Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn: Physics, Evolution, Atheism, and Buddhism

Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin’s new book, Time Reborn (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013), is mind-blowing–I assume it will still be talked about fifty years from now–and I’ll do my best in this post, having read the book through with great pleasure twice in the past week, to briefly summarize some of his concerns and point out places where the book seems sympatico with Buddhism.

Without God’s whimsy or dumb luck. Smolin’s ambitious central concern is to find a way to reach a full scientific explanation of the cosmos. He wants to move beyond the three “great theories of 20th century physics” (relativity, quantum theory, and the Standard Model) to a new physical theory–one capable of answering two questions: Why do the physical laws that we have exist and why at the Big Bang did very particular initial conditions exist? (103; 121-122). He wants these questions answered without resort to God works in mysterious ways or It was just the dumb luck of our uncausally connected and infinite multiverse dicing out one of the logically possible scenarios of physical laws and atoms. In other words, neither “God did it” nor “the uncausally connected multiverse did it” are scientific answers. They are impervious to confirmation or disconfirmation by publicly verifiable experiment, and physicists should not be content to stop with them.

For Smolin then, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz ought to point the way forward for all physical theorists (xxvii):

He has been called the smartest person who ever lived. Leibnitz formulated a principle to frame cosmological theories called the principle of sufficient reason, which states that there must be a rational reason for every apparent choice made in the construction of the universe. Every query of the form, “Why is the universe like X rather than Y” must have an answer.

A reasonable scientific answer. Neither God’s whimsy nor dumb luck will do. Getting to a reasonable answer to the questions Why these laws? and Why these initial conditions? is Smolin’s ambition.

Smolin’s path forward: Charles Darwin should lead the way. Smolin’s thesis is that there is only one way to eliminate God’s whimsy and dumb luck from the universe’s origin, and that is by a causally connected process of evolution that precedes the Big Bang, which means that time must be resurrected in physical theory–you can’t have evolution without time–and hence his book’s title, Time Reborn.

Smolin’s own evolutionary theory, which he has promoted since the early 1990s, is that black holes birth new universes with slight variations in their cosmological constants from their parent universes. The universes that produce the most black holes fill the multiverse landscape with the most offspring. He thus thinks our own Big Bang universe is a product of a black hole that is causally connected to another universe (causal connection is important, for it distinguishes Smolin’s idea from non-causally connected multiverse hypotheses). He thinks there are ways to test his hypothesis, but again, you need to treat time as fundamental–not emergent–to make any such evolutionary theory go.

Smolin’s Pepsi challenge: moving beyond Einstein. What does Smolin mean by saying that time must be resurrected? He means that our common sense notion of time is in fact correct–we live in a universal now–and this now should be returned to center stage in physics. In other words, it’s the same time everywhere in the cosmos, and time–this now–is just the latest in a sequence of nows that has evolved out of all past nows. These past nows no longer exist and the future nows that are on their way do not yet exist. There can be no time travel because all there is is now. And so, speaking in the persona of one of his opponents, here’s the time-is-relative view that Smolin means to fight (64):

When I use the word “now,” I need not imply that now is special; I am only describing my perspective. There is always an implicit reference to which now I mean, which I assume the person I am speaking with shares.

Smolin says no to this attitude. Time is special. It is universal, not local and ultimately dependent on the speed observers are moving. It is not an emergent property of space, the laws of physics, and matter-in-motion, but fundamental. Space, the laws of physics, and matter-in-motion emerge from time–it is they that are the emergent properties. Indeed, time is the only thing that is fundamental. Not God, not dumb luck, not the infinite multiverse. The buck stops for Smolin with time.

So that’s the Pepsi challenge Smolin is serving up: Will you adopt a common sense notion of time? Before you say “Sure,” remember that time as fundamental (as opposed to emergent and relative) blatantly contradicts the block universe and Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In other words, if Smolin is right then a great thinker like 20th century mathematician Hermann Weyl is wrong when he says the following (61):

The objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling upward along the world line of my body, does a section of the world come to life as a fleeting image in space which continuously changes in time.

