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Lee Smolin, Many Worlds Quantum Theory – Realism or Science-Fiction?

March 23, 2021

Lee Smolin’s latest book Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum, is largely an attempt to be true to an Einsteinian style notion of realism in our scientific theories about the world. He sees the standard Copenhagen model as not realist due to the ambiguity of the measurement problem and the slightly mystical nature of Bohr’s principle of complementarity.

He is trying to succeed where Einstein failed, and he has done so far, being two thirds the way through the book, a good job in clarifying the situation with quantum theory. However, I have to take some issue with his notion of realism. He seems to want to go back to a notion of science and how it functions that was effectively made defunct a long time ago. This notion of a view from nowhere. This seems to be the realism he is aiming at, but this is a kind of realism that failed, and that story is something I have traced myself through 20th century philosophy.

A mathematical realism or Platonic realism, as we see alternate versions of in Barbour and Penrose can make some sense, provided some measure of distance is always born in mind, between our mathematical models of reality and reality itself as experienced. Similarly, Lee Smolin’s time based realism, explored in his earlier work Time Reborn, where he develops this notion of the “thick present” alongside a relational view of spatial dimensions in line with Leibniz’ principles of reason, also has some value.

But, I don’t think there can be any going back to a view from nowhere type of realism, this failed in early 20th century philosophy, and via Bohr’s victory over Einstein, it failed also in physics. God may well play dice after all. But I dont think this is the pertinent point. The point we need to be thinking about is what is real, where reality must include human observers as a part of it. Smolin has also shown a willingness to accept this in his work on the life of the cosmos. Something is not real, just by virtue of being non or a-human. This kind of morally motivated realism of extended self-deferral is a zero sum game that can have only one outcome, and it is not a good outcome for human beings.

So, with that in mind, he makes a good critique of the supposed realism of the many worlds theorists in quantum theory. They suggest a way to do away with Rule 2, the measurement rule, and have a universe (well, really a multiverse), governed solely by Rule 1, the Schrodinger equation. The problem is that they attempt in various ways to smuggle in some version of rule 2, and all the probabilities it entails, as did Everett in the theories original formulation. It also renders decisions we make of no value in this world, as we have an infinity of other selves making other decisions, so what pressure is there to do anything good in this life, we may as well just be selfish and not worry about consequences. For some other of our infinite selves can worry about that and make those different decisions. It would lead to moral laxity in the face of a multiverse fatalism. And it would be a worse fatalism than any before because the theory is set up to be unfalsifiable, as we have no access ourselves to any of these other universes within the multiverse.

In summary, we need to find an alternative realist route that allows a place for human beings with meaningful places within that reality. I think Smolin’s earlier work, and the work in relation to cosmology of the likes of Penrose and Barbour is striving towards something of this kind. And it has a much better hope of success than going from the errors of a view from everywhere (the multiverse), back to the old and outdated cold view from nowhere of 20th century physics and philosophy.

Yes, the measurement problem, gives us a real headache on this front, in how we can go about addressing it. But personally I think we can simply accept the reality of non-local influence between things. This is a perfectly realist approach once we have the relational view of space, as within that framework space itself is shown to be unreal as an extended, pre-existent container.

More to come on this soon enough, I need to explore this Hole Problem next as this gets into the potential unreality of space a bit more, and the final section of Lee Smolin’s latest book may have some more promising suggestions also regarding how to formulate a realist interpretation of quantum theory. Already his presentation of the pilot wave approach of De Broglie and Bohm, has got me a little more interested in that, and his critique of the many-worlds approach has confirmed further my own misgivings about this stance. I only wish he would show slightly better awareness about the impossibility of a return to a “view from nowhere” style of realism.

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