Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Retrocausality (Reverse Causality)

"As the waves pound, it’s tough to decide what is more unsettling: the boat’s incessant rocking or the mounting evidence that the arrow of time—the flow that defines the essential narrative of our lives—may be not just an illusion but a lie..."

That's a quote from this recent article in DISCOVER magazine, which got me thinking. A dangerous habit, I know. <=== a line from the Disney film, Beauty and the Beast.

Well, I can't help myself, I'm a thinking man. Not bragging, seems like an affliction at times, frankly.

"I think, therefore I am" ... Rene Descartes

And the more modern version:

"You're a victim of the system. You are your own worst enemy. Know your enemy." ... Green Day

No wait, that's a modern version of Socrates' "Know thyself." Oops, sorry. Too much thinking. See what I mean?

Anywho, that got me to click on the following link, from Wikipedia:

Retrocausality (also called retro-causation, backward causation and similar terms) is any of several hypothetical phenomena or processes that reverse causality, allowing an effect to occur before its cause.

Retrocausality is primarily a thought experiment in philosophy of science based on elements of physics, addressing the question: Can the future affect the present, and can the present affect the past?[1] Philosophical considerations of time travel often address the same issues as retrocausality, as do treatments of the subject in fiction, although the two terms are not universally synonymous.[2]

A few legitimate physical theories have sometimes been interpreted as leading to retrocausality. This is not considered part of science, since the distinction between cause and effect in physics is not made at the most fundamental level.[3]


As philosophy

Although philosophical efforts to understand causality extend back at least to Aristotle's discussions of the four causes, the idea that the arrow of time could be reversed is substantially more recent. In fact, retrocausality was long considered an inherent self-contradiction because, as 18th century philosopher David Hume discussed, when examining two related events, the cause, by definition, is the one that precedes the effect.[4]

Furthermore, the ability to affect the past suggests that causes could be negated by their own effects, creating a physical paradox,[5] such as the well-known grandfather paradox.

In the 1950s, Michael Dummett wrote in opposition to such definitions, stating that there was no philosophical objection to effects preceding their causes.[6] This argument was rebutted by fellow philosopher Antony Flew[7] and, later, by Max Black. Black's "bilking argument" held that retrocausality is impossible because the observer of an effect could act to prevent its future cause from ever occurring.[8] A more complex discussion of how free will relates to the issues Black raised is summarized by Newcomb's paradox. Essentialist philosophers have proposed other theories, such as proposing the existence of "genuine causal powers in nature"[9] or by raising concerns about the role of induction in theories of causality.[10]

More recent philosophical inquiries into the topic have often adapted aspects of modern physics, including the hypothetical tachyon particle and certain time-independent aspects of quantum mechanics. Jan Faye of the University of Copenhagen has argued that logical objections to macroscopic time travel may not necessarily prevent retrocausality at other scales of interaction.[11] Even if such effects are possible, however, they may not be capable of producing effects different from those that would have resulted from normal causal relationships.[12]

Jeanne Peijnenburg invokes retrocausality to describe how "broad imagination" can redefine or even alter past events, resulting in changes to present-day personality and perception.[13] According to Cornelis van Putten, however, there is no need to literally modify the past to achieve the results Peijnenburg discusses.[14]

As physics

Established physics does not generally employ retrocausality. Nevertheless, a number of theories allowing particles or information to travel backward in time have been proposed by respected scientists or have received meaningful evaluation by the scientific community.


Time runs left to right in this Feynman diagram of electron-positron annihilation. When interpreted to include retrocausality, the electron (marked e-) was not destroyed, instead becoming the positron (e+) and moving backward in time.

As the modern understanding of particle physics began to develop, retrocausality was at times employed as a tool to model then-unfamiliar or unusual conditions, including electromagnetism and antimatter.

The Wheeler–Feynman absorber theory, proposed by John Archibald Wheeler and Richard Feynman, uses retrocausality and a temporal form of destructive interference to explain the absence of a type of converging concentric wave suggested by certain solutions to Maxwell's equations.[15] These advanced waves don't have anything to do with cause and effect, they are just a different mathematical way to describe normal waves. The reason they were proposed is so that a charged particle would not have to act on itself, which, in normal classical electromagnetism leads to an infinite self-force.[16]

Feynman, and earlier Stueckelberg, proposed an interpretation of the positron as an electron moving backward in time[17], reinterpreting the negative-energy solutions of the Dirac equation. Electrons moving backward in time would have a positive electric charge. Wheeler invoked this concept to explain the identical properties shared by all electrons, suggesting that "they are all the same electron" with a complex, self-intersecting worldline.[18] Yoichiro Nambu later applied it to all production and annihilation of particle-antiparticle pairs, stating that "the eventual creation and annihilation of pairs that may occur now and then is no creation or annihilation, but only a change of direction of moving particles, from past to future, or from future to past."[19] The backwards in time point of view is nowadays accepted as completely equivalent to other pictures, but it doesn't have anything to do with the macroscopic terms "cause" and "effect", which do not appear in a microscopic physical description.

Current topics

Open topics in physics, especially involving the reconciliation of gravity with quantum physics, suggest that retrocausality may be possible under certain circumstances.

