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Posted on: 22 September 2021
In the second of our Spotlight On series, which will highlight some of the great research taking place at Trinity, we meet Dr Alison Fernandes, Assistant Professor in Philosophy, and hear about her fascinating research into temporal asymmetry.
Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?
“My work involves figuring out what makes the world temporally asymmetric—why the past seems so different from the future. The world seems temporally asymmetric in lots of ways. We take it that causes always come before their effects, never after. We think that future events might be ‘chancy’, but we don’t think of past events as being chancy—they’ve either happened or not. We think our actions now make a difference to what happens in the future but not the past. My work relates these asymmetries to one another and to what I take to be the most basic temporal asymmetry—the entropy rise of the universe.”
In your opinion, why is your research important?
“We might think of ourselves as having two different viewpoints on the world: the kind of viewpoint we have from ordinary experience—the way things seem to us everyday—and the viewpoint we get from fundamental physics—the science that attempts to uncover the basic nature of the physical world. Particularly in the area of time, it can be difficult to see how these viewpoints fit together—our experience suggest that the past is very different from the future, but the laws of physics (by and large) are the same in both temporal directions. My work aims to reconcile these points of view and explain how physical asymmetries give rise to the temporal asymmetries we experience.”
What inspired you to become a researcher? Did something happen to set off a spark?
“I became a researcher in philosophy partly by becoming confused about science. The more advanced science I studied, the more I wasn’t sure what picture of the world it was presenting. I was particularly confused by quantum mechanics—how should one think about the wavefunction? I also started to think about how the process of doing science might influence the kind of theory you end up with—maybe we prefer theories that give us a sense of understanding. Doing research in philosophy gave me space to think about these questions, and others, as my main focus—rather than as an addendum to scientific work.”
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?
“First, philosophy in this area involves keeping track of a lot of different moving pieces. You must be familiar with developments in fundamental physics as well as in sciences such as psychology that address how we experience the world. Second, as with all philosophy, there’s a strong need to balance big ideas with the nitty-gritty precision to make these ideas as clear and precise as possible—all while keeping your work relevant and accessible to as wide a set of readers as possible. Third, research is a long game. Often work in philosophy evolves quite slowly and it can take a while for ideas to shift. You have to be persistent and resilient to get your ideas heard.”
What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?
“I’d like to see more work done at the interface between philosophy, psychology and physics, particularly on questions relating time and temporal asymmetries. For example, we might consider why we think of the past as fixed—is this to do with our sense that we can’t control the past, or more to do with how we think of the past as something that is knowable? Is the past actually fixed in the sense we imagine? There’s some work in this area relating to time. But most of the focus so far has concerned ideas about time passing and the present as special. We also think of time as having a direction and the world as temporally asymmetric—examining why this is so and what this amounts to is equally important.”
Where can readers find out more about your work?
People can learn more at alisonfernandes.net