So this is Smolin’s problem: to get rid of God’s whimsy and dumb luck and replace these with a causally connected evolutionary universe in explaining the Why these laws? and Why these initial conditions? questions, he runs up against all that 20th century physics has hammered into us from elementary school forward–and against our common sense intuition–that time is relative. Smolin must posit instead that general relativity, quantum physics, and the Standard Model are ultimately wrong if applied to the cosmos as a whole–that they are only approximations and local descriptions of the cosmos. That a more fundamental theory based on now must subsume them and is necessarily awaiting discovery.

Buddha’s revenge: Smolin’s godless and causally linked cosmos of “nows.” Though Smolin has only a single sentence in his book referencing Buddhism (it’s in his Preface), his vision of time, intentional or not, is strikingly Buddhist. And his single reference to Buddhism is quite revealing, for he means to suggest by it that physicists haven’t yet come to full terms with the Buddha’s Fire Sermon–his teaching after awakening that the cosmos is not undergirded by a static and eternal order, but afire with relentless change through and through (xvii):

The Buddhists say that we live in a house we haven’t yet noticed is on fire.

The quote that Smolin uses to start the book is also strikingly Buddhist in tone and insight, though coming from an ancient Greek philosopher, Anaximander (from On Nature):

All things originate from one another, and vanish into one another according to necessity […] in conformity with the order of time.

The way that Smolin discusses the philosophy of Leibniz and emergence also seems to chime well with the two central doctrines of Buddhism–emptiness (no permanent identity) and mutually interdependent arising (xxvii; 116; xxx; 266-67):

Leibniz had a vision of a world in which everything lives not in space but immersed in a network of relationships. These relationships define space, not the reverse. Today the idea of a universe of connected, networked entities pervades modern physics, as well as biology and computer science. […]

If we insist on reciprocal action and rule out fixed-background structures, what we are saying is that every entity in the universe evolves dynamically, in interaction with everything else. This is the essence of the philosophy of relationalism, which is usually attributed to Leibniz […] We can extend this idea to assert that all properties in a cosmological theory should reflect evolving relationships among dynamical entities. […]

Emergence is an important term in a relational world. A property of something made of parts is emergent if it would not make sense when attributed to any of the parts. Rocks are hard, and water flows, but the atoms they’re made of are neither solid nor wet. […]

When we ask about the essence of matter, or of the world, we are asking what it is intrinsically–what it is in the absence of relationships and interactions. The relationalist stance is that there’s nothing real in the world apart from those properties defined by relationships and interactions.

In other words, with time as fundamental, everything else is empty of essence, emergent from the network, and without identity apart from the network. Here’s Smolin again:

I’m inclined to believe that just about everything we now think is fundamental will also eventually be understood as approximate and emergent: gravity and the laws of Newton and Einstein that govern it, the laws of quantum mechanics, even space itself.

Smolin on emergence thus sounds very much like the Dali Lama when he too empties things of their fundamental essences: “No flower in the flower,” says the Tibetan priest.

Networks ultimately vacant of fundamental essences are responsible for the emergence, ripening, and the passing away of things in time. There is no escaping history, not even for the Big Bang. Welcome to the fire.

Mountains are really mountains, rivers are really rivers. Smolin’s discussion of “Leibniz’s principle of the identity of the indiscernibles” (214) also is remarkably reminiscent of an insight from Buddhism, most particularly Zen. “Identity of the indiscernibles” is a Leibnizian way of saying that no two things emerging out of the shifting cosmic network are exactly alike–otherwise they would necessarily be the same thing. Therefore, each emergent thing in the now is truly real–a unique manifestation of existence that has come (paradoxically) out of emptiness. And because each emergent thing is interconnected to everything else in the universe–in Smolin’s system, every atom interacts with every other atom in the cosmos–this makes symmetry in physics actually impossible–at least at the most fundamental level of what is actually happening now (215):

This implies that our universe can have no exact symmetries […] According to the principle of the identity of the indiscernibles, our universe is one where every moment of time, and every place at every moment, is uniquely distinguishable from any other.

A Chinese Zen master, Ch’ing-yuan Wei-hsin, came to exactly the same conclusion about matter that Smolin has about time, and he did so via a similar route (accepting common sense, doubting common sense, accepting common sense):

Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, “Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.”

After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, “Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.”

