Book Review: Lost In Math by S. Hossenfelder

Another in my book review series, this is philosophy of science in the capable hands of a physicist. As usual, I have a commentary in which I offer something of an alternative that could break the philosophical logjam that is Dr. Hossenfelder’s primary concern. It is presented here in this separate essay.

In my book review (below) I mention Dr. Hossenfelder’s “secondary concern”, that being the politics and economics of doing physics in a university research environment. I made only cursory reference to this part of her book, but it deserves a little more attention as it is, in part, the result of the lack of break-through empirical discoveries on which university physicists could hang their hats. The doctor spends a good chapter on this subject and hits on all the players. Too many post docs chasing university jobs, too many tenured professors in major physics department not making room for new players, too much emphasis on volume publishing and citation in a limited number of journals.

It is thanks in great part to this publish-and-be-cited cycle, and the money being chased by it, that novel approaches to existing problems are not more prevalent. In the absence of data, new approaches are mostly ignored until (thanks to success if it comes) they cannot be ignored any longer. But that can take years, even decades. Meanwhile, their proponents are left out in the cold. Speaking of cold, Dr. Hossenfelder briefly addresses the dark matter mystery and mentions Fritz Zwicky (who passed away in 1974). Zwicky proposed dark matter as a solution to the galactic gravitational mystery back in the 1930s. A crack pot idea then, but no more.

Lost In Math by Sabine Hossenfelder 2018

Sabine Hossenfelder is a physicist with a social media following, a much beloved blog, an attitude, and now a book to go along with it all. This is not a physics book, it is a philosophy book. Its subject matter falls squarely into “philosophy of science”. It is not a book about philosophy of science, but a book that does philosophy of science. Specifically, She mounts a strong critique of present attitudes and assumptions underlying approaches to today’s work in theoretical physics and cosmology. Particle physics, string theory, quantum gravity, quantum mechanics and field theory, black holes, and the origins of the universe all come within her scope. In Dr. Hossenfelder’s view all of them suffer from a similar bias towards the idea that mathematical consistency alone is a truth criterion. Nowhere is this made more plain than in her delightful demonstration that the present predilections of every single one of the above fields can be turned into a multiverse hypothesis!

Hossenfelder knows that data is important. She also knows that modern experimentation in the physical and cosmological sciences is expensive and sometimes takes years to produce data and sometimes not even then. The physicists know this too. It used to be that theories explained existing data and then made new predictions subsequently confirmed or ruled out by further experiments. But the easy experiments have been done. The problem is that there are too many physicists, too many people chasing the next grant, the next tenured position, and not enough money, or new data, to go around. This is a part of the problem, the economics, sociology, and politics of the field. She addresses these, but they are a secondary concern. Her primary concern is squarely philosophical.

At the present level of exploration of physical foundations there are darned few predictions to be confirmed or denied either because doing so is too expensive, experiments have resulted negative outcomes, or the predicted phenomena lie beyond any conceivable experiment. What then are the legions of theoreticians to do? Noticing that many of the successful physical theories of the past have a certain elegance and simplicity about them, intrepid physicists turn to beauty and the notion of naturalness. Neither of these ideas is bad, but they are not, by themselves, good arbiters of truth and this is exactly Dr. Hossenfelder’s point and the primary subject of the book.

Of the twin notions, naturalness is the easier to quantify as it comes down to there being no, or few, “arbitrary numbers” needed to make the theory match the data. The number “1” (or numbers very close to it) is “natural” because it doesn’t change what it multiplies. Un-natural parameters (outside of science known as “fudge factors”) detract from a theory unless they can be satisfactorily explained. The demand for explanation of the fudge factors drives further theory building and she notes that as one is explained, others seem inevitably to appear. Beauty is a more vague idea still as are associated ideas of simplicity (related to naturalness) and elegance. Beauty is, after all, in they eye of the beholder and this is no less characteristic of physicists and their foundational theories as it is in art.

Dr. Hossenfelder traveled from Stockholm to Hawaii and points in between interviewing famous physicists to garner their opinions on this subject. These interviews form a goodly part of the book. Some of her interviewees work firmly in the mainstream of modern physics. Others occupy peripheral positions but have enough street credit to be read by their peers, at least for a while. Her interviews are brilliant and funny. She asks good questions, philosophical questions, and all her interviewees agree with her! The present tendency in physics she so well illuminates is a problem! But there is also consternation. “What else can we do?” is an oft repeated refrain.

Through the process of relating all of this to us, Dr. Hossenfelder expresses her own insecurities about her choice of specialty, and even physics altogether! Has she wasted her time she wonders? Perhaps. But if I had the power I would hire this woman instantly; not in physics, but in philosophy! This theoretical physicist has a lot to contribute to the philosophy of science. Not that the physicists will care much of course. As is often the case in philosophy, insights go unrecognized until after problems that might have been avoided have fully broken upon us.

Dr. Hossenfelder is not absolutely alone crying in the wilderness here. There are a few of her peers in the physics community who see the same problems and have written about them; Lee Smolin comes immediately to mind and there are, perhaps, a few others. She should not despair however. Her credentials are impeccable. She has a lot more to contribute, if not to physics directly, then to philosophy of science. She should embrace her new community!

Why True Physical Theories are Beautiful

Picture of me blowing smoke

In 2018 Sabine Hossenfelder, physicist, published “Lost In Math”, a philosophical critique of certain present trends in the philosophy of science, physics and cosmology in particular. My review of her book is published HERE where there is also a link to the book on Amazon. Her exposition deserves a little more treatment that does not strictly belong in a book review, and in that connection I offer this commentary.

The dominant theme of the book is that physics and cosmology have largely transitioned from a regime where empirical data drives theory development to one in which the consistency of a theory’s mathematics, an idea called “naturalness”, and less quantifiable notions of elegance, balance, and symmetry, are arbiters of the theory’s likely truth. Dr. Hossenfelder repeatedly asks why physicists think this should be so? She asks this of them literally, and the answer is there is only the one universe [that we know of], and one big bang. If there is more than one “fundamental principle” necessary to make the universe cohere one needs to explain how it is they are so perfectly coordinated. If everything there is began with a singular event, there should be a singular explanation. “One principle” is self-coordinating; simpler.

Let’s grant that this is a reasonable hypothesis. Everyone knows we do not yet have this single unifying principle. So while this conviction gives us a reason to keep looking, it says nothing about the truthfulness of intermediate theories nor, by itself, does it guarantee the truth of a given unifying theory. Traditionally, given a certain body of positive data (not a null result which at best tells us where not to look) the better theory is the one that explains more of that data without having to add fudges (arbitrary features) to fold disparate data into the explanation. This is the “naturalness problem”, and between it and beauty it is the more important claim because it is at least partially quantifiable.

Naturalness comes in two flavors. A theory is “more natural” if it has fewer arbitrary numbers, but also if such arbitrary numbers as it has are closer to 1. Why 1? Because if all the arbitrary values one needs are equal to 1 then they all cancel by multiplication or division and you end with no arbitrary parameters! Sometimes we set values to 1 (we often treat the speed of light way) to simplify solutions to equations. But we are not speaking here of solving equations, but of finding them. We find the parameters by measurement and we have measured many of them. From the viewpoint of theoretical physicists those measurements, when far from 1 are the data that most need explaining.

Take for example one of the simplest of these, the proton/electron mass ratio which happens to be 1836.152… (the … meaning there are more decimals here). First notice that this is a unitless number. Numbers with units are not at issue. If we measure the mass of an electron in grams we will obviously get a number different from that same measurement in ounces. No one worries about such differences. But if one divides the mass of a proton (in grams) by the mass of the electron (in grams) we get that 1836 number and that same number comes out no matter what unit we use. Physicists think that this number cries out for an explanation. Why? After all, the ratio between the mass of the sun and the mass of the Earth is (roughly) 3.3 x 10^5, hardly near to 1. Why doesn’t that ratio cry out for an explanation?

The answer here is that we know of many planets surrounding many suns (and long before we found these we knew the mass of the 8 planets of our own solar system) and their ratios vary greatly. Because we know of so many examples, we understand that these values just come out as they do depending on specific circumstances having to do with forming solar systems. The Sun/Earth ratio just happens to be what it is, there is nothing particularly mysterious about it.

So why not say the same about the proton/electron mass ratio? It just is what it is? Well, that might be the case, and this is partly Dr. Hossenfelder’s point but the problem is there are many solar/planetary mass ratios but only one proton/electron mass ratio. Every proton in the universe is 1836.152… times heavier than every electron! It is the universality of the ratio that makes it mysterious. Why should the ratio be this number and no other anywhere in the universe? Taking a cue from the variety of solar/planet mass ratios it is this mystery, that leads (and it is only one such possibility as Dr. Hossenfelder deftly shows) one to postulate a multiverse. Perhaps, like solar/planetary masses there are many proton/electron mass ratios. Those that are other than 1836.152… belong to other universes!

But a multiverse is not entirely satisfying. After all, we can still ask how it is that we are the lucky lottery winners? Only our ratio (or something close to it) results in stable elements from which we might eventually spring? There is no answering that question unless there is a reason to believe that 1836.152 is more likely than other possible values as for example 7 is the most likely number to appear in the possible sums of numbers on two 6-sided die. But assessing such a likelihood depends on our having other examples, other actual proton/electron mass ratios from those other universes. Without such a probability distribution, the multiverse hypothesis simply pushes the question out from “why this number” to “why this universe”. In the end it is the same question.

In her book, Dr. Hossenfelder takes aim at simplifying assumptions, like naturalism. She doesn’t say they are wrong. She says that there is nothing inherent in the structure of the material world that necessitates their truth. Yes, there is support in human psychology, that we notice the unusual (she gives an example of an image of Jesus appearing on a piece of toast), but this does not mean that what we notice really is unusual (crying out for explanation) in the physical foundations of the world.

The doctor is right. It is one thing for physicists to try on such hypotheses even without new data. Perhaps they will stumble on a simple theory that does “explain it all” without needing arbitrary numbers, or at least without many arbitrary numbers. Even then we have no empirical ground to assert that “the theory” is found unless it makes some new testable predictions we can afford to test! It is also possible physicists are right about there being a single solution, though it might lay beyond the ability of human mind to discern.

Remember our conviction that such a solution exists comes from our observation that the whole universe goes together. Quantum mechanics and gravity work seamlessly in the universe. Can we not take for granted there is a description of the universe that explains their connection and at the same time is testable even if we cannot afford the experiments?

Dr. Hossenfelder is not saying no. She is not denying there is such a theory and she is not claiming that human mind is incapable of discerning it. She is saying first that no one knows if this is the case, and second, mathematical consistency, balance, symmetry, simplicity, elegance, and even naturalness, without empirical evidence, cannot tell us that we have in fact found that theory! These are Hossenfelder’s points and she is correct about them. Nevertheless, because gravity and quantum mechanics do inter-operate, it seems rational to insist that a universal theory exists.

Is there another alternative that removes the mystery from the numbers? In her book, Dr. Hossenfelder addresses various subdisciplines of physics separately. She is sensitive to the nuances of each subfield and her point is that they have a common problem. I do not have the space in this essay to address each of these areas separately so I choose one for illustration.

All the subdisciplines of physics addressed by Dr. Hossenfelder converge in cosmology, in particular the big bang. The [presumptive] story, as I understand it, is that in the first Planck times (5.39 x 10^-44 seconds) of the big bang (with or without inflation) there were no separate forces, no ratios between the various numbers, nothing but undifferentiated hot radiation. As this all began to cool (and we are still talking less than a second here), the forces split apart, first gravity, then the strong force, and then electromagnetism and the weak force the two splitting up shortly following.

