Barbour, Leibniz, & the immortality of everything

#1
Independent physicist Julian Barbour was arguably born too late (1937) to belong to the era when physicists were still heavy in schools of thought; yet was also apparently early enough for a cusp transition to be influenced by that generation's greater awareness of philosophy. In terms of intellectual ancestry (explored further down in this post), it's no coincidence that his "Nows" might bear a resemblance to Leibniz's monads.

Barbour's lingering mystery fascination with "the fact that anything is" seems the result of still not totally accepting or apprehending the consequences of his own system. The very idea of there needing to be a preceding "cause" for the Nows existing would be a relic falling out of the commonsense temporal worldview of different states not co-existing. Therefore no longer applicable in an "immortal" context wherein they do co-exist. (Unless he was instead referring to a hierarchical relationship; to a prior in rank principle/reason rather than the time-based transformations of conventional cause-effect parlance.)

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Tim Folger: . . . Julian Barbour is convinced we are all immortal. Unfortunately, in a timeless universe immortality does not come with the same kind of perks that it does on Mount Olympus. In Barbour's vision, we are not like Greek gods who remain forever young. We still have to buy life insurance, and we will certainly seem to age and die. And instead of life after death, there is life alongside death. "We're always locked within one Now," Barbour says. We do not pass through time. Instead, each new instant is an entirely different universe. In all of these universes, nothing ever moves or ages, since time is not present in any of them. One universe might contain you as a baby staring at your mother's face. In that universe you will never move from that one, still scene. In yet another universe, you'll be forever just one breath away from death. All of those universes, and infinitely many more, exist permanently, side by side, in a cosmos of unimaginable size and variety. So there is not one immortal you, but many: the toddler, the cool dude, the codger. The tragedy— or perhaps it's a blessing— is that no one version recognizes its own immortality. Would you really want to be 14 for eternity, waiting for your civics class to end?

As odd as this vision of a timeless world might seem, Barbour believes there is something stranger still to ponder: the very fact of our existence. "Creation and the fact that anything is— this for me is the complete mystery," he says. "The fact that we are here is totally mysterious."

[...] Every possible configuration of the universe, past, present, and future, exists separately and eternally. We don't live in a single universe that passes through time. Instead, we— or many slightly different versions of ourselves— simultaneously inhabit a multitude of static, everlasting tableaux that include everything in the universe at any given moment. Barbour calls each of these possible still-life configurations a "Now." Every Now is a complete, self-contained, timeless, unchanging universe. We mistakenly perceive the Nows as fleeting, when in fact each one persists forever. Because the word universe seems too small to encompass all possible Nows, Barbour coined a new word for it: Platonia. The name honors the ancient Greek philosopher who argued that reality is composed of eternal and changeless forms, even though the physical world we perceive through our senses appears to be in constant flux.

Before allowing himself to be interrupted by the stream of questions he knows will come, Barbour continues to press his point. He likens his view of reality to a strip of movie film. Each frame captures one possible Now, which may include blades of grass, clouds in a blue sky, Julian Barbour, a baffled Discover writer, and distant galaxies. But nothing moves or changes in any one frame. And the frames— the past and future— don't disappear after they pass in front of the lens.

"This corresponds to the way you remember highlights of your life," Barbour says. "You remember very vividly certain scenes as snapshots. I remember once, very tragically, I had to go to a man who had shot himself. And I still have no difficulty in recalling the scene of opening the door just to where he was at the foot of the stairs and seeing him there with the gun and the blood. It's still imprinted as a photograph on my mind. Many other memories I have take that form. People have strong visual memories. If it's not just a snapshot, it might be a few stills of a movie you recall. Think of perhaps your most vivid memories. You don't think of them as just lasting a second. You see them as snapshots in your mind's eye, don't you? They don't fade— they don't seem to have any duration. They're just there, like the pages of a book. You wouldn't ask how many seconds a page lasts. It doesn't last a millisecond, or a second; it just is."

Barbour calmly awaits the inevitable sputtering objections.

Don't we then somehow shift from one "frame" to another?

