The Unreality of Time

Under book

In their book “The Singular Universe and the Reality of TimeRoberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin argue for the reality of time in the same way Lee Smolin does in his book “Time Reborn2. Smolin is a theoretical physicist and Unger a philosopher. Unger presents in the language of natural philosophy. His terminology is a bit opaque at times, which makes him sometimes difficult to follow but Smolin is much clearer, certainly from a physicist’s point of view. He uses the language of physics, though his naturalistic belief system is strongly evident.

Smolin bookIn “Time Reborn” Smolin cannot conceive of a universe created by an extant Creator, who imbued it with immutable laws. His mindset seems to be one that is shocked by the idea that this universe was prepared in a just-right state such that we can exist in it. And this occurs even when he is thinking in evolutionary terms. So to him the idea that the universe occurred just once with initial conditions and laws that allow life to exist is too shocking to contemplate. His answer is ‘evolution’. This universe evolved from a prior universe and its laws evolved along with it.

Their common main thesis can be summarised as the universe is singular, time is real and laws change. By this the authors mean that the universe is all there is, there is no Creator, and because we live in a universe that is now in a cooled-down differentiated state (i.e. with galaxies and stars) it must have changed from its initial beginning state (implicitly assuming a hot big bang origin), hence they conclude time is real. This is contrasted with the Newtonian paradigm concept, which has driven science for the past 400 years, where the scientist looks for the timeless description of the whole universe. The believing scientist like Newton would say that he was looking for timeless laws and initial conditions (the creation history), products of the Creator’s mind. In those laws there is cause and effect; causation resulting from actual laws, that are themselves unchanging.

Smolin and Unger suggest otherwise; that causation forms a real feature of nature and that it is not just a mental construct but due to real connections in nature. They argue that causation takes place in time and hence implies the reality of time; time would not be real if causal connections simply enacted timeless laws of nature; and these causal connections change in real time. This means the laws of physics evolve. Nothing is immutable, except time itself. Thus they promote an eternal universe; a universe that successively evolves through the continuous process of creation and annihilation of the successive universes, wherein the laws of nature evolve. The argument for this evolutionary aspect is novelty. A universe where time is real and laws evolve allows for novelty—new laws that can change from one universe to the next.

They contrast two cosmologies: One, which includes the Newtonian paradigm, is where laws are immutable and timeless, time is essentially relational, not absolute, as developed in Einstein’s relativity theory, and there is no novelty, nothing evolves. The second, is where laws are mutable and evolve, time is the only absolute and is real, and novelty arises as part of nature, resulting in new laws.

They argue that “everything is emergent – everything comes and goes – except time” itself.  Smolin admits that the problem they face is “what law describes the evolution of physical laws?”. His solution is the reintroduction of some “timeless” laws – meta-laws. Smolin calls this the “meta-law dilemma”, and tries to solve it but he isn’t very convincing.

In their choices for the universe they exclude the Creator. The possibility of a transcendent Creator who chooses the initial conditions, hence determined the laws upon which the universe is governed, and even intervenes in His creation, is excluded.

In this regards, they write:

“The laws are timeless. They have no history [JGH: meaning, they are immutable, constant]. They underlie and justify causal explanations. They are, however, themselves without explanation. To ask why they are is to pose a question that lies in principle beyond the limits of natural science conforming to the Newtonian paradigm.”(emphasis added)

This is the crux of the matter. They seek an explanation of this universe without a Creator. He, by definition, is excluded from natural science.

So their answer is a universe, or eternal temporal succession of singular universes, wherein the laws evolve, due to a feature of nature itself. In their universes the laws are only partially unchanging, i.e. they slowly evolve, resulting in novelty.

They contrast this with the alternate godless explanation of multiple, parallel universes. The promotion of the multiverse results from the perceived need to rescue the Newtonian paradigm, which means that within any one universe in the multiverse the laws are immutable and timeless. Hence by having an infinite number of universes we might find ourselves in the one where the initial conditions and laws are such that life could have evolved.

“If, however, these other universes are, as they must be, causally unconnected with our own, and no light-borne information can travel from them to us, this conjecture will amount to no more than a vain metaphysical fantasy, disguised as science.”4 (emphasis added)

Their alternative is a succession of universes born from the death of the previous. A universe born from a singularity with infinite density and temperature cannot be comprehended. But, they say, universes that do not undergo an infinite density state in a singularity of a big bang can be understood. This is alleged where laws evolve and change but carry some aspect of their past existence into the next.5 This is where Smolin’s has invoked his “Cosmological Natural Selection” principle. But the whole idea involves a strong appeal to nature, the pagan concept of Gaia.6 Universes evolve and evolve the conditions and laws suitable that life has been able to evolve in this one. But it is really just a lot of storytelling.

