Sunday, 16 February 2020

Lee Smolin on Time and on Thinking in Time [A commentary on a YouTube Video]

[The following paragraph is a standard introduction to my commentaries on various science- and philosophy-based YouTube videos.]

When it comes to my commentaries on particular videos, only the content of - or the words within - the video itself will be discussed. That is, the commentaries aren't cases of detailed research on the subjects discussed or the persons interviewed. (As one would find in an academic paper or even in an in depth article.) The reason for this is that I believe that this will help both the readers of the commentaries and the viewers of the video. And that, hopefully, will still be the case even when it comes to those readers and viewers who aren't newcomers to the subjects discussed or the people being interviewed in the videos.

i) Introduction
ii) Psychological Time (or Time Perception)
iii) Natural Laws and Other Timeless Things
iv) Smolin Links Time to Politics

The seminar above (captured on a YouTube video) is called 'The Nature of Time'. Yet Lee Smolin (a theoretical physicist) doesn't actually spend that much time on time itself in this video. Perhaps that's because time in itself doesn't exist. What I mean by this is the following: 

Perhaps time is always defined (or even constituted) contextually or relationally. 

I believe that this is Smolin's position. 

Of course arguing that time is defined (or constituted) relationally or contextually isn't itself to deny the existence of time. No; it's just another way of saying what time is.

Smolin does attempt to link all the disparate things he talks about to time; though he's not always that convincing when he does so. Certainly not when he ties (or links) time to politics and how people feel about time.

In any case, Smolin himself says that he doesn't like “mysticism”. He also says that he doesn't like what he calls “wow” (i.e., not woo). And that word - “wow” - is used at the beginning of his seminar.

What Smolin means by “wow” is that although he deals with some deep and fundamental issues, he doesn't thereby feel the need to sex these issues up - as so many popular-science authors and even some physicists do. Indeed Smolin specifically says that he doesn't want to “wow [the audience] with some science-fiction multiverses”. (From what I've read, Smolin doesn't believe in the multiverse theory. Or, more accurately, he has no need – from a physicist's perspective – for it.)

Psychological Time (or Time Perception)

Smolin's primary question is the following:

Is time real? Or it it an illusion?”

Smolin's own position is that time “is the least illusional thing we know about”. That is exactly what many philosophers now say about consciousness or experience – and for very similar reasons. That is, such philosophers (e.g., David Chalmers, Philip Goff, Donald Hoffman, Giulio Tononi, etc.) say that consciousness/experience is “fundamental”. And, to use Smolin's own words, they also believe that consciousness/experience is “the least illusional thing we know about”. (In stark contrast, see Daniel Dennett the “illusionist”.)

Smolin himself states that “maybe time is fundamental” (unlike, as will be seen, the laws of nature). At a prima facie level, it's hard to understand (or even conceive) what that could mean. If space without things has always been problematic (certainly to Smolin himself), then surely time without things is equally problematic. Yet Smolin Smolin also believes that space is “dynamical”. And that surely must mean that time is dynamical too.

Smolin has just been quoted as saying “time is the least illusional thing we know about”. So here are a few details.

Firstly, Smolin gives a very obvious and telling example (if one accepts it) of time not being an illusion. He asks the audience the following question:

If time is an illusion, then what is the future. Is the future already determined? Or is the future open?”

Of course these questions have been well-debated in philosophy and there are many answers to Smolin's questions.

Smolin also claims that (in my words) when we play down time, we do so at precisely the same moment that we're consumed by time. Smolin goes into more detail:

Time is real. The flow of time is the most true thing we know. I used to believe that time is an illusion, as did many of my colleagues. Now I think that time is the most real thing we know. Everything emerges in time – including law.”

Smolin doesn't deny what's often called psychological time (or time perception). He doesn't deny the importance and relevance of psychological time either. Indeed these things appear to drive Smolin's scientific position on time.

As just hinted at, Smolin's position seems (at first) to be beyond physics and cosmology. However:

What if our psychological experience of time (or our attitude towards time) leads to conclusions about the (non-psychological) reality of time?

That is, Smolin does move from psychological time to time being something that is indeed beyond the (merely) psychological. (At least that's how I've read him elsewhere, if not in this video.)

Natural Laws and Other Timeless Things

Smolin says that we place “mathematics and ethics” beyond time. That is,we make them timeless. He also says that God is believed to be “outside of time”. And Smolin's following question will be of interest to philosophers:

If we deem something to be true, is it's truth timeless?”

