25 February 2015


Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin. The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

If there are a number of propositions that the majority of physicists would hold, these would include: there are immutable scientific laws, true for all space and time; the universe is one of many universes in a multiverse generated by “eternal inflation”; mathematics exists independently of the human imagination or indeed the physical world, and in some sense the root ground of reality is mathematical; time is in some sense an illusion, there are many physical phenomena that are time-invariant.
In this book Brazilian philosopher and political activist Roberto Unger and cosmologist Lee Smolin collaborate to challenge these world views, arguing that there is only one universe, which had an indefinite past and will have an indefinite future; that the laws of physics evolve; that mathematics does not exist outside of the relationships between real things in the physical universe and that time is not just real, it is the central reality.

In constructing these theses the authors challenge huge swathes of accepted science; from general relativity to quantum mechanics, for example contra Einstein arguing that there is a universal cosmic time.

The largest portion of the book, more than two thirds is written by Unger. This section should be comprehensible with care and does not need, in general, specialised mathematic knowledge, but it is certainly not an easy read. It is also the section that raises some concerns. Surely the example of Marx and Engels suggests that it is not a particularly good idea for political philosophers to pontificate on science. A concern by no means alleviated by the hagiographical entry on Unger in Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roberto_Mangabeira_Unger

The word “cult” might come to your mind, but I couldn’t possibly comment! Personally I cannot see any reason why “unitary nature” should run itself according to anyone’s philosophical predilections. Of course it is possible to argue that certain hypotheses such as the multiverse might be scientifically valueless, if they make no specific predictions which would separate them out from alternatives. Smolin in the second, smaller, section seeks to provide a more detailed scientific description of these ideas; though as the appendix shows the two authors by no means agree on everything.

This is, as the authors make clear, by no means a popular science book, and I would suspect that a really good background knowledge of physics and cosmology would be needed to evaluate the arguments. I imagine it will be controversial, but I rather doubt that anyone will suggest burning it. -- Peter Rogerson.

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