“The Order of Time” by Carlo Rovelli

Reading “The Order of Time” by Carlo Rovelli has been a great pleasure. Rovelli presents his ideas on time by drawing on the thermodynamic quantity of entropy, Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics. In a world where there are as many times as there are points in space, where it is impossible to define an absolute present due to special relativity and where time has quantum properties Rovelli puts forward a conception of time where the past, present and future are intertwined.

It is fascinating to see how many of the ideas emerging from Rovelli’s understanding of time resonate with our work on process ontologies.

For instance, according to Rovelli there are no things but only events. Things persist in time whereas events simply happen. Rovelli argues that our world is a world of events. Things are just events that are for a moment monotonous. This counts for things like particles and electrons just as it does for cars or stones. Time, according to Rovelli, is something inherent to an event and not something independent of it. In other words, time should not be conceived of as a container within which events happen, like our familiar newtonian understanding of time. Rather, time exists because of an ordered unfolding of events from the particular perspective of an observer. To introduce this ordering Rovelli refers to the notion of “blurring”. The blurring is a property of the perspective of an observer that enables an ordered observation. Events require an observer to exist and it is by drawing on quantum indeterminacy that he makes this point. What is more, even the particular order of an interaction matters to the event. Here, Rovelli gives the example of the state of an electron being different depending on whether one measures first its speed or its position. As if this was not fascinating enough Rovelli puts forward the idea that time itself, just like electrons, has quantum properties. This means, in the end, that time behaves just like a particle and will become determinate only for that with which it interacts but indeterminate for the rest of the world.

Many process ontological ideas connect to this. Consider, for instance the process ontological conception of the event which is taken to be the most fundamental ontological unit. Furthermore, according to the process ontological stance, it is also the case that the event requires an “observer” to exist. This is because an event is a unit of experience (but as explained below this does not mean that it is purely subjective and thus not “real”). To be more precise, it is the experience of interactions culminating into a particular experience, an experience that can be distinguished as a unit of experience (see also our work “The Event: a process ontological concept to understand emerging phenomena”, which is currently under review). The event exists only as a unit of experience and thus requires someone or something that can experience (“experience” is to be understood in its most general meaning and encompasses mental, sensory, conscious or unconscious experience). From a process perspective, time is thus also not ordered according to a sequential line, flowing from past to present to future. Rather, the past and the future are present as a bloc. This is because anticipation and memories, associated traditionally to the future and the past, are simply experiences. And as such experiences of time are real to a particular observer (i.e. determinate) whenever and wherever they happen, but not necessarily to everyone else (where they remain indeterminate).

Rovelli argues that the dynamics of the unfolding of an event are probabilistic, whereas the process perspective reasons more in terms of possibility spaces where rhizomatic dynamics operate and continuously reconfigure the possibility space. We feel that these two understandings are not incompatible with each other but in principle complementary, in that for example possibility spaces set boundaries for probabilistic dynamics. In any case it would certainly be interesting to explore how (and to what extent) rhizomatic and probabilistic dynamics relate to each other.

Another thrilling point of contact between Rovelli’s work and our process work is related to the key notion of blurring. Rovelli explains that the ordered unfolding of an event is intimately tied to the phenomena of blurring. He takes blurring to be the property of the perspective of an observer. He introduces this idea by giving the example of a pack of cards where every configuration of cards symbolizes a different blurring. We feel that process philosophy has a rich body of concepts to elaborate on this idea. It is, for instance, tempting to associate this idea to process concepts, such as a Deleuzian perspectivism or to what Didier Debaise, a reader of Whitehead, refers to as the perspective of centers of experience. These latter are manifold, and are not confined to the human realm, not even the animate one, but go all the way down, in line with the broad definition of experience presented above. The centers of experience are thus radically different and alongside with it, have radically different conditions of experience.

Yet, Rovelli insists that none of this means that time is a subjective concept and this is because it depends on actual, ordered physical interaction enabled by the blurring.  It is interesting to see how this resonates with the type of ontological realism we argue for. As said above, events are experiences of interactions that require an observer to exist. But also from a process ontological point of view this does not make them subjective, or not “real”. In other words, our process perspective is not a relativist or subjectivist one. As Gilles Deleuze puts it, the idea that an event exists only for an observer does not amount to “a variation of truth according to the subject [relativism], but [to] the condition in which the truth of a variation appears to the subject [perspectivism]” (from “The Fold” by Gilles Deleuze). This means that what interactions can be experienced as events depends on the conditions that come along with a perspective (e.g. a particular history, a particular position etc.). It is these conditions which vary. But that does not change the fact that the actual experience of interactions is as real as can be. See also our recent paper “Towards a process epistemology for the analysis of social-ecological systems” forthcoming in Environmental Values, available at http://www.whpress.co.uk/EV/papers/1793-Mancilla%20Garcia.pdf .

Rovelli goes as far as saying that without blurring, the difference between past, present and future would fully disappear, and with it key concepts such as cause and effect. How can we think about a world without blurring? I believe that process ontologies have concepts or tools to think about such a world, such as “pure experience” (William James) or a “plane of immanence” (Gilles Deleuze).  But then, what do we gain from thinking about a world without blurring? Well, for example it does lay the foundation for conceptualizing genuine novelty, that is, for a type of novelty to emerge that does not need to be explained in terms of and reduced to the interaction, organization or combination of pre-existing, immutable substances or essences, as some influential philosophical worldviews would have it.

It may come as no surprise that many of these ideas connect given that they emerged roughly around the same time, that is, by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Also, we are very well aware of the tentative and speculative character of many of the connections sketched out above, but we believe them to be worth exploring because it is great and fascinating to fully articulate these connections, see threads connect and mutually enrich one another. What is it that we end up with? Some thoughts about a cosmology for a quantum world? Experimental evidence for a process view? Simply an exploration, ideas that may enrich each other? All of it! And we are looking forward to further work on these, so please do get in touch with Tilman Hertz (tilman.hertz@su.se), Maria Mancilla Garcia (maria.mgarcia@su.se ) or Maja Schlüter (maja.schlueter@su.se ) in case you are interested!