Friday, October 31, 2014

Time Is Real--Part II

Continuing my summary and review of Lee Smolin's book, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. The most amazing part, for me, of this installment is that my Lee Smolin gives form to my vague idea that creation came to be through the agency of fundamental particles. The exact choice being made is the choice to imitate other similar particles. Enough of the teaser, on to the book.

Chapter 8

We currently have many theories (infinitely many) that account for the universe we have measured, so far, so there is no answer as to "why this universe?". Also, our laws come from repeated observation, but it is not possible for us to repeatedly observe the whole universe.
1. The assertion that a law applies on a cosmological scale implies a vast amount of information about predictions concerning nonexistent cases--that is, other universes. This suggests that something much weaker than a law might explain the universe. We don't need an explanation so extravagant that it makes predictions about an infinite number of cases that never actually happen. An explanation that accounts only for what actually happens in our single universe would suffice.
2. The usual kind of law cannot explain why the solution that describes our universe is the one we experience. [There are infinitely many solutions to our current set of laws of physics. Why do we see our particular universe?]
3. The law cannot account for itself. It offers no rationale for why it, rather than some other law, holds.
So our current theories are poor candidates for complete cosmological theories because they explain what happens in universes we can't observe, and don't give sufficient reason for why we observe the one we do.

Chapter 9

The notion of an effective theory represents a maturing of the profession of elementary-particle theory. Our young, romantic selves dreamed we had the fundamental laws of nature in our hands. After working with the Standard Model for several decades, we are now simultaneously more confident that it's correct within the limited domain in which it has been tested and less confident of its extendability outside that domain. Isn't this a lot like real life? As we grow older, we gain confidence about what we really know and simultaneously find it easier to admit ignorance about what we don't.
This may seem disappointing. Physics is supposed to be about discovering the fundamental laws of nature. An effective theory is by definition not that. If you have too naive a view of science, you might think that a theory could not both agree with all experiments yet carried out and be considered at best only an approximation to the truth. The concept of an effective theory is important, because it expresses this subtle distinction.
It also exemplifies how we understand progress in elementary-particle physics. It tells us that physics is a process of constructing better and better approximate theories. . . .
The notion of an effective theory implies that progress in physics entails revolutions that completelychange the conceptual basis of our understanding of nature while preserving the successes of earlier theories. . . .
The fact is that every theory we have so far used in physics has been an effective theory. It is sobering to realize that part of the cost of their success was the realization that they are approximations.
We still may harbor the ambition to invent a fundamental theory that describes nature without approximation. Both logic and history tell us this is impossible [unless the theory encompasses the whole universe at once].
And that might not even do it.
Is Mormonism maturing?

Chapter 10

Four conditions that any theory that encompasses the entire universe at once must minimally meet:
  • Must contain all previous knowledge about nature, but as approximations.
  • Must make specific, testable predictions from doable experiments.
  • Should give a reason for "Why these laws?" and not others
  • Should answer "Why these initial conditions" and not others
Here is where Smolin distinguishes his universe/multiverse from other multiverse models (like the MWI, or Brane models). Smolin's universes must be causally connected, even if it is nearly unobservably so through black holes. So the multiverse is really a big, branching universe.

Since laws are necessarily relational, laws must evolve as relationships evolve. Big Bangs past and future must be connected. The reason our Big Bang was the way it was is because of its connection to a previous universe, and we can theoretically learn something about the previous universe.

To the four minimal requirements, Smolin adds a few more:
  • It will posit neither symmetries nor conservation laws.
  • It should be causally and explanatorily closed. Nothing outside the universe should be required to explain anything inside the universe.
  • It should satisfy the principle of sufficient reason, the principle of no unreciprocated action, and the principle of the identity of the indiscernibles.
  • Its physical variables should describe evolving relationships between dynamical entities. There should be no fixed-background structures, including fixed laws of nature. Hence the laws of nature evolve, which implies that time is real.

