Today’s average theoretical cosmologist would likely cringe in horror if anyone were to describe what they did as metaphysics. Metaphysics, they would say, is the purview of ancient philosophers, who tried to tease out the nature of the universe through abstract reasoning with very limited reliance on empirical data. Modern cosmology was something entirely different. It had facts. It did not create the universe from the recesses of man’s mind, but simply discovered the contours of the universe as it plainly, objectively, existed.
But this is not how Einstein, the physicist whose ideas on cosmology occupy something of the same place for theoreticians today as Aristotle’s metaphysics did during the Enlightenment, constructed his universe. Einstein thought General Relativity into existence. While he accounted for the limited empirical data available at the time (as did Aristotle, in his day), he did not have any way to test his hypothesis for validity without which the whole edifice was complete. But when it appeared Einstein’s theory that gravity bent space-time was proved by the juxtaposition of some stars on a fuzzy photographic plate during an eclipse barely visible through the heavy clouds of a southern hemisphere jungle, Einstein’s metaphysical ruminations became cosmological gold. Einstein had conjured the universe into existence, and the universe had obliged to exist just as he had conjured!
No one much noticed at the time, but Einstein had also effectively proved in the minds of physicists who accepted his theories (a small number at first, but one that has grown to practical unanimity today) the validity of the Platonic idea of forms, i.e., he had proved Plato’s metaphysics. Over two thousand years before Einstein, Plato had explained that the reality we see is like a shadow cast on a cave wall by some deeper and perfect form of the image being displayed. With Plato, for example, all the triangles visible and manipulatable with Pythagoras’ equations in the three spatial dimensions in which humans live are just imperfect shadows on the cave wall, cast by the ideal form of a triangle existing as an abstraction in the recesses of our minds. Einstein seemed to prove that the whole universe behaved like a triangle under Plato’s theory of forms. What we see really is nothing but a shadow on a cave wall; the equations of General Relativity described the perfection, the underlying form, which casts the shadow. After Einstein, cosmology became a race to discover the equations describing the perfect forms underlying reality, to applying his strategy of thinking the world into existence. The strategy pervaded cosmological inquiries, even down to its quite successful application in Quantum Theory. In the process, the lines between cosmology, the study of the physical universe considered as a totality of phenomena in space and time, and metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality (each according to the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition), which were always quite fuzzy, became virtually indistinguishable. Technology afforded modern physicists mountains of more data, but the cosmologies crafted from the data were every bit as speculative and mythological as were those of the metaphysical philosophers of old.
Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, is the first practicing physicist upon whom I have stumbled who understands that cosmology and metaphysics, philosophy and theoretical physics, are engaged in the same task, and that the distinctions drawn between them are far less than their similarities. Cosmological physics without philosophical conjecture is just raw data sprinkled around like stardust. Philosophical metaphysics without cosmology is mysticism.
Modern physicists like to believe their philosophical conjectures superior to those of their intellectual forebears, based as they are on empirical science, or on deeply abstract and abstruse mathematics probably only they fully understand. In fact, a great many would claim that nothing of what they theorize is conjecture at all (see, for example, Laurence Krauss’ book, A Universe from Nothing, reviewed here). But it is a grave error in thinking for them to imagine that what they are doing is substantially different from what Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Spinoza, Descartes, etc., were doing hundreds or even thousands of years before them. Yes, physicists have more data readily at hand today than did the ancients, but there remains a great deal more that they don’t know than that they do, and the cascade of data falling on their heads from every quarter of investigation begs for the intellectual synthesis that has always comprised the mainstay and traditional expertise of the philosopher. Every one of theoretical physics’ current models of the universe depend on a great deal of philosophical conjecture (most definitely including the Big Bang Theory), a troublesome state of affairs only if the conjectural nature of the theories won’t be acknowledged by those propounding them (such as with Krauss).
Frank makes an excellent choice of prism through which to view cosmology and metaphysics. Time provided the first impetus for human cosmological musings. As Frank notes, it was several millennia in mankind’s past, well before recorded history, and almost certainly before the development of agriculture, that man’s big and powerful brains finally realized the temporality of life; that mankind realized there was a time before one’s existence and there would be a time after one is gone (an awakening allegorically described, in part, by the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the book of Genesis in the Judeo-Christian Bible). No other living creature on earth except man is so blessed (or cursed) with the capacity for seeing into the future and consciously imagining the day when they would no longer exist.
