Lee Smolin: Time, Physics and Climate Change

The most radical suggestion arising from this direction of thought is the insistence on the reality of the present moment and, beyond that, the principle that all that is real is so in a present moment . To the extent that this is a fruitful idea, physics can no longer be understood as the search for a precisely identical mathematical double of the universe. That dream must be seen now as a metaphysical fantasy that may have inspired generations of theorists but is now blocking the path to further progress. Mathematics will continue to be a handmaiden to science, but she can no longer be the Queen.

– Lee Smolin,  Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe

What if everything we’ve been taught about time, space, and the universe is not just wrongheaded, but couched in a mathematics of conceptual statements (theorems) that presumed it could map the totality of reality in a one-to-one ratio of identity?  This notion that mathematics can ultimately describe reality, that there is a one to one identity between the conceptual framework of mathematics and the universe – the Cartesian physicist – or, you may know him under the epithet of String theorist – will maintain that those statements about the accretion of the universe which can be mathematically formulated designate actual properties of the event in question (such as its date, its duration, its extension), even when there is no observer present to experience it directly. In doing so, our physicist is defending a Cartesian thesis about matter, but not, it is important to note, a Pythagorean one: the claim is not that the being of accretion is inherently mathematical – that the numbers or equations deployed in the statements (mathematical theorems) exist in themselves. What if all those scientists, philosophers and mathematicians who have pursued this path had in fact taken a wrong turn along the way. This is the notion that Lee Smolin an American theoretical physicist, a faculty member at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Waterloo and a member of the graduate faculty of the philosophy department at the University of Toronto puts forward in his new book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe.

String Wars

Smolin in his controversial The Trouble with Physics went against the grain of modern theoretical physics stating that science progresses fastest if the scientific community encourages the widest possible disagreement among trained and accredited professionals prior to the formation of consensus brought about by experimental confirmation of predictions of falsifiable theories. He proposed that this meant the fostering of diverse competing research programs, and that premature formation of paradigms not forced by experimental facts can slow the progress of science. Along with Peter Woit both physicists have been critical of the current dogma of String Theory that controls most of the current understanding of modern physics. As Woit says:

For the last eighteen years particle theory has been dominated by a single approach to the unification of the Standard Model interactions and quantum gravity. This line of thought has hardened into a new orthodoxy that postulates an unknown fundamental supersymmetric theory involving strings and other degrees of freedom with characteristic scale around the Planck length. […] It is a striking fact that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for this complex and unattractive conjectural theory. There is not even a serious proposal for what the dynamics of the fundamental ‘M-theory‘ is supposed to be or any reason at all to believe that its dynamics would produce a vacuum state with the desired properties. The sole argument generally given to justify this picture of the world is that perturbative string theories have a massless spin two mode and thus could provide an explanation of gravity, if one ever managed to find an underlying theory for which perturbative string theory is the perturbative expansion. 1

In 2006 both men caused a stir that has come to be known as the “String Wars” in which a discussion in took place between University of California, Santa Barbara physicists at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics and science journalist George Johnson regarding the controversy caused by Lee Smolin and Woit’s books. The meeting was titled “The String Wars” to reflect the impression the media has given people regarding the controversy in string theory caused by Smolin and Woit’s books. A video of the proceedings is available at UCSB’s website.2

This led Smolin to rethink much of current scientific methodology and theory that has guided scientists into their current impasse. Ultimately this lead him to realize that the problem lay in our dogmatic attachment to the myth of mathematics as the Queen of the sciences. As he suggests if we overcome this illusion and realize that math is a subordinate tool rather than the only show in town we may discover another path forward:

The reward we get for sacrificing a queen is a more democratic vision of the furniture of physical theories. Just as the distinction between royalty and commoners was discarded long ago, so must we reject and go beyond an absolute distinction between the states of affairs in the world and the laws by which they evolve in time. No longer can absolute, timeless laws be seen to dictate the evolution of the time-bound configuration of the world. If everything that is real is real in a moment, then the distinction between laws and states must be a relative one, which arises and is discernible in relatively cold and calm cosmological eras like our own. But in other, more violent eras, the distinction must dissolve into a new, fully dynamic description of the world which is rational and answers to the principle of sufficient reason. By allowing laws to evolve in time, we increase our chances of explaining them by hypotheses that have testable consequences. It might seem that having laws evolve weakens their power, but in fact it increases the overall power of science, whereas extending ideas that work in the Newtonian paradigm to the domain of cosmology weakens the power of science. If we admit into our conception of nature evolution and time at the deepest levels, we are more apt to comprehend this mysterious universe in which we find ourselves.(251)

