Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Lee Smolin: Time Reborn [2013]

This is a book on cosmology, the highly speculative and “philosophical” branch of physics, which here focuses on the specific issue of the “reality” or “non-reality” of time. Our group didn’t think very highly of this book. Many couldn’t make much sense of it and didn’t finish reading it. And our group average on a scale of 0 to 10 was just 2.1.

Kirby started off by saying “I really wanted to like this book,” but he found that in order to try to understand it he had to read some passages over multiple times and even then things sometimes weren’t very intelligible. Kirby only read the first half of the book, the part where Smolin puts forward the now commonplace arguments within cosmology about why time is “not real”. (The second part of the book argues the opposite, that time actually “is real” after all.) And while Kirby found the presentation in that first half poorly written and unclear, he nevertheless generally agreed with the point of view outlined there, that time is unreal. At the same time, Kirby said that his biggest problem with the book is that he really doesn’t know what Smolin actually means by the word ‘time’; Smolin never makes that clear. “There came a point where I didn’t know what we were talking about!” said Kirby. He didn’t finish the book because he was just too frustrated with it. So although he rated it a 5, he was quite disappointed with it. “Sylistically, Smolin just wasn’t going anywhere.”

Rosie had voted against selecting this book to read, and based on a previous book by Smolin that our group has read, said that she didn’t like his writing style at all. With regard to this book her first comment was: “You should have listened to me!” She said that Smolin is a “horrible writer”. The only thing she liked about the first half of the book was the observation that all physical experiments only involve part of the universe, and therefore extrapolations to the nature of the universe as a whole are often questionable. Rosie gave the book a rating of just 1.

John said that the book really didn’t work for him. “I wanted to like the book, but Smolin just didn’t say anything that I could understand.” John rated it a 3, but his overall “one-word” summation expresses his opinion better: “Pttttuee!

Rich also gave the book a 3. He liked the earlier book by Smolin which we read. [The Trouble with Physics (2006).] But with regard to this book he said “I still don’t understand what people are saying about how time doesn’t exist. I don’t understand these theories about time.” He added: “I don’t feel I learned a lot from this book.”

Barbara read most of the book and also rated it a 3. She felt that there were many contradictory opinions in it on lots of specific points. But she felt the book became more sensible later on.

Vicki jumped around in the book and just read a little of it. She rated the part she read as just a 1. She also commented that as she read, Rosie’s warning voice about Smolin’s poor writing style kept running around in her head!

Kevin also read just a small part of the book, but rated what he did read a zero. He said that chapter 1 was just crap. Later he tried the audio version, but found that it put him to sleep in 3 minutes. He described what he read of it as a “horrible book, confusing, and a waste of time”.

Scott views all present-day “cosmology” as basically an absurdly speculative, quasi-religious enterprise which for the most part is not really science at all. This book, he says, is a fine example of that, though perhaps not quite fully representing the most typical “party line” within that bizarre field. Scott continues at length:

As I read this book a number of words to describe it repeatedly came to mind, such as: idiocy!, goofy!, nonsense!, utter crap!, and so forth. Finally I settled on daft!, that wonderful British word which has the pleasing connotation of a restrained suggestion of both inanity and a little insanity added into it. Even to ask the question of whether time is real or unreal is actually quite daft. It reminded me of various other nutty theories, such as solipsism and the absurdity of even debating it. Or disputes about the reification of attributes, such as “largeness”. (For example some silly Platonic philosopher might argue that since some things are obviously large and some are small that “largeness” and “smallness” must therefore exist in the world in the same way that chairs and people do (or even in some “deeper way” than individual large or small physical things do!). Or, on the other hand, a naïve mechanical materialist might dispute this in an inept, nutty way by arguing that “largeness” and “smallness” are actually “unreal”. What would we make of people who spend time debating whether “largeness” is real or not?! And what therefore should we make of those who spend time debating whether time is “unreal” or not?!)

Where does our conception of time come from anyway? It’s simply an abstraction we humans derive from the fact that the world is constantly changing all around us, that things are one way at one moment and a different way at a later moment. The changing world around us, together with the commonplace observation that some of that change is cyclic, as with day and night or the seasons of the year, leads directly to our basic concept of time. (Such standard cyclic processes allow us to measure the passage of time, to quantify the lengths of time periods.) Thus anyone arguing for the “unreality” of time would seem to have to deny the existence of change in the world—a denial that would be totally ... daft.

And yet, there have been those who have tried to do it anyway! In the history of philosophy there have been strange characters who have claimed that change “does not really exist”. The most notorious example in ancient Greek philosophy was Parmenides who argued that, despite all appearances, “All is One”, the world is actually a single unified whole and forever unchanging thing. His loyal student (and lover), Zeno, tried to “prove” this “logically” with his so-called “paradoxes of motion”. Other philosophers, such as Plato and many of his intellectual descendants, have tried to have it both ways: yes, they admit, there is change in the earthly imperfection around us, but in the deeper cosmic reality of the heavens and of ideas (or “forms”) there is never any change whatsoever.

One might have hoped that in the two and a half millennia since Parmenides and Zeno rejoined the “Universal Oneness”, we might have put such foolishness behind us. But, no, philosophical idealism of this totally ridiculous sort is still with us. The “All-is-One” doctrine is virtually universal among religious mystics. But human society in general is still grossly infected with religious notions or at least with the intellectualized versions of them (i.e., idealist philosophy). As I love to say, We still live in primitive times.

