Counterfactuals, Irreversible Laws and The Direction of Time


The principle of Information Conservation or Determinism is a governing assumption of physical theory. Determinism has counterfactual consequences. It entails that if the present were different, then the future would be different. But determinism is temporally symmetric: it entails that if the present were different, the past would also have to be different. This runs contrary to our commonsense intuition that what has happened in the future depends on the past in a way the past does not depend on the future. To understand how this can be so we observe that while the truth of some counterfactuals is guaranteed by the laws of logic or the laws of nature, some are not. It is among the latter contingent, counterfactuals that we find temporal asymmetry. It is this asymmetry that gives causation a temporal direction. The temporal asymmetry of these counterfactuals is explained by the fact that the dynamical laws of nature are logically irreversible functions from partial states of the world onto other partial states. (Logical reversibility is not to be confused, though it too often is, with time-reversal invariance). Though these irreversible laws are locally indeterministic, they can sum to give a globally deterministic description of the world. This combination of global determinism and local indeterminism gives rise to contingent counterfactual dependence and gives that dependence a direction. That direction is independent of the direction of entropy. The direction of contingent counterfactual dependence is time's arrow.

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Terrance A. Tomkow
Cambridge University (PhD)


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