What, you might ask, does many worlds theory have to do with literary history? One is science while the other is, well, humanities I guess. And ne’er the twain shall meet.
Well, that was the 19th and 20th centuries. We’re living in a new world. And I’m just thinking out loud here, making stuff up.
Most of my long-form posts have an element of trying to figure out what I think about a topic. As such I’m not much concerned about the existing literature on the subject. I’ll worry about that if and when I decide to pursue formal (academic) publishing.
This post will be even more so, almost pure thinking out loud. It’s about time, the issues raised by Jockers’ study of literary influence (Macroanalysis, chapter 9), which I’ve reinterpreted as being about the cultural evolution of the 19th century novel and that that evolution has a direction.
As happens every so often, when I started on this post I figured it would take me three or four morning hours. But it just grew and grew. I don’t know how many hours I’ve put in, but I’ve had to spread those hours over four days or so in order to think things thru. And still, it’s very speculative. I start out be reprising Jockers’ account of influence in the 19th century novel and then move onto time. And that – inevitably in retrospect – leads reductionism. That’s what I’ve learned in writing this post, that the questions of temporality and reductionism are intertwined. That culture cannot be reduced to biology, nor biology to chemistry and physics, is about how objects and processes unfold in time. It’s about patterns in time.
Cultural Evolution in 19th Century Novels
As you may recall, at the end of Macroanalysis Jockers argued that, if author A influences author B, then the texts B writes will be like those written by A. So, to study influence in the corpus we’ve got to make a massive comparison among all the texts and list only those pairs that are very much like one another. To that end Jockers measured some 600 characteristics of each novel in a corpus of over 3000 19th century American and British novels. He then calculated the Euclidean distance between these texts in that high-dimensional space.
To visualize those measurements Jockers created a graph in which each node was a text and the length of each edge was proportional to the degree of similarity between the two texts connected by the edge. When Jockers visualized the graph, he got the above image. The left to right ordering of nodes in that graph is roughly chronological.
How did that happen? Jockers’ database didn’t contain any temporal data, no publication dates, about those texts, but the order he found by looking for similarity/influence was also temporal. To some degree that’s inevitable. Text A cannot influence Text B unless it pre-exists it. But why should later texts resemble earlier ones at all? And why should the degree of similarity be roughly proportional to the temporal distance between the texts?
It is not too difficult to suggest answers to those questions, and to state those answers in terms of the psycho-social process through which texts arise: Texts are written by authors; people read texts; authors write texts like the texts they like to read – they don’t have to do this, but they do, why? – and this happens year after year. The directional ordering of those texts is an indicator of the nature of the socio-cultural process that produced them.
I thus – and here we leap – find myself thinking about an old distinction, between “clock time” (calendar dates) and “real time” (the psycho-cultural ordering of those texts). That’s what I want to think about first.
“Clock Time” and “Real Time”
What makes things tricky is that I’ve come to believe that “clock time” is something of an illusion. It’s shorthand we can use for all sorts of practical purposes, but when thinking ontologically, clock time doesn’t exist. When thinking ontologically, I’m with Tim Morton: “Viscosity is a feature of the way in which time emanates from objects, rather than being a continuum in which they float” (Hyperobjects, p. 33).
What does this mean: “time emanates from objects”? In this case, the objects in question are not the physical texts whose marks have been transcribed into Jockers’ database, the texts anchored to an origin point in “calendar” time. The objects are the many minds that have read and (the somewhat fewer minds that have) written those texts. The collectivity of those minds is what Jockers’ is representing in that figure. Time has emerged as the dimension of similarity between texts. And that similarity inheres in the socio-cultural processes operating in 19th century America and Britain.
The position that Morton has taken on time, and that I am taking as well, has roots in Aristotle – here I’m quoting from the article, Time, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, though in the spirit of thinking aloud I’ve not read the whole article with focused attention:
Aristotle and others (including, especially, Leibniz) have argued that time does not exist independently of the events that occur in time. This view is typically called either “Reductionism with Respect to Time” or “Relationism with Respect to Time,” since according to this view, all talk that appears to be about time can somehow be reduced to talk about temporal relations among things and events.
That’s time as it exists in the process of reading and writing novels in the 19th century.
The opposing view is time as we use it to place publication dates on texts:
The opposing view, normally referred to either as “Platonism with Respect to Time” or as “Substantivalism with Respect to Time” or as “Absolutism with Respect to Time,” has been defended by Plato, Newton, and others. On this view, time is like an empty container into which things and events may be placed; but it is a container that exists independently of what (if anything) is placed in it.