In cosmology too the ancient mystical idea that “All is One”, and that there is no such thing as change (or time!), is still all the rage. One popular version of this is the “block universe” theory (or “eternalism”) that Smolin talks about (especially in chapter 6). The “block universe” refers to the whole history of the universe at once. That is, it abstracts away from particular times, places and conditions. And, what do you know, if you abstract away (ignore!) all changes and references to time, then there are no changes, and time is “unreal”. How about that! (Talk about daft!) Here is how Smolin explains it in his dopey, simple-minded way:

“This is a timeless picture, because it refers to the whole history of the universe at once. There is no preferred moment of time, no reference to what time it is now, no reference at all to anything corresponding to our experience of the present moment. No meaning to ‘future’ or ‘past’ or ‘present’.” [p.58]


“The picture of the history of the universe, taken as one, as a system of events connected by causal relations, is called the block universe. The reason for that perhaps peculiar name is that it suggests that what is real is the whole history at once—the allusion is to a block of stone, from which something solid and unchanging can be carved.” [p. 59]

[And again:]

“These nine arguments lead to a view of nature that denies the reality of the present moment and instead speaks of nature in terms of the block universe picture in which what is real is only the entire history of the world taken as one.” [p. 94]

Parmenides would love it! Smolin even admits what he has been doing: “In Part I, we followed the path of the mystic, seeking to transcend our time-bound experience and discover eternal truths.” [p. 95]

After spending the whole first half of his book “explaining” the idea that time is “unreal” and thus promoting that daft idea (intentionally or not), Smolin switches gears and tries to argue that time is actually “real” after all! But this second half of the book is overall even more daft than the first half. Basically Smolin tries to explicate all sorts of utterly bizarre cosmological theories and defends one (or a few) of them which admit that time must be “real”. This second half is sort of a tour of the wild, totally speculative theories which contemporary cosmologists spend their time dreaming up and debating. We hear about theories that speculate that whole “new” universes pop up from “singularities” or black holes. Speculations that the laws of the universe also change or may be different in “other universes”. The notion that universes may give birth to “daughter universes” and that as they do so the physical laws governing those daughter universes may evolve in a way similar to the Darwinian evolution of life on earth through natural selection. The parade of such wild and totally off-the-wall cosmological speculations is endless, it seems!

There is essentially no real scientific evidence for any of these fantastic cosmological theories whatsoever. (The best Smolin can do is to say that a few of these theories might be eliminated by actual scientific evidence sometime in the future.) It is humorous, however, to hear Smolin frequently use the words “research”, “evidence”, “results”, and “discoveries” [p. 246] of cosmology when he is actually only talking about some specific claims within one or another of these totally speculative theories. Moreover he even admits that the “developments” described in Part II of the book “are not yet fact and do not yet amount to a coherent theory.” [p. 241] Even the author himself admits he is not putting forward a coherent cosmological theory! (No wonder what he says is so hard to fathom.)

If this book, despite its claims, is not really about actual science, then what is it about? There is a traditional name for this sort of speculative crap, namely, metaphysics. Philosophy got its deservedly bad reputation because of the metaphysical speculations of people like Plato, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche and so many others. But this sort of thing still continues, including quite often under the pretense of being science. Throughout the book Smolin focuses on a large number of what he calls “principles” that guide his thinking. A few of these “principles” might be considered “common sense”, but many are just his metaphysical biases. The whole book is basically just an elaboration of those metaphysical biases and what he takes to be their consequences. Some additional metaphysical “principles” he also holds go more or less unacknowledged, such as that our universe “must have had” a beginning.

Smolin’s book is “hard to understand” (actually impossible to really understand) for the very good reason that it is essentially incoherent. It is not really his “writing style” that is to blame for this; it is the utter nonsense he is attempting to put forward and “clarify”. He might just as well be trying to “explicate” the nature of self-contradictory objects such as “round squares”.

I really, really! wanted to rate this book a zero. But, extremely reluctantly, I had to admit that here and there there are a few things of interest, and occasionally things I could even agree with! The best of these is his defense of the “Hidden Variables Theory” of quantum mechanics, that was championed by Einstein. This is the materialist understanding of quantum mechanics that competes with the bizarre idealist interpretations (such as the Copenhagen Interpretation and the Many Worlds Theory). Even Smolin’s language in defense of the Hidden Variables Theory is a little strange, but at least he’s on the right track. [p. 154ff.] Because of his comments there I’ve raised my rating from 0 to 1.

Finally, a few words about the Epilogue, which was really quite weird and off topic (though Smolin kept trying to find some way to connect it up to his theories about time). He says a few useless things about climate change there, then gets into bourgeois economics, where he has a few minor criticisms of the dominant neoclassical school. Then after a few pious comments about democracy and politics he gets even nuttier than ever in his idealist philosophical comments. He worries about the goofy question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and again puts forward (and then worries about) his “relationist” metaphysical dogma (“there’s nothing real in world apart from properties defined by relationships” [p. 267]). Finally, he shows his ignorance of cognitive psychology by claiming that consciousness is an inexplicable mystery, which science may never be able to explain. (In reality, it already has explained it, at least in its most essential aspects.) As one might expect of Smolin, he’s completely bonkered and suckered in by the usual idealist nonsense about qualia. As bad as the book was, the Epilogue was even worse!

In summation: The book is quite daft!

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