gregory_benford's picture
Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy, UC-Irvine; Novelist, The Berlin Project
Physicist, UC Irvine; Author, Deep Time

Why is there scientific law at all?

We physicists explain the origin and structure of matter and energy, but not the laws that do this. Does the idea of causation apply to where the laws themselves came from? Even Alan Guth's "free lunch" gives us the universe after the laws start acting. We have narrowed down the range of field theories that can yield the big bang universe we live in, but why do the laws that govern it seem to be constant in time, and always at work?

One can imagine a universe in which laws are not truly lawful. Talk of miracles does just this, when God is supposed to make things work. Physics aims to find The Laws and hopes that these will be uniquely constrained, as when Einstein wondered if God had any choice when He made the universe. One fashionable escape hatch from this asserts that there are infinitely many universes, each sealed off from the others, which can obey any sort of law one can imagine, with parameters or assumptions changed. This "multiverse" view represents the failure of our grand agenda, of course, and seems to me contrary to Occam's Razor—solving our lack of understanding by multiplying unseen entities into infinity.

Perhaps it is a similar philosophical failure of imagination to think, as I do, that when we see order, there is usually an ordering principle. But what can constrain the nature of physical law? Evolution gave us our ornately structured biosphere, and perhaps a similar principle operates in selecting universes. Perhaps our universe arises, then, from selection for intelligences that can make fresh universes, perhaps in high energy physics experiments. Or near black holes (as Lee Smiolin supposed), where space-time gets contorted into plastic forms that can make new space-times. Then an Ur-universe that had intelligence could make others, and this reproduction with perhaps slight variation ion "genetics" drives the evolution of physical law.

Selection arises because only firm laws can yield constant, benign conditions to form new life. Ed Harrison had similar ideas. Once life forms realize this, they could intentionally make more smart universes with the right, fixed laws, to produce ever more grand structures. There might be observable consequences of this prior evolution, If so, then we are an inevitable consequence of the universe, mirroring intelligences that have come before, in some earlier universe that deliberately chose to create more sustainable order. The fitness of our cosmic environment is then no accident. If we find evidence of fine-tuning in the Dyson and Rees sense, then, is this evidence for such views?