No. There is no movement from one static arrangement of the universe to the next. Some configurations of the universe simply contain little patches of consciousness— people— with memories of what they call a past that are built into the Now. The illusion of motion occurs because many slightly different versions of us— none of which move at all— simultaneously inhabit universes with slightly different arrangements of matter. Each version of us sees a different frame— a unique, motionless, eternal Now. "My position is that we are never the same in any two instants," Barbour says. "Obviously, as macroscopic human beings, we don't change much from second to second. And there's no question that we're the same people. I mean only an extreme madman would deny that," he says reassuringly. "To that extent, it's true that we do move from one Now to another. But in what sense can you say we're moving? The way I see it, not exactly the same information content, but nearly the same information content, is present in many different Nows." Nothing really moves, he says.

"The information content or the consciousness that makes us aware of being ourselves, of having a certain identity, is just present in many different Nows. There are two things that distinguish my position from what people might just intuitively think. First of all, the Nows are not on one timeline. They're just there. And second, there is nothing corresponding to motion. I'm taking a very radical position on that. I'm saying the Nows are really like snapshots. The impression of motion only arises because the snapshots have got an extraordinarily special structure." We are part of that special structure.

[...] Barbour talks about how his ideas have changed his perceptions of the world. "I think it's completely wrong to say that the world was created in the Big Bang and that it was the unique creation event." Barbour hastens to add that there exists an eternal Now that contains the Big Bang, but he sees it as just one of an infinite array of Nows existing alongside this instant on High Street. "Immortality is all around us," he says. "Our task is to recognize it." [...]

For all the apparent complexity of his scheme, Barbour believes that it provides the simplest way to merge quantum mechanics and relativity into a single theory of the universe. Like all physicists, he strongly believes that mathematically elegant explanations tend to be true, even if they conflict with common sense. [...]
--From Here to Eternity ... Discover Magazine, Dec 20, 2000

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Leibniz: Prophet of New Era Science
http://www.cambridgescholars.com/download/sample/59400

Jürgen Lawrenz: . . . many of Leibniz's fecund ideas remain qualitatively unchanged even in their latest incarnation. For example, his disquisitions on force are not primitive versions of the conceptions held in the present age, but fundamental, *kat exochen*. His prognostications on sundry metaphysical items such as time, space, motion, identity, continuity etc. are not the idle speculations of a nouveaux scholastic, but a rigorously elaborated system of criteria for research and discovery, as valid today as then. But the reader need not take my word for it. There is ample testimony from writers as diverse as Hans Reichenbach and Julian Barbour, whose scientific predilections differ as much from each other as from Leibniz, yet both received stimulus and insight from the same source.

A little vignette may help to illuminate the situation. Here is a passus from a book written by the American theoretical physicist Leo Smolin, aimed at a popular audience of whom very few, perhaps none, would ever have heard the name Leibniz before:

]We settled down to sherry around the fireplace and began to talk physics and philosophy. He [Julian Barbour] playing the role Of the English gentleman to his brash American guests, asked first what we had been working on. I told him of my efforts to construct a theory to unify quantum theory with space and time. He listened politely, then asked if I had ever read Leibniz. When I replied, no, he said, "Well, perhaps you ought to", and began to explain to me how Leibniz's philosophy could provide the starting point for a theory of cosmology."

It must seem an extraordinary situation to picture two late 20th century astrophysicists digging up a dusty old philosophy from 300 years ago and seeking inspiration from it—indeed nothing less than help in laying the foundations for their own cosmology!

This is the point which it was my purpose to stress. For the strangest thing is: These men are not looking in the direction of Newton, the patron saint of western science, but of his almost discredited arch-rival Leibniz: The plain-speaking reason is that Newton has nothing more to tell them, whereas Leibniz's work is a gold mine of pioneering ideas that has not been tapped before.

Nevertheless the reader might still wonder what Leibniz has up his sleeve that Barbour and Smolin's philosopher colleagues at university could not explain to them?

But this is one of those vexed issues on which students of philosophy might wring their hands. Leibniz scholars are not, generally speaking, *au fait* with the trends of modern science. Leibniz may well have been the last of the great thinkers with a vision large enough to encompass both metaphysical speculation and empirical science. His intrusion into current-day affairs therefore suggests that empirical science went through a curve of high technical achievement, before finding itself at the end of this road in precisely the kind of conceptual cul- de-sac that its contempt for metaphysics seemed destined to bring on.


