychological past/future asymmetries is under contract with Oxford University Press.
Exploitation Route 1. Our work on the dual systems approach to temporal cognition was published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Science together with 33 commentaries on our article by a range of philosophers, cognitive, comparative and developmental psychologists, and neuropsychologists (as well as with a response by us to these commentaries). It was also the subject of a two-day conference for early career researchers at the Centre for Philosophy of Time at the University of Milan. We are aware of at least on funding application by a researcher planning to carry out empirical studies on apes and children to vindicate our theory.

2. and 3. After we had embarked on our empirical work on human's everyday conception of time, of their experience of time, and on asymmetries in attitudes toward the past and the future, we discovered that a group of researcher in Australia had started to embark on similar work at the same time. We have since been in regular contact with these researchers, and together with them we seek to establish this as a new field of interdisciplinary research.establish this as a new field of interdisciplinary research.
Sectors Education,Other

URL http://www.unravellingtime.net
 
Description 1. A collaboration with three performing arts groups has led to the creation of a performing arts evening performed at Warwick Arts Centre and at venues in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. 2. A collaboration with a cartoonist and W5, a science discovery centre in Belfast, leading to an afternoon of activities with children around the topic of time and the publication of an information leaflet aimed at children. 3. A number of public engagement talks at the British Science Festival, the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences, the Northern Ireland Science Festival, and How the Light Gets In.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Other
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Collaboration with Bbeyond on performing arts evening 'About Time' 
Organisation Bbeyond
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We had a number of meetings with members of this performance art collective in preparation for a performing arts evening on the topic of time, which was performed on four occasions at Warwick Arts Centre (two evenings), at the Black Box in Belfast, and at Echo Echo's studios in Derry/Londonderry. These meetings were designed to communicate to the participating performing arts groups some of the issue at stake in research carried out in the project, and to engage in dialogue about how these issues might relate to their artistic practice.
Collaborator Contribution On each of the four performing arts evenings, members of Bbeyond (Eleni Kolliopoulou, Elaine McGinn, Alistair MacLennan, and Brian Patterson) staged a piece of performance art as part of 'About Time'.
Impact Footage from one of the performance art pieces is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDKRyTTmGDc
Start Year 2017
 
Description Collaboration with Big Telly on performing arts evening 'About Time' 
Organisation Big Telly Theatre Company
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We had a number of meetings with members of this theatre company in preparation for a performing arts evening on the topic of time, which was performed on four occasions at Warwick Arts Centre (two evenings), at the Black Box in Belfast, and at Echo Echo's studios in Derry/Londonderry. These meetings were designed to communicate to the participating performing arts groups some of the issue at stake in research carried out in the project, and to engage in dialogue about how these issues might relate to their artistic practice.
Collaborator Contribution Big Telly's Artistic Director devised a piece of theatre specially for the performing arts evening, the theatre company provided rehearsal space and covered administration of contracts, insurance, etc.
Impact The theatre performance was recorded at Warwick Arts Centre and is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kX9sTtvjJLw
Start Year 2017
 
Description Collaboration with Echo Echo on performing arts evening 'About Time' 
Organisation Echo Echo Dance Company
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We had a number of meetings with members of this dance company in preparation for a performing arts evening on the topic of time, which was performed on four occasions at Warwick Arts Centre (two evenings), at the Black Box in Belfast, and at Echo Echo's studios in Derry/Londonderry. These meetings were designed to communicate to the participating performing arts groups some of the issue at stake in research carried out in the project, and to engage in dialogue about how these issues might relate to their artistic practice.
Collaborator Contribution The Artistic Director engaged extensively with project members over an extended period to devise a piece of dance inspired by some of the issues studied within the project. Echo Echo also provided space in their own premises for rehearsals, and a technician for the four nights of performances, as well as providing two studios, full technical support and front of house staff for the performances in Derry/Londonderry
Impact The dance performance was recorded at Warwick Arts Centre and is available at https://youtu.be/RKgfsUZNq_g
Start Year 2017
 
