I’m happy to se Lee Smolin’s new book making a very interesting point about time. In his new work, Time Reborn, he apparently (haven’t read it yet) makes some radical and interesting statements about the nature of time, and mentions how even the laws of physics might not be final, fixed and immutable, but actually evolve over time.
Now those of you who have read my book, Evolutionaries, will remember this section where I talk about “breaking the spell of solidity” in relationship to way we think about the world around us. I even mentioned this is regards to the laws of physics, not because I wanted to weigh in on matters of physics I know little about, but because 1) It’s a natural question to ask once you start down a robustly evolutionary thought process, and 2) Some important thinkers have already started that inquiry. By “breaking the spell of solidity” I mean making the effort to question whether so many of the things in the physical universe that we think are fixed, immutable, and unchanging are actually that way given are emerging understanding of how so much of what we once thought was fixed, unchanging, or even God-given is natural and evolving. As we start to integrate a deeper understanding of time and evolution into our view of reality, I believe we will be asking this essential question in regards to many issues. In this particular chapter, I was talking mostly about culture and human psychology, and about Ken Wilber’s philosophy, but also gave a nod to Charles Peirce who was one of the first thinkers to deeply incorporate a profoundly developmental view of reality into his thinking. Of course, it should be said that Rupert Sheldrake has been talking about this as well for years, and that was even part of his TED talk that was banned by TEDx scientific censorship team (and subsequently re-instated). But given how much Sheldrake is reviled by many in the scientific community, he is unlikely to get much credit. But Smolin has impeccable credentials in the scientific community and in physics and so his nod to Peirce and his re-imagining of the nature of time should provoke a lot of discussion.
First, here is a quote from my book:
I found it remarkable to discover, in the course of my research, that all the way back in the nineteenth century Peirce was questioning the spell of solidity even as it applied to the most sacred cows of the physical sciences: the laws of nature. For Peirce, the entire universe and all of its forces and creations were subject to evolution. Indeed, Peirce’s work was one of the first to begin to theorize how something as ostensibly absolute as a law might be created through the processes of evolution. Perhaps the laws of nature are not un- changing, applying to everything for all time, he suggested. Perhaps they didn’t pre-date the universe. Perhaps they, too, evolved along with the forms and structures of our cosmos.
Peirce suspected that many of the seemingly fixed structures of our universe are in fact better described as habits—habits that have become so deeply embedded in nature that they behave like laws, fixed and unchangeable. In 1915, the Mid-West Quarterly, a publication of the University of Nebraska, published the following description of Peirce’s ideas as presented in his lectures at Johns Hopkins University.
May not the laws of the universe be the acquired habits of the universe? May there not still be a possibility of the modification of these habits? May there not be the possibility, forever, of the formation of new habits, new laws? May not law be evolved from a primordial chaos, a universe of chance? In the play of chance still apparent may we not see the continual renewal of the life of the universe, a continual renewal of the capacity for habit forming and growth?
Peirce suggested all of this before science had any sense of cosmological evolution, of the deep-time developmental history of our universe. Questions concerning the laws of physics are even more fascinating today, particularly in the context of our current under- standing of Big Bang Theory. Did those laws exist in some timeless void prior to the initial cosmic emergence? Did they pop into existence at the moment of that great conflagration? Were they gifts, perhaps, of a previous universe, a sort of cosmically inherited informational DNA designed to help structure the evolution of our own realm of time and space? When it comes to such issues that get at the heart of our cosmic origins, we still have far more questions than answers.
Biologist Rupert Sheldrake is another thinker who has suggested that the laws of nature may not be immutable and eternal but are more like habits. And he points out that most physicists have not thought deeply about these questions in light of our new cosmology. “Although cosmology is now evolutionary,” he writes, “old habits of thought die hard. Most scientists take eternal laws of Nature for granted—not because they have thought about them in the context of the Big Bang, but because they haven’t.” Lately, it seems, a few more physicists have stepped into the breach with interesting speculations about the source of the laws of nature, such as Templeton Prize winner Paul Davies and science writer James Gardner. But wherever such speculations ultimately lead us, what is important for our discussion is that once again the spell of solidity is broken and we can at least begin to consider the possibility that certain characteristics of the universe that seem immutable and unchanging might better be considered as evolutionary—things that develop over time through habitual repetition until they become more and more established. Eventually, in a cognitive illusion that fools us again and again, they seem fixed, eternal and unchanging, when actually they are nothing of the sort.
Now here is Smolin. In his recent Edge.org interview he states:
Now some of this is not new. The American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, identified this issue that I’ve just mentioned in the late 19th century. However, his thinking has not influenced most physicists. Indeed, I was thinking about laws evolving before I read Charles Sanders Peirce. But something that he said encapsulates what I think is a very important conclusion that I came to through a painful route. And other people have more recently come to it, which is that the only way to explain how the laws of nature might have been selected is if there’s a dynamical process by which laws can change and evolve in time. And so I’ve been searching to try to identify and make hypotheses about that process where the laws must have changed and evolved in time because the situation we’re in is: Either we become kind of mystics, well, just those are the laws full stop, or we have to explain the laws. And if we want to explain the laws, there needs to be some history, some process of evolution, some dynamics by which laws change.
This is for some people a very surprising idea and it still is a surprising idea in spite of the fact that I’ve been thinking about it since the late 80’s, but if you look back, there are precedents: Dirac, you can find in his writings, a place where Dirac says the laws must have been different earlier in the universe than now; they must have changed. Even Feynman has … I found a video online where Feynman has a great way…and I wish I could do a Feynman Brooklyn accent, it sort of goes: “Here are the laws we say; here are the laws, but how do they get to be that way in time? Maybe physics really has a historical component. ” Because you see, he’s saying physics is different from the other subjects. There is no historical component to physics as there is to biology, genealogy, astrophysics, and so forth. But Feynman ends up saying, “Maybe there is a historical component.” And then in the conversation his interviewer says, “But how do you do it?” And Feynman goes, “Oh, no, it’s much too hard, I can’t think about that.”
I look forward to reading Time Reborn.