On Time Reborn as modern myth: Why Lee Smolin may be right about physics (but probably wrong about free will, consciousness, computers and the limits of knowledge)

by adamsopticks

Lee Smolin

The renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell once argued that any existential narrative worth its salt must combine four essential elements: the cosmological, the psychological, the sociological, and the mystical. That is to say that in rendering an image of the world – its cosmology – a good myth must also sooth the psychological pains of existence, answer the sociological questions of how to live as part of a group, and – crucially – suffuse our lives with a mystical awe such that ‘through every feature of the experienced world, the sense of an ideal harmony resting on a dark dimension of wonder should be communicated’.

Time Reborn CoverIn the 21st century our cosmologists are rather more humble. Though their theories may strive to provide our most accurate and comprehensive view of nature, and (at a push) the sort of mystical wonder that Brian Cox does well to bang on about, the majority of scientists shun the notion that their every discovery ought to comfort us, or tell us how to live. This is a very good thing in my view: maintaining a distinction between what-there-is and what-we-ought-to-value protects both our science from wishful thinking, and our ethics from God On Our Side dogmatism (or Nature On Our Side, or what have you).

So when a theoretical physicist publishes a book that promises not only a potential solution to the longest standing puzzles in physics and cosmology, but also a ‘scientific’ reinvigoration of free will and human agency, and on top of that a series of deep insights into the problems of politics, social organization, economics, climate change, and our personal lives… well, I think it sensible to be cautious. Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn (2013) is science as modern myth and draws its philosophical vigour from a revolutionary physics of time that overturns universal determinism and asserts the absolute reality of the present moment.

Or something. Smolin freely admits that he is not a philosopher, but that his work aspires to be philosophical. But philosophy is a dangerous business for eminent scientists – a point well made by Dan Dennett in a recent interview with the Guardian:

The history of philosophy is the history of very tempting mistakes made by very smart people, and if you don’t learn that history you’ll make those mistakes again and again and again. One of the ignoble joys of my life is watching very smart scientists just reinvent all the second-rate philosophical ideas because they’re very tempting until you pause, take a deep breath and take them apart.

Many of Smolin’s philosophical ideas, I would like to suggest, are nothing new – and have either been put forth, or persuasively debunked, by numerous philosophers including Dennett himself. That said, his science is fascinating, and what I’d like to do now is to try to sift the best of Smolin’s scientific ideas out from what I’m convinced is some sadly shaky philosophy.

But before I do that I should mention that I had the great pleasure of attending a talk by Smolin as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas earlier this year – and found him to be a profoundly humane scientist with a fizzing profusion of exciting and iconoclastic ideas. And not to mention a wonderful orator. Cop a blast of this:

Stay tuned for a clip of the challenge I managed to put to Smolin at the end of the talk.

N.B. I’m going to try and recount as much of Smolin’s argument as is possible within this article, but if you want to skip straight to the source there’s this excellent talk given on Smolin’s home turf at the Parameter Institute of Theoretical Physics in Ontario, and this revealing interview with the Santa Barbara Independent. And then, of course, there’s the book.

Timeless mathematics and the computer universe

So what’s Smolin’s big idea? In his own words: that Time Is Real. ‘Well of course time is real!’ you may be tempted to respond, ‘… and who ever said it was illusory?’ Well, according to Smolin, that’s exactly what physics has been saying ever since Newton.

The ‘Newtonian Paradigm’ is one that suggests that the future may be calculated with perfect fidelity from two inputs: accurate knowledge of a system’s initial state plus the application of physical law. This is what Newton himself achieved with the planets and his laws of gravity and motion. Take the position of the planets around the sun at any one moment, apply the laws, and it is possible to predict their future positions indefinitely. The same logic underlies general relativity, the standard model of elementary particles, and quantum physics (although the latter is contentious, as we’ll see).

So what does this say about time? Well here’s the bombshell (according to Smolin): Any version of physics that claims to be able to predict the universe with timeless logic has done away with time completely. If the history of the universe is a perfect continuum, equivalent to a perfectly logical deduction, then there is no such thing as the present moment and the universe may as well be a computer (cf. David Deutsch) or perhaps a ‘mathematical structure’ (cf. Max Tegmark).

