Lee Smolin: Science Works Because We Care to Know the Truth


EXCERPT: . . . Lee Smolin, an iconoclast in the world of theoretical physics, says that “in all these years of experiments, [there] is better and better and better confirmation of the predictions of the Standard Model, without any insight into what may be behind it.” Since he was a boy, Smolin has been on a path to figure out what’s behind it. [...] In his latest book, Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, Smolin remembers thinking “he was unlikely to succeed, but perhaps here was something worth striving for.” Now, it seems, he may have found a way to construct the elusive “theory of everything.” During our phone conversation, Smolin explained from his home in Toronto...

Your latest work, Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, which was just released, takes a realist approach to quantum mechanics. Can you explain the significance of that approach?

A realist approach is one that takes the old-fashioned point of view that what is real in nature is not dependent on our knowledge or description or observation of it. It simply is what it is and science works by observing evidence or a description of what the world is. I’m saying this badly, but a realist theory is one where there is a simple conception, that what is real is real and depend on knowledge or belief or observation. Most importantly, we can find out facts about what’s real and we draw conclusions and reason about it, and therefore decide. It isn’t a way most people thought of science before quantum mechanics.

The other kind of theory is an anti-realist theory. It’s one that says there are no atoms independent of our description of them or our knowledge of them. And science is not about the world as it would be in our absence—it’s about our interaction with the world and so we create the reality that science describes. And many approaches to quantum mechanics are anti-realist. These were invented by people who didn’t think there was an objective reality–instead, they understooreality to be determined by our beliefs or our interventions in the world.

So the most important thing that the book explains is this debate or even contest between realist and non-realist approaches to quantum mechanics since the beginning of the theory in the 1910s, the 1920s. The book explains some of the history that has to do with the philosophical schools of thought and trends which were popular during that period when quantum mechanics was invented.

Since the beginning, since the 1920s, there have been versions of quantum mechanics that are completely realist. But these are not the forms of quantum mechanics which are usually taught. They’ve been de-emphasized but they have existed and they’re equivalent to the standard quantum mechanics. By their very existence, they negate many of the arguments that the founders of quantum mechanics gave for their abandonment of realism.

The issue of whether there can be objective truths about the world is also important because it is at the core of a number of key public debates. In a multicultural society, there’s a lot of discussion about how and whether you talk about objectivity, reality. In a multicultural experience, you might tend to say that different people with different experiences, or different cultures have different realities, and that’s certainly true in a certain sense. But there’s another sense in which each of us just exists and what’s true of nature should be true independent of what culture or background or belief we bring to science. This book is part of that argument for that point of view, that in the end, we can all be realists and we can have an objective view of nature, even as we are multicultural with expectations in human culture and so forth.

The key idea, in society as well as physics, is that we must be relationalists as well as realists. That is, the properties we believe are real are not intrinsic or fixed, rather they concern relationships between dynamical actors (or degrees of freedom) and are themselves dynamical. This switch from Newton’s absolute ontology to Leibniz’s relational view of space and time has been the core idea behind the triumph of general relativity. I believe this philosophy also has a role to play in helping us shape the next stage of democracy, one suited to diverse, multicultural societies, which are continually evolving.

So, this book is trying to intervene in both debates about the future of physics and debates about the future of society. This has been true, really, of all six of my books... (MORE)

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