Oh, man. I'm so glad I got pulled in by the Book Magnet.
That's how I explained my purchase of two thick, serious books to the cashier at the Book Bin in downtown Salem, Oregon. I'd parked my car in front of the bookstore, gone to my Tai Chi class, and was all set to drive home until, poised to unlock the car door...
Go inside and check out the new books, the everpresent voice inside my head told me. Must obey, I happily told myself.
"The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time" stared me in the face almost right away. After just a bit of thumbing through the 532 page book, I knew we'd hit it off.
What's weird -- and a strong argument for physical bookstores -- is that I'm pretty sure I'd looked at the Amazon listing for this book. I seem to remember deciding not to buy it because some reviewers thought the authors were way off-base in their criticisms of modern science, mostly physics and cosmology.
But when I read a few paragraphs in the bookstore, I was blown away by the clear writing about some very dense subjects. Having now gotten all the way to page 65, I'm liking the book even more than I thought I would.
The first 350 pages or so are written by Roberto Mangabeira Unger, described on the cover as "a philosopher, social and legal theorist, and politician." The rest of the book is written by Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist.
Unger is clearly a hugely brilliant guy with a very attractive writing style. I have to read "The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time" slowly, but not because the writing is bad. Rather, it's very good. It's Unger's subject matter that requires careful, deliberative, often mind-blowing cognitive digestion.
The book's subtitle is A Proposal in Natural Philosophy.
Meaning, the authors have returned to a mindset of the old days when philosophers tried to come up with ways to look at the entire universe, as contrasted with specific philosophical problems.
Yet their concern is with the very new days -- cutting-edge cosmology and physics. Which they view, persuasively so far in my reading, as having inappropriately gone off a scientific deep-end into waters that don't offer any solid footing.
A first paragraph sums up the book.
This book develops three connected ideas about the nature of the universe and of our relation to it. The first idea is that there is only one universe at a time. The second idea is that time is real and inclusive. Nothing, including the laws of nature, stands outside time. The third idea is that mathematics has this one real, time-drenched world as its subject matter, from a vantage point abstracting from both time and phenomenal particularity.
This puts Unger and Smolin at odds with the majority of physicists and cosmologists. Also, I'd say, with those who use certain precepts of modern science as a subtle (or not so subtle) justification for various religious concepts.
First, the "one universe at a time" idea. This seems like common sense, since we're only aware of this one universe Earth is a part of.
However, notions of a multiverse consisting of countless universes, perhaps an infinity of them, have taken hold in the scientific community -- in large part because of an infatuation with the mathematics of string theory.
Here we see an example of the connections between the book's ideas. String theory can't explain why this universe we inhabit is how it is.
But since the mathematics of string theory posit a near-infinity of possible universes, this solves the problem of explaining our universe by dissolving the problem: life has evolved in this particular universe because its conditions are peculiarly suitable for life, whereas the conditions in most other universes of the multiverse aren't.
Unger considers this bad science. Science, he says, should deal with what actually is known to exist.
Mathematical reality shouldn't be viewed as more real than the physical universe. Rather, as noted above, mathematics should be used to describe how things work in this universe, and not used to justify mathematically possible, but unobservable, theoretical alternate universes in a multiverse.
So in the part of the book I've read Unger criticizes attempts to explain our universe in structural terms. Meaning, theorizing that this universe is just a minuscule drop in an ocean of other universes that will forever remain unknown to us.
Rather, he and Smolin favor a historical emphasis for cosmology. Look at what science can tell us about how the universe has changed since the big bang. Don't throw in theoretical mathematical hypotheses concerning a multiverse, or whatever.
And don't assume that time began at the big bang. Time, for Unger and Smolin, is the only thing that doesn't change. Time rules. There is no timeless realm. Everything changes with time. Including the laws of nature.
For me, this is one of the most interesting subjects in the book. I've always wondered, "Where are the laws of nature?" Most physicists and mathematicians view them as existing in some sort of unchanging Platonic realm outside or beyond the physical universe.
Meaning, the laws of nature (like most conceptions of God) are assumed to be distinct from all the stuff in this universe that obeys those laws. This allows scientists to picture our universe banging into being via some currently unknown mechanism that was guided by some currently unknown law, or meta-law, of nature.
Intriguingly, Unger says:
The laws and symmetries by which we explain events in natural history manifest themselves together with the phenomena whose workings we use them to explain... The phenomena change, and so, together with them, does the way in which they change: that is to say, their laws. That is the principle of the co-evolution of phenomena and laws.
What this leads to is a very different view of the universe than modern physics normally posits. There aren't Laws of Nature floating around somewhere in a realm separate from physical reality. Instead, these laws come into existence along with the phenomena that are guided by them.
Unger says, "Change changes."
When DNA appeared in multi-celled organisms, this introduced a whole new way of how life changes. Thus Unger considers that biology, geology, and even history have a lot to teach physics and cosmology, since the supposedly less-foundational sciences are primarily concerned with studying how things change, rather than looking for unchanging laws describing why things change.
Well, if what I've written here doesn't make sense to you, join the club. I'll be trying to better understand the message of Unger and Smolin as I read the rest of their book.
Here's some reviews and commentary I've found that relate to "The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time."