The following arguments are derived from several fields of study which in their complexities by far exceed any single conclusive work – probably even in the field itself. In that regard I clearly neglected Ralph Ammer’s advice ‘Don’t think big!’. His core argument is: “Big topics often lead to small results, small topics foster great results.” And from a perspective of the contribution to a distinct field I’m inclined to agree. With this work however, my goal was to tie together thoughts and concepts from divergent fields in order to craft new connections. Therefore, I see my contribution rather in these connections than in measurable contribution to a single field.
As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.
Nature even on the most local scales made a mockery of information technology. Even augmented by tech, the human brain was paltry, infinitesimal, in comparision to the universe. […] Matter was information, information matter, and only in the brain did matter organize itself sufficiently to be aware of itself; only in the brain could the information of which the world consisted manipulate itself. The human brain was a very special case.
When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o’clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said, Quentin, I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
Unbeknownst to Poggio Bracciolini, he was about to irrevesibly change the course of history for centuries to come when in the winter of 1417 he discovered a long lost poem in a remote monastry. The poem was De rerum nature – On the Nature of Things – by Lucretius. Before Bracciolini’s discovery fragments of the poem or references to it were sought-after relics by intellectuals. But what Bracciolini discovered was the poem in its entirety. Written in the first century BC it was forbidden under Christian influenced Roman rule. Therefore, its recovery centuries after its disappearance was miraculous. It had been transcribed in regular intervals and properly stored in order to keep it accessible. This fact is even more astonishing considering its content, implications and thus the consequences for the prospective scribe and reader.
In one of the great cultural transformations in the history of the West, the pursuit of pain triumphed over the pursuit of pleasure.
The history of the poem and its discovery is captured in the Pulitzer Prize winning book The swerve: how the world became modern by Stephen Greenblatt. The poem is inspired by Epicurus school of philosophy called Epicureanism which is based on the idea of atomism. The notion of atomism says that everything that has ever existed is made from indestructible, small building blocks. The Greeks called these blocks atoms. According to Epicurus these atoms are non-hierarchical and exist in a bleak void. Everything that ever existed emerged from combinations of atoms moving freely in the void without devine intevention. From this conception Epicurus derived his critique on superstition and religious belief. Once liberated from these beliefs and its accompanied worldly detriments, Epicurus advocated that the purpose of life is the pursuit of pleasure.
Lucretius poem is heralded for its didactic qualities, but also for unifying the many strands of Epicureanism in a single text. In chapter 8, Greenblatt elaborates in great detail on the revolutionary implications of Lucretius’ work. The work’s core arguments challenged many beliefs at that time, which nowadays constitute the foundations of modern life. Among the many arguments, Greenblatt points out the following which I find noteworthy in the context of my following elaboration:
The elementary particles of matter—”the seeds of the things”—are eternal.
Since atoms are indestructible any new configuration is derived from atoms that already existed. Any form that we observe is therefore transitory. Once dissolved the atoms of any form will be redistributed in the creation of novelty. This notion also implies that the number of elementary particles is limited. In Lucretius words: “And so the destructive motions cannot hold sway eternally and bury existence forever; nor again can the motions that cause life and growth preserve created things eternally.” (p.186)
Nature ceaselessly experiments.
Stephen Greenblatt (p.189)
Any arrangement of particles is the result of a perpetual process of trial and error. Though Lucretius acknowledges that “what has been created gives rise to its own function.” (p.190) This implies that some forms succeed over others by being more successfully adapted to their environment. In other words, Lucretius anticipated the famous statement survival of the fittest almost 2.000 years before Darwin adopted it.
All speculation—all science, all morality, all attemps to fashion a life worth living—must start and end with the comprehension of the invisible seeds of things: atoms and the void and nothing else.