So what’s wrong with that? The usual – and, as I will argue, fallacious – objection runs that an entirely deterministic universe denies free will, and indeed Smolin goes along with this. In fact at one point in his Bristol talk Smolin conceded that ‘the secret history’ of his project was to offer some cosmological support to the work of Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist whose One Half A Manifesto (2000) pits itself against evolutionary psychology and its attendant vision of human beings as biological computers. I actually think that the analogy between humans and computers is a pretty good one – but either way I’m highly suspicious of the attempt to contrive an entire cosmology to fit one’s preferred self-image for humanity (whatever image that might be). Therein lies myth. That said, Smolin does have a number of independent arguments for the validity of his position that are well worth considering. I’ll deal with those first before turning to the wider implications for human life.

The Cosmological Fallacy or the Cosmological Hypothesis?

As we’ve established, the Newtonian Paradigm that founds the computational vision of nature consists in two components: initial state plus physical law. In arguing that ‘time is real’ Smolin would collapse the distinction between the two. His radical thesis asserts that all that exists is the present moment (which is one of a succession of moments) and that the state of the universe in any one moment is therefore generative of physical law rather than slavish to it. (And perhaps, as a consequence, open to change).

Smolin’s main ‘battering ram’ against the prevailing belief in eternal laws is what he diagnoses as the ‘the Cosmological Fallacy’ in physics. All laws of physics, Smolin would remind us, are inferred from experiments conducted in small subsystems of the universe – laboratories mainly! – and ought not to be automatically extended to the universe as a whole. And if a law describes that which remains constant over many repetitions of an experiment then the idea of a universal law could never be scientifically warranted because, after all, the universe only happens once.

Smolin’s arguments concerning the Cosmological Fallacy are extensive and interesting, but to my mind almost entirely pre-empted by David Hume (a figure notable by his absence amongst the philosophers cited in Time Reborn). In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Hume famously argued that though the patterns in the behaviour of physical objects appear remarkably consistent, our faith in the uniformity of nature will always be impossible to prove outright. This is because whenever we try to justify our belief that the future will continue to resemble the past we inevitably fall back on the excuse ‘well, it’s always done so in the past!’ – which is a perfect example of circular reasoning. This is Hume in his own words:

When I see, for instance, a Billiard-ball moving in a straight line towards another… may I not conceive that a hundred different events might as well follow from that cause? May not both these balls remain at absolute rest? May not the first ball return in a straight line, or leap off from the second in any line or direction? All these suppositions are consistent and conceivable.

Hume’s arguments that the regularity of nature may be ultimately unprovable and that radical changes are both ‘consistent and conceivable’ have long worried those philosophers keen to justify science’s claim to eternal truth. Their cogitations, however, have not been without fruit. Indeed it is my view that Karl Popper’s twentieth century reply to Hume takes much of the apparent force out of the issue, and, by extension, out of Smolin’s Cosmological Fallacy. Popper’s strategy was to concede that no amount of positive evidence could ever prove any theory to be ultimately true – but that this is beside the point. Science, for Popper, should never about demonstrating the ‘truth’ of theories (lasting or otherwise) so much as throwing a thousand guesses at a problem and seeing which ones fall foul of experiment. Those hypotheses which could in some way be proved false – but hold up – are to be accepted as good science until counter-evidence comes along.

Smolin is, in fact, an avowed Popperian, but it strikes me that he is being inconsistent on this point. According to Popper’s ‘falsificationist’ model of science the idea that the laws of nature may be timeless should not be considered a truth that requires justification so much as a working hypothesis that demands falsification. And, as Smolin himself admits, we have yet to see any hard evidence that the laws have changed since the big bang.

Cosmological Natural Selection and the Principle of Precedence

But what about that big bang? Rather more persuasive than his attacks on the a priori validity of timeless generalisations is Smolin’s drawing attention to the two inputs the Newtonian Paradigm takes for granted and could never itself explain; the initial state of the universe, and the existence of laws in the first place. If these things explain everything else, then what explains them?

