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Time Lord #2: Craig Callender

Written by Jeff Drake
6 · 24 · 22

As I stated in the introduction to my series about time, I am going to introduce you to a number of philosophers – and their theories – who are important to the field of study known as the “philosophy of time,” a field that is these days being called “the philosophy of space and time.”

They will not necessarily be in any specific order, and I will certainly not come anywhere close to covering all the various personalities who have pursued an answer to the question, “What is time?” After all, this is a topic that has been undergoing discussion since the ancient Greeks. Still, certain people, some of whom are gone, others still with us, are worth noting for their ideas which have had – and continue to have – an important impact on this field of study. For this reason, I am going to have some fun and anoint each of my personal favorites with the title of, “Time Lord” (with a wink and a nod towards Doctor Who, of course).

My Time Lords will not all be philosophers, as some will be physicists, neuroscientists and/or cognitive scientists. Why? For the simple reason that the study of time, like my other love, the study of consciousness, demands different points of view and finding solutions to the problems they uncover truly requires a multi-disciplinary effort.

Note that I am not putting a stake in the ground on any of the theories I will recount during my Time Lord series, although I will occasionally point out theories I favor. If I ever get something figured out enough in my own head about time such that I can write about it at some length, I will. Till then, my intent is to simply expose you to some of the current key thinking going on with the subject of time. Welcome to my world!

So, raise a dram of single-malt scotch and say hello to my Time Lord 2: Professor Craig Callender. Below is a thumbnail sketch of Dr. Callender I borrowed from Wikipedia:

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Craig Callender

Dr. Craig Callender (born 1968) is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. His main areas of research are philosophy of science, philosophy of physics and metaphysics.

Education and Career: Callender obtained his PhD in 1997 from Rutgers University with a thesis entitled “Time’s Arrow” under the supervision of Robert Weingard.

From 1996-2000, he worked in the Department of Philosophy, Logic & Scientific Method at the London School of Economics.

Currently, he is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, where he is also the co-director of the Institute for Practical Ethics at the University of California, San Diego. Callender serves on the Committee for Freedom and Responsibility of Science of the International Science Council.

Callender has written articles for Scientific American on the philosophy of time and participated in the World Science Festival 2013 with Tim Maudlin and Max Tegmark on the same topic.

Books:

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As you can see, Professor Callender (whom I will periodically refer to as Craig, for brevity’s sake) has an impressive resume, but it wasn’t just his publications and stellar resume that compelled me to include Craig as one of my Time Lords. No, what impressed me most is the incredible breadth of his knowledge. You see, Craig is what I would call a true “Renaissance man”. When it comes to the twin subjects of philosophy and physics, he not only talks the talk, he walks the walk, traversing both science and philosophy, two different, but related, paths. “Impressive” hardly describes his talents.

I consumed Craig’s first book on time, Introducing Time: a Graphic Guide, and then I proceeded to read his latest book, What Makes Time Special?. Having done so, I can tell you that had Craig been a philosophy professor of mine in college as I pursued my philosophy degree some 50 years ago, I would have personally aspired to emulate him and would probably have made a pest of myself. He’s one of those rare professors who leaves you thinking, “Wow, I want to know what this guy knows!”.

Being retired at this point in time in human history is a double-edged sword. On the one hand I finally have all the time I could want or use, to pursue my passions and take advantage of the incredible wealth of talent currently being brought to bear on two one of the most important scientific questions of our age: “What is consciousness? and What is time?” On the other hand, I’m not getting any younger, and at age 71, time, sadly, is running out for me. Tick, tock. This just means I have to work harder, read more, and write more. I am so happy to have discovered Professor Callender!

Both of Craig’s books about time are written in response to two questions he poses himself. Introducing Time is just that. It is meant as an introduction and asks, “What is time?” While the other book asks, “Why is time special?” The second book has the underlying assumption, I think, that the reader is already familiar with current theories about time, or at least those readers would either have read his first book or are very familiar with the topics discussed in it. On the surface both appear to be very simple questions, at least until you realize that Craig ended up writing two books as he attempts to answer each question. Doh! That should tell you up front that neither question is simple at all!

Truly, “time” is an incredibly complex subject, which makes reading about it difficult for people like me without a math and physics background. And I will admit here to struggling and eventually failing with parts of Craig’s Why is time special? book, and I was forced to skip some parts completely. Although there’s no shame in it, it’s a bitter pill to swallow for me. Fortunately, Craig wrote this book in such a way as to make it easier for members of the great unwashed masses like me to skip over the math and physics and still get the basic gist of what he is saying. And I did, as best I could!

I can’t hope to do Craig’s books justice by trying to explain the many time-related things he delves into in his books, after all, he does it so well. So let me just give you a glimpse into some of the issues he deals with in his books and lectures.