Stephen Greenblatt (p.199)
If there are only ‘atoms and the void and nothing else’ then there is no place for any providential creator choreographing the ‘dance of atoms’ into conceived forms. Further, there is also no mystic beginning, no divine interventions and also no afterlife. For Lucretius accepting this fact was a crucial step toward the possibility of happiness. Although it might seem at first as reason for despair, Lucretius argues that the knowledge about how things are awakens the deepest wonder. He thereby reverses the ancient order of philosophical endeavours where an impulse of wonder led to the pursuit of knowledge.
The philosophical ideas by Lucretius necessarily evoke questions about the nature of time. If there is no beginning and no end to any forms in our universe, what is it that supports the actuality of time? If time exits, is it eternal alongside atoms? Or is time created in the moment? If it is created in the moment, how can we relate to it as an absolute given? These questions were my starting point when venturing into the murky matter of the nature of time.
Clocks provide one distinct measurement of time and a common convention by which one can interact with reality. But they also impose a contradiction: between external time and our individual internal perception of time. As I pointed out before – see Motivation, this asynchronicity between external and internal time is problematic because it skews the reality of time as we experience it. And it also hints towards the idea that clock time has very little to do with the actual nature of time.
Coming from a theoretical point of view Henri Bergson describes our reality of time as fixed moments juxtaposed to another. It is this concept of incremental progression of time which Henri Bergson approaches in his 1934 essay La pensee et le mouvant – english translation The Creative Mind by Mabelle L. Andison in 1946. He describes these moments in time as virtual points of rest. According to Bergson this notion of time is scientific and excises only repetition and predictability from our material reality. It puts space and time on the same plane, so we deduce our knowledge about time from our observations about the nature and functions of space. And although he admits that this common sense notion of time is a requirement for our communal life, he also perceives it as the reason for our relative awareness about time.
Spatiality therefore, and in this quite special sense, sociability, are in this case the real causes of the relativity of our knowledge. Brushing aside this veil, we get back to the immediate and reach an absolute.
Bergson’s quest to reach an ‘immediate’ and ‘absolute’ notion of time is by gaining an understanding of its duration. To him duration is not a slice of time but rather an ongoing, never-ending process. He explains his concept of duration by the means of the two measures that shape it: movement and change. According to Bergson our notion of movement is based on fixed points, moments extracted from time, which describe motions in space. We perceive moment A where something is happening now, and by defining moment B where it was, we are enabled to extrapolate into the future where moment C will be. The juxtaposition of these moments then resemble movement. But to Bergson this juxtaposition is an artificial recomposition of movement swayed by the exigencies of language and computation. The same is true for change. For him change is not the snapshots of states along the course of its happening; “on the contrary, it is flux, the continuity of transition, it is change itself that is real.” (Bergson, p.15) Therefore, if the two components – movement and duration – are indivisible and substantial, then the same must be true for duration.
Nevertheless the conviction still persists that even if it has not been conceived before being produced, it could have been, and in this sense from all eternity it has existed as possible, in some real or virtual intelligence. The examining of this illusion should tell us that it results from the very essence of our understanding.
Therefore, Bergson argues that our common illusion about the nature of the time leads to a logic of retrospection. This logic neglects the immediacy and autonomy of the moment. Instead the present moment casts a shadow into the past where the reality of now already existed as a possibility. Also, by anchoring the present in the past we claim to anticipate the future. This stance suggests that our current reality sits on a predefined line protruding from the past into the future. If we deny the concept that the present emerges momentarily, then we limit our understanding of the potential of the present moment. Time is not a linear vector but rather an ongoing force in an indefinite system. Time is efficacious.
In Adrian Parr’s The Deleuze Dictionary (2010) Cliff Stagoll supports with his essays on Becoming and Duration this inference. According to Stagoll, Gilles Deleuze bases his notion of difference and becoming on Bergson’s understanding of duration and Bergson’s method of philosophical intuition. Deleuze posits that intuition reveals the essential temporal qualities of our consciousness. Being conscious is an ongoing mental activity that constitutes “a time internal to one’s self.” (Parr, p.81) As this might be simply interpreted as a reference to the common conception of internal time, Deleuze further argues that difference and becoming are key elements of life and essential to one’s lived experience.
