Does the Universe have an Imagination?
Lee Smolin, Alfred North Whitehead, and the New Naturalism
The old naturalism was mechanistic. It saw "nature" on the analogy of a machine that operates in a perfectly predictable way. The new naturalism is organic. It sees "nature" on the analogy of a organism undergoing
a journey through time, receptive to novel possibilities for responding to the situations at hand.
Overview provided by the RSA.
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"Throughout history, the idea that time is an illusion and that the laws of physics are fixed or ‘eternal’ has been a religious, philosophical and scientific commonplace. In Time Reborn: the Crisis of Physics and the Future of the Universe, Lee Smolin proposes a radically new hypothesis: that the laws of physics are not fixed, but that they evolve, in real time. This spectacular shift of viewpoint, forced on him by the logic of physics and philosophy, suggests that time and our experience of it passing is truly real. All the laws and everything else evolves within it.
This hypothesis not only opens up the possibility of resolving some of the big open issues in physics today, such as the nature of the quantum world and its unification with spacetime and cosmology. It also places profound importance on human agency, on how our social, political, economic and environmental choices directly affect the range of possible outcomes for the future of this planet.
Smolin argues that through consilience in the natural, social and political sciences around the concept that time is real and the future is open, we can summon the imaginative power to invent the communion of political organizations, technology and natural processes essential if we are to thrive sustainably beyond this century."
More about Lee Smolin:
"Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist who has been since 2001 a founding and senior faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. His main contributions have been so far to the quantum theory of gravity, to which he has been a co-inventor and major contributor to two major directions, loop quantum gravity and deformed special relativity. He also contributes to cosmology, through his proposal of cosmological natural selection: a falsifiable mechanism to explain the choice of the laws of physics. He has also contributed to quantum field theory, the foundations of quantum mechanics, theoretical biology, the philosophy of science and economics. He is the author of more than 150 scientific papers and numerous essays and writings for the public on science....more
Points of contact between Lee Smolin
and Process Philosophy
Whitehead's Unique Naturalism
A Whiteheadian Naturalism include Eight Categories of Existence:
All of these will be natural in the sense that (1) they are part of what we mean by the natural world or nature, and (2) they can be studied and explored in academic settings by means of human and natural sciences. The science of consciousness, for example, will be studying feelings and subjective forms of feeling. The science of linguistics will be studying the ways that "ideas" as articulated in language function in human life. The science of aesthetics will be studying many forms of contrast.
To these eight some Whiteheadians might include a ninth natural reality: God. God in Process and Reality is an actual entity with a certain kind of ultimacy. God's primordial nature is a cosmic mind filled with awareness of all the pure potentialities: a deep intelligence at the heart of the universe And God's consequent nature is a great Compassion who feels all the feelings (prehensions) that happen in the universe and responds with creative, and loving care. God is the everlasting Companion.
Smolin's Naturalism: All that exists is the natural world as studied by the natural sciences. There are no separate realms: mathematical, supernatural or divine. There are two types of naturalism:
Naturalism One: The laws of nature are timeless and immutable. Experience in the present moment is an illusion. There are no surprises in life because the future is already determined. The timeless mathematical world is a perfect mirror of the actual world.
Naturalism Two: In nature including human life, all that is real is real in the moment, all that is true is true in the moment. Nature exists moment to moment to moment. The laws of nature are not timeless. General laws evolve over time, sometimes more slowly. Nature has the capacity to bring form novel states of affairs which are governed by new natural laws.
Naturalism Type Three
Whitehead's view, shaped by early quantum theory, resembles Smolin's view in many ways.
1. In Whitehead's philosophy mathematical entities are real and have a timeless quality, but they are not more real than the actual world and they are not perfect maps of how the universe unfold. Laws of nature are, as it were, habits of nature. Given the creativity of the universe, new habits can evolve over time. Always the actual world is more than any map can contain, and we fall into the fallacy of misplaced concreteness when we forget this. The map is not the territory.
2. In Whitehead's philosophy the present moment occupies a region of space-time and creates temporal flow as it emerges and then loses its immediacy. Concresence is the coming into existence of a present moment and Transition is the perishing of immediacy, after which new moments in time emerge. This means that new things truly occur in time and that they create time as they occur. The future is not entirely determined by the past, because the present moments contains within it a relational self-creativity by which new, self-organized wholes emerge from causal influences. A single moment of human experience, or a single quantum event in the depths of an atom, are examples of self-organizing wholes.
Is Whitehead a naturalist?
Yes, if by "nature" we mean a seamless web of inter-being of which all things are a part: quarks, atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, and, on our planet and probably others, living beings with thoughts and feelings and decision-making capacities.