That last sentence tells you why I’ve tossed Morton in with Aristotle and the reductionists. He quite explicitly denies that time “is a container that exists independently of what (if anything) is placed in it.” Ergo, he must be a reductionist and a relationalist?
You’ve got to be kidding! As an object oriented ontologist Morton’ll have truck with neither relations nor reduction. But perhaps there is a difference between attempting to reduce one order of objects to another and reducing time to relations among objects?
Perhaps so. But I don’t want to get hung up on these terms, at least not just yet. My basic point is simple: the distinction between “clock time” and “real time” corresponds to a traditional philosophical distinction. But, as I now read that distinction, clock time turns out to a fiction.
Why would I think that?
Setting the history of temporal philosophy aside, as I see it, the problem of clock time arose late in the 19th century and early 20th century through problems of measurement. Clock time was fine and dandy as long as physicists could proceed as though they had a transcendent relation over the world they were measuring with their instruments. In the situations of classical physics one of course had to take care that one’s instruments were well adjusted. And one had to allow for measurement error, as the instruments are physical devices and so not perfect. Still, to a first approximation, one can think of these clocks as existing outside of the universe being clocked.
This transcendence collapsed when physicists began measuring the speed of light and behavior of subatomic particles. From those problematics we have relativity on the one hand and quantum mechanics on the other. In neither case can the experimentalist pretend that he and his instruments are outside the universe of interest. No, those clocks are parts of the universe they’re being used to measure and the activities of the experimentalists are actions IN that same universe.
We’re in this together.
But what, you ask, has this to do with novels and the people who read them. That’s physics. It’s different.
Yes, it’s different. But it’s the same world nonetheless. And I’m thinking there’s an interesting connection here. Yes, we can use the fiction of clock time to deal with the publication dates of those books. But it’s not the physical texts we’re interested in. It’s the minds reading the ideas and feelings into and out of those physical texts. How do we deal with them?
Non-Reduction and Temporal Orders
Let’s begin by thinking about clocks, real physical clocks. Most clocks are oscillators of one sort or another. Something goes back and forth at regular intervals. We measure a stretch of time by counting the number of such intervals – call them ticks – that occur during the interval.
Oscillators can do interesting things, the most interesting of which – at least for our present purposes – is that they can couple with one another, a phenomenon discovered back in the 17th century by the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens, who invented the pendulum clock—the pendulum being a prime example of an oscillator. One day Huygens saw that the pendulums of two clocks on the same wall were swinging in perfect synchrony. He disturbed one of them so that the synchrony dissolved, but it returned within half an hour. After a bit of experimentation he concluded that the clocks were affected by the vibrations each transmitted to the wall behind them. These vibrations led them to synchronize their periods and thereby minimize their collective energy expenditure.
Fireflies do this as well. Southeast Asia, for example, fireflies gather in large groups on river banks, flashing on and off in unison to signal their availability to females. When they begin gathering around sunset their flashings are uncoordinated. But, as dusk darkens into night, regions of synchronized flashing emerge and spread until whole trees are cloaked in fireflies flashing in synchrony.
In my book, Beethoven’s Anvil (from which the previous two paragraphs are lifted), I spend a great deal of time with coupled oscillation and there are a good many posts here at New Savanna on coupling. We know that when people converse, for example, that their rhythms are highly coordinated; they’re coupled. I’ve argued, in fact, that such coupling is the core phenomenon of specifically human sociality (the basic argument is in chapters two and tree of Beethoven’s Anvil, which you can download here).
Now, here’s the interesting thing: What happens if, at some point, a brain enters a state it had had before? (See this post, Time and Again, the Curse of the Linearizing Amulets). Doesn’t that imply that, in some sense, the mind has looped back in time? – Yes, I know, I started out talking about the brain and now I’m talking about the mind. That’s deliberate, an issue I dealt with in Beethoven's Anvil, Chapter 3, p. 53. – The brain may be physically different in many microscopic ways, but if the overall state is much the same, then it will be as though time had stopped at that one moment – we’re now living the Harold Ramis film, Groundhog Day. By the calendar, by the clock if you will, we’re talking about two different experiences at two different times. But subjectively – and that’s what’s real here – subjectively we’re in the same moment. It’s only an external observer who can notice the two different occurrences. From the inside, it’s one.
