I've been needing some cosmic scientific perspective during my morning pre-meditation reading time, given how the coronavirus pandemic dominates the news and peoples' psyches.
Physicist Brian Greene's new book, "Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe," has been meeting that need nicely. He's an excellent writer, thinker, and popularizer of scientific truth.
Here's an example of what appealed to me in the first four chapters. I'm sure I'll be sharing more from the book as I get deeper into it.
Nothing supersedes the laws of physics. I love this bold simple statement. It rings true to me. If you disagree, feel free to leave a comment on this post in which you provide specific, detailed, persuasive, demonstrable evidence of something that lies outside the laws of physics.
Here's passages from the Information and Vitality chapter where Greene makes this persuasive claim.
By this point you may have concluded that life's molecules must have aced their studies of organic chemistry. Otherwise, how in the world would they know what they are supposed to do? How does DNA know to split down the middle and attach complementary bases to the ones it has exposed, creating a duplicate molecule?
How does RNA know to make copies of sections of DNA, transport that information to the appropriate cellular structures where yet other distinct but related molecules know how to read the genetic code and link up appropriate sequences of amino acids into functioning proteins?
Of course, the molecules don't know anything. Their behavior is guided by the blind, mindless, unschooled laws of physics. But the question remains: How do they consistently and reliably carry out a stunningly intricate series of complex chemical processes?
It's a question that harks back to my paraphrasing of Schrodinger's primary query in What is Life?: The jostling and careening of molecules within a rock are governed by the laws of physics. The jostling and careening of molecules within a rabbit are also governed by the laws of physics.
How do they differ?
We have now seen that the rabbit's particles are guided by an additional influence -- the rabbit's internal archive of information, its cellular software. Importantly, critically, vitally: This information does not supersede the laws of physics. Nothing does.
Instead, much as a water slide doesn't supersede the laws of gravity but through its shape guides riders along a specific trajectory they would otherwise not follow, the rabbit's cellular software is carried by chemical arrangements that through their shape, structure, and constituents guide various molecules along trajectories that they, too, would otherwise not follow.
...The point, then, is that information in a cell is not abstract. It is not a free-floating set of instructions that molecules need to study, memorize, and execute.
Instead, the information is encoded in the molecular arrangements themselves, arrangements that coax other molecules to bump or join or interact in a manner that carries out cellular processes like growth, repair, or reproduction. Even though the molecules inhabiting a cell lack intent or purpose, and even though they are thoroughly oblivious, their physical structure allows them to accomplish highly specialized tasks.
In this sense, the processes of life are molecular meanderings fully described by physical law that simultaneously tell a higher-level, information-based story.
For the rock, there is no higher level story. When you use the laws of physics to describe the bumping and jostling of the rock's molecules, you're done. But when you use the very same laws of physics to describe the bumping and jostling of rabbit molecules, you are not done. Not by a long shot.
Overlaid on the reductionist story is a whole additional story that tells of the rabbit's unique molecular arrangements that choreograph an exquisite spectrum of organized molecular motions. And it is these molecular motions which carry out higher-level processes within the rabbit's cells.
Indeed, for the rabbit, and for us, too, such biological information is also organized on larger scales, guiding processes that act not just within individual cells but across collections of cells, yielding the hallmark quality of coordinated complexity. When you reach for a cup of coffee, the motion of every atom constituting every molecule in your hand, arm, body, and brain is fully governed by the laws of physics.
Again, with gusto: Life does not and cannot contravene physical law. Nothing can.
But the fact that a huge number of your molecules can act in concert, coordinating their overall motion to cause your arm to reach out across a table and your hand to clutch a mug, reflects the wealth of biological information, embodied in atomic and molecular arrangements, directing a profusion of complex molecular processes.
Life is physics orchestrated.