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Positivism vs Realism: Hawking vs Penrose

In a famous debate about the nature of space and time between Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, Hawking saw there to be no problem in quantum theory that needed extra explanation. Schrodinger’s cat and the measurement problem was not such a big problem, because we could view quantum theory purely operationally, based on experimental results. This is the route of positivism. Penrose took the route of realism where he insisted that something must be missing in quantum theory, something akin to the unfinished revolution of Einstein.

Many people have written about and tried to tackle this debate that started with Einstein’s attempts through various thought experiments to undermine quantum theory by finding some inherent paradox or contradiction contained within some of its consequences. David Bohm, John Stewart Bell, Paul Davies, Roger Penrose, and most recently Lee Smolin has written a book with this very title. What Einstein wanted was some coherent and consistent realist picture or model of what is happening with quantum phenomena that can be seen as objectively true, independent of observers.

The first attempt was the pilot wave theory of David Bohm and De Broglie, the next effort was in the development of the notion of Beables in the work of John Stewart Bell, who also proved a very important theorem in quantum mechanics, to the effect that if there are hidden variables guiding the wave, they must be non local. So we find ourselves in the position of having to understand how to reconcile realism and non local influence.

This has made the path difficult for the likes of Penrose, Lee Smolin and other more recent proponents of realism in science. The problem is that the basic Newtonian principle of action and reaction is lost by allowing non local influences. And this principle is a foundational tenet of traditional realist and mechanical approaches and is continued on even in Quantum field theory. An option favoured by Penrose is that there is some sort of collapse of the wave function triggered by the gravitational fabric of curved space-time-matter itself, whenever there is a certain degree of curvature present. Penrose sees some hope for his view in the theory of Hawking radiation and evaporation of black holes. I think he sees this potential asymmetry caused by strongly gravitational objects as indicative of a collapse of the wave function caused by gravity, and so of an explanatory dependence of quantum theory on some general relativistic interpretation of quantum gravity.

It is ironic that Stephen Hawking himself came to reject this view about black holes and argued later that energy is conserved and there is no evaporation of black holes. In both these cases and some others you can see how Hawking is guided more by positivistic and operationalist considerations, while Penrose is motivated by trying to preserve some connection with realism in our fundamental physical theories.

So, where would I place myself in this discussion? Well, the recent book I read and reviewed and talked about on here in previous posts by Julian Barbour provides a good alternative way to view many of these things. The only question that remains then is how, within a relationalist view of space and time to quite account for the reality of space time curvature and hence, also the reality of singularities and black holes, because if space-time is purely relational, there is no independent “thing” there to which we can apply the property of curvature, just a network of relations between things. But those networks, it makes no sense to apply curvature to them, variation is provided instead by evolution and development of different configurations of networks of relations.

I think these questions still remain to be considered in more thorough detail and greater clarity to solve some of these quandaries about how exactly to describe and delineate the reality-status of our fundamental physical theories. Hawkings positivistic approach may be a safer way to hedge your bets and not commit to a metaphysic or view of reality, but I think its clear that some metaphysic always slips in whether we adopt one consciously or not, so it may be better as Penrose is trying, to adopt realism and aim to choose our metaphysic wisely. And also is the effort of Smolin in his latest work.

I have reservations though about how both of them interpret realism, as well as reservations about the timeless Platonia of Julian Barbour. Penrose’s realism seems to rely on a non-relationalist view of space and time which may conflict with basic principles of human reason, while Smolin’s realism seems to involve various postulations of extra entities that are added on to quantum theory arbitrarily rather than having a clear physical role. Their role seems only to be to save realism. Barbour’s realism is a pure Platonic realm of changeless forms. And, as appealing as that may be aesthetically, I tend to agree with Smolin, Rovelli and others in preferring to give primacy to the reality of time and processes, rather than to static things.

