Book Review: The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, by Unger and Smolin

The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time by Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin, CUP, 2015 brings to our attention a likely explanation for the lack of progress in cosmology since the 1970s. The book will be of interest to some lawyers (Unger is, among other things, a legal theorist) for the light it may shed by analogy on some aspects of legal theory.

This is really two books under one cover, both advancing the same general argument, with Smolin addressing some scientific topics at a level of detail, but not at undue length, that is beyond what general readers would understand. The first part of the book is by Roberto Mangabeira Unger, and the second, from page 349 (if my Kindle app is accurate) by Smolin. Both authors wrote the introductory remarks, from p x to p xx.

“Cosmology is the study of the universe as a whole, beyond which, for science, there lies nothing.” (p xx).

There are “three big questions about cosmology”, stated by Smolin (401) as:

“What happened at very early times, closer to the initial singularity? What will happen to our universe in the far future? What is there, very far away from us, outside our cosmological horizon?”

Cosmology can only answer these by way of being a science. A science is (501)

“… only about what can be conclusively established on the basis of rational argument from public evidence.” [footnoting Smolin, The Trouble With Physics, 2006, a book that I can recommend]

Incidentally, and I digress for a moment: in The Trouble With Physics Smolin gives us (293) Feyerabend’s amusing observation that he could win any argument in philosophy simply by using skills he had acquired as an actor. “This made him wonder whether academic success had any rational basis.” Drama-queen teachers take note!

No progress has been made on important cosmological questions, and Unger and Smolin argue that this is because scientists have used incorrect assumptions. Questions include: why, when important equations have many solutions, is only one accepted as correct? Why are there three spatial dimensions? Why do the so-called universal constants have the values they do? Why is there life? How did the universe come to what appears to be thermal equilibrium at a single temperature? Why do we assume that the laws of physics apply throughout the universe (including the part of the universe we cannot yet detect), and in an unchanging way?

Most of us will remember wondering why Einstein started his special theory of relativity by assuming that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant and cannot be exceeded. True, experiments suggested that that was so, but should those results be applied everywhere and always? His other basic assumption was that the laws of physics apply uniformly for all frames of reference. Do they, and why?  And his removing of time from its role as a universal and uniform measurement may well produce results that appear to be correct in the part of the universe we can currently detect (even if only by measurement to a level of precision only expensively achieved), but everywhere and always?

Unger and Smolin reinstate time as the absolute backdrop to physical events (52), not an accessory to space (53), they assert it is real (354) and it enables recognition of what they assert will be found to be the evolution of physical laws (357). It also gives meaning to causation: if time is not real, causality (the influence that a state of affairs exercises over what follows it) cannot be real (35). However, the uneasy reader might say, it is not explained how this absolute time is to be measured, and how the measuring standard might change as the physical laws evolve. Still, the point seems to be that time does not vary within a frame of reference, or between frames of reference, or historically compared to any measurement that is known. Where this leaves Einstein is not made clear (at least to me, other people are probably not troubled at all), unless the modification is confined to the unknown part of the universe.

Three central ideas – or perhaps we could say assertions or axioms – are developed in the book (I summarise from pp 5-16): the solitary existence of the universe (there are not, and have never been and will never be, mulitple universes); time is inclusively real (nothing is outside time, everything changes sooner or later); and mathematics is not a substitute for reality, it should be seen as representing a world eviscerated of time and phenomenal particularity (mathematical relations are timeless and of a general character, and indeed are useful to a point, but they do not model a universe in which time is real).

At the very least this book illustrates what can be done when a discipline reaches a dead-end. Fundamental assumptions are re-examined and changed.

One of the joys of looking at the problems that have arisen in another discipline is that ideas applicable to law may be brought to mind. Even now, while I half-listen to New Zealand playing Sri Lanka in a one-dayer at Nelson.

Is there an unknown law that has yet to be perceived?

Obviously, yes. All the things that have yet to be invented are potential subjects for new law, and new kinds of laws. It is impossible to imagine what they may be, but we can say that there will be laws that will apply to them. Whether those laws will be recognisable by reference to our current criteria, or whether new criteria for recognising law will evolve, is not known. But we can say that there is no reason to keep our definition of law constant so that it is temporally limited to known conditions.

