Edge Question 2009: "What Will Change Everything?"


What do we think about this? Smolin seems to disagree with most of  
what we are on about on this list. My mind remains open in all  
directions, particularly as Smolin appears to be enjoying substantial  
advances in his field of Quantum Gravitation. Does his argument about  
time have legs?

Maybe we can get him back on this list to talk to us if we yell loud  
enough in his direction...



Physicist, Perimeter Institute; Author, The Trouble With Physics


I would like to describe a change in viewpoint, which I believe will  
alter how we think about everything from the most abstract questions  
on the nature of truth to the most concrete questions in our daily  
lives. This change comes from the deepest and most difficult problems  
facing contemporary science: those having to do with the nature of time.

The problem of time confronts us at every key juncture in fundamental  
physics: What was the big bang and could something have come before  
it? What is the nature of quantum physics and how does it unify with  
relativity theory? Why are the laws of physics we observe the true  
laws, rather than other possible laws? Might the laws have evolved  
from different laws in the past?

After a lot of discussion and argument, it is becoming clear to me  
that these key questions in fundamental physics come down to a very  
simple choice, having to do with the answers to two simple questions:  
What is real? And what is true?

Many philosophies and religions offer answers to these questions, and  
most give the same answer: reality and truth transcend time. If  
something is real, it has a reality which continues forever, and if  
something is true, it is not just true now, it was always true, and  
will always be. The experience we have of the world existing within a  
flow of time is, according to some religions and many contemporary  
physicists and philosophers, an illusion. Behind that illusion is a  
timeless reality, in modern parlance, the block universe. Another  
manifestation of this ancient view is the currently popular idea that  
time is an emergent quality not present in the fundamental formulation  
of physics.

The new viewpoint is the direct opposite. It asserts that what is real  
is only what is real in the moment, which is one of a succession of  
moments. It is the same for truth: what is true is only what is true  
in the moment. There are no transcendent, timeless truths.

There is also no past. The past only lives as part of the present, to  
the extent that it gives us evidence of past events. And the future is  
not yet real, which means that it is open and full of possibilities,  
only a small set of which will be realized. Nor, on this view, is  
there any possibility of other universes. All that exists must be part  
of this universe, which we find ourselves in, at this moment.

This view changes everything, beginning with how we think of  
mathematics. On this view there can be no timeless, Platonic, realm of  
mathematical objects. The truths of mathematics, once discovered, are  
certainly objective. But mathematical systems have to be invented-or  
evoked- by us. Once brought into being, there are an infinite number  
of facts which are true about mathematical objects, which further  
investigation might discover. There are an infinite number of possible  
axiomatic systems that we might so evoke and explore-but the fact that  
different people will agree on what has been shown about them does not  
imply that they existed, before we evoked them.

I used to think that the goal of physics was the discovery of a  
timeless mathematical equation that was isomorphic to the history of  
the universe. But if there is no Platonic realm of timeless  
mathematical object, this is just a fantasy. Science is then only  
about what we can discover is true in the one real universe we find  
ourselves in.

More specifically, this view challenges how we think about cosmology.  
It opens up new ways to approach the deepest questions, such as why  
the laws we observe are true, and not others, and what determined the  
initial conditions of the universe. The philosopher Charles Sanders  
Pierce wrote in 1893 that the only way of accounting for which laws  
were true would be through a mechanics of evolution, and I believe  
this remains true today. But the evolution of laws requires time to be  
real. Furthermore, there is, I believe, evidence on technical grounds  
that the correct formulations of quantum gravity and cosmology will  
require the postulate that time is real and fundamental.

But the implications of this view will be far broader. For example, in  
neoclassical, economic theory, which is anchored in the study of  
equilibria of markets and games, time is largely abstracted away. The  
fundamental results on equilibria by Arrow and Debreu assume that  
there are fixed and specifiable lists of goods, and strategies, and  
that each consumer’s tastes and preferences are unchanging.

But can this be completely correct, if growth is driven by  
opportunities that suddenly appear from unpredictable discoveries of  
new products, new strategies, and new modes of organization? Getting  
economic theory right has implications for a wide range of policy  
decisions, and how time is treated is a key issue. An economics that  
assumes that we cannot predict key innovations must be very different  
from one that assumes all is knowable at any time.

The view that time is real and truth is situated within the moment  
further implies that there is no timeless arbiter of meaning, and no  
transcendent or absolute source of values or ethics. Meaning, values  
and ethics are all things that we humans project into the world.  
Without us, they don’t exist.

This means that we have tremendous responsibilities. Both mathematics  
and society are highly constrained, but within those constraints there  
are an infinitude of possibilities, only a few of which can be evoked  
and explored in the finite time we have. Because time is real and the  
future does not yet exist, the imaginative and social worlds in which  
we will live are to be brought into being by the choices we will make.
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