Quivering the Arrow and Missing the Point

Part of the appeal of the flaneur is his seediness. The worn but well-starched collar,  the thinning elbows and slightly threadbare lapels of his clean and well-pressed suit, and the carefully polished shine on his ancient shoes. All these speak of a genuine love of style in one who has lost (or never had) the resources to support it.

But the lovable flaneur should not be confused with the charlatan that he becomes when he asks you to invest your intellectual capital.

Raymond Tallis’s Reflections of a Metaphysical Flaneur  may turn out to be charming, but I’m afraid that his recent foray into physics smells more of the charlatan.

Draining the River and Quivering the Arrow | Issue 95 | Philosophy Now.

I quivered with anticipation of being drawn into the issue of time, but when the bow was released I found that Tallis’s talk of “Missing the Point” is itself quite off the mark. The argument that time-symmetric physical laws cannot in principle produce time-asymmetric consequences is countered by the existence of broken symmetry in many familiar physical contexts (such as the formation of magnetic crystals for example), so even if the arguments provided so far for broken symmetry in time “fail to deliver” (in Tallis’ attribution to Huw Price) that does not mean that no such argument is possible. And when Tallis says “finding directionality in time requires us to establish in advance that states of the universe are ‘earlier’ or ‘later’ before we could notice that, say, the universe has a temporal trend” then he is subject to a more valid accusation of point-missing than the one he presents. The point is that finding directionality does not actually require finding direction. Although asymmetry does not specify a specific sense of direction it does provide an axis of directionality with the identification of which is “forward” and which is back being just a matter of convention. 

Tallis’s ponderings on the flow analogy are less offensive because they remain in the realm of flaneury and make no real demand for acceptance. That the various versions and uses of that analogy are certainly mutually and often internally inconsistent does not preclude the existence of  consistent versions – but he is right that talk of our moving *with* time is one of the weaker versions. Whether we are dragged forward towards the future through a sea of time or cling to a present past which it flows (from future to past as in the sense of “tomorrow is coming”) is just a matter of choosing one of two relativistically equivalent points of view.  Similarly with the river of time flowing by us on the ever present shore of now, or alternatively our being carried forward floating on the river of now past the shores of time, are both ok.  He’s right though when it comes to describing us as ourselves floating on the moving river of time – which does seem to be a less felicitous version from the physical correctness point of view (but whether or not that makes it bad poetry may be another matter).

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