The mystery is why the unified forces separated at exactly the temperature and pressure they did to reach their present values? This is not to say the force relations were the same then as they are now (see Unger & Smolin “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” [2015]). It is possible they evolved into their present values over time. The first atoms (ions) formed (nucleosynthesis) a few seconds after the big bang. By this point, the strong force at least had to have its present value or something close to it. The electromagnetic force and the weak force must also have been close to their present values shortly thereafter while gravity may also have reached its present relation with the rest of the forces over some interval.

Physics has taken three philosophical positions on the big question.

1. The relations are brute. They might have come out otherwise. There is no explanation to find, we just got lucky.
2. There is a multiverse and a broad range of numbers are manifest in other universes. Again, with or without a probability distribution, we got lucky.
3. The forces had to come out the way they did. There is a discoverable, lawful, purely physical reason that necessarily determined the force relations.

Is there another alternative? Yes, a traditional one.

4. The force relations are designed! Call this the “God Hypothesis” (GH).

The beauty of GH does not settle its truth any more than the alternatives put forward by physics. Its possibility is suggested by the mystery physics has set out to solve; why are the force relations what they are? Their tuning appears intelligently configured. That doesn’t mean it is, and it doesn’t mean it isn’t! GH meets every desideratum of the physical theories except mathematical consistency, for which it substitutes logical consistency. Nothing could be more natural than “God is one”.

Physics and cosmology have well explained the present macrostructures of the physical universe from galaxies, to stars, and planets. All of this the outcome of early conditions and the force relations. No design is necessary to shape the present cosmological outcome given those conditions and forces. But it does not follow from these explanations that the effect of the whole, the present universe, wasn’t intended by some intelligence capable of producing it. Physics does not know by what means initial conditions came to be as they were. To suggest that “God did it” is dismissed as a “God of the gaps” argument, but this ignores the philosophical issue. The nature of early conditions can be probed only so far. There must inevitably come a first physical expression. Even this discovery, would not settle any of the positions enunciated by physics as concerns a first physical event of our universe.

Even if physics could settle empirically what exactly that first physical event was (likely not possible given the limitations of macrophysical instrumentation), there would remain the mystery of the event itself. Unger contends that physics, and time, are prior to our universe, but in the earliest times of our universe, there may not be regularities, laws, to be probed. Smolin thinks some of the regularities are inherited from a parent universe. The Cosmic Microwave Background might present evidence for this. But the properties of the CMB make it impossible to distinguish such evidence from the outcome of lawless randomness. Other physicists assert the origin of our physics is concurrently the origin of time, and to speak of a “prior to” that event is meaningless.

Whichever view one takes, no empirically accessible explanation can in principle exist. Only the explanation that there is no explanation, that the properties of the first physical event were brute (or effectively so), that we are lucky, remains open to any legitimate science.

A sensible GH entails purpose on the part of the [purported] intelligence. Such purpose must be diachronic, across all-time, and that means evolving observers such as ourselves (and possibly many more on other worlds) are some part of the intended outcome. Thus a sensible GH takes mystery out of all of human experience as concerns the nature of our universe from the big bang’s conditions to the nature of human consciousness and what it experiences.

GH does not explain the details of how it is the universe got from the big bang to here. That is the point and role of science, and GH in no way opposes science’s empirical discoveries, nor explanations (theories) grounded in empiricism. GH opposes only the unwarranted claims, by science, that the universe as a whole is purposeless, and that empirical discovery precludes the existence of a designer!

“Prolegomena to a Future Theology” sketches a first principles GH. It is logically consistent and abjures historical authority or the opinions of theologians whose ideas rest on such authority. Logical consistency plays the same role as mathematical consistency in physical theory. It does not prove the truth of the theory but it is a necessary condition of it. It is with this idea that I close these comments by returning to Sabine Hossenfelder’s book.

The present thought in physics and cosmology, that there is one theory that covers all phenomena, that such a theory will be natural and relatively simple, and that it will turn out to be beautiful is strongly supported by the GH. Beauty is a slippery idea. The term has no well-defined characteristics necessary or sufficient to determine it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There is, though, a notion of beauty connected to the GH. It supposes that beauty, with truth and goodness are qualities of God’s character.

Beauty, in particular, is that quality expressed through material reality. What is beautiful might largely be a matter of taste. But most of us agree that a sunset is beautiful as is the night sky filled with stars, or for that matter the bright blue of a cloudless day. What God does always has beauty, and this includes not only the end (the night sky) but the means, first physics.

GH does not guarantee we can find a first physics, but it does guarantee that should it be discovered we will find it beautiful. Naturalness is another matter. It must turn out the magic numbers in physics, if they do not disappear altogether, must arrive at some minimum number. If it happens that God set the force ratios deliberately to achieve the present (and still-to-come future) universe it might still be true that those numbers “had to turn out” as they did based on prior conditions. GH does not preclude a physical, law-governed explanation for the settings. A GH does not, and should not, prescribe mechanisms.

A GH rules out the notion the numbers really are brute, there is literally “no reason for them”, though as noted there might be no discoverable physical reason for them. A GH supports the conviction there “must be a reason” though not necessarily a physical one. Lastly, a GH does not rule out a multiverse but it does make it redundant. If God can “pick out” the numbers, he can do it once and has no need of a landscape. Nor would this mean God did not utilize a landscape, but if a landscape was necessary, such a creator would not be the God of a consistent GH.

We can derive all of this from a first-principles GH. What it means is that Dr. Hossenfelder is correct in that beauty, naturalness, and mathematical consistency, even taken together, are not enough to establish the truth of a physical theory. But she is wrong, if GH is true, to assert that the true physical theory might turn out ugly. If GH is true, there must in fact be a unifying theory because the whole universe does, obviously work together, and since God did it, the true theory must come out beautiful. The irony here for physicists is that their belief that “the true theory will be beautiful” is evidence for the GH!

Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind


Physics rests on the “causal closure principle” (CCP). The CCP has three legs:

CCP(1): Physics comes only from physics.
CCP(2): Physics produces only physics.

Together these say the physical effects we observe come only from prior physics, and physical causes (using cause in its common language sense) produce only physical effects.

CCP(3): There is no teleology in physical mechanism, no goal-directedness. CCP(3) is something of a corrollary of the first two legs. Physical relations and interactions are either determinate or indeterminate, but either way they are not “before the fact” directed at particular outcomes.

If God does not exist, the only philosophy of mind (PoM) consistent with all three legs of the CCP is eliminative materialism. Every other nontheistic PoM that rejects eliminative materialism and accepts that mind cannot be logically reduced to physics, violates the CCP in one or more ways.

PoM theories that claim mind exists in some sense of that word, that mind is real and emerges from ordinary physics without anything “in principle undetectable” (QM aside) added to physics to make it happen violate CCP(2) but not CCP(3).  They assert, plainly enough, that physics results in something that is in some sense non-physical, but mind’s emergence is just as accidental (contingent) as all other [physical] emergent phenomena (from stars to liquid water to life).

PoMs claiming that physics is incomplete, that something else must be added to ordinary (measurable) physics to make mind emerge (dual-aspect monism and panpsychism of various sorts) violate both CCP(2) and CCP(3).

Only theism can both accept all the CCP while accommodating mind’s reality (and for that matter libertarian free will). Theism also grounds our conviction of agency which nontheistic theories universally deride. I write about theism extensively but my purpose in this essay is to show that the [supposed] problems with theism for physics and PoM are no worse than those of nontheistic PoMs. This is to say both suffer from equally serious metaphysical and epistemological problems.

Being inaccessible to empirical (or for that matter logical) demonstration (or falsification), a “God hypothesis” is a speculative solution, a curve drawn arbitrarily to fit points (mechanistic nature of the universe joined with free will for example). Other speculative solutions, so it is claimed, are equally possible and equally impossible to confirm or deny. In fact however it is more difficult than it seems to come up with these alternative solutions. Speculative solutions that fit all the points (the mind-independent world and everything in experience) and remain logically coherent are difficult to invent. Many have tried. Like theism, atheistic attempts at solving the mind problem are also data-free speculative solutions because the data, mind emerging from brains, cannot be observed!

Physicists are often eliminative materialists (nothing emerges strictly speaking) or reductive-materialists (only an epiphenomenon emerges).  Only eliminative materialism is fully compliant with the CCP and logically coherent, but it is also the solution that is most prima fascia absurd from the subjective viewpoint it denies exists! Reductive-materialism either violates CCP(2) if epiphenomenal-mind is taken to be something real or it is logically incoherent! Physics causes the external conditions of a mirage, but the illusion that is the mirage happens only in a mind. An illusion presumes a subjective experience in which the illusion occurs.

The view that a non-material mind emerges from ordinary physics violates CCP(2)! The idea is coherent because mind is not taken to be an illusion. The problem is that no physicist has ever seen a physical phenomenon emerging into (or as) a nonphysical one. We see physics emerging from physics all over the universe from galaxies and stars to liquid water to life, but all of what comes of these events (causes and effects) is physical! The retort from physics is that we do not see any other non-physical emergence because the one such thing that has happened in the universe is the very mind we are trying to explain. Mind is the evidence that physics can produce mind. Surely this argument is circular? It plainly begs the question to say that the evidence physics alone can explain the appearance of mind is mind!

There are a few philosophers who follow the physicists here (John Searle, Bob Dole among others), but many philosophers see problems in this approach. First there is the circularity already mentioned, but in addition, this solution (whether it includes a role for quantum mechanics commonly sited by both physicists and philosophers) entails that mind’s appearance is contingent. Not only might it not have appeared in the universe, something every materialist accepts, but its appearance is mysterious. The mystery applies to mind in general, and individual minds in particular. Why is consciousness ubiquitous in animals with complex nervous systems?

Troubled by these problems, materialist philosophers seek solutions that remain [purportedly] physical while, at the same time, channeling universe evolution towards consciousness and by doing so taking its mystery away. But every one of these solutions violates CCP(2) and CCP(3)! The idea that universe evolution is directed is plainly teleological! This is what prompts philosophers (and some physicists) to grasp the straw of quantum mechanics,  but this (I will argue) doesn’t help them.

To explain genuine mind in a Godless universe there are dual-aspect monisms (Henry Stapp, Donald Davidson, Thomas Nagel) and panpsychisms (David Chalmers, Philip Goff, John Leslie). Under normal circumstances both of these theories would count as metaphysical, that is not physical theories at all! They are physical not logically, but merely by ancestry. Purportedly they remain physical (or physics grounded) because their novel (never specified) qualities can only have originated in the big bang!

Dual-aspect monisms make the claim that physics is incomplete in the sense that there are additional fundamental properties in micro-physics not yet (and perhaps never to be) discovered. The physical in this view includes the mental in a proto-property form. This undiscovered addition is not conscious; atoms are not aware. Nevertheless the qualities of this extra-physics direct event unfolding towards that which yields consciousness. Working backwards from consciousness, this channeling must also encompass the preconscious stages of life’s evolution and the origin life throughout the universe. To our empirical experience, only life, some life, becomes conscious, and that only as it gains the right sort of complexity following millions of years of evolution.

If dual-aspect monism of any sort was true however, we would expect its effect to show up in the equations describing the regularity of physical evolution. There is no such term in the equations of macro physics so to say that this extra aspect of the physical is a part of physics surely begs the question.

This is why I think so many philosophers grasp at quantum dynamics to locate proto-mental qualities. We cannot directly measure quantum phenomena until they interact with the macro physical world, and quantum phenomena, technically, are not random but indetermined. Perhaps (so they speculate) we can locate the proto-mental in the difference between ‘random’ and ‘indeterminate’, in effect shielding teleology from possible detection? But surely a proto-mental is not the only possibility accounting for the restriction from random to indeterminate (see note on this distinction at end of essay).

