Science: Out of time — or not

Reviewed: “Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe,” by Lee Smolin

By Clay Fulghum

Physicist Lee Smolin is a revolutionary who wants to turn science, as it’s been practiced for the last 400 years, on its head. To this end he’s written an incendiary new book, “Time Reborn,” that tells his compatriots in the field they’ve got it all wrong.

Smolin is a civil and humble revolutionary, however. With hat in hand, almost apologetically, he delivers his bad news, as if his pleasing demeanor could mitigate the message. But Smolin is a known rabble-rouser, and his 2006 book, “The Trouble with Physics,” has already revealed his hand.

"Time Reborn," by Lee Smolin
“Time Reborn,” by Lee Smolin

Here’s the brazen thesis of his new book, published earlier this year: Contemporary physics has hit a brick wall because its basic assumption about the nature of time is out of whack. This is not an arcane point, either to theoreticians or to physicists with their feet on the ground. From Galileo onward, the basic assumption of western science has been that there are timeless laws of nature and that it is the job of scientists to discover them and harness the knowledge gained thereby for the good of the human race.

But Smolin says viewing anything as existing in a timeless realm is just flat-out wrong. This includes not just God and Heaven, as well as Platonic concepts like the Good, but even our physical laws, like Isaac Newton’s laws of motion. Only time as it exists moment-to-moment is foundational. Not even natural law is eternal; it changes and evolves like everything else.

He puts it this way: “Embracing time means believing that reality consists only of what’s real in each moment of time. This is a radical idea, for it denies any kind of timeless existence or truth — whether in the realm of science, morality, mathematics or government. All those must be re-conceptualized to frame their truths within time.” On a human level, this means we have no recourse but to realize our freedom within each moment, without appeal to anything that exists outside of time.

Arguably, Smolin at times comes close to sounding like a proponent of Existentialism, a philosophical movement of the mid-twentieth century, which emphasized personal freedom in a world without intrinsic values.

At the very least, he’s taking a philosophical stance at a time when many contemporary scientists have renounced philosophy altogether. Stephen Hawking has famously said, “Philosophy is dead.” And Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg has concluded that philosophy is “murky and inconsequential.”

Smolin, swimming against the tide, is a founding member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics — as well as a member of the graduate faculty in philosophy at the University of Toronto.

Speaking philosophically, he argues that it’s necessary to “accept the uncertainty of life as the necessary price of being alive.” We need to accept uncertainty, he contends, and to cease rebelling against “the precariousness of life.” If we are human, we are inside time. To think we can eliminate danger is to think outside of time. We human beings are inevitably “suspended between danger and opportunity.”

It’s not that he’s celebrating this uncertainty, either in life or science. Indeed he tells us that when he’s trying to go to sleep at night, he comforts himself with the idea that there must be an answer somewhere to what the universe really is. But he has “no idea how to look for it, whether through science or another route.”

Because he doesn’t believe that timeless truth is available to us, the nature of the world, of everything, is elusive. He says we “don’t even 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.” Answers to some questions may “forever remain outside science.” He concedes that it is all too easy just “to make stuff up.”

This is a remarkable admission from an eminent scientist — and a salutary one. Smolin is simply voicing support for the practice of skepticism, which is, after all, at the base of the scientific enterprise.

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