New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects

Lee Smolin


From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Smolin is a physicist who is probably best known for his theory of the Darwinian evolution of universes. We are invited to picture black holes continually giving birth to new universes, in many of which new black holes will form to spawn further universes in their turn. This process is supposed to be influenced by Darwinian selection to produce universes with more black holes and ever-increasing complexity.

That idea gave a central role to time, and in the present book Smolin takes this further. The idea that time is unreal, an illusion, is ancient and widespread. Truth, justice, scientific laws, and the divine realm are often said to be outside time. This was Plato's view and it was also held by Einstein. Smolin, in contrast, thinks that time is utterly real. In fact, it is the most real aspect of our perception of the world.

Smolin has authored or co-authored numerous scientific articles about his ideas; here he presents them in non-technical language for non-specialist readers. The book has two parts. The first describes and criticises the predominant view, according to which past and future exist and are fixed, and the second and longer part presents Smolin's alternative opinion. The fixed view of time is often referred to as Einstein's block universe. Einstein himself is said to have found solace in the notion of timelessness: "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

Smolin experiences the emotional appeal of this understanding of time, particularly in the way it has been developed by another physicist and friend, Julian Barbour.

Barbour's theory of timeless quantum cosmology offers palpable consolation for our mortality. I can feel it. I wish I could believe it. You experience yourself in a collection of moments. According to Barbour, that's all there is. Those moments always are, eternally. The past is not lost. Past, present, and future are with us, always. Your experience may figure in a finite set of moments, but those moments never go away or cease. So nothing comes to an end when you come to your last day. It's just that now you are experiencing a moment that has all the memories you will ever have. But nothing ceases, because nothing ever started. The fear of death is based on an illusion, which in turn is based on an intellectual mistake. There's no flow of time running out, because there's no flow of time. There are just, and always are, and always will be, the moments of your life.
Appealing though Barbour's theory is, Smolin does not think it is correct. Its picture of how the universe works is flawed, What we need instead is a new cosmological theory. We do not have it yet but Smolin outlines some of the features it will need to include. It will contain the physics we already have, it will be scientific not metaphysical (therefore making falsifiable predictions), it will explain why the universe obeys the laws it does and not different laws, and it will account for the initial conditions of our universe.

Scientific laws are not fixed but evolve, Smolin thinks, which leaves room for at least a degree of genuine originality and innovation. The future is not wholly predictable. But what influences how the laws evolve? On this question we encounter a considerable surprise in Chapter 12, where Smolin advances what he calls the Principle of Precedence. This means that the laws form habits, so to speak, depending on what has happened before. Smolin uses the analogy of the Anglo-Saxon Common law, whereby judges act in the way that judges have done in the past when presented with similar cases. Something of the kind might well be operating in nature, he suggests.

When we do an experiment that we have carried out many times before and in which we have always gotten the same result, we can reliably expect that result in the future. … We can expect that the next time we throw a ball it will travel along a parabola, which is what has happened every time we have done this in the past. Usually we say that this is because the motion is determined by a timeless law of nature, which being timeless, will act in the future just as it has acted in the past. So timeless laws preclude genuine novelty.
The Principle of Precedence would lead to the same result but would leave open the possibility of change. Smolin says that, after formulating this idea, he was astonished to find that it had been anticipated by Charles Sanders Peirce, who spoke of the laws of nature as habits developed over time. What I am reminded of is Rupert Sheldrake's hypothesis of 'morphic resonance'. Widely derided by most scientists, this has been taken up enthusiastically by adherents of the New Age movement. If Smolin has noticed the resemblance he doesn't mention it, but a quick search on the Net finds others who have.

Although Smolin insists that he is writing about science, not metaphysics, there are definite philosophical implications in what he says, notably in the passage about Julian Barbour quoted above. In an epilogue he finds connections between a prevailing belief that reality is timeless and threats to our survival, including climate change and economic instability. And he concludes with a brief discussion of the problem of consciousness, although the connection of this to the subject of the book seems rather tenuous.

Smolin writes well for the non-specialist reader and the ideas he discusses here are profound and important. How far they can be rendered in words rather than mathematics is difficult to know. There is some repetitiveness in the text and the argument is not always easy to follow, but the central idea—that there are major difficulties with the notion of timelessness that has characterised much of Western thought since Plato—comes across clearly. The relevance of this for theological speculations about the nature of God is only touched on obliquely here and there, but such questions certainly arise if Smolin's rejection of timelessness is right.

5 July 2014

%T Time Reborn
%S From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe
%A Smolin, Lee
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 2013
%G ISBN 9781846142994
%P xxxi + 319pp
%K physics, cosmology
%O hardback

New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects