The Crisis of Cosmology - Part three

The various unsolved mysteries in physics described above are no secret. The scientific community is fully aware of the challenges they face. The search for the solution to these problems has yielded many candidates, none of which can yet claim victory. What is remarkable, however, is just how little the field of cosmology has advanced in the last few decades.

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One step forward, two steps back

There are a multitude of contenders to the Theory of Everything throne. These include supersymmetry, string theory, M-theory and a number of others beside. There are many different varieties and flavours within each theory, with new hypotheses, assumptions, and extensions made at every turn when observations and experiments fail to confirm the predictions (if there are even any predictions!) of the original theory.

For example, in supersymmetry, a whole new range of particles is proposed to explain and unify three of the four forces of nature: electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force. However, experiments using the Large Hadron Collider have so far failed to find any evidence for supersymmetry. Rather than accepting the death of supersymmetry, academics have developed ever more elaborate versions in a desperate attempt to keep the theory (and thus their careers!) alive. It is a great irony that in their search for the “beauty” of mathematical simplicity, the theoretical physicists end up producing ever more unwieldy models containing an ever expanding set of particles and parameters.

Elsewhere we have string theory, which hypothesises that all the elementary particles of the SMPP are in fact variations of a single fundamental vibrating string, with different energies of vibration accounting for the array of particles that we see. The supposed elegance of string theory is that it apparently provides a Theory of Everything that unifies quantum mechanics and general relativity. The downside is that the theory only works if we in fact, despite all our experiences, live in a ten-dimensional Universe consisting of nine spatial dimensions plus time. These extra six spatial dimensions are, so the theory goes, unobservable – and thus untestable – since they are wrapped up and compacted to a miniscule scale.

In fact there are five different string theories which can be subsumed into a single theory, known as M-theory, if we assume an eleven-dimensional Universe. Extending from M-theory is the concept of new mathematical objects, such as the “branes” discussed earlier, which are said to be floating about and colliding into one another, thus causing Big Bang-like events.

If this all sounds rather fanciful, it is because it is. It should be emphasised that no empirical evidence exists for any of these fantastical claims. String theory and M-theory are simply a case of one set of assumptions and conjectures stacked upon another. They are nothing but abstract mathematical models, theoretical toys and academic playthings, which, whilst internally consistent in terms of their mathematics, have neither observations to back them up nor verifiable predictions to support them. Astonishingly, M-theory, whilst widely discussed and researched in the field of theoretical physics and cosmology, is not actually a theory at all. As of yet, nobody has actually formally written down what it would or should look like; it simply exists as the idea for an idea.

Such theories are completely untestable and are closer to the medieval discussions by priests about “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” than to genuine science in any meaningful sense. Yet despite these severe limitations, such theories are presented to the public as viable scientific ideas by well-known professors such as Brian Greene and other celebrity scientists. It seems that for every step forward taken in the field of cosmology there are two steps back, with countless hours of labour-time and enormous sums of money being wasted in the pursuit of such obscurantist and idealistic flights of fancy.

The cul-de-sac of cosmology

A growing number of scientific researchers and writers have become exasperated with the current state of affairs and having grown tired of the lack of progress made in the field of cosmology are calling for a radical overhaul. It has become clear to many that after centuries of hard work pulling ourselves up the side of the mountain of discovery, we have been on a plateau of knowledge for some time.

Others are less generous in their description of modern cosmological research, considering it to be little more than a rather expensive and time-wasting journey down a scientific dead-end. Jim Baggott, a well-known science writer and former academic, writes in his book, Farewell to Reality, about the growing gap between modern cosmology and what would typically be called “science”.

large-matrix-blu-ray7In the opinion of Baggott and many others, current cosmological research has increasingly become completely theoretical in nature and is based entirely on the beauty and internal consistency of the descriptive mathematics, with little recourse to actual evidence or observations. Baggott describes such theories, dreamt up in the offices of highly respected universities and institutes, as being nothing more than “fairy-tale physics”, theories that have long ago ceased to play any role in actually improving our understanding the objective reality of the Universe.

“In fairy-tale physics,” Baggot bemoans, “we lose sight of the empirical content, almost completely...If there is one theme underpinning contemporary theoretical physics, it seems to be an innate inability to calculate anything, with the not-so-apologetic caveat: well, it still might be true...

“...The not metaphysics per se. The issue that in fairy-tale physics the metaphysics is all there is. Until and unless it can predict something that can be tested by reference to empirical facts, concerning quantity or number, it is nothing but sophistry and illusion...

“...At what point do we recognise that the mathematical structures we’re wrestling to come to terms with might actually represent a wrong turn...” [1] (emphasis in the original)

In this view, the field of modern cosmology has become, at best, a fairly harmless form of Keynesianism – a way of employing and funding a few hundred (or thousand) scientists who would otherwise be out of work. At worst, current cosmological research is a colossal waste of scientific resources which, far from being harmless, is actually damaging the wider credibility of science by dressing up nonsense as serious and important theoretical research. As Baggott comments:

“[W]hat does it matter if a few theorists decide that it’s okay to indulge in a little self-delusion? So what if they continue to publish their research papers and their popular science articles and books? So what if they continue to appear in science documentaries, peddling their metaphysical world views as science? What real harm is done?

“I believe that damage is being done to the integrity of the scientific enterprise. The damage isn’t always clearly visible and is certainly not always obvious. Fairly-tale physics is like a slowly creeping yet inexorably dry rot. If we don’t look for it, we won’t notice that the foundations are being undermined until the whole structure comes down on our heads...this stuff clearly isn’t science.”[2]

Time reborn

The crisis in cosmology, however, is causing some within the field to fundamentally challenge the dominant paradigm. Amongst those who are seeking a way out of the current morass is Lee Smolin, a well known academic currently at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, who, in his book “Time Reborn”, argues that the whole field of cosmology, from quantum mechanics through to general relativity, is held back by what amounts to the philosophical problem of how science deals with the question of time.

Although not a conscious or consistent dialectical materialist, Smolin correctly highlights many of the fundamental flaws in the method and outlook of current theoretical physics. For Smolin, the problem originates with the Newtonian method of science – a method that, whilst extremely progressive at the time, is now holding back modern physics. The Newtonian method is fundamentally that of mechanics, which examines the movements and motions of isolated systems in terms of particles and forces acting upon them, as Smolin describes:

“The success of scientific theories from Newton through the present day is based on their use of a particular framework of explanation invented by Newton. This framework views nature as consisting of nothing but particles with timeless laws. The properties of the particles, such as their masses and electric charges, never change, and neither do the laws that act on them.”[3]

But Smolin also goes on to highlight one of the limitations of such a method involving isolated systems (or “physics in a box” as he frequently refers to it): the fact that, in reality, one can never truly isolate a system, for there is always a dialectical interconnectivity between matter in motion:

“This framework is ideally suited to describe small parts of the Universe, but it falls apart when we attempt to apply it to the Universe as a whole...

“When we do cosmology, we confront a novel circumstance: It is impossible to get outside the system we’re studying when that system is the entire Universe.”[4] (emphasis in the original)

Throughout his book, Smolin explains how physicists ever since Newton have tried to represent the dynamism and change of matter in motion through the use of timeless and absolute mathematical equations and models which are necessarily simplifications and abstractions of infinitely complex processes and which thus lose their applicability when used to analyse the Universe as a whole.

By placing mathematics above reality and forgetting the approximate nature of its models, theoretical physics has come up against seemingly insurmountable barriers in all the key pillars of cosmology: the SMPP, quantum mechanics, general relativity, and the SMBBC. Physicists have led themselves down a blind alley in search of a “beautiful” and “elegant” Theory of Everything. As Smolin notes:

“It remains a great temptation to take a law or principle we can successfully apply to all the world’s subsystems and apply it to the Universe as a whole. To do so is to commit a fallacy...

“The Universe is an entity different in kind from any of its parts. Nor is it simply the sum of its parts...

“What we mean when we call something a ‘law’ is that it applies to many cases; if it applied to just one, it would simply be an observation. But any application of a law to any part of the Universe involves an approximation...because we must neglect all the interactions between that part and the rest of the Universe.”[5]

“All the theories we work with, including the Standard Model of Particle Physics and general relativity, are approximate theories, applying to truncations of nature...

“...This means that the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which agrees with all known experiments so far, must be considered an approximation...It ignores currently unknown phenomena that might appear were we able to probe to shorter distances...

