The Laws of Physics and the Existence of Life

George F. R. Ellis writes in Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology:

The first requirement is the existence of laws of physics that guarantee the kind of regularities that can underlie the existence of life.  These laws as we know them are based on variational and symmetry principles; we do not know if other kinds of laws could produce complexity.  If the laws are in broad terms what we presently take them to be, the following inter alia need to be right, for life of the general kind we know to exist:

  • Quantization that stabilizes matter and allows chemistry to exist through the Pauli exclusion principle.

  • The neutron-proton mass differential must be highly constrained.  If the neutron mass were just a little less than it is, proton decay could have taken place so that by now no atoms would be left at all.

  • Electron-proton charge equality is required to prevent massive electrostatic forces overwhelming the weaker electromagnetic forces that govern chemistry.

  • The strong nuclear force must be strong enough that stable nuclei exist; indeed complex matter exists only if the properties of the nuclear strong force lies in a tightly constrained domain relative to the electromagnetic force.

  • The chemistry on which the human body depends involves intricate folding and bonding patterns that would be destroyed if the fine structure constant (which controls the nature of chemical bonding) were a little bit different.

  • The number D of large spatial dimensions must be just 3 for complexity to exist.

It should not be too surprising that we find ourselves in a universe whose laws of physics are conducive to the existence of semi-intelligent life.  After all, we are here.  What we do not know—and will probably never know: Is this the only universe that exists?  This is an important question, because if there are many universes with different laws of physics, our existence in one of them may be inevitable.  If, on the other hand, this is the only universe, then the fantastic claims of the theists, or at least the deists, become more plausible.

You may wonder why I call the human race semi-intelligent.  Rest assured, I am not being sarcastic or sardonic.  I say “semi-intelligent” to call attention to humanity’s remarkable technological and scientific achievements while also noting our incredible ineptness at eradicating war, violence, greed, and poverty from the world.  What is wrong with us?

G.F.R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

Where Cosmology Meets Philosophy

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

The physical explanatory power of inflation in terms of structure formation, supported by the observational data on the fluctuation spectra, is spectacular.  For most physicists, this trumps the lack of identification and experimental verification of the underlying physics.  Inflation provides a causal model that brings a wider range of phenomena into what can be explained by cosmology, rather than just assuming the initial data had a specific restricted form.  Explaining flatness (Ω0 ≅ 1 as predicted by inflation) and homogeneity reinforces the case, even though these are philosophical rather than physical problems (they do not contradict any physical law; things could just have been that way).  However claims on the basis of this model as to what happens very far outside the visual horizon (as in the chaotic inflationary theory) results from prioritizing theory over the possibility of observational and experimental testing.  It will never be possible to prove these claims are correct.

Inflation is one compelling approach to explaining the structure we see in the universe today.  It is not necessarily the only one, but it currently has the most support.  Basically, a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded dramatically.  Around 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang the universe had a diameter on the order of 1.2 × 10-27 meters.  To put that size in perspective, the diameter of a proton is between 0.84-0.87 × 10−15 meters.  So, when inflation began, the entire universe had a diameter almost a trillion times smaller than a single proton!  10-34 seconds later when the inflationary period was coming to an end, the size of the universe was a little over half the distance to Alpha Centauri!

The basic underlying cosmological questions are:
(1)  Why do the laws of physics have the form they do?  Issues arise such as what makes particular laws work?  For example, what guarantees the behaviour of a proton, the pull of gravity?  What makes one set of physical laws ‘fly’ rather than another?  If for example one bases a theory of cosmology on string theory, then who or what decided that quantum gravity would have a nature well described by string theory?  If one considers all possibilities, considering string theory alone amounts to a considerable restriction.
(2)  Why do boundary conditions have the form they do?  The key point here is, how are specific contingent choices made between the various possibilities, for example whether there was an origin to the universe or not.
(3)  Why do any laws of physics at all exist?  This relates to unsolved issues concerning the nature of the laws of physics: are they descriptive or prescriptive?  Is the nature of matter really mathematically based in some sense, or does it just happen that its behaviour can be described in a mathematical way?
(4)  Why does anything exist?  This profound existential question is a mystery whatever approach we take.

The answer to such questions may be beyond the limits of experimental science, or even beyond the limits of our intellect.  Maybe, even, these questions are as meaningless as “What lies north of the north pole?1because of our limited intellect.  Many would claim that because there appears to be limits to what science or human intellect can presently explain, that this constitutes evidence for the existence of God.  It does not.  Let’s just leave it as we don’t know.

Finally, the adventurous also include in these questions the more profound forms of the contentious Anthropic question:
(5)  Why does the universe allow the existence of intelligent life?
This is of somewhat different character than the others and largely rests on them but is important enough to generate considerable debate in its own right.

Well, a seemingly flippant answer to this question is we wouldn’t be here if it didn’t, but that begs the question.  Perhaps intelligent life is the mechanism by which the universe becomes self-aware, or is this just wishful thinking?  In the end, I am willing to admit that there may be some higher power in the universe—in the scientific pantheist and humanist sense—but I will stop short of calling that “God” in any usual sense of the term.

The status of all these questions is philosophical rather than scientific, for they cannot be resolved purely scientifically.  How many of them—if any—should we consider in our construction of and assessments of cosmological theories?

Perhaps the limitations of science (and, therefore, cosmology) is more a manifestation of the limitations of our human intellect than any constraint on the universe itself.

One option is to decide to treat cosmology in a strictly scientific way, excluding all the above questions, because they cannot be solved scientifically.  One ends up with a solid technical subject that by definition excludes such philosophical issues.  This is a consistent and logically viable option.  This logically unassailable position however has little explanatory power; thus most tend to reject it.

Let’s call this physical cosmology.

The second option is to decide that these questions are of such interest and importance that one will tackle some or all of them, even if that leads one outside the strictly scientific arena.  If we try to explain the origin of the universe itself, these philosophical choices become dominant precisely because the experimental and observational limits on the theory are weak; this can be seen by viewing the variety of such proposals that are at present on the market.

And let’s call this metaphysical cosmology.

1Attributed to Stephen Hawking

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

Ryden, Barbara. 2003.  Introduction to Cosmology. San Francisco: Addison Wesley.