Furthermore no one (physicist or philosopher) has been able to say what properties the proto-mental has, how they restrict random to indeterminate, or how the indeterminateness of the quantum phenomena we know push the macro universe towards consciousness. Even Henry Stapp’s “Quantum Zeno Effect” addresses only the narrow interface between brain and the human type of consciousness. Even if this speculative connection turns out to be a measurable phenomenon, no one has suggested how the physical world accommodates it. They all seem to agree that the proto-mental cannot be conscious in the sense that we experience it, but that tells us nothing of what properties it does, or even might, have and how they work!

What all of these theories entail however is that the mental (the proto-mental at least) must be antecedent to the physical! If it has a downward influence on the physical, which these views entail, it has to be ontologically real! Where does it come from? If the foundation of the universe is physical, what is it in or of the physical that grounds the proto-mental? The idea of a proto-mental here is not incoherent by any means. But it’s coherence largely depends on there being something about the fundamental ontology of the universe that isn’t physical! Moreover something that directs with intention!  Teleology is here introduced something the more honest of the philosophers admit they cannot seem to avoid.

For these reasons, dual-aspect monisms violate CCP(2) but they also violate CCP(3) because whatever else the extra might be it is clearly teleological. Instead of the universe ending in one state or another driven only by contingent process, the extra-physics channels evolution toward a specific outcome! It is therefore purposeful in the sense of being goal-directed.

Panpsychism is the converse of dual-aspect monism. It isn’t that mind builds up particle by particle thanks to some undiscovered property of particle physics, but rather it is the universe taken as a whole that comes to embody the extra physical qualities. Philip Goff (in a paper) neatly distinguishes two forms of panpsychism, micro and cosmo versions. Micropanpsychism is much like dual-aspect monism. The mental is attached to physics at the particle level but it isn’t effective except as contributor to a totalizing affect of the cosmos. Micropanpsychism has dual-aspect monism as a foundation but asserts that its impact is felt only in relation to the whole universe. You might think of this like neurons and brains. Every neuron in your brain is a foundation of brain functionality. But mind doesn’t show itself other than at the level of the whole brain, or at least large parts of it. In Micropanpsychism, the properties of the whole emerge from properties of the parts.

Cosmopanpychism abandons the dual-aspect foundation and asserts it is only the universe as a whole that reveals proto-mental properties. This view needs no micro-alteration to physics. Mind emerges from brains the way stars emerge from gas clouds because special properties of the totality, properties described by laws parallel to those of physics, are able to invoke it. Somehow, the entire universe acquires properties (usually not taken to be conscious as such) that come to direct physical evolution, and then biological evolution, towards consciousness.

This idea clearly violates CCP(3) (it is teleological) but is precisely an attempt to avoid violating CCP(2).  It is unsuccessful because the panpsychist claim is essentially that from the total state of the universe there emerges a parallel collection of qualities (properties and laws) that evoke mind from brains!  At one level or another, physics results in non-physics and so violates CCP(2). Besides Goff, David Chalmers is a proponent of this view.

For the cosmopanpsychists the “mental qualities” do not (typically) amount to the emergence of a literal Cosmic Mind, a “thinking universe”. Such a view would amount to substance dualism at the level of biological mind! But the philosophers who assert this do not, with one exception that I know of, specify what any of these properties are. As is the case with all the other theories, none of the qualities that supposedly effect the transformation nor any part of the mechanics of their interaction with the other-than-mental are anywhere given.

The exception here is John Leslie who asserts the property or quality characterizing this emergence is goodness. We normally think of goodness as a quality of the character of persons and so, by extension, of their minds. Emerging with the big bang is not only purposeless physical mechanism, but a parallel quality of goodness. A universe pushed in that direction is so pushed because goodness is a quality of it from the beginning, and mind is good!

To get the job done, any of these extras must, necessarily, be effective. It does no good to say that something besides the physics we know, something that is nevertheless physical (or quasi-physical), might or might not push cosmological evolution towards life and life towards consciousness. If the operation of these extras is itself contingent then what would be their point? To do the job they must not only have the necessary power, but that power must result in their goal-directed effect. The extra-in-physics, its goal-directedness, must be logically antecedent to the physics we measure that does not, in any aspect, appear goal-directed.

Where does antecedence come from? Since all of these philosophers are materialists, it must originate, with everything else, in the big bang. But there is nothing in the physics of the big bang that contains anything of the mental, anything of this extra there, and certainly nothing to which we can point that bears value; goodness. The big bang is a quintessentially physical event. What is  the proto-mental property in physics? How does it arise from within an other-than-mental physics and yet be logically antecedent to physics?

The extra-in-physics, under any of these approaches, hangs, metaphysically, on literally nothing! In John Leslie’s view, not only is universal mechanism goal directed, it is also moral! For him, morality happens to pop into the universe with the big bang and it is this quality that underlies drift towards the mental. How, presumably in the absence of any mind, has this direction become good? Even if it is, how does goodness effect the direction of physical contingency?

Does physics itself have an analogous problem with this last point? Where does the physical universe come from? Why is there any physics at all? Physicists have an out. They have the quantum vacuum which, while purportedly physical, cannot in principle be directly probed. This boundary layer between physics and nothing insulates physics. As concerns physics itself, and anything it gleans of quantum phenomena, the CCP is not violated. It is for this reason, I think, that so many philosophers reach for the quantum straw. We have already seen that this move is ad hoc. Moreover it goes against that which we have discovered about quantum behavior. No “mental term” is needed in the equations of quantum mechanics any more than in macrophysical equations, and goal-directedness is not implied by any of our multiple quantum interpretations.

To be fair, many of the philosophers who propose the solutions outlined above recognize that these suggestions violate the CCP. All claim (often citing Occam’s Razor) that violating the CCP is less onerous than supposing there is, for example, a God who knows the trick of making all of this work out the way it has. Working out a way, that is, for purposeless physical mechanism, mind, and even libertarian free will, to coexist in the universe. What troubles me about these philosophers is their refusal to admit that these problems (what brings about cosmological mental properties. How precisely do they interact with physics) are in some respects more mysterious than God! At least God can be supposed to “know the trick”.

Perhaps in the greatest twist of irony,  many of these minds have thrown up their hands and returned to idealism, abandoning the CCP entirely! Not only is the mental logically antecedent to physics, it is ontologically prior! The above mysteries are resolved because mind causes physics and not the other way around! The irony is that, in essence, this is what theism has claimed all along! I should not need to point out that in God’s absence, the metaphysical ground, prior to physics, of the mental is unfathomably mysterious!

How does a “God hypothesis” avoid violating CCP(1) with particular regard to free will? Doesn’t a genuinely (libertarian) free will entail (as Sean Carroll has put it in “The Big Picture”) that “mind causes physics”? In a narrow sense yes, theism violates CCP(1) but theism has an out. Mind is presupposed after all and constitutes the one exception to CCP(1) in the universe! The Theist is free to change CCP(1) to read: “physics comes only from physics and mind”. This move doesn’t help the physicalist because for her, the issue is the emergence of mind from physics without presupposing mind. They can, of course, say that mind is the only exception to CCP(1), but that surely begs the question, there not being any other evidence that physics can do this.

The change to CCP(1) is not circular in Theism. Yes mind is an exception. It is in truth a cause of physics. But here mind is presupposed. CCP(1) is not violated because mind doesn’t emerge only from physics. The exception, that part that evokes subjective experience from brain activity, comes not from physics but by some indirect route from God. It must be indirect (I do not believe God personally manages emerging individual minds) because God is changeless while mind, individual mind, changes with time. Mind’s direct source (besides brains) must be inside time.

Theism does not violate CCP(2) because physical mechanism still produces only physics. The result of mind-producing-physics, say the movement of my arm, remains physical. Theism does not violate CCP(3) because physical mechanism remains perfectly purposeless. Purpose as such remains entirely in mind. Notice that CCP(3) does not say that the physical universe has no purpose, only that the local operation of its mechanism (macro and micro)  is purposeless.

The goal of this essay has been to argue that nontheistic notions of mind’s emergence (or lack of existence) have problems equal to or exceeding the problematic aspects of theism. Let’s review.

God is a fantastical being. Positing his existence demands at the least an addition to what physicists take to be the only ontology of the universe; the physical. A God hypothesis demands that this entity has the power and knows the trick to producing the physical as well as causing minds to arise from the physical work of brains and interact downward with the material world. This mystery cries out for a physical explanation; at least a suggestion of what it is about the physical that makes that connection. Theism does not supply this physical answer, but nor does physicalism or any of the extra-physical theories covered above.

On first blush, the extra-physical ideas demand less addition to our fundamental ontology. The physicalist theories demand, if not technically an addition to ontology, at least that the physical can do that which no observation, no experiment, has seen it do; bring about something nonphysical. The extra-physical theories do demand a new, non-material addition to ontology. It isn’t God, but yet it must have the power to bring life and then mind about. Not only must it have this power, it must surely succeed. If the emergence of consciousness remained contingent and might not have happened the extra-physical qualities of the universe would be redundant. Further, any direction, anything other than absolute contingency, implies a teleology that has to be antecedent to the physics it influences!

The atheist philosophers who hold such theories recognize that they do move partway towards God (at least a Deistic version of him). In effect they are a “functional God”. But if there is no real God, then in what, metaphysically speaking, do any of these properties cohere? If you add to this stand-in the property of “having purpose”, and to backstop an infinite chain of prior cause, being first (and so uncaused) cause, you pretty much have gone all the way to God. In the end, the purely physicalist theories are nonsensical because mind is both prima facia obvious and non-physical. The extra-physical theories, if they do not need all the qualities of an “Abrahamic God”, require enough of these properties (non-materiality, purpose, antecedent cause) to be equally fantastical! When, in addition, you accommodate the problem of these mysterious properties emerging, literally from nothing, you end at a full-blown God concept that is at least deistic if not fully theistic.

Updated Dec. 2018

Note on the distinction between ‘random’ and ‘indeterminate’

The distinction is important in quantum mechanics (I believe) because quantum phenomena come out in a well known and repeatable probability distribution even though there is no reason, no cause that we know of, why they should not be actually random. An electron could, theoretically be anywhere in the universe but there is a 99.9% probability that it will be found in bounded range of locations.

Here is a mundane macrophysical example I hope captures the idea. Imagine a fair six-sided die. Any face from 1 to 6 can come up with equal probability. The die is random within the confines of possibility (even an electron cannot be outside the universe). Now suppose you have a heavily-loaded die in which two sides, 1 or 6 are likely (and repeatedly) to come up on 90% of the throws, but within that 90% a 1 or a 6 are equally likely. That die is no longer random, but it is indeterminate.


Review: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

By sheer coincidence I published the essay, “What is Time”, shortly before reading Carlo Rovelli’s book. Rather than writing additional commentary here, I put a pointer to that essay. While it does not address Rovelli directly (I hadn’t read him yet) it covers the points made in the review included below. But I do not want to discourage people from reading this excellent book. It is always good to understand the arguments of authors with which you (in this case I) happen to disagree. One cannot claim to be a well rounded philosopher without understanding what it is that those you disagree with are saying.

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (2018) Amazon review

Like consciousness, time is a subject that no philosopher or physicist has ever managed to nail down completely. Thanks to their slippery character, being so close to us (the first one IS us) they are endless sources for fountains of speculation. In this book, Rovelli’s subject is time, but consciousness comes into this narrative as well.

Rovelli is a “time denier”. OK, that’s being a little unfair but not by much. What he denies is that there exists an independent, fundamental property or quality of the universe that is time. Of course the universe is full of movement and change, events unfolding into other events. His basic position is that time emerges into our perspective, our viewpoint, from these phenomena, but it is merely an illusion. The movement is real, the changing is real, but the time in which all of this seems to occur is nothing more than a manifestation of human (possibly animal) mind and the illusion, in turn, is supported by the entropy generated in the functioning of our brains.