Does the law apply everywhere?

Courts have had to decide whether constitutional protections apply extra-territorially (for example see the case discussed here on 13 June 2008). There is increasingly a tendency for the law of one territory to be given extra-territorial application, at least as far as the courts of the domestic territory are concerned. And within a territory it seems there is no room for exceptions to the obligation to obey the law; exceptions are within the law, not extraneous to it. The law applies under the surface of the earth and above it, extending into space. Rights may be given over territory on the moon, and beyond. The extent of the application of the law may only be limited by the human imagination. This means it may apply in environments that are little known, raising the question of the extent to which the conditions for application of law are part of the definition of law.

What is progress in law?

Social norms do not have to be laws (see Gardner, Law as a Leap of Faith, reviewed here on 6 July 2013). If procedures are applied to norms, sufficient to make them recognisable as laws, then that is what they are. But some laws are rights, accepted as somehow being of a higher kind than other laws. If that has happened to a norm, the progress is from a non-legally enforceable social convention, to law, to higher law. Increasing recognition of rights suggests increasing opportunity for progress. Law is not static in this regard. Whether rights will continue to increase, or will reduce, is not known, but there is no reason to think that present trends will always apply. To what extent can we expect to be able to prevent, or encourage, change?

Is it useful to ask why a law exists?

People don’t need laws: it is possible to imagine a community that functions without a legal system (Gardner, above, pp 296-301, suggesting that the functions of law can be served by conventions like morality, etiquette, games, and traditions, and law may have different importance at different times in history, and may one day be lost and forgotten).

So what is law for? Convenience, obviously, in settling disputes, minimising conflict, and preventing or making-good harm. Those functions can be achieved by means other than law, so they do not assist in defining what law is. Law is not defined by its use, but by the process by which it comes into existence.

What is the relationship between a law and the environment in which it applies?

The application of a law is different from its definition as law. A law may be a law although the circumstances in which it could apply have never arisen. For example, laws made to apply in the event of natural disasters or epidemics are still laws pending those catastrophes. The law is not imaginary, although its application is. One of the main aims of criminal law is deterrence, and it is made in the hope – optimistic though it may be – that it will never need to be applied.

The environment in which a law applies may change dramatically, while the law stays the same. But this stasis is not essential: the law may be developed, by conventional techniques of legal reasoning, to meet new demands. To what extent is it then the same law as before? Laws, once created, may evolve with the environments in which they are applied.

What is the relationship between law and reality?

Just as in physics mathematics should not be confused with the reality which it is used to explore, so too in law the techniques of legal reasoning should not be confused with the reality to which law has to be applied. Conventional legal reasoning – the techniques of statutory interpretation, the methods of arguing about case law – will not necessarily produce the correct application of law to a particular problem. The life of the law, as has been said, is not logic but experience. Logic, in law, is subject to correction on policy grounds.

To what extent should legal concepts be defined?

The fight in physics is against uncertainty, whereas in law uncertainty can be an advantage. The circumstances in which a law may have to be applied cannot necessarily be wholly anticipated when the law is made, and some judicial creativity in its application should be allowed for, if the law is to remain useful. It is not unusual to find a statute on a subject which itself is not defined, as for example where the Search and Surveillance Act 2012 [NZ] does not define search.

It may not be useful to define concepts when the law’s purpose may have to be applied in circumstances which, at present, are not clearly perceived. We may know what we want, without necessarily knowing when we may want it. Should this desire be expressed as a law?

What are the premises of the rule of law, and should they be the same everywhere?

An idea that has emerged relatively recently is that a fundamental requirement of law is that it should be identifiable, ascertainable, equal in its application, accessible, and, to an extent that is a matter of some debate, consistent with the requirements of a fair trial and other fundamental rights. The debate about this latter point is not about whether trials should be fair, etc, but about whether this requirement of fairness and conformity with fundamental rights is part of the rule of law.

It seems uncontroversial that the law should be ascertainable and equal in its application, but this is not necessarily universally accepted. There has recently evolved the closed-material form of trial, where the defendant is not told what some of the prosecutor’s evidence is. Public interest in security is said to outweigh the defendant’s right to confront and cross-examine opposing witnesses. See further the discussion here on 18 April 2014.

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