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Parallel processes and the problem of internal time

Dieter Gernert Citation: AIP Conference Proceedings 573, 452 (2001); doi: 10.1063/1.1388711 View online: View Table of Contents: Published by the AIP Publishing

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Parallel Processes and the Problem of Internal Time

Dieter Gernert
Technische Universitdt Munchen, Department of Economics Arcisstr. 21, D-80333 Munchen (Germany) Email:
Abstract. It is the purpose of this paper to study the problem of internal (subjective) time by a novel approach. Until now, this topic has mainly been discussed under the aspects of philosophy, psychology, and neurobiology. By way of contrast, we consider processes within an (abstract) information-processing system that fulfills certain minimum requirements. In this context, a special operator algebra is formulated, which has similarities to those occurring in quantum theory. A specific problem related to parallel (concurrent) processes leads to a concept of time windows (time slices) within the context of the operator algebra; this theoretical finding is compatible with known results. Finally, some hints for possible experiments are given, and it will be briefly discussed how this concept is related to traditional ones. Keywords: Internal time, subjective time, quantum theory, operator algebra, non-commutativity, discrete time, time window, concurrent processes.


In the course of a long and changeful history, the concept of time has been studied under the aspects of many quite different disciplines, including mainly philosophy, psychology, physics, biology, and even sociology. Also the contrast between external (objective, physical) time and internal (subjective) time can be traced back to a long tradition. ,,20th century's philosophy has witnessed a steady but off-mainstream interest in concepts of time that can be covered by the notion of an 'internal time'." (Atmanspacher, 1998). More recently, some authors approached this concept from the perspectives of quantum theory or the endo-exo distinction^, and particularly set out in search of a ,,meeting ground between physical and inner time" (Varela, 1999; Guala and Boero, 1999). It is the purpose of this paper to present a novel approach to the study of internal time. This proposal starts from a special information-processing model (Section 2), which permits a formal description of at least a significant majority of all cognitive processes. Main constituents are some classes of characteristic operators which stand for ,,elementary" transformations within the information-processing system. Next, it will be found that an operator algebra formed by these operators displays an astonishing resemblance to the operator algebras used in quantum theory (Section 3). A specific question related to parallel processes leads to a concept of ,,internal time", and particularly to ,,time windows", within the information-processing system (Section 4). There is some hope that a bridge can be built from that ,,formal internal time" to the ,,traditional" one, and that useful analogies can be found; anyway some proposals for new experimental studies can be derived.


An information-processing system is presupposed which fulfills certain minimum requirements to be specified

E.g. Matsuno, 1996; Atmanspacher, 1998; Gunji, 1998; Matsuno, 1998a.

CP573, Computing Anticipatory Systems: CASYS 2000 - Fourth International Conference, edited by D. M. Dubois 2001 American Institute of Physics 0-7354-0012-1/017$ 18.00 452
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below. Such a system can be easily implemented on any standard PC, and it will stimulate a great variety of experiments. The first requirement is related to the capacity of performing certain characteristic operations. Considering here only the most important classes of operations, we need operations which can be understood as learning (changing the internal state as a consequence of a received input), conclusions from propositions stored within the system, and valuations (e.g. valuations of new input or of conclusions derived).2) As the second requirement, the system must consist of independent subsystems (with some coordination and cooperation) such that each subsystem is able to perform meaningful operations of the types named just before, and any two subsystems can work in parallel.