“The missing phenomena could include not only new kinds of elementary particles but also heretofore unknown forces. Or it could turn out that the basic principles of quantum mechanics are wrong and need modification to correctly describe phenomena lurking at shorter lengths and higher energies...

“...physics is a process of constructing better and better approximate theories. As we push our experiments to shorter distances and larger energies, we may discover new phenomena, and if we do, we’ll need a new model to accommodate them.[6]

In short, the fundamental problem with the Newtonian framework is its mechanical and undialectical method, involving external forces and eternal laws that exist outside of time and space in an ideal and absolute world. But such an idealistic view of the “laws of physics” is in contrast to the dialectical reality of nature, as discussed earlier: that the laws of physics are not imposed on matter, but emerge from its interactions, as Smolin himself comments:

“Laws, then, are not imposed on the Universe from outside it. No external entity, whether divine or mathematical, specifies in advance what the laws of nature are to be. Nor do the laws of nature wait, mute, outside of time for the Universe to begin. Rather the laws of nature emerge from inside the Universe and evolve in time with the Universe they describe.”[7]

Here then, without expressing it in such terms, we have a more dialectical – although not fully worked out – view of the Universe being presented by an established and renowned academic, cosmologist and theoretical physicist, a view in contrast to the timeless and absolute Newtonian paradigm, a view that represents a fundamental shift in outlook and method.

Such a view, as Smolin notes, means breaking with the old ideas of space and time, of laws and properties, and instead seeing things in a dialectical manner, by studying the interconnections and interactions of matter in motion with properties and laws that emerge as approximations from this infinitely complex and dynamic process.

“In a relational world (which is what we call a world where relationships precede space), there are no spaces without things. Newton’s concept of space was the opposite, for he understood space to be absolute...

“...[But] there can be no absolute time that ticks on blindly whatever happens in the world. Time must be a consequence of change; without alteration in the world, there can be no time. Philosophers say that time is relational – it is an aspect of relations, such as causality, that govern change. Similarly, space must be relational; indeed, every property of an object in nature must be a reflection of dynamical relations between it and other things in the world...

“The problem of unifying physics and, in particular, bringing together quantum theory with general relativity into one framework is largely the task of completing the relational revolution in physics. The main message of this book is that this requires embracing the ideas that time is real...

“The key to these puzzles is that neither individuals, systems, nor the Universe as a whole can be thought of as things that simply are. They are all compounded by processes that take place in time. The missing element, without which we cannot answer these questions, is to see them as processes developing in time...

“As science progresses, aspects of nature once considered fundamental are revealed as emergent and approximate...Most of the laws of nature once thought of as fundamental are now understood as emergent and approximate...just about everything we now think is fundamental will also eventually be understood as approximate and emergent: gravity and the laws of Newton and Einstein that govern it, the laws of quantum mechanics, even space itself.” [8]

Key to Smolin’s criticisms of modern cosmology and the Newtonian paradigm from which it ultimately derives is the way in which an idealistic and mechanical use of mathematics, equations, and models has led to the “expulsion of time” from our understanding of the Universe and its infinitely complex and dynamic phenomena (hence the title of Smolin’s book – “Time Reborn”). Rather than studying processes of interacting, evolving, and developing motion, we have frozen the motion of matter in time and represented it as timeless equations.

“Some physicists since Newton have embraced the mystic’s view that the mathematical curve is ‘more real’ than the motion itself. The great attraction of the concept of a deeper, mathematical reality is that it is timeless, in contrast to a fleeting succession of experiences. By succumbing to the temptation to conflate the representation with the reality and identify the graph of the records of the motion with the motion itself, these scientists have taken a big step toward the expulsion of time from our conception of nature.”[9]

“What the mathematics corresponds to are not the actual physical processes but only records of them once completed – which are also, by definition, timeless. Yet the world remains, always, a bundle of processes evolving in time, and only small parts of it are representable by timeless mathematical objects.”[10]

But what Smolin is really hinting at with his talk of the timelessness of equations and the need to see evolving (rather than timeless and absolute) laws in nature is not so much the “expulsion of time” from modern cosmology, but the expulsion of change.

