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How to Time Travel

18 October 2023

There are, as far as I’m aware, two forms of time travel any one of us can take part in any time we choose.

The first is the unfamiliar.

Consider the times you have taken a familiar commute to work and thought to yourself, how on earth did I get here?

It appears very little time has passed, and you have no memory of the events that have occurred.

This is because, when faced with the familiar, the human brain knows the body can perform without the need for the mind to attend.

At the most fundamental level, time is simply the amount of attention one gives to the universe.

On the familiar commute there is no need to lay down new memories, meaning minimal attention is necessary.  The result is a perception of very little time passing.

We can all travel in time any time we choose.  Simply go on holiday to a place you have never been or take a trip you have never taken before.

Have you noticed when taking a trip somewhere unfamiliar the outward journey seems to take a long time, yet the return journey passes like a breeze.  On the outward-bound journey, everything is unfamiliar meaning one must attend if one is to make correct decisions and take the right turns in the road.  But, on the return, many of the events are now somewhat familiar and one’s mind needs only attend to far fewer elements of the trip.

The more familiar an event, the less attention necessary.

This is why we hear the all-too-common complaint; as one gets older, time passes more quickly.  It doesn’t.  It’s simply, for most people, growing older means more things are more and more familiar.  But speak to the eighty-year-old who spends their days traveling the world to unfamiliar places – they will soon tell you; every day seems like a long day.  Life is stretched out.

Have you noticed on returning from a holiday to a new destination, you are often exhausted?  This is because that one week in the sun was a long week.

Of course, we’re all familiar with the physics and mathematics of the concept of time.  We are all familiar with the bending and warping of space-time large masses can achieve and the impact of catastrophic gravitational force.  These are interesting intellectual pursuits and have some practical implications, such as the alignment of clocks after significant air or space travel.  But from the human perspective, time is what you perceive it to be.  This is why we hear ourselves saying things like, ‘that was a quick year’ or ‘this has been a very long week’.  Same number of seconds, minutes, hours and days, and indistinguishable by the laws of physics, but real to us nonetheless.

For all intents and purposes, we live a longer life in the same number of years when we fill it with the unfamiliar.

This is also what happens when we learn.  Learning new things necessarily requires us to meet the unfamiliar.  When an idea is entirely novel to us, we must concentrate hard on it, think carefully about it, attend to it.  This is why when writing an essay or trying to learn a new skill, time seems to drag, it seems a bit of a grind.  And it is!  We are stretching time out as we attend to more and more.

If you wish to live longer, fill your life with new experiences.

There is also a second way in which we can all travel in time.  This is different to the first, which is about slowing down time and living longer.  The second way of traveling in time is about travelling thousands and perhaps even millions of years into the future.


Are you smarter than a chimp?

It is tempting to think of human beings as occupying the top of the smartness tree, but is that really the case?  How smart is an individual human being?

Imagine you are abandoned alone in the middle of a vast forest, left to fend for yourself, cut off entirely from civilisation.  Now consider what you might do and how you would know how to do it.

Do you know what vegetation is safe to eat and what vegetation will kill you?  Do you know where and how to entrap and kill an animal to eat, and would you know how to prepare it for safe consumption?  Do you know how to find safe drinking water?  Would you be able to protect yourself from the elements?  Would you know how to survive as the weather moves through the seasons?  Could you light a fire?

It is possible your personal answer to all the questions above is a resounding “yes”.  Well done, you.  But how do you know these things?  Where did this knowledge come from?

No individual human worked out the answer to any of these problems.  The solutions are cultural traditions.

Cultural tradition is a type of knowledge that transcends the intellectual capabilities of any individual.  It is a culmination of knowledge, built up over many, many generations.

Without this cultural knowledge, a typical human would be no better equipped than a typical chimp to independently resolve the problems above.

We see the artefacts of humanity’s cultural knowledge all around us.  Look at your smart phone, for example, and you’ll quickly realise there’s no way in the world you could possibly explain how it is built and how it works.  No individual can.  It’s as though earth is littered with the advanced technologies of some superior alien race, and we have integrated their unknowable technologies into our lives without the faintest idea where they came from.

As individuals, we are very limited and no smarter than the average chimp.  But as a collective, we are extraordinary.


The ratchet effect

For a very long time, early humans did not make uniquely great advances in knowledge.  They were, undoubtedly, cultural animals – learning from observation and replication how to perform tasks such as using tools, without the need to invent those tools and uses for themselves.  They could then show these tricks and techniques to their children and the knowledge would be handed down for the next generation to benefit from.  But this cultural knowledge was unlikely much different from our near ape relatives.

We have known since at least the 1960s, female chimpanzees use sticks to help them catch termites to eat – this termite fishing technique is handed down through the generations as young chimps watch their mothers and copy their approach.  Since primatologists first discovered chimpanzees are cultural animals, another 40 or so chimpanzee cultural practices have been identified, such as using leaves as napkins, using rocks to crack open nuts, and learning rain dances.

The young chimps acquire these abilities without the need to work them out for themselves.

Handing down knowledge in this way, through cultural tradition, is not even restricted to primates.  Cultural tradition has also been observed in Whales and birds, both of which have displayed local foraging skills and other cultural practices handed down from parent to offspring.

So, humans are not alone in shortcutting the need for every new generation to start from a blank slate and invent every technique useful for survival, but humans have clearly taken cultural knowledge to an entirely different level than even our smart ape cousins.

How did we do this?  Why have chimps not managed to do so?  And what does it mean humanity’s past, present and future?

