30 AUGUST 2013 VOL 341
C R E D I T : A L F V A N B E E M / W I K I M E D I A C O M M O N S
hysicist Lee Smolin likes big targets.His previous book (
) took on thestring theorists who dominate so muchof contemporary theoretical physics. A fewyears ago, it was my engrossing in-ﬂight read-ing on a trip to the Perimeter Institute, whereI ﬁrst met its rather engaging author. I thor-oughly enjoyed that battle, from my distant philosophical vantage point—“Pleasant is itto behold great encounters of warfare arrayedover the plains, with no part of yours in the peril,” as Lucretius noted (
). But now thingsare more serious: in
Smolin hasmy team in his sights, and some part of mineis certainly in the peril, if he emerges victo-rious. Should I now be feeling sorry for thestring theorists?I’ll come back to that question, but ﬁrstto the dispute itself, which is one of philoso- phy’s oldest feuds. One team thinks of time aswe seem to experience it, a locus of ﬂow andchange, centered on the present moment— “All is ﬂux,” as Heraclitus asserted around 500BCE. The other, my clan, is loyal instead toHeraclitus’s near contemporary, Parmenidesof Elea. We think of time as it is described inhistory: simply a series or block of events, lined up in a particu-lar order, with no distinguished present moment. For us, now islike here—it marks where weourselves happen to stand buthas no signiﬁcance at all fromthe universe’s point of view.Which side is right? Bothteams have supporters in con-temporary philosophy, but weParmenideans claim powerfulallies in modern physics, commonly held by physicists themselves to favor the block pic-ture. Einstein is often quoted as one of our champions. In a letter to the bereaved familyof his friend Michele Besso, Einstein offeredthe consoling thought that past, present, andfuture are all equally real—only from our human perspective does the past seem lost:We physicists “know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only anillusion, albeit a persistent one,” as he put it.(For this, Karl Popper called him “the Par-menides of modern physics.” Smolin, too,quotes this letter, though he also claims evi-dence for a more Heraclitan Einstein, in someremarks reported by the philosopher Rudolf Carnap.)On the other side, someHeraclitans are so sure of their ground that they insist that if Einstein is right—if the dis-tinction between past, present,and future is not objective— then time itself is an illusion.Accordingly, they interpret the block view as the claim thattime is unreal. In a celebrated1951 paper, philosopher D. C.Williams (following WyndhamLewis) called these folk the “time snobs”:“They plume themselves that … they aloneare taking time seriously” (
).To Parmenideans such as Williams andmyself, this attitude is just linguistic impe-rialism, cheeky and rather uncharitable.Of course we believe that time is real, weinsist. (It is as real as space is, the two beingsimply different aspects of the same four-dimensional manifold.) What we deny is justthat time comes carved up into past, present,and future.I’ve mentioned this because Smolin is aclassic time snob, in Williams’s terms. Whenhe says that he is defending the unpopular view that time is real, he means time in thetime snobs’ proprietary sense. This makes himsound like a defender of common sense—“of course time is real,” the reader is being invitedto think—whereas in fact the boot is on theother foot. It is Smolin’s view that trips over common and scientific sense, denying thereality of what both take for granted.To explain why, and to bring these issuesdown to Earth, suppose that I ask you to tellme what you did last week. You tell me a lit-tle about what happened to you, what youdid, on each of those seven days. I can pressyou for more details, but can I complain thatyou haven’t told me which day (or minute, or second) last week was the present moment?Obviously not: each moment was presentwhen it happened, but they all have this fea-ture in common—no single moment is dis-tinguished in any way from all the others.Have I denied that there was time last week?Again, obviously not. Like any other week,it contained 168 hours of the stuff! And theweek wasn’t static—events happened, thingschanged.So we can make perfectly good sense of time without picking out one moment as the present moment. We do it all the time, whenwe think about other times. And there’s noth-ing more radical to the block universe viewthan the idea that science should describereality in the way that we just imagineddescribing last week, leaving out altogether the idea of a present moment, and hence adivision between past and future. For the uni-verse, as for last week, this is perfectly com- patible with thinking that time is real, thatevents happen, and all the rest of it.Again, Williams was beautifully clear about this, in his challenge to the time snobs.Here he is, pointing out that nothing that mat-ters is missing from the block view:
Let us hug to us as closely as we like thatthere is real succession, that rivers ﬂowand winds blow, that things burn and burst,that men strive and guess and die. All thisis the concrete stuff of the manifold, thereality of serial happening, one event after another, in exactly the time spread whichwe have been at pains to diagram. Whatdoes the theory allege except what we ﬁnd,and what do we ﬁnd that is not acceptedand asserted by the theory? (
Thus the block picture is simply a view of time from no particular time, just as a mapdepicts a spatial region from no particular place. (In both cases, we can add a red dotto mark our own position, but the map is notincomplete without one.) It no more makestime unreal than maps make space unreal.
The reviewer is at Trinity College, University of Cambridge,Cambridge CB2 1TQ, UK. E-mail: email@example.com
From the Crisis inPhysics to the Futureof the Universe
by Lee Smolin
Houghton Mifﬂin Harcourt,Boston, 2013. 351 pp. $28.ISBN 9780547511726.
The medieval astronomical clock onthe wall of Old Town Hall, Prague.
Published by AAAS
o n S e p t e m b e r 4 , 2 0 1 3 w w w . s c i e n c e m a g . o r g D o w n l o a d e d f r o m