[...Hermann Weyl...] "General relativity enables the thorough implementation of Leibniz's *agens* theory. We need no longer consider a particle of matter as a point in space, for *it is not even spatial* (extended), though it finds itself in a spatial volume from where its field effects emanate. . . . Now whatever this field-exciting agens may be according to its inner nature can only be assayed according to the field effects which it engenders and we can assign nothing more than numeral characteristics to these field effects (charge, mass). So that ultimately physics can deal only with the field, with that well-structured medium in which all the many unextended material individuals come together in one effective whole and become an 'external world'."

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The Deep And Suggestive Principles of Leibnizian Philosophy
http://www.platonia.com/barbour_hrp2003.pdf

Julian Barbour: In his youth, Leibniz was “infected” by this idea, as he often remarked later, yet he found what seems to be a serious flaw in Descartes’s windswept ontology. If matter has but one distinguishing attribute, extension, how do we come to see anything? There are no attributes to distinguish one piece of matter from another. There is nothing in this scheme to explain the variety of the world. At the very least, Descartes would have needed to postulate a second attribute, probably more. It is interesting that, broadly, this is the route that was taken by physics, though founded on a much more secure empirical basis than Descartes had deemed necessary.

Through much of the last century, one of the main goals of physics was to find the fundamental particles of nature. Even at the time when quantum mechanics was discovered, in 1925–1926, physicists believed that all matter was composed of only two fundamental particles—the electron and the proton. This picture does indeed look like a minimal extension of Cartesian reductionism. But during the course of the century, the number of so-called fundamental particles grew in a somewhat disconcerting manner, though our understanding of the way in which they interacted also progressed impressively. Now, if the superstring enthusiasts are correct, we are almost back to Descartes— all the phenomena of nature are to be understood as manifestations of submicroscopic strings that wiggle in an 11-dimensional space-time.

Leibniz, in contrast to Descartes, struck out in a very different direction. Like Descartes, he accepted that the universe consisted of infinitely many entities. However, these entities, which he called ‘monads’, were quite unlike atoms, which were always assumed to have identical properties. There might be several different kinds of atoms, but within each class all atoms were assumed to be identical. The only difference between them would be their positions and speeds in space and time.

But Leibniz denied the independent existence of space and time. They were nothing but relations between things. Position in space and time could not be used as attributes to distinguish otherwise indistinguishable objects. I find this position very persuasive. The core of Leibniz’s philosophy is the insistence on a proper principle of individuation. He argued that any contingently existing thing must be described by its attributes. He then noted that one could never adequately distinguish a given thing by a finite set of attributes, since two different objects could well share those attributes but differ in other respects. It would be like trying to define a real number uniquely by a finite number of the digits in its decimal expansion. Leibniz argued that, once one starts on the true identification of an actual thing, one must always end by giving a description of the entire universe. His bold conclusion was that, in reality, actual things are simply descriptions of the universe from different perspectives, like all the different views of a city.

I am not going to attempt to explain how Leibniz, starting from such an idea, arrived at his full theory of monads—his Monadology . That would take a book. Instead, I will simply try to summarize the key ideas as best I can. This is how I understand his scheme. Leibniz held that the entire world consists of nothing but distinct individuals, and that the sole essence of these individuals is to have perceptions (not all of which they are distinctly aware of). This position is superficially similar to Berkeley’s idealism, according to which nothing exists except perceiving souls and ideas—perceptions—that God causes to appear to them.

But there the similarity ends. The most radical element in the Monadology , postulated rather than explained or made directly plausible, is the claim that the perceptions of any one monad—its defining attributes—are nothing more and nothing less than the relations it bears to all the other monads. The monads exist by virtue of self-mirroring of each other; they all define each other. A monadological world is a perfectly bootstrapped world. It tugs itself into existence out of the mire of nothingness somewhat after the manner that Baron von Münchhausen got himself out of the bog. Now how on earth could one begin to give substance to such a scheme? And why would one want to try? I would give three main justifications. First, the view that the world is relational is deeply persuasive and has been given strong support by the successes of general relativity and quantum mechanics. Thus, any model that develops relational ideas in a radical way is likely to have some value. Second, such a model must, if it is to have any interest, have a nontrivial structure. Leibniz gives us a valuable hint for how structure can be generated as a first principle. I shall come to this in the next section, but the introduction explained why such a principle may well be needed by modern physics. Third, there is simply the intrinsic interest of the attempt. Leibniz was, after all, one of the greatest and most original think- ers of all time.

The Monadology is a marvelous dream, far more inspiring than Cartesian materialism. Can we show that the dream is reality?

