A World With a View – A Kick in the Nads for Physics

As I complete his concluding chapters, I’m taking three themes from Lee Smolin’s “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution” only one of which is the science.

Political Priorities:
Science is contingent and always evolving – that’s its main distinguishing feature. But the revolutionary (Kuhnian) and/or evolutionary (Darwinian) nature, as well as the pace and direction, of change in science matter to us all. So, I share in Smolin’s plea that more effort be spent on necessary alternatives than on digging ourselves in deeper with the orthodoxy of current “models”. And this requires some positive counter-balancing of what those alternatives are and could achieve. Smolin achieves this aim. There are activists within physics, like Sabine Hossenfelder, banging this drum to reign back on ever more energetic particle colliders and sensitive cosmic detectors testing current models and hypotheses if it displaces major resources from the alternatives, theoretical and empirical. This is a political – ie moral – rather than a scientific question. The human consequences of a revolution that digs us out of our potentially misguided orthodoxy is ever greater the longer and deeper we dig ourselves in.

So, don’t believe the hype.

Science Appreciation:
Science is a lot more complicated than its popular metaphors. Principles, models, theories, hypotheses, observations, interpretations, explanatory metaphors and complete theory interact constantly in many feedback loops on many different timescales. But they can be all too easily conflated in one catchy metaphor – an erstwhile thought experiment that comes to represent the whole, (naming no-one’s cat or god-particle in particular). So again, more a moral question of information and communication than the content of science per se. It’s at least partly about the memetics of communication within and beyond science – which is my own primary agenda. So not just about how imaginative scientists’ models and metaphors are and how explanatory and representative of reality they are, but their ever more ubiquitous, immediate and sophisticated rendition and distribution in electronic media. A virtual reality ever more virtual and ever more detached from reality, despite appearances. So much science news is fake news, like everything else, these days. But don’t take my word for it, read Smolin’s book. It’s complicated, that’s the point, but very readable for a lay audience. It can’t be fit into a single sound-bite.

The Fundamental Science:
What follows is neither a comprehensive summary nor a critical scientific review – of Smolin’s science. What I’m doing here is relating what I hear him saying to many things I’ve already come to believe.

(I’ve never read his “Trouble With Science” and, from his work with Roberto Unger “The Singular Universe”, I picked-up his view of time and causation as fundamental, with everything else, space, matter and physical laws included, evolving from there. But he covers a lot more here. Pre-empting later conclusions, I see our subjective view of time as psychological, but the reality of time – as causal relationships between states –  as fundamentally real, and the rest evolved, as he suggests. So I suspect I’m agreeing with him, despite some differences of preferred terminology.

Adding to the irony, it must be two decades since I concluded on my own epistemological journey, that time and causation as currently reflected in accepted scientific knowledge were “too weird” to possibly be real. They have always been “the problem” for me too. )

There are also several very important ironies in views communicated between the moral and political issues above and the scientific content. And when I say scientific content remember, at this level, this is inextricable from philosophical thinking and metaphysical choices inherent in fundamental scientific principles and models.

(And again, this is part of the hype infecting the political priorities and sales-pitches for funding and resources above; that orthodox science denies the value of philosophy and claims some privileged position in our quest for knowledge of the world.)

Technically, Smolin takes a real ensemble formulation of quantum level physics that nevertheless seeks to maintain a realist view of all the individual quanta – quantum particles and quantised events – we posit. Once we settle on an explanatory model of these elements, representing reality, we can’t then say it’s just a mathematical abstraction, that it’s not what’s really happening. The “view” in this sense is Smolin’s conscious subjective preference. Mine too. Too many accept “it’s just a model but it mostly works so far” as something other than a pragmatic statement of policy (which it is) but as an assertion that –  somehow – that’s just how things are. It can’t be so.

Smolin’s main thesis he calls “A Causal Theory of Views“. Although Smolin rejects more fundamental informational and computational models he is here in fact using “view” in exactly the way I and any computer scientist would. Clearly we don’t mean view in the subjective sense above. We mean a structured collection of information locally related to our current object of interest. A physical network view from that object. Nothing to do with anyone needing to be an observer of that view, even though our tools of analysis may include taking the intentional stance, to put ourselves as an intelligent agent in the place of that object. Asking ourselves what would the world look like from here. Again – like quantum mechanics itself – it’s about maintaining that distinction between reality and the tools we use to manipulate our understanding of it.