On that point, Carlo Rovelli has a newly released book called Helgoland presenting and arguing for a process view of quantum theory and it will be interesting to explore that one. The debate is ongoing, but it is refreshing to see these kinds of serious consideration and respect being shown by top theoretical physicists to questions of the ontolological status and implications of their physical theories. For, I think they realise well that without some physical basis and platform for their theories that we can all point towards, the danger is that the subject would become reduced to the creation of mathematical models and pure mathematics. less and less in touch with a serious grounding in physical reality.

The Accidental Truth in Flat Earth Theory

I have never addressed or even really considered this particular conspiracy theory of the flat earth, and this is because it is clearly mostly motivated by a kind of wish fulfilment style of reasoning a bit similar to old ideas of the Earth as being at the center of the Universe, on the one side, and on the other side it is promoted by fraudsters trying to discredit all other conspiracy theories in the process. I am not going to go into the typical arguments either for or against. But to summarise them, there is claims about the faked stuff in the moon landings, magnetic issues with the south pole, and there is the possibility of seeing further on the horizon than should be possible. And, in general, there is just the fact of for many people, they won’t believe it because they are never going to see it with their own eyes, and don’t trust any others. Here is a good representative conversation of this perspective for those who want to pursue and get that context a bit further who have not heard this kind of stuff before:

The kernel of accidental truth to it that I want to explore in this post is the notion of the relativity of curvature. This is connected with the relationalist view of space and time, and tells us basically, that for any curvature in the objects around us and the space around us, we can equivalently attribute it to curvature in our own frame of reference. Take the case of the star behind the sun whose light was curved round the edge of it and so it appeared in a different place than was expected, by an amount that corroborated the amount of curvature to be effected by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. You could say there is a curvature in that space near the sun, caused by gravity, or you can equivalently say there is a curvature/corresponding distortion in your frame of reference caused by looking near the sun. Like when looking through a magnifying glass. As opposed to how things look just outside of that magnifying glass. Indeed, this is potentially all that is really happening with supposed curvature of space. Because it is corroborated by recent scientific advances with gravitational lensing and like phenomena which are used to measure smaller changes and perturbations near gravitational objects in order to detect things such as exo planets.

So the kernel of truth is that space is not “really” either curved or flat, and can be seen equivalently as either, because there is not “really” any space, there is only a relational network of objects. Contrariwise, the kernel of falsity in the mainstream view is that most people, even today, are still stuck in Newton’s notion of absolute space, despite of Einstein, partly because this particular relativity of curvature and equivalence of flat and curved frames of reference was not made clear or was misunderstood. Though you can see it illustrated by Einstein’s classic accelerating lift thought experiment that creates, within that frame of reference, an equivalent curvature to a gravitational field, with light taking a bent path across that lift as it travels through it.

The misunderstanding in the mainstream view seems related to this felt need even now for us to hypostatise our models of things and take them for reality itself. So, in general relativity , we take some curved models of space and time, and the desire is to find the one “true” model of the curvature. Yet, for all the searching, there has still not been decided if there is any overall curvature to the space of the universe. All we have our localised pockets of curvature caused by areas with big gravitating objects like in solar systems or near black holes. The suggestion of relativity of curvature, which is basically my own idea that I came up with as far as I am aware, is that there won’t be any overall curvature to the universe, for it would mean space is something more than a relational network of things.

The perceived apparent absoluteness, homogeneousness and near flatness of space is made initially difficult to explain with the relational approach, but a good explanation can be found in the Janus approach and shape dynamics approach of Julian Barbour, for which I would refer you to his website . In this approach there is no privileged metric tensor for measuring space with: Size is a purely relative concept, as it needs to be in a relational approach, and the distinctions we perceive instead come from shape distinctions, i.e. relational distinctions in the patterns of how objects are related to each other.

What this can illustrate to us all as a general moral, is that we should avoid arrogance in our perspectives. It would be easy to dismiss flat earth theory, and rightfully so, for some of the reasons I mentioned and for many others, but in the result you may miss the accidental though misguided kernel of truth to it of the relativity of curvature and miss out on your own prejudice and error of presuming some sort of hypostatised model of an absolute Newtonian space.

