Physics until recently has been the effort to discover the universal set of laws underlying the way the universe runs. To do so, the theories have had to get ever more bizarre — an infinite number of parallel quantum universes, 11 or more dimensions, inflation at the start of the universe, etc. All these become necessary to pursue theories that hope to be the grand “theory of everything,” a full explanation of why the physical world works as it does.
Yet, according to this month’s issue of Discover, there are reasons to doubt that there is an unchanging set of universal laws governing how the world operates. One reason is the incompatibility between relativity and quantum mechanics between the macro and micro worlds. Since the incompatibilities are very minor when dealing with very small units (subatomic particles) this doesn’t usually cause a problem. When trying to understand physics at the time of the “big bang,” however, you need both to coincide.
In some ways, calling into question the quest for a theory of everything isn’t as radical as it seems. Newton’s “clockwork universe” so defined physics before Einstein that the shift relativity and quantum mechanics brought was disturbing to the dominant world view. Even Einstein could not accept what quantum mechanics was serving up. Newton’s world was orderly and perfect, if you could know at any one time the position and speed of all objects, you could calculate back to know the past, and forward to know the future. It ran like a machine, put in motion by some “Prime Mover.” The need for an entity to put the world in motion was also a strong argument for the existence of God.
But what kind of world do we have if there are no absolutely universal laws; and what reason could there be to question them? Last year Discover had an article about the biocentric theory of the universe. This theory is radical, it posits the universe as having been created by life, not the other way around. Philosophically this is reminiscent of philosophers such as Bishop Berkeley, who correctly noted that we don’t ever truly experience reality, but only our senses of it. Reality, for Berkeley, was a persuasive illusion.
This year’s article (which I cannot find a link to) has a variety of other challenges to the idea of one set of timeless universal laws. One notes, simply, that if time is real, and time is all about change, then why should we expect timeless universal laws to underlie it? His approach (Lee Smolin, who has been working with social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger — who posited an anti-statist notion of socialism back in the 80s) notes that the quest for a single set of laws leads to bizarre equations that cannot be measured, seen, or really even clearly imagined. That could mean that the world is really bizarre, with paradoxes and apparent contradictions that we need to find some kind of solution for, or it could mean that the premise is wrong — the search for an underlying order is misguided.
Another, Stuart Kauffman, an evolutionary biologist, believes that perhaps the universe itself, including the laws that drive it, is evolving. The laws that govern physics now may not be the same some distant point in the past. Finally, Andreas Albright comes to his challenge through his own efforts to understand the time shortly after the big bang. He found that there is no way to calculate it back to provide a single “ticktock version” of how events unfolded. It could be that time operated under different laws in those circumstances.
I think what’s happening here is simply the next step of demolishing the Newtonian view of the world as a clearly ordered place operating under laws of nature which have a clear, logical coherence. This enlightenment effort to posit a world we can understand, once we get enough data and analysis, was rooted in a kind of human arrogance – a belief we are capable of really understanding the forces which drive our existence.
I’ve used the “ant in the White House” analogy before. An ant in the White House has a world that it explores and lives in, making sense to its limited capacity. The idea of the President living there, American politics, or even the complexity of the human world is completely and totally un-knowable to the ant. The ant might get stepped on, walk across the oval office desk, or interact directly with this world — but it can’t understand it.
I believe that is probably more true for us than our human arrogance wants to accept. For my money, I find the biocentric theory the most intriguing. I would say, though, that it’s not life that creates the universe, because life as we understand it scientifically is a biological and material phenomenon. Rather, some spark of life — commonly known as spirit — would have to drive the universe and create it. Matter may be, as Berkeley argued, a persuasive illusion. Berkeley thought reality was really akin to a dream of God’s. A biocentric universe holds open the possibility of religious and spiritual explanations for the existence of the world, something many enlightenment scientists find either unpersuasive or too reminiscent of traditional mythology. Yet even if we doubt the literal truth of those myths and stories, perhaps there is some symbolic truth behind them.
And really, if there were one underlying mechanical/material set of laws that defined the universe, wouldn’t that leave the question open of why there is something rather than nothing? How could a reality with fine tuned laws just exist? For Rousseau, Voltaire and the Deists, who doubted Christian theology, this was enough to posit the existence of an “intelligent designer.” A biocentric theory does give us an “intelligent designer” – life, or the life force, or the spirit which animates life.
There is something ironic about Max Planck discovering quantum mechanics at the end of the 18th century. Physcists at that time had been convinced they solved almost all issues regarding how the physical world worked, and Planck was advised to look for a more interesting field. He decided to try to focus on a few remaining puzzles in physics, and that led him to his discovery that, along with Einstein’s theories, would destroy the old Newtonian world view. Now physicists have a similar sense that they are close to a “theory of everything,” and that it’s just a matter of tying up some puzzles about, say, incompatibilities between quantum mechanics and relativity. There will still be things to learn, but there is a sense that the standard model of particle physics along with relativity and quantum mechanics gives us a general sense of what the world is all about. The big discoveries have been made, or at least theorized (e.g., the Higgs boson).
But maybe we’re on the verge of another dose of humility — perhaps we are much farther from understanding the underlying nature of the universe than we believe. It could be that the whole idea of a timeless material set of laws has misguided western science for centuries. It might even be that the apparent dismissal of the “spiritual” by enlightenment thought was premature. That leaves us a lot more questions, but few clear answers.