Time: Between Metaphysics and Psychology

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Philosophy


"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.


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Fernandes A (2018) Freedom, self-prediction, and the possibility of time travel in Philosophical Studies

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Hoerl C (2018) Thinking in and about time: A dual systems perspective on temporal cognition. in The Behavioral and brain sciences

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Hoerl C (2018) Experience and Time: Transparency and Presence in Ergo, an Open Access Journal of Philosophy

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McCormack T (2017) The Development of Temporal Concepts: Learning to Locate Events in Time in Timing & Time Perception

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 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