Chapter 11

Smolin summarizes the principles of cosmological natural selection.
Applying natural selection to a system to explain its complexity requires the following:
  •  A space for parameters that vary among a population. . .
  • A mechanism of reproduction. . .
  • Variation. . .
  • Differences in fitness. . .
  • Typicality. . . [the assumption that our own universe is typical]
The power of natural selection as a methodology is such that strong conclusions can be drawn from these minimal assumptions.
I loved this last line, since it's what I've been asserting with my exploration of the nature of God. As Smolin says about cosmological natural selection, I can say about the evolution of Gods.
. . . all that need be claimed is that our universe has only a relative fitness advantage over universes differing by small changes in the parameters. This is a very weak condition. We needn't assume that the parameters of our universe are the largest possible; there very well might be other parameter choices leading to an even more fertile universe. All the scenario predicts is that they can't be reached by making a small change from the present values.
Why doesn't God fix everything? This is already a relatively fertile universe, and He can't make more fertile universes by making drastic changes. He's stuck with it as much as we are.

Back to Smolin. The anthropic principle is just a way to end the conversation. The universe is as it is because it must be for us to be here asking these questions. With no other universes to test, we can't know if this is true. If something isn't required for our existence, we have no way to explain its having a particular property.
The fact that you can adjust unobservable features of your scenario to enable you to pick one that fits your hypothesis better does not constitute evidence for that scenario.
This is why I am attracted to the God of Mormonism that is within Nature, and not interested in Gods that are outside of or over Nature. Those Gods have adjustable parameters that can never be tested by any imaginable experiment. While I believe there are unprovable truths, I am not interested in latching on to a particular statement of what those are and basing my life decisions on it--inside or outside of Mormonism.

I did wonder at this point if some of the problems Smolin attributes to ideas he criticizes don't still apply to the first universe implied by the reality of time. I don't think so, but can't formulate it clearly. How was the first universe selected? Perhaps by picking some very basic initial conditions these problems can be minimized. For example, the stuff of the universe is eternal and without beginning or end. Discrete portions of the stuff have sufficient will to choose to mimic and associate with like particles or not mimic like particles. Still working on this, but I'm jumping ahead.

Chapter 12

Maybe natural law acts on precedent. If a system is similar enough, past precedent is followed. If a system is truly novel, then the outcome is unpredictable.
If nature is like this, then the future is genuinely open. We would still have the benefit of reliable laws in cases with ample precedent, but without the stranglehold of determinism.
It is fair to say that classical mechanics precludes the existence of genuine novelty. . .
. . . entanglement can produce genuinely novel properties.
So I was right about the problems quantum mechanics propose for determinism, but not as clear on the why as Smolin explains. Thank you Dr. Smolin.

The "principle of precedence acts in nature to ensure that the future resembles the past. This principle is sufficient to uphold determinism where it's needed but implies that nature, when faced with new properties, can evolve new laws to apply to them." [Big, relatively unique, systems, like people, are more likely to express new properties than simpler systems, but not very often. So human behavior will be mostly predictable, but not entirely.]

". . . the idea that choices atoms make are truly free (i.e., uncaused) fails to satisfy the demand for sufficient reason--for an answer to every question we might ask of nature." That's the cliff-hanger with which Smolin ends the chapter. The view he favors fails one of his tests. Next chapter he tries to say why that's ok, and I like his answer.

Enough for this post. We'll do a Part III.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

If you don't believe in a loving creator, you believe . . .

My explorations of the last few years have resulted in the following conclusions regarding God. More specifically, a being or beings within nature that are able to create universes. I've written a fair amount justifying my assumptions and beliefs. Now I want to turn it on its head and ask the atheist, who thinks it important to do away with belief in God, to prove beyond reasonable doubt any of a few very specific beliefs. If you think creators do not exist or are extremely unlikely, then you must believe at least one of the following things:

  1. Humanity will eventually go extinct.
  2. It is impossible in all of reality that any being would ever evolve with the power and knowledge to create or simulate universes.
  3. The laws of nature are such that beings like us are likely to come into existence all over the place.
  4. All of existence is finite and too small for creators to evolve within.
  5. Everything is predetermined--completely.
  6. Nothing is really predictable.
While it is possible to believe in a creator and believe some of the things on this list, it is not possible to reject everything on this list without the probability for creators approaching 1.

If you reject these six beliefs, or are willing to accept that their rejection is reasonable, and accept the possibility of creators (even for the sake of argument), but maintain that these creators are not radically compassionate, are not involved with their creation, or are irrelevant to our lives, then you believe at least one thing on this list:
  1. The resources available to creators are effectively scarce.
  2. Cooperation among creators will not maximize creation at a significantly greater rate than lack of cooperation or competition (or nature acting without creators).
  3. It is impossible for creators to interact with their creation.
  4. Making more creators won't result in faster rates of creation.
  5. Making more creators is as easy or easier to do with minimal intervention/interaction as with a more hands on approach.
  6. The laws of nature and their consequences are few and simple.
If you reject these six beliefs, then the logical consequence is the existence of loving, involved creators who are intent on making us into independent creators.

