Saturday, January 26, 2008

Merlyn's Problem

In my spare time I like to read, and not just philosophy either, but literature, especially the so-called 'great works' and works in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I recently completed Sir Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century classic, Le Morte d'Arthur. It's the primary source for the collection of tales that makes up the Arthurian legend - King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, the quest for the Holy Grail, etc. One of my reasons for reading Malory was to acquire some background so that I could more profitably read T. H. White's 1939 retelling of the Arthurian legend in his fantasy classic, The Once and Future King. White's title comes from King Arthur's epitaph (as recorded by Malory): Hic iacet Arturus, rex quondam rexque futurus.

Anyway, I've now started White's book. So far the characters are delightfully quirky. Given my philosophical interests in the nature of time, one aspect of Merlyn's character is particularly intriguing:
[Merlyn speaking to Arthur:] Now ordinary people are born forwards in time, if you understand what I mean, and nearly everything in the world goes forward too. This makes it quite easy for the ordinary people to live. . . . But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people who live forwards from behind. Some people call it having second sight. . . . You see, one gets confused with Time, when it is like that. All one's tenses get muddled, for one thing. If you know what is going to happen to people, and not what has happened to them, it makes it difficult to prevent it happening, if you don't want it to have happened, if you see what I mean? Like drawing in a mirror.
What I find interesting here is how Merlyn could even think that he could prevent what has happened if time is as he relates it here. He seems to be describing as merely difficult ("like drawing in a mirror") something that seems to be logically impossible, namely, making it to be the case that what has happened has not happened, that is, changing the past. Indeed, if Merlyn's right about the nature of time, then the future is just as settled as the past, the distinction between them being merely a matter of perspective depending on which direction one is "moving" in time. If that's right, then the future can no more be changed than the past.


At 2/01/2008 11:19 PM, Blogger Rob Silverman said...

THis is a quite interesting fictional account on the nature of time, and its implications. The birth and death of a human for Merlin and for us, are quite the same. At one point in the time line someone comes into existence, and on the opposite end pops out of existence, but both ends are the same. IF we look at the macro we see the same thing. A planet comes into existence, and then out goes out of existence, same from both perspectives, but the process is just a little bit different. Im wondering if the same physical laws would still apply. If i drop and pen and it hits the floor, then I can see that my droping the pen, along with gravity, caused the pen to drop. If I am living backwards in time, and effect preceded cause, what implications would this have on the physical laws governing our universe?

At 2/02/2008 9:41 PM, Blogger normajean said...

Alan, this has nothing at all to do with your post here (I apologize). I’ve heard it said that logical laws are a consequence of reality such that there is no need for an immaterial mind to serve as grounds for its existence. Is this something you’ve addressed on your blog before? The idea here is to erase the need for a supernatural explanation. What resources or thoughts might you have?

This came up at Victor Reppert 2

At 2/03/2008 10:59 AM, Blogger Kevin Schutte said...

"If that's right, then the future can no more be changed than the past."

That seems true, but it's also true that the future can no less be changed than the past. Perhaps they both can be changed, in Merlyn's world.

At 2/03/2008 8:00 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Your question about backward causation and the arrow of time is one that has received a lot of discussion among philosophers. One issue is whether backward causation even makes sense. That depends on whether the notion of causation is inherently forward-looking, so to speak. Another issue has to do with the laws of physics, which seem to be time-reversal invariant. The equations in which the laws of physics are described don't specify a 'direction' for time. This has led to a bunch of different theories about where "time's arrow" actually comes from. Some think it comes from thermodynamics, some from the expansion of the universe, some from a non-physical source (e.g., God's memories), and so forth.

At 2/03/2008 8:17 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hello normajean,

I accept the idea that logical laws are a consequence of reality, because I believe that all possibilities have to be grounded in what is actual. However, I don't see how logical laws can be a consequence of anything contingent, as the physical world seems to be. Hence, I think logical laws have to be grounded in the nature of a necessary being, which I take to be God.

Some naturalists attempt to avoid this by holding that logical laws, properties, and other abstract entities necessarily exist in and of themselves. While this is more plausible than thoroughgoing physicalism, it is unable to provide the sort of theoretical unification that theism can provide.

See my discussion with 'exapologist' here).

See also the link provided by Paul Manata in the comments to this post.

are themselves necessary

At 2/03/2008 8:24 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Kevin,

I see your point, though on our normal way of thinking about the past and the future, the past is wholly 'fixed' or 'settled', whereas the future is at least partly 'open'. It seems to me that there ought to be an asymmetry here, with the past being unchangeable and the future changeable. That's one of the reasons why Merlyn's world strikes me as just, well, bizarre. It is entertaining fiction, though, so I'm willing to suspend disbelief.

At 2/03/2008 8:45 PM, Blogger normajean said...

Thanks so much, Alan!

At 2/05/2008 7:54 PM, Blogger Rob Silverman said...

Thanks Allan. Time is such a fascinating idea, I really do need to read more up on it. ANy books or articles you reccomend?

At 2/08/2008 3:10 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Rob,

A good book to start with is Robin Le Poidevin's "Travels in Four Dimensions". A good follow up is Barry Dainton's "Time and Space".


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home