The real debate around relationalist views of space and time is actually still a live and ongoing debate in current theoretical physics. And in that sense the conspiracy prone types would do well to not rush to their own pet theories but instead be open to exploring relationalist models of space and time. The ideas are very abstract and difficult to visualise, but they are an open field of current exploration which does not involve having to retreat some conspiracy where the whole academic world and mainstream are making up a false narrative purely on purpose, which only makes you powerless in the end against forces in the world all conspiring against you.

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

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.

Roger Penrose – Mathematical Realism and Platonism in Tension with Principles of Reason

A common theme in the work of Roger Penrose in theoretical physics is a strong predilection towards a mathematical form of realism, in which physical nature at the fundamental level mimics mathematical structures.

In the case of Penrose he considers structures such as fractals and those provided by complex numbers, and with a more subtle mathematical theory, you can describe his Twister theory approach to Quantum gravity.

The existence itself of singularities is a consequence of the mathematical theories and models, and in many of these areas there is a deep faith that mathematical structure and the structure of reality coincide at the most fundamental level.

It remains to be seen how correct this view is and how far it can be taken. For instance, once more it is his strong faith in following the mathematical structures where they lead, rather than being distracted by other more usual physical and mechanical intuitions about nature, that leads him to his cyclic cosmos approach with Conformal Cyclic Cosmology.

There is a potential downside to this approach which as always is this tendency to hypostatise our own models and structures for understanding reality onto reality itself. Naturally, Penrose does a good job avoiding this error in many areas.

But in one area, with his ORCH approach in quantum gravity in which there is an objective orchestrated reduction or collapse of the wave function in quantum theory under the effect of gravity, there is a tension potentially with other options. Namely, the option of following Leibnizian principles of reason, which are pursued more fully by the likes of Lee Smolin and Julian Barbour.

This leads them to the relational view of space and time. However this conflicts with Penrose’s Orch approach, for in this view the gravitational field is taken, to be a real “thing”, that causes the quantum collapse of the wave function, as a way to explain the measurement problem for macro as opposed to micro objects.

But if there is a pure scale invariance in space and time. I.e. if they are purely relational, there would be no way to distinguish a micro from a macro realm, based on space and time themselves. The only way would be if these things are absolute in some way. And this actually is the way that Einstein himself ultimately went.

Einstein, in his special theory went for a relational view originally, inspired by Mach, but then influenced by Minkowski’s Space-Time interpretation and by others, in his general theory of relativity, Space was brought back as in some way an absolute thing, for if the theory is that space curvature causes gravity, then there must be an existent “thing” that is curved.

So, I would side here with Smolin and Barbour, in thinking that space is in some key sense fundamentally unreal. And would take the inspiration here of Leibniz’ basic principles of reasoning as outweighing the reality of the mathematical structures.

Taking this further, philosophically, would lead to a discussion on what is called the hole argument, which is a criticism of the standard Einsteinian interpretation of general relativity, suggesting, it can be reduced to a relational approach.

That will be for another time, but at this point, to summarise, we have to keep in mind that in aiming at realism we have competing considerations to bear in mind. The mathematical realism of the structures we use to describe nature, and the principles of reasoning we use through which to express truths about nature.

Short Story – A Terminal Meeting

Don’t breathe out, don’t be tempted to sneeze, don’t shuffle around, just don’t make any noise. Not yet.

Wait for the gathered assembly of the world’s elite to leave the room.

If they caught you in here, they could easily destroy you, and they wouldn’t even need to kill you.

A swift and effective smearing campaign would soon have my name and reputation wrung through the mud.

Then all the things I saw and heard and recorded here today would be for nothing.

This information must be released to the people, and it must be released by a still trusted public figure.

The final attendees were leaving the room, awkwardly and unevenly they clambered along like zombies, with bodies and heads obeying an impulse completely detached from their hearts.

