Philosophy of Time and Time Travel

by Abbey Cahill | 4/5/16 5:21pm

Philosophy professor James Binkoski looks like he should be on a college brochure. He’s well-dressed, his face is a little ruddy from the cold, and he sports a rugged New Hampshirite beard. He’s the kind of professor who looks like he would be against maintaining a Canvas page, but he’s not.

Binkoski teaches “Philosophy of Time and Time Travel,” which he taught for the first time last spring. It was so popular that this year the philosophy department decided to add a second section. The class compares our everyday notion of time with the notion of time that we get from modern physics. It draws students from all areas of campus — everyone from engineers to film buffs, from computer science majors to creative writers.

“It’s a class that attracts a wide range of people,” Binkoski said.

I attended his 11 section of the class last Wednesday. The night before, the class had read an article by the idealist metaphysician J.M.E McTaggart, their job was to identify the author’s main claim.

A girl in the back of the class raised her hand. “Time is unreal,” she said.

“It’s a staggering claim,” Binkoski agreed. “Either it’s true, or it’s not. And our job is to figure it out.”

Binkoski knows that the topic of time is abstract and elusive, but he emphasized that it is crucial to focus on tangible work and rigorous analysis, as opposed to solely ruminating on the big what-if questions.

“It’s easy to just spout out quasi-mind blowing things, to say things like, ‘What if time is unreal?’ and then drop the microphone,” Binkoski said, laughing. “In a class like this, we want to get beyond that as quickly as possible.”

Most of the students enrolled haven’t taken a philosophy class before, so Binkoski starts with the basics. I sat next to Moises Silva ’16 , an engineering major with a love for physics. The students were paired off to determine the validity of a few arguments. Silva read the first argument:

Premise one: If the moon is made of cheese, then the moon is edible.

Premise two: The moon is made of cheese.

Conclusion: Therefore, the moon is edible.

It’s valid because if the two premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Binkoski agrees that in terms of logic, the argument is impeccable. But it’s obviously unsound, because the second premise is false.

Initially, a little bit of the magic faded away for me. Can we really discuss time and time travel in such a logical way? What about the delightful scariness of space, the vastness of time, the confusion of the unknown? How can we talk about it in such objective terms? Maybe I’d rather not unpack it in standard form, break it into premises and demystify it. Maybe I just like being dramatic. Or I’m simply uninformed.

I asked Binkoski, what’s the point? The goal, he said, is to get at the truth. The physical world that we inhabit is structured in some way or the other, and the ultimate objective is to illuminate that structure, through physics and philosophy.

“So as a philosopher, if you want to study the fundamental structure of reality, then physics is the place to look,” Binkoski said. “And that, for me, is why the philosophy of physics is such an exciting area.”

Binkoski had never heard of the field until graduate school. As an undergraduate at Boston College, Binkoski studied math. But through the college’s four-year honors program, he gained a lot of exposure to philosophy. He still remembers reading Descartes as a sophomore and pausing over every single sentence.

“I didn’t want to read on until I understood how the sentence that I was reading followed from everything that had come before,” Binkoski recalled. “It was like working through a mathematical proof.”

When he went to graduate school, he started working in the philosophy of physics — and the rest is history.

The class represents the quintessential liberal arts experience. In lieu of a final paper, Binkoski gives students the option of doing a final project. I talked to David Bain ’17 , who went for the alternative option, choosing to build a computerized model of Minkowski spacetime.

Both Bain and Binkoski had to explain to me what spacetime is, in the simplest terms possible. In spacetime, I learned, time is “just another dimension.” Spacetime is static, four-dimensional and continuous.

“In spacetime, you have the entire history of the world laid out in front of you; everything from the Big Bang to the final crunch,” Binkoski explained. “Dinosaurs, iPhones, Martian outposts — they’re all located in spacetime, all equally real, all on an equal footing.”

This raises questions for both philosophers and physicists. Some of our best physics theories are spacetime theories, but the notion that the past, present and future are equally real is in tension with our everyday notion of time. It makes us question our sense of the passage of time and the seemingly absolute distinction between the past, present and future.

Megan Mishra ’17 was impressed by how the class made her question her own deep-seated beliefs about time. When the course began, she doubted that time travel was even remotely feasible. Yet she was surprised to find herself referencing experiments and doing calculations that showed time travel to the future was theoretically possible.

“The class taught me to question widely-accepted beliefs,” Mishra recalled. “Especially those related to time and time travel.”

Bain was interested in questioning traditional ideas about movement and its relationship to time. Under the theory of relativity, he explained, relative speeds can affect time. So, if I see an object move very fast past me, time is faster for me and slower for the object. This phenomenon is called time dilation. So, if you somehow flew around the earth at the speed of light for a year, you’d come back and everyone you know would be older. Time moves slower when you move faster.

I found this interesting from a physics perspective, but also interesting from a philosophical perspective. If all motion in the universe is relative, how can you detect what is truly at rest and what is actually moving? It reminds me of that disconcerting feeling when you’re sitting in a bus or car and the vehicle next to you moves forward, making you feel like you’re moving backward.

Binkoski loves the class because he believes that there is an intrinsic human interest in time. You can find references to time everywhere, in short stories, movies, poems or art.

“Time is so elemental and so central to our experience of the world,” Binkoski said.

But we often don’t bother to think about it, to ask those questions and to seek answers. The philosophy of time is a problem-solving class focused on reading, experimenting, calculating and arguing in a structured manner. The class combines the everyday with the extraordinary, the fundamental with the cutting-edge — and therein lies the magic.