Time determines sequence, or perhaps, sequence determines time. No effect in the present has been proved the result of a cause not yet having taken place. If effects are presumed to have causes, an axiomatic premise required to meaningfully investigate the nature of the universe, then it should be theoretically possible to trace an effect, a condition or state of affairs in the present, through a long sequence of causation, back to the very beginning of time. Were causal relationships conclusively understood, and were there perfect information about the present, the same could be said of the future. The unwinding of time in this manner is precisely the strategy used to develop the Big Bang Theory from the tenets of Einstein’s General Relativity. Time is the story line of the universe. All spatial relationships are inherently also temporal relationships.
Time factors into everything. It is more pervasive and profoundly basic than even gravity. It was in fact time, not gravity, which was the original object of Einstein’s musings. His special theory of relativity was explicitly about time, as the theory arose from the very practical conundrum of how to synchronize clocks in distant cities so that railroad waypoints could be accurately predicted in local time. Einstein used the speed of light as the benchmark for time measurement, both in Special and General Relativity, but it is easy to see that the device might simply have been a convenient artifice. Time has a deeper fundamentality than light speed. Light speed is just one of many attributes characterizing the universe. Time is the universe.
Frank understands that the nature of time is the crux of what Einstein and every other philosopher, metaphysical, cosmological or otherwise, has been trying to get at since mankind discovered the temporality of his own existence. Ever since the awakening, mankind has struggled in a very material and culturally profound way to wrap his mind around time. About Time conveys the story of that struggle in Frank’s elegant, lucid prose. It is a delightful read.
About the only quibble I have with the book is that Frank does not mention Book XI of Augustine’s Confessions as one of the greatest (and briefest) elucidations of time ever rendered. A great many other of the ancient philosophers (and even some theologians) are mentioned, but not Augustine. By my lights Augustine understood time as well or better than any of the moderns (e.g., Hawkings, et al). But Frank’s book is otherwise so good, teaching and informing while it entertains, that the omission is entirely forgivable.
The theme of the book is that mankind’s perception of time has always depended upon his material relationship with the world, and how that relationship is culturally expressed. At some point in man’s distant past, there was no time, there was only the present, which as Augustine pointed out, contains within it the whole sweep of eternity. Men were very much similar in their relationship to time as were the animals and vegetation they hunted and gathered to sustain them. Life was eternal and immediate, for there was no past and no future. Man was happy in his eternal present, instinctively responding to stimuli as they arose. It was only the realization of time that tortured his soul, that destroyed his idyllic past, a past which was referenced and bemoaned in a great many of man’s early myths of his origins (e.g., as noted, the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden).
Frank begins his exegesis before man had time (necessarily speculative) and traces mankind’s perception and conception of time all the way through to the various cosmologies competing to extend, or even usurp, the reigning model of time embodied in the Big Bang Theory. Along the way, he catalogs and explains the various technological and sociological developments that have shaped and formed time for man, including (not an exhaustive list) the development of agriculture and urbanization; the rejection of geocentric cosmology for Copernican; street lamps that destroyed the night; church clock towers; thermodynamics and the relentlessly entropic character of the universe; the railroad, telegraph and radio; the impact of modern conveniences like the washing machine, and the nearly instantaneous communication and information realm in which we now live.
In the earliest days of agriculture, time was measured in seasons and cycles of the moon, and of course, the cycle of morning, afternoon and night through the course of the day. Things changed, if perceptibly at all over the course of a human life, very slowly. Communication technologies, from the railroads, to the telegraph and radio, to television and automobiles and interstates, to the World Wide Web accessible 24 hours per day on a device carried around in the pocket, with a calendaring system capable of tracking the day’s events in minutes (and now, with Siri, with the ability to vocalize judgments as to the relative value of those events), conspired to compress time. Even with all the labor-saving devices that developed alongside the communications devices—the “mechanical butlers” of household appliances as Frank puts it—that would seem to have stretched time, the growth in communications ability more than compensated for the stretching, and time is perceived as passing more quickly today than our Neolithic forbears could ever have imagined.