For Whitehead there is nothing actual outside the web of inter-being. To be actual is to emerge within the context of, and influenced by, other actualities.
Still, for Whitehead, mathematical objects also have a kind of reality, itself timeless. They are not actual or more real than the world, but they can be entertained conceptually as timeless objects in their own right. They are pure potentialities which may or may not be actualized by events in the actual unfolding of time, but which can be explored by mathematicians. He calls them eternal objects.The patterns we see in the actual world studied by the sciences actualize them, giving rise to the patterns we see in nature. Science studies the actualities and the patterns.
Are these eternal objects part of nature? For Whitehead the answer is Yes. Nature includes potentialities as well as actualities; eternal objects are, as it were, part of the very furniture of the universe. If we use the word "nature" to refer only to actualities, then they are not natural. But if we use the word "nature" to refer to the totality of what exists in what we call the universe, then they are natural. Pure potentialities, no less than actualities, are part of the universe.
Naturalism Type Three
Whitehead believes that there are other kinds of pure potentialities, too: namely patterns for subjective feeling and emotion. He calls them subjective forms. For example, "anger" and "fear" and "tenderness" and "attraction" are subjective forms which may or may not be embodied in the universe, but which are real.
Indeed Whitehead speaks of eight kinds of existing realities, as illustrated in the diagram below on the left, created by a Chinese scholar of Whitehead, Dr. Haipeng Guo at United International College in Zhuhai.
In Whitehead's philosophy even the subjective unity of the universe -- even the actual entity whose very life is internally composed of all the events that unfold over time - is natural. Whitehead speaks of this reality as God, the sacred whole of the universe, the Life within whose life the universe unfolds. Whitehead offers what might be called Naturalism Type Three.
The difference between Naturalism Type Three and the other two kinds of naturalism is that, for Type Three Naturalists, there are four sources of experience by which we understand nature: scientific experience, artistic experience, moral experience, and religious experience. All reveal something of nature. We learn something about nature from science, something from art, something from ethical experience, and something from religious experience.
Religion Without Supernaturalism
The idea that we can learn about nature from religious experience will be provocative for those who believe that religion preoccupied, by definition, with supernatural realities.
But for those among us influenced by the philosophy of Whitehead, the very idea of "supernatural" is questionable. The idea emerged in the West in the late Middle Ages, and referred primarily to events that occur which seem to violate "the laws of nature" which are immutable.
Among thinkers influenced by Whitehead, David Ray Griffin does more than anyone to develop the idea that you can have religion without supernaturalism and that even the Soul of the universe is not supernatural but rather, as it were, deeply natural.
For Griffin this means that extraordinary events which occur and might seem to violate "the laws of nature" do not indeed violate them and also that the laws themselves are habits of nature, from which anomalies may occur. For a good overview of Griffin's book, see the review by Thomas Jay Oord in Metanexus.
Does it Matter?
Given the problems the world faces today -- violence and poverty, climate change and a degradation of the natural world, greed and economic inequity -- it may seem foolish to debate these matters too fervently.
The question at hand is perhaps: What kinds of naturalism, in combination with other factors such as community and spiritual practice, can help elicit in human beings some of the virtues most important today: lovingkindness, respect and care for the community of life, care for the vulnerable.
Let's be honest. We will not see a time on our planet when all people of good will subscribe to a single worldview: (1) naturalism type one, (2) naturalism type two, (3) naturalism type three, or, for that matter, Diversity among worldviews is a good thing. As one of our Open Horizons columnists, Teri Daily puts it: "Agreement is overrated."
But what is needed are people who learn to live with respect and care for one another, collectively working to solve the real problems of our planet and help build communities which are creative, compassionate, participatory, and ecologically wise, with no one left behind.
The Open Future
It is noteworthy that this is Smolin's concern as well. Smolin is deeply concerned with truth, with the way things are. Accordingly he encourages kindred physicists to test his theory concerning an open universe. But he also believes that science is in service to the flourishing of life, and we Whiteheadians agree completely.
For those in the Whiteheadian tradition, it would be good news if 21st century science confirms his views. Our aim, though, is not for a Whiteheadian world. It is for a kinder, gentler world. We think Smolin's work and Whitehead's, and many others as well, can help. But we are most interested in how people live not in what they believe. It is when beliefs undercut hope and love, wisdom and compassion, that they become problematic.
Smolin says that a strictly mechanistic worldview, in which the actual flow of events is illusory and all things unfold in pre-determined ways, is not conducive to hope. We agree. His ideas give us hope, too.
-- Jay McDaniel