How We Confuse Time and Space

Einstein is quoted as saying, “We physicists, we who understand science know that the distinction between past, present and future’s an illusion.”

The whole history of physics has been a history of diminishing the nature of time and diminishing the role of time.  Take a very simple example.  When you see something move through the air – that’s something that happens in time.  And then you could take a film that you made of that and call that an experiment or call that a record of motion.  And then you could make a graph in which time ran this way and the position on the screen ran this way.  And that would be just a curve.  The record of that motion would be represented by a curve which would be a graph of X against time.  


That is a method which is highly useful for describing the results of observations made in the past.  But people have gone too far with it.  We have what’s called geometricized time in taking the view that maybe that curve which is the whole history of that motion just is really what is.  And the fact that it got carried out moment by moment by moment by time is an illusion.  And so we’ve confused in physics the representation of observations of reality which are frozen because they are records.  They are ways of organizing the information in records which are frozen in time because once the observation is over, the record is frozen in time.  

We’ve confused that with the reality and argue to an invalid conclusion.  It’s not just that the record of motion is frozen in time and is outside of time therefore, but the actual history of the world, the actual motion is outside of time in its deepest reality.  So by making graphs in which time was represented as if it were a dimension of space, we confuse time and space.  Now in my book I recount the history if this, which starts in the seventeenth century with Descartes and Galileo. And then Newton avows to the point where Einstein invents the general theory of relativity where you have what’s called the Black Universe picture in which the whole space time exists at once.

Einstein is quoted as saying, “We physicists, we who understand science know that the distinction between past, present and future’s an illusion.”  And he wrote that trying to give consolation and comfort to the widow of a friend of his who had just died as if to say really the impression we have of being alive for a brief time and then not being alive and the tragedy of that is wrong.  It’s not a tragedy because we just live and exist in time timelessly, so to speak.  All the moments of our life just exist and it’s an illusion this idea that we’re eating them up, that we’re passing through them.  And Einstein having consoled a friend of his also at about the same time in a conversation with a philosopher, Rudolf Carnap, regretted that the moment the feeling of being in the moment, the present moment is missing from that representation of motion, that representation of the universe.

And Einstein regretted it.  He said that there’s something irretrievably lost.  That the experience of the present moment is somehow just outside of the domain of science.  Over the last 20 or so years since the early 90s I’ve come to the view that we have to put time and the present moment and the passage of time into the center of physics and reinvent a way of doing physics in which the present is really what’s real.  At any moment what’s real is what’s real in that present moment. 

And the past is unreal but we know things about it because they’re representations of it, fossils of it, records of it in the present.  Memories of it, of course.  And the future is also unreal but we don’t even have memories or fossils of it so it’s genuinely unreal.  So statements like "In 2080 it will be six degrees warmer than it is now on the average on the globe" – which are hypotheses that people discuss – don’t have a present truth value.  They’re not true and they’re not false.  They’re just undetermined because 2080 is in the future and there’s nothing that exists now which corresponds to the reality of how warm it will get by 2080.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy fo Shutterstock

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.