It is possible to believe in other Gods with other traits. I know many people define God in ways that this reasoning does not apply to. But for those who would remove the possibility of any kind of God, and replace creators with laws of physics and evolution, you're stuck with something on these lists. I won't deny the possibility that certain elements of these lists could be true, but I can point you toward reasonable, scientific reasons for rejecting each of them (and respected scholars in the relevant fields who support those reasons. Just ask). So before belittling the intelligence or education of a believer, take a minute to realize that we might have thought pretty hard about our beliefs. And even if we haven't, there may be some pretty good, rational reasons our gut tells us your arguments against God are incomplete. So let's all get past the black and white, either or, right or wrong, smart or dumb, good or evil, educated or uninformed, and foster the discussions where we can make some real progress in understanding.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Voices in Faulkner's Head

Hiatt and Hilton (1990), Deseret Language and Linguistic Society Symposium, "Can Authors Alter Their Wordprints? Faulkner's Narrators in As I Lay Dying", pp. 52-60.

The papers we've examined so far about Book of Mormon Stylometry all arrive at at least this conclusion: styles of multiple, unidentified authors are included in the Book of Mormon. An unanswered question is, just how unusual is this? Are there examples of single authors who have created distinct wordprints for different stories or different narrators within a single work? We've seen how skilled authors failed to do so in imitating Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle. We've also seen how unskilled authors succeeded under special conditions, but the Book of Mormon clearly matches the conditions of the Austen and Doyle imitators much better than the "adversarial authorship" conditions of Greenstadt's studies. Showing his willingness to be thorough and to risk his conclusions being weakened, Hilton analyzed As I Lay Dying, a work in which Faulkner narrated the text in the voices of 15 different characters. The question was, did Faulkner succeed in creating statistically different voices?

The answer to this question is yes. Most of the 15 narrators didn't say enough to be analyzed, but three did. Of course, the others could be analyzed by less exacting methods than using noncontextual word pairs, but Hilton wanted to use the most discriminating methodology he had found. You can read the details at the link provided, but here is a table summarizing the most important conclusions for us:
As a reminder, from previous examination of numerous texts from a variety of authors, Hilton found an empirical rule that if 7 or more word pairs differed in their frequencies (7 rejections) between two texts, then the texts were by different authors. If there were 1-6 rejections, then you couldn't say with >95% certainty, but most authors average 2-3 rejections between different samples of their writing. The texts used in this study were no different, for the most part. Faulkner's narrators (Darl, Tull, and Vardaman) and Faulkner's other novels (Pylon and Light in August) were written in styles very different from the control texts written by Samuel Clemens, Robert Heinlein, Samuel Johnson, and Harry Steinhauer. You can see this in the second column of the table. Every one of Faulkner's texts differs by 8.4 or more rejections. Faulkner--no matter what voice he was writing in--had a different style from all of the control authors. Each of the control authors' samples differed from other texts by the same author by 1-6 rejections, with an average for within author comparisons of 2.9 rejections.

Now I want to point out something you have to dig through the text a little to find. I've added it to the bottom of the table. Heinlein wrote a book where the chapters are split between two narrators. These two different characters used noncontextual word pairs in almost exactly the same way, and almost exactly the same way Heinlein always did. Clemens's also wrote a couple of works in the first person from two different perspectives--those of Adam and Eve. These two characters used noncontextual word pairs in the same way, and in the same way as others of Clemens's writings--even some from 3rd person perspectives. Clearly this is not a survey of all authors that ever attempted to write in different voices, but let's see how different Faulkner's attempts were from Heinlein and Clemens.

Looking at the first column, we have evidence that Faulkner could write with consistent styles. The samples from Pylon and Light in August averaged only a few rejections within the same text. Darl also narrated his two samples with fair consistency. Looking at the third column is where the real genius shows. Faulkner was able to write Tull and Vardaman so different from his other styles that he inflated the numbers in the entire last column. Pylon and Light in August may be similar to each other, but there is so much variability in Faulkner's wordprint that none of his sample texts match the average as closely as most authors. Tull and Vardaman appear to be completely different authors from Faulkner, although no one disputes their authorship.

