Do We Need a Physics of ‘Passage’?

10 — 14 December, 2012 :: Vineyard Hotel & Spa, Capetown, South Africa

Current list of participants (*=provisional)

Philosophers: David Albert, Christophe Bouton, David Braddon-Mitchell, Jeremy Butterfield, Christoph Hoerl, *Luciano Floridi, Rick Grush, Nick Huggett, Kristie Miller, Wayne Myrvold, Huw Price, Dean Rickles, Don Ross, Jos Uffink.

Edward Anderson, Fay Dowker, Avshalom Elitzur, George Ellis, Daniele Oriti, Carlo Rovelli, Rafael Sorkin.

Psychologists & linguists:
Alex Holcombe, Teresa McCormack, Kia Nobre, Chris Sinha.


The final program (now with abstracts) is available here.


Twentieth century physics is often thought to have established that there is no distinction between past, present and future, no flow of time, and no fundamental direction of time. This viewpoint — the Block Universe, as it is sometimes called — is reflected in remarks such as the following:

We physicists know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. (Einstein)

The objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling upward along the world-line of my body, does a section of the world come to life as a fleeting image in space which continuously changes in time. (Weyl)

For the universe, the two directions of time are indistinguishable, just as in space there is no up and down. (Boltzmann)

However, the Block Universe view is under challenge from within physics, from theorists such as George Ellis, Lee Smolin and Chris Fuchs, who believe that in leaving out these elements, physics is missing something essential.

Thus there is a disagreement within physics about the proper aims of physics, in the case of the study of time. We believe that this is a clear case in which in order the resolve the disagreement within physics, we need to step back from physics and consider the question of 'what belongs where' in the study of time from a broader interdisciplinary perspective—informed, among other things, by expertise from the psychology of temporal perception and from the metaphysics of time.

The human experience of time has long been held to provide the strongest evidence that the passage of time is objectively real, and therefore the kind of thing that should be studied by physics. Thus Eddington (1927), for example, concluded that "consciousness, looking out through a private door, can learn by direct insight an underlying character of the world which physical measurements do not betray." Similarly, resistance on the part of some philosophers to the Block Universe model is often motivated by salient characteristics of experience. It is argued that time seems to pass and the present feels qualitatively very different from the past and the future.

However, phenomenology may not be a direct reflection of reality. Diverse evidence indicates that experience arises from the workings of the brain. As a biologically evolved product, the brain has adaptive representations of reality, which are usually simplifications and often profoundly distorted, as in the case of visual illusions. Illusions provide clues to the underlying representations and mechanisms involved. In the last few decades, psychological and neuroscientific research has revealed more and more temporal illusions. These illusions can do much to undermine otherwise-strong feelings about the correspondence between subjective and objective time.

This conference aims bring this knowledge from psychology together with philosophy and physics, in the form of experts from all sides. We will focus on the question Do We Need a Physics of 'Passage'?, aiming to clarify the arguments on both sides of the case, and to reach as much agreement as possible on an agenda for settling the issue, one way or the other.

We want to do as much as we can to answer questions, not merely to raise and discuss them. We want to move the whole debate forward. What that progress needs, we believe, is clarity about the issues, and access to expertise from all the disciplines that turn out to be relevant, in the light of that insight. Our goal is to assemble that expertise, and give it the kind of agenda that makes progress possible.

Organisation &  sponsorship

This conference is generously supported by the John Templeton Foundation, as part of the project New Agendas for the Study of Time. It is organised by Alex Holcombe, Kristie Miller, Huw Price and Dean Rickles of the Centre for Time, University of Sydney, in conjunction with Professor George Ellis, University of Capetown.

Updated 06.12.12