THE BLOG
05/08/2013 06:54 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013

Do We Live in a Universe Hospitable to Our Aspirations?

As human beings, we all aspire to make our world better. This gives our lives meaning and dignity. To do this we need to be able to invent novel ideas and new ways to organize our lives and solve the problems that face us and we need the freedom to be able to choose from among the possible futures we invent. Being creative and inventive, but also decisive and willful are essential to the core of our conception of what it means to be human.

Yet, our belief in the value of these human aspirations has been often challenged by voices claiming that if the scientific conception of nature is correct, all these valued aspects of our humanity must be illusions. On that conception, all that exists are "atoms moving in a void"; elementary particles with unchanging properties moving in space according to timeless laws of nature. All else is reducible to the motions of collections of particles and hence not part of the fundamental description of the world.

The laws of physics are also deterministic, at least if quantum uncertainties are ignored. This means that the future is already determined, because it is possible to imagine doing a computation that would take as input the present positions and states of motion of all the particles in the universe and output their positions and states at any future time. This drives a further wedge between our self-conception and the alleged consequences of taking a scientific view of the world. The determinism of the laws means that free will and choice are illusions. Beyond that, there is nothing in the view of our lives as computations that correspond to our experience of the world as consisting of a series of present moments, each becoming one after the other. Nor is there anything related to our experience of sensations such as color and sound.

Albert Einstein was of two minds about this elimination of the now from our conception of the world. He wrote to the widow of a friend, "Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

But he told the philosopher Rudolf Carnap that the "problem of the Now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the Now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation."

Steve Weinberg reflected that, "The more we know about the universe, the more pointless it seems."

However, this scientific fatalism is not inevitable, indeed I believe it is based on an incorrect interpretation of the reasons for the success of science. I would claim that the method which leads to the picture of nature as consisting of timeless laws acting on elementary particles with timeless properties is applicable only to descriptions of small parts of the universe. It is illegitimate and fallacious to extend this method to the universe as a whole. For several reasons, detailed in my book Time Reborn, that conception of nature breaks down when extended from the description of small parts of the universe to the universe as a whole. Attempts to do so lead to fallacies and to silly assertions which take us beyond what is testable by doable experiments.

If the universe is really equivalent to a computer program, then every property of the natural world should be mirrored by a property about a mathematical formula which that program computes. But nature has one property no formula of mathematics can have. Here in the real world it is always some present moment, which is one of a flow of moments. Mathematical formulas stand outside of time, once written down they are immutable, hence they have no moments.

I further argue that a scientific theory of cosmology must take time and its development through the flow of present moments as central to the scientific world view. The distinction between past, present and future becomes the deepest insight we have as to how the fundamental laws are constructed. Moreover, everything, including the laws of nature themselves, becomes subject to change and evolution in real time.

One reasons for this is that a conception of laws evolving in time is the only basis for a scientific explanation of why and how the laws themselves were chosen. If the laws are outside of time they are also inexplicable. Specific hypotheses as to how laws changed in time imply predictions for doable experiments -- predictions that in one case -- called cosmological natural selection, have stood up through two decades of tests which might have falsified them.

But if laws change in time, then time itself must be more fundamental than the laws. Moreover, there is no reason for the process by which the laws change to be deterministic, leading to the realization that the future is not completely predictable and hence to at least a small degree open. But a universe where the present moment is real and the future unreal and open is one hospitable to our aspirations to imagine and create a novel future for our descendants. Nor need the hope that we fit entirely within nature lead to the discouraging conclusion that we are nothing but, or functionally equivalent to, computers. Our must fundamental experiences of perceiving colors, imagining novel ideas and making choices can fit into a scientific conception of the world in which time is real and the future is open.

Hence, my scientific project of introducing a notion of time into physics in the service of making the laws of nature explicable, is allied to the projects of philosophers such as Galen Strawson and Thomas Nagel in his recent book Mind and Cosmos -- both argue that conscious experience, rather than being excluded from the scientific world view, must become central to any science that means to incorporate all we know about the world. I myself am collaborating with the philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger in a construction of a scientific conception of the world that permits a hopeful view of the human future. I also find myself allied with digirati such as Jaron Lanier who argue that our minds and brains are natural, but nothing like computers.

This movement requires a name and I would like to propose one: Temporal Naturalism. Our work is based on taking science so seriously that we cannot be satisfied with the shortcomings and fallacies of the reductionist, atoms in the void picture-a picture that works fine within its limitations, but has led to unscientific metaphysical fantasies when taken too far. To do better, to truly incorporate the universe as a whole into science, we need to make time and the present moment central to the scientific conception of nature.