What does this mean for the Book of Mormon? We have an example of an author, even if it is a rare example, who has changed his wordprint intentionally, consistently, and significantly at least twice in the same book. Hiatt and Hilton dug into the details of the differences and uncovered some interesting patterns. I could repeat them all, but I'll give one example and refer you to the paper for the full discussion:
Test 75 shows the percentage that "in the" occurs of all uses of "the." Vardaman consistently uses "in the" more (16.3%) than the other characters (6, 7.5, 5.7, and 7.4%). Vardaman's phrasing is influenced by his character: being a young boy, he observes and comments on things using language familiar to a young boy. He comments on his mother "in the box" and people and horses "in the river," and "in the water." Vardaman uses the prepositional "in" instead of mentioning where the object is and letting the reader remember. Faulkner apparently believed that a youngster's mind would work that way.
In creating characters, Faulkner created dialects for his characters. To quote from Hiatt and Hilton's conclusions:
Faulkner's ability to vary "non-contextual" word usage patterns seems to contradict a simple thesis of wordprinting. Yet, as we can see through our analysis of the Morton word pattern tests that were rejected, Faulkner was able to change his patterns using authorial techniques. Faulkner seems to have taken into account each narrator's socio-economic position, age, and education, as well as other intangibles like attitude and experience when creating these characters, at least as far as the within author measurements are concerned.

Therefore, although Faulkner broke the mold in creating these different narrators, his methods were discernible using this wordprinting technique.
It appears that a lot of careful thought, and probably a certain genius for language, goes into creating a character with truly different, subconscious word pattern usages. And in fact, this isn't what Faulkner did. Faulkner appears to have taken a handful of patterns most of us experience as subconscious and made them conscious. The remainder of his word pairs remain largely consistent from one text to another, even when he switches from 1st to 3rd person narration.

I guess that means the next job is to try to identify what tricks Joseph Smith used to change his noncontextual word pair ratios from Nephi to Alma to the Doctrine and Covenants to his personal writings. All I can say is, good luck. Otherwise, it's about time to accept the fact that different authors wrote different parts of the Book of Mormon, and none of them were 19th century candidates.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Eternal" Gender

"Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose."
In 1995 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published this statement in "The Family: A Proclamation to the World." While this proclamation has not been canonized (when one prominent church leader called it a revelation in General Conference, he edited his address afterwards to call it a guideline) most Latter-day Saints view it as inspired. Others, many of whom I call friends, wish it would go away. It was created, at least in part, and has been used as a weapon against gender equality for LGBTQI individuals, and in less obvious ways against women. I have written at length about my ambivalent feelings towards this document, but even after a couple more years to mull over various issues, I still believe it is an inspired and inspiring document, and the reasons why center on the quote, above.

I understand (even if I don't feel) some of the reasons people give for rejecting eternal gender. What can mortal genitalia have to do with who I was before birth, or who I will become after? And what about all the people who feel like their genitalia don't match their transcendent self? And how can God have made it so that our genitalia determine socially arbitrary roles that we have assigned to groups of people? It is idiotic. I haven't captured all of the background or subtleties to these positions, and I'm not going to attempt to argue anyone out of them. I agree with most of them, but I think there may be an alternative view that has merit. This time, rather than asking the believer who is more in line with current church rhetoric on family and gender to set aside the rhetoric and examine the actual words of the document, I ask my friends who are inclined to reject "the Proclamation" to do the same. Let's look at the actual words. I think what we find is a document--original created to retrench our views as conservative, Protestant American--that puts radical Mormon ideas into a nearly official document for the first time in the history of the LDS church.

So let's take on the idea of "eternal" gender.

We don't know what "gender" means

We have no idea what eternal gender means. We know nothing about spirit bodies from before this life, and precious little about resurrected and glorified bodies, except that both apparently have manifestations that look like our earthly bodies to a great degree. If our premortal bodies had genitalia, we weren't using them for making babies. And we have no indication of the role of genitalia in the postmortal worlds other than a few speculations. So if gender is essential to our eternal identity, it must refer to something other than (or greater than) our mortal genitalia. I think it's absurd to claim that celestial sex, gestation, and birth is the means of making spirit children. It may be imaginable in some perverse, intellectual way, but there is no evidence for any method of creating spirit children, and I think the mortal way is extremely unlikely. 
Additionally, lets remember the definitions of eternal and endless we've been given in the Doctrine and Covenants. Certainly these are enduring terms, but they do not indicate unending or unchanging. Instead they indicate attributes of, or association with, Godhood. Gender as we know it now need not indicate gender as it was when we were intelligences, or unorganized intelligence. I personally don't believe we had gender before we were organized into some premortal, personal form. Certainly a molecule doesn't have gender, even if a cell arguably can. We must be very careful in imposing earthly, biological roles on what gender meant premortally, or what it will mean postmortally. Words are tricky things.

