Freya Mathews lists four metaphysical anomalies in Panpsychism as Paradigm http://www.freyamathews.net/downloads/PanpsychismParadigm.pdf. The fourth is the temporal origin of the universe.

On pages 10-11, she discusses “temporal indeterminacy” in contrast to the “current orthodoxy amongst physicists” where “time itself originated at a certain point”. It seems this temporal indeterminacy is possible because “no periodic processes were yet occurring” after the universe began. She claims it is “impossible to impose a measure of time, even retrospectively, on this period”.

My question is why not? If change is occurring, even though it is not yet periodic, why can one not have a “fully temporally determinate universe” at the very beginning of the universe?

Edit (12/13/2017): Here is what I think an answer would look like, but I don’t know what I am missing.

Change, rather than periodic change, is what I think allows a “fully temporally determinate universe”. If one needs, in addition to change, periodic change, what is the periodic change today that allows a fully temporally determinate universe to exist? The changes that I see today that appear to be periodic deviate somewhat from exact periodicity such as the Earth’s orbit around the Sun or the Sun around the galaxy, but perhaps there are such periodic changes occurring that I am unaware of. If it is not possible to impose a measure of time, even retrospectively, on the universe from the start of the big bang, is it even possible to do so today? Perhaps the required periodicity need not be exact? How much deviation from periodicity is allowed to have a “fully temporally determinate universe”?

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    I think that the question is how Big Bang models measure time in the early moments of the universe, and is better suited for physics SE. Mathews confuses this issue with the Hartle-Hawking atemporal emergence proposal, but "time itself originated at a certain point, a point that is now measured by how long ago it was in the past" is a misstatement of it common among pop-science writers, see On the Emergence of Time in Quantum Gravity, p.59.
    – Conifold
    Dec 11, 2017 at 21:49
  • The Butterfield article looks interesting. Mathews' temporal indeterminacy does remind me of Hartle-Hawking's except theirs occurs in the Planck epoch which is measured using a "temporarily determinate" fraction of a second. It is not easy for me to see why she is not correct without understanding her position better. Given her global panpsychism and a self-creating universe does what she claim about temporal indeterminacy follow? I don't think so, but I don't see why. Dec 12, 2017 at 4:23
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    Since she talks of “current orthodoxy amongst physicists” it is their position that matters. And Hartle-Hawking's emergence does not "occur" in the Planck epoch, or ever, this is just a popular redux. It is "no-boundary", as Butterfield and Isham put it, "there is no temporal relation between the two halves". There is no "“time itself originated at a certain point”, marking emergence on the time axis is nonsensical. The simplistic language Mathews uses is just not up to the task of discussing issues she wishes to discuss.
    – Conifold
    Dec 12, 2017 at 5:05
  • @Conifold Both Mathews and Hartle and Hawking have to explain a self-started beginning. Mathews attempts to do this by going through panpsychism, however, I don't think this helps. They both sound simplistic to me, essentially claiming what they want to show. Mathews opens herself up to criticism by providing an explanation for the temporal indeterminacy claiming it is caused by not having "periodic processes". Why does the existence of periodic processes matter for temporal determinacy? Dec 12, 2017 at 19:43
  • My understanding of Hartle-Hawking, at least on Butterfield-Isham's reading, is that there is no beginning, self-started or otherwise, emergence is not a process in time. We have two levels, more fundamental (superposition of Euclidean manifolds) and emergent (spacetime). The latter can be mathematically arranged into a manifold with projected singularity, but that is an artifact of the arrangement. Foundational questions have to be asked in the fundamental language, and "how time began" is not among them because "time" is a loose approximation at best only useful for limited purposes.
    – Conifold
    Dec 12, 2017 at 22:07

1 Answer 1


Given the sheer complexity of modern physics and the amount of energy being spent in refining it, I'm always suspicious of books that use phrases like 'in contrast to the current orthodoxy among physicists' as that orthodoxy represents a great number of productive and refining man-hours that (so far in my reading) is not matched by the author making such claims.

Another example that I often come across is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, where many pages of text are devoted to the idea that if 'the act of observation affects the outcome' that we have the ability to change our universe with thought alone. This is a clear lack of understanding of what the principle is actually saying.

A simple thought experiment; You're playing billiards in a well lit room, and you sink a red ball. You know this because you can see it. You can see it because the room is bathed in photons, which bounce off the ball and reach your retinas. Do these photons affect the movement of the ball? Yes, but the difference is so slight that it can be safely discounted.

But, turn the lights out. Can you see the red ball sink? No. But, if you have some very small ball bearings, you can flick them along the table and listen out for them impacting the ball as it travels. Does this affect the movement of the red ball? Yes, and more than the photon, but also negligible if the ball bearing is light enough and travelling slowly enough.

What if all you have is other red balls? That's definitely going to change the path of the red ball being observed.

In this case, we're increasing the size of the particle used for the observation. In reality, we're decreasing the size of the particle being observed, but the effect is the same because Heisenberg's principle really boils down to 2 things;

1) All observation is really just particles colliding with each other
2) The closer in size proportionally, the more of an impact the observing particle will have on the trajectory or nature of the particle being observed.

The point I'm trying to make with this example is that science already does a lot of self-checking. While scientists often use a short-hand of understanding like 'the act of observation impacts the outcome' this phrase has a very specific and deeply understood application. Where science often fails is in explaining the nuances and specificity of such phrases to the general public, who then in turn interpret them via a more common semantic context. As @Conifold explains in his comment, this has happened here as well.

In this instance; all we can say for sure is that if the universe does follow a classical deterministic model on a temporal path, then there is a point at the very beginning of the universe where all our understanding of spacetime simply breaks down and we don't currently have sufficient understanding of what happened before that point, or even if there was a point 'before' that first point where the universe is in a configuration we can understand with modern science. Mathews puts forward a 'theory'. I look forward to any convincing proof either way on the subject through conventional scientific methods.

  • I think what Mathews is referring to is not a point before the first point, but points after the beginning. Rather than referring to them as the first minutes after the Big Bang, she is claiming this time period is indeterminate. This seems to come from a global form of panpsychism where the universe is self-creating. However, I am not following how this temporal indeterminacy is necessary. Dec 12, 2017 at 3:44
  • @FrankHubeny; I agree with what you're saying here, but I can only really see that the temporal indeterminacy is of value if you're trying to extend yourself back before the beginning. It's true that I don't see any reference there to such an approach, but the idea that the universe is self-creating seems to assume some knowledge of the points before the beginning. What worries me about this approach generally is that it's not too far from the introduction of some form of meta-time which needlessly complicates our current understanding of spacetime.
    – Tim B II
    Dec 12, 2017 at 3:50
  • I think her point would be that there was no beginning to the universe. What we might measure as four minutes after the big bang could just as easily be measured as infinity because there were no periodic processes occurring. The real beginning of time would be when periodic processes began indeterminately after the Big Bang. But I don't see how this helps matters. There is still a beginning that needs explaining. Dec 12, 2017 at 4:37
  • Agreed. The idea that time can be gently brought into existence through an emergent universe doesn't solve the problem of there being a definable 'beginning'.
    – Tim B II
    Dec 12, 2017 at 5:45
  • A complication may be that although time may not have a beginning it may be reducible, such that it is possible to speak of the realm outside time or 'timelessness' but not 'before' or 'after' the beginning of it. This would be the position of those who claim the metaphysical unreality of time.
    – user20253
    Dec 12, 2017 at 13:41

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