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What Is the Relational Universe and Quantum Cosmology?

In this article, you'll get a brief overview of Lee Smolin's work, including discussions of the relational universe and quantum cosmology.

In this article, you'll get a brief overview of Lee Smolin's work, including discussions of the relational universe and quantum cosmology.

Who Is Lee Smolin?

Lee Smolin is a rare talent. He not only has developed radical new ideas of physics, but he communicates it in such a manner that I feel I have the idea at hand and can grasp the implications of the work. And they are huge, paradigm-changing ideas. And if he happens to be right then perhaps, we will gain a deeper understanding of how reality is instead of how we perceive it—or want to, for that matter.

A Humanless Universe

Humans love patterns, that much is clear. Our behavior, structure, and endeavors all mirror that basic acknowledgment. And a part of that is the interdependence of everything onto everything. Nothing is truly isolated, and all things impact another. This is true for space and time, despite our instinctual cues telling us space is absolute. That was certainly the viewpoint in Newtonian times, but after Einstein’s relativity, that mindset was no longer sustainable. And it’s really no surprise we go to the absolute viewpoint by default, for our daily activities fail to reveal the conditional nature of reality (Smolin 18-9).

It gets even worse with quantum mechanics, which reduces events down to probability events. As Smolin puts it, “the main lesson of relativity and quantum theory is that the world is nothing more but an evolving network of relationships.” It is this stance that has changed how I view reality, and it has profound scientific and philosophical implications (Ibid).

Smolin’s idea of a relationship-based viewpoint reflects the lack of an external order to the Universe that necessarily brought us into being. This isn’t denying a deity, it’s just a reflection of the known laws of the Universe do not guarantee the existence of life nor that brings life into being. Instead, we have a Universe that is constantly changing and evolving into a new state. It implies a relational view of space as advocated by Leibniz and ultimately confirmed by Einstein, but even further than it is the reinforcement that our own life has a deep connection that we may not be seeing (20-1).

To illustrate this, try removing humans from the equation of physics and see if we get the same results. We have to take care not to inject science with subjectivity, for sure, but we want to see how the Universe would operate without us in it. We need to know how things work but there is a limit to this. One part of it has to do with light cones or a causal mapping of what can be influenced in a given region as defined by how far light has gone. Remember that light is the Universal max speed, so anything outside of its ability to reflect and send info to us remains an unknown. Anything beyond the cone remains an unknown, for we have no way to verify/deny anything existing outside of it (26-7).

How about logic? True or false, binary value assignments. We should be able to discern reality based upon this independent of human beings, no? Yes…for whatever values you have at the present. And gee, we are limited by what we know at any given moment. There is an inherent indeterminate value to anything we know – or don’t know. “We must conclude that the ability to judge whether a statement is true or false depends in some extent on the relationship between the observer and the subject of the statement,” aka observer-dependent logic (27-30).

So the trouble with a human-less Universe is that we cannot know what that would be, we can only speculate. We have to have observer dependence, which is weird from a pure science approach of total objectivity. Each person brings different information to the table and through it all we develop a better understanding of reality. This is amazing to me. Smolin is advocating for a relational universe that is defined by the links connecting to other links in a long causal chain that weaves through reality!


This relational viewpoint offers solutions to the difficulties of quantum mechanics, which has so many different interpretations that seem to depend on the relationship between the theory and the observer. Smolin claims many of the problems disappear when quantum mechanics is applied to a Universal scale, but this is a hard way to go about thinking quantumly. After all, isn’t it about the world of the small? That is at least what the superposition principle implies. The tinier we examine a system, the more possible layouts of the objects we are looking at become fuzzier to distinguish according to probability functions (33-5).

But now rethink this in terms of Smolin’s relations. Those states that stack up are based upon how we relate the known information of the physical system to what it truly is, so uncertainty is inherently there. In fact, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle ensures that precision is impossible. We will have a probability fluctuation with any given info at any given time (35).

So why does it seem as though this is so far removed from our everyday experience? Why don’t macroscopic objects have an inherent fuzziness to them? Well, quantumly, over a long period of time...we do! It isn’t a big stretch to show how human lives are not strictly determined, but rather as a series of stages whose final outcome becomes clearer the further along we live (Ibid).

If superposition can be applied to the entire Universe, then we would have Quantum Cosmology. Work by Smolin, Ted Jacobson, and Carlo Rovelli in the 1980s was able to model some of the implications of this idea, one of which would be a solution to quantum gravity. But before I get ahead of myself, you may be wondering why anyone would object to quantum mechanics being applied to the entire Universe? It has to do with the measurement problem, which requires something to take a reading on a system in order to collapse it (Smolin 40-2, Murphey).

Quantum Cosmology would place the observer in the system, which is weird…from a quantum POV. It led to many different interpretations over the years and not much resolution. Smolin suspects this is because many of our theories are somewhat of a house of cards, with approximations being used to approximate other things and so on. Science is all about controlling initial conditions which in reality we cannot do, being a part of the ongoing evolution of the Universe. We can get to wildly different places if the initial assumptions differ even slightly (Ibid).

And it’s certainly an understandable practice, for we like approximations as they simplify the situation to something manageable. The problem them is in the scaling back of these to greater and greater complexity in order to get to the actual theory. So maybe the approximations we have been using removed the observer from the system and the true theory requires it to be in the system and experience the world through its relationships. But how? (Ibid)

Quantum Approaches

Maybe it’s not a matter of getting observer into the Universe but into their own system. You see, we only know as much as what light tells us, for it’s the absolute speed limit of information transmission of the Universe. Things are happening across the Universe that we are not aware of and yet somehow our theory tells us they should impact us. We cannot control how the experiment we call the Universe started and so we have to hypothesize about it (Smolin 46, Murphey).

In fact, no experiment can truly have initial conditions for this reason. This has led to the idea of an observer-dependent domain restrictions to quantum mechanics. Different observers across different parts of the Universe see things in different ways. It’s essentially a “relative” quantum theory we are implicating, and many versions of it are out there (Ibid).

Take for example the Topos-Theory-Based Quantum Mechanics. Developed by Chris Isham and Jeremy Butterfield, it has a “context dependence as the central feature” of the math behind quantum mechanics using topos, a branch of topological mathematics. It’s hard though to communicate the theory because of the dependence “on the context of the person doing the talking” (Smolin 46).

There is also relational quantum theory, developed by Smolin, Louis Crane, and Carlo Rovelli. It takes all quantum viewpoints of a system to be true and finds the interconnections by asking the same question to each observer and seeing the common picture by applying the Topos-Theory-Based mechanics. Both people should end up seeing the same thing, so that can be a template for commonality (47).

And really, this is what is at the heart of physics. We are constantly striving for a complete theory of reality that can never be fully achieved. Instead, physics aims for constant revision and acknowledges in its best moments the inherent limitations of humanity so we may strive for more. We need to take care of our relationship to the Universe.

Works Cited

Murphy, Paul Austin. “Lee Smolin & Nancy Cartwright on Doing Physics in Quantum and Classical Boxes.” A Medium Corporation, 23 Dec. 2019. Web. 25 Jan. 2021.

Smolin, Lee. Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. Basic Books, Great Britain. 2001. Print. 18-21, 26-30, 33-5, 40-2, 46-7.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Leonard Kelley