Our bodies are good, including their gender

I love how Mormon theology values our earthly bodies. The difference between us and Lucifer is that we chose to be embodied. Devils want our bodies. We sang for joy that we would come to earth and get bodies. God the Father has a body. Jesus was resurrected and still resides within His body. I personally have had a miserable time learning to appreciate my body, with the mixed messages we receive, but the vision is beautiful. The vision is that our bodies, while "fallen", are a step forward. We gained power by coming into this world. We will step into the eternities with our bodies, not shed them to arrive at a purer state. This implies that earthly gender is a beneficial addition to my identity, not a chance problem that needs to be undone. Gender serves real purposes in this life, and why shouldn't there be analogous distinctions in celestial bodies? Why should my body do exactly what your body does? Why should my brain work exactly like yours does? I claim to not understand what those distinctions will be, but homogenization of celestial bodies seems like a step backwards, not a step forwards.

Of course there are diseases that affect the physical expression of gender, and I trust that all such  problems will be fixed at the resurrection, but I caution anyone from applying this expectation to non-pathological gender identity.

Agency and gender identity

No one has ever claimed that we choose to be men or women. It has more recently been established that people don't choose to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered or other orientations. The LDS church has gone as far as to officially recognize this on We don't choose our gender, here, but choice was what the whole war in heaven was about. I'm not going to go so far as to say that we chose every detail of what would happen to us in this life, but if gender is an essential part of our eternal identity, how can it be consistent with the law of agency for God to impose a gender on any of us? Yes, I am speculating, but if gender is eternal, I can imagine no way for us to have distinct genders without our having chosen them. Any other way would be a violation of agency, and God will not do that. He cannot and continue to be God. Of course I speak from a position of privilege, as a heterosexual man, but maybe what needs to be eliminated is not gender from our theology, but my position of privilege.

Unintended gender elevation

Having briefly cautioned against imposing mortal understandings of gender on our extra-mortal identity, reminded us that our bodies are gifts and represent progress and empowerment, and argued that eternal gender represents a choice we made at some point, I arrive at some unexpected, and unintended, consequences of "the Proclamation". Many noticed, when it first came out, that "The Family" identified husband and wife as equal partners. While still favoring 1950s American gender roles, it made one of the most explicit mentions of this equality that we have anywhere in our official documents. Members noticed and embraced it, in a wide variety of ways. Many have used it to say, "look how equal we are in our inequality," but that is far from the only understanding among faithful Mormons. And in a way there is no going back. We have explicitly called wives equal, and opened the door for that equality being expressed in ways other than caring for children (that is only a primary and shared responsibility). I think our younger generations have a hard time reading that while keeping a 1950s perspective. In addition, "heavenly parents" are mentioned in this same official document. Heavenly Mother has received very little air time in Mormonism, but now she is an legitimate player in conservative Mormon conversation, even if we don't know what to say about her and the conversations are still awkward.

But beyond this incremental raising up of women, "the Proclamation" has opened the door for raising up the very people it was intended to keep in their place. By asserting that gender is essential to our eternal nature, and now recognizing that gender is not a choice in this life, "The Family" has created space to argue that some individuals are eternally gay. That this state formerly labeled as a "lifestyle" choice might really be one--but a choice approved of and embraced by God as He empowered these individuals to come into this life with their eternal gender intact. And maybe this is just the start of our understanding of gender. Maybe learning from our gay brothers and sisters is not simply a nice thing to do to make this world a better place, but maybe it's essential to our understanding of the eternities.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Just Following the Crowd

Sunday, October 12, 2014, I went for the third time to represent Mormons Building Bridges (MBB) in the Atlanta Pride Parade. The first year was an uplifting, eye-opening experience. Mine and my brother's families had a sign made and showed up to join the unknown person who had registered MBB. That person didn't show, but was at least partly responsible for getting us there. Many people along the way were surprised and grateful to see Mormons marching in support of their gay brothers and sisters. Several people watching and participating in the parade told us how they or someone they knew had felt rejected by the church, or even that they had left because the church wouldn't accept that loved one. One man told us how his partner had left the LDS church years before, but he knew his partner still cared about Mormonism and felt the loss, from time to time. He was so sincerely grateful to have someone publicly reaching out.

