“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Lee Smolin’s Process-Relational Cosmology

I’ve not yet read Smolin’s books, but his sense for the social, political, and economic implications of process-relational cosmology have definitely gotten my attention. I’ll be reading his most recent book Time Reborn as soon as possible. I’ll also need to get my hands on the papers Smolin has written with the philosopher Roberto Unger.

As you can see in his short lecture above, he believes the flow of creative, qualitative time is intrinsic to nature and not just an illusion added to nature by a contingently evolved epiphenomenal consciousness. He conceives of the laws of nature, not as existing outside and independent of the evolving universe, but as bound up with cosmic evolution. He rejects the materialist universe of particles with eternal properties moving in the void.

What is real? Not the timeless mathematical computations imagined by physicists to perfectly mirror the natural world. Science must incorporate the passage of the present moment into its concept of nature if it hopes to adequately describe (and not technologically destroy) actual nature.

I’m not sure if Smolin has read any Whitehead. I’d be very surprised if he hasn’t, but I can’t seem to find any references to Whitehead in his published work.

Here is an article by Smolin in the Huffington Post “Do We Live in a Universe Hospitable to Our Aspirations?”







16 responses to “Lee Smolin’s Process-Relational Cosmology”

  1. Charles Allen Avatar
    Charles Allen

    I haven’t found any references to Whitehead either, but he does mention C. S. Peirce in some of his writings, e.g., The Life of the Cosmos.

  2. Frederick Avatar

    And of course you will not find any reference to this either:
    But then again none of the usual hot-shot “authorities” in any field of knowledge (etc) ever refer to his Luminous Wisdom Teaching.

  3. noir-realism Avatar

    You might like Epperson’s Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead – http://www.amazon.com/Quantum-Mechanics-Philosophy-Whitehead-American/dp/0823250121

    And, Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process, and Experience by Timothy E. Eastman (Editor), Hank Keeton (Series Editor): http://www.amazon.com/Physics-Whitehead-Experience-Constructive-Postmodern/dp/0791459144/ref=pd_bxgy_b_text_y

    I found both to be well informed in both Whitehead and modern physics…

    1. noir-realism Avatar

      Also forgot to mention on John Brockman’s site the dialogue with Smolin and others like Barbour, Kaufmann, etc. in which Whitehead is brought up (not by Smolin but others): http://www.edge.org/discourse/kauffman_smolin.html

      1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Thanks for the link to that email thread… Interesting that Hameroff compares Whitehead’s theory of actual occasions to Barbour’s theory of time capsules. I see the resemblance, but Whitehead’s was not an ontology of atomic subjects enjoying appearances of eternal objects inside the mind of an unchanging God, but of evolutionary creativity where all subjects (including God) inter-relate with others in the course of cosmic history to bring forth novel social organizations capable of experiencing/making-concrete never before realized possibilities. Whitehead’s “Process and Reality” could also have been titled “Process and Congress.”

    2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Enjoyed both books! They were crucial resources for me in my comp. exam on Whitehead. I’m looking forward to reading Epperson’s more recent book “Foundations of Relational Realism.”

  4. Louis Brassard Avatar
    Louis Brassard

    I have read all of Smolin’s books. There are no references to Whitehead. Although he is more and more interested in philosophy, swallowing Whitehead would probably be premature. Smolin’s was a pure platonist mathematical physicist, a timeless type of guy. He gradually converted from the end of the 1980 towards a position where the laws of nature are not fixed but change through recursive big bang processes. His own multiverse scenario. Then he was influenced by Barbour who also is a pure timeless platonist but from a relational version of it inspired by Leibniz relational project. He then was influenced by Pierce. In his last book, Time Reborn, Smolin synthetizes the traditional method of physics which he called physics in a box, the separation of the initial conditions (contingent part) from the fixed dynamic (the equations) and show how this basic platonist method cannot be applied to the whole universe. His ancient multiverse scenario was a kind of cosmic darwinism, in time reborn he also proposed a meta law of evolution of the law of nature that is a quantum darwinism based on a principle of precedence similar to the principle of precedance in british common law. Laws of nature are considered as habits of nature and habit are acquired on a principle of stabilisation of precedance cases. This piercian pragmatic idea for the quantum domain is similar with the morphic resonance idea of Sheldrake in the biological evolution domain. Physics today is mostly a Pythagorean/Parmenidean/platonic physics and since more than 100 years physics is gradually transitioning to an Heraclitean/Aristotlean/Leibnizian organismic/process physics but we have a long way to go.

    1. dmfant Avatar

      Scientists have long pondered why it is that mathematics so effectively explain how the world works. M.I.T. physicist Max Tegmark has a theory — he argues that the universe is actually a mathematical structure. Tegmark joins us to discuss that theory, his belief in parallel universes and his book, “Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality.”

      1. dmfant Avatar

        thanks MDS, I agree with Smolin that there is only One world/existence and that Platonism is wrong but don’t see any evidence/phenomena that supports his speculation that current physical laws evolve, is there something in particular (an actual physical phenomena not a bookish/philo source) that you could point me to that supports such a thesis?

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        I appreciate that Smolin admitted his reading of “Platonism” was superficial. Perhaps the -ism Plato left in his wake devolved into some simple two world idealism, but a closer look at his dialogues (esp. the “Timaeus”) tells the lie to that oversimplification.

        As for evidence of Smolin’s theory that laws evolve, I’ve yet to read his books but I’m sure he lists some. I believe he interprets Penrose’s claim about evidence of multiple big bang echoes in the background radiation as support for his idea that our universe is an evolutionary product of prior cosmic epochs. And even in the currently accepted inflationary model, the “laws” supposed to be eternally fixed break down as we rewind the cosmic clock and approach the singularity point. Doesn’t this already suggest that these laws emerged historically? Hard evidence may still be hard to come by, but even without it, supposing that laws emerge historically seems more conceptually parsimonious to me than the alternative multiverse hypothesis.

      3. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        dmf, Smolin mentions Tegmark’s mathematical idealism in this talk delivered to SETI: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QIJtICy-vE&feature=share

        Apparently they are friends.

    2. Tam Hunt Avatar
      Tam Hunt

      Excellent summary of a lot of work and I think/hope you’re right about the transition to a more Heraclitean/Aristotelian physics in the coming decades.

    3. aramis720 Avatar

      Excellent summary of a lot of work and I think/hope you’re right about the transition to a more Heraclitean/Aristotelian physics in the coming decades.

  5. Process theology in Judaism – Merrimack Valley Havurah Avatar

    […] Lee Smolin’s Process-Relational Cosmology […]

  6. ispeakehgoodengrish Avatar

    Tegmark is beyond wrong with his full-blooded Platonism. He is plain delusional. Oh well, at least it’s a fun delusion to engage in.

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