The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time


Massimo Pigliucci in Scientia Salon:

I have devoted a serious amount of time to reading the new book by Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal In Natural Philosophy [1]. Indeed, this review actually pertains to the first part of the book, written by Unger, the philosopher in the pair. Eventually I will come back to it with a second review, focusing on the part written by Smolin, the physicist. They make the same argument, but one goes at it from a broad, philosophical perspective, the other from a more empirical, scientific point of view.

It is an ambitious book, bound to be controversial both among philosophers and among scientists, but it is worth the effort, if nothing else in order to expose one’s mind to a fairly radical way of conceiving of metaphysics, physics, and mathematics — and this despite the fact that the first part, written by Unger, is somewhat slow going and repetitious, compared to Smolin’s contribution.

Before we get to what the authors set out to accomplish, it is worth discussing a more basic premise of the book: they see it as an exercise in what they call (a revived form of) “natural philosophy.” Of course, natural philosophy was the name by which science went before it became a field of inquiry independent of philosophy itself. Descartes, Galileo, Newton and even Darwin thought of themselves as natural philosophers (the word scientist, in fact, was invented by Darwin’s mentor, William Whewell, in 1833 [2]). But what’s the point of going back to the old term, aside from a bit of historical nostalgia and perhaps intellectual pretentiousness?

Actually, Unger & Smolin (henceforth, U&S) make a very good case for it, which begins with the observation that many of their colleagues have indeed engaged, often stealthily, or perhaps without recognizing it, in precisely this sort of activity.

More here.