The revulsion must be contained, even these thoughts right now must be contained. These hideous creatures may be stupid in many senses, but they still have a preternatural instinct for outsiders and for those few remaining free humans who don’t belong to their system of control.

Concealing their faces behind their masks, they can hide their artificial smiles in an ever more obviously failing attempt to appear warm, human, mammalian.

The ruse of life and care must be maintained even among the living dead.

The echoing footsteps receded into the distance.

I slowly and methodically removed the screws in the ventilation unit.

I had been stationed here for several weeks. This has become like a home. I had had to make it a home. This cramped, hot, stinky, wet space.

It was the only way to avoid detection. The only way to infiltrate this nest of demons.

I had listened on in horror, recording all the plans of these monsters.

But some of the key data was held in the computers and laptops left behind while they went away for a lunch break.

This was the moment to secure that data and save the world from the hell of the “new normal” they had planned for us.

Screws undone, I quietly and carefully swung the grating down and open and lowered myself from the ceiling with a short rope.

I landed on the big central table, like a cat, making not a sound, stalking my prey.

I opened up the screens on the head of this groups computer. The biggest billionaire, and biggest buffoon of them all. Who had self decreed that wealth would be a measure of intelligence at ordering society.

I looked at the data, I looked at the message on the screen and was left shocked and perplexed.

Things were even worse than I had thought. It began to dawn on me, the enemy was much greater than had been imagined.

On the screen it said only:


No reams of data, no grand conspiratorial plan.

They were reading a script from the AI on their computers.

The invisible hand of all the manipulation and behavioural control in our world was not the masterful scheme of a sociopathic human brain.

It was not merely human greed, terrible, but at least a known enemy.

It was a pure algorithmic confabulation of an AI that was merely toying with us. Using us as actors on a stage to play a game just to show it could beat us easily.

Just as the chess masters cannot comprehend the strategy of the top AI, the world had become managed like a grand chess strategy by machines.

In the text box, as a response to the “order” of the computer to take a 1 hour lunchbreak, losing my cool, I typed on the keyboard, thoughtlessly leaving my fingerprints on the keys, the one simple word “NO” and pressed return.

The machine didn’t give a response. At least he didn’t think it had. Little did he know a signal had been sent immediately to security who had been informed of his presence and promptly they arrived and shot him in the head, to a near instant death.

His last thought as he fell, was anger at the person who shot him, when the source of all his troubles was the machine in front of him, who had played with him and with everyone.

The next line on the computer screen came up:


Naturally the security guards promptly obeyed the order thoughtlessly.

The meeting continued as planned and later that day the news throughout the world spread of an attempted insurrection by a right wing racist, extremist that was thankfully averted.

Security was doubled and ventilation was removed from the room, to avoid such inconveniences in the future.

Book Review: The Janus Point, Julian Barbour

The Janus Point: A New Theory of TimeThe Janus Point: A New Theory of Time by Julian Barbour
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is largely about an attempt to reenvisage the concept of entropy to fit it into a view of the universe as, due to the constant expansion, being more like an open system, rather than a closed system like a box with walls that particles can bounce off. Entropy is normally viewed in relation to this latter view of things. Now this can work well for localised thermodynamic systems, but is misapplied to the universe as a whole, according to Barbour.

As a result this allows him to think more positively about how entropy may apply to the universe overall, in which the arrow of time does not lead us to a heat death style conclusion to the universe, of things becoming more disorganised and equilibrating, like in an isolated thermodynamic system, but instead the arrow of time means continual expansion as in the big bang, but locally also it leads to perpetual complexification of island like entities within that expanse, such as planets, galaxies etc. It suggests this local internal complexification can continue without end into the future.

