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.
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.
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.
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.
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‘.
“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.
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.)
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.
Have you even just let your mind and fingers wander?
The English language morphs, and sometimes some useful notions are lost to the dustbin of history. I take it especially hard when other languages retain these aspects.
I tend to evaluate much in terms of time. In practice, this is why I dispute notions of self and identity—Plank-sliced frames stitched in time.
Although ‘today’ is the central reference and I could start with ‘today’, I’m going to unfold this chronologically, instead. First some background.
Getting Down to Basics
In its original incarnation, day meant the ‘period during which the sun is above the horizon’ and was expanded to comprise the entirety of a cycle.
Fun Fact: Days used to be measured starting at sunset rather than midnight as is the current custom. So time was relative in a different sense to today.
Originally referring to the time just before sunset—parallel to the morning having meant the time just before sunrise—, it’s been expanded to mean the time from sunset (post the original intent) and bedtime.
Although morning had originally been limited to the time just before sunrise, its domain has been expanded to encompass the part of the day between midnight and noon, exclusively.
Morrow simply means morning. Good morrow would have been taken as ‘good morning‘.
Night is ostensibly the dark part of a day.
I don’t want to be the one to break it to you, but yester (from gester) means yesterday. More on this later.
Putting It All Together
Ereyesterday can be disintegrated into three components. Ere means before or previous, so reintegrating, we get something like the day before yesterday or the day prior to yesterday.
Yestermorrow is a rendition of yesterday with a focus on the morrow—the morning.
If you’ve been following the breadcrumbs, there is no big reveal here. Given that yester already means ‘the day before today‘, yesterday disintegrates into yesterdayday—’the day before today day‘. That’s the English language for you. It could be worse.
Yesternight is the flip side of yestermorrow, but it should be more recognisable as the night of the prior day—yesterday.
I debated whether to include this yestreen the mix. Yestreen is more of a Scottish word that is a synonym for yesternight. And we don’t use either of them anymore. Such a shame.
As with tomorrow, today was generally written as a hyphenated word—to-day—until about 100 years ago. It had been two words until the 1500s. Essentially, today refers to this day—the current day.
As with today, tomorrow was generally written as a hyphenated word—to-morrow—until about 100 years ago. It had been two words until the 1500s. Effectively, tomorrow refers to the next morning, though we have extended the meaning to account for the entirety of the next day.
If you’ve been paying attention and following the progression, you’ll have guessed that overmorrow is the day over tomorrow—after tomorrow.
And so it goes…
I understand that many (at least some) languages retain some of these time markers—German and Dutch come to mind. There are other markers such as the English fortnight—meaning fourteen days or two weeks, but I wanted to limit my focus around today.
‘Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: Leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.’
—Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge & the Discourse on Language
I am going to take liberal liberty with Foucault’s quote. This is another take on Heraclites’ ‘never the same man, never the same river’ quote. It can be taken as a commentary on identity and impermanence. Effectively, he is taking the position that the concept of identity is a silly question, so don’t bother asking about it. Then he defers to people who insist on it anyway.
To be fair, creating a sort of contiguous identity does simplify things and creates categorical conveniences.
Vendor: ‘Wasn’t it you who purchased that from me and promised to pay with future payments?‘
Zen: ‘There is no future. There is only now. And I am not the same person who purchased your car.‘
Perhaps this is where the saying, ‘Possession is 9/10 of the law‘, a nod to temporal presentism.
In any case, some systems are predicated on their being identity, so a person benefiting from that system will insist on the notion of identity.
Clearly, I’m rambling in a stream of consciousness, and it occurs to me that Blockchain offers a solution to identity, at least conceptually. In the case of Blockchain, one can always audit the contents of the past in the moment. And so it carries the past into the now.
If one were able to capture into an archive every possible historical interaction down to the smallest unit of space-time—neutral incident recording, indexing and retrieval challenges notwithstanding—, one could necessarily attribute the record with the person, so long as they are otherwise inseparable. (We’re all well-aware of the science fiction narrative where a person’s history or memory is disassociated, so there is that.)
Anyway, I’ve got other matters to tend to, but now this is a matter of historical record…
How Soon Is Now? Is there anything beyond now—is there a future? Was there a past? What better occasion to reflect on this than the turn of a new year, of a new decade?
Now is easy. It right here, and here, and here, and here… and interminable series of heres. The past is easy, too, we were there—the accumulation of former heres—, so at least we can claim it was real at the time—or as real as we could perceive and can imagine. Memory frailties notwithstanding, the past is indelible. Whether we are or can be aware is another story.
Past is different to history. Past is an event or events. We may not even become aware of these events until they have passed—perhaps centuries or millennia later. These may be historicised. History is a story. In French, the terms aren’t even separated. L’histoire is simultaneously a story and history, a reminder of how inextricable they are.
But what about the future? A conceptual future is a fairly new human construct. Some events occuring after now have happened since the beginning of time. In fact without time or the invention of a notion of time, there can be no future or past. It’s been said that time is what keeps everything from happening at once.
We talk about the future, but when we reference it now, it’s only some speculative future—some admixture of uncertainty and probabilities. There are no guarantees any given event will actually manifest, whether we will be there to experience it, or whether any future will even arrive. This is a known limitation of empiricism. That the sun has risen for some 4 billion years doesn’t guarantee it will rise tomorrow. There is nothing necessarily preventing the universe from ceasing to exist tomorrow or in an instant, pardoning the nomenclature of time.
Where our perception of now is already quite limited in scope and experience, any notion of future is decidedly worse. And of all of the possible threads and imagined threads, only one will manifest—unless you subscribe to parallel universe models, in which case you can still only experience one and only one, at least for the time being.
From the perspective of now, the future, like history, is just a story. In these times of COVID, we should realise that some stories hadn’t been written. Similar storylines had been imagined and authored, but the one that manifest was different still. Truth is stranger than fiction—and worse.
But does the future exist? Can we discuss the future other than conceptually? Is the notion of future reserved for a privileged few? One so-called cognitive bias is that humans favour now and near-term events over further future events? From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. First, I am here now, and whether I am here to experience the future remains to be seen. This bias is the basis for why most people don’t save enough for a comfortable retirement—a retirement with a comparable standard of living and quality of life as one’s ‘productive’ years.
One consideration is expected lifespan. Actuarially, a person might be expected to live on average, say, 76 years. If people my family historically live to 65 and I expect to retire thereabouts, saving past that is inefficient—transferring wealth across generations notwithstanding. If I die at 65, there is no mismatch. If I die at 76, then oopsie. Retirement income and savings is predominantly a First-world problem—a challenge for people who live in an income-based, consumerist society, so worrying about the future takes on a more relevance.
Even if I expect my village, tribe, or family care for me in my twilight years, there is still a notion of future to consider. Will they be there for me. But from an evolutionary perspective, this doesn’t necessitate a future beyond a generation, so the probability of an uncertain event is lower than, say, a thousand years from now.
NB: What had been a concept riffing on Hoffman’s evolutionary argument against reality was intercepted by the related notion of the future. I hope to return to Hoffman presently—if the future allows.