Of late, I’ve been thinking alot about time. I thought this was just a reflection of age until I stumbled across two recent books that see the question of time and our perception of it to be essential to solving many of the problems that plague us from the level of the individual all the way up to those of our global civilization.
One of these books Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe is ostensibly a book about physics, but is just as much a diagnosis of contemporary economic and political ills. The other Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by media theorists and IEET Fellow Douglas Rushkoff is aimed primarily at social critique but ends up being what amounts to a philosophical guide book to help individuals steer themselves through a quite new (or perhaps quite old and forgotten) conception of time. A way of looking at time that is influencing everything from the media we consume to the way we organize our work and personal lives to the functioning of our economic and political systems.
Let me start with the physics.
In 1955 Michele Besso a man who was Albert Einstein’s closest and friend, whom he had known for many decades, died. Einstein who was himself old and approaching his own death wrote a letter of of condolence to the Besso family that is one of those rare instances of a great scientific mind applying his understanding to the kinds of real life events all of us eventually face as human beings. As translated by Michael Lockwood in his The Labyrinth of Time the letter read as follows:
He is now a little ahead of me in bidding this strange world farewell. That means nothing. For us devout physicists, the distinction between past, present and future likewise has no significance beyond that of an illusion, albeit a tenacious one. (52)
The claim that the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion may seem a strange way to offer condolence, but Einstein was providing a scientifically accurate answer to what is perhaps the most troubling aspects of death ,that, in Lockwood’s words “a living, breathing human being has been supplanted by a void.” (53)
For how much I respect Einstein’s Spinoza-like wisdom his suggestion of looking at time this way in response to death is not the most comforting. Not only can the lost loved one be assumed to still exist within a sliver of time, but so would the experience of being at his funeral, his suffering through disease, or any other painful and tragic moment in his life, although, of course, all of the banal and blissful moments as well. It’s life as Nietzsche’s “eternal return” without the return. Every moment of time captured and stuck there- a cosmic snapshot.
From our everyday perspective we no doubt have trouble with the disappearance of the distinction between past, present and future, but that is what the physics, responsible for so many of the miracles of the modern world, has consistently shown. Newton placed us in a deterministic universe in which the future is theoretically if not practically as predictable as the destination of a ball thrown through the air- a scientific version of Calvin’s predestination.
Einstein and 20th century physics did nothing to diminish this determinism, merely our powers to predict outcomes. Time lost the dignity it had even with Newton and became relativistic a perception based on the position of an observer. In Relativity, time “flows” at different rates based on the speed of a person in motion relative to another. A person speeding along at near light speed would have their local time grind to a near halt relative to those moving at slower speeds outside the spaceship. A short journey at near light speed away from the earth would have passengers returning thousands of years in the “future” of those who stayed behind.
In the hands of physicists the now became a slippery concept. Everything we experience is time delayed whether measured in milliseconds, or, like many of the stars we look at in the night sky, millions of years in the past. What we call the present is always information in a state of delay. And making the frame bigger does not solve the problem. Moving from the perspective of the individual even to as large a perspective as that of the universe as a whole does nothing to restore the status of the now.
Brian Green gives us colorful imagery of this in his The Fabric of The Cosmos picturing spacetime as a giant loaf of bread. Defining the present means cutting a particular “slice”, but how do we decide how big or small to cut it? Indeed, for physicists following Einstein, the whole loaf from the beginning of time to the end of the universe appears to exist simultaneously.
Like the world given us by FaceBook, that embarrassing night at the prom that’s supposed to have disappeared into the past is still there for somebody, but not only that, so is everything in the future that from our particular slice of the spacetime loaf hasn’t even happened yet. To use another analogy it’s like the whole history of the universe has been DVR’d and what we call the “present” is just the particular segment on which we are stuck. If we weren’t ourselves on the DVR and had the ability to get “outside” and jump around the recording we’d find that scenes we label the “past” are still there as real as they ever were and perhaps more disturbingly scenes that are in our “future” are there as well.
Modern physics has thus been unable preserve the status of the present, the now. We quite rightly hold that the experience of the present is somehow more real than either the past or the future- the first of which we think gone and the second we believe has not occurred yet. But according to physics the present is just another snapshot- it’s just the pictures in the album or slideshow we have easiest access to.
Despite his turning to the disappearance of the distinction between the past, present and future as a way of consoling the Besso family, Einstein was deeply troubled by the potential effects of human beings losing the special status they had given the present. Greene reports how the philosopher Rudolf Carnap recounted of Einstein:
…that the problem of the now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation. (141)
This disappearance of the present and its related idea of the future as determined is precisely the view of time that Lee Smolin is out to overthrow in his Time Reborn. A well respected physicist and prolific author, Smolin attempts to make the case that not only are the ideas found in physics regarding time deeply flawed, but that time is the essential element in the order of the universe and key to our understanding of it.
