Do the Laws of Physics Evolve?

time_rebornI’m happy to se Lee Smolin’s new book making a very interesting point about time. In his new work, Time Reborn, he apparently (haven’t read it yet) makes some radical and interesting statements about the nature of time, and mentions how even the laws of physics might not be final, fixed and immutable, but actually evolve over time.

Now those of you who have read my book, Evolutionaries, will remember this section where I talk about “breaking the spell of solidity” in relationship to way we think about the world around us. I even mentioned this is regards to the laws of physics, not because I wanted to weigh in on matters of physics I know little about, but because 1) It’s a natural question to ask once you start down a robustly evolutionary thought process, and 2) Some important thinkers have already started that inquiry. By “breaking the spell of solidity” I mean making the effort to question whether so many of the things in the physical universe that we think are fixed, immutable, and unchanging are actually that way given are emerging understanding of how so much of what we once thought was fixed, unchanging, or even God-given is natural and evolving. As we start to integrate a deeper understanding of time and evolution into our view of reality, I believe we will be asking this essential question in regards to many issues. In this particular chapter, I was talking mostly about culture and human psychology, and about Ken Wilber’s philosophy, but also gave a nod to Charles Peirce who was one of the first thinkers to deeply incorporate a profoundly developmental view of reality into his thinking. Of course, it should be said that Rupert Sheldrake has been talking about this as well for years, and that was even part of his TED talk that was banned by TEDx scientific censorship team (and subsequently re-instated). But given how much Sheldrake is reviled by many in the scientific community, he is unlikely to get much credit. But Smolin has impeccable credentials in the scientific community and in physics and so his nod to Peirce and his re-imagining of the nature of time should provoke a lot of discussion.

First, here is a quote from my book:

I found it remarkable to discover, in the course of my research, that all the way back in the nineteenth century Peirce was questioning the spell of solidity even as it applied to the most sacred cows of the physical sciences: the laws of nature. For Peirce, the entire universe and all of its forces and creations were subject to evolution. Indeed, Peirce’s work was one of the first to begin to theorize how something as ostensibly absolute as a law might be created through the processes of evolution. Perhaps the laws of nature are not un- changing, applying to everything for all time, he suggested. Perhaps they didn’t pre-date the universe. Perhaps they, too, evolved along with the forms and structures of our cosmos.

Peirce suspected that many of the seemingly fixed structures of our universe are in fact better described as habits—habits that have become so deeply embedded in nature that they behave like laws, fixed and unchangeable. In 1915, the Mid-West Quarterly, a publication of the University of Nebraska, published the following description of Peirce’s ideas as presented in his lectures at Johns Hopkins University.

May not the laws of the universe be the acquired habits of the universe? May there not still be a possibility of the modification of these habits? May there not be the possibility, forever, of the formation of new habits, new laws? May not law be evolved from a primordial chaos, a universe of chance? In the play of chance still apparent may we not see the continual renewal of the life of the universe, a continual renewal of the capacity for habit forming and growth?

Peirce suggested all of this before science had any sense of cosmological evolution, of the deep-time developmental history of our universe. Questions concerning the laws of physics are even more fascinating today, particularly in the context of our current under- standing of Big Bang Theory. Did those laws exist in some timeless void prior to the initial cosmic emergence? Did they pop into existence at the moment of that great conflagration? Were they gifts, perhaps, of a previous universe, a sort of cosmically inherited informational DNA designed to help structure the evolution of our own realm of time and space? When it comes to such issues that get at the heart of our cosmic origins, we still have far more questions than answers.

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake is another thinker who has suggested that the laws of nature may not be immutable and eternal but are more like habits. And he points out that most physicists have not thought deeply about these questions in light of our new cosmology. “Although cosmology is now evolutionary,” he writes, “old habits of thought die hard. Most scientists take eternal laws of Nature for granted—not because they have thought about them in the context of the Big Bang, but because they haven’t.” Lately, it seems, a few more physicists have stepped into the breach with interesting speculations about the source of the laws of nature, such as Templeton Prize winner Paul Davies and science writer James Gardner. But wherever such speculations ultimately lead us, what is important for our discussion is that once again the spell of solidity is broken and we can at least begin to consider the possibility that certain characteristics of the universe that seem immutable and unchanging might better be considered as evolutionary—things that develop over time through habitual repetition until they become more and more established. Eventually, in a cognitive illusion that fools us again and again, they seem fixed, eternal and unchanging, when actually they are nothing of the sort.


Now here is Smolin. In his recent interview he states:

 Now some of this is not new. The American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, identified this issue that I’ve just mentioned in the late 19th century.LEE SMOLIN However, his thinking has not influenced most physicists. Indeed, I was thinking about laws evolving before I read Charles Sanders Peirce. But something that he said encapsulates what I think is a very important conclusion that I came to through a painful route. And other people have more recently come to it, which is that the only way to explain how the laws of nature might have been selected is if there’s a dynamical process by which laws can change and evolve in time. And so I’ve been searching to try to identify and make hypotheses about that process where the laws must have changed and evolved in time because the situation we’re in is: Either we become kind of mystics, well, just those are the laws full stop, or we have to explain the laws. And if we want to explain the laws, there needs to be some history, some process of evolution, some dynamics by which laws change.

