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**These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"**

Even with the
sophistication of Relativity Theory, our universe presents us with an
uncomfortable degree of arbitrariness. What is still
not clear is why laws (e.g. Einstein's field equations) and constants
(e.g., the Planck distance) are the way they are. Why is the
universe the way it is? In 1916 the German physicist Arnold Sommerfeld introduced a quantity that he called “fine-structure constant” that combined all the main constants of Physics: the speed of light, the electric charge of the electron, Planck’s constant and the vacuum permittivity. The universe behaves the way it behaves because the value of the fine-structure constant is 1/137. Why 137? (Physicists such as John Barrow and John Webb actually believe that this constant changed over the course of our universe’s life, and our universe is but one of many universes, each with a different value for the fine-structure constant). Furthermore: why
do properties of matter such as electrical charge and mass exert forces on
other matter? Why do things interact at all? The most popular
cosmological models presume that the physical laws we know today were already
in effect at the very beginning, i.e. were born with the universe, and actually
pre-existed it. The laws of Physics are
simply regularities that we observe in nature. They allow us to explain what
happened, and why it happened the way it happened. They also allow us to make
predictions. Science is all about predictions. If we couldn't make predictions,
any study of Nature would be pretty much useless. We can build bridges and
radios because we can make predictions on how things will work. Three aspects of
the fundamental laws are especially puzzling. The first has to
do with the nature of the laws of Nature.
How absolute are they? Some laws can be reduced to other laws. Newton's law of gravitation is but a
special case of Einstein's. It was not
properly a law of Nature, it was an effect of a law of nature that Newton did
not know. These days, we are witnessing
a quest for a unification theory, a theory that will explain all four known
forces (weak, nuclear, electric and gravitational) in one “megaforce”: if the
program succeeds, we will have proved that those four forces were effects, not
causes. Is the second law of Thermodynamics a law indeed, or just the effect of
something else? After all, the
laws as we study them today in textbooks are the product of a historical
process of scientific discovery. Had
history been different (had progress followed a different route) we may have
come up with a description of the universe based on different laws, that would
equally well fit (individually) all the phenomena we are aware of. The second question
is why are they mathematical formulas. Mathematics is a human invention, but it
is amazing how well it describes the universe.
True, Mathematics is more a discovery process than an invention process.
But, even so, it is a discovery of facts that occur in the realm of
mathematical ideas (theorems and the likes). It is amazing that facts occurring
in that abstract realm reflect so well facts that occur in the physical realm. Most Mathematics
that is employed today so effectively for describing physical phenomena was
worked out decades and even centuries before by mathematicians interested only
in abstract mathematical problems. The rule almost never fails: sooner or later
a physical phenomenon will be discovered that perfectly matches a mathematical
theory. It feels like the universe is a foreign movie, subtitled in
mathematical language. Even more
intriguing is the fact that the world of Mathematics is accessible by the human
mind. Our bodies have privileged access to physical space, our minds have privileged
access to the notes that describe it. We get both treats. The body perceives physical reality through
the senses, the mind perceives mathematical reality through reasoning. The third
question is whether they are truly eternal. Were they always the same? Will
they always be the same? Naturally, if
the answer is negative, then we don't know anything. It would seem
more likely that they are part of the universe and therefore came to be
precisely when the universe came to be. In that case it would therefore be
impossible to compute a model of how the universe was born, because we don't
know which laws (if any) were in place before the universe was born! (We don't even
know for sure whether the laws of Nature are the same in the whole universe. We
don't even know if they have been the same all the time or if they have been
changing over time). Similar
arguments hold for the "constants" of Physics, for the dimensionless
parameters that shape the laws of nature, in particular for the speed of light,
the Planck constant, and the charge of the electron. Why
do they have the value they have? Einstein asked: did God have a choice when he created the universe? Could
those numbers be different, or are they the only combination that yields a
stable universe? A famous formula has been puzzling scientists: the square of
the charge of the electron divided by the speed of light and by the Planck
constant is almost exactly 1/137. Why? We don't have a
science of natural laws which studies where laws come from. Laws are assumed to transcend the universe,
to exist besides and despite the existence of a universe. But that's a rather
arbitrary conclusion (or, better, premise). Back to the beginning of the chapter "The New Physics" | Back to the index of all chapters |