The book (not long read) is divided into three parts. In the first Rovelli covers the various sub-disciplines of physics and their temporal implications (or lack thereof). He begins with classical physics (the equations work backwards in time), and moves on to General and Special Relativity, and quantum mechanics. Here he demonstrates that our simple intuition of a universal time flowing from past to future is untenable. Time, mind-independent time, if it exists at all, cannot be like that. In part two he further demolishes time. Not only is it not what we think, in and for physics, it doesn’t really exist at all; even the present is an illusion! In part three, he puts time back together for and in the perspective of an subjective viewpoint.

He argues it is the fact that we view the world from a perspective, that when we perceive the world we inevitably blur the details into a sort of summary or gestalt for our perspective, that causes time to appear to mind, The physics supporting that appearance comes down to thermodynamics. Human time, brain time, is “thermal time”. Certainly Rovelli thinks thermodynamics (in particular the 2nd law) is real, but while responsible for what consciousness perceives of time and so a real enough subjective experience, from the 3rd party perspective of physics, change is real, but time is a mirage.

This book is written for a lay audience. There is almost no math in it (what there is appears in footnotes), and it defends a view common to much of the physics and philosophy community. To be sure Rovelli differs a bit from some of his peers. He argues that relativistic “block time” is no more a “true portrait of objective time” than any other theory. In Rovelli’s view remember there is no such thing as “objective time”.

In 2015 a philosopher (Roberto Unger) and a physicist (Lee Smolin) wrote “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time”. This book (reviewed by me on Amazon) makes precisely the opposite case from that of Rovelli. Of course they recognize what Relativity and quantum mechanics imply about time, but they maintain, nevertheless, that a notion (and reality) of objective, “universal time”, is more fundamental than any other phenomena of the universe, even more than space! Rovelli mentions this book in a footnote and admits that Unger and Smolin’s view “is defensible”, but he leaves it there and never addresses what is defensible about it.

The Unger/Smolin book goes against the grain of 95% of today’s physicists. Personally I agree with Smolin and Unger. The fact (thanks to limiting effect of the speed of light) that we cannot map our present to any present in a remote galaxy, or even the nearest star does not mean there is no present there, in fact everywhere. Something is happening, NOW, everywhere in the universe. We do not know what it is, but that does not mean the present isn’t real as Rovelli believes. Had Rovelli directly addressed Unger and Smolin I would have given this book another star. Had he not mentioned them at all, I would have taken another away.

In summary this is a decent and well written book advocating for a particular view of time (or no time) that I happen to think is wrong, but what do I know? It happens to be the dominant view in physics today. Rovelli is a well respected physicist and a good writer. Those of you interested in the subject will find this book valuable whether you agree with the author or not.

What is Time?


Philosophers and physicists have developed conventions for speaking of time, but none of these ever say precisely what time is, or even if it is mind-independent. Space-talk is vague also, but not as vague as time talk. We can conceptualize space as a container in which objects exist in various relations of distance and direction. This may not be a complete physical description, but it describes space’s functional role. The structure of space is controversial, but there isn’t much disagreement about its mind-independent existence (Kantians and idealists excepted). This is not the case with time.

We say that time is a one-dimensional container along which we can place not objects, but events. Events can have various temporal distances from one another, but only one direction; from past through present to future. Once an event is fixed in time, past, no “new event” can be placed at an earlier time. This fixity on one side of the present, contrasted with a converse openness to contingency on the other is a central property of time. But it is because this quality is so ridged, and so universal, that it seems to disappear into the phenomena that occur within it.

In examining this hypothetical container we discover that from the present we can only discern evidence of what came before, in the past. We can project certain regularities into the future, but unlike the past for which records or markers exist in the present, there are no records or markers visible for the future. We also notice that from the viewpoint of our experience it is always “the present”. Unlike space within which we are patently able to move to different locations subjectively (in our experience) and objectively (from the viewpoint of third parties) we are not able to experience, or directly observe, anything other than a present moment in which movement and change is the only constant.

Change always occurs in the present which never moves off the unfolding flux of events. Put another way, where that flux is, is the present. This leads a large coterie of philosophers and physicists to say time isn’t an identifiable property of our universe. The causal net, process, is real, but time is nothing but a mirage in subjective mind, a way to interpret the net’s unfolding. That net is, after all, unfolding as patterns of brain states simultaneous with its evolution everywhere else. Consciousness rests on this same causal link.

Philosophers talk about time in tensed (A-series) and non-tensed (B-series) language, the ‘A’, ‘B’ business made up by a Scottish philosopher named McTaggart back in 1908 who argued that time didn’t exist because all talk about it was circular or inconsistent. “Tensed time” means there is a reference, an index, which is always our own subjective experience now. Events will happen in the future, happen in the present, and having happened are now past. Subjectively there is a “flow of time” from future through present to past. A-series talk focuses on subjectivity; a description of how we sense time.

Tenseless time talk is discrete. Event ‘X’ happens earlier or later or simultaneous with event ‘Y’. When speaking in these terms, it doesn’t matter where we are among the event relations. X can be earlier than Y whether our now succeeds Y or is somewhere between X and Y. If our now precedes both X and Y we can project their temporal relation without indexing it to our present temporal position. B-series talk is objectively focused on temporal relations independent of mind. Neither “A” nor “B” talk commits one to a particular view of time (existing or not) as such.


Most physicists (and philosophers) are either ‘presentists’, ‘eternalists’, or a particular combination of the two. Neither view commits one time’s mind-independent existence. Presentism relies on a certain idea about what “is real”. A real is something that you can “go to”. You can go to Mars, Mars is real. But you cannot go to the past or the future.

Time, whatever else it is, is not something you can “move around in”. only the present is therefore real. Presentism makes unsurprising our plain inability to move around in time. It accounts for our always-in-the present experience, but it remains non-committal about the physical reality of time as distinguishable quality of the universe.

Presentists have no problem talking about the past. There are plenty of markers or records in the present that signal past events. Importantly the events signaled are not occurring now, but their records, evidence of their happening, persist into, and become a part of, our present. That the intervals between past events and their present records seem to be real gives Presentism most of its philosophical trouble.

Marks or records relate time to truth and facts (see “Truth and Truthmaking”). The proposition “Julius Caesar died on March 15, 44 BC” is true because he did in fact die on that day. But is it the fact of his death in the past that makes the proposition true, or is it the record of that death persisting into the present to which the truth is connected? If we had no record of his death today (as is true of so many nameless historical passings) we would not be able to say that any fact (past event or present record) anchored the truth of the proposition.

Yet we also want to say there were events in the past, for which we have no records, whose facticity would make propositions about them true if records of them persisted to the present time. We discover new facts about the past precisely when we discover that certain present “states of affairs” are records of those events.

Facts are immutable. Time is so universal that immutability alone is sufficient to assign the event to the past. Part of what we mean by past is that some “state of affairs” came to be in just the way it did when that time was the present, and by so coming to be, became a fixed actual while before its occurrence it was only potential. Caesar’s murder was contingent, not necessary. It might have been that all the perpetrators and Caesar were present at the time and place, but some other event took place “there and then” that thwarted the planned deed.

Events happened as they did, but might have happened otherwise. Happening fixes their being, their facticity. Once they have happened, they cannot have happened any other way. This “locking into place” of what were, until now, only potentials, fixing events, is one of time’s salient properties.

Presentism’s recognition of records or markers in the present as evidence of events or states of affairs no longer real, must then connect these markers with the events they purportedly represent. It is something of a paradox to say the vibrant life and events of ancient Rome on the day of Caesar’s death, a present undoubtedly real to them at the time, has become unreal in our time while all the same, some part of the events of that day have perdured through the interval between that day and now. That perdurance is, after all, how we come to connect them up, to assert that they are evidence of past events. These markers have remained real, although often changed, in the interval since they came to exist. Such changes as they undergo (for example the gradual degradation of a ruin), have a continuity traceable to a prior present. Does it matter then if we say the past is also real but fixed?

Since unicorns are not real, saying “this unicorn is bigger than that unicorn” makes no sense. An analogous problem exists for Presentism concerning temporal intervals. If the past is not real what does it mean of two past events that one took place one year (or one minute) before the other or that some other event, a war for example, lasted thirty years? Records of these events are all real at the same time, now, but how can two events no longer real have a real interval between them? We can of course say that this record “came to exist” some years before that record, but is such a statement comprehensible if the past is no longer real?


Eternalism asserts that the past, present, and future are real even in and for the present. Eternalism does not commit one to saying that time is real, but rather measuring temporal intervals is never absolute and what looks future to our perspective might be past in another. Eternalism has swayed physics since Einstein’s publication of his theory of Relativity which has some strange and counterintuitive implications for our measurement of time. From within a reference frame (a physical system moving broadly together) time measurement by the speed of light seems identical. But when we look from one frame to another, frames moving faster than our own have slower moving time and vice versa.

This observation means that between frames it is impossible in an absolute sense to say that one event occurred earlier, later, or simultaneously, with another event in a different frame. Fixing a “time line” for events is possible only relative to the observing frame, not over all. Years of experimental work have indeed proved that a clock ticks more slowly in a frame that moves faster (relative to the speed of light) through space than in one that moves slower. Clocks also tick more slowly more deeply in a gravity well. There cannot now be any doubt about these observational results. This has led many philosophers and physicists to conclude there can be no such thing as time in an over-arching sense, only relative times specific to individual frames of reference.

Eternalists do not believe they can “go to” the past or the future in their own frame except for the trick of leaving their frame and going to another where time is slower then returning to the original frame. It would seem as though you have gone to the future (of the frame to which you have returned). In reality, this amounts to waiting out a certain number of clock ticks in the original (temporally faster) frame by spending time in a temporally slower frame.

Eternalism avoids committing itself to the present being in some sense special over-all. Of course it is special to us, and everyone agrees that psychologically it IS special because our subjectivity is limited to it. We are conscious only and always “in the present”. The “reality of the future” in Eternalism is a matter of some faith. It falls out of the mathematics of Relativity, but cannot be experienced observationally other than the trick of “waiting out” another frame’s clock ticks while in a temporally slower frame.

While there are events already past in some other frame that appear to lay in the future of our frame (and vice versa), those events are never observed until their light reaches the observing frame. It is an axiom of our space-time geometry that when the record of an event reaches us through space, our recording temporally succeeds its occurrence. No matter how the “pace of time” varies between any two frames, one frame cannot view an event in any frame before the event happens.

All of these considerations (a much oversimplified sketch) have led many philosophers and physicists to infer there is nothing to time at all, nothing other than a psychological response to motion (and cause) in space. One state of affairs unfolding into another needs some interval and we can assemble that unfolding  (within a frame) into a “time line” of “earlier” and “later” states of affairs. Julian Barbour in “The End of Time” (1999) accepts as an axiom of his faith that the future is real and already populated with “states of affairs” presently invisible to us. This leads him to advance a theory in which events of the present not only rest on a past and present foundation but are pulled into their new arrangements by the already settled reality of the future.

For Barbour, time simpliciter is not real, but there is a present everywhere. There is a fixed landscape of future events towards which the present, everywhere, unfolds. His landscape is filled with peaks and valleys the depth of which represent the probability of a given event or state of affairs unfolding in just that way and not another. Barbour does not deny that to us, it appears as though events flow onto this future landscape, but he insists that this is merely appearance, psychological time. Instead, the landscape fixes the distribution of “future states of affairs”.


What is it that we suppose time does for us? It allows for motion of course, and therefore cause. To cause requires time. Yet as in Barbour’s theory, we need not, as a result, think that time is a mind-independent property of the universe. In “Time, Tense, and Causation” (1997), Michael Tooley asserts that time is nothing more than a psychological expression of cause. He believes the present and past are real (though not the future) because causal unfolding happened in the past and is happening now, in the present. But like Barbour he believes that time, as such, does not exist. The present is real to experience, and the past is real because events, now fixed, happened, but time is real only to mind.

