Eddington 1927: Our Dual Recognition of Time


This paper presents Chapter V (section 4) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Our Dual Recognition of Time

Another curiosity which strikes us is the divorce in physics between time and time’s arrow. A being from another world who wishes to discover the temporal relation of two events in this world has to read two different indicators. He must read a clock in order to find out how much later one event is than the other, and he must read some arrangement for measuring the disorganisation of energy (e.g. a thermometer) in order to discover which event is the later. (To make the test strictly from another world he must not assume that the figures marked on the clock-dial necessarily go the right way round; nor must he assume that the progress of his consciousness has any relation to the flow of time in our world. He has, therefore, merely two dial-readings for the two events without knowing whether the difference should be reckoned plus or minus. The thermometer would be used in conjunction with a hot and cold body in contact. The difference of the thermometer readings for the two bodies would be taken at the moment of each event. The event for which the difference is smaller is the later.) The division of labour is especially striking when we remember that our best clocks are those in which all processes such as friction, which introduce disorganisation of energy, are eliminated as far as possible. The more perfect the instrument as a measurer of time, the more completely does it conceal time’s arrow.

The level of quantization of substance determines its duration and thus, its time characteristics. The temporal relation between two objects shall then be determined by the difference between their levels of quantization.

Time’s arrow provides the direction of the sequence in which changes take place. The temporal relation between two objects shall then also be determined their relative position in the sequence of changes.

This paradox seems to be explained by the fact pointed out in chapter III that time comes into our consciousness by two routes. We picture the mind like an editor in his sanctum receiving through the nerves scrappy messages from all over the outside world, and making a story of them with, I fear, a good deal of editorial invention. Like other physical quantities time enters in that way as a particular measurable relation between events in the outside world; but it comes in without its arrow. In addition our editor himself experiences a time in his consciousness—the temporal relation along his own track through the world. This experience is immediate, not a message from outside, but the editor realises that what he is experiencing is equivalent to the time described in the messages. Now consciousness declares that this private time possesses an arrow, and so gives a hint to search further for the missing arrow among the messages. The curious thing is that, although the arrow is ultimately found among the messages from outside, it is not found in the messages from clocks, but in messages from thermometers and the like instruments which do not ordinarily pretend to measure time.

The paradox arises because Eddington is determining time through physical means and also directly through mental intuition. How these two methods relate to each other is not described.

Consciousness, besides detecting time’s arrow, also roughly measures the passage of time. It has the right idea of time-measurement, but is a bit of a bungler in carrying it out. Our consciousness somehow manages to keep in close touch with the material world, and we must suppose that its record of the flight of time is the reading of some kind of a clock in the material of the brain—possibly a clock which is a rather bad timekeeper. I have generally had in mind in this connection an analogy with the clocks of physics designed for good time-keeping; but I am now inclined to think that a better analogy would be an entropy-clock, i.e. an instrument designed primarily for measuring the rate of disorganisation of energy, and only very roughly keeping pace with time.

Consciousness has not been described here scientifically. Also, the assumption that time can be measured by disorganization of energy, is unverified.

A typical entropy-clock might be designed as follows. An electric circuit is composed of two different metals with their two junctions embedded respectively in a hot and cold body in contact. The circuit contains a galvanometer which constitutes the dial of the entropy-clock. The thermoelectric current in the circuit is proportional to the difference of temperature of the two bodies; so that as the shuffling of energy between them proceeds, the temperature difference decreases and the galvanometer reading continually decreases. This clock will infallibly tell an observer from another world which of two events is the later. We have seen that no ordinary clock can do this. As to its time-keeping qualities we can only say that the motion of the galvanometer needle has some connection with the rate of passage of time—which is perhaps as much as can be said for the time-keeping qualities of consciousness.

It seems to me, therefore, that consciousness with its insistence on time’s arrow and its rather erratic ideas of time measurement may be guided by entropy-clocks in some portion of the brain. That avoids the unnatural assumption that we consult two different cells of the material brain in forming our ideas of duration and of becoming, respectively. Entropy-gradient is then the direct equivalent of the time of consciousness in both its aspects. Duration measured by physical clocks (time-like interval) is only remotely connected.

When entropy is increasing, the system is moving toward equilibrium. This means that the system is moving toward more settled organization, or increased quantization. Therefore, we may determine time by the level of quantization; and time’s arrow by the direction of increasing quantization.

Let us try to clear up our ideas of time by a summary of the position now reached. Firstly, physical time is a system of partitions in the four-dimensional world (world-wide instants). These are artificial and relative and by no means correspond to anything indicated to us by the time of consciousness. Secondly, we recognise in the relativity theory something called a temporal relation which is absolutely distinct from a spatial relation. One consequence of this distinction is that the mind attached to a material body can only traverse a temporal relation; so that, even if there is no closer connection, there is at least a one-to-one correspondence between the sequence of phases of the mind and a sequence of points in temporal relation. Since the mind interprets its own sequence as a time of consciousness, we can at least say that the temporal relation in physics has a connection with the time of consciousness which the spatial relation does not possess. I doubt if the connection is any closer. I do not think the mental sequence is a “reading off” of the physical temporal relation, because in physics the temporal relation is arrowless. I think it is a reading off of the physical entropy-gradient, since this has the necessary arrow. Temporal relation and entropy-gradient, both rigorously defined in physics, are entirely distinct and in general are not numerically related. But, of course, other things besides time can “keep time”; and there is no reason why the generation of the random element in a special locality of the brain should not proceed fairly uniformly. In that case there will not be too great a divergence between the passage of time in consciousness and the length of the corresponding temporal relation in the physical world.

The “four-dimensional world of space-time” actually provides the substantialness, or quantization, of the substance on an absolute (not relative) basis. Once we figure out the method to measure quantization, we can then determine both time and time’s arrow easily.


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