Cosmology in Crisis – Unger & Smolin sweeping away the metaphysical gloss.

The political philosopher Roberto Unger and the cosmologist / physicist Lee Smolin have jointly written “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” and its release last month had already been promoted as a landmark work.

It’s actually two books, one by each of them, with common introduction and index. So far, in addition to the introduction and index, I’ve completed only Unger’s contribution, which is about 2/3 of the total. Stylistically it’s written for a multi-discipline but technical audience in terms of the philosophy and physics. It’s not “popular science”. It’s also arguing a case rather than simply informing, so there is a lot of repetitive near-restatement in elaborate and technical language.

However the arguments are already clear and compelling, only a few points to disagree with.

There are three explicit and one corollary theses (my own paraphrased re-statements):

  • The Singular (Individual) Universe – the cosmos comprises only one universe, evolving with a history. Nothing lies outside the universe.

  • The Reality of Time – time is real and inclusive of the whole history of the cosmos. No part of the universe lies outside time.

  • The Selective Reality of Mathematics – maths is a tool for describing, representing and manipulating reality, but is not some privileged layer underlying fundamental reality. Not even maths lies outside the cosmos and time.

  • The Reality of Causation – but patterns of regularity, that might look like laws at periods in cosmological history are not timeless laws, rather they evolve and speciate like any other aspect of the cosmos. Not even patterns of causation lie outside cosmological time, they are emergent and meta, whether they appear law-like or not.

Aside – As well as those bare bones, reiterated, explained and argued by Unger, there are encouraging references to Mach and Poincare, Riemann and Einstein too, and the Hilbert project terminally scuppered by Gödel. More links later. (*)

The agenda and argument are not idle speculation. Unger is recommending this reset of simpler philosophical foundations removes a misleading “metaphysical gloss” from currently accepted physics, and provides greater empirical possibility for exploring any and all of the stubborn gaps in existing theory.

A recurring theme is what Unger refers to as “the conundrum of meta-laws”. Causality may be independent of the existence of laws, but is the causal evolution of of genuinely novel patterns and species of regularity itself governed by meta-laws?

Struggling to see what exactly he sees as the problematic meta-laws conundrum? [Personal riff on Hofstadter – Clearly patterns of regularity themselves occur in recursive “meta” layers upon layers, with “ortho” patterns in relationships between the layers. Again, patterns or principles of the possible, but not fixed timeless laws per se. For me this creative evolution of the actual from the conceivably possible screams “Tabletop” after Doug Hofstadter’s metaphor for “slipping” to adjacent possibles via any number of meta layers of meta relationships – meta-meta-physics.]

Anyway, to close this review of the first part of Unger and Smolin, here a large [snipped] quote from Unger as he closes his chapter on patterns of regularity in causation, before moving on to his final chapter on the selective reality of maths:

“The reality of time is [in fact] a revolutionary proposition. […]

[The meta-laws conundrum] suggests a sense in which our conventional ideas about causality are confused. Causal judgements presuppose the reality of time. The relations among logical or mathematical propositions do not. The laws of nature have been commonly understood to justify causal explanations. If time […] is all inclusive, the laws of nature should not be understood to be outside time.

Laws of nature [in the present cool universe] codify causal connections over [distinct] structure with a relatively stable repertoire of natural kinds and [patterns of] recurrence.

Nature often satisfies these conditions, but not always. The stability and the mutability of the laws need not contradict each other [historically].

It follows that we cannot hope to ground causality in a timeless and changeless foundation. […] Our conventional beliefs in [the dominant interpretations of] science, fudge the difference between the two horns of this dilemma. They grant the reality of time, but not to the point that [laws may change within it.]

To accept this criticism is to recognise the need to revise our view of causal explanation. […]

[The greater] the scope and ambition of our theories, the greater the danger in disregarding the historical character of causation [and their regularities] in the universe.”

Purely logical (timeless) objective structural descriptions of reality overlook the value of historical “becoming” explanations (to paraphrase Mary Midgeley berating Larry Krauss).

Right now I’m looking forward to reading the cosmologist’s (Lee Smolin’s) contribution to this argument, and skipping ahead few pages into his first chapter “Cosmology in Crisis” it’s pretty clear he is restating the same key points at the outset, despite the caveat that the two authors kept their contributions separate because they actually claimed to have disagreements in their views.

Already Smolin is also making it clear that sweeping away the misguided metaphysical gloss in contemporary cosmology and resetting a more common sense metaphysics, far from undermining today’s best accepted standard models and symmetries, actually increases the possibilities of empirical exploration for the many current gaps, mysteries and paradoxes. Reading on.


[(*) Some Post Notes:

Unger is fairly dismissive of anthropic principles, weak or strong – but I interpret that as being a warning against sloppy anthropic thinking. ie our “anthropic perspective” in the “current universe” is clearly real, so recognising that is important, especially when pondering the “fine tuning” effects mentioned in this work, and evaluating interpretations already made by other humans with similar tunnel vision. We are always looking at our cosmos from our insider perspective. There is no other.

Also, the “Darwinian” evolution of laws of nature all the way down is pretty much what Brian Josephson was describing earlier at the meeting of Nobel Laureates, though – beware – not a great presentation.]

[Post Note : Final review here after completing Smolin’s section.]

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