Leibniz is widely held to have argued that we live the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire made great fun of this idea in *Candide*, depicting him as the ever-optimistic Pangloss. However, if one reads the Monadology carefully, one finds that the principle Leibniz took to be the one that brings the experienced world into existence (rather than some other possible world) is not so much a maximization of goodness, but is much more closely related to the principle of individuation that is the foundation of his philosophy. According to this principle, individuals are distinguished by variety. The very essence of being is variety. What one means by “good” is notoriously difficult to define. How can one maximize something one cannot define? In contrast, something that can be defined and maximized is variety. Moreover, it is clear to me that this is the deeper meaning of Leibniz’s scheme, for in paragraphs 57 and 58 of the Monadology we read:

'And just as the same town, when looked at from different sides, appears quite different and is, as it were, multiplied in perspective, so also it happens that because of the infinite number of simple substances [monads], it is as if there were as many different universes, which are however but different perspectives of a single universe in accordance with the different points of view of the monads. And this is the means of obtaining as much variety as possible, but with the greatest order possible; that is to say, it is the means of obtaining as much perfection as possible.'

This passage prompted Lee Smolin and me, some years ago, to try to cast Leibniz’s ideas into a concrete mathematical form. We published a few papers on the subject. So far as we know, our models are the first such attempts of their kind. At the time, we harbored some hope that they might have direct application in physics. I am currently inclined to think that too optimistic and that the models have suggestive rather than prescriptive value. So, in the hope that one of my readers will take the original idea of maximal variety further, here is a description of the models....


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#2
Is this what you were referring to here?

This comes to mind when I’m reading it.

'Whenever there’s a “time effect” there’s a “distance effect” as well, and in this case we find that infinite time dilation (no time for photons) goes hand in hand with infinite length contraction (there’s no distance to the destination)."
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#3
There's a good reason we use Leibniz's calculus notation. It's a real loss to modern science education if it doesn't include at least some of his philosophical work.
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#4
(Mar 22, 2018 10:22 PM)Secular Sanity Wrote: Is this what you were referring to here?

Since Eternalism is one of three orientations about philosophy of time -- but Barbour's scheme ejects time altogether -- then the latter might instead be introducing a fourth potential category: temporal eliminativism (or just "timelessness" as he and Carlo Rovelli occasionally give name to the label). Possibilism features "immortality" for everything after such qualifies as "past", so Eternalism is already not the only option sporting permanence.

However, the whole point of Possibilism (aside from making the future uncertain) concerns retaining a special status for a changing present (which is at the front of a growing version of the block-universe). A "present" adopted from the commonsense view. Thus apparently making that special placeholder the only location where awareness or experience would abide in the worldline of a biological body. So once they die, the kind of permanence Possibilism offers to living things is similar to the lack of evidence (consciousness) for their own existence which is the case for the far vaster number of mindless objects in the universe. Maybe a form of p-zombie awareness at best for our brain states of the past.

Barbour's Platonia, OTOH, seems to provide both what would amount to a variable future (if it perversely accepted such time nomenclature); and phenomenal experience in all the Nows where a person's living body was a resident (as one of its multitude of developing stages). There's not even the trail of a definite, objective past (though obviously our memories and the environmental records of a specific Now attest to it belonging to some specific history of events).

Quote:This comes to mind when I’m reading it.

'Whenever there’s a “time effect” there’s a “distance effect” as well, and in this case we find that infinite time dilation (no time for photons) goes hand in hand with infinite length contraction (there’s no distance to the destination)."


Extension may also eventually disappear or at least not be fundamental in the era of pregeometry that their models are arguably headed toward.

Tim Folger: It’s not easy to imagine space and time being made of something else. Where would the components of space and time exist, if not in space and time? As [Carlo] Rovelli explains it, in quantum mechanics all particles of matter and energy can also be described as waves. And waves have an unusual property: An infinite number of them can exist in the same location. If time and space are one day shown to consist of quanta, the quanta could all exist piled together in a single dimensionless point. “Space and time in some sense melt in this picture,” says Rovelli. “There is no space anymore. There are just quanta kind of living on top of one another without being immersed in a space.” --Newsflash: Time May Not Exist ... Discover Magazine, 06.12.2007

