Sunday Times, 04 January 2015
The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time
By Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin
A shady-looking chap pulls you into a dark alley. He is a physicist who wants to sell you a universe — well, in fact, several trillion universes. It is cheap and you ask him what the catch is.
There are, he admits, four catches. First, he doesn’t know how this universe started so he’s made up a “Big Bang”moment when time starts and beyond which none of his theories works. Second, one of his biggest ideas — the Standard Model of Particle Physics — is full of so many arbitrary numbers that he has had to invent trillions of other universes (the multiverse) in which these numbers are different. Third, his two master theories (quantum theory and relativity) both seem to be true, but they contradict each other. Finally, he hopes that his laws of physics apply all the time everywhere but he’s not sure and, frankly, he hasn’t a clue what these laws really are.
Caveat emptor! This guy must be selling you a dud. Or is he? Most physicists and, indeed, most scientists believe all of the above, which is why so many science journals and sci-fi films are full of so much weird stuff involving twisted time, quantum leaps and, their weirdest invention, the block universe.
In the block universe there is no present, past or future, everything is there all at once. Our lives are just lines in the block. I think this is what the movie Interstellar was getting at. Nothing ever really happens in the block, it just sits there, a vulgar paperweight on the desk of some strikingly unimaginative god.
Never mind, here come Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a brilliant philosopher and prominent Brazilian politician, and Lee Smolin, an exceptional physicist, to rescue us from the grip of the block god with three statements that, if true, overturn most of contemporary physics. The statements are: time is real and therefore there are no unchanging physical laws; there is only one universe; and mathematics is of strictly limited use in explaining the cosmos. The clear implication is —that physicist in the alley really is as dodgy as he seems. He has abandoned proper science — the testing of hypotheses against nature — in favour of the invention of purely mathematical constructs (like the multiverse) which, very dodgily indeed, can never be tested against nature.
This book is not for the faint-hearted. It is not, the authors say, “an essay in popular science”. It is written without compromise. It is also not co-written. The first 347 pages are by Unger and the remainder are by Smolin. Unger disentangles concepts and writes with a near-lethal intensity. He talks of the “counterfeit” world created by mathematics and of “the descent of science into allegory, circularity, special pleading and factless speculation”. Smolin is a little more suave and less intense, but even he dismisses present physics as describing a universe that “on rational or aesthetic grounds appears preposterous”.
Difficult though it is, you should buy it and, whether you read it or not, look after it. This might be one of the most important books of our time. Or not. Right or wrong, like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, it is an event.
It might be so important because it is not just about physics or the arcana of cosmology. It is about the way we live now and the world view we have been sold as “scientific”. Smolin points out that our current vision of the universe feeds into crass contemporary determinism. In humans, this leads to the brain-computer analogy (utterly failed but still in use) and the babble of neuroscientists who claim they have disproved free will and dismiss the self as an illusion. Determinism, the idea that everything that happens is an inevitable and unchangeable outcome of the chain of events started by the Big Bang, has not been proved, it is merely one of the many metaphysical assumptions on which contemporary science relies.
Such metaphysical assumptions and even superstition are hidden everywhere. In contrast, Unger and Smolin define their task as re-creating the discipline of natural philosophy, a form of investigation in which all is tested against nature and in which the current hierarchy of science with physics at the top is upturned. History, the account of the cosmos in real time, becomes the queen of the sciences, with biology as her favourite princess and physics a mere serf.
Full disclosure, I have skin in this game. In the late 1980s, when physicists were insisting they were on the verge of a “theory of everything”, I found myself using some of the arguments that now appear in this book — I was, primarily, suspicious of the claim that the universe was made of maths. I was widely abused and my one triumph, late at night in Cambridge, was getting a drunk scientist from Cern (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) to admit that they were “making this stuff up”, which is more or less what Unger and Smolin are saying here. They are also saying that a theory of everything is impossible in terms of current physics. So there.
Of course, tomorrow, it could be announced that the physicists have cracked it and the dodgy-sounding universe is a bargain. But I doubt it. Current scientists, often driven by large book advances, are too addicted to going beyond science into the realms of mathematical fictions, meaningless assertions about determinism, selfhood and free will and, most bizarrely, into hostile atheism.
Bravely, Unger and Smolin are attempting to haul science out of this mess. Science is not, they say, “what might be the case” — after all anything might be the case: there might be “giant angels and unicorns hovering just outside our cosmological horizon”. Rather science is about “what can be conclusively established on the basis of rational argument from public evidence”. Neither the multiverse nor the block universe qualifies and neither does the beginning of time. So the next time a physicist offers you a cheap universe in a dark alley, tell him you already have one and, unlike his, it’s a nice little runner.