According to Deleuze, every moment is a productive assemblage of forces of becoming different. The present moment has no ties to the past or the future in that every event occurs in a continuous flow with neither a known start-point nor a specific end-point. Thereby Deleuze acknowledges the efficacious qualities of time. In other words, nature’s inherent continual flow of changes brings about every unique event. This process is the anchor point for Deleuze to argue that changes occur and unfold in their own time – the pure time or empty time. Further Deleuze agrees with Bergson on the simultaneous awareness of the flow of changes and particular differences. Within the steady flow of changes we are able to identify distinct states and their relationships. Deleuze posits the creative potential that lies in the disconnection between these events.
Even in the continuity of one’s consciousness, there is a disconnection between events that allows creativity and renewal.
Henri Bergson describes our reality as a creative evolution, where novelty is constantly springing forth. Novelty is created out of itself. This internal growth is characterized by continuous phases that penetrate one another. This notion of duration, and thereby time itself, enables a reality that is radically different from our common perception. Yet, Bergson is not appealing to give up on our logical approach towards time. Pure intuition is not a replacement for our common notion of time. Nevertheless, an extended understanding of time through the notion of duration enables creative solutions. Bergson posits that we falsely perceive the detached skin of time as its equivalent which causes our struggle with time. By restoring the awareness of the fluidity of duration and the change and difference inherent to the flow of time we grasp the chance for creative and novel evolution.
Let us say then, that in duration, considered as a creative evolution, there is perpetual creation of possibility and not only of reality.
Bergson’s and Deleuze’s ideas are politically, socially, and personally challenging. Once we perceive time in the proposed manner we are confronted with questions about our being and identity. If time is not within our control how can we effect and shape our reality? Is our agency questioned by the flow of time? In what way can we apply this momentary creative potential in our favor?
Intepreting Bergson’s understanding of time and duration, I recognized its inherent emergent characteristics. Reality is described as a process of creative evolution. Novelty and possibility are perpetually created due to an internal growth. This notion alludes to emergence. But the various notions of emergence are highly debated and currently it seems impossible to generate one definition.
The term emergence refers to the ways that a multiplicity of seemingly discrete, relatively simple interactions can give rise to astonishing complexity and pattern without any apparent direction or plan.
Richard J. Franke
Chicago Humanities Festival
Franke’s offhand description of emergence hints at the intricacies of philosophical and scientific associations of the term. During the 2008 edition of the Chicago Humanities Festival themed Emergence: Where Science Meets Philosophy professor Paul Humphreys pointed out the following four characteristics of emergent behavior:
- emerge from something else – not being fundamental
- have some kind of autonomy over above the things from which they emerge
- possess a certain kind of novelty
- have a holistic aspect - being larger than its parts
According to Humphreys, if in any combination three of these characteristics can be identified it’s a good indicator of emergent behavior. Applying these characteristics to Bergson’s notion of duration and Deleuze’s concept of becoming the emergent properties of the joined conception of time quickly becomes apparent. Bergson’s notion of movement and change clearly relate to one moment in time emerging out of another. According to his argument each moment is immanently autonomous. And finally, Bergson’s notion of creative evolution, where each phase is intertwined with others in order to continuously create novel moments, fulfills the third criteria. According to Humphreys’ proposed characteristics, Bergson’s conception of time clearly exhibits emergent behavior.
I will take a closer look at our relationship with technology, probing it for similiar emergent properties. In his essay The Mangle in Practice, Andrew Pickering suggests an alternative perception of scientific practice, that has far reaching consequences on how we derive knowledge and interact with reality. He proposes a performative notion which acknowledges the temporally emergent relationship between human and nonhuman agency. His idea extends the default conception of science-as-knowledge to represent nature and produce insights. The concept of science-as-culture includes material, social and temporal dimensions.
