By Anna Allen, '16
We all perceive time differently. One week might drag on, while another might flash before our eyes. But how does time really work? And can we really understand time if our experience of it is so subjective?
After taking philosophy professor Geoffrey Goddu’s class on the philosophy of mind, Pravaas Gurung, ’16, became fascinated by the disconnect between our perceptions of time and the theories proposed by philosophers, physicists, and mathematicians about how time operates. The concept sparked an idea for Gurung’s summer research project and his senior thesis on the philosophy of mind as it relates to time.
“It’s all a little weird to get your head around at first,” says Gurung. But the high demand for abstract theory didn’t stop him from pursuing the project. Gurung started with the basics, examining famous theories on time, such as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, with the help of his faculty mentor, Brannon McDaniel.
“When Einstein proposed his theory of relativity, it was groundbreaking,” says Gurung. “Einstein replaced many widely accepted theories on time when he used mathematics to suggest that time does not actually pass at all.” His theory of relativity led Einstein to propose that time, like space, is a dimension and does not pass at all, despite our experience that it does.
“When you think about space, there are objects that are in different positions in space and just because an object is over there doesn’t make it any less real than the object that’s right here in front of me,” said Gurung.
But what is considered “real?”
“One good way to think about it is to imagine Julius Caesar is just as present and alive as we are today,” says Gurung. “Just because we can’t perceive things outside of our own temporal moment doesn’t make the present moment privileged in any way.”
This disconnect between the philosophy of time and our experience of it is where Gurung’s project integrates the philosophy of mind and philosophy of time. But arguing against the strong human intuition that time passes is not an easy argument to make — not even for expert logicians like philosophers.
“So many questions are raised, if time doesn’t pass,” says Gurung. “But I wanted to ask if our experience of time can actually say anything about the true nature of time, especially because they seem to be in opposition.
Drawing conclusions about the universe is not the only reason philosophy fascinates Gurung — the thought process is just as intriguing. “I think the most interesting and exciting aspect of philosophy is getting to participate in all of these the creative conversations people are having about how to look at fundamental questions in a different way,” says Gurung.
Gurung found a home for these conversations with peers and professors in the philosophy department. “It’s a place where I can come and feel free to think outside of the box and even be encouraged to do so,” he says.
He’s even been encouraged to take his thinking a step further and apply to graduate school.
“I like to think in unusual ways,” he says. “I think my work on this project has confirmed that I would be successful in an environment where you have to think for yourself and come up with innovative solutions to questions and problems that might not have an answer that we, as humans, can fully understand.”