Manny's Reviews > The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy

The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
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Feb 10, 2015

it was ok
bookshelves: linguistics-and-philosophy, science, science-fiction

As you can see from my reviews of his last two books, I am a fan of Lee Smolin, so it pains me to say that this one was a major disappointment. It pains me even more to explain why, but having started I suppose I have to continue. The book lists two authors on the cover, Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin, and it has an unusual structure. It starts with a co-written introduction of about 20 pages; then there is a section of about 350 pages, written by Unger; after that, a section of about 150 pages, written by Smolin; and finally a cowritten section of about 20 pages, where the authors list their disagreements.

Given my stated admiration for Smolin, you will already see one obvious reason for my unhappiness, namely that he isn't getting enough screen time. Unfortunately, this is far from being the worst problem. The central themes of the book, as the title suggests, are ambitious. The two authors, who can reasonably claim to be leading experts on philosophy and physics respectively, argue that science has lost its way in confronting the fundamental issues in cosmology. They give reasons to believe that the methods which have worked so well in understanding parts of the universe break down when applied to the universe as a whole, and outline a new way of approaching these ideas. The central notion is what they call "the reality of time". Contrary to what we have been taught since Einstein's introduction of relativity at the beginning of the last century, Unger and Smolin tell us that it does, in fact, make sense to think about an absolute, real time which applies all over the universe and defines a global notion of simultaneity. Accepting this revolutionary proposition opens the door to all kinds of interesting consequences. In particular, it means that one can discuss the possibility that physical laws may themselves be part of the universe and not fixed, that there may have been other universes before this one, and that quantum mechanics could just be an emergent consequence of a deeper theory.

Many people will no doubt think that the above sounds fascinating, and if so I agree with them: it is fascinating, and even if it's wrong it asks so many interesting questions that it's absolutely worth reading. The problem is that most of it appeared in Smolin's last book, Time Reborn, which was published less than two years before The Singular Universe. There is a huge overlap between the two books, and where they differ it is usually not to the later one's advantage. In particular, and I'm afraid I have to be blunt here, I thoroughly disliked Unger's section, which as noted occupies a good two-thirds of the text. Unger is widely reputed to be a very smart guy, so I assume that what he is trying to do stylistically is set up a fugue-like pattern in which various leitmotifs constantly recur in different combinations. But this is a hard act to pull off at the best of times, and he doesn't succeed: it comes across as interminably repetitious and dull, and one often suspects that he lacks a deep understanding of the physical concepts he refers to. Well before the end, I was groaning with frustration and counting the pages until I got to Smolin.

Smolin's section is indeed much better, and he is his usual lucid, provocative self. But again, the greater part seems to be recycled, and it reads as though it had been written very quickly. One of the most obvious indications of this is a staggering piece of carelessness: the references, which, atypically for this kind of book, are given as numbers in square brackets, do not match up with the bibliography, and it can be quite difficult to track things down. This is simply unforgivable in a publisher like Cambridge University Press. Worse, the new material which has been included is often rather weak. What could have been an exciting account of how Smolin and his collaborators have started investigating the notion of mutable physical laws is presented in a form so compressed and cryptic that it more resembles a set of rough notes than proper chapter text, and I was anything but convinced by the attempt to explain how mathematical concepts could be part of the normal, physical universe. Yes, postulating a separate Platonic universe which they inhabit does seem to get into nasty metaphysical territory; but, at least as far as I can see, the converse proposition, that mathematical concepts are time-bound, creates at least as many metaphysical problems, just different ones. Are we supposed to put a temporal operator before a statement like "2+2=4"? And if not, in what sense are the concepts temporal? Unusually for Smolin, it came across as no more than hand-waving. The one part I unreservedly liked was an up-to-date summary of Smolin's "cosmic evolution" scenario, which boldly postulates that black holes create new universes and that the apparent fine-tuning of our own universe is actually optimized for black hole production; there was some nice stuff on possible experimental tests. But it's not enough to justify a 550 page book.

Well, I don't really know what went wrong here, though it's easy to speculate. Bottom line: don't read this, read Time Reborn instead.
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Reading Progress