NOTE: Any errors you may find in this blog post regarding what I retained after reading Professor Callender’s books should be laid at my feet, not his. No doubt it is something I was unable to understand or something I botched explaining. Also note that I received permission form Professor Callender to use the graphics (illustrated by Ralph Edney) from his first book and I appreciate it very much.

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I have been reading and researching time for a few years now. Inevitably, almost every book I pick up on the subject begins by asking the same question, “What is time?” and then starts explaining why this question is not as simple as it seems. More often than not, they all begin with St. Augustine, who famously answered the question like this:

If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I do not know.

Believe me, I share Augustine’s pain.

Professor Callender’s first book, An Introduction to Time, is just that, an introduction. However, it is well worth a read if you have more than a passing interest in this subject! In this book, Craig has assembled a collection of related topics that should – let me say, must – be considered when one tries to answer this huge question, which he then tackles, methodically, one-by-one. That said, this book doesn’t delve very deep into any one topic. Some complained about this in reviews of his book, but I think that it did just what he said it would – introduce the subject. If his intent was to leave readers thirsty for more, he succeeded with me!

In a video interview about this book, Introducing Time, Craig recounts how he was looking for something to do while he was at home, not getting much work done, due to a brand new baby. So he sat down at his PC keyboard and banged out this book, from his head to the page. Amazing.

In response to the question, What is time?, you might be tempted to ask, “Why so many topics?” “Why doesn’t he just answer the damn question?”

Well, the reason Craig doesn’t just answer the damn question outright is the same reason why no other philosopher simply just answers it – because to even formulate an answer requires that you first must define what you mean by the term, time. And there you have it. Welcome to the rabbit hole. Be sure to say hello to Alice!

Just to be clear up front, and this is a spoiler alert for not only Professor Callender’s books, but essentially every scholarly book written about time – there is no single definition of time. None. No one knows for sure what time is! That said, there are open debates as to whether time even exists at all or is just an illusion! There are also several so-called “problems” with time, one of the biggest being that according to physics, time doesn’t exist at all! Past, present, future, all exist at once. According to this theory, we are all bits of a massive block universe. Oh, and by the way, this block universe theory is the one currently in vogue with the majority of scientists these days. “Follow the science!” they say, and the science says repeatedly, that time does not exist.

There are other problems involved with time, too, and Craig deals with them in his books. For instance, that feeling that every human on the planet feels – that time is passing, marching on, etc. You know the feeling. Well, science is also telling us that this too, is an illusion.

The rather lengthy table of contents of Craig’s first book, Introducing Time: a Graphic Guide, may first appear as a somewhat scatter-shot approach to the subject, perhaps just an attempt to see which of these philosophical spaghetti noodles will stick to the wall, but don’t be fooled. Close your eyes and stick a pin anywhere on the list and you will identify a topic that must be considered when trying to figure out just what the hell time is. For Professor Callender, take my word for it, he has thought long and hard about each of these things. Remember though, that this book is just an introduction and there is a much more that has been written about everything in this book. Seek and ye shall find!

Like any good scientist or philosopher, Dr. Callender begins his second book, Why is Time Special? by defining a rather huge problem that we need to figure out i.e., the problem of time. And like any good writer (or Zen master), before we get started, Craig immediately tweaks our nose to get our attention. He tells us: “Time is a big invisible thing that will kill you. For that reason alone, one might be curious about what it is.” Let’s face it, Craig’s not wrong.

In the end, time will lead to the death and destruction of every living and non-living thing on every planet, in every galaxy, and eventually lead to the end of the universe itself.  And yet, we don’t quite know what time is and relatively few people, other than some scientists and philosophers, even care to look into it. Personally, I think Craig understates this fact wonderfully and intentionally. I can’t help but wonder why there aren’t small armies of scientists and philosophers across the world trying to get time figured out? In my opinion, understanding time is equivalent in importance to understanding consciousness. They are important because these two things, time and consciousness, literally affect everything we do, everything we are, and everything we will ever become. I feel that I owe it to myself to learn something about these two things before I die. Don’t you?

I’m not a physicist, nor do I play one on TV. As a layman science reader and armchair philosopher, I am resigned to accepting as fact the experimental results that scientists have accumulated to date about the physics of time, much of which, Craig discusses in his books. However, where I can elucidate and share a useful philosophical and/or scientific concept regarding time through a helpful example discovered by my research and reading, I will do so with my blog and humbly attempt to apply the same type of rigor and care that Professor Callender exemplifies in his work.

For everything above, I am happy to add Craig to my list of Time Lords!

Welcome, Professor Callender!

Let us know what you think…

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Author

Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.