The Cosmic Internet
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The Cosmic Internet
Lee Smolin, The Life of the Cosmos. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Lee Smolin’s The Life of the Cosmos (hereafter LC) offers its readers ideas, scientific and philosophical, and a vision (based on these ideas) of a possible future physics. These ideas and this vision stem from the author’s assessment of major achievements and some failures of twentieth-century physics, including its most recent developments, to which Smolin himself made significant contributions. At stake in the book is the ultimate physics. Smolin’s question is: “How to construct a theory of the whole universe?” (LC 16; emphasis added). Although, as will be seen, some metaphysics is also at stake, the theory in question is of course understood here in the sense of modern, say, post-Galilean, physics in general and, specifically, the present day quantum cosmology. According to the currently standard view, once developed (it does not exist as a theory at present) quantum cosmology would bring together, in their ultimate cosmological extensions, quantum physics and Einstein’s general relativity (his theory of gravitation), which are incompatible in their present form. Smolin’s conceptual point of departure is a critique of Newton’s absolute space and absolute time, where he follows Leibniz, who famously asked the fundamental (and ultimately in turn cosmological) question of all metaphysics—“Why are there beings rather than nothing?”—and who is the single most important philosophical figure for Smolin. Leibniz leads Smolin to the central philosophical principle and the central concept of his book, which is grounded in this same principle. The principle is that of “relationalism,” which states that the relationships between things are more decisive than things themselves (if the latter can be meaningfully spoken of apart from the relationships between them). The concept is that of the whole universe as the universe of relations. Indeed, if considered as a quantum entity, it is the universe of a total, cosmic entanglement of all its constituents and parts, which is seen by Smolin as a consequence of the so-called quantum entanglement (which I shall explain below). This self-contained entangled cosmos, the universe without the exterior, is, Smolin argues, a problem for modern physics, in particular quantum mechanics (as it is currently constituted), insofar as the latter must approach any object that it investigates from an “outside,” in this case defined by the experimental devices whose role cannot be disregarded in considering the data in question in quantum physics, in the way it can be in classical physics. Such an “outside” position would of course be definitionally unavailable in the case of the whole (self-contained) universe.

From this vantage point, Smolin advances a number of mostly hypothetical arguments and proposals. In particular, the randomness and incompleteness of modern quantum theory arise from the fact that it can only be a theory of “parts,” usually small parts of the universe, while what happens in any given locale (“part”) in fact depends on the interactions and entanglement with quantum objects elsewhere, ultimately throughout the entangled universe. The latter becomes a kind of Cosmic Internet. (I shall explain the role of human observers in this picture below.) Randomness and, from this perspective, the (a-realist) incompleteness of physical description offered by modern quantum theory are merely results of the fact that the latter can only make available to us partial pictures of this cosmic entanglement. Accordingly, there must be (at least one may hope eventually to discover it) a complete—realist and, it appears, for Smolin ultimately deterministic—theory that would describe the whole universe as a Leibnizian universe of relations. This universe has nothing exterior to it and is ultimately defined by or even consists only of relations between “parts,” or what appear as “parts” (especially as “atomistic units,” such as elementary particles) from the limited perspective of present-day physics. Now (skipping for the moment some physics, and some philosophy, accompanying the theories just described) Smolin proposes, as his second central idea, that the mathematical and conceptual structure of this fundamental theory correspond not only to the present spatial relations within the universe but to the history of total (cosmic) interactions among all particles and...