Much about our knowledge of the universe needs to be rethought in order for time to be “reborn”. First off, the Laws of Nature which have long been held to be superior to time need to be dethroned, transformed into something that change through time. For Smolin, the Laws that we experience today may not be the same Laws tens of billions of years into the future or the same Laws that nature followed in the deep past.
Laws are replaced by Smolin’s “principle of precedence,” nature acts in a certain way over large spans of time because it has done so in the past and not because of some metaphysical principle written into the fabric of existence. As a consequence of the fact that nature follows the principle of precedence rather than Laws the future cannot be predetermined – novelty is an expected property of existence. Exchanging Laws for precedence allows Smolin to avoid questionable theories as to why our universe is ordered the way it is and most importantly provides a route through which his theory can be falsified.
Physicists’ combined ideas of the primacy of the Laws of Nature and the diminished status of time have in some ways boxed them into a corner. Why, after all, should the Laws of Nature be these particular Laws? And more surprising, why should they be Laws that seem specifically calibrated for intelligent life such as ourselves to emerge and ask questions about the universe that lead them to the discovery of the Laws?
There have been a number of answers to these questions besides “God did it”- there is the anthropic principle – the idea that the Laws are such as they are because if they weren’t we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. Then there is the idea of the multiverse in which not only every possible set of Laws, but every trajectory through spacetime is played out in an almost infinite number of alternate universes. Last, though Smolin doesn’t really give it any ink, there is the idea that we are living in a simulation that has been created by some intelligent species which might help explain the DVR aspect of time.
Smolin can dismiss all of these because in a universe where the laws change there’s no need to explain why the laws are such as they are now. Perhaps for the vast vast majority of the universe’s history conditions were not ripe for life. With one swoop the need for God, an anthropic principle, and the multiverse is done away with, and in a way that seems to gel more with common sense.
Smolin provides a system in which the laws (now with a lowercase l) can change – namely black holes which he thinks give rise to whole new universes with their own distinct laws. It is perhaps not surprising that we live in a universe ripe for life, if, as Smolin thinks, the kinds of stars prevalent in our universe are potent black hole producers. Life, in this view, would be the luckiest of cosmic coincidences. The more black holes a parent universe has, the more “baby universes” potentially like itself it makes and universes with many black holes are also conducive to life.
Unlike the anthropic principle or the multiverse- let alone the simulation hypothesis or God- Smolin’s theory can actually be empirically verified- giving predictions as to the frequency of black holes. Only time will tell if the science holds up, but Smolin is just as much on a political and philosophical quest as he is trying to overthrow the current scientific paradigm regarding time.
Smolin believes that the diminishment of time in the theories of physics has seeped into the larger society with pernicious effects. The idea that the future is predetermined, he thinks, has resulted in a steep decline of our sense of agency. The future has gone from something we create to being something we must simply endure a system that we are subject to that is largely outside of our control.
Smolin finds this viewpoint particularly dangerous given the challenges we face. We really do have the power to do something about climate change, we actually can exert control over our economic system and technology and do not have to merely suffer as we are pulled along by the trend lines.
Smolin is especially keen on how what he thinks is flawed physics, our fetish regarding the “Laws of Nature”, has thoroughly infected our theories regarding economics. Before the crash, the majority of economists foolishly embraced the “eternal truth” that the market trended towards equilibrium- a bastardized idea drawn from physics. Smolin does not believe in eternal truths and laws regarding anything and insists neither should we.
There is also a way in which Smolin’s tome, like Einstein’s letter to the Besso family or comments to Carnap, are driven by the personal. For a good part of his life Smolin, ensconced in the study of physics in a world that held the belief that time was an illusion. In a sense his fatherhood re-connected him with the human sense of time- the idea that not only did he have a meaningful past, but through his son had a meaningful future as well. The shear contingent miracle of a newborn freed his vision to see the essential openness of the future.
What Smolin most wants to do is recover Einstein’s lost now- the present physics had seemingly done away with. Yet, perhaps, what he has done most is provide a stepping stone back into the stream of time, restored something of the flow and interconnection between the past, present and future. For what our age is doing is less a matter of turning the present into an illusion than suffocating us in the singularity of an ever present now, leaving us beyond an event horizon where there is nothing behind or infront of us, but only on top. It took my reading of Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock to make that clear to me, and to it I will turn next time…