If you wish for a more august point of reference, consider this passage where the late Wayne Booth describes going to a concert with his wife four months after his son’s death (For the Love of It, pp. 195-196):
Leaving the rest of the audience aside for a moment, there were three of us there: Beethoven... the quartet members counting as one....Phyllis and me, also counting only as one whenever we really listened ...Now then: there that “one” was, but where was “there”? The C-sharp minor part of each of us was fusing in a mysterious way....[contrasting] so sharply with what many people think of as “reality.” A part of each of the “three” ... becomes identical.
There is Beethoven, one hundred and forty-three years ago ... writing away at the marvelous theme and variations in the fourth movement. ... Here is the four-players doing the best it can to make the revolutionary welding possible. And here we am, doing the best we can to turn our “self” totally into it: all of us impersonally slogging away (these tears about my son’s death? ignore them, irrelevant) to turn ourselves into that deathless quartet.
What do we make of his assertion that a “part” of each of them – him and his wife, the quartet, and Beethoven – “becomes identical”? Well, most easily we can say that Booth is speaking loosely, that he’s speaking metaphorically.
I’m arguing that, to the contrary, what he’s talking about may not be so metaphorical. If all of their brain states are tightly coupled to the patterns of that Beethoven quartet, then they have entered the same being. They are, in the moment, the same being, a being that is thus outside time. Rather, it is outside “clock time” but in terms of the “real time” of neurodynamics, they are the same.
That Beethoven quartet is of a different order of temporality and therefore of reality from the brains and bodies that participate in it and in which it is implemented. It cannot be reduced to those brains and bodies, but cannot exist apart from them either. That is to say, it cannot exist apart from some brain-and-body, but it makes no different in which brain-and-body it is implemented at any given moment.
I realize, of course, that this is a rather strange argument I’m making here. It requires many details that I’ve not presented. You’ll find many of them in Beethoven’s Anvil, and many more in the various posts I’ve done on coupling (and some of those posts contain passages from Beethoven’s Anvil). And more argumentation and, above all, construction and composition, is needed beyond those materials.
It is no means obvious to me how that activity will pan out. I note, however, that it is an argument about culture, and how culture is implemented in human brains. And it is a line of investigation that has not yet been pursued. It would be one thing to advance such a position in the face of a deep and widespread consensus on the nature of culture and its mechanisms.
No such consensus exists. Biologists agree on evolution in the large, though many details are in dispute. Students of human culture have no comparable theory or model on which all agree. The nature of culture is very much up for grabs. Given that context I feel it’s reasonable for me to develop this line of thinking.
The central point is about the intersection of reductionism and temporality. The interesting thing about living beings, whether they be the simplest of single-celled organisms or the most elaborate and complex of multi-celled plants and animals, is that they maintain their identity over time even as there is considerable turn-over in the atoms and molecules that constitute them.*
It’s like that old riddle about great-grandfather’s knife: Grandfather replaced the handle. Father replaced the blade. In what sense is it still great-grandfather’s knife? In what sense does a living cell maintain its identity through changes in the constituent molecules and atoms? [Keep in mind that at that level, one atom or molecule of a substance is indistinguishable from another atom or molecule of that substance.] In what sense does a living organism maintain its identity through turn-over in its constituent cells?
The point is that the identity of a living organism inheres in the pattern of its constituent parts, not in the individual identities of the parts themselves. And the behavior of the organism is of a different temporal order than that of its constituent parts. That’s what we mean when we say that it maintains its identity even as those parts change.
Similarly, human beings are biological beings on a par with other biological beings, whether bacteria, beetles, or non-human primates. But they also participate in cultural beings, from words through religious rituals, from methods of food preparation to styles of architecture, and from child-rearing practices to modes of government. And that’s what those 19th century novels are, cultural beings.
When Jockers set out to map the similarity relations among those novels, he was investigating the cultural order. The fact that those similarity relations map onto time is a fact about the temporal order of those cultural beings, those texts. Those cultural beings are implemented in those many brains coupled in communication as they are, but are not of them. The brains are of the order of Life, while the texts are of the order of Culture.
A Cosmos of Many Worlds
The ordering of those novels is spontaneous. No transcendent being is directing that cultural process. It simply unfolds. The directionality of the process is a measure of its internal dynamics, its inherent order. That temporality is NOT a framework in which we can observe the ordering of events. Rather it is the order itself.
If we push that view onto the universe as a whole we arrive at conception that goes like this – and here I’m taking a big leap: The universe as we know it came into existence when temporal ordering emerged from its processes. The so-called Big Bang is also the Birth of Time.
