Benjamin B. Olshin, Ph.D.
o Professor of Philosophy | History and Philosophy of Science and Technology | Design
o Cross-Cultural Consultant
RESEARCH — Current
My current research concerns models of spacetime. In particular, I am working on assembling two distinct models to describe spacetime in a way that could yield new insights into both the nature of time and temporality. In terms of the nature of time, my focus is on the experimentally-verifiable aspects of time, notably the results of Special Relativity. In terms of temporality, I am interested in why we perceive time as a series of events and how this can be connected more directly to the actual nature of time itself. The first model is one that I label "Time as 'Events'". For this model, I draw from the work of the physicist Julian Barbour. In his book The End of Time, Barbour argues that time as we perceive it — as a flow, or in a linear passage — is an illusion. He argues that there are, rather, distinct sets of moments, which he calls "Nows". These are fixed events, and Barbour further argues that in fact there is no such thing as motion or change. Barbour has also published a selection of academic papers outlining various aspects of this model. While this concept of a timeless universe is problematic, it is a very useful starting point in a new discussion of time and temporality.
In particular — although Barbour's work does not make this direct implication — his concept spatializes time in a particularly firm way, so that time as a geometrical identity can take full form, and be explored (in mathematical and physical terms) much in the same way as space. Barbour alludes to this in his characterization of Leibniz's model of motion as simply relational locations. This is Barbour's idea of independent events or moments — the "snapshots". They become ordered through what Barbour calls "the presumed continuity of the changes of the relative configurations" that allows, "a unique ordering of the sequence". Interestingly, Barbour does not use this depiction to provide a model of temporality, but it is possible. In my study, I hope to investigate the related concept of mathematical ordering as a possible origin for our sense of "time's passage", or temporality.
The work of Tim Maudlin, a philosopher of science at New York University, includes an approach to time that can be connected to Barbour's concepts. Although Maudlin's areas of specialty are metaphysics and quantum theory, he has also written on the nature of time. In his recent 2012 book, Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time, Maudlin uses a geometrical approach to explain Special Relativity, in contrast to the usual methods of coordinate systems or "reference frames". In my model of time as a set of "events", I hope to synthesize Barbour's general conception with the more specific geometrical structures of Maudlin to create a way of talking about Special Relativity in terms of a complete temporal setup. In this new model, I will articulate temporality as resulting from perspectival perceptions of events in four-dimensional structure, alluding to the potential role of a kind of parallax phenomenon in creating apparent passage of time.
The second model of time that I am researching is completely digital: in such a model, time is no more than a dataset. That dataset is a fixed compilation of encoded information that is structured in way comparable to the data in a storage medium such as a computer hard-drive. The information therein not only contains the coded "events" in time, but also contains the subcodes that dictate how the data should be accessed and read. This model provides a clear way of understanding how temporal events are read by, for example, human consciousness in a particular manner and in a particular order. Temporality in this model, then, is the reading of digital data through the form of an interface. This model, too, will be examined in terms of how it handles the results of Special Relativity, particularly time dilation.
RESEARCH — Recent
My other recent research has focused on three main areas:
(a) the transmission of proto-scientific and technical knowledge in ancient societies
(b) using philosophy of science to examine issues in "virtual reality" and "digital physics"
(c) the history of medieval and Renaissance cartography and exploration
Details on these research areas are as follows:
The Transmission of Proto-Scientific and Technical Knowledge in Ancient Societies
Having earlier researched specific technological descriptions in early Chinese texts, I became interested more generally in how ancient societies — even pre-literate ones — were able to preserve and transmit complex "scientific" and technical information from generation to generation, over what has been called "deep time". This information included methods for making tools, agricultural techniques, astronomical data, and the practice of indigenous forms of medicine — really, science and technology — that was communicated over the millennia, without journals, manuals, textbooks, formal classrooms, or the other apparatus of "modern" knowledge transmission. I presented on selected aspects of this subject at conferences in Vancouver in 2007 and Lisbon in 2008. The fundamental question that I am investigating is this: How was this proto-scientific and technical knowledge preserved and transmitted? These investigations have led to a book entitled Lost Knowledge: The Concept of Vanished Technologies and Other Human Histories (Leiden: Brill, 2019).
Using Philosophy of Science to Examine Issues in "Virtual Reality" and "Digital Physics"
Finally, my interest in "virtual reality" and "digital physics" came about from a convergence of several projects and investigations. Initially, I worked with Dr. Paul Grobstein, a neurobiologist at Bryn Mawr College (our collaboration ended, sadly, when he passed away in 2011). His primary interest was in consciousness, and how our brain resolves what he called the "static" or "noise" of external "reality" into tangible sensory information. From my side, I worked on the nature of that static or noise, from the perspective of physics and philosophy (particularly metaphysical schemata such as those found in Daoism). Together, we did a series of short studies on this subject, and on how different cultures approach the question of "reality" more generally. We concluded that in a wide variety of human cultures and traditions, a deep and important distinction is made between the constantly changing and somewhat uncertain world that people perceive through their senses, experience, and live in, and some other more fixed or transcendent "reality." The distinction is such a basic one in much of human culture that some may be taken aback by the suggestion that a distinction between two worlds — one immediate, imperfect, and in flux, and the other dimly glimpsed, ideal, and eternal — is not a universal characteristic of human thought.