This is for some people a very surprising idea and it still is a surprising idea in spite of the fact that I’ve been thinking about it since the late 80’s, but if you look back, there are precedents: Dirac, you can find in his writings, a place where Dirac says the laws must have been different earlier in the universe than now; they must have changed. Even Feynman has … I found a video online where Feynman has a great way…and I wish I could do a Feynman Brooklyn accent, it sort of goes: “Here are the laws we say; here are the laws, but how do they get to be that way in time? Maybe physics really has a historical component. ” Because you see, he’s saying physics is different from the other subjects. There is no historical component to physics as there is to biology, genealogy, astrophysics, and so forth. But Feynman ends up saying, “Maybe there is a historical component.” And then in the conversation his interviewer says, “But how do you do it?” And Feynman goes, “Oh, no, it’s much too hard, I can’t think about that.”


I look forward to reading Time Reborn.

Follow the Money!

A Review of Michael Lewis’s Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

The world of Global Finance can be maddeningly frustrating to understand. Unfortunately, its complexity is not matched by its insignificance. Indeed, the effects of decisions and actions in banks, markets and government policy circles around the world are highly consequential. They can easily enrich and impoverish, uplift or condemn, unleash or constrain the peoples of our small planet. As we saw in the recent Great Recession, obscure and only recently invented financial instruments like “Credit Default Swaps” can suddenly become central to vast global economic shifts and changes. And decisions made in Central Banks around our globe can easily trump those made in the Parliaments and Congresses of even our most robust democracies.

Given these realities, we need good guides to this territory of global finances, journalists like Michael Lewis, author of Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. Lewis’s smart, popular style help us cut through the complexity, and even better, tells us the frightening story of what actually happens when entire countries are empowered by easy money, such as happened in first decade or our new millennium.  The author of The Big Short and Moneyball, Lewis is first and foremost a masterful storyteller and his narrative is funny and entertaining amidst his deeply disturbing recounting of the debt fueled hysteria that gripped so many countries in the last decade. His breezy and darkly humorous book is not a full accounting of our economic issues, but rather a travelogue of sorts, a recent tour through the financial disaster zones of the developed West. Like a Weather Channel journalist after big storm, he gives us an on-the-ground perspective of what happened, what was lost, what was learned, and what the future may hold. Through his eyes, we see the impact of the Great Recession on economies of Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Germany and finally back to the US.

Lewis is hardly the first to point out that one of the unintended consequences of the new Euro Zone was new access to easy (borrowed) money for much of Europe. Countries like Greece, whose currencies were once tied to the budget situation of their own country, were suddenly judged by the Eurozone overall. In practice, that meant they were judged by the pristine budgets of Germany. As crazy as it sounds in retrospect, the Greeks were able to borrow money as if they were the Germans, but spend it as if they were Greeks.  And spend it they did. The result was massive accumulation of debt. And they weren’t alone. The overall theme was repeated across Europe and America with different cultural variations. As Lewis writes:

 The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007…wasn’t just money. It was temptation. It offered entire societies the chcance to reveal aspects of their chracters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire coutnries were told, “the lights are out, you can do whatever you want and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with the money was dark and varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish.

Very few things reveal character like easy money—lots and lots of it. This is true of individuals, but it also true of cultures. And that is perhaps the most fascinating part of Lewis’s book. Through stories, interviews, and he brings us deep into the cultural affects of what happened, and we see the fascinating, bizarre and strange rationalizations that led the Icelanders to think they were savvy investment bankers, the Greeks to think they could just lie to themselves and just about everyone else about the true state of their finances, and the Germans to wake up one day and realize, much to their dismay, that the rest of the world did not relate to money like the Germans. It is an amazing and dismaying journey and Lewis never allows the story to lag or to get bogged down in charts or numbers. The financial facts are thankfully easy to follow, but stories and the people and the cultural insight are what the reader is ultimately left with.

Boomerang is not a story with a simple beginning and ending. Today, the financial unraveling of that debt tsunami is still working its way through the global economy. And economists argue about the cultural costs of things like austerity on the European social fabric, and that easy money presents a moral hazard for the US banking and financial system. What one sees through Lewis’s journalism, however, is not just how economic policy influences cultural behavior but also the opposite: how the qualities of any given national character enormously influence their economic long term success and failure. Ultimately, he tracks the all too human tendency to profit handsomely from the bubble and then to point the fingers at others when the music stops. “Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans,” he writes, “and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans.”

Lewis’s last concern is American municipalities, the cities and towns who have spent money with great profligacy in the good times, and are gasping for air not that times have turned tough. They have tied themselves into future pension obligations that are compromising existing budgets. As I read the news in my new hometown of Oakland, CA I see the reality of this every day, in budgetary challenges, for example, which have understaffed and decimated the police dept. in one of the more violent cities in the country.  The nearby San Jose is the city featured in the book. It shows us that the mismanagement of government and of our budgetary policies is not a uniquely federal issue. But Boomerang is not a call for austerity, or for less government, but a call for greater rationality in economic lives, for living within our means, for being less avaricious in the good times, and for the human character and ingenuity needed to struggle through the bad.