Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Time Is Real--Part IV

I reserved an entire post for the epilogue. Smolin saves his epilogue to argue the importance of recognizing the reality of time in all our moral philosophy. I love it. I'm sure that by wandering away from physics and cosmology, Smolin has left his area of expertise and is more open to question, but I like to think his training and inclination in careful, quantitative thought has prepared him to make some of these grand claims in well reasoned ways. I like to think it at least in part because so much of what he says resonates with me. So, with the rhetoric or science and reason, we try to steer our fellow humans toward the outcomes we desire in the depths of our souls. After saying, check out the book and read the epilogue, I will now refrain from typing in almost the whole thing. What I will do is give a thorough, inelegant summary.

Thinking in Time

Humanity thrives on the cusp of uncertainty, between opportunity and danger, not in an unchanging equilibrium. Surprise is opportunity for us, since we have learned to influence our environment in amazing ways. Our exponential success is from wanting more. "To be human is to imagine what is not, to seek beyond the limits, to test the constraints, to explore and rush and tumble across the intimidating boundaries of our known world." We have been changing the environment for at least 12,000 years, destroying species and each other. But the world is getting more peaceful, per capita. We are at a peak of dominance, but exponential growth is by definition unsustainable. We need to learn to steer the climate.
Climate Change
We need to talk not only about the bad consequences of inaction regarding climate change, but also the benefits that reversing it will give. Maybe humanity will survive the current global warming crisis just fine (or at least survive) without learning to modify the climate, but if we learn to modify it, then we can potentially save ourselves from the next, natural ice age.

We can't view the world as either a cost-benefit analysis or simply an issue of preservation. We must realize that technology is part of nature, not an encroachment on it. We must also realize that nature is not simply a commodity, but an integral part of our existence and our future. The distinction between natural and artificial must be blurred (if not eliminated) to solve humanity's existential crises.

We need to realize that harmony between the natural and artificial is the solution to current and future problems, and develop economic and social systems that are in harmony with nature. One real problem in overcoming the artificial/natural divide is thinking that time isn't real and timeless laws govern both our past and future. Smolin doesn't say it this way, exactly, but the Aristotelian picture of Christianity, with a timeless God and timeless laws and omni-this and that is not going to continue to benefit us going forward. We need to move to the late Joseph Smith and early Mormon version of an eternally progressing God who is also within nature if we want to make the next level of progress in human existence and evolution.
We need a new philosophy, one that anticipates the merging of the natural and the artificial by achieving a consilience of the natural and social sciences, in which human agency has a rightful place in nature. this is not relativism, in which anything we want to be true can be. To survive the challenge of climate change, it matters a great deal what is true. We must also reject both the modernist notion that truth and beauty are determined by formal criteria and the postmodern rebellion from that, according to which reality and ethics are mere social constructions. What is needed is relationalism, according to which the future is restricted by, but not determined by, the present, so that novelty and invention are possible. This will replace the false hope of transcendence to a timeless, absolute perfection with a genuinely hopeful view of an ever expanding realm for human agency, within a cosmos with an open future.
. . . a civilization whose scientists and philosophers teach that time is an illusion and the future is fixed is unlikely to summon the imaginative power to invent the communion of political organizations, technology, and natural processes--a communion essential if we are to thrive sustainably beyond this century.


Timeless economics theories are not only demonstrably problematic, they create a false intuition of how real world economic systems work and they suggest that some past theory of economics (particularly the efficient-market hypothesis) could be the solution for the best future economic system. Leaving out human agency and the essential fact that systems and laws evolve results in the demonstrably false idea that market forces will select the single best solution. In fact, there are multiple equilibrium solution to every free market scenario, and none of them are guaranteed to be the best.
How is it possible that influential economists have argued for decades from the premise of a single, unique equilibrium, when results in their own literature by prominent colleagues showed this to be incorrect? I believe the reason is the pull of the timeless over the time-bound. For if there is only a single stable equilibrium, the dynamics by which the market evolves over time is not of much interest. Whatever happens, the market will find the equilibrium, and if the market is perturbed, it will oscillate around that equilibrium and settle back down into it. You don't need to know anything else.
If there is a unique and stable equilibrium, there's not much scope for human agency (apart from each firm maximizing its profits and each consumer maximizing his pleasure) and the best thing to do is to leave the market alone to achieve that equilibrium. But if there are many possible equilibria, and none is completely stable, then human agency has to participate in and steer the dynamics by which one equilibrium is chosen out of many possibilities.
In thermodynamic terms, economic systems are path-dependent, not path-independent. In this regard, neoclassical economics is fatally flawed, because it treats systems as path-independent. "There's no way to know how many hedge funds are making money discovering arbitrage opportunities by measuring curvature--that is, path dependence that's not supposed to exist in neo-classical economics--but this is doubtless going on." (Hedge funds go by performance, not the supposed correctness of a theory, and they hire good mathematicians. Consequently, I believe Smolin's speculation.) Time is real in path-dependent market models. "To do real economics, without mythological elements, we need a theoretical framework in which time is real and the future is not specifiable in advance, even in principle. It is only in such a theoretical context that the full scope of our power to construct our future can make sense. Furthermore, to meld an economy and an ecology, we need to conceive of them in common terms--as open complex systems evolving in time, with path dependence and many equilibria, governed by feedback." Climate, biology, the cosmos, the biosphere, and ecology all observably work in this way, and our theories need to reflect it.
We need to create structures that will bring together our vast, specialized, but incoherent knowledge in order to move forward most effectively. At this point Smolin brings up a theme, for him. Science is an ethical community, not a method. Our ethical communities should be governed by two principles:
  1. When rational argument from public evidence suffices to decide a question, it must be considered to be so decided.
  2. When rational argument from public evidence does not suffice to decide a question, the community must encourage a diverse range of viewpoints and hypotheses consistent with a good-faith attempt to develop convincing public evidence.


Science will probably never be able to answer why anything exists at all, or the hard problem of consciousness, or why we experience now, but these things are real. Thus, accepting the reality of time is a key to understanding reality.

Thank you, Dr. Smolin, for sharing this journey with me. It's an exciting ride.

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