The point here is that we have relied on a conception of physics based on the static and unchanging notion of eternal laws rather than realizing that those laws like everything else in the universe might just evolve over time. This is the simple movement of Smolin’s whole argument. I want go into his notions of time, the moment, etc. His notions have grown out of Leibniz, the Occasionalists ( only by way of Leibniz ), Whitehead, etc. All of this comes down to a revitalization of causality and time, the incorporation of evolution as a immanent manifestation within time, etc. I’ll leave these aspects to the inquiring reader. It is all very interesting and comes to the heart of many of our current speculative realist philosophers as they, too, try to explain how change ever gets going in the universe. Smolin says Time is the key to any new scientific understanding of the universe. If we do not get this right then everything falls apart. At the center of this change needed is a new notion not only of Time, but of relation… this comes to the heart of Smolin’s stance: “I define science by adherence to an ethic rather than a method , I must accept the possibility of scientific methodologies that no one has yet conceived” (Smolin, 267). This brings Smolin to the end of his on metaphysical quagmire or philosophical stance: “The relationalist stance is that there’s nothing real in the world apart from those properties defined by relationships and interactions. Sometimes this idea seems compelling to me; at other times it seems absurd. It does neatly get rid of the question of what things really are. But does it make sense for two things to have a relation— to interact— if they are nothing intrinsically? …These are questions that are too deep for me. Someone with a different training and temperament might be able to make progress on them, but not I”  (Smolin, 267).

But what would such a theory on the universe entail based on relations? Smolin tells us that such a theory must minimally contain what we already know about nature; must be scientific; as well as give us substantial insight into how and why the particular elementary particles and forces described in the Standard Model were selected. In particular, it must explain the special and improbable values of the fundamental constants that obtain in our universe— the parameters, like the masses of the elementary particles and the strengths of the various forces, that are specified by the Standard Model. It must also provide us with an understanding of the initial conditions: why our universe has properties that seem unusual when compared to the possible universes that might be described by the same laws. (Smolin, 114-115) One other item on his list is Time. What is it? Without going into the fine points he comes to the conclusion that time evolves, and if it evolves then Einstein’s theory of relativity is wrong since it was based on a timeless sense of Time. As he states it time is real and global. This global notion of time implies that at each event in space and time there is a preferred observer whose clock measures its passage. But there is no way to pick out that special observer by any measurements made in a small region. The choice of the special global time is determined by how matter is distributed across the universe. This coincides with the fact that experiments agree with the principle of relativity on scales smaller than that of the universe . Thus, shape dynamics achieves an accord between the experimental success of the principle of relativity and the need for a global time demanded by theories of evolving laws and hidden-variable explanations of quantum phenomena. (pp. 170-171)

Against the notion that time is real is the prevalent orthodoxy of our current accepted research program which is based on the notion of a timeless universe that embraces quantum mechanics and the multiverse as the final theory and has been around for more than two decades. It has not yet produced a single falsifiable prediction for a currently doable experiment. At best, it has produced speculations about a novel phenomenon, collisions of bubble universes, remnants of which might be observed if we’re lucky. However , these speculations are not falsifiable predictions, because failure to verify the predictions can be easily explained away at no cost to the speculation. Nor have the basic difficulties this program faces been resolved, despite many years of work by smart and determined scientists. These difficulties have to do with making predictions when the universe is one of infinitely many universes, all but one of them unobservable; with the definition of probabilities when there are an infinite number of copies of every event; and with the basic fact that neither theory nor observation much constrains the invention of scenarios about things that might be true beyond the range of our observations. (Smolin, 249)

What we need he tells us is a new method, a new approach to the essential questions that have puzzled physicists for a century now. As he states it:

