Where do the laws of nature come from? Great question. Here's an equally good one: Where do the laws of nature reside?
I've always wondered about this.
Science has found that the universe is remarkably well-ordered. Mathematics describes its fundamental laws (such as gravity and electromagnetism) so perfectly, Paul Dirac said, "If there is a God, he's a great mathematician."
But how does every bit of matter know how to obey the law of gravity? Where's the software, the program, that controls the hardware of the universe? Or are these even meaningful questions?
I used to think that they were. I wondered why science books didn't contain a lot of philosophy.
Instead of just describing the laws of nature, I wanted scientists to ponder whether those laws existed in an ethereal Platonic realm of pure mathematics separate from material existence, or were part and parcel of the physical universe (to name but two possibilities).
Physicist Paul Davies takes the two "where" questions above seriously. That's admirable.
But the big question about those questions is: Can any human being, no matter how wise or intelligent, attempt to explain the source of the laws of nature in any meaningful fashion?
My answer, which is echoed by others more knowledgeable about these matters than me, is "No."
That's why I can title this post the way I did, even though I haven't read Davies' book, "Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life." (There needs to be a question mark in the subtitle, for sure.)
A Church of the Churchless commenter pointed me to an New York Times essay by Davies, "Taking Science on Faith." His thesis is summed up in the final two paragraphs :
It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.
In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
The last sentence strikes me as ridiculous. I have no idea what Davies is talking about.
In the essay he says science has decided on "faith" that the laws of nature exist outside of the universe. That's news to me, as I'm pretty sure it would be to virtually every scientist.
Chad Orzel, another physicist, doesn't find the questions Davies grapples with to be very compelling. Like most scientists, he's interested in the practicalities of how the laws of nature operate, not why they exist.
In his review of Davies' book, Orzel says that it's hard to write about a topic you can't take seriously.
If you ask me what the constants of nature are, that's a well-formed question. I can do a measurement, and find a value. If you ask me why the constants of nature have the values they do, that's not a well-formed question.
There's no measurement I can do to answer that, and as a result, I just don't find it that compelling. If it scratches your teleological itch, great, but as far as I'm concerned, it's vaguely interesting to debate in a casual bull-session manner, but not really worth the effort of writing a three hundred page book.
I have a lot of respect for Paul Davies. I've read quite a few of his books. I included copious quotes from them in my book about mysticism and the new physics, "God's Whisper, Creation's Thunder."
Still, Davies strikes me as a scientist who brings religion into his work through ungrounded philosophical speculation.
His ideas sometimes sound like what you'd expect from a bunch of stoners sitting around smoking dope and musing on What It's All About. "Man, there could be a whole universe in one molecule of that smoke, and we could just be a puff of hot air in the Big Dude's hookah pipe!"
For example, Alejandro's thoughtful review of "Cosmic Jackpot" notes that Davies criticizes the anthropic principle, which generally posits a multitude of universes in addition to ours, because he feels it is much more likely that we'd be living in a computer simulation of a universe than in a real one.
Well, I liked The Matrix as a movie. But I wouldn't base a scientific understanding of reality on it.
So I feel justified in calling "Cosmic Jackpot" an empty payoff, even without having read the book. Davies is asking religious questions. For thousands of years people have speculated about how the universe came to exist, and how it is sustained.
Religion hasn't come up with any believable answers.
And while I've got a lot more confidence in science than in religion, I'm seriously skeptical that a scientific explanation of where the laws of nature come from is going to be found either.
I could be wrong, of course. It simply seems that Davies is asking unanswerable questions. To definitively know the source of the laws of nature that formed our universe, seemingly you'd have to get outside of it – the universe.
If you were part of a computer simulation, how could you know about the programmer? If you're wandering in a maze, how would you be able to figure out who constructed it?
Davies believes that it's possible to comprehend the whys and wherefores of the laws of nature, even though we're all part and parcel of those laws.
I can't see my own eyes without the aid of a mirror. Where's the mirror that lets us observe the universe from an outside perspective?
Religions claim that such a "mirror" exists – in revelation, prophets, mystic experience. I doubt it. I also doubt that science ever will be able to get an objective view of the laws of nature, as Davies thinks is possible.
The universe is. So are we. That might be the best answer to the fundamental questions of existence we'll ever be able to come up with.