The Life of the Cosmos, or Reviewing Lee Smolen

Here’s something troubling. It comes from theoretical physicist Lee Smolen.


Lee Smolen, Physicist Source

He writes:

…all talk of future, past, and present is relative to the moment of time of the person who is speaking. All ordinary talk of time is relational.

Here’s where he’s saying this:


Lee Smolin’s The LIfe of the Cosmos

A curious hybrid of theoretical physics and American political mythology.

Smolin is saying: “ordinary time” is “future, past, and present”. Those are mythological terms, so perhaps a translation for non-Americans might help. Here’s a rudimentary crib:

He’s talking about “ordinary time.” He’s not talking about other forms of time. The American way (as is the way with all cultures) is to relate everything to its own cultural archetypes. For Americans, like Smolin, the strongest of these is the myth of the “common man,” which is “ordinary”, which is, to say, “living in the world of things that can be counted, weighed and measured,” not to mention the stuff that can be made out of it. For that, no other term but “ordinary time” will do the trick. If you’re from a non-American or non-ordinary or non-linear-time-oriented society, Smolin is not talking about the world you know. Again, that’s an American thing. American political mythology is based around the idea of the random actions of individuals coming together in struggle to arrive at the universal good. In one plane, this mythology is symbolized by the partisan politics of the American government in Washington.


Obama’s Problem of Polarization

Read the whole article here on Lisa’s Blog.

On another plane, this American mythology is symbolized in the structures of Smolin’s physics, which lead to a notion of a “living” universe (or at least one capable of generating life out of its deepest forms) composed out of a series of networks. His entire book could be summed up like this:

The geometry of the universe is built up at the smallest subatomic level out of a series of networked possibilities.

He is, in other words, describing this:


Circuit Board Source

I find it troubling that the images of a certain age get written into descriptions of the universe. If it’s a universe, it’s a little more universal than the present time, I’d think. And there is a historical precedent for caution.

When German biologists (from the leading scientific nation in the world) came to Harvard in 1936, they showed the workings of “Der Führerprinzip”, or “The Leadership Principle”, among cells in a petri dish. The American biologists were astounded at how quickly the world’s leading scientists could be indoctrinated with politics, so that they couldn’t see the physical proof in front of them. For their part, the Germans were astounded that the Americans were talking about the random actions of individual organisms in the petri dish, coming together through processes of random, mathematical accretion to form complex chains of activity and assemblage.

The American ideology won, but it was no less an ideology than the German one. And Smolin is using it now to describe the universe. There should, at least, be a point of caution here. Still, to be fair, to Smolen the universe is random; any point of reference is as good as any other. It’s as if he has been reading Buddhism, without really getting it. In that light, here’s an image for you to look at …


Home Sweet Home

Okanagan Landing, British Columbia

If Smolen’s rather Buddhist influenced Western thinking were presented in that image, he’d be looking at the moment the photograph was taken, or the narrative of history that laid down all of the components of this front yard one after the other, because those are “ordinary” time. It follows by definition. The other time present would not be his concern, as it is not the concern of empirical science. He would, in other words, not be seeing the image, or that history, or the objects as one thing all at once or any other way outside the parameters of what might, for lack of a better word, be called ego. Now, that’s all fine and good, because, as he says, he’s picking a random point of measurement, in a universe consistent across its extant, and working up the other parts from his point of measurement. The only problem is that he is attempt to describe a universe in this way, which contains universal forces, including forms of time which are not “ordinary”. If he sees the point of attending to them or what consequences attending to them might have for physics, he does not mention it in his book. He doesn’t, for instance, speak of senses of time embedded in, say, groups, or collectives, rather than individuals. His notion of networks gets close, but replaces presence with a map of linear processes … which would never create the universe he is trying to describe. He is, in other words making a work of art. In human experience. there are thousands of alternate approaches to time, each which would support different versions of physics. He does not include them, either. My worry is that this might just be an indication of limitations within physics, rather than limitations within those perspectives. It’s quite likely that even if he saw this image …


… as the technological intrusion that it is (i.e., it is processed through a camera), that’s to say, an image of the world that speaks as much or more about the technology that made it as it does about the world, he would relate the image to the moment at which a human made it, rather than to the place and time, together, that made it, because such an experience would be outside of the boundaries of physics, and … that’s because it can’t be empirically tested, because it’s not ordinary. You could, after all, empirically test this …

P1150007 New Ice, Okanagan Lake

… but you’d be limited by what you (and your notions of time and space) could imagine. That’s where mythology comes in. Here’s a  thought:

It is entirely possible to improve the process of empirical testing, so that these viewpoints are included. It would create change on the order of magnitude of relativity theory or quantum theory.