Pickering’s acknowledgment of the symmetric nature of human and nonhuman agency ties him to Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. Pickering agrees with the theory’s feature of material agency in order to establish a performative nature of science instead of a representational nature. But he opposes Latour’s appeal to semiotics as measure of justification for his theory. According to Pickering, semiotics risks underestimating human agency and therefore, all knowledge produced by science. This is why he proposes the temporally emergent property of human and nonhuman agency. Another effect of performing science in real-time, is that it resolves the issue of retrospective justification. Instead, retrospection itself becomes subject to analysis.
Pickering’s deviation from the actor-network theory is founded on human intentionality. Intentionality describes goals of nonexistent future states that humans seek out to achieve. By acknowledging the intention of human agency, he objects to a purely symmetric relationship with nonhuman agency. In this regard, Pickering concurs with the criticism of Latour’s use of semiotics. But, according to Pickering the use of semiotics clearly disregards the extended temporality of human intentionality. Instead, he proposes the process of modelling. This open-ended process has neither a determinate destination nor a finite number of instrumental variants. According to Pickering, the goals of scientific practice emerge in real-time.
Existing culture, to appropriate Michel Foucault’s phrase, is literally the surface of emergence for the intentional structure of human agency.
Pickering argues that if scientific goals emerge from existing machines, then material agency and human intentions must be intertwined – a process he calls tuning. In tuning humans intentionally adjust to machines in anticipation of a specific result – a capture of material agency. “The world of intentionality is, then, constitutively engaged with the world of material agency, even if the one cannot be substituted for the other.” (p.20) Not only is the relationship between human and material agency required, but the scientific goals liable to be revised. Human intention is reconfigured in the process of tuning and becomes itself subject to temporal emergence. Therefore, human intentionality and nonhuman agency are deeply intertwined by reciprocal dependence. Nevertheless, Pickering asserts that human intent is distinct.
Tuning in goal-oriented practice takes the form, I think, of a dance of agency.
‘The dance of agency’ alludes to a performative idiom Pickering tries to establish quite literally. Tuning can be generalized as a form of a dialectic of resistance and accommodation. In this case, resistence is a metaphor for failing to achieve an intended capture of material agency. On the other hand, accomodation is an active human strategy as a result of resistance. This interplay between material and social agency blurs the contours of subject and object. It is this emergent transformation and delineation which Pickering refers to as ‘the mangle in practice’. By corroding the distinctions between human and nonhuman agency the mangle accredits the actor-network theory. But the performative idiom that Pickering developed moves past binary distinctions between humanism and antihumanism. Instead it opens the space for posthumanism. Thus, human actors are still distinguishable but also inextricably entangled with the nonhuman. Humans simply loose their claim of being at the center of reality.
The world makes us in one and the same process as we make the world.
By acknowledging Pickering’s account of posthumanism, a new epistemology and ontology of our reality is established. Our inextricable entanglement with nonhuman agency weakens the human claim over the control of reality’s creation. But Pickering neglects any notion of antihumanism. He claims the process of tuning, which itself emerges through the ‘dance of agencies’, maintains the human claim over intentionality. While Picking’s vision of reality dissolves the clear distinction between human and material agency it does not address the question of the nature of time directly.
Therefore, after establishing the emergent properties of reality, we need to return to the small building blocks that constitute our reality – the ‘dance of atoms’ as Lucretius remarks. In order to approach the nature of time from a perspective of matter Karen Barad’s notion of agential realism provides the necessary tools to gain novel insights. In her essay Ma(r)king Time: Material Entanglements and Re-memberings: Cutting Together-Apart she delves into the inner workings of quantum mechanics in pursuit to unravel the mystery of time’s ontology.
Matter is discrete. Time is continuous. Place knows its place. Time too has its place. Nature and culture are split by this continuity, and objectivity is secured as externality. We know this story well, it is written into our bones, in many ways we inhabit it and it inhabits us.
Barad’s concept of agential realism is based on the idea of intra-acting agencies which are ontologically inseperable. Barad’s neologism intra-action implies that objects have no fixed state prior to their interaction. Rather objects emerge through interaction. In other words, there are no distinct agencies, but only agencies that are made distinct by emerging from intra-action. This provokes a drastic reworking of the common notion of causality.
