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.
brian: I dont think we can ever know what knowledge we can attain at some future date.
lots of well intentioned very well educated people claimed flight as we know it today was impossible.
even on this blog when I introduce some information that is outside the bloggers paradigm they state such things as it is impossible and can even get nasty about it. and of course claim to understand the scientific method and science.
it is not about accepting the information it is the certainty of the rejection that displays these closed minds in action.
how can anyone know what we can or cannot know?
as far as paul davies I have read his books and he is a materialist at heart and believes that cosciousness survives only in the brain.
but the world and life is so complex he doubts that we exist just do to chance.
another materialist physics phd that refuses to look at the evidence of consciousness surviving outside the brain.
again having a phd is no guarantee of a person understanding the scientific method.
nothing should be off limits to science but most scientists make everything off limits that does not agree with their materialistic paradigm.
hey he is doing something right he has been hired for big bucks at the largest university in america.
of course stanford just hired rummy and about to hire condi. those two have been so successful in government I could see how a university would want them to teach their students. got to love those elitist's schools and thier hiring practices.
Posted by: william | November 25, 2007 at 11:10 PM
Actually, I have read the book and I think you might find it a very fun read.
Indeed, even while parts of it are highly speculative.... it raises all sorts of intriguing questions, including the idea of a fake universe, etc.
I think the reviews are misleading, given how he quite honestly summarizes varying positions and possibilties.
Posted by: David Lane | November 26, 2007 at 12:07 AM
“In January 1905, more than a year after the Wrights had first flown, Scientific American carried an article ridiculing the 'alleged' flights that the Wrights claimed to have made. Without a trace of irony, the magazine gave as its main reason for not believing the Wrights the fact that the American press had failed to write anything about them.”
Interesting website about the wisdom of scientists that accept the prevailing scientific paradigms as fact and how most scientists cannot see outside this existing accepted paradigm. The head of the patent office in 1899 went before congress and stated the patent office should be shut down because everything that can be invented has been invented so no need for a patent office.
When it comes to the paranormal the scientific American is still in a state of accepting the existing paradigm of materialism.
Posted by: william | November 27, 2007 at 01:02 AM
Dave, I should buy the book and read it. I've no doubt that Davies discusses intriguing possibilities.
My point is just that so does religion. And philosophies of all sorts. There's a point where Mystery begins, and human experience can't enter.
I'm attracted to that point, as scary as it is (death and mystery are brothers). But I don't believe it's possible to go over the edge into Mystery and come back again.
Davies considers that science can fathom ultimate whys and wherefores of the laws of nature. That would require a god's-eye perspective.
Existence exists. In my opinion we get to a point where that's all that can be said. Which is fine by me, now that I'm in my churchless years.
Posted by: Brian | November 27, 2007 at 10:44 AM
brian may want to check out this site as it is not an NDE but an OBE in a univeristy lab condition that a women was able to leave her body and read a 5 digit number correctly in another room.
one does not have to look at all the crows in the world to see if a crow can be white but only find one white crow to validate that a crow can be white.
this may be the white crow.
Posted by: william | November 27, 2007 at 10:26 PM
upon further review of this OBE we cannot rule out telepathy as the professor knew the 5 digit number. this experiment was done years ago. a random generator would have been a nice touch to rule out telepathy.
I do like his discription between the difference between science and scientism.
for the most part what I see in the world is scientism defending its materialistic paradigm.
Posted by: william | November 27, 2007 at 11:16 PM