Which is exactly what Smolen appears to be seeking. To do so, he insists on the primacy of one particular mythology. He’s saying:

This relation refers to a person speaking.

Fascinating. In many cultures, an individual is the earth speaking. In at least one branch of Wiccan culture, the individual remains still, while the stories that are the world break over him or her like waves. This individual is an incarnation (not re-incarnation) of one of the stories that are the world. In light of that example of what is humanly possible, I think what Smolen is really saying is,

“Within the parameters of dominant American culture’s positioning of individual experience in relationship to the earth and the universe, these are the effects one could expect. If the universe were different, we could expect different effects.”

As a contemporary theoretical physicist, he has no trouble positing an infinite number of inaccessible universes. It is curious, however, that he thinks they are inaccessible. I think that’s what he’s trying to do. In contemporary physics, space and time are a unified energy. For the sake of popular (“ordinary”) argument, Smolen has broken them apart into their “ordinary” manifestation, in which space is constant and either a) moves across time or b) is moved across by time. You won’t know which until you measure it, but if you measure it, the other possibility will cease to exist.

Isn’t that a perfect description of physics?

Again, alarm bells are ringing. Given the wealth of human cultural approaches to this knot, he could have, just as easily, kept time as the constant, and have space moved across it, or have had them both not separated at all.

P1060826Douglas Fir, Bella Vista Hills

It takes an hour of time to walk three kilometres from this fir to the valley below, or it takes three kilometres to travel an hour in time. 

It seems that Smolen has not found a simple way to integrate his physics with the world. The tools that he has just make it more complicated than it needs to be. Again, that’s trouble. Here’s an example of that, from Smolen’s The Life of the Cosmos…

When we use a clock or a calendar to locate an event in time, we are givings its time relative to a system that has been set up by human beings.

Makes sense. That’s what I’ve been pointing out, more or less. Then a bit of wobbliness sets in. He continues …

 Although that system is arbitrary, its use is necessary.

He’s saying that the system of physics is necessary; it’s the only “clock” that can measure the universe. I dunno. Here’s a clock that fits human parameters, works with space, time and the universe, and was the centre of the world of one of the peoples Smolen’s culture put on a reservation so that their earth could be used to grow wheat.

Sacred Palouse Falls. (From the Okanagan Okanogan archives.)

The sacred pipe of Palouse Falls is lit by the sun …falls

… even while the moon draws its stories onward as smoke …

moonsetPeregrine Falcon Perch Under the Early Morning Moon

The pipe burns all day above the life-giving waters …


Salamander Tadpole, Upper Palouse Falls

… and at dusk …

glow… it glows at its tip, with the heat of good tobacco, before going out and leaving the waters for creatures of dream …

up… and the next day the same, and the next day, and all days together, and each different, and each unfolding into a story. I’ve come back changed.

In “ordinary” culture that observation is called poetry, which places it outside the boundaries of physics. As Smolen continues, I think he explains why very well:

Without such a system, we would be lost, for we have no access to any absolute notion of when something happens.

And that is a problem… because? It’s surely not a problem for humans in general. Cultural history shows us that. It’s not a problem for the universe, obviously. It’s not a problem for poets. It’s only a problem for people who want an absolute notion of when something happens. That’s important, for sure, but for people, in their lives, that absolute notion is embedded in and conducted in concert with other notions which extend far beyond the physics-based ones that Smolen concentrates on. To include them, for a more complete image, I suggest ceasing to relate stuff like what is recorded in the image below to human observers.

takeoffThat a human “made” that image is surely not the most important thing about it. What if the earth made it, through a human? Or through geese? Or through time? Or through matter? Those are also clocks. The presumption of physics that any clock is as good as any other, didn’t apply to biology in 1935 and should probably not apply now. I mean, we can approach the unity of the living earth as a computer network, or as a living thing. I think the outcomes we will get will not be the same. I think that matters. I think it’s time to upgrade the foundations of physics. I think it’s time to give it a better story.

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