## The Computational View of Time

Time is a central feature of human experience. But what actually is it? In traditional scientific accounts it’s often represented as some kind of coordinate much like space (though a coordinate that for some reason is always systematically increasing for us). But while this may be a useful mathematical description, it’s not telling us anything about what time in a sense “intrinsically is”.

We get closer as soon as we start thinking in computational terms. Because then it’s natural for us to think of successive states of the world as being computed one from the last by the progressive application of some computational rule. And this suggests that we can identify the progress of time with the “progressive doing of

But does this just mean that we are replacing a “time coordinate” with a “computational step count”? No. Because of the phenomenon of computational irreducibility. With the traditional mathematical idea of a time coordinate one typically imagines that this coordinate can be “set to any value”, and that then one can immediately calculate the state of the system at that time. But computational irreducibility implies that it’s not that easy. Because it says that there’s often essentially no better way to find what a system will do than by explicitly tracing through each step in its evolution. Continue reading