He starts with five fundamental principles to guide and test the consistency of all further steps in building his models, hypotheses and theories. In a world where empirical falsifiability is everything too many scientists might reject the validity of such a-priori reasoning. Usually this is a matter of honesty as Dennett often points out, there is no metaphysics-free science, just science that is in ignorant denial of its own implicit metaphysical choices.

No need for a spoiler that lists the five principles, the book needs to be read. I’m only going to dwell on one of them. What is especially encouraging, along the lines of this being a continuation of the project of fundamental physics reset back to Einstein’s doubts, is that the principles build on Leibniz, Mach and Maxwell, (and again without any reference getting very close to Boscovich ideas).

The principle I’m going to dwell on here is “The Identity of Discernables” which starts with a definition that states “any two objects with exactly the same properties are the same object”. There are several consequences, but one that interests me is a kind of corollary – “so what’s the smallest significant difference that would constitute something being an adjacent thing?” Smolin is inspired by Leibniz “Monads” to refer to these distinct things – with only their intrinsic properties and relations to others – as nads.

(Titter ye not, I know it’s common parlance for testicles, male gonads.)

So if we’re pursuing this Democritan atomic aim towards the smallest indivisible elements of reality, what is the least property / relation set, to be the smallest distinct nad? What if the smallest nad had no (significant) intrinsic properties and all was defined by its relations with the rest of the world. The network “view” seen from this nad, to all other nads via its neighbouring nads. What if closeness was simply a matter of first, second, third order relationships, and so on? Space (distance) is this emergent network property. Time is simply a matter of historical precedence in the changing states of this network view- the set of causal relations. The world is the set of relations up to this point in time.

There are many corollaries for other as aspects of physics as we currently appear to know them. Irreversibility (causal precedence) at the fundamental level (ie not just in thermal / entropic / probabalistic / non-ergodic ensembles) is but one example.

Smolin provides a single sentence statement of his Causal Theory of Views:

“The universe consists of
nothing but views of itself,
each from an event in its history …

… and laws act to make these views
as diverse as possible.”

Things that are not diverse are the same as themselves. Self-similarity in patterns of precedence are those things we typically call the laws of physics, but they are emergent and evolving according to the underlying meta-law(s).

That last quoted clause in Smolin’s summary is intriguing and takes me beyond the aspect I was focussing on here. Namely the world as a network of points (nads / events) whose sole property is the local and historical view of that network from that point. If we strip out all presumptions of what that nad might be in itself, other than the minimum conception of such a point in relation to all other such points in the universe, we get to my own earlier description:

The smallest conceivable significant difference between points – the smallest single bit of Shannon information – is one relation to one neighbouring point. Everything else is composed of these bits in networked historical patterns – views if you will. As with Kastrup’s idealist (as opposed to realist) conception it hardly matters what we call these fundamental points and their networked views, other than the baggage that comes with whichever name we choose. “Ideas” come with a lot of pan-psychic baggage.

But, points, nads … atoms ….
Democritan atoms that is …. ?

You choose.


Post Note:

Two social media quotes (both via Anita Leirfall):

“built bit-by-bit from relationships between events”

And yet informational metaphysics is anti-realist according to Smolin?

And, this from another journalistic summary of the same science story in Quanta Magazine which includes the line:

“Matter and energy themselves are less fundamental than the underlying relationships between them.”

Yay! say I.

4 thoughts on “A World With a View – A Kick in the Nads for Physics”

  1. I’ve just finished Smolin’s Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution and here are some impressions.

    The book comprises a tour of responses to the raw facts of quantum mechanics, followed by an outline of Smolin’s own response. These responses are characterized as either “anti-realist” or “realist” based on whether the theory (1) accepts the idea of an independent external reality and (2) holds that it is knowable by us. “Realist” responses, which answer “yes” to both propositions, are further characterized as either “naive” (meaning “uncomplicated” rather than “uninformed”) or not naive (that is, requiring “sophisticated arguments or convoluted justifications”). Smolin identifies himself as a “naive realist.”