Smolin’s solution to this perennial mystery is his theory of Cosmological Natural Selection (first published in 1992) – and it is both wonderfully outlandish and deeply elegant. The argument runs that black holes may ‘give birth’ to new regions of space-time whose laws undergo a subtle ‘mutation’ in the process. The initial singularity of our big bang is thereby explained in terms of a quantum ‘bounce’ from a previous era. The argument concerning laws, meanwhile, is essentially Darwinian: those universes with laws conducive to the generation of black holes will have many progeny while those with dramatically different laws will not. If our universe is typical, as the great majority will be, it will belong to the former camp. The theory – expressed mathematically – has even made some potentially falsifiable predictions about the nature of our universe which enable Smolin (on this count at least) to boast that he has satisfied the demands of good Popperian science.

According to Cosmological Natural Selection physical law is only ever augmented at the birth of universes – but it requires that law emerge from some fact about the present state of the universe in order for law to be malleable at all. If laws existed ‘outside of time’ they could never be subject to mutation, and hence natural selection, and their origins would remain mysterious. But do the pressure-cooker singularities at the hearts of black holes provide the only circumstances under which laws could change? Could they ever change during the lifespan of a universe? Or even during our lifetimes? Smolin’s more recent proposal for the means by which laws may change – the Principle of Precedence – appears to raise that tantalising prospect.

Smolin lays the groundwork for this idea with an uncontroversial fact about quantum physics:

If we prepare and measure a quantum system we have studied many times in the past, the response will be as if the outcome were randomly chosen from the ensemble of past instances of that preparation and measurement.

This apparent randomness is normally held to be consistent with timeless law because of the fact that the statistical distribution of the data remains constant over time: study the position of an electron orbiting a hydrogen atom today and you’ll get the same spread of readings you got fifty years ago. But for Smolin, for whom the only reality is the present moment, all that exists is the ensemble of possibilities itself, and there is no timeless law governing their regularity. In the place of such a law it is Smolin’s contention that all we really need to assume is that ‘nature repeats itself’. This is the Principle of Precedence. To elaborate: it may be the case that any physical system, when ‘confronted with a question’, will ‘look to the past’ at all the other times a similar question has been asked and ‘pick randomly’ from previous responses. The promise of this idea is that it makes sense of the success of Newtonian science whilst leaving open the possibility that truly novel experiments or situations – for which the universe has no precedent – will yield truly novel results. Thus, for Smolin, ‘the future is open’ and we ‘may be liberated from the idea that we can’t do anything about it’.

Problems with the Principle of Precedence

It is at this point that I’m going to take a leaf out of Dan Dennett’s book, pause, take a deep breath, and take the Principle of Precedence apart. I’m readily attracted to Smolin’s proposal that the regularity of nature may emerge from some fact about the present state of the universe, and may – as a consequence – be malleable in the singularities of black holes. The pressing need to account for the initial state of our universe and for the existence of its regularities strike me as perfectly valid motivations for taking these ideas seriously. I want to argue that the Principle of Precedence, by contrast, lacks any of the explanatory power of Cosmological Natural Selection, may well rely upon a deeply unscientific notion of consciousness in order to work, and actually serves to diminish the prospects of human freedom in the universe.

I’ll start, once again, with the issue of scientific methodology. It is Smolin’s bold claim that, unlike the idea of timeless laws, the Principle of Precedence is truly scientific because it does away with all needless metaphysics and is itself checkable by experiment. But is it? Smolin cites, by way of a possible demonstration, the already extant practice of setting up quantum mechanical systems so complicated that they’ve never yet existed in the history of the universe. If his principle is correct then such systems ought to thwart all theoretical expectations and produce some genuinely novel phenomena. My problem with this is that expectations in science are thwarted all the time, especially in new areas of research – and when this happens scientists can be relied upon to busy themselves with the search for alternative models and explanations. I find it hard to avoid the reductio ad absurdum that every thwarted expectation in the history of science ought to count as proof of Smolin’s idea. How to tell the difference between a hitherto undiscovered but timeless fact about the universe that falsifies our expectations in this new area, and a spontaneously generated fact about the universe that confirms the Principle of Precedence? A true retreat from metaphysics ought to avoid begging such unanswerable questions – which is, I submit, the virtue of the falsificationist approach I outlined earlier. A consistent falsificationist is agnostic about the ultimate truth of any theory: all they can know is that it holds up in the face of potentially falsifying evidence. It would make science an entirely trivial exercise to celebrate such theories when they work and at the same time claim to have validated some deeper principle every time they fail.

