Saturday, February 7, 2015

Time is real and there is only one universe

But also, pluralism rising, as the laws of that one universe are not immutable

The Guardian reviews a recent book by a physicist, Lee Smolin, and a philosopher, Roberto Mangabeira Unger: The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. I'm biased in that direction.

According to the review (emphasis mine):
it is a big and daunting book, harder to read than recent works by either author. The first section, by Unger, includes among other things an exploration of the global, irreversible and continuous attributes of time, followed by an analysis of proto-ontological assumptions. The second section, by Smolin, contains an approach to solving the meta-law dilemma, outlining linear cyclic models, branching models and branching cyclic cosmologies before it dives into cosmological natural selection, pluralistic cosmological scenarios and the principle of precedence.

If it sounds difficult that’s because it is. Still, some essential points can be readily grasped. Unger and Smolin want to overturn a picture of cosmology with which many of us are broadly familiar through a hundred different popular accounts. In that version, the universe – and therefore time as part of the space-time continuum – came into being following a big bang 13.8bn years ago. At first the universe was inconceivably tiny but then approximately 10 to the power of minus 37 seconds into the expansion, something called cosmic inflation led to exponential growth and the seeds of what we observe today. Oh and, the theory suggests, ours is just one of an infinite number of universes in the multiverse.

Unger and Smolin say that parts of this model are essentially preposterous. There is, they argue, just one universe. Time is real and the laws of nature are not timeless but evolve. Mathematics is not a description of some separate timeless, Platonic reality, but is a description of the properties of one universe.

Kafka once asked, if a book doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” This tries to be such a book. For many of us, it may be too heavy to lift up so that we can bring it down with a crash on the ice, but we may watch vigilantly for any fractures that appear from its use elsewhere.
Sounds interesting. From the book's preface (p. xii):
...the most important discovery made by the cosmology of the twentieth century: the discovery that the universe, and everything in it, has a history. The prevailing accounts tell that history against a background of immutable laws of nature. We argue that there is more reason to read that history as including the evolution of the laws themselves. History then subjects the laws as well as everything else to the effects of time.
Later (p. xvi):
Among the implications of this philosophical conception, and of the idea of the inclusive reality of time, is the thesis that the new can emerge and does emerge during the evolution of the universe. The new is not simply a possible state of affairs, prefigured by eternal laws of nature. It is not simply waiting to fulfill the conditions that, according to such laws, allow it to move from possibility to actuality. The new represents a change in the workings of nature. Such change embraces the regularities – that is to say, the laws – as well as the states of affairs. 
The emergence of the new is a repeated event in the history of the universe. It continues, under novel forms and constraints, in our own experience: the appearance of mind and the exercise of our human power to accelerate the production of novelty in the universe. Our science and our mathematics rank among the most notable instances of the exercise of this power.
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  1. I'm going with "single universe and the reality of time."

  2. A full exposition, it seems, of the theories and arguments presented in Smolin's book TIME REBORN.