February 10, 2015 – Started Reading
February 10, 2015 – Shelved
February 10, 2015 –
page 70
12.37% "The subordination of structure to history ensures the defeat of the rationalizing metaphysical project that the dominant tradition in physics has patiently served. It has served this project in the conviction that in so doing it would be able to wed mathematics and serve itself. As dowry, it has received from mathematics a poisoned gift: the means with which to explain temporal events by timeless laws."
February 12, 2015 –
page 125
22.08% "Science, and natural philosophy along with it, can only be corrupted by claiming to have unlocked the secrets of being and of existence, and by seeking to occupy the place of a lost religion."
February 13, 2015 –
page 175
30.92% "Whatever is going on? We're now a third of the way through the book, and we still haven't heard anything that wasn't in Time Reborn. The main difference: the earlier book only had Smolin's name on the cover, this one has Smolin's and Unger's. The first section, which I haven't yet finished, is suppose to be entirely by Unger.\n \n Well, I can't help speculating..."
February 15, 2015 –
page 350
61.84% ""Recursive reasoning enables us to pass from enumerations to generalizations; we jump off from the particular to the general by suggesting the general rule implicit in what, up till then, had seemed a mere enumeration of particulars. (This is the aspect of recursive reasoning that Pierce called abduction, the better to emphasize its contrast with induction, for which it is commonly mistaken)."\n \n Huh?"
February 15, 2015 –
page 385
68.02% "What is troubling is that statements of the form Experience is an illusion, the universe is really X are common in religion. When naturalists make statements of this kind, they are falling for what might be called the transcendental folly. They are replacing the natural world by an invented contraption, which they take to be "more real" than nature itself. Thinking like this turns naturalism into its opposite."
February 16, 2015 –
page 450
79.51% "Honest wonder about our world seems a better stance than mysticism, especially when what is involved is the highest form of rational creativity. For that reason it seems better to believe in the possibility of evocation to create novel realms of truth to be explored that did not exist before, than to believe in a special ability to gain knowledge from a world disconnected from physical experience."
February 17, 2015 –
page 500
88.34% "Qualia cannot be real properties of a timeless natural world, because all references to now in such a world are contingent and relational. Nor can qualia be real properties of a pluralistic simultaneity of moments because what distinguishes these moments from each other are relational and contingent facts. Qualia can only be real properties of a temporal natural world.\n \n Now can you get the rabbit back into the hat?"
February 17, 2015 – Finished Reading
February 19, 2015 – Shelved as: linguistics-and-philosophy
February 19, 2015 – Shelved as: science
February 19, 2015 – Shelved as: science-fiction

Comments (showing 1-32 of 32) (32 new)

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message 1: by Peter (last edited Feb 19, 2015 03:11AM) (new)

Peter Mcloughlin So does the book argue against a block universe and various multiverse speculation?


message 2: by Manny (last edited Feb 19, 2015 03:54AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Manny Peter wrote: "So does the book argue against a block universe and various multiverse speculation?"

That is pretty much the central theme. But most of the arguments were already there in Time Reborn.


message 3: by Peter (new)

Peter Mcloughlin I read time reborn. I liked that book but I like the alternative of a block multiverse as well.


Manny Me too! It's a very interesting paradox, isn't it? In fact, given the generally Kantian vocabulary of this book, I was surprised not to see it called an antinomy...


message 5: by Peter (new)

Peter Mcloughlin Manny you should check out a lesser known book of very speculative physics called "theory of nothing" by Russell K. Standish (an Australian Physicist). I have reviewed it. It isn't well known but I enjoyed its ideas on the Multiverse. A little like Tegmark but more from a computer science and information theory approach combined with many worlds of everett.


Manny This sounds familiar... I know I have seen the title! But I haven't read it. Thanks, will look.


message 7: by Oli (new) - rated it 4 stars

Oli Freke Agreed. I like the ideas in the book, and tend to think they have validity. But Unger's section was an incredibly hard read. At first I didn't mind putting in the work to decode every sentence, but after 200 pages of increasingly repetitive stuff, I had to skip to Smolin's section.

It too, was pretty repetitive, especially given Unger had been banging on about it for eons. But at least it was a better read.

I'd recommend future readers skip Unger and just read the Smolin section.


message 8: by Oli (new) - rated it 4 stars

Oli Freke Agreed. I like the ideas in the book, and tend to think they have validity. But Unger's section was an incredibly hard read. At first I didn't mind putting in the work to decode every sentence, but after 200 pages of increasingly repetitive stuff, I had to skip to Smolin's section.

It too, was pretty repetitive, especially given Unger had been banging on about it for eons. But at least it was a better read.

I'd recommend future readers skip Unger and just read the Smolin section.


Manny I found Unger's part close to insulting. He said less than Smolin did and took twice as long to say it. I completely agree with your recommendation.


message 10: by Liviu (new) - added it

Liviu I could not agree more, especially about what you wrote about Unger. It is incredibly repetitive. I have read Time Reborn and it was a pleasure; now I am trying to reach the second part of the book and finish it as soon as possible, as I feel that I am wasting my time.


