“[Smolin] started out thinking, as most physicists do, that time is subjective and illusory. According to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, time is just another dimension in space, traversable in either direction, and our human perception of moments passing steadily and sequentially is all in our heads.
“Over time, though, Smolin became convinced not only that time was real, but that this notion could be the key to understanding the laws of nature.”
A good explanation of the view that most physicists hold may be found here.
“‘If laws are outside of time, then they’re inexplicable,’ [Smolin] said. “If law just simply is, there’s no explanation. If we want to understand law … then law must evolve, law must change, law must be subject to time. Law then emerges from time and is subject to time rather than the reverse.'”
I’m not sure what it would even mean for physical laws to be “outside of time.” Laws are descriptions of how physics is observed to behave. Since we only observe physics within the context of time, of course laws are indeed within time.
“Smolin admitted there are objections to this idea, especially what he calls ‘the meta-law dilemma’: If physical laws are subject to time, and evolve over time, then there must be some larger law that guides their evolution. But wouldn’t this law, then, have to be beyond time, to determine how the other laws change with time? Other physicists have cited this objection in reaction to Smolin’s work.”
I’d say that all this depends intimately on how we conceive of laws. As I said, laws are nothing more than descriptions of how physics behaves. If there is some sort of law concerning how the behavior of physics might vary across time and space, such a “meta-law” is itself still a description of the behavior of physics within the context of time and space. I think Smolin and other physicists confuse what a “law” is with a metaphysical explanation of what laws are and how they work: a law is just a description of the consistent behavior of physics, and one account of these laws is there are immaterial entities outside the space-time universe that press themselves down on space and time to force matter and energy to behave in a certain way.
Why should we buy into such an account? “Immaterial entities” that somehow “act” outside of space and time may be self-contradictory or even meaningless. Think about it: if we operate under the assumption that all words must refer to things we could observe at least in theory, then the whole notion of ‘immaterial entities’ is nonsense, because by definition they could never be observed even in theory! (By the way, I understand the view of language I present here is controversial, I’ve defended it elsewhere for those interested).
What other accounts of laws are there? There’s a book all about this subject called Laws of Nature, and I can’t summarize everything they say there. Here’s a couple of ways we might account for the laws of nature:
(a) The laws of nature are logically necessary. I suspect the law of conservation of matter and energy is logically necessary. “One plus one equals two” is also logically necessary. If you think about it, new matter and energy could not result from zero matter and energy, because that would be like saying that zero plus zero equals one, which is a logical impossibility.
(b) At the quantum level things don’t always behave lawfully: sometimes one thing happens, sometimes another thing happens. Human beings only see things that result from millions of quantum events. The basic result brought about by large numbers of chance events is more predictable than any single chance event alone is. Casinos know this. What happens when any one person sits down to play is largely unpredictable. They may very well win some money. They may very well lose some money. But when thousands of people sit down to play, the casino knows the end result.
I think the typical physicist view needs to be turned on its head: instead of trying to account for laws as somehow existing ‘outside’ the universe and imposing themselves on it, we ought to conceive of laws as arising from inside the universe; arising directly from the nature and structure of the things within it.
The article closes with this:
‘If I think the future’s already written, then the things that are most valuable about being human are illusions along with time,’ Smolin said. ‘We still aspire to make choices in life. That is a precious part of our humanity. If the real metaphysical picture is that there are just atoms moving in the void, then nothing is ever new and nothing’s ever surprising — it’s just the rearrangement of atoms. There’s a loss of responsibility as well as a loss of human dignity.’
I disagree strongly with Smolin’s view, see A Tippling Philosopher’s blog on the subject or Dan Dennett’s Freedom Evolves. It boils down to this: the outcomes of your choices/decisions are utterly dependent upon you. Upon who you are. Upon your desires, knowledge, and fundamental nature. A deterministic view which says that your actions result inevitably from your desires and such doesn’t deny you freedom, it affirms it. You are a collection of personality traits, habits, desires, stored knowledge and beliefs about the world, and these things are ultimately just physical parts of your physical brain. So to say that you chose to eat a chicken sandwich yesterday afternoon is to say that the aspects I described above (personality traits, desires, etc., which are really just physical parts of the brain) determined the fact that you ate a chicken sandwich instead of a salad, oatmeal, or nothing at all. There’s a lot to explore with this point of view that I haven’t covered, but I find that this is a satisfying and sensible account of free will, and I’ll end on that note.