Thus is the equation 2 + 2 = 4 also “outside of time”?

Smolin cites another example of the belief in timelessness. He says:

Physicists still think that time is an illusion. [They believe that there] are an infinite number of universes which all exist timelessly...”

And don't most physicists deem the laws of nature to be outside time too? (More of which later.)

One important aspect of Smolin's philosophical and scientific positions on cosmology is that he takes his cosmology (as it were) literally. That is, he doesn't just study the universe as a whole, he also places a scientific and philosophical importance on the universe as a whole. Basically, this is a kind of holist position in which top-down explanations and realities are just as important as bottom-up explanations and realities. That is, it's not all about how the universe is a consequence of its fundamental laws/constants, history and growing complexity: it's also a question about how the universe itself impacts downwards on those natural laws, constants, etc. In other words, we need to factor in the universe as a whole when explaining and describing laws, the constants, etc.

But how does this whole – the universe - affect its parts? Is this analogous to - or even the same as - downward causation as it's found in the philosophy of mind or when discussing physical (closed) systems?

In any case, let Smolin concentrate on natural laws for a moment.

Smolin asks: “Why are those the laws?”

He then states the following:

We could have had all sorts of other kinds of laws.”

The American Philosopher C.S. Peirce (1839 - 1914) is relevant here. (Peirce is a strong influence on Smolin.)

Peirce believed that natural laws are the result of (to put is basically) earlier things. Or, at the very least, he believed that they demand an explanation. Smolin himself quotes Peirce (in Leibnizean mode) thus:

'To suppose universal laws of nature capable of being apprehended by the mind yet having no reason for their special forms, but standing inexplicable and irrational, is hardly a justifiable position.'”

That is, natural laws don't just appear as the laws they are - no matter how fundamental we deem them to be. This is where Smolin (as influenced by Peirce) brings in evolution. Smolin says:

Maybe, as Peirce said, laws are evolving in the scale of the whole universe.”

Indeed not only does Smolin apply evolutionary theory to natural laws: it can also be seen that he applies it to the universe as a whole and to black holes specifically (see this). And this, in turn, relates to Smolin's broader championship of relation[al]ism and what he sees as the dynamical nature of... well, everything.

Smolin Links Time to Politics

I believe that Smolin is wrong when he says that

if science establishes that time is real or that it's an illusion, how we think about our human lives will change”.

If we stress the psychological in psychological time, then what science says (or doesn't say) won't have much of an impact on “human lives”. Sure, physicists like Smolin may imagine all kinds of possible scenarios as to how life will change when it comes to consensus scientific opinion. However, when it comes to time itself, I don't think that scientific opinion will have much of an impact. Unless, that is, Smolin means that any monumental scientific discovery will somehow filter down to laypersons. However, I can't even see how this will have a big impact on human lives when it comes to the psychology (or phenomenology) of time. Smolin is simply playing up cosmology and his own philosophy of time. It can even be argued that physics can survive (pragmatically or instrumentally) without having a strong or determinate position on time.

I can't help thinking that when Smolin links his scientific and philosophical views on time to politics (as he does in this video), that those links are very tangential and vague indeed. Of course Smolin himself doesn't believe that and he argues his case. Yet when he does so, it's all so much more vague and less philosophical/scientific than what he says on other subjects. (See the political 'Thinking in Time' chapter of Smolin's Time Reborn.)

So it can be said that Smolin is attempting a bit of wow himself by tying his philosophical and scientific positions on time to issues in politics. Take this statement:

It matters what science discovers. From how we think about political organisation. To how we think about the far future of our society.”

But is that true of time too? Indeed which sciences is Smolin talking about when he mentions science's impact on “political organisations” and the "far future? He surely can't be referring to physics and cosmology. Yes, other sciences impact on these social and political questions and problems. However, Smolin is a theoretical physicist, not a social scientist or political scientist.

Take the natural laws again.

For hundreds of years philosophers and scientists have warned us not to conflate the laws of politics with the laws of nature. Or, more accurately, they've warned us not to believe that the word “law” means the same thing in both domains. Yet here's Smolin strongly tying how we see natural laws to the laws of politics and society.

Perhaps Smolin is simply being analogical or metaphorical. Or perhaps he's simply saying that we can learn something if we make such comparisons. However, when you read/hear some of Smolin's words (e.g., in his Time Reborn and in his seminars), this isn't the case. Smolin doesn't believe that his links between science/the philosophy of time and politics are purely (if at all) analogical, tangential or educative.

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