For Tooley, time is not a property of our universe, but motion and cause are properties of our universe and creatures such as ourselves report this unfolding of the causal web as time. Tooley rejects the physical reality of block time because in his view, the future is not real. There are no events there (yet). But his view does not escape the problem of simultaneity. He concedes that it is not possible, in principle, to place every event in the universe on a single time line. It makes no sense, for example, to say that “the universe is 13.8 billion years old”, something that can only be true (made true by our temporal relation to the big bang) from our specific frame of reference.

In a recent book, “The Order of Time” (2018) Carlo Rovelli more or less agrees with Michael Tooley about causal process, in Rovelli’s description “change and event unfolding” being the real phenomena that manifests in human psychology as a passing of time. Rovelli concedes that this experience is real enough and founded on thermodynamics, but outside of it, there isn’t any time at all, not even a present!

In “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” (2014) Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin take the opposite tack. Their claim is that time is not only mind-independently real, but the most fundamental and over-arching property of our universe. Space can literally come and go in cycles of gravitational collapse and big-bang creation. These cycles are possible because time goes backwards and forwards indefinitely.

Precisely because time is the universe’s fundamental property and, as Unger puts it, “drenches everything” it is a property that cannot be isolated, but is implied by its effect: Motion and cause occur in our universe and history is a particular path taken from the big bang to now, through time. The present universe is a combination of all the space-time paths taken in its history. These paths are real from their beginning notwithstanding they are forever fixed behind their leading edges. Time is not a phenomenon in the universe, but rather the environment in which the universe and its properties cohere. Time is real, because it is the stage on which cause, event unfolding, forms our totality.

It is a truism that the physical sciences can only measure phenomena of the physical world. All our instruments, and the means by which instruments report what they detect, are physical! It is a theorem of causal closure that physical phenomena result always and only in physical effects, and that those effects therefore arise from physical phenomena alone. Instruments and the phenomena they measure both conform to the same physical law. It is precisely the nature of measurement to convert or map one phenomenon (form of energy) that we cannot measure directly into another which we can. Laws remain the same, but phenomena become distinguishable because their interaction energy is convertible.

All of these variously converted phenomena are inside the universe. But time is not inside the universe, it is a fundamental quality of the universe. Everything we know, the instruments and the phenomena they measure are drenched with the same time. We can measure intervals of time by counting harmonic oscillations (from orbits of planets to vibration in atoms), but cannot map time the way we map energy conversions because all of those maps occur within a common ocean of time.

Since cause and time are so closely associated does it make any difference to say that time emerges from cause (Tooley) or that cause is possible thanks to time? Functionally, perhaps not, but each view has philosophical consequences. Assuming time is an ocean embedding everything else (including space) allows Unger & Smolin to reject an unverifiable multiverse.

If time is the universal ocean of the physical then our universe and its special properties is the present variation of a succession of universes each of which inherits characteristics from its prior ancestor. Present characteristics are traced from former characteristics through a temporal interval of extreme (but not infinite) pressure and heat (the big bang). This lets Unger & Smolin imagine that characteristics of the ancestral universe might one day be recognisable in this one. The transformation from one universe to another, unlike the multiverse, is hypothetically, a testable hypothesis.

Global time is yet another outcome of the Unger & Smolin thesis. The universe has the same age in every frame because different time measurements, intervals, can be mapped to one another. Clocks in our frame say the universe is 14 billion years old. This might be 10 billion years in a faster (through space) moving frame as measured from our own, and 15 billion in a slower moving frame. Yet from within all frames the recombination event (in our frame 380,000 years after the big bang) occurs at 0.00275% of the temporal distance between the big bang and that frame’s present.

From the viewpoint of any frame then, all the events of the universe can be fit, proportionally speaking, in the same order in every frame! We can, in other words, map our 14 billion years into the measurements in the other frames while keeping the same order of events. In the Unger and Smolin view, it is conceptually possible to place every event in the universe on a single time line. That the universe has a certain “global age” that is the same in all frames becomes meaningful.


Imagine an alternate possible universe that, at first glance, looks much like our own in that all the stars, galaxies, and planets are distributed in space exactly like they are for us in the real world. But in this alternate universe, there is no time and so no change. Everything is static, nothing moves. Of course this isn’t physically possible, a star could not be a star if in stasis. We are imagining here. In our imaginary universe there is no such thing as a light-year because there are no years, or for that matter hours or any other interval of time.

In our universe we can measure distance by time because we know of a phenomenon, light, that never varies in its speed through the vacuum of space. But we cannot do this in the imaginary universe because nothing moves, there is no change. There can be no speed which always involves distance and time. But there can be a concept of miles, or feet, or meters because defining those magnitudes need not involve time.

Now suppose you live in this universe (again, you cannot, but let’s imagine that a subjective view exists and has experience) on the planet Earth. Suppose you have the means to visit another star, say Arcturus. For simplicity let’s call a light-year 6×10^12 miles (it’s a bit fewer than that but I want to keep the math simple). Arcturus is 37 light-years (again the real figure is a bit less) from Sol. That comes out to 2×10^14 miles. In our imaginary universe Arcturus is that distance, in miles, from Sol even though light-years do not exist. But if you had the means to transport your consciousness to Arcturus, you would, in our timeless universe, cross the distance instantaneously. No time can elapse because there is no time. Want to go from Arcturus to Antares? Another instantaneous transition in space. Why stop at stars in our own galaxy? Visit Andromeda or any other galaxy in the universe, all instantly. Notice the jump from Sol to Arcturus to Antares, to any galaxy all, takes place timelessly. No time elapses in the entire multi-jump transaction.

Here is the point of the thought experiment. You could visit every star and galaxy in the universe instantaneously and that amounts to saying “at the same time”. This makes you omnipresent. You can literally be everywhere in space simultaneously. Supposing you could have experiences (yes, real experience demands time, but again we’re imagining) in all of these places. Not only could you visit everywhere simultaneously, you could remain in all places indefinitely! You would have the experience of everything everywhere simultaneously. You would be omniscient. By extirpating time from our universe creatures like ourselves gain two of the three infinite powers normally ascribed only to God.

God being infinite and eternal is “outside time”. Eternity is not merely “endless time” it is, as with my thought experiment above, something entirely different. In the Unger & Smolin view there is no eternity but time does go backwards and forwards indefinitely (not infinitely, leaving a hanging ontological question addressed only by a “God hypothesis”). But the story of a universe created by God, as near as our metaphysics can put it together puts time in exactly this same role. It is the ocean that governs our universe over-all.

We live in a “time governed universe”, meaning exactly what Unger & Smolin mean by time, an over-arching environment in which the objects, processes, and nominal regularities that describe them, are all time-dependent. The mathematics of basic physics works both forwards and backwards in time, but our actual physics, the macrophysics of our universe, does not. God may be “outside time”, but we live in a “time drenched” creation.

Nor should we assume from this theological view that time and eternity are, necessarily, the only two facets of the universe. Besides eternity and time it is possible there are other creations, ontologies that are other-than-eternal, yet not time-bound. But while this is a metaphysical possibility thanks to God’s infinity, there is nothing more we can say about such regimes should they exist. We are stuck in time and cannot detect, that is measure, anything other than time-bound phenomena as Unger & Smolin claim. Even to say “God is eternal” is only a placeholder (We have no sense of what eternity is really like) albeit one made reasonable by the philosophical demands of infinity (see my “Prolegomena to a Future Theology); a causeless, eternal, starting point grounding rational thought.

Yet there is something more here, something ignored by physics and philosophy, for which theology accounts. In both the “time does not exist” and the “time is the ocean” views, we should not expect to be sensitive to time simpliciter. A fish is, presumably, not aware of the ocean in which it swims. How are we aware of time? The philosophical community universally credits our time sense to consciousness in general. Brain processes occur on the leading edge of the causal web with all other process. It makes sense that our experience takes place with time always in the background, and this for animals as well as humans. But for human beings, time is more than background.

Animals live in the present and have memories but these are not connected to abstract ideas of past, present, and future. Human beings not only live in time like the animals but we are abstractly aware of time. Given that everything in the physical universe of our experience is “drenched in global time”, how is it that we are able to distinguish or identify time as a distinct quality of our experience at all?

What theology gives us is personality (see my books and the essay “Why Personality”). Human consciousness is able to distinguish time because human mind amalgamates a changeless pattern. Mind, consciousness is drenched in time and so constantly changing like everything else in the universe, but personality, our agency, remains fixed. Personality provides the contrast (changeless in the presence of otherwise ubiquitous change) by which we distinguish time itself.

Just about every philosopher disagrees with me and insists that personality (agency being merely another affect of consciousness) changes with everything else. All of these thinkers universally fail to distinguish personality from character, personality’s expression in consciousness and behavior. Character changes, but the personality centered in that character does not. This is how I know that I, the same person, persist (or perdure) through all the character and bodily changes I’ve experienced throughout my life. My body changes, my mind changes, my character changes, but I, the person, have not changed. I am the same person experiencing all of these changes throughout my lifetime.

How is it possible that this miracle of changeless pattern exists in a universe in which all else changes in the ocean of time? It exists and can exist because it comes direct from God who is infinite and changeless and is therefore the only possible source of it. Indeed it is the only phenomenon in the universe of our experience created directly by God and is the real meaning of the phrase “in God’s image”, that is, our being personal. All else, all the rest of the finite creation, including life and consciousness, arises indirectly. God remains the ultimate cause of everything, but the physics we experience, including its embedding in time, has come about indirectly, beginning at some fundamental level through a chains of physical cause.

I go into this subject in much more detail in my books and linked essays, but it is worth pointing out here that the higher animals, while conscious and sensitive to environmental clues occurring in time do not separate time from the other dimensions of their experience. Animals experience time in the same way that they experience values (see again the Prolegomena linked above). They are immersed in them (and it), but because animals are not persons they cannot distinguish time (or values) from their unified experience. A lion is not abstractly aware of being the same lion today as she was yesterday. Animal mind, like human mind apart from the personality pattern, changes along with everything else.

Personality may be the changeless benchmark by which we recognize time as such, but theology gives us something else with regard to mind-independent time. It entails the reality of the future! For Unger, Smolin, and Tooley, the future is not real because there are no events there; the causal nexus is, by definition and experience, the present. But theology fixes one event in the future. It is necessary, if there is a God who is God, that the time-universe has some purpose, some end state that must, also necessarily, come about. This would not be the end of time, but rather the achievement of some intended state of affairs in time.

From the principles of God’s infinity and human sensitivity to values, we can infer that this end must ultimately involve goodness, love, between all persons and become the best possible universe! We do not know what the physical state of the universe will be then, nor do we know by what contingent path it will arrive at that state. But that it must arrive eventually is certain and that fixes an event, the achievement of God’s purpose for time, in the future. If that is the case, the future must be real.


Everything in our physical universe, including the physics itself must have a causal beginning. Physicists point to the quantum vacuum, but if Unger & Smolin are right, time itself conditions or constrains this regimen. Physics cannot cause time, rather time is the environment in which physics takes place. But something must then ground time itself, something Unger & Smolin lay aside as brute and un-analyzable. They are correct. Without a “God hypothesis” we cannot make sense of a “beginning of time” even while making sense (the quantum vacuum) of a “beginning of space”.

I am happy with a theological underpinning that makes time real, an ocean that characterizes our universe. Most philosophers and physicists are happy to assume, from our inability to observe any but time-bound phenomena, that time is an illusion arising from motion which underlies cause. It was satisfying to discover a philosopher (Unger) and physicist (Smolin) who are not so flip and recognize that time is the real foundation of our universe. But even, assuming they are correct, to identify time with the over-arching environment within which the system that is our physical universe works, is only a metaphor. It is not to say anything about of what, exactly, time consists.