In this respect, Smolin is unconsciously highlighting the most important aspect of dialectics: the concept of change. The understanding of the fact that things change, that the Universe consists ultimately and fundamentally, of matter in motion, is the philosophical and scientific key to unlocking the mysteries of the Universe. It is the key to explaining the multitude of phenomena we see around us and moving on from the mechanical paradigm in physics that is currently holding cosmology back.

The evolution of laws

By reintroducing the concept of time, that is, change, into cosmology, Smolin arrives at many of the same conclusions as the Marxists. For example, Smolin correctly highlights the absurdity of the idea that the Big Bang represented a “beginning of time”. He notes the contradiction within mainstream cosmological thinking of a belief, on the one hand, in fundamental, absolute, timeless laws, and, on the other hand, in a theory that has a “beginning of time”, before which no laws (or indeed anything) could have existed.

Whilst Smolin correctly highlights the philosophical limitations in the current cosmological models, in struggling against the idealism that pervades much of modern theoretical physics, and without a consistent dialectical materialist method at his disposal, Smolin bends the stick too far in the opposite direction with his own hypotheses to explain the workings of the Universe.

In rejecting the notion of a “beginning of time” and timeless laws, Smolin correctly concludes that the Universe must be infinite in time and that the laws of nature are not imposed from without, but are emergent from within. Smolin, furthermore, avoids the problems of “bad infinity” discussed earlier by hypothesising that, “our Universe is...a descendant of another Universe, born in one of its black holes, and [that] every black hole in our Universe is the seed of a new Universe.”[11]

This black hole “Universes within Universes” theory avoids the contradictions of the similar “eternal inflation” model discussed earlier, in that it has no recourse to quantum fluctuations or vacuum energy that allow for something to be created from nothing. Instead, we have a more dialectical concept of an infinite Universe, an infinite regression, an infinity of finite things.

Regarding Smolin’s hypothesis of an infinite series of Universes, however, it should be noted, as discussed earlier, that it is not necessary to posit the existence of “Universes within Universes” in order to overcome the contradictions involved with the concept of a Universe that is finite in time or space. Instead of a “multiverse” or “Universes within Universes”, we can have simply the Universe, composed of an infinite amount of matter and energy, that has always been and always will be.

Smolin goes further with his black hole descendant theory, however, and proposes that this model of “Universes within Universes” can be extended to hypothesise the existence of “cosmological natural selection”; a model, which, in turn, can supposedly explain how the laws of nature do not simply emerge, but in fact evolve. Such a theory, Smolin claims, can also explain why our Universe has the finely tuned properties that we observe.

Smolin draws an analogy between “cosmological natural selection” and evolution by biological natural selection. In biology there are random mutations and mixing of genes and the new gene mixes are passed on during reproduction. Combined with certain environmental conditions, this can lead to the evolution of species with new features. In the case of physics, according to Smolin, “[the genes] are the constants of the Standard Model, including the masses of the various elementary particles and the strengths of the basic forces...Analogously, we can hypothesise that each time a new Universe is created there is a small random change in the parameters of the laws.”[12]

At this point, however, Smolin has crept into the land of idealism. In contradiction to his own earlier claim that properties and laws are emergent and that mathematical models are only an approximate abstraction of the real Universe, we are now asked by Smolin to consider the hypothesis that the parameters of our mathematical models of the Universe are in fact analogous to the material and tangible objects of biological genes.

This analogy, by Smolin’s own earlier, more dialectical, argument, is false. The random mutation and assortment of genes in biological natural selection represent a change of physical things in a material reality. The parameters and constants that we use to define and describe our mathematical models of the Universe, however, are not real tangible things – they are only an abstraction of material reality. They are properties that emerge out of the interactions of matter in motion.

Whilst correctly noting the flaws and limitations in the predominant mainstream theories and in the whole Newtonian method, in hypothesising his own model of “cosmological natural selection” to explain how laws “evolve”, Smolin has turned his own more dialectical and materialistic analysis on its head and has himself ventured onto idealistic terrain. The laws of nature, by Smolin’s own earlier admission, are not written into the fabric of the Universe, but are approximate generalisations of the dynamic, chaotic, and complex processes of interacting matter that we observe. Yet now we are told that the laws of nature are not merely emergent, but are “evolving” also, in the same way that species evolve in the biological world.