Another problem with the Principle of Precedence is the lack of a convincing account of where ‘genuinely novel’ phenomena are supposed to come from. If we are to imagine that for the most part the universe glides along well-worn grooves, and only occasionally hits some bump in the road that necessitates a spin of the quantum wheel and the settling upon some new mode of behaviour, then what exactly constitutes that bump? To put it another way: if ‘the present moment’ is both the source of all regularity in the universe and the blank slate upon which formative experiences are recorded – then from whence do such influences emerge? One possible answer might be ‘from conscious human intervention’ – but if Smolin’s thesis promises to justify the existence of a miraculous form of free will then it ought not to presuppose it. Resisting that reading for the moment, perhaps it is the case that a generally deterministic universe will occasionally produce some set of circumstances so extraordinary as to bend itself out of shape. We’ve discussed black holes, but perhaps Smolin would have it that human intervention in the universe is likewise entirely determined right up until the point when – wholly governed by laws of physics, biology, psychology – we are moved to create some unprecedented situation or experiment which only then forges a new universal habit.

But, supposing we grant that possibility, what are we to suppose counts as an ‘unprecedented situation’? How is the universe supposed to distinguish between unprecedented situations and familiar ones? Can it really tell that quantum physicists in 2013 are asking ‘the same question’ when they repeat an experiment performed fifty years ago when (for instance) our universe was smaller, our solar system was in another part of it, and the previous experimenter had a cold? And aren’t unprecedented things happening all the time if only we avail ourselves of this kind of combinatory power? As I type these words I am sat in a café in Berlin, staring out the window, and watching the precise fluctuation of every leaf in the trees that line the street. The couple next to me are paying for their meal and murmuring their thanks to the waitress. There are three young girls outside petting a tiny dog on a bright red leash. Is this combination of circumstances novel enough to create a new law of physics, and if not why not? Isn’t a new-fangled quantum laboratory set-up precisely this kind of recombination of existing phenomena in a novel way?

A second and much more important problem with the idea that the universe may determine humans to tickle some novel response out of itself is that there is still no room for free will whatsoever: our lives remain entirely dictated by universal regularities right up to the point when something unpredictable – and hence equally beyond our control – just happens. If Smolin would like to suggest, à la Jaron Lanier, that human beings are more than biological computers then his argument requires some account of how our species in particular is capable of harnessing the plasticity of nature and making it our own. In the absence of that account the mere fact of evolving laws grants as much free will to rocks or tables or washing machines – or indeed computers – as it does to human beings.

Consciousness and the problems of essentialism

So perhaps it is the case that Smolin has brought some unscientific pre-suppositions about free will and consciousness to bear in the formulation of his thesis after all. How else to break the tautology inherent in his assertion that novel situations introduce novelty into the universe? Where does that novelty come from? I think Smolin may be tacitly presupposing that human consciousness is some miraculous source of novelty that is not in itself caused by anything else. This is Smolin’s only explicit discussion of consciousness, drawn from closing pages of Time Reborn:

The problem of consciousness is an aspect of the question of what the world really is. We don’t know what a rock really is, or an atom, or an electron. We can only observe how they interact with other things and thereby describe their relational properties. Perhaps everything has external and internal aspects. The external properties are those that science can capture and describe — through interactions, in terms of relationships. The internal aspect is the intrinsic essence; it is the reality that is not expressible in the language of interactions and relations. Consciousness, whatever it is, is an aspect of the intrinsic essence of brains.

This argument is harmless insofar as it goes. However, as the above passage freely concedes, the very notion of inner essences is by definition well beyond the reach of scientific validation. And if Smolin does mean to suggest that consciousness has a practical role to play in explaining human inventiveness, and perhaps even the evolution of the laws of physics, then he faces a problem familiar to all adherents of a ‘dualistic’ theory of mind, namely: How is it that a purely ‘inner’ essence may simultaneously reach out and influence ‘external’ events? There are games being played with language here. One cannot define consciousness as distinct from the cut-and-thrust of external relations and simultaneously require that it does all the work that Smolin needs it to.