Time isn’t a substance any more than cause is a substance, but it isn’t a process either. To say it is the foundation on which cause, process, rests is only a metaphor though apt. The exchange of conserved quantities that underlies physical cause is properly a mechanism, and time plays an enabling role. But physical cause is effected by exchange of various conserved quantities and often the transformation of one such quantity into another. By contrast time enables all these uni-vocally. To “exchange conserved qualities”, whether charge, momentum, or energy demands time. Time mediates all of these exchanges, but that is to say nothing more than that they all occur in or through time.

Thanks to time’s global character, physics can safely ignore it. The “time factor” appearing in equations is a stand-in taking duration into account. But as far as concerns physics nothing more needs to be said about “global time”. It is nothing more than a manner of speaking. But if Unger, Smolin, and indeed Theism are correct, such a view, while enough to support calculation, misses an important characteristic of the reality of our physical universe. While it is possible to understand phenomena within the universe without supposing global time is real, it is not possible to understand the universe as a whole. Of course theology enriches this insight, but even without it, Unger & Smolin are, I believe, correct in that we cannot understand the facts of our cosmological history unless time is real.

Review: Singular Universe and Reality of Time


Of all the physics and cosmology I’ve read over the past 7+ years this book stands out as one of the two most interesting, the other being Ruth Kastner’s “Understanding Our Unseen Reality: Solving Quantum Riddles”. Now this is a tough call because I’ve read a lot of great books, But this book inspired not only this review but one of my books, while Kastner’s work manages to actually account for phenomena like “action at a distance” and the paradoxes of the “double slit experiment” without hidden variables or merely explaining them away.

The crucial insight of Singular Universe is that time is not only real but the most fundamental (brute) characteristic of our universe. No other property of our universe (including space) could begin to exist in the absence of time. Impressively, Unger manages to disentangle the “global time” that both authors insist must be real from the temporal insights of Special and General Relativity. Einstein discovered that the measurement of time can only be a local measurement (from within some relative reference frame) but that discovery does not at all preclude a global time for the universe as a whole. In terms of shaking up modern physics, this might be Unger’s greatest contribution. Smolin adds to Unger’s fundamental a rationale accounting for the crystallization of “the cosmological settings”. He has a hypothesis grounded in empirically verified cosmology (black holes) suggesting an answer to the question “why did the cosmological settings come out with the values they have?” I think his rationale is far fetched but in the present community of cosmologists it counts as a strong rational hypothesis.

The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy (Kindle Edition 2014)

This is a superb and important book. It is quite long and two books in one, the first by Roberto Unger and the second by Lee Smolin. Both address the same topic, the reality (and fundamentality) of time and the failure of the Newtonian paradigm when applied to the whole universe. Each author takes a different approach to the subject on which, for the most part, there is a wide area of agreement between them and a few differences as concerns some details.

Neither book is “popular science”, but rather both are serious attempts at a novel “natural philosophy” that contributes (or should contribute) to advancing the subject of cosmology by illuminating little considered implications and interpretations of the physical (standard model) and cosmological data we already have.

Unger’s approach is more purely philosophical. He begins straightforwardly enough with the common (in science) metaphysical assumption that only the material universe is real. Although he abjures a strong metaphysics and offers instead what he calls a “proto ontology” that does not attempt to fix the kinds of things there are in the universe for all time, he is nevertheless stuck with this basic materialism and that forces him onto one of two horns of a dilema. The mystery is the extreme unlikeliness of “the settings” that make the universe hospitable to life. Most physicists being philosophically trapped in the “block universe” model of relativistic time (which in effect denies the fundamentality of time by casting time in terms of spatial geometry) have gone over to the multiverse as an (untestable) explanation (along with the “anthropic principle) for the unlikely values of the settings in our universe. From Unger’s viewpoint, the opposite tack, assuming time to be both real and fundamental, and that there is a global “preferred time” (perfectly compatible with relativity given appropriate alterations in what Unger calls its “metaphysical gloss”) which all means that there is nothing in the physical universe that is immune from the effects of time including the laws and settings which change (albeit in this universe phase very slowly) and that instead of multiple universes, the unlikeliness of our settings is explained by our one universe having an indefinite (not eternal) past that has gone through phases having various settings and has just happened, in this phase, to end up with the settings it has. Unger believes that this option, the “indefinite past” and a single universe at a time is better than the multiverse hypothesis because it provides for a causal (although the laws governing causal interactions will be different from phase to phase) continuance between phases. Time and causation entail one another, they are both fundamental in that what ever the laws and settings operative at a given moment happen to be, there is still some sort of causal interaction in time. As difficult as it might be to detect records of past universe phases (that is prior to our own big bang) such detection remains possible and therefore within the scope of science, while non-communicating multiverses that preclude any interaction do not.

Unger covers his ground very well. His approach is to revisit the same questions and issues over and over again like a skeleton on which he lays a little more flesh with each pass. In the end he leaves out two things. He offers no specific explanation for our particular settings this time around, and he fails to address how it is that the laws and settings we measure in our universe phase happen to hold over a range of conditions from the cold of interstellar space to the interior of stars. He admits that in our present “cooled down” universe the laws and settings appear very stable. His failure to offer any explanation for their stability does not detract from the argument that time is real and there is only one universe at a time. He explicitly leaves the rest to Lee Smolin.

Smolin is a physicist writing here as a natural philosopher and he is very good at it. His argument here is a reprise of his book “Time Reborn”. He’s had a few years to chew over these ideas, and I think his more concise treatment here is clearer than it was in that book. Smolin does offer two possibilities for explaining what Unger leaves out. The first is his “principle of precedence” which goes only part of the way, explaining how it is that the settings might get set, but not why they are what they are. The second, his notion of “cosmological natural selection” does actually explain both the settings and to some extent their stability across the wide range of conditions in our present universe. But these explanations rely on two rather speculative ideas.

First, new universes arise from the interior of black holes. The point of the settings and their stability is that these two properties are necessary to produce lots of black holes from massive stars. Such black holes in effect set the parameters of the universes they generate. Our own universe is in fact such a baby universe generated by a black hole in another universe. Second, the range of possible (or likely) settings of the baby universe would be different than those of the parent universe but only and always in a small range. This is what sets up the “natural selection”.. Universes whose properties happen to produce a lot of those kinds of black holes will end up dominating a history of branching universes such that the great majority of them have settings similar to ours just so that they can produce a lot of black holes.

Of course the very idea that universes are born in black holes (or that ours emerged from a black hole) is at present utterly beyond observational science, so this is sheer speculation whose only relation to physics (as distinct say from asserting that “God did it”) is that there is a potential causal chain (no matter what transformation the settings might undergo in between) connecting parent (black hole) to child (new universe). Smolin fails to say why it is that the variation in settings through black holes from massive stars (he explicitly rejects primordial black holes as selectable parents for this reason) should vary by only a little.This property is what makes them selectable. If the settings vary by very much, the outcomes (as far as black hole creation are concerned, not to mention life) will be random and not converge to an optimal type. There is no mention here that the coincidence of these same settings being conducive to life AND black holes is itself something of a mystery. Dr. Smolin spends a small chapter addressing the nature of qualia in consciousness, but he is interested in suggesting an example of precedent-agnostic causation (brain correlates of qualia) and not the coincidence of settings conducive to both black holes and life.

Both men address “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”, and claim, reasonably enough given their history-first foundation, that present mathematics happens to be fit-able to present physics but that the discipline has no magic insight into the nature of every particular event in the history of the universe (Smolin) or into some Platonic structure that is metaphysically prior to actual history taken in aggregate (Unger). This is one of the more fascinating parts of both arguments because both men get to the same place about math in very different ways.

It is unfair to criticize either author for not solving every problem. For both this book is to be the foundation of a natural philosophy, not its completed edifice. Both author’s arguments rest on a foundation of time, causation, and therefore history as being fundamental. The universe is what it is and if we discover structure in its behavior, that structure, mathematically describable regularities, it doesn’t mean those very regularities weren’t different in the past and won’t change in the future. There is every reason to believe they are both onto something here. Smolin’s illustration of how we slip from an observation of causal stability in the present universe to a mistaken notion of absolutely deterministic precedents is illuminating to say the least. All of this above does not do justice to the over-all philosophical integrity of this work. Drs. Unger and Smolin happen to discover in one another kindred spirits as far as this business of the reality and fundamentality of time is concerned. I hope there will be more collaborations between them in the future.

Information, Life, and the Big Bang


In 2014 William Dembski published “Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information” what he calls (in the introduction) a capstone on a trilogy that began with “The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities” (1998) and continued with “No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence” (2001). In the first two books Dembski spends his time building an argument about the unlikelihood of even simple life’s “information content” assembling itself accidentally on the Earth of some 3 to 4 billion years past.

Considering the Earth could only have supported any conceivable life as recently as 4 billion years ago, life appeared rather soon after supportive conditions developed. Dembski concludes (and you can read the books to follow the math) the probability of that much information assembling itself in that little time is about 1 x 10^-150. The same basic principles hold true for life’s evolution to its present forms adding an extraordinary amount of extra information along the way. Dembski understands Darwinian mechanisms. He carefully evaluates their capacity to assemble such an information pyramid by accident given the possible range of chemical interactions that occur among all the molecules of the nascent biological Earth on up to the present day. He shows again that it is incredibly unlikely for evolution to have been nothing but an accidental combination of mutation and selection.

In his third book Dembski goes on the offensive and focuses not on the unlikelihood of accidental life and evolution to present forms, but its impossibility. He does this by adding to his previous analysis a principle understood and accepted by today’s physics community; “Conservation of Information”. The concept is simple enough. A given system of mass-energy with boundary conditions (including energy flow) cannot express more information than was put into it somewhere.

To see how this all plays out over the history of the universe is the purpose of this essay. Dembski misses something important by leaving open when exactly the information needed to specify life (and next evolution) is added. Dembski happens to believe in a Christian God so he has no problem with the idea of information added to the world at life’s origin. But he leaves open the possibility the information comes not from God, but perhaps aliens. Also open is the notion the necessary information was there at the beginning, at the big bang, leading to a panpsychism, or for that matter that we are living in a computer simulation (another version of aliens) adding information as the code grinds on.

What Dembski misses (or fails to appreciate properly) is that the fundamental discoveries of physics point to a late introduction of the information needed to assemble genuine life. It is my aim here to fill in that gap. Beyond this, Dembski goes on to note that our only experience of information-creation or addition to the world is our own intelligent designs. If information is conserved, and its only source is intelligence, the universe’s initial information must come from some intelligence somewhere. Again this leaves open the possibility of super-aliens, computer simulation, or God. If Dembski is right that information is conserved, then either the universe’s information originates in some intelligence or it was all there from its beginning. If it was there from the beginning, if it was a part of the physical universe at the big bang, where in physics is it found? Does what physics finds at the beginning provide for everything from stars to conscious observers?

Information as understood by physics is of three types, Shannon information, Kolmogorov information, and semantic information. I review these more extensively in my books. A brief summary will do here. Information in all these forms is exclusionary. A hypothetically information-less collection of matter energy, displaying no behavioral regularities, contains within itself a well-nigh infinite potential of future possible states. But there is no such collection because the nature  of matter-energy and the regularities we observe depend on information. Information, beginning with its first expression in “natural law”, restricts present potentials and future possibilities. Our universe, its fundamental material regularities, allows everything from black holes to consciousness, but the possible future states of a present state anywhere in the universe, or for the whole universe, are not infinite.

On a cosmic scale, the specific history of our universe cannot have been much different than it was given its initial information. A stable universe of undifferentiated energy, mint-jelly, or Boltzman brains is ruled out of genuinely possible histories. Information configures matter-energy in some way. This is an important characteristic or property of information, more particularly its causal effect on matter-energy, and is understood and accepted by modern physics.