But now, having attained the abode of final rest [awakening], I say, “Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.” (Quoted in Maseo Abe’s Zen and Western Thought, University of Hawaii Press, 1985, p. 4)

The implications for physics here are huge, for it means that it is a mistake to make symmetry the holy grail of physical theory. Why? Because every thing that emerges out of the empty cosmic network is interconnected with everything else even as it obtains its own unreproducible identity. It doesn’t function as a replaceable cog in a wheel.  Here’s Smolin again (111-12; 117-18):

[B]eauty is a consequence of [general relativity and the Standard Model] being effective and approximate. Simplicity and beauty, then, are the signs not of truth but of a well-constructed approximate model of a limited domain of phenomena. […]

[T]here can be no fundamental symmetries in nature. A symmetry is a transformation of a physical system that exchanges its parts while leaving all its physically observable quantities the same. […]

It is only because we ignore the interactions between the rest of the universe and the atoms in our laboratory that it doesn’t matter if we move the laboratory in space. […]

These and other symmetries are features only of approximate laws applying to subsystems of the universe.

This has a stunning consequence: If these symmetries are approximate, then so are the laws of conservation of energy, momentum, and angular momentum. These basic conservation laws depend on the assumption that space and time are symmetric under translations of time, translations in space, and rotations. […]

So the unknown cosmological theory will have neither symmetries nor conservation laws. Some particle physicists, impressed by the success of the Standard Model, like to say that the more fundamental a theory is, the more symmetries it should have. This is precisely the wrong lesson to draw.

In other words, things with a history are quirky, contingent. At the most fundamental level, time casts up in each moment–each now–a nonsymmetrical and nonexchangeable reality of really existent and particular things. The productions of time are not of necessity beautiful or simple–and certainly not eternal. They are, instead, novel. Odd. 20th century physics only approximates to time’s reality (and so discovers symmetries and useful simplifications).

Thus Smolin is the Stephen Greenblatt of physics–the pusher of a new historicism. And what Smolin therefore calls “time,” Buddhists call “spontaneous Buddha nature”–it’s all that the mutually interdependent cosmos is doing now–right now. It’s what’s real–most real, most fundamental. History is burning. And emerging from history’s ever-shifting cosmic network are particular mountains that are really mountains, particular rivers that are really rivers, and particular individuals that are really individuals (in all their messiness). The past is gone, the now is real, the future is open. That’s time reborn.



  • Link to The New York Times’ review of Smolin’s book.
  • Link to Time Reborn at Amazon.



About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn: Physics, Evolution, Atheism, and Buddhism

  1. marksackler says:

    Fascinating…I have to read this.

  2. L. Rowan McKnight says:

    Funny, I’ve always said that I live in the Now, and the best part about that is that it’s never not Now. Seems there’s a scientific basis to my whimsy…

  3. Perception is everything, so to speak. It is what gives us philosophy. It is an understanding, not an explanation. Understanding time does not explain it. First we understand. Then we understand that we can’t know. Then we understand that an incomplete but full(-ish) knowing and experience of existence is all that there is to understand. Last, we understand. From cradle to grave, all that changed is our perception of what we understand we perceive to understand.

    It’s a cigar!

  4. Alan says:

    I can agree with Smolin only as far as time is fundamental. I suspect the rest of his suggestions (black holes and evolution of the laws of physics, mystical interconnectedness of all atoms, etc.) will come to naught. I predict one universe with fixed laws (and one theory to rule them all and in the space-time bind them.)
    Relativity & etc. are mathematical models good for making predictions. I doubt they describe reality in the large scale. Relativity, (I am not alone in suggesting) predicts the behavior of clocks, not time. It affects atoms and molecules, changing the rates of the phenomenon we measure for timekeeping and very likely the shapes of atoms moving in a gravitational field to give us the length contraction predicted by special relativity.

  5. Pingback: What Goes Around Comes Around | Prometheus Unbound

  6. Pingback: Does Time Exist? Einstein, Julian Barbour, Lee Smolin, Some Greek Philosophers–And The New Data From The NASA Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope | Prometheus Unbound

  7. Pingback: What does Lee Smolin mean when he says that the most fundamental theory can have no symmetries? – GrindSkills

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