Brian Greene: Today's scientists seeking to combine quantum mechanics with Einstein's theory of gravity (the general theory of relativity) are convinced that we are on the verge of another major upheaval, one that will pinpoint the more elemental concepts from which time and space emerge. Many believe this will involve a radically new formulation of natural law in which scientists will be compelled to trade the space-time matrix within which they have worked for centuries for a more basic "realm" that is itself devoid of time and space. [...] time and space as we know them would emerge from particular combinations of some more basic, though still unidentified, entities. Time and space themselves, though, would be rendered secondary, derivative features, that emerge only in suitable conditions (in the aftermath of the Big Bang, for example). As outrageous as it sounds, to many researchers, including me, such a departure of time and space from the ultimate laws of the universe seems inevitable. --NYT, jan 2004

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(Mar 23, 2018 12:49 AM)Syne Wrote: There's a good reason we use Leibniz's calculus notation. It's a real loss to modern science education if it doesn't include at least some of his philosophical work.


Yah. Newton as maybe more scientist than philosopher was playing the short-game of offering a practical vision that could proceed right away, unconcerned with tying up loose ends and providing missing pieces. Whereas Leibniz played the long-game of being more obsessed with coherence, of wanting to output a philosophical overview that hung together well internally. As Newton's reach began to peter out at the dawn of the 20th century, the latter's insights began to be either rediscovered or revived.

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#5
(Mar 23, 2018 04:45 AM)C C Wrote: Brian Greene: Today's scientists seeking to combine quantum mechanics with Einstein's theory of gravity (the general theory of relativity) are convinced that we are on the verge of another major upheaval, one that will pinpoint the more elemental concepts from which time and space emerge.

Greene, like many who popularize science, has a tendency to hyperbole, or at least overly optimistic scientism.
I see no evidence that "we are on the verge of" any such "more elemental concepts" nor that they even exist.
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#6
(Mar 22, 2018 08:15 PM)C C Wrote: Julian Barbour is convinced we are all immortal.

I don't know of any evidence that would support that. In fact it doesn't even seem logically coherent.

Quote:"We're always locked within one Now," Barbour says.

"Always"? He seems to be assuming what he's denying.

There are a number of people (family and friends) who are now deceased and who I miss tremendously. It's comforting for me to adopt a 'block universe' view and to think that they are still alive in 1960 or whenever they were alive even if they are dead right now in 2018. But intellectually, I recognize that the "still alive" bit doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Certainly the proposition 'X was alive in 1960' is T today if it was T in 1960. But that's a pretty thin kind of immortality.

Quote:We do not pass through time. Instead, each new instant is an entirely different universe. In all of these universes, nothing ever moves or ages, since time is not present in any of them. One universe might contain you as a baby staring at your mother's face. In that universe you will never move from that one, still scene. In yet another universe, you'll be forever just one breath away from death.

That's very close to the traditional Buddhist metaphysical view. But the Buddhists strongly disagreed with the 'immortality' conclusion, which they termed 'eternalism'.

Quote:All of those universes, and infinitely many more, exist permanently, side by side, in a cosmos of unimaginable size and variety.

"Permanently"?

I'd also be interested in knowing how Barbour supposedly knows all of this. It looks to me like he's just speculating.

Quote:So there is not one immortal you, but many: the toddler, the cool dude, the codger. The tragedy— or perhaps it's a blessing— is that no one version recognizes its own immortality.

Except that all of them seem to be transitory more than immortal (which is how the Buddhists saw it). 'X at time T' exists at time T, but at no other time. It seems conceptually confused to insist that 'X at time T' "always exists". That just introduces a second new kind of time in which all the transitory instants inhere, a new durational time that behaves more like the everyday time concept that we are supposed to be rejecting.

Quote:Barbour calmly awaits the inevitable sputtering objections.

That kind of sarcasm and implied arrogance is why I increasingly dislike popular science writing.

There's an implicit demand that readers just shut up and believe --- when what they should really be doing is thinking critically about what they are being told. If readers can craft convincing counter-arguments, then that's a good thing, it's an exercise of intelligence. It's something to be praised and fostered.

I've often noticed that people trained as physicists seem to turn into metaphysicians when they start speculating. The quantum physicists did it, Krauss does it when he purports to instruct us on how something emerged from nothing, it happens over and over.

Maybe that's because physics originally attracted them because it seemed to addresses the most fundamental questions about reality itself. So the slippy-slide into metaphysics probably comes easily.
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#8
Barbour's End of Time is a good read.
Smolin's Three Roads to Quantum Gravity is also a good one.
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