Neuroscience, free will and the sensation of ‘now’

Even more problematic than Smolin’s discussion of inner essences is the emphasis he places on our species’ subjective awareness of ‘the present moment’. Setting himself against a long history of thinkers who would write off the sensation of ‘now’ as a psychological quirk incompatible with timeless physics, Smolin goes so far as to call it ‘the deepest clue we have as to the nature of reality’. Once again, I deeply distrust this desire to twist the universe to fit particular hunches – but if it were true that humans had a particularly intimate sensitivity to what Smolin characterises as an ‘open’ moment teeming with unresolved quantum possibilities then it is readily easy to imagine that our agency may in some way stem from this. Unfortunately – and quite apart from physicists objections to the very idea of a ‘present moment’ – there is robust neuroscientific evidence that humans’ perception of time over short intervals is not all that intimate or acute.

Take ‘flash and beep’ tests, for example. These involve the exposure of experimental participants to near-simultaneous bursts of light and sound. Controlling for the respective transmission speeds so that either the beep or the flash can be relied upon to reach the participant’s senses a few hundred milliseconds in advance of the other, individuals nevertheless find it notoriously difficult to identify which came first in their subjective experience. And this is for the entirely unsurprising reason that it takes the brain a certain amount of time (i.e. longer than an instant) to get a handle on any given sense data – and often varying amounts of time depending on the sorts of signals being received. Sounds, for instance, are often processed more rapidly than visuals, and so may appear to arrive first in subjective experience, even if objectively speaking they turned up after a flash. In everyday life it seems likely that we make use of other cues – such as our own motor actions – to put such disparate signals into registration (our brains may ‘expect’, for instance, that when we click our fingers the sight and the sound are simultaneous). But under laboratory conditions designed to eliminate such cues it is possible to reveal that our sensation of ‘now’ is actually a blurry concatenation of real world events that are in fact spread out over short periods of time. Smolin may of course be right for independent reasons that reality consists in a series of discrete moments, but this experiment would seem to rule out the idea that we have any kind of immediate access to them.

But even if we did, could we choose to influence them? Once again, the picture coming from neuroscience is not particularly encouraging. There is, in fact, a rather troubling history of pronouncements that free will must be illusory on account of the fact that conscious decisions can be entirely predicted from unconscious brain activity observed up to several seconds earlier in FMRI scanners. (See the work of Benjamin Libet, but also his followers such as John-Dylan Haynes as discussed in a previous entry on this blog). Thankfully, such fatalistic research has been fairly conclusively undermined by the analyses of Dennett and others who point out two key flaws. The first flaw is in the set-up of the experiments: researchers have only found it possible to relate decisions to rather small and uninteresting mechanisms in the brain by requiring that their participants make strictly ‘spontaneous’ choices (to flick their wrists, for instance) with no forethought or planning. The second flaw lies in the interpretation of the results: by assuming that you may be predicted by prior brain activity, Libet et al. betray their doggedly ‘dualist’ assumption that one’s consciousness is somehow instantaneous and may therefore be contrasted with the slow mechanical chugging of the brain.

In short, the neuroscience of free will has often proceeded with precisely Smolin’s hunch that consciousness exists in ‘the present moment’ and is capable of issuing directives from that dimensionless space – and it has come up wanting. A far more sensible alternative is that you are your brain’s processes, and that ‘thinking in time’, as Smolin would have, might actually take some time.

The naturalistic alternative: why predictability sets us free

But if consciousness is simply the brain ‘chugging away’ according to the laws of physics then what kind of freedom is that? It’s not freedom from the universe, that’s for sure. But I don’t think we need that. What we really need is freedom from natural disasters, from hunger, from disease, from those other members of our species who would exploit us – and also freedom from ourselves in those instances where we have become stuck in self-destructive ruts. It is my view that those kinds of freedoms, where they exist, emerge from our species’ non-miraculous capacity to perceive patterns in the world (and ourselves) and to make wise decisions accordingly. To learn and adapt, in other words.