The concept of intra-action is a transformation of the actor-network theory in the sense that phenomena are not assemblages of humans and nonhumans. Instead it describes the condition of possibility of humans and nonhumans in their materiality. Her concept thereby peals away the last layer of cognitive assurance about our reality, and supports the flux of matter.
Matter doesn’t move in time. Matter doesn’t evolve in time. Matter does time. Matter materializes and enfolds different temporalities.
In her essay Barad refers to a crucial experiment that supports her suggestions. The original double-slit experiment was conceived by Thomas Young in 1801. It can be used as a litmus test whether an entity is a wave or a particle. Decades later, Niels Bohr pointed out that this thought experiment might not proof the nature of reality itself, but just an entity’s behavior in a specific setup. In her essay Barad describes the outcome of the which-slit detector experiment. Without the detector present in the experiment the atom behaves like a wave. But once the detector is introduced the atom exhibits particle behavior. Since the experiment involves a laser the result is visualized in the pattern of light it produces. It is crucial to note that the change in behavior is not a result of a disturbance in the setup but induced by design.
The experiment beautifully demonstrates Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity and his performative understanding of identity. The experiment is the empirical evidence to support his claim of an entanglement of the ‘object’ and the ‘agencies of observation’. According to Bohr’s principle, an entity’s behavior – whether it behaves like a wave or particle – depends on how it is measured. This raises serious ontological questions about the nature of the entity. If the entity existed before it would have to retroactively change its behavior – as if the entity would go back in time. Otherwise the entity did not exist and was conjured into existence through the measurement. Both options contradict our conventional linear understanding of time and the very nature of reality.
Neither space nor time exist as determinate givens, as universals, outside of matter. Matter does not reside in space and move through time. Space and time are matter’s agential performances.
On the backdrop of her agential realist interpretation of quantum physics and based on the results of this experiment Barad concludes that reality is defined by intra-actions of non-determinate entities. If an entity’s identity is not fixed but ‘performed’ due to different circumstances, then the classic ontology of a given space and a linear sequences of moments called time needs to be discarded. It is replaced by a rather spooky scenario. The past never really existed and the future does not simply unfold. Instead the past and the future are iteratively reworked. The which-slit experiment suggests that foregone and anticipated moments in time are all one phenomenon which emerge through the iterative practices of spacetimemattering. Neither single particles or moments in time are separated in space. Both are intra-actively created in the continuous materialization of phenomena. ‘Space and time are phenomenal.’ (p.28)
In our technologically accelerated age the image of reality is increasingly unstable. Nevertheless we constantly create new images of reality while the stream of changes hollows out our seasoned beliefs. The movie Particle Fever revolves around the discovery of the new elemental particle named Higgs Boson. The movie goes on to show that scientists in theoretical physics developed two competing theories of our universe: the multiverse and supersymmetry theory. Both theories rely on an assumed mass of the yet undiscovered particle. The multiverse theory assumed that the mass was approximately 140 giga-electronvolts. The supersymmetry theory estimated its mass at 115. Both theories entail complex calculations and its pivotal point is the mass of the Higgs Boson particle. In 2012, after decades of experiments scientists at Cern in Switzerland finally found proof for the existence of the Higgs Boson particle. The measured indicator was its mass. And, the result turned out to be approximately 125 giga-electronvolts, supporting neither of the theories.
In the previous sections I outlined several arguments against our preconceived notion of time: Henri Bergson’s emergent notion of time based on duration, Andrew Pickering’s posthuman vision of the temporally emergent relationship between human and nonhuman agency, and lastly, Karen Barad’s concept of agential realism and the intra-active modeling of space and time. Through the order in which I connected these concepts, I tried to gradually establish a strong argument against our conventional notion of time. Through my research it became apparent to me that our claim of living in postmodernity is flawed due to our perception of time. While our pursuit of progress swept away many preconceptions of modernity, we hold on to some untimely beliefs about time.
