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Making physics history

In The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin attempt to bring modesty to physics

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin

CUP, pp.543, £19.99, ISBN: 9781107074064

The European philosophical tradition, Alfred North Whitehead claimed, consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. If you really want to see Plato’s heirs in action, though, philosophy is the wrong place to look. Look, instead, at physics. Nowhere else is the spirit of the Academy cultivated so assiduously: the maths fetishism, the disdain for mere appearances, the passionate yearning for a timeless, radiant truth. Throw a rock in a physics faculty and you’ll hit someone explaining that the laws of reality are eternal, written in the burning sigils of mathematics. Extreme cases, such as Max Tegmark, go so far as to claim that reality itself just is mathematics, which actually overshoots Plato to land among antiquity’s greatest weirdos, the Pythagoreans.

And yet, progress on a number of niggling mysteries has been slow. Most troublingly, a lot of precise and peculiar values appear to be baked into the fabric of reality, and it’s hard to say how they got there. Why these natural constants? Why these initial conditions? Perhaps, say multiverse theorists, everything happens; perhaps every possible universe really exists — in which case it should be no surprise that we see anything in particular in ours.

If that last idea strikes you as silly, you might get on with the American physicist Lee Smolin and his co-author Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a Brazilian philosopher, politician and legal theorist of strikingly diverse interests. Smolin has been sounding the alarm about the state of his discipline since at least 2006, when he published The Trouble with Physics. He and Unger have since then been at work on an alternative programme, one that hopes to lay Plato’s ghost once and for all and reconstitute physics in terms that might, as it happens, have appealed to Whitehead himself, in his guise as the father of process philosophy. In their scheme, physics becomes a historical discipline.


In his fascinating Time Reborn (2013), Smolin proposed a number of idiosyncratic theses. The first is that time is ‘really real’ — which is to say, it can’t be explained in terms of more basic theoretical entities, in the way that, say, molecular motion explains heat. But to defeat Plato, it’s not enough for time to be real: it has to be in charge. So Smolin further insists that the laws of nature themselves are subject to time’s rule. Change, as a recurring slogan has it, changes.

What a baffling thought. I’d suggest that we take a moment to let it sink in, except I can’t imagine a moment long enough. How on earth could change change? Does it evolve systematically (i.e., in a law-governed way), or at random? What is a regularity if it doesn’t stay the same? What is a cause if it is not regular?

These felt like loose ends in Time Reborn. They are taken up in earnest, though not altogether satisfyingly, in this book, which comprises two long essays, the first by Unger, the second by Smolin. Each one elaborates themes from Time Reborn. Smolin’s half of the book is restrained and mildly technical. Unger’s is declamatory, in a style clearly touched by continental philosophy. His job is to sell the vision, namely: physics clings to an idea of itself as standing outside of time. It thinks it’s dealing in eternal things — laws, symmetries, fundamental building blocks — but that’s a mistake. It must instead assume a position among those sciences, such as biology, or economics, in which lawlike regularities emerge from quirks of local organisation. Conditions were different in the early universe. They might be different again. ‘Structure,’ as Unger puts it, ‘results from history.’

That would be a humbling concession for physics to make. But consider the advantages: when confronted with puzzling observations, it could offer historical explanations. Why these constants? Why these initial conditions? Simply tack on a chunk of earlier time and assert that things happened back then to make them so. Perhaps that doesn’t sound much more scientific than the ‘everything happens’ option of multiverse theory. And yet, as Unger and Smolin both point out, in a historicised physics there is at least the hope that we might uncover archaeological traces of these formative aeons. Smolin even suggests a few places to start looking.

What to make of such a programme? By the standards of physics, it looks extremely eccentric. Then again, physics looks pretty eccentric by the standards of everything else. And any serious intellectual rebellion is worth watching. This one is ambitious: it seeks to root out one of the oldest impulses in the western imagination. Whether or not Plato is at fault, physics appears to be in a rut. A change might be welcome.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • TheOligarch_Com

    i think this is the argument in the article- but making physics as relativistic as liberal arts, Plato’s ghost is put to rest because nothing he said matters anymore, since the natural laws are no longer the same as they were in his day? Is that what you are trying to say? Or are you trying to say that making physics relativistic would be a ground breaking theory not just a footnote to Plato? You would be wrong on both counts my friend. Plato says the natural laws are no more real than, if you like the analogy, the setup of the Matrix in the film by that name. So this theory would just be a footnote to Plato. But it was also be a laughable footnote, because Plato expl

    • TheOligarch_Com

      Disqus does not work on a ipad, another example of the idiocy on modern technology. Anyway, beyond the motion there is rest, the eternal the natural laws inherit from by the underlying assumption

  • Anton Szautner

    Most excellent article. Smolin’s persistance in promoting time itself as a vital if not fundamental ’cause’ behind physical constants and the physical ‘rules’ that appear to order the operations of nature is justifiable considering the chaotic character of multiverse notions that oddly presume a temporal background against which ‘everything happens’, including disparate physical constants and operational rules within particular domains which string theorist/multiverse proponents suggest can ‘interact’ via colliding branes under the dominion of some fundamental temporal background which none of them seem to address explicitly.

