Revisiting Time Reborn

I’ve just finished with Time Reborn. I wasn’t expecting to be converted to Smolin’s proposition that time is real rather than constructed. I enjoyed the book, and he provided a solid foundational understanding of the conventional scientific perspective (circa 2013, when the book was published).

I understand that Smolin is a professional physicist with a PhD and his grasp of the fundamentals is solid, and I am a peripheral scientist at best. I fully grant that I may be on the left of the Dunning-Kruger curve and making rookie mistakes.

The biggest contention I have is that he insists that everything needs to have a reason, citing Leibnitz. His argument is based on the question of why is our universe so perfectly structured, that it would be improbable to have happened purely by chance.

Whilst I agree that everything has a cause, reasons are an artifice imposed by humans. In practice, where reasons don’t exist, we make them up. This is how we get false theories and gods. Smolin does discuss false theories of the past and attempts to claim that the prevailing theories occupy this space whilst his theory should replace it.

Any universe created without the ability to sustain life would not have us asking why it did not support life.

My reaction is that it just is. Whether Roger Penrose is correct in saying that the universe is continually recreated and destroyed, rinse and repeat, the reason the universe is constructed in such an (improbably) ordered fashion that can sustain life is that there is no reason. Any universe created without the ability to sustain life would not have us asking why it did not support life. It does. We are here to question, and so we do. End of story.

We can make up all sorts of stories, whether through science, religion, or some other origin myth. None of them is provable. As Smolin notes, this is a one-time event. If it is destroyed, so are we and our memories. If life is sustainable in a future—or even parallel—configuration, we’re sent back to start where we can fabricate new stories.

Perhaps in another universe, it will be configured so differently that some other sort of life is created, perhaps this life will not be DNA-based and be anaerobic? Who knows?

It seems that he has an interest in reserving a place for human agency, which has little room for movement in current scientific models. His model provides this room. Moreover, he further thinks that even in current models, human agency should be injected into the models. I suppose he is not familiar with Keynes’ animal spirits.

For some reason, he decided to devote the final chapter to the hard problem of consciousness. This was a particularly hot topic around that time, so he didn’t want to miss the boat. The long and the short of it, he didn’t think the qualia-consciousness answer would be found through physics—though he reserved that there was a non-zero probability that it could be. He posits this as an existential, experiential challenge, and science is not designed to address such affairs.

Physics of Free Will

Physicist, Sean Carroll, gives Robert Lawrence Kuhn his take on free will. I was notified about this when it was posted, and given the topical subject matter, I took the 8-odd minutes to listen to it straight away.

I wish I had been there to pose a follow-up question because, although he provided a nice answer, I feel there was more meat on the table.

Like me, Sean is a Determinist who feels that the question of determinism versus indeterminism is beside the point, so we’ve got that in common. Where I feel we may diverge is that I am an incompatibilist and Sean is a compatibilist. I could be interpreting his position wrong, which is what the follow-up question would be.

I say that Sean is a compatibilist because he puts forth the standard emergence argument, but that’s where my confusion starts. Just to set up my position for those who don’t prefer to watch the short clip, as a physicist, Sean believes that the laws of physics, Schrödinger’s equation in particular.

We have an absolutely good equation that tells us what’s going to happen there’s no room for anything that is changing the predictions of Schrödinger’s equation.

— Sean Carroll
Schrödinger’s Equation

This equation articulates everything that will occur in the future and fully accounts for quantum theory. Some have argued that quantum theory tosses a spanner into the works of Determinism and leaves us in an Indeterministic universe, but Sean explains that this is not the case. Any so-called probability or indeterminacy is captured by this equation. There is no explanatory power of anything outside of this equation—no souls, no spirits, and no hocus pocus. So far, so good.

But Sean doesn’t stop talking. He then sets up an analogy in the domain of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics and the ‘fundamental theory of atoms and molecules bumping into each other and [the] emergent theory of temperature and pressure and viscosity‘. I’ve explained emergence in terms of adding two hydrogen and one oxygen atom to create water, which is an emergent molecule with emergent properties of wetness.

My position is that one can view the atomic collection of matter at a moment as an emergent property and give it a name to facilitate conversation. In this case, the label we are applying is free will. But there is a difference between labelling this collection “free will” as having an analogous function to what we mean by free will. That’s a logical leap I am not ready to take. Others have equated this same emergence to producing consciousness, which is of course a precursor to free will in any case.

