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THE ARGUMENT FOR THE ABSENCE OF TIME

The argument that time is not a fundamental aspect of the world goes like this (For more details and discussion see [1,2,3,4,5]). In classical mechanics one begins with a space of configurations C of a system S. Usually the system S is assumed to be a subsystem of the universe. In this case there is a clock outside the system, which is carried by some inertial observer. This clock is used to label the trajectory of the system in the configuration space C. The classical trajectories are then extrema of some action principle.

Were it not for the external clock, one could already say that time has disappeared, as each trajectory exists all at once as a curve g on C. Once the trajectory is chosen, the whole history of the system is determined. In this sense there is nothing in the description that corresponds to what we are used to thinking of as a flow or progression of time. Indeed, just as the whole of any one trajectory exists when any point and velocity are specified, the whole set of trajectories may be said to exist as well, as a timeless set of possibilities.

Time is in fact represented in the description, but it is not in any sense a time that is associated with the system itself. Instead, the t in ordinary classical mechanics refers to a clock carried by an inertial observer, which is not part of the dynamical system being modeled. This external clock is represented in the configuration space description as a special parameterization of each trajectory, according to which the equations of motion are satisfied. Thus, it may be said that there is no sense in which time as something physical is represented in classical mechanics, instead the problem is postponed, as what is represented is time as marked by a clock that exists outside of the physical system which is modeled by the trajectories in the configuration space C.

In quantum mechanics the situation is rather similar. There is a t in the quantum state and the Schroedinger equation, but it is time as measured by an external clock, which is not part of the system being modeled. Thus, when we write,

ih d/dt f = H f (t)
the Hamiltonian refers to evolution, as it would be measured by an external observer, who refers to the external clock whose reading is t.

The quantum state can be represented as a function f over the configuration space, which is normalizable in some inner product. The inner product is another a priori structure, it refers also to the external clock, as it is the structure that allows us to represent the conservation of probability as measured by that clock.

When we turn to the problem of constructing a cosmological theory we face a key problem, which is that there is no external clock. There is by definition nothing outside of the system, which means that the interpretation of the theory must be made without reference to anything that is not part of the system which is modeled. In classical cosmological theories, such as general relativity applied to spatially compact universes, or models such as the Bianchi cosmologies or the Barbour-Bertotti model[12,BB-Royal], this is expressed by the dynamics having a gauge invariance, which includes arbitrary reparameterizations of the classical trajectories. (In general relativity this is part of the diffeomorphism invariance of the theory.) As a result, the classical theory is expressed in a way that makes no reference to any particular parameterization of the trajectories. Any parameterization is as good as any other, none has any physical meaning. The solutions are then labeled by a trajectory, g, period, there is no reference to a parameterization.

This is the sense in which time may be said to disappear from classical cosmological theories. There is nothing in the theory that refers to any time at all. At least without a good deal more work, the theory speaks only in terms of the whole history or trajectory, it seems to have nothing to say about what the world is like at a particular moment.

There is one apparently straightforward way out of this, which is to try to define an intrinsic notion of time, in terms of physical observables. One may construct parameter independent observables that describe what is happening at a point on the trajectory if that point can be labeled intrinsically by some physical property. For example, one might consider some particular degree of freedom to be an intrinsic, physical clock, and label the points on the trajectory by its value. This works in some model systems, but in interesting cases such as general relativity it is not known if such an intrinsic notion of time exists which is well defined over the whole of the configuration space.

In the quantum theory there is a corresponding phenomenon. As there is no external t with which to measure evolution of the quantum state one has instead of the Schroedinger equation the quantum constraint equation

Hf =0
where f is now just a function on the configuration space. Rather than describing evolution, generates arbitrary parameterizations of the trajectories. The wavefunction must be normalizable under an inner product, given by some density on the configuration space. The space of physical states is then given by this constraint equation subject to a condition that the state is normalizable.

We see that, at least naively time has completely disappeared from the formalism. This has led to what is called the "problem of time in quantum cosmology", which is how to either A) find an interpretation of the theory that restores a role for time or B) provide an interpretation according to which time is not part of a fundamental description of the world, but only reappears in an appropriate classical limit.

There have been various attempts at either direction. We will not describe them here, except to say that, in our opinion, so far none has proved completely satisfactory (For good critical reviews that deflate most known proposals, see [1,2].). There are a number of attempts at A) which succeed when applied to either models or the semiclassical limit, but it is not clear whether any of them overcome technical obstacles of various kinds when applied to the full theory. The most well formulated attempt of type B), which is that of Barbour[5], may very well be logically consistent. But it forces one to swallow quite a radical point of view about the relationship between time and our experience.

Given this situation, we would like to propose that the problem may be not with time, but with the assumptions of the argument that leads to time being absent. Given the number of attempts that have been made to resolve the problem, which have not so far led to a good solution, perhaps it might be better to try to dissolve the issue by questioning one of the assumptions of the argument that leads to the statement of the problem. This is what we would like to do in the following.


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