    However, that should not preclude the possibility that a proper identification of what time actually is can’t resolve both of these apparently contrary camps.

    In other words, it remains entirely possible that BOTH multiverse scenarios (‘everything happens’ per justifiable quantum considerations) AND Smolin’s (and other Loop Quantum Gravity and Cosmology theorist’s) ideas on the crucial if not fundamental role of time may in large measure be mutually consistent.

    I submit that the real trouble with physics is that human cultures develop camps that pay more attention to defending particular stances rather than the actual extant problem. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a solution may be acquired that demonstrates a consilience between them…and one that provides partial vindication for each.

    It should be clear by now amongst everyone in the theoretical physics community that we as humans find it difficult to understand what is almost certainly the most simple attribute of nature and existence just because we can’t find a handle to compare it with in our own experience.

  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    It appears to me that there is very little inherently philosophically complicated in Multi-verse theory other than its name. In fact, from the point of view of wavefunction collapse, it appears very simple and natural. Now, I am no expert in Quantum Field theory, so am struggling to understand how the subtleties work out (i.e. renormalisation or how all these wavefunctions reaching out infinitesimally to infinity would interact to produce sensible finite results), but from a basic perspective, perceived reality might be thought of as propagating in time as a series of wavefunction collapses, where the wavefunction is not a physical entity but is a complete mathematical description of a particle.

    The collapse of the wavefunction is one of the central mysteries of QM and rightly so. For, when a wavefunction which is a superposition of different states is “measured” (not implying human measurement – but interaction with external system – again in a simple non-QF treatment the complication of quantisation of the field may be ignored – basically one might ask why setting up a potential does not constitute a measurement and the answer is to explain everything in terms of particles), it “collapses” into one of these states with a certain probability related to the original “proportion” of the state in making up the wavefunction. (This probability may be thought of as the limit of the fraction of identical experiments which would yield this state, as the number of experiments made goes to infinity.)

    This goes completely against all Classical intuition, for when we measure a classical superposition of states we do not measure a particular state with a certain probability as a limit of an idealized experimental process. E.g. when light is shone into our eyes, we do not see blue, or red light at a well-defined wavelength, but see a shade of colour, or for example were I to touch a wooden plank I would not expect my finger to “tunnel” through in a miniscule fraction of experiments. This is is because these probabilities are insignificantly small for large, many body systems. I am not likely to diffract when crossing a doorway this side of the lifetime of the Universe.

    The important thing is that experiments with entanglement have shown that wavefunction collapse is instantaneous. No one is particularly certain what wavefunction collapse means, though there are some “standard” interpretations, of which the Copenhagen interpretation, is the least informative. It says next to nothing about collapse. I am no expert on Multiverse theory, but I cannot see why it would be illogical to think about the wavefunction collapsing as “picking” a reality, in the sense that my grandfather being killed or not being killed “picked” a reality in which I am alive. Of course, such a theory would lack much predictive power, as I can see of no Physical reason why any such “realities” would ever interact with each other. One might object that in order to explain this Physical reality, I have needed to invoke an external one, but I would claim that the “external reality” thus invoked is purely fictitious, and just as much a crutch to the mind as “centrifugal acceleration” in a rotating frame of reference. It would however, neatly explain both why the wavefunction collapse is instantaneous, and what it means Philosophically.

    Now Lee Smolin is himself an interesting fellow, and I am certain that he advances a far more sophisticated argument than “Time is crucial to our understanding”, since the complicated inter-relation of space and time was long suspected, and last mathematically expressed by Einstein’s Field Equations in GR. The problem is that no one knows how to successfully interpret relativistic ideas in a rigorous QM framework (and they have been trying now for 70 years). He might have suggested a new approach to tackling the philosophical underpinnings of the arrow of time, which remains a topic of discussion, or perhaps some research on the discrete nature of space-time, which appears to be an active and fruitful area of interest.

    I am of course, always open to debate, particularly since I am an undergrad Physics student little exposed to the more exotic ideas of theorists, and would be interested in what somebody else had to say.

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