Perhaps the argument would be that since one now has emergent consciousness—I am not saying that I accept this argument—that one can now accept free will, agency, and responsibility. I don’t believe that there is anything more than rhetoric to prove or disprove this point. As Sean says, this is not an illusion, per se, but it is a construction. I just think that Sean gives it more weight than I am willing to.

Time Reborn

Einstein was wrong. Time is not the relative factor in space-time. Space is. Time is constant. Here’s a lecture on the topic of the book.

Lee Smolin Public Lecture: Time Reborn

As a result of a discussion with a colleague, on the possibility of variability or mutability of so-called physical laws, he recommended Lee Smolin’s book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. He mentioned that it would be suitable as an audiobook. Since I had a credit on Audible, I decided to use it so I could listen to this without deep scrutiny and a need for taking notes.

There is a nice review in the Guardian from 2013. I suppose I am a bit behind the times.

Whilst running errands, I listened to the Preface and Introduction. I stopped at the start of the first chapter, and am debating whether to continue. Given his setup, I don’t believe I am Smolin’s target audience. Many of the beliefs he is attempting to dispel, I already don’t hold. Yet I don’t feel that I need to hold time as a constant to hold them. He seems to feel otherwise.

Preface

For the record, Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist, who has written several books in this space. Quickly, recapping some of his points:

He provides examples of various illusions humans tend to be swayed by:

  • Matter appears to be smooth but turns out to be made of atoms
  • Atoms seem indivisible but turn out to be built of protons, neutrons, and electrons
  • Protons and neutrons are further made of still more elementary particles called quarks
  • The sun appears to go around the Earth, but it’s the other way around

Smolin relates that the prevailing perspective today is that time is an illusion—name-dropping Plato and Einstein, who hold this view. He conveys that he used to share this belief, but now he disagrees—whence the book. He tells us:

Not only is time real, but nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

Next, he posits that some people believe in timeless events—events outside of time, eternal and not a function of time. Here’s where he goes off the rails in my book.

“We perceive ourselves as living in time, yet we often imagine that the better aspects of our world and ourselves transcend it. What makes something really true, we believe, is not that it is true now but that it always was and always will be true.”

Evidently, he feels or felt this way. I am sure many others. I am not among them.

“What makes a principle of morality absolute is that it holds in every time and every circumstance.”

My position is that all morality is a social construct, so this doesn’t resonate with me.

“We seem to have an ingrained idea that if something is valuable, it exists outside time.”

Again, I am not in his intended audience.

“We yearn for “eternal love.” We speak of “truth” and “justice” as timeless.”

Love, truth, and justice are all human constructs—weasel words.

“Whatever we most admire and look up to — God, the truths of mathematics, the laws of nature — is endowed with an existence that transcends time. We act inside time but judge our actions by timeless standards.”

Yet again, I am unburdened by these beliefs.

Nothing transcends time, not even the laws of nature. Laws are not timeless. Like everything else, they are features of the present, and they can evolve over time.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

I think that this quote is a reason this book was recommended to me. I do believe that the properties that comprise laws can evolve over time. I’m not sure if this is by a probabilistic process or something else. There are a few possible implications. One is that the laws at the onset of the universe may have been different, making the understanding of that time more challenging if not impossible. I don’t know if I believe in multiverses, and I doubt I may ever live long enough to discover. However, even if there is only one universe, per the name, perhaps universes can exist sequentially and when one dies another appears with a different set of initial conditions and properties. Borrowing from evolution, perhaps these survive or perish based on the viability of this combination.

Smolin goes on to posit that, ‘thinking in time is not relativism but a form of relationalism‘.

He continues,

“Truth can be both time-bound and objective when it’s about objects that exist once they’ve been invented, either by evolution or human thought.”

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

I’m not sure he is going to define truth, but I believe he conflates moral truths with axiomatic or tautological truths. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because both are constructed.

Smolin makes it clear that he is not a determinist, but unless you take the view he is proposing, as a physicist, you almost have to be. As he says regarding Determinism, theoretically. a person could suss out a mathematical equation to predict every future event. He also considers this belief to be a metaphysical vestige of religion.