Part of the way he shows this is through viewing space and time in a purely relational manner, true to Leibniz’ insight and concern all those years ago in his argument with Newton over the fact that absolute space and time disobeys the principle of sufficient reason and the principle of identity of indistinguishables. Barbour aims to work in line with these principles to try and provide a different way of envisaging what the big bang means, and what an origin to the universe could mean. This is what the Janus point is meant to represent.

He tries to work in line with these principles, to provide a background independent understanding of the basic “being” of the cosmos, as opposed to the at times ad hoc “past hypothesis”, relied upon by many in the standard interpretation of times arrows in line with typical closed-box entropy, and the work of those in string theory that is not background independent and relies only on the principle of non-contradiction, allowing them to end up with many different consistent and mutually exclusive interpretations of what basic reality may be, making it seem more like a mathematical game or model, rather than dealing with fundamental reality of the cosmos.

Part of the way he goes about it all, gets into complex mathematics in relation to N-body and 3-body problems, and kepler pairs, in which out of basic triangular relational snapshots of what he calls shape space, a system can develop to allow our regular notions of time and space to emerge. I couldn’t comment much on this more purely mathematical aspect. Only to say it would be something of importance to see more experts in this field look into and check over and verify or falsify some of his results.

In the larger philosophical picture and physical picture, I find this idea of returning to certain basic principles of reason very attractive in our envisaging of the cosmos. As opposed to relying on arbitrary starting points of something from nothing, or ad hoc postulation of principles to fill gaps in the reasoning, like with the standard account of the big bang and the past hypothesis. However, there are some issues remaining, such as quite what he means by this “law of the universe”, preceding the more regular and emergent laws of nature and physics we commonly see, that he evokes often to defend his position, and what experimental proofs or falsifications of his theory there could be, because not many are supplied.

Unlike Roger Penrose, who suggests a more clear empirical test of this kind in relation to his conformal cyclic cosmology. I was also surprised that he did not contrast his view with the view of Penrose, for all he says is that he sees Penrose’s “closed box” account of entropy and thermodynamics as misguided in line with the standard model. But does not talk of his CCC at all. At times, he seems to be taking some digs at Roger Penrose in general, without himself offering something much clearer. And really it seems to me these two should be finding much common ground in their views of reality and of mathematics.

It would be interesting to see Roger Penrose’s response to this cosmological perspective of Julian Barbour and the Janus point, however, given he does not seem much taken by the idea of going for a purely relational view of space and time, it may be hard to reconcile their approaches from the very foundations.

A lot to ponder, and certainly it addressed some of the concerns I have always had with the standard account of the big bang, past hypothesis and heat death of the universe, where, aside from the negative consequences for our future being, it seemed to rely on arbitrary and unproven elements and misguided extrapolations from localised phenomena.

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Big Bang and The Past Hypothesis: The One Free Miracle

A large part of learning and improving your understanding is bringing together ideas you have had in different parts of your brain/mind, but not, for one reason or another, managed to bring them together. In this case of the title of this post, this is what happened for me in the last day or so, while beginning my reading of the fascinating new book, The Janus Point, by Julian Barbour.

Many moons ago I had always felt a continued dissatisfaction with the big bang explanation in cosmology for the creation/founding of the universe. I had read of ideas of the kind supported in science by the likes of Stephen Hawking, and of course, it has become the conventional wisdom. But it always struck me as an unjustified leap from what we actually know. As a kind of stop gap for ignorance in some way. The way I always framed it to myself, in a dismissive way, was as the bang so big and so loud, that no one ever heard it and one could ever hear it, even in principle.

From reading of Rupert Sheldrake, I see how he would often describe it as science asking for us to believe in “one free miracle”, and then from there we can explain everything else: A creation from nothing, of everything. Give us that free miracle then science can explain the rest. It dissatisfied me also, as it seemed to be a surrogate quasi religious belief, replacing the old creation myth of Christianity, with the closest narrative science could match to it.