Claude Shannon developed formula for computing the quantity of information that could be unambiguously (clearly received) over a communication channel having a certain bit rate (number of detectable state changes per second) and some amount of noise. No information channel is noise free in the real world thanks to the second law of thermodynamics. Shannon information isn’t about any particular message, but about how much message a channel can carry. Capacity might be measured over time as it is in digital communications and radios, or in some other measure, for example the length of a DNA segment or a chromosome. The exclusion principle comes in trivially here. A particular message on a channel excludes other messages on that same channel at the same time or in the same place.

Kolmogorov information is about the complexity of a message. The message BBBBBBB is less complex than the message BCADFGE. We can re-write the first as 7B while the second requires all 7 characters in the correct order. Notice that the message FGCBAED is a different message but has exactly the same complexity as BCADFGE. Something like CCCABBF is intermediate in complexity because 3CA2BF requires only 6 characters to specify a 7 character message. Again we note the exclusivity property. Any one message of any complexity excludes all others.

Semantic information concerns what a message (information) means. Normally associated with human mind semantic information is plausibly characteristic of consciousness in general. Life, even without consciousness, displays metaphorical meaning. This meaning is metaphorical because life doesn’t apprehend it. Rather meaning is imputed to life by consciousness, and seemingly always by human consciousness. Importantly to physics, there is no semantic meaning, metaphorical or otherwise, in nonliving, material process. The purposelessness of material mechanism reflects its lack of semantic meaning. “Purposeless mechanism” and “absence of semantic meaning” are two sides of the same coin.

Information expresses itself, one way or another by configuring matter-energy whether the flow of electrons on a wire, persisting patterns, or a recognition of significance (meaning) of a configuration to consciousness. We are now in a position to understand the connection between information, life, and the big bang.

Information, the potential-reducing patterning of some chunk of matter-energy, expresses itself differently depending on boundary conditions, and energy flows. Boundary conditions reflect information in the wider chunk of matter-energy that has causal input on expression in the bounded chunk. Theoretically that would be everything in the past light cone of the inner most bounded chunk, but this is often so vast a space and time that we ignore most of it. The word ‘chunk’ here refers to the matter-energy of some particular region of space and through some bounded time. Every expansion of view to wider and wider spacetime chunks encompasses more matter-energy configured by information whose expression is in turn influenced by even wider chunks. ‘Causal effect’ is a function of forces, fields, with which matter-energy both brings about and with which it interacts. For my purposes, it matters not whether we view matter-energy as the product of fields (as in quantum field theory) or fields as a product of more fundamental matter (charged particles). Both views rest on the same fundamental information.

The first boundary conditions of our universe are the particular qualities of the forces describable in information theoretic terms. These forces restrict what can happen at any given “next instant”. When we gaze into the heavens what we see, the stars, galaxies, clusters, clusters of clusters, interlocking streams of clusters going on as far as our telescopes can peer. At the largest scales, distribution of these substructures appears random, but just inside the largest scale, there is clearly an expressed arrangement. The matter-energy of the universe is not distributed randomly at all scales. Our particular arrangement, can be described as a measure of complexity; Kolmogorov information. That state, any given “state of the universe”, changes into new states. The entire universe has a capacity, a limit, at which the evolving information expression advances. There is a limit to the rate at which change in the universe takes place. The universe has a Shannon information limit.

Cosmologists and physicists have long recognized the structures of the universe are, over-all, a natural outworking of a tension between positive energy expressed as temperature and pressure and negative energy known by its more common name, gravity. A cold cloud of hydrogen gas and dust floating around in space has more entropy than the star which eventually forms from it. It is gravity (negative energy) that reduces entropy in the gas cloud by consolidating it, restricting the freedom of its individual atoms to be anywhere in the much larger region of space that was the cold cloud. At cosmic scales, gravity is the great reducer of entropy. It does this by folding space around mass. Mass migrates inward (falls) toward the center of the folding which happens to be always what we call the “center of gravity”.

Taking entropy out of a system like this makes it more difficult for photons to escape it. Folding space compresses electromagnetic forces (constraining photons) heating the contracting gas producing more rapid particle motion, raising temperature, and increasing pressure. Eventually the gas heats up enough that fusion occurs and the resulting release of positive energy balances ever-present negative gravitational energy. But why does the balancing out occur here at this point? Why isn’t gravity strong enough to overcome fusion and keep folding space until a black hole forms more or less immediately?

The balance occurs at fusion, and gravity and pressure combine to make all the structures of the physical universe, thanks to the cosmological settings. The causal regularities we call “natural law” rest on the settings. The settings (there are some 20 of these seemingly arbitrary values among them the “cosmological constant”, the value of the “Higgs field”, the “fine structure constant”, and the “proton-electron mass ratio”) limit the ways in which matter-energy can interact. The particular interactions that occur are a reflection of the settings under boundary conditions holding at any given place and time. The settings are the minimal information present at or shortly after the big bang.

The star balanced at fusion expresses the same information as the cold gas cloud from which it formed. Both are deterministic expressions, patterning in behavior, of the same settings. At the opposite end of the size scale from stars, at the building blocks of matter (the fundamental particles of the present Standard Model) to molecules the same settings restrict behavior. At the small scales the important forces are the electromagnetic (molecular scale), and the strong/weak forces (nuclear scale). The same settings pattern matter on a different scale from the cosmological under differently relevant, microscopic, boundary conditions.

When mass-energy at a macroscopic scale is somewhere in thermodynamic equilibrium its state expresses the information present in the settings under that equilibrium. For the expression to change, to evolve, boundary conditions must change. That change rests causally on the flow of energy through the system. Change is also inextricably bound up with time. The seemingly simple notion of time is anything but simple. Is time something fundamental, perhaps even more fundamental than space (Unger/Smolin “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” 2014), or does it emerge from (and amount to) an averaging (as temperature is an averaging of molecular velocity) of the change in the quanta of space (Carlo Rovelli “Things Are Not as they Seem” 2016)? Does time exist at all, perhaps being nothing more than a meaning (semantic information) consciousness associates with measuring the rate of change (Julian Barbour “The End of Time” 1999). For purposes of this essay, nothing depends on this controversy. Time, one way or another, is an ingredient of every boundary condition and energy flow throughout the universe at all scales.

Significantly, when change occurs ordered patterns emerge. A star is ordered in this way compared with a gas cloud We note the same phenomena in columns of bubbles rising in the simmering water in a pot. The ordering in all of these cases is the result of a coupling between the settings, the boundary conditions, and energy flow. For my purposes below, I lump energy flow into the boundary conditions but the reader should always be aware that if changes in information expression are occurring, energy is somewhere flowing through the system. There are a few scientists who claim this emergence of order is enough to explain the eventual appearance of life, but this cannot be true. As I discuss below, life exhibits a new kind of ordering that never appears in non-living phenomena; and ordering requiring information not present in the settings directly though of course it remains consistent with them.

All the phenomena of the universe from the layout of the galaxies and down to the behavior of atoms in crystals and amino acids directly express cosmological settings under different boundary conditions, and these in turn also rest on the settings. The settings are the information present at (or within a second) of the big bang. They are information because they do what information does, they restrict or exclude possibilities by constraining what they pattern. The behavior of quarks, protons, neutrons, electrons, or the effect of gravity, isn’t random. The settings restrict the values of the forces and those constrain the behavior of everything else from quarks to superclusters.

The limits, patterns of behavior, vary as conditions change, the changes themselves “caused” (some would prefer “unfold into”) by those same regularities. Two seconds after the big bang all the settings were already in place. The strong, weak, and electrostatic forces had to exist as they now do for there to come into existence protons, neutrons, electrons, and a few nuclei of helium and lithium. Given the enormous pressures and tempretures of the environment (boundary) of the big bang in its first seconds, the building block particles where the expression of the settings. Given 14 billion years of evolution, we have the universe of today, an expression of the same settings. Up to a point.

If the Conservation of Information theorem is correct the information respresented by cosmological structure or molecules had to be put into the universe as it has evolved over time, or it had to be there at its beginning. Cosmologists today mostly believe that this information was in fact all present from the beginning, or at least within a few microseconds of the big bang. Physics and cosmology has convincingly shown the settings plus gravity explain the present structure of the cooled down universe. Granting that all of this information was present at or near the beginning from where did it come?

At first cosmologists thought perhaps the values had to be what they now are; not arbitrary but rather forced out of the boundary condition of the big bang. But a hundred years of theoretical effort to derive them has failed to prove the necessity of these particular values. The now fashionable answer is the values sprang (quickly evolved) into their values purely by accident, by sheer coincidence. Recognizing the improbability of this, cosmology and physics have spawned many theories of multiuniverses (Max Tegmark “Our Mathematical Universe” 2014) in which the settings take on all manner of random values. The idea is that given billions of such universes, it is not inconceivable that one would occur in which the settings took the values we observe. That they did so here makes the eventual appearance of observers possible and it should not be surprising that observers find themselves existing in such an unlikely universe. This idea, called the “Anthropic Principle” (Brandon Carter Krakow symposium 1973, Barrow and Tipler “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle” 1987), must be at least trivially true. Since we exist, it must be possible for us to exist within the constraints (remember information restricts possibilities) of the cosmological settings.

Of course there are plausible “intelligent alternatives”. God might have constrained the settings to obtain the physical universe we occupy, a physical universe supporting eventual life and consciousness. A few honest physicists have noted the unlikeliness of the settings would not be surprising if there is a God. Besides God, the intelligent alternatives coming from science have tended to pure science fiction speculation of super-aliens (effectively demigods) or perhaps computer simulations (also implying super-aliens). Such speculative alternatives all involve beings like ourselves only having far advanced cognitive abilities and technology. Such beings either live with us in our universe or inhabit their own universe outside our own. Either way, all the cosmological origin questions remain. But multiuniverse theories require only more physics; perhaps other physical universes of some sort. This is why the science community prefers such otherwise unverifiable speculations. But they are not better explanations. They do not, for example, extend to consciousness very well.

There is something more to notice about information re-expression based solely on the settings and evolving boundary conditions. All of these expressions, that is everything governed primarily by gravity as the source of negative energy, electromagnetism, or nuclear forces are repeating structures. Every proton is identical to every other proton, and all the galaxies, while differing widely in specific shape and size are gravitationally bound rotating collections of stars very often influenced by a large central black hole (dark matter is a part of the boundary conditions forming and maintaining these structures). If you consider any given cubic meter of a star’s interior at some distance between its center and periphery, it is much like any other cubic meter of that same star at the same distance from the center.

At almost the opposite end of universal size scales, the most informationally complex structures are homogeneous crystals and relatively simple organic molecules like amino acids which themselvs will form crystal structures under the right boundary conditions. There is a large negative entropy difference between a freely floating gas of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, and an amino-acid composed of those same elements. But that reduction, purchased in the molecular case with the energy of electrostatic bonds, is nothing more than a structure that arises automatically thanks to the settings under particular boundary conditions. From the crystallization of water (ice) to the formation of amino-acids, as with gravity, entropy reduction is associated only with the production of regular repeating structures whose variation depends solely on the nature of the settings and boundary conditions which are themselves the result of the setting and their own larger-scale boundary conditions.

This situation changes dramatically when we look at life. Galaxy formation, stars, and amino acids are an immediate response to entropy reduction caused directly by gravity or electrostatic forces under specific conditions. Once any of these arise they become stable. Only changing boundary conditions alter their stable states. Even dynamic but presently stable stars are in a stable equilibrium condition with pressure balancing gravity.

