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ABSOLUTE VS. RELATIONAL TIME Newton states in the Scholium of his Principia, “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equablywithout regard to anything external, and byanother name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year.” What does this mean? One thing it means is that time would flow even if nothing else existed. That is, even in an empty universe, time would still pass. The existence of time is independent of anything else; physical objects, observers, etc. Another is that absolute time is not perceivable. Only common time effects can be observed, through the use of clocks, etc., and entails motion, in some way. Newton held an “Absolute” or “Substantival” view of both space and time. That is, he believed that space and time exist independently of the presence of any material bodies or events. The contrary view is “Relationalism”, the view that space and time are simply relations which hold between independently existing material bodies or events. The source of the earliest and best debate on this issue is the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence , a series of letters exchanged between Leibniz and Samuel Clarke, a disciple of Newton’s. It has long been speculated that Newton was at the veryleast looking over Clarke’s shoulder as he wrote his replies to Leibniz, and perhaps even dictating them. The Correspondence covers a broad range of topics, but much of it is on absolute vs. relational views of space and time. Let’s look at some of the arguments. Keep in mind that these were written in the last years of Leibniz’ life, which ended in 1716, and that he was attending at the royal court in Hanover, serving the family that eventually came to rule England, supplying King George the I, II and III, and keep in mind the religious sentiment that prevailed throughout Europe at thetime. It had only been 75 years since Galileo was tried bythe Inquisition for supporting Copernicanism, and 115 years since Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for suggesting that the universe was infinite and that the stars were just distant versions of the Sun. Leibniz and Newton took turns accusing one another of promulgating atheism in their philosophies, which in those days was a serious accusation. Read The Baroque Cycle , a trilogy by Neal Stephenson, for a (fictional, but in many ways accurate) account of the conflict between Leibniz and Newton. Clearly, Newton thought of time as a thing, or substance , whose existence and nature depends upon nothing external. So, for Newton, time could exist in the absence of change, a temporal metric could exist in the absence of anyperiodic process, and temporal direction, or asymmetry, could exist in the absence of the evolution of any physical system. The Relationalist would deny these, and maintain
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This note was uploaded on 02/14/2011 for the course PHIL 124c taught by Professor Humphrey during the Spring '11 term at UCSB.

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