While the task is daunting, we do have several things on our side. The first, and most likely primitive, attempts to frame hypotheses about the evolution of laws— hypotheses that involve a possible history of the universe before the Big Bang— have led to falsifiable predictions for doable observations . These include the predictions of cosmological natural selection and the predictions of cyclic cosmologies. It’s too early to tell whether any of these ideas are true, but it’s encouraging to know that present and near-future observations could lead us to reject them as false. These simple examples suggest that scenarios in which the universe is a stage in a succession of universes are testable and hence scientific. (Smolin, 250)

Climate Change

Smolin admits in the final section of his important work that the cosmological issues facing theoretical physics should not override the problems of climate change facing us in this Anthroposcene Era:

We need a new philosophy, one that anticipates the merging of the natural and the artificial by achieving a consilience of the natural and social sciences, in which human agency has a rightful place in nature. This is not relativism, in which anything we want to be true can be. To survive the challenge of climate change, it matters a great deal what is true. We must also reject both the modernist notion that truth and beauty are determined by formal criteria and the postmodern rebellion from that, according to which reality and ethics are mere social constructions. What is needed is a relationalism, according to which the future is restricted by, but not determined by, the present, so that novelty and invention are possible. This will replace the false hope of transcendence to a timeless, absolute perfection with a genuinely hopeful view of an ever expanding realm for human agency, within a cosmos with an open future. (pp. 257-258).

He tells us that scientific communities, and the larger democratic societies from which they evolved, progress because their work is governed by two basic principles: 1) When rational argument from public evidence suffices to decide a question, it must be considered to be so decided; and, 2) When rational argument from public evidence does not suffice to decide a question, the community must encourage a diverse range of viewpoints and hypotheses consistent with a good-faith attempt to develop convincing public evidence. (Smolin, 265) As he remarks:

I call these the principles of the open future. They underlie a new, pluralistic stage of the Enlightenment— a stage now arising . We respect the power of reasoning when it’s decisive, and when it isn’t we respect those who in good faith disagree with us. The limitation to people of good faith means people within the community who accept these principles. Within such communities, knowledge can progress, and we can strive to make wise decisions about a future that is not completely knowable.(Smolin, 265)

Optimistic? Maybe, but without hope we are probably all doomed as a species along with all habital life to fall away by the end of the 21st Century in the Sixth Global Extinciton since the earth was formed. As Smolin has it:

The consequences of overcoming the climate crisis are difficult to predict, because to succeed we have to do more than solve a global engineering problem. Even among those who appreciate the seriousness of the crisis, adherence to one or another of two opposing viewpoints, both false, delays real progress. For those who see the world in economic terms, nature is a resource to be exploited and transcended— and climate change is just an agricultural problem on a larger scale, to be managed by cost-benefit analysis. For environmental activists, nature is paramount and pristine, and can only be diminished by the encroachments of civilization; climate change, for them, is just another issue of preservation. Both miss the point, because both assume that nature and technology are mutually exclusive categories, so that when they clash a choice must be made between them. But an adequate solution to the crisis requires muddying the distinction between the natural and the artificial. It requires not a choice between nature and technology, but a reorientation of their relationship to each other.(Smolin, 255)

1. Woit, Peter, 2002, “Quantum Field Theory and Representation Theory: A Sketch
2. George Johnson, Science Journalist in Residence, KITP, The String Wars”. Online.itp.ucsb.edu. 2006-10-20. Retrieved 2011-12-10.

4 thoughts on “Lee Smolin: Time, Physics and Climate Change

  1. Great post. I’ve been meaning to read Smolin’s books for a long time. His gestures toward a process-relational and pluralistic ontology are music to my ears.

    He doesn’t seem to mention Whitehead in either “Time Reborn” or “The Trouble with Physics.” Any idea where he talks about an influence? Or were you only drawing a conceptual link and not a direct influence?


    • Yea, more of a conceptual link… his main influence is Leibniz and monadology… and, obviously without him even being aware of it the Occasionalism of Malebranch – and the Medeivalists by proxy. If you read his views on time you see an Occasionalist conception. Barbour was another influence in that regard… like many of us there are indirect influences that abound in a persons works by dent of closer influences from current theoretics. I never really worry about influence hunting… just more of a passing note for myself.


  2. Thank you for this, again. I have put a link to this essay in mine “Concerning Truth and Reality”. I am not so tech savvy as to have figured how to link essays in, say, a community that has related topics, so I just put the URL. I hope that is fine with you.


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