Grobstein and I worked through these ideas in a series of draft papers, in the Evolving Systems Project — an interdisciplinary discussion group of Bryn Mawr faculty supported by the Metanexus Foundation — and in a paper that I gave in Cairo in the spring of 2009. Subsequently, I built upon a related brief study that I had carried out, also in 2009. I began to realize that there were actually a series of closely-related problems centered around what we call "reality" and the role of consciousness, how that reality is examined and experimented on in physics, and the rise of "virtual reality" based on computational models such as cellular automata. My current work explores a series of problems concerning the nature of "reality", and takes a problem-based approach.
What are those problems? The first concerns what we call the "prepositional model" or "locative model" (the latter term, interestingly, is used in linguistics) in descriptions of reality, and how that model leads to a fundamental block in exploring the question of the natural of "reality" in any formative manner. It is interesting that models of "reality" tend to be visual, and work on the basis of very concrete depictions, even as they claim to talk about transcendental "configurations" beyond our models and descriptions. The models we tend to use are those that speak of "levels", concentric rings, "inner and outer" realms, and so on. But are there non-visual models that actually might better reflect the nature of reality?
The second problem involves simulations. Much has been written about the possibility that our experienced reality is some kind of computer simulation — if those running the simulations have something they call a "computer" is another question, of course. In my current research, I want look at what that really means, and what form such a simulation might take. Some writers assume that it would look like the simulations we ourselves run, but with far more computing power... But why would "they" — that is, those running the simulation — necessarily behave like us? I am also exploring how a simulation might manifest the physical phenomena that we see around us, such as the apparent passage of time (temporality), interference patterns, and so on, an idea suggested by investigators such as Konrad Zuse, Stephen Wolfram, and others.
The third problem is that given this "prepositional model" — a model that asks us to specify a location for ourselves, our consciousness, and the phenomena that we experience through our senses — and given the possible existence of a "simulated reality", how might we design a test that could be done from inside the simulation to detect it? More precisely, how might we detect that our everyday experience of reality — and even particular phenomena, such as light waves, that are studied in physics — is being "mediated" in some way? I outlined this problem and a conjectural solution in a 2006 paper; my book Deciphering Reality: Simulations, Tests, and Design (Leiden: Brill, 2017) presents a detailed analysis of the question of virtual reality, approaches to reality through physics, and further philosophical conjectures.
The History of Medieval and Renaissance Cartography and Exploration
My primary cartographic research prior to 2014 resulted in a book on a series of early maps related to the voyages of Marco Polo, entitled The Mystery of the “Marco Polo Maps” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). I have presented my studies of these maps, and other areas of cartography such as the discovery of Brazil, in talks at the New York Map Society, the University of Toronto, Seton Hall University, the Warburg Institute at the University of London, and the Bodleian. More general cartographic projects have included studies of pre-Columbian exploration of the Atlantic Ocean, and indigenous knowledge in relation to mapping and cartographic knowledge.The latter subject was the focus of my presentation, entitled "Indigenous Mapping: Culture Creates Cartography", at the 2017 International History of Cartography Conference in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
During my career I have developed and delivered courses in a wide range of areas, including Western and Eastern philosophy, the history and sociology of technology, cultural anthropology, physics, design history, design, fine arts, and business, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I have also served as a thesis advisor in the areas of industrial design, museum studies, and art education.
Some of the courses that I have developed and taught are as follows:
Topics in Philosophy
Introduction to Chinese Philosophy
History and Philosophy of Science and Technology / Science:
Pseudoscience in Contemporary Society
Technology, Culture, & Society
Cultural Anthropology / Cultural Studies:
Death & Ritual
Graduate Seminar: Art, Land, and Landscape
Graduate Seminar:18th-21st Century Cultural Ideas
Visual Art and Design:
Conceptual Design Studio
Model-making in the Design Process
Graduate Seminar: Trends in Design Culture
Graduate Seminar: Visual Communication — Cities
Graduate Seminar: Visual Culture Studies
Graduate Industrial Design: Thesis Preparation
Western Art History
Art and the Creative Classroom
The Integrated Curriculum
Graduate Industrial Design Seminar: Professional Development
Graduate Industrial Design Seminar:
Graduate Industrial Design Seminar: Business Planning and Practices