Piero Scaruffi(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"
The Nature of the Laws of Nature
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).
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