Introduction

According to [the] dominant view, everything that happens in the universe is determined by a law, which dictates precisely how the future evolves out of the present. The law is absolute and, once present conditions are specified, there is no freedom or uncertainty in how the future will evolve.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

He continues to describe a deterministic system without mentioning indeterminism, which may be a more prominent belief given what we understand about quantum mechanics. He claims that this perspective diminishes time for several reasons. Inflating or at least elevating time is important for his thesis, and I am thinking that this is more an act of wishful thinking.

He takes a stab at the inherent reductionism of physics—it reduces everything to parts until there are no longer subparts, at which point the process fails—and explains that by adopting this approach, one needs to get outside of the universe to make some evaluations, but this is impossible. And this might be a true statement, but so what? The answer is not to make up a story that creates an environment where that’s no longer necessary.

Smolin reiterates over and again about timeless laws in a time-bound universe, but I question his notion of timelessness. He admits that he has no grand theory—just an idea he hopes others can pursue and build upon. Emergent properties appear to be an emerging theme.

Leibniz is next up, in particular his principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz’ vision is a relational universe composed of a network of relationships—the space is simply the absence of things. He contrasts this with Newton’s view that space is absolute and serves as the container for things. He sets up a future chapter that he says establishes that Leibniz’ vantage precludes the possibility of absolute time, but I don’t see this as a challenge for those of us who believe that time is constructed in the first place.

The Newtonian view prevailed until Einstein resurrected Leibnitz with his general relativity theory of space and time. The trending vogue is about relationalism, whether biology or information science.

He cites the challenges of maintaining Locke’s views on autonomy and personal liberties in a deterministic world (again leaving indeterminism unmentioned).

And he’s back on the emergence of emergence. (I was in the midst of writing a post on emergence when this interrupted my flow. I suspect it should be forthcoming in time.)

Falling

As it turned out, I ran another errand and listened to the first chapter of part 1. It is about gravity and parabolas, but I shan’t recount it here, save to note that he seems to be of the opinion that many people have the desire to transcend the bounds of human life. He may be right. I am not one of these people.

I don’t feel that I am in his target market.

Houston, we have a problem

EDIT: Since I first posted this, I’ve discovered that computer algorithms and maths are not playing well together in the sandbox. Those naughty computer geeks are running rogue from the maths geeks.

In grade school, we typically learn a form of PEMDAS as a mnemonic heuristic for mathematical order of operations. It’s a stand-in for Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction. This may be interpreted in different ways, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry. It turns out that many (if not most) programming languages don’t implement around a PEMDAS schema. Instead, they opt for BODMAS, where the B and O represent Brackets and Orders—analogous to Parentheses and Exponents. The important thing to note is the inversion of MD to DM, as this creates discrepancies.

And it doesn’t end here. HP calculators interject a new factor, multiplication by juxtaposition, that mathematician and YouTuber, Jenni Gorham, notates as J resulting in PEJMDAS. This juxtaposition represents the implied multiplication as exemplified by another challenge;

1 ÷ 2✓3 =

In this instance, multiplication by juxtaposition instructs us to resolve 2✓3 before performing the division. Absent the J, the calculation results in ½✓3 rather than the intended 1/(2✓3). As with this next example, simply adding parentheses fixes the problem. Here’s a link to her video:

And now we return to our originally scheduled programming…

Simplifying concepts has its place. The question is where and when. This social media war brings this back to my attention.

As depicted in the meme, there is a difference of opinion as to what the answer is to this maths problem.

6 ÷ 2 ( 1 + 2 ) =

In grade school, children are taught some variation of PEMDAS, BOMDAS, BEDMAS, BIDMAS, or whatever. What they are not taught is that this is a regimented shortcut, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to real-world applications. The ones defending PEMDAS are those who have not taken maths beyond primary school and don’t use maths beyond some basic addition and subtraction. Luckily, the engineers and physicists who need to understand the difference, generally, do.

Mathematicians, scientists, and engineers have learned to transform the equation into the form on the left, yielding an answer of 1. If your answer is 9, you’ve been left behind.

Why is this such a big deal?