Each elementary transformation of the system is described by an operator, and all operators of the same kind form a class of operators. Particularly, we can identify the classes L, C, and V, which stand for learning, conclusion, and valuation. For any two operators X and Y (from the same class or not), two binary combinations are defined: X + Y denotes the parallel (simultaneous) execution of these two operations, whereas XoY means that X and Y are performed one after the other. Obviously, the combination +" is always commutative: X + Y = Y + X. But in the general case, the connexion ,,o" is noncommutative (XoY ^ YoX) - the full significance of this property will be discussed below. Summing up a detailed analysis of the algebraic structure, we can state that the operators considered here form an algebra (A, + , o), which is a semiring with some additional algebraic properties; astounding analogies and similarities can be found between A and the usual operator algebras in quantum theory. The noncommutativity of ,,o" requires some further remarks. Noncommutativity of operations is founded in the nature of information itself. In problem-solving tasks the temporal order of partial steps is of great importance, and only in rare cases the temporal order of steps can be reversed. A similar situation is encountered when e.g. the chapters of a well-written textbook are scrambled and presented in random order. Indeed, finding an adequate temporal order for the presentation of the material is an essential tool in pedagogics.3) Any nontrivial activity by which information is accepted or processed necessarily involves time and temporal order. ,,There would be no generation of information unless time is involved, and there would be no occurrence of timing unless informed." (Matsuno, 1998b,p. 57)4) Traditionally we can identify three principal approaches to the problem of time: - time accessible to our experience through periodic processes, which are fundamental for the measurement of time - time manifesting itself by irreversible processes', increase of entropy or complexity, evolutionary processes, symmetry breaking in the decay of certain elementary particles - time as an ordered sequence of events experienced as ,,earlier" and ,,later". It may be worthy of some consideration whether the fundamental noncommutativity of nontrivial informationprocessing acts is hidden as a special case in one of these three approaches, or whether, possibly, noncommutativity offers an independent approach.5^


4.1 Time Windows Defined on the Basis of an Operator Algebra

In spite of their similarities, the operator algebras as outlined so far are also different from those used in quantum

For many details, which are not necessary for the present topic, reference is made to a technical paper (Gernert, 2000). Only in the case of primitive material which can (and must) be handled by rote-learning the temporal order is irrelevant. 4 As far as can be seen, Matsuno was the first to point out the relationship between time and information. 5 In spite of the well-known relations, the concept of information cannot be completely based upon or reduced to entropy. Rather, the traditional (syntactical, Shannon-Weaver) information theory can be embedded and is included as a special case in a more comprehensive concept (Gernert, 1996, with further references).

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theory. The most important difference lies in the fact that, given two operators X and Y, neither ,,-Y" nor ,,X - Y" has been defined until now. Hence, we are facing a problem circumscribed by the following two questions: - What does it exactly mean that two operations are performed ,,in parallel" or ,,simultaneously"? - Given an operator Y, can ,,-Y" be consistently defined, and, if yes, will it be uniquely defined? For this purpose we introduce a neutral element 0 such that
Y + 0 = 0 + Y = Y (for all Y e A) (1)

Keeping in mind that +" means parallel execution, this means that one subsystem undergoes the transformation Y, whilst another subsystem remains unchanged, and the outcome only depends on Y. Now it is natural to define -Y by
Y + (-Y) = 0 (2)

and to introduce the abbreviation X - Y for X + (-Y). Then, (2) will mean that in two subsystems the two operations X and Y are performed simultaneously, but the overall state of the system will be the same as before when the execution of these operations will be finished. In this moment, the term simultaneous" must be discussed more carefully. Any concept of continuously flowing time (as e.g. in Newtonian physics) will be inadequate here. There must be some ,,internal clock" that defines finite and discrete intervals of time, called ,,time windows", with the following property: If and only if two operations X and Y are performed within the same time window, a possible contradiction between the outcomes of X and Y will be detected (with the consequence that the system will remain unchanged). Hence, two operations can be denoted as simultaneous if both are completely performed within the same time window (a partial overlap of their execution time does not suffice). When we now regard the contents of the two operations, we e.g. can have Lk = -Li, which means that two items of information received from outside contradict each other, such that (with a reservation still to be made) the system remains unchanged. In a similar way, there may be a discrepancy between the results of two acts of conclusion (Q, Ck e C) or between two valuations (Vi, Vk e V). A special technical requirement which is to guarantee that -X is uniquely defined must be skipped here. An important question is still open: Is it really possible that the effects of two simultaneous operations precisely compensate each other, or will there persist some inevitable side effect or ,,remainder"? The answer depends upon the ,,global organization" of the information-processing system. In the simpler cases, the system detects that there is a contradiction, and ignores both operators involved and their results. But within special systems, the fact that e.g. Lj and Lk disagree may be of interest by itself: this contradiction supplies a hint that at least one of the two underlying external sources of information is dubious and unreliable. Then, the system can be prepared to register just this special finding additionally. Indeed, the evaluation of cues concerning the reliability of information sources is a central issue in ,,governmental intelligence"6^; other side effects may occur in less dramatic situations. Now we can characterize time windows by the finite span of time such that two operations (or, if necessary, two operations of special kinds) occurring within that span of time are confronted with each other; depending on their contents it is possible that they neutralize each other.