Manny I have yet to hear anyone who's read the book defend Unger's part. It's easy to see why Smolin refers to their collaboration in the past tense.


message 12: by Elliot (new)

Elliot Cosubei Hi, Manny, I finished Max Tegmark's Our Mathematical Universe (one you recommended). He's a nice fellow. He has interesting ideas. I subsequently heard Brian Greene on Star Talk. Interesting as well. I'm rooting for these theoretical physicists; really, I am. But I only got as far as Calculus III until Differential Equations kicked my ass. Having to work 60-70 hours a week to make a living after that, I never got up off the canvas, mathematically speaking. I'm probably not going to read any more TP books for a while. Until humanity can resist its most wretched impulses (like the 2016 presidential campaign) and puts its resources into making esoteric, destiny-changing science the primary focus, I'll be doing what I can to be useful to my family. That's about the scope of it for a prole like me. Nevertheless, I'm grateful that guys like you are out there keeping an eye on stuff like this. I think the commenter who said you were in a bad mood was exaggerating a bit. Even if you were in a bad mood, I don't see any chainsaw marks on your review. And even if I did, I would like them. I like well-written/thought-out unfavorable reviews exponentially more than favorable, even (or maybe especially) on books, films and music that I like. I have about one friend who could keep up with you in the brains department. It's good to get a dose from another source now and then. Cheers, Mate.


Manny Hey, thank you Elliot! You're right, I'm lucky that I've managed to find myself a job that leaves time for doing this kind of thing. Though I can tell you that some of my colleagues would still prefer it if I spent that time developing software instead.

If I was angry about this book, it's because I have a very high opinion of Smolin. It's not up to his usual standard.


message 14: by Declan99 (new)

Declan99 who are you lot voting for?


Manny Not voting, alas, I am not American.


message 16: by Joseph (new)

Joseph Sverker I have only briefed through Time Reborn, but I was very interested in it. I particularly like Smolin's point that any thing can only be know and understood when in relation to something else. And as I understood it it was both a epistemological and ontological point he wanted to make. Also the reality of time sounds interesting - although I don't want Augustine to be wrong :)


message 17: by Declan99 (new)

Declan99 oh right


message 18: by Declan99 (new)

Declan99 if trump becomes president he isnt gona get anyone to pay tax for the wall


message 19: by Manny (last edited Nov 08, 2016 02:40PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Manny Joseph wrote: "I have only briefed through Time Reborn, but I was very interested in it. I particularly like Smolin's point that any thing can only be know and understood when in relation to something else."

You certainly might want to look more at this book!

Also the reality of time sounds interesting - although I don't want Augustine to be wrong :)

It's amazing to see how many of these theoretical physicists quote Augustine :)


message 20: by Joseph (new)

Joseph Sverker Oh really? So you are implying that what was not good for you might be good for me?


Manny Sorry, I see I worded my post very badly - I meant you might want to look more at Time Reborn.


message 22: by Petruccio (new)

Petruccio Hambasket IV Manny I'm waiting for an offical first statement from you concerning Trump now being the leader of the free world


Manny Say what you will about God, He has a great sense of humor.


Manny I see the conversation as going roughly like this:

Mankind: "God, we will soon be as powerful as You. Our savants at Deep Mind are on the point of creating machines with human-like intelligence!"

God: "You mean intelligent enough to elect Donald Trump?"


message 25: by lynx (new)

lynx haha! totally agree!


message 26: by Joseph (new)

Joseph Sverker Aha, then I certainly will! I hope you don't mean that I have totally misunderstood him and therefore need to look closer though!? :)


Manny No, I just thought you'd find the arguments interesting!


message 28: by Joseph (new)

Joseph Sverker I most likely will!


message 29: by Joseph (new)

Joseph Sverker I shouldn’t be thinking about these things now when I am trying to finish my dissertation, but I can’t help myself. Maybe I am completely stupid here, but I am wondering if someone like Brian Greene has had any respons to Lee Smolin’s point of the reality of time conceptualised contra to Einstein? If I remember correctly from the Elegant Universe, Greene argues that the multidimensional view of reality includes time as one, but only one(!), of the various (13?) dimensions of reality. However, with Smolin does that mean that he has broken time out of this conception of reality? If so, then doesn’t that have huge implications for string theory? Maybe Smolin explains all this in his book and I simply show that I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but it would be interesting to hear what you say Manny.


Manny Smolin is very much at odds with string theory, and it's been a theme in his last three books - it's best to start with The Trouble with Physics, which is excellent. The string theorists are pretty unhappy about it, but I have not seen a coherent response, just quibbling over minor points. Similar story with Woit's Not Even Wrong. They need to find a supersymmetric particle worse than Trump needs to find a terrorist attack.


message 31: by Joseph (new)

Joseph Sverker Oh, I see - that bad! :)

I don't feel so stupid then. I really must make room and time(!) to properly read Smolin.


Manny The Trouble with Physics is an easy read. It's well written and very entertaining.

Good luck with your reorganisation of space-time!


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