Description Event "Thinking in Time: The Science and Psychology of Time" at W5 in Belfast, 22nd February 2020. 
Organisation W5 at Odyssey
Country Ireland 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution This was a four-hour drop-in session, primarily designed for children visiting W5. It involved specially commission display panels, illustrated by a cartoonist, explaining certain facts about the science of time and puzzles about what science tells us about time and how we experience time. Children could then also participate in experiments about children's experience of time, and the cartoonist was there to draw sketches of each child with a thought bubble. The children were then given these sketches and encouraged to fill the thought bubble with pictures of things they associated with the topic of time.
Collaborator Contribution The partner provided a large exhibition and interaction space within W5, a popular science discovery centre in Belfast attracting a large number of families with young children. They also provided advice prior to the event, drawing on their extensive experience of effective science communication, and provided staff throughout the event to help with logistics,
Impact In connection with the collaboration, several picture panels and a leaflet were produced. See http://www.unravellingtime.net/impact.html
Start Year 2019
 
Description "The Puzzle of Time" at the MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) Belfast 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A talk and Q & A session with Teresa McCormack and Christoph Hoerl, as part of the Northern Ireland Festival of Science.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.nisciencefestival.com/event.php?e=131
 
Description Blog entry 'Is the future more valuable than the past', iCog blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact invited blog entry: 'Is the Future more Valuable than the Past' by Alison Fernandes, iCog
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://icog.group.shef.ac.uk/is-the-future-more-valuable-than-the-past/
 
Description Drop-in event at W5 Science Discovery Centre 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An area of W5 was cleared to (1) make room for an area which children could run through some of the experiments we have devised to study children's understanding of time, (b) display panels prepared by the artist Brian John Spencer illustrating some questions about the nature of time and surprising facts about time emerging from modern physics, (c) tables on which children could do their own drawing. To the extent that demand allowed, Brian John Spencer drew a picture of each child visiting the area, together with a thought bubble, which the child was then encouraged to fill with images illustrating things that they associated with the topic of time. Visitors were also given a leaflet with some of the material depicted on the panels.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://nisciencefestival.com/event.php?e=124
 
Description Panel event at 2019 British Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact What is Time?
A panel event at the 2019 British Science Festival featuring Teresa McCormack (Psychology, Queen's University Belfast) and Christoph Hoerl (Philosophy, Warwick); introduced by Deborah Cohen (BBC).
IMC 02, University of Warwick, 10th September 2019, 3pm
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://britishsciencefestival.org/event/what-is-time/
 
Description Participation in debate 'Back to the End of Time' at HowTheLightGetsIn festival 2018, Hay on Wye 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Alison Fernandes was an invited participant in the debate 'Back to the End of Time' at HowTheLightGetsIn festival in Hay on Wye, May 2018. The other participants were Huw Price and Erik Verlinde, and the debate was hosted by James Ladyman
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://hay.htlgi.iai.tv/events/back-from-the-end-of-time-2049
 
Description Recording for BBC Radio 4 "All in the Mind" and BBC World Service "Health Check" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme "All in the Mind" was recorded at the MAC in Belfast as part of the Northern Ireland Science Festival. It featured the BBC's Claudia Hammond and Teresa McCormack and Victoria Simms as guests. Teresa McCormack was interviewed in particular about her work on children's understanding of time. The programme will be broadcast in the new series of "All in the Mind" starting in April, and material from the session will also be edited to create an episode of the BBC World Service programme "Health Check".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.nisciencefestival.com/event.php?e=49
 
Description School visit, St Paul's School, London 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Alison Fernandes: 'Time travel, entropy, and why the future is different from the past'. Presentation given at St Paul's School, London
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Second workshop with performing arts groups 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a second workshop with our project partners from three performing arts groups, held at Queen's University Belfast, in preparation of a multimodal performance evening on the topic of time, devised with input from our research project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk at ESRC Festival of Social Sciences 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A talk - 'The Puzzle of Time' - featuring Christoph Hoerl and Teresa McCormack, followed by a Q&A session. The Twisted Barrel, Unit 11, FarGo Village, Far Gosford St, Coventry, 8th November 2019, 5pm
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.enjoycoventry.com/ents/event/3989/
 
Description Workshop with performance artists 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Our project includes a collaboration with three performing arts groups, who together will devise a set of performances entitled About Time. They are the performance art collective Bbeyond, Big Telly theatre company, and Echo Echo dance company. After an initial round of meetings with each group individually in March 2017, the project hosted a one-day workshop at Queen's University Belfast in June attended by representatives from each of the three groups, at which artists and investigators discussed scientific notions of time, the associated metaphysical debates, and relevant psychological research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.unravellingtime.net/arts-workshop.html