Roughly the first two-thirds of About Time catalogues this history of innovation and how it impacted the cultural and individual perception of time. The chapters are crisp and insightful, each leading with a short vignette told from the imagined perspective of an average person who was alive during the era in question, showcasing that Frank’s creative writing skills are as sharply honed as those he uses to simplify and convey complicated cosmological ideas.
There is really no substitute for historical context when attempting to understand a phenomenon like time (or a great many others, as the principle applies to practically anything for which wisdom, insight and understanding is sought). Time seems to have drastically changed over the course of human history, but the perceived change is obviously a matter of changing human perspectives; of the ability to communicate far more quickly and voluminously the sequential events through which it is expressed. Time has neither slowed nor accelerated, it is the observers who have changed, and mainly in their relationship to the material world, a recurring theme of the book. Time appears to be the opposite of the rigid speed of light in Einstein’s cosmological theories. Its speed seems inherently subjective, perceived differently according to each observer’s particular rendering, but the appearance is deceiving. Time never changes, only the ones observing it do.
It is the latter third of the book that most interested me. It is here that Frank explains the cosmologies of theoretical physics, and their conundrums, doing so in a way that requires no real background in physics, but is still sufficiently detailed to get his point across. If the mark of a brilliant intellect is the ability to simply and effectively communicate the exceptionally complex in a universally accessible manner then Frank certainly qualifies as brilliant. And the great beauty of his explanations is that he refuses to carry water for today’s celebrity and theoretical cosmologists (sometimes the same; always, it seems celebrity is the aspiration of those conjuring cosmological myths), who expect people to accept any outlandish cosmological idea they contrive on face value because of their reputed intellectual brilliance and the prevalent presumption that there is a negative correlation between the fallibility of human interpretation and the size and power of the telescope or particle accelerator used to gather the information to be interpreted. Frank does not kowtow to the academy or to the celebrities. He bravely points out conundrums where he finds them.
Take for example, Frank’s observations on inflation. The Big Bang Theory depends on the early universe having undergone a period of rapid inflation (or expansion) for General Relativity to work in explaining what we see today. From where did this inflation arise? No one knows. Inflation theory was the product of Alan Gunth’s mind. It seems to be supported by some experimental evidence, mainly involving cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) that is presumed to be the remnants of the initial bang that started the sequence of causation yielding the universe we see today. Frank points out some unresolved problems with inflation:
Inflation was not really one theory, it was many. While the WMAP data [a satellite study of the CMBR] supported inflation’s prediction for the cosmic density perturbation spectrum, many versions of inflation included quantum fluctuations. The WMAP did nothing to sort through competing versions. In addition, enough unknowns remained in even the generic versions of inflation to keep many scientists skeptical. No one, for instance, knew what constituted the inflation field or from what physical principle it originated. Worse still, the inflation theory required a good deal of its own fine-tuning. Descriptions of inflation’s evolution have to be tweaked in just the right way to keep the universe from breaking apart into empty, disconnected regions or not working at all.
Even more damning for some scientists is the fact that dark energy, the greatest discovery in cosmology since the CMBR, came as a surprise. It was never predicted as an inevitable part of inflation. The acceleration the universe is now experiencing seems, on the face of it, like a milder version of the hyperexpansion that occurred during the early universe, and yet inflation theory offers no link between the two. The current era of cosmic acceleration must be grafted onto inflation like a Jonagold apple tree branch onto a Granny Smith tree trunk. For many scientists, a true, complete theory would not have to be grafted on this way.
He goes on to point out that inflation does nothing to explain what happened before the Big Bang, which remains as the most important unanswered question.
Frank’s frank observations are, if the likes of Lawrence Krauss are any indication of the zeitgeist of theoretical physics community, heretical. Theoretical physics invented inflation to make General Relativity and the Big Bang Theory an experimentally verified cosmology. It is anything of the sort. All the CMBR shows is that inflation may have happened. It is the thinnest of reeds upon which to claim scientific certainty for a theory encompassing the totality of all phenomena in space and time, and Frank is one of the few of whom I am aware in the theoretical physics community courageous enough to point this out.