Closed timelike curves, in which the world line of an object returns to its origin, arise from some exact solutions to the Einstein field equation. Although closed timelike curves do not appear to exist under normal conditions, extreme environments of spacetime, such as a traversable wormhole[20] or the region near certain cosmic strings,[21] may allow their formation, implying a theoretical possibility of retrocausality. The exotic matter or topological defects required for the creation of those environments have not been observed. Furthermore, Stephen Hawking has suggested a mechanism he describes as the chronology protection conjecture, which would destroy any such closed timelike curve before it could be used.[22] These objections to the existence of closed timelike curves are not universally accepted, however.[23]

Retrocausality has also been proposed as a mechanism to explain what Albert Einstein called "spooky action at a distance" occurring as a result of quantum entanglement. Although the prevailing scientific viewpoint is that the effects generated by quantum entanglement do not require any direct communication between the involved particles, Costa de Beauregard proposed an alternative theory.[24]

At an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium, University of Washington physicist John Cramer presented the design for an experiment to test for backward causation in quantum entanglement,[3] subsequently receiving some attention from the popular media.[25][26] Work on Cramer's non-local communication test started in January 2007. Cramer included a status report on the "UW Test of Nonlocal Quantum Communications with Momentum-Entangled Photon Pairs" in his "Five Decades of Physics" talk at a symposium in his honor at the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, September 11 2009. Work on the experiment will continue during 2010.[27][28]

Retrocausality has also been proposed as an explanation[29] for the delayed choice quantum eraser.[30]

The hypothetical superluminal particle called the tachyon, proposed in the context of the Bosonic string theory and certain other fields of high-energy physics, moves backward in time. Despite frequent depiction in science fiction as a method to send messages back in time, theories predicting tachyons do not permit them to interact with normal "time-like" matter in a manner that would violate standard causality. Specifically, the Feinberg reinterpretation principle renders impossible construction of a tachyon detector capable of receiving information.[31]

As pseudoscience

Outside the mainstream scientific community, retrocausality has also been proposed as a mechanism to explain purported anomalies, paranormal events or personal events, but mainstream scientists generally regarded these explanations as pseudoscientific.

Most notably, parapsychologist Helmut Schmidt presented quantum mechanical justifications for retrocausality,[32] eventually claiming that experiments had demonstrated the ability to manipulate radioactive decay through retrocausal psychokinesis.[33] These results and their underlying theory have been rejected by the mainstream scientific community,[34][35] although they continue to have some support from fringe science sources.[36]

Efforts to associate retrocausality with prayer healing[37] have been similarly discounted by legitimate scientific method.[38]


  1. ^ Barry, Patrick (2006-08-28). "What's done is done... or is it?". New Scientist. http://www.newscientist.com/channel/fundamentals/mg19125710.900-whats-done-is-done-or-is-it.html. Retrieved 2006-12-19.
  2. ^ Faye, Jan (2001-08-27, rev. 2005-08-29). "Backward Causation". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-backwards/. Retrieved 2006-12-24.
  3. ^ a b Sheehan, D. P., ed. (2006-11-14). Frontiers of Time: Retrocausation - Experiment and Theory, San Diego, California, 20-22 June 2006. Record of a symposium held by the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. American Institute of Physics. ISBN 0-7354-0361-9.
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  8. ^ Black, Max (1956). "Why Cannot an Effect Precede Its Cause". Analysis 16 (16): 49. doi:10.2307/3326929.
  9. ^ Ellis, Brian (2002). The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 978-0773524746.
  10. ^ Beebee, Helen (2006-10-25). Hume on Causation. Routledge. ISBN 978-0415243391.
  11. ^ Faye, Jan, Uwe Scheffler and Max Urchs, eds. (1994-10-13). Logic and Causal Reasoning. Wiley-VCH. ISBN 3050025999.
  12. ^ Elitzur, A., S. Doley and N. Kolenda, eds. (2005-05-25). Quo Vadis Quantum Mechanics?. Springer. ISBN 3540221883.
  13. ^ Peijnenburg, Jeanne. "Shaping Your Own Life". Metaphilosophy (37).
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  33. ^ Schmidt, Helmut (June 1982). "Collapse of the state vector and psychokinetic effect". Foundations of Physics 12.
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  37. ^ Leibovici, L. (2001). "Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infections: a controlled trial". British Medical Journal 323 (7327): 1450. doi:10.1136/bmj.323.7327.1450. PMID 11751349.
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Anonymous said...

the answer to reverse causality lies in the human mind, ie the ability to concentrate on the future or an object of the future, and cannot be explained by physics.

Steven Colyer said...

Thanks for writing. So what are you saying, that reverse causality is possible, and if so, we as humans are limited in our perception of it?

I'm not sure I agree with that if so, but I can't prove you wrong! This sort of thing will be "out there" more and more in the months and years ahead. Already we've seen stuff by Nielson, et. al discussing it. The field is dangerously close to crackpottery, and "consciousness" theory, which as stuck me as being more Biological than Physics. Even the top people working on "Consciousness" don't agree with each other regarding its simplest definitions.

Sean Carroll has a new book out on the subject of time, Lee Smolin will have a new one soon. Then there's Julian Barbour's "The End of Time," which I haven't read and am not sure I should.

It seems like such a strange subject, yet very interdisciplinary. I will try to at least keep on the issues.