By these lights Smolin’s prospect of radical unpredictability only limits our capabilities. I put this point to Smolin at his talk in Bristol:

Clarifying my point at the book signing afterwards, I suggested to Smolin that free will not only requires some predictability – it actually correlates with the degree to which predictability is possible. How else can we channel nature, or fortify against it, if we don’t know what’s going to happen next? Smolin’s response, as best I recall, was that we never know exactly what’s going to happen next and that life always involves some degree of risk in the face of uncertainty. This is certainly true, to the limit, but I fear that Smolin may have missed my point, which is this: who could possibility benefit from the increased risks of an unstable universe? A bridge is built to withstand a certain strength of gravity. A computer is reliant for its functionality on the precise electrical conductivity of certain components. A cancer treatment will exploit some regularity in body chemistry. We do not want these patterns to dissipate. I embrace absolutely Smolin’s advocacy of perpetual innovation, and his warnings against the dangers of dogmatism – but one can only ever adapt to circumstances that are either static, or at least moving more slowly than you can. Once again, Smolin may well be right for independent reasons that the laws of physics are open to change – but the science of free will cannot benefit from this fact and must necessarily be the science of a human plasticity that outstrips the plasticity of nature more generally. (For some clues as to the blind material processes underlying that plasticity, see my discussion of learning as an evolutionary process here.)

Tackling climate change and negotiating personal relationships

Before I close, here’s a couple more examples designed to show how the naturalistic approach to free will can tackle those issues close to Smolin’s heart more effectively than his own more radical thesis.

Smolin opened his Bristol talk with a foreboding prediction drawn from climate science: ‘In 2080 the average temperature on earth will be six degrees warmer than it is now’. He then asked whether this was a fact set in stone, or whether we could choose to influence it – and claimed that we could, as a direct result of the openness of physics. But what of those other predictions stemming from climate science such as: ‘A concerted effort to reduce carbon emissions will avert disaster’? If the true nature of physics undermines the certainty of the first prediction, does it not also undermine the certainty of the second? What these awkward questions are intended to reveal is that climate science does not predict the actual future – it lays out possible futures based on different sorts of assumptions. The first prediction, as cited by Smolin, assumes that humans will do nothing. The second, that I just introduced, assumes that we will wise up and take action. Consider the analogous forecasts we make when we see a brick hurtled in our direction. First: It’s gonna hit me! And then: I’ll avoid it if I duck! Do we have to change the laws of physics in order to undermine the fatalism inherent to the prediction that the brick will hit us? Of course not. We simply have to take whatever evasive action seems wise, and recognise that our choice to do so may always have been part of the equation. And in fact we’d better hope that the future is predictable, because if the laws of physics go changing up on us after we’ve committed to a course of action then perhaps we’ll get hit by the brick after all (or disastrous climate change, for that matter).

Finally, in the case of personal relationships, Smolin would have it that a faith in an open future may be the key to a healthy union:

If you’re in a relationship or a marriage and you’ve been stuck in fixed positions and battling from them for ten years, and you think ‘there’s just her position and my position and things will never change’ then you’re thinking outside of time. But if you think ‘this is a process and I don’t know where this is going – but I’m in’, then you’re thinking in time.

I wouldn’t wish to say that in an otherwise healthy relationship this kind of easy-going flexibility couldn’t be a wonderful thing – but I would like to add that it is also true that many people, and many relationships, get stuck in fixed positions precisely because of a misplaced hope that the future will be different. Charlie Kaufmann’s screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is a good illustration of this idea. Eternal Sunshine Choosing to free themselves from the trauma of a relationship turned sour, Joel and Clementine undergo a radical surgical procedure to have their memories of each other eradicated. The slate wiped clean, the couple happen to encounter each other afresh – only to fall in love for precisely the same reasons as before. The bittersweet conclusion of the film hints at the fact that the relationship may be doomed to forever repeat this cycle of initial ecstasy and subsequent pain. Dennett has a lovely phrase to describe what Joel and Clementine are doing: by attempting to escape their memories and reclaim their ability to live in the present, they are ‘making themselves small’. That is to say that they are denying themselves the chance to encompass the patterns of the past, and hence surrendering themselves to those patterns absolutely.