Later in the book, Frank explains that one of the theorists, Andreas Albrecht, who closely worked with Gunth in devising inflationary theory, gave up on the Big Bang Theory (and by extension, Einsteinian physics), because it was impossible to tell which parts of its equations accounted for time, and that, on a cosmological scale, there is no way to measure time against some entity which defines it that is not also a part of the cosmology (a charge that could also be leveled at the notion of an absolute speed for light). Albrecht turned his investigations to the idea of arbitrary physical law, exiting the Platonic highway, and imagining what things would be like if the supposed physical “laws” humans have contrived for the universe were simply arbitrary accidents. And Albrecht is not some kook in his underwear communicating with aliens through a tin-foil hat. He’s a practicing physicist at the University of California, Davis.
Frank also explains the work of Lee Smolin, a physicist with the Perimeter Institute, and Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a professor at Harvard Law School. Smolin penned a book, The Trouble with Physics that basically rejects the string theorists and their multiverse cosmologies as rationalization exercises of theoreticians so concerned with creating a unified theory of gravity that extra dimensions and universes fantastically arise wherever the equations fail. He and Unger are something of a tag team of philosophical wrestlers, pointing out that these theories don’t explain, but only explain away, through extra dimensions and multiple universes, the reality we actually experience. It could be argued that the dark matter and energy of General Relativity occupy a similar place in the impulse to explanation so bedeviling the cosmological theorist mind.
The question of what caused the Big Bang sits in the modern cosmological living room like an eight hundred pound gorilla. At the “singularity”, as the time and place that went “bang” is known in the theory, everything was compressed into an infinitely hot, infinitely dense point. Imagining a time and place as infinitely hot and dense is a flight of logical fancy. The idea may exist in the fuzzy contours of a physicist’s imagination, but so too might unicorns. The ability to imagine something, even something that violates the precepts of logic as it concerns infinity, does not make it real. The reason for the singularity conundrum is relativity theory. Einstein’s equations breakdown in an entangled mass of infinities as time is unspooled to the beginning. It’s as if Einstein could predict with his theories every part of a unicorn except its horn.
But even if the singularity is accepted as the beginning of time, how did the universe get to such a state? As Frank points out, the singularity is the state of greatest possible order and least possible entropy in which the universe could exist. Ever since the big bang, time and entropy have marched in lockstep, accumulating entropy like I’ve accumulated furrows on my aging brow. The progression of the universe through time, the gathering disorder of entropy, can be explained in the same way I explain to my kids why I spend so much time fixing stuff: because things don’t fall together, they fall apart.
So how did the entropy get so low at the beginning? How did everything get so exquisitely organized and contained at the moment time began? The Big Bang Theory can’t tell us. But this question of origins is the question for cosmology, and for theology and philosophy, too. The impulse to ponder origins arises from the knowledge of our temporality. We know we won’t be here forever, so why are we here at all? And the Big Bang Theory can’t answer it. It can take us to a low entropy singularity which then explodes into a rapidly inflating entropic profusion, scattering disorder and darkness to its every corner, with only a few bright lumps of order, including the galaxy in which we live, resolving out of the chaos. But it leaves the question of who or what caused the singularity open. It does not provide an unmoved mover.
Something caused the low entropy initial state, because low entropy, i.e., rigid organization, does not happen by chance, or, as Frank points out, is roughly the least likely of all the possible initial states that could have occurred. Was it Aristotle’s 47 or 55 gods (depending on how they are counted) that set the cycle in motion? Was the big, initial bang one of a series of ceaselessly cycling big bangs, more commensurate with the Buddhists’ idea of continual regeneration? Was it an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present entity still somehow existing outside of the time and space of human experience that banged it all into being with a nod of his eye or a wisp of his breath, like the Abrahamic religions espouse? Perhaps our universe is simply one accidental universe that arose from a multiplicity of potential universes—one that happened to get all the various constants for human existence so exquisitely tuned (down to several decimal places) that we could exist and ponder its existence, as the Anthropic Principle of some string theorists propounds? We simply do not know. And to Frank’s credit (again), he acknowledges that we don’t know. What a marvelous and wondrous thing it is to witness humility and reticence in one of his profession. All that we do know is that our ideas about “Cosmology, our story of time and creation, has changed….and it has done so in rough synchronization with cultural time…”
In my review of Lawrence Krauss’ book, A Universe from Nothing (link previously provided), I observed that it matters very little in the day-to-day commerce of life what one believes about the origins and nature of the universe. We can all believe that our universe is the effluent of sewer pipes from a better world, and that our purpose is to sanitize things before our universe is used to create a new and perfect world, for all such things matter to everyday life. For me, contemplating cosmology is a hobby. I enjoy learning as much as I can about the nature and origin of the universe, but don’t imagine that the contemplation will ever yield substantive changes in my life. Cosmology matters quite a bit less to me than does lunch (see my post proposing that the real meaning of life is lunch, and everything else is superfluous—it’s only half-joking).