That is, the universe has always already been there. Even at the moment of its birth. There never was and never has been a time before time when there was nothing. There was always something; the universe didn’t come out of nothing. Rather, time came out of chaos, if you well, and that’s the emergence of a new kind of order in the universe. Chaos has become cosmos.
When you google “birth of time” you get a lot of hits. Near the top: The birth of time: Quantum loops describe the evolution of the Universe. Here’s a passage from the article, which appeared in Science Daily in 2010:
In the model developed by physicists from Warsaw, time emerges as the relation between the gravitational field (space) and the scalar field – a moment in time is given by the value of the scalar field. “We pose the question about the shape of space at a given value of the scalar field and Einstein's quantum equations provide the answer,” explains Prof. Lewandowski. Thus, the phenomenon of the passage of time emerges as the property of the state of the gravitational and scalar fields and the appearance of such a state corresponds to the birth of the well-known space-time. “It is worthy of note that time is nonexistent at the beginning of the model. Nothing happens. Action and dynamics appear as the interrelation between the fields when we begin to pose questions about how one object relates to another,” explains Prof. Lewandowski.
Here’s what I’m thinking. The universe as we know it has so far consisted of four phases: 1) primordial Chaos, 2) the world of inanimate Matter, 3) the world of Life, and 4) the world of Culture.
In the first phase, chaos, there is no time. Or, if you will, time and space cannot be meaningfully distinguished. That is the most primordial of primordial soups.
Something happens and WHAM! order emerges and we have a phase of inanimate matter existing in time. In my current thinking – remember that I’m just making things up off the top of my head – it is possible that such a universe might “collapse” into chaos without ever having managed to give birth to Life. That happens not to be our current universe, but I see no reason why such a thing is not possible.
Maybe that’s happened countless thousands of times – as though it makes sense to pretend we’re at a transcendental vantage point from which we can note and count the oscillations of universes to and from Chaos. One might think of this as a cyclic universe – such things have been proposed, of course – but I’m not sure what sense we can make of cyclicity when there’s no time in that primordial chaos. Perhaps it makes more sense to conceive of that chaos as a sea and the emergence of a universe as a whale breaching the surface.
Many whales breach the surface, but there’s no temporal ordering among those breachings. The ordering between them is of a kind where space and time cannot be differentiated. It’s only within a whale that we have time proper.
In one or some of those universes, Life emerges. Now we’ve got beings which maintain their identity through time despite the fact that the populations of atoms that constitutes them keeps on changing.
In my current thinking – remember that I’m just making things up off the top of my head – it is possible that a universe with living beings might “collapse” into chaos without ever having managed to give birth to Culture. That happens not to be our current universe, but I see no reason why such a thing is not possible.
Maybe such breachings have happened by the thousands – as though it makes sense to pretend we’re at a transcendental vantage point from which we can note and count the breechings of Life-containing universes to and from Chaos – until some one time Culture emerges. Now we’ve got cultural beings which maintain their identity through time despite the fact that the individual humans that support and entertain them change.
And perhaps that too has happened many times, and we’re living in one of them.
Is This Philosophy or What?
All of a sudden those quantum mechanical proposals about multiple universes doesn’t seem so silly as they once did. After all, I’ve just coughed up a proposal of multiple universes being born out of a sea of primordial chaos in which there is no distinction between time and space. Whether or not this proposal is even internally coherent much less whether or not it’s consistent with any of those many-worlds versions of quantum mechanics is up in the air. As I said at the outset, I’m just making this up, thinking out loud.
Whatever it is, however, it seems to me that it is within the purview of philosophy as opposed to any of the specific disciplines through which I’ve passed in the process of weaving this web of speculation. Physics, cosmology, biology, sociology, neuroscience, and others, all are implicated. What’s at issue is conceptual coherence and consilience across these fields. And it this level and scope conceptual coherence is not merely a matter of concepts – HERE – we use to think about reality – OVER THERE. HERE and THERE are one and the same.
That’s the domain of philosophy, specifically, of metaphysics.
◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
*This is a tricky business. I googled the following phrase: what's the replacement rate for atoms in the human body.
Here’s a New York Times article from 2005:
Your Body is Younger Than You Think:
Here’s a three year old Reddit discussion of the question: Are 98% of the atoms in the human body replaced every year?
Here’s a blog post: Where do those damn atoms go?