Conclusion: Towards a better kind of myth

In a recent Guardian article, ‘Philosophy isn’t dead yet’, the philosopher Raymond Tallis heaped praise on Time Reborn, identifying Lee Smolin as one of a number of thinkers engaged in a broader campaign to rescue contemporary physics from its floundering mathematical excesses by relating it back to our everyday experience of reality. ‘It is time’ Tallis concludes, citing the physicist Neil Turok, ‘to connect our science to our humanity, and in doing so to raise the sights of both’.

I’m all for interrogating foundational assumptions in science – that’s certainly how progress is made. I’m also fascinated by the question of how human experience fits into the grand scheme of things. But the idea that we should conflate these two quests is a great mistake – and is itself somewhat ‘momentary’ and free of an appreciation of history. As a cursory glance at the study of mythology reveals, humankind has long attempted to weave our hunches about ourselves into our picture of the world. It is only in recent centuries that we have begun to learn from the shortcomings of these fledgling cosmologies, and to separate out what we’d like to be true from what may actually be demonstrated. To try to return to a form of enquiry based upon what feels right is no novel innovation; it is a relapse into old habits.

Of course I can readily understand the temptations of Smolin’s world view. In the face of those who would seem to dehumanise our species in order to make us consistent with the laws of physics (Richard Dawkins’ phrase about our being ‘lumbering robots’ springs to mind), it strikes me that Smolin is offering the precise logical opposite: he would humanise the universe, suffusing it with inner essences, and granting it a kind of memory and the agent-like capacity to interpret and ‘answer’ questions posed by curious experimenters.

But the trouble is – as I’ve taken pains to demonstrate – such talk is not science. At least not yet. In choosing to present his ideas in popular form before offering a rigorously falsifiable hypothesis, Smolin is speaking over the heads of his colleagues and attempting to set the scientific agenda by intuition alone. It is my view that if we are to forge some kind of neat and easily digestible picture of the world that encompasses everything from the success of physics to the existence of human freedom then it must be read off from science, and not used to direct it. This ‘naturalistic’ approach is the strength of Dan Dennett’s accounts of consciousness and free will upon which I have drawn heavily in this essay, as well as James Ladyman’s account of metaphysics which I hope will be the topic of a future post. It is also, according to Joseph Campbell, a typical feature of traditional mythologies, the cosmological function of which has always been ‘that of formulating and rendering an image of the universe … in keeping with the science of the time’.

UPDATE: Philosopher Raymond Tallis responds:

Tallis AvatarDear Joe,

Many thanks indeed for your excellent paper. It has inspired me to complete a very tricky paper on causation that is also part of my ‘Of Time and Lamentation’ – due out next year.

I am drowning at present – 3 books due by spring plus endless other things (NHS defence, assisted dying decriminalisation) – so I haven’t had a chance to formulate a proper response to your paper. Meanwhile, many thanks for a terrific, thought-provoking read.

Kindest regards,

References and further reading:

Baggini, Julian (2013) ‘Daniel Dennett: ‘You can make Aristotle look like a flaming idiot” in The Guardian. Available online here.

Campbell, Joseph (1971), ‘Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art’ in Myths, Dreams, and Religion (New York: Viking)

Dennett, Dan (1991), Conciousness Explained (London: Viking)

Dennett, Dan (2003), Freedom Evolves (London: Penguin)

Hume, David (1748), An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Available online here.

Hunt, Tam (2013), ‘Time Reborn: A Conversation with Lee Smolin about Time and Physics’ in The Santa Barbara Independent. Available online here.

Kaufmann, Charlie (2004), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Screenplay) (London, Nick Hern Books)

Lanier, Jaron (2000), One Half A Manifesto. Available online here.

Parsons B. D., Novich S. D., Eagleman D. M (2013) ‘Motor-sensory recalibration modulates perceived simultaneity of cross-modal events at different distances’ in Frontiers in Psychology Vol 26, No.4. Available online here.

Smolin, Lee (2013), Time Reborn: From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe (London: Penguin)

Tallis, Raymond (2013), ‘Philosophy isn’t dead yet’ in in The Guardian. Available online here.