But what does matter is how we think about these sorts of things. Krauss had a thinly-veiled ulterior motive in fashioning his universe from nothing. He wanted to dispense with the need for God, an impulse as knuckleheaded and inimical to understanding as the impulses of the young earth denizens compelling them to deny mountains of empirical evidence to claim the earth to be only 6,000 or so years old. Reaching a conclusion, either that God isn’t necessary or that the earth is a certain age because the Bible says so, and then gathering evidence to support it is not science, but is rhetoric in the service of belief. It is, as Krauss observed of string theorists, taking aim and shooting, and then rushing forward with speculations drawn from the quite limited evidence to draw a bull’s eye around where the shot landed. It may not be possible to ever truly know the origins and nature of our universe. But we can learn how to think about such things rationally. We can learn to recognize ambiguities for what they are, and to embrace them as part of the wondrous mystery of existence.
The origin of the universe is as mysterious as the origin of life. We know life, as we see it today, does not spontaneously generate, but comes from other life. But that’s about all we know for sure. We haven’t much clue as to what or who was life’s unmoved mover; what or who set the whole evolutionary carnival in motion. So we imagine ways it might have begun, some dependent on the supernatural, some rigidly materialistic, but all profoundly speculative. It is a limitation of the human mind that we can’t tolerate loose ends in our knowledge and understanding. It is a limitation of the human mind that we attempt to explain effects originating from causes whose veils our comprehension can’t pierce by conjuring actors into being. Even more, it is a limitation of human mind that we refuse to acknowledge this impulse to fashion explanations from speculations. We speculate, but refuse to admit our ponderings as speculative.
Because Frank refuses to deny the ambiguities in the evidence, and forcefully asserts that the subjective nature of the human condition shapes and forms the perceptions from which understanding is gleaned, About Time is a wonderful book. I recommend it to anyone, laymen or professional, who ponders the nature of existence. It offers a God’s eye, objective perspective on the history of how we have crafted our story of time and creation through the ages, a story that is bound to continue changing just as the universe and, more poignantly, the humans crafting the story, change, or as Frank puts it, in his concluding chapter:
But always and forever, the creation of cosmological narratives remained married to the creation of human cultures. Human time and cosmic time remained closely linked, and those links were forged in the iron wheels of medieval clocks, the steel boilers of Victorian steam engines, and the silicon chips ticking off clock cycles in our modern day computers.
Looking back across fifty thousand years and looking forward to our ever-accelerating future, we stand in a privileged position. We can, at long last, recognize the paired cycles of change in cosmic and human time and ask what they tell us about who we are, what we are and where we might be going. These questions are neither abstract nor inconsequential, for once we recognize the braiding of cosmic and human time we may also recognize the turning point both have reached. In this way, we come to the end of our own beginning as a species.
I am less sanguine than Frank that we have come to the end of our own beginning as a species. Krauss’ book of proselytical physics ranks far higher on Amazon’s list than does Frank’s (Krauss’ book ranks 1,511 overall, 3rd in cosmology; Frank’s is 26,047 overall, 45th in cosmology). Shamans and sorcerers like Krauss, peddling cosmic conclusions rather than questions, are far more popular for a public seeking to tie its loose ends of knowledge, than are wise and humble chroniclers like Frank who courageously view the universe objectively, without an impulse to relieve the world of the anxiety of ambiguity. Humans seek to know, but will readily turn to belief in the face of imperfect knowledge. Krauss exploits the impulse to know through pretensions to certainty. So long as the majority of humans are so gullible as to be susceptible of such things, either from the pulpit or the physics priesthood or the demagogue’s soapbox, etc., we have yet to reach the end of our beginning. We remain childish, running away from, rather than reaching for, maturity.
About Time is as beautifully written as it is well-informed. It is a sublime work of genius and wisdom. My only regret, in the meanderingly inquisitive story line of my life, is that I didn’t read it sooner.