4.2 Parameter-Dependence of Duration

At present, the duration, that is the length of a time window, can be measured only on the basis of our common understanding of time or of an external ,,reference time". This does not necessarily involve a ,,global time", a uniform duration (or even a uniform clock) all over the system; in addition to global time the following alternatives can be imagined: - Each subsystem has a duration of its own. - Some neighbouring subsystems form clusters with ,,local time" or ,,nearly local time". - The subdivision of the system into such clusters may vary with the course of time, when some subunits leave their old cluster and join a different one. Apart from these local time scales, the duration can depend on one or another parameter: - It may be different for the three classes L, C, and V.
' Cf. Watson et al. (1990); for a formal treatment within the theory of doxastic states see Adamatzky (2000).

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- It may vary with side conditions, like the length of incoming sequences of signals or the complexity of internal derivation processes. - It may be controlled by internally defined parameters, e.g. a maximum time allowance for trial-and-error processes in problem-solving tasks, or by newly developed valuations. - It may change with the lifetime of the system.

4.3 Possible Experiments and Applications

The concept of time as a sequence of finite and discrete intervals is not totally new. Particularly Bergson?) points out a distinction between time as it is understood in physics and the time which we directly experience. In his view, objective time is an intellectual construction, mainly influenced by the Newtonian concept of space and time, whereas the true time is subjective time. More recently, psychological experiments have shown that there is a ,,window of simultaneity", and that subjective simultaneity must be distinguished from its objective counterpart (Poppel, 1988; Poppel and Schill, 1992). Quantitative data are available for the length of that window, which varies with experimental conditions and is different e.g. for visual and auditive perception. Experiments proposed here have a common feature that subjects are exposed to stimuli with some ,,artificial ambiguity"; it is expected that the length of time windows will depend on parameters and on the presence or absence of remainders (Section 4.1). The observation must focus temporal aspects of the reactions: the increase of time required for the perception of simple stimuli or for the understanding of verbal information. There may be ambiguity in drawings or in ,,manipulated sounds", which consist not only of a fundamental tone and its harmonics, but also of some ,,alien" frequencies added. In experiments with inconsistent information the time needed for perception or for recollection can be measured. Finally, in experiments on decision-making, problem-solving, or group interaction, the effects of inconsistencies can be observed. Possible applications may be related to fields like cognitive dissonance, difficulties in learning, decision-making under aggravating conditions (e.g. time pressure), design of human-machine interfaces, and the perception of sounds or music (including polyphony).

If it is accepted that there is a nearly constant length of time windows, we may ask for the reason behind it. Is such a technique of organization more economical - will the system run more easily if a ,,rhythm" is predefined? Is there possibly an underlying optimality principle? Anyway, we should keep in mind that in computer science some care must be taken about the coordination of concurrent processes, whilst in humans parallel processes are already coordinated. Present foundational problems of modern physics perhaps are due to an inadequate concept of time, particularly to an overemphasis of continuum (Ruhnau, 1992, p. 171). This is mirrored by the relative weight of continuous mathematics (differential and integral calculus, etc.) within the mathematical tools for physicists. A slight trend can be recognized towards a more intensive use of algebraic structures in theoretical physics (from quaternions to various types of operator algebras). A total separation between subjective and objective time will not be required, if it is kept in mind that the time of natural scientists is connected with the scientists' personal acting and experiencing (Janich, 1996, p. 830). Ruhnau (1992) accentuates ,,structural and procedural similarities" between both concepts of time, which possibly may form a basis for a different view of time. It can be hoped that also the approach sketched here will make a small contribution to a bridge across that gap.

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For an overview of Bergson's contributions see Goudge (1967) and Lacey (1995).

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