2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton
A radical reevaluation of the character of time

Copernicus and Darwin took away our traditional place in the world and our traditional identity in the world. What traditional trait will be taken away from us next? My guess is that it will be the world itself.

We see the first few steps in that direction in the physics, mathematics and computer science of the twentieth century, from quantum mechanics to the results obtained by Gödel, Turing and others. The ontologies of our worlds, concrete as well as abstract, have already started to melt away.

The problem is that quantum entanglement and logical incompleteness lack the in-your-face quality of a spinning earth and our kinship with apes. We will have to wait for the ontology of the traditional world to unravel further, before the avant-garde insights will turn into a real revolution.

Copernicus upset the moral order, by dissolving the strict distinction between heaven and earth. Darwin did the same, by dissolving the strict distinction between humans and other animals. Could the next step be the dissolution of the strict distinction between reality and fiction?

For this to be shocking, it has to come in a scientifically respectable way, as a very precise and inescapable conclusion — it should have the technical strength of a body of knowledge like quantum mechanics, as opposed to collections of opinions on the level of cultural relativism.

Perhaps a radical reevaluation of the character of time will do it. In everyday experience, time flows, and we flow with it. In classical physics, time is frozen as part of a frozen spacetime picture. And there is, as yet, no agreed-upon interpretation of time in quantum mechanics.

What if a future scientific understanding of time would show all previous pictures to be wrong, and demonstrate that past and future and even the present do not exist? That stories woven around our individual personal history and future are all just wrong? Now that would be a dangerous idea.