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Book Review: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum, Lee Smolin

April 2, 2021
Einstein's Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the QuantumEinstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum by Lee Smolin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great effort to present a new realist and principled approach to the foundations of our physical understanding of the universe. A relational view of space-time dimensions, a view of space as emergent, of experienced time felt as fundamentally real. A causal sets view of how it fits together with quantum theory, and all in line with basic principles of reasoning largely inspired by Leibniz’ principles of sufficient reason and of the identity of indiscernibles.

I have pursued and studied Leibniz myself and been likewise fascinated by the potential avenues of exploration from a relational view of space-time, ever since reading the Leibniz correspondence/debate with Newton about relational or absolute space and time, and the relative motion work, De Motu, of Berkeley. Lee Smolin, along with Julian Barbour, is on the front line in theoretical physics bringing some of these deep conceptual ideas and principles to fruition.

My only point of considerable disagreement with Smolin is that reality fundamentally be composed of atomic entities in a void. He seems to waver on this position at the end, where he converts to a more Leibnizian ontology of not full monads, but what he calls “nads”, which amount to “views” on the universe. In which case, there is an issue making this consistent with his principle of reciprocity, as this principle is something that applies very specifically to atomic style models of fundamental entities, of atomic, indivisble, spherical point-like things in the void, exchanging energy and momentum.

If the fundamental thing is instead “views” on the universe then the principle of reciprocity won’t apply to them, as they are either an action without a reaction or they are a reaction without an action. Either way, a “view” does not reciprocate in the usual physical/mechanical way. He rightfully criticises the information perspective on quantum theory for not being grounded in some physical reality and for confusing syntax with semantics, but still this issue remains of how to make a semantics, i.e. a “view” on the universe, consistent with the usual atomistic physical principles, such as reciprocity.

My personal view is that this cannot be achieved in the direction Lee Smolin follows and so we have to deny fundamental reality to the atoms, just as much as we must deny, via relationalism, fundamental reality to external space. If the void of space between the atoms doesn’t exist, then neither do the atoms. This then makes the views on the universe slightly more shadowy entities, but I think its the price you have to pay for a realism that does not confound reality with some model of reality that we created.

(A possible direction to go here would be to connect up with Saul Kripke’s ideas of names as rigid designators in philosophy of language. His causal histories way of individuating entities is somewhat reminiscent of the causal sets that Lee Smolin turns to.)

The ways in which he explains how space can be seen as an emergent phenomenon based on different views of the universe is fascinating as our many of his ideas related to his temporal relationalism, and the idea that even laws of nature can evolve over time. As soon as you take a background independent approach to space-time you are launched into all these initially very counter intuitive domains, but I think he rightfully sees that this is the only route for progress to be made, because the other route is for us to stagnate in background dependent models where we keep hitting against the same wall, making the same mistake of confounding our models of reality with reality itself.

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