The price to pay, they say for their view of the universe is that everything is emergent except time itself. There was no beginning. Time had no beginning. The characteristics of the observed universe with its stable structures cannot be the only form of nature. And the view that what is physically real in this universe is what can be described mathematically must be forgone. The sovereignty of mathematics over physics “… is intimately related to the assumption of the immutability of the laws of nature and to the invariance of its symmetries, expressed as mathematical equations”.7 The Newtonian paradigm uses mathematics to explain temporal events by timeless laws. They see no such commitment but state that the universe “is what it is because it was what it was”.8

Their ideas are based on Darwin. According to them, the life sciences have successfully developed an historical science interpretation of the biological evidences, in the rock record etc. Thus they suggest the same for cosmology as an historical science. In so doing they challenge the basis of all operational science, at least on the timescale of the universe. Implicit is the assumption that there is no Creator and that the universe evolved to its current state by some characteristic intrinsic to the universe itself. So the singular universe, though from a temporal sequence of singular universes, and the reality of time — eternal time, “really deep” time — are their answers.


  1. Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2015.
  2. Lee Smolin, Time Reborn, From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, Mariner Books, 2013.
  3. Ref. 1, page 20.
  4. Ref. 1, page 21.
  5. John G. Hartnett, On the origin of universes by means of natural selection—or, blinded by big bang blackness, 9 October 2014.
  6. John G. Hartnett, Development of an “old” universe in science, 30 July 2015.
  7. Ref. 1, page 44.
  8. Ref. 1, page 45.

6 thoughts on “The Unreality of Time

  1. Have you heard about Ranga-Ram Chary, who claims to have discovered mysterious light blobs which he claims are evidence of parallel Universes? What’s your opinion about that?



    • It is a highly speculative claim. According to this NYC Today article COSMOLOGIST RANGA-RAM CHARY CLAIMS FOR EVIDENCE OF PARALLEL UNIVERSE his claim is based on the discovery of some mysterious blob of light in the CMB radiation. Others are skeptical of the claim. Besides that you must understand the problem in cosmology of proving anything like this. You would have to disprove all other possible causes to “prove” your thesis. In this news article, David Spergel, from Princeton University, said the dust particles from the cosmic microwave background could hold the key to the mysterious blob of light identified by Chary.

      “The dust properties are more complicated than we have been assuming, and I think that this is a more plausible explanation”.

      But it is much more problematic than that. Number one the CMB radiation may not be from the most distant sources, hence is not relic radiation from the alleged big bang. See ‘LIGHT FROM THE BIG BANG’ CASTS NO SHADOWS. Number two, look at the problems associated with the last claimed proof of inflation from BICEP2, which most likely is attributable to dust in the Galaxy, hence not from cosmological sources, let alone the alleged inflationary epoch. Finally, one must understand that cosmology is not science, but a pagan philosophy.


  2. An interesting article, thanks Prof Hartnett.

    I suspect that the loose thread that unravels the whole idea comes back to the so-called meta-laws. They posit that “Laws” change wrt time, according to some governing meta-laws. How does one determine the difference between laws and meta-laws? It appears that the only property that distinguishes them to us with our present understanding of physics, is that one changes and the other does not.

    If the laws changed, would we notice? Indeed, could we notice?

    Supposing we could notice then the theory hides behind the time it takes for laws to change (and they already talk in terms of billions of years).

    If it is testable at all, then we ought to be able to detect variations to “laws” related to the distance away from Earth.

    If it is not testable, is it mythology?


    • Mike, Good points. Well said. If it is not testable, which it isn’t in the repeatable laboratory sense it is not science. It is mythology. The change or evolution in laws occur in the transition from one universe to the next, and that process is governed by “meta-laws” which must be equivalent to a creator god of some kind. But since we have no access to the previous hypothetical universe how could we test if a change had occurred anyway? This is really a pagan appeal to nature (Gaia) to eliminate the need for a transcendent Creator.


      • Ah, so they are not even so brave as to allow for Laws to change through the Universe’s internal time, but rather only at the boundaries (which from our perspective would be regarded as a step change in the same ‘laws’).
        This continuum of universes idea could also be regarded as compatible with, or even a derivative of, Hindu philosophy. Hinduism (and I think Buddhism also) teaches that the Universe endlessly goes through Karmic cycles, with birth, death and rebirth of the universe itself. The slight twist that they need to reconcile is Brahman without qualities, with Time being absolute.
        Anything but Christianity.


  3. This all smells to my nose as the same odour as Multiverse (whatever happened to calling it Landscape? Such a better name). Essentially, the universe doesn’t appear to be random so let’s invoke a hypothesis whereby the universe could be ordered through random chance; either by saying there are innumerable other universes which appear random or, in this new model, by saying the universe has undergone numerous iterations which would have appeared more or less random at some point. Neither, of course, are based on evidential needs for alternate interpretations (like Relativity being based on issues with Galilean transforms for the Maxwell equations or some other such thing), and neither can be probed by any sort of testing or data gathering whatsoever. This isn’t physics; this is storytelling.


Comments are closed.