When you add to this the developing consensus regarding an expanding universe and the eventual supposed heat death of the universe, you had the makings for something like Newtons clockwork universe, except, it was even worse than that unshakeable determinism, for over time the clockwork was going to wear down until we are all reduced to nothingness in a drawn out death, living always on borrowed time, and deluding ourselves of meaning and significance and goals to pursue in our lives in the short term, but there being no real or actual purpose in the long term, as was shown by this cosmological world view.

This was a very cynical state of affairs, and is also made for a very convenient narrative to bombard young impressionable brains with in school education to fix them into the new disempowered world of atheism, meaninglessness, and enforce there dependence on the social institutions of the state, and ensure its stranglehold over their lives from that time on, as good and willing subjects, well and truly “schooled”.

Now realism and respect for truth means we must grant this possibility its fair due in a reasonable and critical argument, despite its cynicism, for there is no reason that truth should be flowery and welcoming. However, there is equally no reason to sadistically assume that just because something is horrible and cynical in its conclusions, it is thereby, on those grounds alone, more likely to be true.

This is where my recent insight comes in. For I watched a series of lectures about time, and it turns out they were all about what is called the past hypothesis. Now, the problem, and the reason for belief in the big bang theory, is tied up with this belief in thermodynamics and the accepted understanding of entropy of the past hypothesis. The problem, is that it is merely that, a hypothesis. The lecturer was very keen to get adherence to this past hypothesis, but every argument he made for it merely begged the question.

And now I see in this new book by Julian Barbour on the Janus Point, an acceptance of this fact. Questions about entropy were not really resolved in any satisfying way by the postulation of the past hypothesis, they were merely deferred. In Barbour’s new cosmological perspective, from what I make of it so far having only just began on the book, is an attempt to overcome this arbitrariness of the past hypothesis, the big bang, the one free miracle, and replace it with something that is on a firmer and more reasonable and justifiable foundation. The arrow of time, as a felt and real thing, is not reducible to entropy and the past hypothesis in Barbour’s view, it relies on, not a decrease in order, but actually an increase in order and organisation.

There are shades of Stuart Kauffman’s ideas in this view also. Combine this with other views I have been considering lately on the cosmos, with Smolin’s ideas about cosmological natural selection via black holes, as a way of getting away from this idea of founding the universe on some Newtonian style conceptual clockwork mechanism of creation and running down and the ideas of Roger Penrose on the cyclic cosmos, and you have a bunch of heavy hitters in physics and cosmology seriously suggesting we move away from the big bang model altogether.

I welcome this greatly, as it has felt to me for too long that expecting us to believe in the big bang and the past hypothesis has been an article of faith, rather than a well reasoned line of argumentation, that has actually stopped and stultified interesting discussion in basic theoretical science, by over simplifying the notion of singularities and the perceived expansion of the universe to something the physics and the maths cannot justify.

Book Review: The Godmakers, Frank Herbert

The GodmakersThe Godmakers by Frank Herbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This makes a good and reasonable condensed version of some of the central spiritual and philosophical concepts underlying the Dune novels. If you have read those in the past, like myself, it can provide an interesting summary. If you have not read them, it could whet your appetite to explore Herbert’s world further with the Dune series.

As in Dune, a key point is that a close balance between chaos and order must be maintained for civilisation to persist in health and vigour. And the way to do this is by keeping in touch with, or rediscovering, our deep instinctual and spiritual pasts and channelling these energies, rather than trying to deny, repress, or overcome them.

Only in that way can we become “Godmakers”, rather than merely idol worshippers.

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Book Review: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was quite a surprisingly good read. I had expected it may seem a bit aged now, but its parable style message about the tyranny of the present and the convenient forgetfulness of inconvenient past realities is as relevant, if not much more relevant now, than it was when it was written.

The meddling desire to interfere with our history, with our past, with our books, and even with our memories, in order to force it into line with present ideological expectations and present comfortable illusions is one of the most dangerous and insidious desires and common weaknesses that can inflict and infest human beings and human society and culture.

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Book Review: The Life Of the Cosmos, Lee Smolin

(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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