When I taught undergraduate economics, I, too, had to present simplifications of models. In practice, the approach was to tell the students that the simplification was like that in physics. At first, you assume factors like gravity and friction don’t exist—fewer variables, fewer complexities. The problem, as I discovered in my advanced studies, is that in economics you can’t actually relax the assumptions. And when you do, the models fail to function. So they only work under assumptions that cannot exist in the real world—things like infinite suppliers and demanders. Even moving from infinite to a lot, breaks the model. Economists know this, and yet they teach it anyway.

When I transitioned from undergrad to grad school, I was taken aback by the number of stated assumptions that were flat out wrong.

When I transitioned from undergrad to grad school, I was taken aback by the number of stated assumptions that were flat out wrong. Not only were these simplifications flat out wrong, but they also led to the wrong conclusion—the conclusion that aligned with the prevailing narratives.

This led me to wonder about a couple of things

Firstly, if I had graduated with an English degree and then became a PhD candidate in English, would I have also learnt it had mostly been a lie for the purpose of indoctrination?

Secondly, what other disciplines would have taught so much disinformation?

Thirdly, how many executives with degrees and finance and management only got the fake version?

Fourthly, how many executives hadn’t even gotten that? Perhaps they’d have had taken a class or two in each of finance and economics and nothing more. How many finance and economics courses does one need to take to get an MBA? This worries me greatly.

To be honest, I wonder how many other disciplines have this challenge. I’d almost expect it from so-called soft sciences, but from maths? Get outta here.

Half-life of knowledge

This also reminds me of the notion of the half-life of knowledge. What you knew as true may eventually no longer be. In this case, you were just taught a lie because it was easier to digest than the truth. In other cases, an Einstein comes along to change Newtonian physics into Oldtonian physics, or some wisenheimer like Copernicus determines that the cosmic model is heliocentric and not geocentric.

If you’ve been keeping up with my latest endeavour, you may be surprised that free will, human agency, identity, and the self are all human social constructs in need of remediation. Get ready to get out of your comfort zone or to entrench yourself in a fortress of escalating commitment.

Anarchy at Scale

Anarchy exists in the world today. It always has. Macroscopically, one needs only step back to see the forest for the trees—or zoom in for microcosms. The only place it’s rare is in the middle.

As far as scaling, political states are anarchy at scale. They hide behind sovereignty and do as they please. United Nations and such try (meagerly) to herd the cats—say, the US—, but the Big Cats still do as they please. So when you hear that anarchy is untenable, remember that it is more prevalent than not.

In the domain of physics, we hear the quaint Aristolenian adage that nature abhors a vacuum, but in fact, it doesn’t. Without engaging in a quantum debate, the universe is more vacuum than not. This belief is a projection centred on human narcissism, viewing itself as the centre of the universe: some humans seem to abhor a vacuum—as do many dogs abhor vacuums, but that’s a horse of a different colour.

Nature abhors a vacuum

And when you hear that anarchy doesn’t scale, remember that it can be seen on both micro and macro scales. The question is: what happens in the middle?

To be fair, there are many small-scale human endeavours where power structures still decimate the ‘natural’ anarchy, but this is imposed—whereby I use the term natural to mean without intervention.

To be continued…

The Truth about Truth (First Amend)

Please note that this content has been subsumed into the originating article: The Truth about Truth.

We have no idea how close or far we are from Reality on the Y (Truth) axis.

Graph: Correspondence of Truth to Reality (Asymptotic Curve)

Assuming for the time being that there is an approachable truth, we have no reference to understand how close to reality we might be. In practice, we seem to operate on a basis of always being within some level of statistical significance of where Truth = Reality, and when new information is introduced, we say, “Hooray for Science!” Aren’t we glad that science is self-correcting. And Empiricism has its own issues.

Historically, we’ve had ‘wrong’ correspondence between Truth and Reality, but then we got it ‘right’—until we didn’t.

We may all know how Einstein progressed and refined Newtonian physics. What Einstein did is to create a new narrative—a synchronous shift of paradigm and rhetoric—, which has been accepted into a new orthodoxy. In our mind, this feels like progress. How close are we to the real truth?

Taking our understanding of gravity or of the fabric of space-time, we still have no idea what’s going on or how it operates, but this doesn’t prevent us from accepting it as a black box and making pragmatic predictions from there. So, for all intents and purposes, the ‘truth’ mechanism is less important than the functional relationship, just as I can tell time on a watch I have no idea how it operates.