The laws of nature, however, are not material things and cannot “evolve”. In trying to overcome the idealistic and static timelessness of the Newtonian paradigm and reintroduce the concept of change into theoretical physics, Smolin has bent the stick too far in the opposite direction and arrived at his own idealistic theory. Although there is no exact repetition in nature, nevertheless, similar conditions produce similar results. Though conditioned by concrete circumstances, the general dynamic of processes will be the same throughout the Universe and throughout all time.

Our understanding of the laws of nature will of course dialectically develop and evolve as we are able to further expand the sphere of social knowledge and discover and explain phenomena that emerge at different scales; but the essential and objective ways in which matter in motion interacts will always be the same at all times and in all places. This fundamental “oneness” to the Universe, of the same general physical laws throughout time and space, is a pillar of the materialist philosophical outlook.

Cosmological crossroads

Despite the limitations of Smolin’s own theories, his criticism of the current state of cosmology represents an important step forward. By highlighting the fundamental philosophical problems associated with the methods being employed within the current cosmological paradigm, Smolin, and other similarly critical physicists in the field, are paving the way for a qualitative breakthrough in the science of cosmology and our understanding of the Universe.

In Dialectics of Nature, Engels analysed some of the most pressing and unanswered questions in the science of his day. Despite his own limited academic scientific knowledge, Engels, by consistently and thoroughly employing the Marxist method of dialectical materialism, was able to make revolutionary hypotheses on a whole number of important scientific questions.

For example, in his extract on The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Engels suggested that rather than it being a prior growth of the brain that enabled early mankind to develop tools, as was predominantly thought by evolutionary biologists and anthropologists at the time, the case was in fact the reverse: the move to an upright stance freed up the hands and allowed for the use and development of tools, which, in turn, led to the growth and development of the brain.

Unfortunately Engels’ hypothesis was never taken up within the academic community and for years scientists searched in vain for remains of our early ancestors that indicated signs of a larger brain, but without any evidence of bipedalism (walking on two feet rather than four), developed hands (e.g. opposable thumbs), or simple tools. Modern discoveries, however, have entirely vindicated Engels, with evidence that supports the idea that bipedalism, developed hands, and simple tools predate the growth of our ancestors’ brains.

In relation to modern day cosmology, Marxism finds itself in the same position as Engels in the nineteenth century. We do not claim to have the mathematical tools or the great wealth of scientific knowledge and facts that the academic community of theoretical physicists has at its disposal. Nor do we claim to have all the answers or even fully worked out alternative to the current theories.

For decades, however, we have carefully followed scientific developments and have made important contributions towards the many debates that have emerged. The criticisms the Marxists have raised regarding modern scientific theories—in countless articles on, as well as in books and pamphlets—are now being raised by scientists and writers such as Lee Smolin and others in the wider academic community.

Most significantly, nearly 20 years ago, we published Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science, by Ted Grant and Alan Woods, which is striking for its perspicacity and anticipation of many of the questions being hotly debated today. These anticipations were possible due to a consistent application of dialectical materialism and the understanding that philosophy is not secondary, but must play an integral role in guiding scientific investigation.

The limitations of the existing cosmological models are no secret. The problems facing physics are known to all those who are honest about their work and who sincerely want science to progress. What we can say for certain, therefore, is that the current theories do not represent the final word in science, and that a revolution in thought, outlook and method will be needed in order for our understanding to advance.

 “ is precisely dialectics that constitutes the most important form of thinking for present-day natural science, for it alone offers the analogue for, and thereby the method of explaining, the evolutionary processes occurring in nature, inter-connections in general, and transitions from one field of investigation to another.”[13] (Engels – Dialectics of Nature)

[1] Farewell to Reality: How Fairytale Physics Betrays the Search for Scientific Truth, Jim Baggott, p.286-288, Constable 2013 paperback

[2] Ibid, p.291

[3] Time Reborn: From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe, Lee Smolin, p.xxiii, Allen Lane 2013 hardback

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid, p.97

[6] Ibid, p.108-112

[7] Ibid, p.xxv-xxvi

[8] Ibid, p.xxviii-xxxi

[9] Ibid, p.34

[10] Ibid, p.245

[11] Ibid, p.124

[12] Ibid, p.124-125

[13] Dialectics of Nature, p.339