The second year, we had a couple additional people join us, but with some of our family members sitting out our numbers weren't much bigger. Still, we felt supported and hopeful.

This third year there were a few more people interested in joining us, but sickness, a death, and unknown reasons meant it was just me and my brother, again. We dragged along our little kids, and a couple of the older ones who understood the importance to me and my brother, and had another good year. But if this is just us following the crowd and jumping on the band-wagon of tolerance and support for gay rights, it's the loneliest band-wagon I've ever been on.

I am happy when gays find love and support in just being themselves. As my church has recognized, ". . . individuals do not choose to have such attractions. . . ." ( And, "With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters." I want to make this true where I live. Right now it's just nice words. So maybe it's time for me to put my shoulder to the wheel on this band-wagon the Church has endorsed, and publicly reach out with love to those three or four or five young people that are growing up in my ward. The ones who are just realizing, or will realize in the next ten years, that they are gay, or lesbian, or transgender, or queer, or some other thing that we only barely recognize exists in our church. Something that they didn't choose, but now have to live with. Somehow those few people need to know that I am their ally.

I don't know how to do it. While I feel Mormon to my core, what people see on the outside borders on barely active. Family and work demands make the kind of activity I used to rely on to let people see my commitment an impossibility. So I not only live on the fringe of my ward intellectually and doctrinally, but now physically, too. I sing with the choir, and I'm intensely sincere (about everything). Plus, there are many loving people in our ward, and we are pretty easy to think of as normal, so we aren't complete outsiders. But I no longer have a regular way to reach out. My calling doesn't involve teaching or speaking. Childcare means I hardly ever participate in classes. I have no natural interactions with the youth, and no intention of forcing issues on people who aren't interested in them. True Mormonism is my crusade, not gay rights, or gender rights, or any other single issue, so I don't want to push something just because I am obsessed with it.

Still, I have to come out of the closet in my home town. I have to let people see me more. How? We will see. I'll give it some time and take more baby steps, but I haven't moved much forward from two years ago. It is time.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Reason, Love, Life, and Choice

For my birthday in 2000, my father gave me one of his favorite books--the Collected Poems of Wendell Berry. I read it infrequently and slowly, but there is a lot of beauty in it. Here is an excerpt from his poem "The Design of a House", followed by one I wrote after coming home from my mission and remembering from before I left. It was a good, but emotional time. I share these now, on the occasion of my third son's birth.

The Design of a House

If reason was all, reason
would not exist--the will
to reason accounts for it;
it's not reason that chooses
to live; the seed doesn't swell
in its husk by reason, but loves
itself, obeys light which is
its own thought and agrues the leaf
in secret; love articulates
the choice of life in fact; life
chooses life because it is
alive; what lives didn't begin dead,
nor sun's fire commence in ember.

Love foresees a jointure
composing a house, a marriage
of contraries, compendium
of opposites in equilibrium.
This morning the sun
came up before the moon set;
shadows were stripped from the house
like burnt rags, the sky turning
blue behind the clear moon,
day and night moving to day.

Let severances be as dividing
budleaves around the flower
--woman and child enfolded, chosen.
It's a dying begun, not lightly,
the taking up of this love
whose legacy is its death.

I think I felt it. . .


I think I felt it then—
It stretched me every way
You can imagine when
It came, and as it lay
Within my breast, and filled
My mind with images
Of hope, and when it stilled
My heart with kindnesses.
Then it died as some would say.
I think it has just moved away
To some other place. And when
It will return we’ll hear again,
Overused, the phrase, “My how
You’ve grown."—I think I feel it now.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Time Is Real, Part I

Time is real. Some of you may be thinking, of course. What's your point? Others of you might be saying, no way. I've studied physics and philosophy, or I've studied theology, and time is just an illusion. It is literally only measured unto men, and there are definitely things that transcend time. As a Mormon, I'm going to add my voice to Lee Smolin's physicist voice, and say that to move forward most effectively we need to give up the idea of things outside of time. The laws of physics are laws inside of time, tied to relationships among matter and energy, and evolving as time progresses and new properties emerge. God is within time, and while we may not fully understand His power or knowledge, God only transcends our current existence in the way that humanity may eventually transcend itself. I know Smolin is a proclaimed atheist, but I am passionately drawn to his ideas, so it's time for a review of another of his books: Time Reborn.