This impression is vested in the topics I outlined under Motivation: our struggle with the accelerated state of being, our neglect of the ties between our nature and time, and lastly, our appropriations to technology. Modern technology deserves special attention in this context. Modern technology moved far beyond been simple tools within human control. Algorithms and artificial intelligence act without human assistance. Machine Learning creates autonomous clusters of mechanical intelligence. Driven by the rise in computational speed, technology gained powers beyond human understanding. Many scientific and industrial endeavours are not even conceivable without the support of computers. Usually we interact with modern communication technology through interfaces. Though these interfaces only reveal specific functions in order to render them actionable. Oftentimes there are mechanisms working in the background of our reality, mostly outside of our control. Using these technologies becomes a dialogue between human and nonhuman agencies – through resistance and accommodation – as Pickering suggests. Further, these technologies encode ideas, philosophies and preconceptions that, through interaction with them, shape the image of what we perceive as reality. Following the statements of Kelly and Kurzweil we might soon be even faced with a technological singularity that acts and evolves completely without human intention.
The future is not now real and there can be no definite facts of the matter about the future. [What is real is] the process by which future events are generated out of present events.
Lee Smolin, Physicist
quoted by Dan Falk
I’m not trying to paint an apocalytic picture of the future. But I’m also far from being idealistic of the past. Given the inherent qualities and tendencies of technology, I want to suggest a thorough discussion of technological development and its encodings. With a special focus on our notion of time and the present moment.
Where I see all three concepts converge is in the creative potential to shape time and space. The anti-deterministic notion of time liberates us from the boundaries of sequential linearity and enables us to envision the iterative modeling and tuning of our reality with and through technology. Modern technology has become an integral part of our reality and therefore sways the process of reconfiguring reality.
In this context our perception of time is crucial. The present moment is fleeting and intangible. Real and unreal at the same time. But following Barad, the moment’s ontology is founded in the material rearrangements through our intertwined performance with reality. If ‘matter does time’ and material arrangements are the output of our input, then matter reflects human intentionalty and technology’s encodings. Thereby, the present moment emerges from a dialogue between the human and nonhuman, through continuous tuning and adaptation. The creative interplay makes reality. Time is never one step ahead or behind. Time is the moment and the moment is time.
It is now easier for us to imagine the end of the world than an alternative to capitalism.
quoted by Dunne & Raby (p.12)
The implications of this alternate notion of time reveal a shortcoming of our modernistic society. Ever since the industrialization of the early 20th century the clock has been established as the undulating force that propels time forward. The modernist society clocked in and out of time, distributing time between work and life. Capitalism unleashed increased productivity and wealth with little consideration of its future resources and equal distribution. The industrious energy released by the mechanic support quickly introduced the post-isms to our life. We left industrialzation behind and entered post-industrialization. The depletion of natural resources and the changes to our climate instilled a discussion of what might come after capitalism. But post-capitalism is not yet in sight. When transitioning into the 21st century we begang to think of ourselves as postmodernistic. But some paradigms introduced in the past decades remain a ghostly existence nowadays.
Given the ideas introduced in this essay I came to believe that our claim to be postmodernistic is established in many areas of our life. Except for our notion of time. Based on clocks we plan and anticipate a non-existing future. We life towards these moments in order for them to become real. By anticipating a future moment we seek to predetermine its ontology. Clocks provide the map to this unknown arrangement. But ultimately this claim of control over time neglects the creative potential that lies in shaping our reality. In other words, the clock is the simulacrum of the human claim over time. In order to become a truely postmodernistic society, we need to redefine our notion of time and its symbolic and cultural representations. A plunge into the creative interplay of possible material assemblages that emerge in the present moment.
Nobody understands time.
Lisa Randall, Theoretical Physicist
The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.
An Ecology of Mind
The things [art & science] that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.
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- Tippett, K. (Host/Executive Producer). (2015, November 12). Lisa Randall — Dark Matter and the Astounding Interconnectedness of Everything [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.onbeing.org/program/lisa-randall-dark-matter-and-the-astounding-interconnectedness-of-everything/8100