A New View of Time

by Lee Smolin edited by O Society July 5, 2019

During the last century, science is transformed by several simultaneous revolutions:

In physics, relativity and quantum theory utterly change our understanding of nature. Yet these twin revolutions initiated by Einstein are mutually discordant, which tells us they are not yet complete.

Biology also is doubly transformed by twin revolutions, each the legacy of Darwin. The most powerful is the neo-Darwinian synthesis, which, through molecular biology, gives a detailed microscopic understanding of the processes of life. At the same time an ecological, systems-oriented perspective develops in biology, whose vanguard is the study of complex systems.

Today, systems biology attempts, with some success, to combine the two strands. Interweaving these developments in physics and biology, we have the general study of information and computation.

Uniting these advances are four deeper themes:

1) The abandonment of a reductionist Newtonian framework, in which a system has a state completely describing it and changes predictively and reversibly in time.

2) The embrace of notions of change that are discontinuous, irreversible, and not completely predictable. Speciation and extinctions in evolution are an example, along with Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin’s punctuated equilibria. So are phase transitions in physics.

3) The appreciation of critical phenomena, in which qualitative changes in the internal organization of a system occur simultaneously over a wide range of scales.

4) The understanding nature can generate surprising novelty, including novel states of organization, which are governed by novel laws.

I would like to propose that two closely related conceptual revolutions in turn explain and unify these transitions—and that these have the potential to affect disciplines beyond science.

The first is a change in the notion of time, from the rearrangements of unchanging atomic elements to a process that drives the continual generation of novel events, and hence is continually making the future out of the present. Put another way, this is a change from a deterministic and reversible time, to a time that is generative and irreversible. Under the older notion, time could be considered a version of space, and was therefore inessential and could be eliminated. In the new view of time, time is essential and irreversible because it generates genuine novelty.

Along with this comes a second revolution, which concerns properties. On the older view, properties are absolute and reductionist. An atom’s properties hold irrespective of the properties or the existence of anything else in the universe. The newer notion is that properties are defined only in relation to the system that contains them. A prototype for this transformation is the move from the absolute notion of space held by Newton to the relational view of space championed by Leibniz and realized in Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

It then becomes interesting to ask if these two revolutions can help us understand the equally profound shifts that have occurred in art over the same period of time. Can the changes from classicism to modernism to postmodernism and beyond be comprehended in terms of changes in the notions of time and property?

(header image: Kalachakra Thangka)

Complex Potential States

The Arrow of Time, the Cosmic Now, and Odin’s Eye (Musical Interlude)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s