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Book Review: The Life Of the Cosmos, Lee Smolin

February 11, 2021

(Disclaimer: This review focuses more on my critique of aspects his ideas. I have much more positive to say about Smolin’s views in previous posts and in other posts to come)

The Life Of The CosmosThe Life Of The Cosmos by Lee Smolin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is an awful lot that is good in this book, with very cutting edge theoretical concepts and principles in basic physics and natural philosophy that are discussed openly and unabashedly. I also appreciate the way in which, unlike many physicists, he doesn’t over play the card of what his particular scientific specialisation knows about reality and is open and admits where there are current limitations. Add to this the whole fascinating idea of thinking of the whole cosmos as alive and connected to us in some meaningful manner, rather than trying to pass it off in a gloating way as some external thing that cares nothing for us as random accidents. (The typical disempowering schtick in our science education). For these factors alone, and for the novelty of the approaches and the interesting figures and ideas referred to, it is worth 4 stars.

However, there remain some criticisms. Firstly, he wavers with very ambiguous views of what natural selection is. Now, given he is arguing for a cosmology based on natural selection, you would think he would be clear on this central point. Unfortunately he is not, he does show awareness of the fact natural selection could just be a logic that underlies discourse, but then he also claims for it something like the status of a mechanism. If its the former, you are going to have to explain how such a logical/metaphysical view could be justified as being a physical explanation for our cosmology. If its the latter then you are going to have to explain what the driving mechanism is for this natural selection. Now, he claims there could be some empirical ways to test the theory, but they are often indicators, rather than verifiers, and I struggle to see how there could be a mechanism, given the mechanism even in biology of natural selection is still much disputed. Yes, we have genetics, but we also have epigenetics, and if it turns out there is interplay between these two things, then you are never going to be able to isolate a clear cut mechanism. Regardless, there is something to be said for Smolin’s general approach, and for his relational views of space. (Interesting, back at the time of this book, he was still considering the possibility that time is unreal, unlike in his later work where time is “reborn”.)

Another criticism is that he panders a bit too much to too many different people. So, he will say in one sentence that he is doing away with mystical and metaphysical views to pander to his positivist atheist and science fan boy readers, then in the next he will talk of the centrality of Leibniz’ principle of sufficient reason, pandering to more philosophical readers, totally unaware, it would seem, that this is a metaphysical principle.

Anyway, these caveats aside, mostly Smolin attempts in this book to face the limits and frontiers of our current scientific knowledge and tries to engage in discourse with other academic disciplines and sources of knowledge to move past, what at that time had been an era of stagnation due to over specialisation and narrow mindedness. The era of youtube and other things since then has helped to spur on more efforts to move beyond that parochial era and free up discourse, not just with people defending the institution that feeds them, but with independent individuals interested in truth for its own sake.

Naturally, the last few years, we have come over a new set of problems, and the left is looking to calcify itself again and withdraw into its mono-narrative stronghold. Thankfully, still in certain areas like theoretical physics there is room for some independent individuals with good ideas to win through such as Roger Penrose. And it does feel to me we now live in a time that is ready to move away from the standard big bang cosmology dogma. Relying, as it does, on too many arbitrary factors to come together in any physically justifiable way consistent with our reason. We could always just make some metaphysical postulates, and be open about this, but of course, this would then raise debate, discussion and criticism, so the tendency seems to be to play safe, to not rise above the parapet and to try and claim a purely physical basis for ones views, as if this will give it an independent credibility that cannot be criticised. There may be a purely physical and correct cosmology to be found, and aspects of Lee Smolin’s views may be part of it, but just appealing to natural selection is neither going to be sufficient nor reasonable.

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