    Strangely, the very first “anti-realist” view he describes turns out to be almost identical to the “naive realist” view he ultimately proposes. He writes, “Some anti-realists believe that the properties we ascribe to atoms and elementary particles are not inherent in those objects, but are created only by our interactions with them, and exist only at the time when we measure them.” But by the end of the book, he rolls out the rather Whiteheadian idea (although he seems completely unaware of Whitehead) that “The view of an event is nothing but the information available to it from its causal past.” He goes on to say that “”The causal theory of views. . . is a realist completion (of quantum mechanics), because it is a theory of beables, which are the views themselves.” Both programmes posit the ultimate reality of interactions; the only thing separating them is Smolin’s reluctance to ascribe to the “views” any property which might be construed as subjective. (I think your own take also recognizes this, Ian.)

    The book contains a flawed metaphor, clearly illustrated by Figure 13, in his discussion of “nads.” His account of “nads” with respect to the identity of indiscernibles seems exactly backward. It is the nearest relations, not those most removed, which must distinguish the nads. If similar nads are related in the same way to the closest things, and those things are themselves indiscernible, there is no room anywhere for their neighbourhoods to differ “at some point.” For two things with similar views to be distinct, they must differ immediately, albeit in a very minor way. Later he says, “But the closer to each other we stand, the more similar are our views.” (p. 245) That is true, but it’s important to realize that any remaining differences involve close things, not far ones.

    None of this interferes with where he wants to take the ideas. “Non-locality also emerges as interactions which are distant in the emergent space but nearby in terms of similarity of views.” However, we are left with a problem if it’s true that atoms “interact by forces that are short-range (i.e. could only act over a short distance.)”

    Throughout the book, I was puzzled or annoyed by evidence of carelessness in explanation. For example he writes, “Until relatively recently, a bit more than a century ago, physicists thought that matter was entirely continuous. Early in the twentieth century, Albert Einstein showed that was wrong and that water is made out of myriad atoms.” A person unfamilar with Einstein might conclude that, besides being a brilliant physicist, he was also a chemist who performed experiments concerning the nature of water. Moreover, it’s misleading to say that prior to Einstein, scientists had no use for the concept of atoms and thought matter was “entirely continuous.” Smolin seems to be referring to the intense activity surriounding field theory immediately preceding Einstein’s contributions; but the theory that Brownian motion was caused by the movement of molecules was not originated by Einstein.

    Elsewhere, exploring a metaphor involving good old Alice and Bob, he writes, “What is the probability that Alice’s quantum description of Bob will be the same as Bob’s quantum description of Alice?” A naive and confused reader may ask, “Why should a description of Bob be the same as a description of Alice? Perhaps one has long hair and the other doesn’t.” The reader is then at risk of chasing back through the pages to see if he missed something that might make sense of the unfortunate metaphor. To answer that an attentive reader will know what Smolin means, or can figure it out, is not good enough. To expect a reader to “know what one means” is unwisely to place the onus for an explanation on the reader. Dear old Bob and Alice cannot be counted upon blindly, and this is worrying in someone who is trying to enlighten us about some very complicated and mysterious things.

    A further annoyance, albeit a very minor one: “The sound a symphony orchestra makes can be captured by a digitization, to an approximate degree, but this always involves an approximation, which truncates the range of frequencies. The full experience of listening to the orchestra is never fully conveyed, which is why there is an audience for vinyl, purely analog recordings.”

    If I knew nothing about orchestras and audiences, I might take Smolin at face value, but I do know something about them, and this is a statement where I can assess the quality of his thinking. One goes to a live performance for many reasons, and sound quality is not necessarily high among them. Smolin is in direct contradiction to many experts who claim, on the basis of mathematical proofs, that across the human range of hearing, generally given as 20 – 20,000 Hz, digital recordings are capable of reproducing sound indistinguishable from the original. On their authority, it is a scientific fact that, depending on the hall and one’s seat, or the quality of one’s stereo setup, the sound of a live orchestra may be less satisfying than the sound generated by a digital recording.

    But I know next to nothing about quantum mechanics. Can I trust that on his main subject he is more careful not to misinform or mislead?

    And Smolin’s invocation of Jane Jacobs’ ideas about urban diversity is so unconnected to Leibniz’ metaphor of different perspectives of the same city that it appears gratuitous, if not random.

    All of this may seem like quibbling, but it is difficult to read Smolin on the murky subject of quantum mechanics without wondering what other distortions he may be introducing.

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