But living systems differ from any nonliving information expressions in several ways. Their stability is never merely a simple equilibrium, but rather the product of many interactions dynamically reducing entropy in the living organism over all. Of course living processes cause entropy increase in the environment, the boundary within which life operates, and there are living processes that spend heat in support of neg-entropic mechanism. Life exhibits a persistent battle against entropy and is never in internal equilibrium. If a living organism comes to complete equilibrium, or its entropic activity dominates, the organism dies. More importantly, life’s neg-entropy mechanisms achieve their effect not by the simple surrender to the consequences of the settings but rather to active mechanisms that map or translate information from one form into another. Living systems are filled with little engines that map information from one form into another reducing entropy in the system over all as a by-product. No comparable mechanisms exist in the nonliving cosmos.

The most familiar of these living mechanisms is the multistep interaction chain, associated with many intermediate structures themselves built up out of the same process, of mapping information in DNA to proteins. Obedient to the Conservation of Information theorem, this creates no new information. Rather, information is mapped from one expression to another. But the mechanism itself, a mapping engine, is new. None of this works apart from the limits imposed by the settings. But unlike stars, life’s entropy reduction is not a direct outcome of the settings, but of an entropy reducing transfer of information from one form to another.

The complexity of life frames a further limit on the space of possibility within the restriction imposed by the settings. It amounts to new information besides the settings alone. A protein’s biological functionality is not merely the result of its electostatic forces, but also its physical shape. True, the shape is the result of electrostatic forces, but an identically force-balanced molecule of a different shape will not work. Many differently shaped molecules might have identical force balances. The biological activity of a particular shape is a restriction not found in the settings alone. Life’s information is a restriction on top of a restriction and that demands more information. Where did this more come from?

Once again science, this time biology down through chemistry to physics, declares that it was all, like the settings, a lucky accident. Yes, they admit, unlikely, but not impossible and if it hadn’t happend on Earth, we would not be around to comment on it. In his first two books, Dembski explains just how unlikely such an accidental assembly is; thousands of different translations, hundreds of thousands of molecular arrangements, functioning as an integrated system, a living organism. In his third book Dembski argues that the information difference between nonliving processes and the simplest conceivable life (simpler than anything we find on Earth today) could not possibly come to exist accidentally. If life’s arrangement cannot be a direct product of the settings alone (the only information present in the big bang and throughout the evolution of the nonliving cosmos) its accidental appearance would be a violation of the Conservation of Information principle. What Dembski misses (at least I do not remember him mentioning it) is that life’s entropy reduction mechanism, complexity translation, is nowhere else exhibited in the interactions of the nonliving cosmos. From intergalactic clusters to amino acids none of the accumulated information is carried through translation mechanisms. It is all the immediate expressions of the settings under specific conditions.

For science to declare the one “life origin” event we know of is an accidental product of the settings plus boundary conditions directly is question begging and most scientists know this. “Accidental” is not a valid generalization from a single observation. Even if life on Earth originated on Mars (some cosmologists do assert this is a possibility), the question of how Mars’ life began still stands. Plausibly however, life-harboring planets around other stars are effectively isolated from one another. Life on such worlds originates and evolves independently.

What a discovery of genuine life on the planets of other stars would mean depends on what we find. Finding something indisputably alive but much simpler than the simplest life on Earth, would lend credence to the view that initial assembly might be accidental. Perhaps some life is so simple (something true also of long vanished early life on Earth) that it is not so unlikely after all. But if what we find on one or even dozens of other worlds is that all life is complex, different perhaps but on the same order of complexity as the simplest life on Earth, the hypothesis of “accidental appearance” gets all the more problematic. If, as Dembski claims, the chance of life springing into being accidentally on Earth is 1 x 10^-150, it is half as likely to have happened twice, let alone multiple times.

The rest of Dembski’s argument is straightforward. Human beings, observers in the universe, know of (that is experience and observe) only one source of new information in the universe; intelligent agency. For materialists to claim that this too, that is what we experience subjectively as intelligent agency, is nothing more than an outcome of the settings and boundary conditions, begs the same question as regards life. The “only example one has” of anything cannot be the ground of a valid inductive generalization. If the only life we ever find is complex enough to be highly unlikely there are only three possibilities. The absurdly unlikely happened, there is something fundamental that we are missing in physics, or life’s information came from the outside, from intelligent agency. In all my writing including this essay I have taken for granted there is not something fundamental missing in physics.

Physics may not be finished thanks to the problem of unifying gravity and quantum mechanics, but it has nailed a few fundamentals. It has adequately dispensed with the idea there is an “invisible force” that pushes physical regularity toward the assembly of living information. We find nothing of this in classical physics or quantum mechanics. If physics is correct as concerns its own causal closure, then life’s information had to be added at a place and time when boundary conditions were supportive. If some intelligent agency acted at life’s origin (perhaps on many worlds) then the same agency’s action, to fix the settings, at the big bang would not be at all surprising. The settings are fixed as they are in support of [eventual] developing boundary conditions conducive to life’s origination.

This notion must also apply to life’s evolution on Earth to the point of emerging consciousness, and in particular a personal consciousness (discussed at length in other essays on the blog). Over a mere 3 billion years an amazing quantity of new information (Kolmogorov complexity) assembles from primitive cells to organisms having subjective experience. Subjectivity at least begins with the higher animals, but it makes the transition into “observer status” only in human beings. Animals observe their environment in the sense of integrating sensory experience in a subjective gestalt. But being an OBSERVER implies more than mere observation, it implies recognition of meaning implicit in observation but not of the observation as such. This brings me to final consideration of semantic information.

Semantic information, taken most broadly, is prelinguistic, but not preconscious. A lion easily distinguishes between a zebra and the tree next to it. It grasps the zebra is potential food and the tree is not. The discrimination between zebra and tree has meaning to lion consciousness. Given memory and subjective experience an association links ‘zebra’ to the relief of hunger. Semantic information is transferred not by translation from one physical carrier to another, but from some such physical state to a subject. Meaning is meaning to a subject. Compared to biological information, semantic information is one step further removed from the settings. Many discrete sets of biophysical states ground a particular persisting consciousness, while different conscious experiences follow from similar biophysical states. Semantic information is largely independent of the physics underlying it and exists only to consciousness.

The uncoupling of semantic information from physical information continues in human consciousness. A zebra means [potential] food to a lion whether it is hungry at the moment or not. Both lions and humans apprehend meanings in this way, we are after all animals. But human beings not only apprehend meanings, they also abstract and evaluate them. Abstraction and evaluation combine to suggest meanings not immediately apprehended. This (and our volitional power to control our bodies) underlies our capacity to put new information into the world, literally to pattern matter-energy restricting its future potentials. Humans alone are capable of adding information, arising in subjective abstractions, to the world. Lions are not. We create art, and airplanes. Flying airplanes are like biological activity in the outcomes of information mapping engines. A successful mapping creates not only a biologically active molecule, but one that functions in a role specified by biological demands. A flying airplane signals a successful combination of semantic information and physics (purposeless mechanisms resting on the settings) whose proper role is specified by subjective intent to build a flying machine.

In a living cell there is nothing in the chain of events from DNA to a shaped protein that relies on anything other than the basic forces whose fundamental information, present at the big bang, is the settings. In this case, the electrostatic forces are dominant, but everything has its effect on the outcome. There does not appear to be anything in life that originates outside the physical world. As with the settings, once information is put in somewhere, life’s day-to-day operation exhibits nothing but outcomes explained by the forces (settings), and boundaries now including life, that cell, itself. But life’s delicately balanced self-maintenance does not address the issue of how its information originates. If the Conservation of Information theorem is true, then not only was its accidental assembly unlikely, it is impossible.

Individuals are free, of course, to believe life’s origin and evolution was accidental. But the argument that they were nothing of the kind is clearly plausible, even reasonable compared with much speculation from materialists. When we arrive at human beings, a new power springs from life through consciousness. Not only is there a mapping from some physical “state of affairs” to a meaning apprehended in consciousness, but uniquely, humans can map abstract meanings from consciousness to the world. Abstraction capable language marks the final separation between information and the settings.

The word ‘palo’ in Spanish means ‘tree’ in English. Either might refer to some particular tree or to the class or kind ‘tree’, and both are equally compatible with the settings and boundary conditions up through all of biology. All human languages are of course compatible with human biology everywhere on Earth. Expressing a single abstract meaning in different languages demonstrates the complete decoupling of semantic meaning from the settings. Completing the decoupling begun with life and continued in animal consciousness grounds both human free will and our power to create information.

This capacity, the free-willed intelligent creation (by arrangement of matter-energy) of new information, demands new information. If everything that happens in the universe expresses information, such novel power rests on information not previously present; information added not to matter-energy directly, but to consciousness. I go into what this implies in more detail in my books and the blog essay “Why Personality?”

All the information from the settings to life, supposing they come from outside physics, might conceivably (however implausibly) be the work of aliens, or perhaps we live in a computer simulation. Consciousness poses a special problem because unlike the universe and life, it is plausibly both real and nonmaterial. A corollary of life’s physical nature is that living process isn’t intrinsically conscious. Nothing about biology, however complex, suggests an emergence of subjective experience. It isn’t clear that any subjectivity can emerge from a causally closed physics; not even accidentally given infinite time! Human consciousness poses an additional problem. Even the highest animal consciousness does not display an ability to configure the world in novel ways based on new meanings conceived first (and not merely apprehended) in consciousness!

Human beings can shape the world based on thoughts whose origin has little direct connection to immediate sensory experience or memory. Of course our creative thinking includes apprehended meaning. But human creativity goes beyond experience to first postulate new, associative meanings, and then test their validity (truth content) by configuring physical subsystems that function (like shaped proteins) in their intended roles. Art, philosophy, and technology are all predicated on the validity of meanings originating in consciousness.

If aliens did this, from life (at least) to subjectivity capable of original creation, directly or in a computer simulation, they would stand in relation to us much as religion’s claims for God. Not entirely, for it is not an entailment of the alien hypothesis that aliens be for example omnipotent. If however we live in the matrix, a computer simulation, then omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence within the context of the program are reasonable inferences.

If the aliens are a product of this universe, the matter of the settings, and how the alien life started and evolved, appears. The alien hypothesis settles no philosophical issues. If aliens created the universe itself, and it is not a simulation then their universe must be something outside, apart from the physical as we see it from inside our universe. Even if one insists this outside is physical it cannot be “our physical”. There must, in this view, still be something outside our universe. But none of this matters because if any of these speculations are even remotely true, then something or someone added information, at least beginning with life if not the big bang, to the universe, our universe! It doesn’t matter if the agency is divine or not or if the information came from aliens inside or outside the universe. It isn’t necessary to assume that this agency must be purposefully intelligent. But evidence at least suggests that it exhibits all the characteristics of purposeful intelligence as we observers experience it.

If any of this speculation is true, physics must still give up the idea that “no such information came from anywhere”. There is some irony here. The speculation taken most seriously by the materialist community is that all we know as our world was genuinely an accident; precisely the “no information from anywhere” hypothesis. The irony is that this hypothesis is the one least supported by all the evidence, even the purely material evidence of life. Life is the first, partial decoupling from the settings. That decoupling depends on information not present in the settings. If the Conservation of Information theorem is true, life’s information had to come from somewhere other than physics.

There is nothing in physics, nothing in the strict causal closure of the physical that is incompatible with information coming in from the outside. Purposeless mechanism (a valid insight of physics) and purposeful information added by an intelligent, at least intelligent seeming, source are not incompatible. This is almost a trivial truth as concerns human experience. We configure purposeless mechanism (mechanism of the physical world) with our own purposes all the time. Our entire technological history not to mention art, science, and philosophy begin with that ability. If physics and intelligent agency get along as we experience them, and if our universe is everywhere basically the same, there is no reason to insist that agency characteristic of intelligence did not add information to the universe possibly starting with the big bang. Only an agency outside the universe explains everything, where all the information came from, including the universe, the settings. Physics cannot address itself to the nature of that agency because whether it is physical or not, it is not a part of our universe.