What follows is a summary with some commentary. If my summary doesn't make sense, and you are interested, check the book out from the library. It is very approachable and easy to follow. He doesn't weigh the discussion down with difficult technical details, but he also isn't boring for someone familiar with the history and subject matter. I can also try to answer some questions in the comments.


Chapter 1

Properties that transcend time and space are attractive to us for explaining the universe, but will never be as productive as explanations limited to within the observable universe, because they can never be tested.

Chapter 2

Isaac Newton made math an amazingly powerful tool for unifying and describing the universe, but time went away in his conception. Newton posited absolute space and time through which everything moved. Relativity got rid of absolute space (but not transcendent time).

Chapter 3

Mathematics is not reality. It is an incomplete representation of reality, particularly because it is timeless. It doesn't include the experience of now. Smolin introduces some loaded language at this point, and possibly a false dichotomy. He calls the person who believes math is reality a mystic (I agree), and the person who views math as an incomplete representation a pragmatist (I agree again). However, I'm not sure either is truly free of mysticism. I suppose we will see how far Smolin gets with this distinction.

Chapter 4

Science by reduction. This is a great, non-technical explanation of how reductionism works and the assumptions it introduces. The idea is that everything can be described as isolated systems where we know the initial conditions and the rules that govern changes. Thus, the whole history (and future) of the universe could be theoretically known if we simply understood all the laws and the initial conditions (or conditions at any time) of the entire universe.

Chapter 5

Determinism is an immense claim. Every aspect of our great-great-grandchildren's future was determined and theoretically knowable back at the Big Bang. A favorite quote from this chapter is about Smolin's relationship with Einstein:
Later I discovered that there's very little in physics to match the conceptual clarity and elegance of Einstein's theories. . . . But because I began with Einstein, his work became my scientific standard and his theories of relativity became my touchstones, their principles as sacred as any text could be to one schooled in the skepticism of science. pp. 54-55
I do wonder about this quote, though. Is it really impossible for someone schooled in the skepticism of science to find things truly sacred? Or impossible for one who believes in the sacred to be correctly schooled in science? I don't believe it, and think Smolin limits himself by taking this stance, but that's not very relevant to the current chapter.

Chapter 6

Special and general relativity are deterministic and they make the present even less special than it was with Newton. We can't even agree on when now is, so time must not be fundamental. Plus, time had a beginning, while the laws of relativity somehow transcend that time, so time is just one more element of timeless spacetime.

Chapter 7

Quantum cosmology (in some forms) says everything is now. We just experience one (collection) of nows, but all of them are real and eternally present. Time is an illusion.


At this point Smolin shifts from showing how time was turned into an illusion to beginning his argument for why it is real. I give two quotes:
If science must tell a story that encompasses and explains everything we observe in nature, shouldn't that include our experience of the world as a flow of moments? Isn't the most basic fact about how experience is structured a part of nature that a fundamental theory of physics should incorporate?

Everything we experience, every thought, impression, action, intention, is part of a moment. The world is presented to us as a series of moments. We have no choice about this. No choice about which moment we inhabit now, no choice about whether to go forward or back in time. No choice to jump ahead. No choice about the rate of flow of the moments. In this way, time is completely unlike space. (p. 92)
In other words, science that doesn't recognize the reality of time is very likely an incomplete representation, rather than our perception of time being an illusion. At this point, Smolin lists the arguments that removed time from reality and that he now needs to address to reestablish the reality of time.
The nine arguments fall into three classes:  
Newtonian arguments (that is, arguments stemming from Newton's physics or Newton's paradigm for doing physics):
  • The freezing of motion by graphing records of past observations (Chapter 1)
  • The invention of the timeless configuration space (Chapter 2)
  • The Newtonian paradigm (Chapter 3)
  • The argument for determinism (Chapter 4-5)
  • Time-reversibility (Chapter 5)
Einsteinian arguments, stemming from the theories of special and general relativity:
  • The relativity of simultaneity (Chapter 6)
  • The block-universe picture of spacetime (Chapter 6)
  • The beginning of time in the Big Bang (Chapter 6)
Cosmological arguments, stemming from extending physics to the universe as a whole:
  • Quantum cosmology and the end of time (Chapter 7)
Now it's on to part II of the book--just as soon as I finish reading it.