It is tempting to put these differences down to intelligence – most individuals would certainly wish to argue they are smarter than a chimp, citing as evidence the differences in the achievements of humans compared to chimpanzees.  We might be prepared to concede it is true the chimps have developed some interesting cultural traditions and are well adapted to thriving in their environment, but, unlike the humans, with their big brains and superior intelligence, the chimps haven’t come close to inventing an iPhone or exploring the depths of outer space.  No, only a human can do these things.

But this isn’t quite true.  No human invented the iPhone and no human knows how to send a probe into space.  You couldn’t either.

From scratch, no individual human could conceive something as simple as a kayak, let alone achieve the dizzying heights of sending an unmanned probe to Mars.

And yet, kayaks and Mars missions do exist.

The answer is not the intelligence of an individual, it is the collective intelligence of the entire species and our capacity for cumulative culture.

Humans have diverged from all other animal species in taking cumulative cultural achievements further due to a unique combination of our language, theory of mind - that is the ability to construe people as having thoughts, desires, and intentions - mental time travel, hyper cooperativeness, practise, teaching trade, shared attention, joint attention, imitation, true imitation, and over imitation.

Cumulative culture is time travel.  It enables every one of us to take huge leaps into an impossible future every time we use even the simplest of tools or ideas. 

Consider just the mathematics, science, art, technology, and other disciplines we learn just in our time at school.  It is not possible for any lone human to discover, invent, create or ideate even single elements of these disciplines in the years of their life they would spend at school.  No single person could invent calculus and no single person must because Newton and Leibnitz can show us the way.  But even Newton and Leibnitz did not invent calculus, rather they simply represent a pivotal moment in the entire combined effort of thinking about these ideas over many millennia.  Thousands, if not more, people over thousands of years and millions of hours of thinking, laid the foundations for Newton and Leibnitz to build on.

Starting from scratch would mean inventing mathematics from scratch.  It is not possible.

It is our species’ ability to accumulate knowledge across generations that makes it possible for dedicated individuals to add a new piece to the jigsaw of humanity’s collective intelligence.

There is a tendency to think of Newton, Leibnitz and other great thinkers as remarkable geniuses who stand alone from everyone else.  But we all have the same physiological apparatus as each of these greats and all have the cognitive potential to add something new and contribute to the ascent of humanity if, like them, we stand on the shoulders of giants and download our species’ collective knowledge into our brains as our starting point.  This means we can all work at the edge of what is currently known and make new breakthroughs.

Each of these new breakthroughs is then integrated into our collective knowledge base, meaning the next generation do not have to solve those problems again and can advance us further still.

All we need is a library card, a good teacher, or access to the Internet.

Going to school is time travel.  We get to shortcut millions of hours of thinking in just a few short years, enhancing our limited individual intelligence with the thoughts and ideas of billions of humans.

Cumulative culture doesn't just give our species ideas, technologies, music, art, language, science and culture that none of us could have individually conceived, it literally makes us smarter.  Cumulative culture provides all those who receive a good education with a vast array of cognitive tools, which radically enhance our powers of thought.

These cognitive tools include, first and foremost, the words and phrases of the languages we speak - each word and each phrase is a handy tool for thinking.  But this is just the beginning of the toolkit.  Other cognitive tools include probability theory, cost benefit analysis, time management, financial planning, and counting to 10 when we're angry.

The inimitable Daniel Dennett, one of our greatest living philosophers, describes these thinking tools as “handy prosthetic imagination-extenders and focus holders” that allow us to “think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions”, with each new tool enhancing your cognitive toolkit.

These tools are like smartphone apps – the more apps you put on your phone, the more your phone can do.  Likewise, the more cultural tools you download into your brain, the more you can do.  But unlike smartphone apps, our cultural apps have no identifiable author.  Instead, they evolved slowly but surely as they passed through the minds of millions of people over thousands of years.  And these tools get better with time.

We must always be on guard to protect humanity’s ascent and its destiny to discover new knowledge.  Building knowledge and knowledge systems is a long and arduous process, but destroying it can be swift and throw humanity into dark ages.  We should maintain an epistemological and psychic distance from newly proposed tools, so that they always appear somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.  We need to be able to evaluate them at a distance to ensure they are ascending, not descending.

Consider the Roman number system.  This concrete apparatus is perfectly good for certain purposes, including measurement and record keeping, but, as the biologist David Clark points out, it's not particularly powerful when it comes to calculating – there is no simple algorithm for dividing C by IV, for instance, or multiplying X by MCMLX.  Europeans used the Roman system for around 1500 years, meaning they were unable to easily multiply or divide.  Those Europeans were born with the physiological apparatus capable of calculating but they did not install the required cultural software in their brains.  Whereas, the Indian Arabic system, which we use today, makes calculation much easier – it literally makes us smarter.  With that app installed, mathematics was able to make huge progress.

If you were to make a list of every person who has ever contributed in any way to humanity’s vast knowledge base and add up every hour they devoted to making their contributions, you'd have a rough estimate of the number of hours it would take an individual to single handedly assemble all the knowledge we now possess.  It’s millions of years.

By going to school and listening to our teachers, we become as knowledgeable as a person who spent millions of years thinking and exploring the world.  It is the ultimate form of time travel, and no pupil should ever be denied it.

Schools must eschew any call to adopt a so called ‘discovery learning’ approach – our power and purpose as a species lies in our collective intelligence and we should never leave any child stranded alone to conceive from scratch those ideas that are the hard-fought achievements of their ancestors and to which they have a right to inherit.  Schools should give every pupil a good education, one that accelerates them millennia and gives them the foundation and cognitive tools to be the next great human who extends our knowledge by one more tooth in the ratchet, helping humanity to overcome the great challenges it faces and to continue its ascent.

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