2009-01-23: The Life of the Cosmos

The Life of the Cosmos (1997)

by Lee Smolin (1955-)

This book is about Smolin’s ideas about cosmology, and how they relate to philosophical notions at large in the world, and how the relate to philosophical ideas of the past. It is very interesting. Much of it is technical (but without math), so I won’t try to relate the ideas themselves. Instead I’ll mostly quote a few passages that resonated with me.

The opening paragraph of Chapter 8:

No matter how smart she is, no matter how modern her methods and how tricky her reasoning, a detective cannot be a good detective unless in the end the bad guys are found out. It is the same with science. Why science works is perhaps a mystery, but it does work, and often enough, those of us who do it are content with the notion that, in the end, the only true measure of what we do is the extent to which it stands up against test by observation and experiment. In fact, the experience of most scientists is that most of our ideas turn out, in the end, to be wrong. Many ideas never even get to the point of being testable before being discarded for other reasons. Perhaps one of the reasons that science progresses at all is that there are not a few of us, and we are a stubborn bunch.

In Chapter 12, The Cosmology of an Interesting Universe, he discusses one of his central ideas. Interesting systems are self-organizing, and not in thermal equilibrium. He contrasts them with system undergoing phase transitions, which take place at precise temperatures. Anoth feature of such interesting systems is that they have no particular size; in a sense they are fractal. These are called self-organized critical systems. :

All that is required is a system that is not in equilibrium because there is a flow of energy through it. … One reason why self-organized systems are often critical systems is that the process of self-organization is hierarchical. This is because the process by which the components of a system become interrelated through the formation of cycles can, once it is begun, repeat itself on a larger scale. Thus the system formed by the original components become  the components in a still larger system. In a sufficiently complex system one finds many layers of organization, each of which is tied together by the cycles and interrelationships that characterize stable self-organized systems. In the most complex system we know – the biosphere – there are at least eight such level of organization: the organelles of cells; the cells; the organs of a body; a plant or animal; a community of like organisms; a local ecosystem; a larger system such as a continent or ocean; and the biosphere as a whole. There are similarly many such levels in human society. Thus, a city has many interlocking levels of organization, which are reflected in the many scales over which itslife may be viewed.

Many of Smolin’s ideas are illustrated with reference to biology, sociology, philosophy or religion (the latter usually to show how it has stifled approaches to a more true understanding). Here’s an example from the beginning of Chapter 16.

When people speak of political change, they often speak of a rearrangement of the relationship between the individual and society. This is a euphemism, for society is an abstract concept that refers only to those human beings that are alive in one time and place. This is not to say that there are not hierarchies of organization in human society, but each interaction I have with any level of this hierarchy is really only an interaction with one or more people, even if the exchanges may be increasingly scripted as the hierarchy is ascended. What is then rearranged when society evolves is nothing other than the myriad of relationships between individual human beings.

In discussing the enormous problems in reconciling the ideas of quantum theory with the dynamical nature of space and time(Chapter 20), he says:

As so many examples from the history of this century attest to, human beings have a remarkable ability to live with crisis, to live even with unsupportable contradictions. And once we accommodate to something, and become used to it, it is often extremely difficult to imagine things could be any other way. This is perhaps the most difficult thing about any attempt to transform the world on any scale.

The final paragraph of the final chapter:

In the Peter Brook adaptation of the great Hindu saga The Mahabharata, the wise king Yudhishthira must, on penalty of the death of his family, answer a god who demands of him to tell what is the greatest marvel in the world. His reply is that, “Each day death strikes. And we live as though we were immortal. This is the greatest marvel.” And, yes, is it not possible that the greatest marvel of all is that we find ourselves in a universe in which everything around us, from the Earth, to the stars, the galaxies, and indeed the whole of what we can see, lives and is bounded by time, while at the same time revealing, through an infinte variety of relations that we are only just beginning to untangle, an order and a harmony that, while perhaps still not immortal, is far older and far richer than anything we hae so far let ourselves imagine.

In the epilog:

Perhaps the reason why science works, in the absence of a fixed method or a fixed set of rules, is that it is based on an ethic which recognizes that while any individual is obligated to champion what they honestly believe, no individual is the arbitrator of te correctness, or even the interest or usefulness of their own ideas. Experience teaches us that no matter how sure of ourselves we may feel, and how clever we may think we are being at certain instants, nature is alwayssmarter, and anyone’s individual achievement may only survive to the extent to which it is superseded by the achievement of others.

Perhaps, then, this is the most important reason that science does matter to society, because it is in this way a part of the centuries old experiment to discover what democracy is. In its ideal form a science is a network of consensus shared among individuals without propaganda or coercion, as a democratic society is envisioned to be a society of free individuals living with each other without coercion or violence.

Also in the epilog, he mentions again the influence of Liebniz’s views against Newton’s ideas of the absolute, and contrasts the heavy worldview connected with the idea of a universe viewed from outside by the Great Clockmaker, and the fear of the clock running down into a heat-death, with the dynamic and ever-renewing self-organizing universe he has described throughout the book. He again invokes Nietzche’s darkness and heaviness as the ultimate expression of the inevitable worldview that follows from Newton’s universe.

Against this I would like to set the lightness of the new search for knowledge, which is based in the understanding that the world is a network of relations, that what was once thought to be absolute is always subject to  evolutionand renegotiation, that the complete truth about the world is not graspable as any single point of view, but only resides in the totality of several or many distinct views. We understand now that there is no meaning to being at rest, and hence no sense for stasis; this new understanding of knowledge might be said to be imbued with the freedom of the principle of inertia and grounded not in space but only in relations. And these develop not inabsolute time but only in succession, in progression. Finally, this new view of the universe we aspire to will include a cosmology in which life has a proper andmeaningful place in the world. That is, in the end the image I want to leave is that life is light, both because what we are is matter energized by  the passaage of photons through the biosphere and because what is essential in life is without weight, but only pattern, structure,information. And because the logic of life is continual change, continual motion, contiual evolution.

Finally, the new view of the universe islight, in all its senses, because what Darwin has given us, and what we may aspire to generalize to the cosmos as a whole, is a way of thinking about the world which is scientific and mechanistic, but in which the occurrence of novelty – indeed the perpetual birth of novelty – can be understood.

It’s a very interesting book, though perhaps not for everyone. The ideas deserve to be more widely understood.


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