I took some time off to visit my mother for a few days recently, one minor consequence of which was the necessity of making an eight hour drive twice in a relatively short period of time. My answer to this dilemma was to download the audio version of physicist Lee Smolin’s book Time Reborn. It has been a while since I’ve had the chance to dig into this type of book, and as one very much interested in the ideas of physics, I thoroughly enjoy Smolin’s writing. This was the third book of his that I have read. It is a pretty rare physicist who takes the time to provide carefully constructed glimpses into the field for non-specialists, and I very much appreciate the efforts of those who do so.
The central premise of the book is that the treatment of time as an illusory phenomenon has produced a variety of physical theories of cosmology that cannot be evaluated meaningfully through the scientific method, and whose outcomes often describe universes quite different from the one we see. Regarding the former, efforts to further these theories have led to vast families of solutions to the basic laws of nature– the laws we have now, anyway– without providing any insight into how the specific solution that represents our universe might have been “pulled from the hat”. This is akin to a situation in which we have a theory that predicts the way a thrown ball will travel through space. We can find an infinite number of trajectories that satisfy the requirements of the theory, but only one of them will represent the specific path of the Randy Johnson pay-off pitch that whistles past the batter on the inside corner and ends the inning. Our world is just such a pitch. Something marvelous relative to all possible thrown-ball scenarios we could imagine.
Some physicists have resorted to the anthropic principle to explain how a universe like ours was selected from all the possible universes that could have arisen in perfect satisfaction of the known laws, which basically means: we’re here aren’t we–??? And given as we’re here, certain things could only be as they have been. For Smolin, this is not physics, because the anthropic principle is not an idea that can be tested or that leads to any new and meaningful insights into the nature of the universe– (as of yet, perhaps).
The other problem with the treatment of time as an illusory or emergent phenomenon is that it results in the conception of universes unlikely to produce novelty and complexity, given the laws of nature as we know them today. Smolin argues that complexity and novelty are the products of histories, and that universes in which time is not a truly active ingredient simply don’t possess the characteristics necessary to spawn the creative complexity and non-uniformity that we see in our own. In fact, by all known rights contained in the laws of thermodynamics and probability, universes with complexity and novelty ought to be the exception and not the rule. Attempts to offer cosmological theories without the inclusion of time often rely upon some mechanism or argument for suggesting that in a field of possibility grand enough to include just about anything, then a world such as ours will be in the mix somewhere. Physicists, you see, are very clear on what the term infinite means. Such an astoundingly vast domain could surely include at least one lone point within it representing this…
One cosmological theory developed by Julian Barbour suggests that all possible “moments” that ever could exist, do so simultaneously, in a multi-dimensional landscape of static snapshots. There is no time in the sense that all such moments exist simultaneously, but there is some mechanism by which a path of “moments” is selected from the field of possibilities. A world is a line traced through the possibility landscape– called by Barbour Platonia— that connects one moment to the next. Our memories as beings, the buried fossils we discover in the ground, and the historical artifacts contained in a particular snapshot are all explained simply as being the contents of a particular snapshot. They are not there because of a causal relationship to a past, per se, but because in a vast enough ensemble of possibilities there quite simply will exist moments that contain objects that we would describe as dinosaur fossils. Barbour also wrote a book accessible to non-specialists, and I found his imaginative thinking also to be insightful and intriguing. While the simplified version of his story I have given here may seem absurd, it is not. I simply don’t have the time or space here to do it justice.
I enjoy thinking about all of these things, and whether a theory is ultimately right or not is hardly the point. None have been yet. The ideas and insights that are gleaned from asking questions and following them to their logical conclusions are well worth the effort. They open the mind and periodically lead to insights into the natural world that, like a good poem, pulse through my entire being like the single, aha! drumbeat of the ineffable. Such insights are not all of the world, but they provide hints of its character that resonate with me, and bring me to a state of wonder and appreciation. For me, this is the beauty of science– the moment when insight reminds us we are part of something beautiful, profound, and perhaps beyond ultimate definition. Also, perhaps paradoxically, the power of science is that it isn’t just fantastic imagining. Not every idea holds up to the test of scrutiny and examination. The false must be rooted out and discarded.
In his epilogue Smolin wrote of his dedication to the ethic of science, by which I believe he meant the formulation and testing of assertions, the need to validate them through evidence, and the need to be honest about what isn’t working. This is a great ethic, and one I believe we would all do well to adopt, for it requires that we accept neither our experience nor our motivations at face value, and that if things aren’t working, that we revisit our most basic assumptions. This is profoundly difficult for us to do, yet in doing so my experience is that we discover there is something deeper at work that rewards the effort, patience, and imagination required to reveal it. I am going to propose that I, too, adhere to such an ethic, the difference in our two approaches being the scope of what we consider to be real, and suitable for study.
I believe, for instance, that such an ethic applied to the definition of what we call “God” would radically shift our religious and spiritual thinking, which is too often stifled by the past, and by unquestionable definitions and assertions. Such a courageous and creative approach would, I think, ultimately allow for a greater consilience between all fields of human inquiry. Smolin’s universe remains, at its most fundamental, an unconscious unfolding of energy in accordance with inescapable laws– a self-contained and finite, physical process influenced only by its own energetic contents, that gives rise to novelty and complexity. But what about meaning? One great challenge I see with isolating science as a route to knowledge is that meaning, too, must be considered an unnecessary and late-arriving phenomenon, being an artifact of an emergent consciousness. Just as a universe without time seemed, at least in Smolin’s view, to lead to unfertile areas of scientific inquiry, I wonder if the models of universes without meaning won’t one day be viewed as arbitrarily limiting in their predictive and explanatory powers.
Perhaps this is a question outside of the field of science, but I don’t think it is outside of the scope of what it is to be human.