In the June 2005 issue of Physics Today there is an article by Lee Smolin with the provocative (or evocative) title, Why No ‘New Einstein’? That year marked the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein‘s annus mirabilis (year of wonders), in which the 26-year-old Swiss patent examiner submitted and had published revolutionary papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and matter-energy equivalence in a prominent German physics journal, Annalen der Physik. These papers were so important that they completely changed the course of physics and led to great opportunities for Einstein to further develop his career as a physicist.
Here are some excerpts from Smolin’s article.
“Many of Einstein’s contemporaries testified that he was not unusually talented mathematically. Instead, what enabled him to make such tremendous advances was a driving need to understand the logic of nature, tied to a breathtaking creativity and a fierce intellectual independence.”
“Perhaps a lesson might be learned from the fact that this one person, who was initially unable to find an academic job, did more to advance physics than most of the rest of us [physicists] put together have since.”
“It follows that new Einsteins are unlikely to be easily characterized in terms of research programs that have been well explored for decades. Instead, a new Einstein will be developing his or her own research program that, by definition, will be one that no senior person works on.”
“Are our universities, institutes, and foundations doing all they can to identify and promote individuals who have the creativity and intellectual independence that characterize those who contribute most to physics? I say that they are not.”
“People with the uncanny ability to ask new questions or recognize unexamined assumptions, or who are able to take ideas from one field and apply them to another, are often at a disadvantage when the goal is to hire the best person in a given well-established area.”
“It is easy to write many papers when you continue to apply well-understood techniques. People who develop their own ideas have to work harder for each result, because they are simultaneously developing new ideas and the techniques to explore them. Hence they often publish fewer papers, and their papers are cited less frequently than those that contribute to something hundreds of people are doing.”
9.1.6 The metaphysical options …there appear to be basically six approaches to the issue of ultimate causation: namely Random Chance, Necessity, High Probability, Universality, Cosmological Natural Selection, and Design. We briefly consider these in turn. Option 1: Random Chance, signifying nothing. The initial conditions in the Universe just happened, and led to things being the way they are now, by pure chance. Probability does not apply. There is no further level of explanation that applies; searching for ‘ultimate causes’ has no meaning. This is certainly logically possible, but not satisfying as an explanation, as we obtain no unification of ideas or predictive power from this approach. Nevertheless some implicitly or explicitly hold this view. Option 2: Necessity. Things have to be the way they are; there is no other option. The features we see and the laws underlying them are demanded by the unity of the Universe: coherence and consistency require that things must be the way they are; the apparent alternatives are illusory. Only one kind of physics is self-consistent: all logically possible universes must obey the same physics. To really prove this would be a very powerful argument, potentially leading to a self-consistent and complete scientific view. But we can imagine alternative universes! —why are they excluded? Furthermore we run here into the problem that we have not succeeded in devising a fully self-consistent view of physics: neither the foundations of quantum physics nor of mathematics are on a really solid consistent basis. Until these issues are resolved, this line cannot be pursued to a successful conclusion. Option 3: High probability. Although the structure of the Universe appears very improbable, for physical reasons it is in fact highly probable. These arguments are only partially successful, even in their own terms. They run into problems if we consider the full set of possibilities: discussions proposing this kind of view actually implicitly or explicitly restrict the considered possibilities a priori, for otherwise it is not very likely the Universe will be as we see it. Besides, we do not have a proper measure to apply to the set of initial conditions, enabling us to assess these probabilities. Furthermore, application of probability arguments to the Universe itself is dubious, because the Universe is unique. Despite these problems, this approach has considerable support in the scientific community, for example it underlies the chaotic inflationary proposal. It attains its greatest power in the context of the assumption of universality: Option 4: Universality. This is the stand that “All that is possible, happens”: an ensemble of universes or of disjoint expanding universe domains is realized in reality, in which all possibilities occur. In its full version, the anthropic principle is realized in both its strong form (if all that is possible happens, then life must happen) and its weak form (life will only occur in some of the possibilities that are realized; these are picked out from the others by the WAP, viewed as a selection principle). There are four ways this has been pursued. 1: Spatial variation. The variety of expanding universe domains is realised in space through random initial conditions, as in chaotic inflation. While this provides a legitimate framework for application of probability, from the viewpoint of ultimate explanation it does not really succeed, for there is still then one unique Universe whose (random) initial conditions need explanation. Initial conditions might be globally statistically homogeneous, but also there could be global gradients in some physical quantities so that the Universe is not statistically homogeneous; and these conditions might be restricted to some domain that does not allow life. It is a partial implementation of the ensemble idea; insofar as it works, it is really a variant of the “high probability” idea mentioned above. If it was the more or less unique outcome of proven physics, then that would provide a good justification; but the physics underlying such proposals is not even uniquely defined, much less tested. Simply claiming a particular scalar field with some specific stated potential exists does not prove that it exists! 2: Time variation. The variety of expanding universe domains could be realised across time, in a universe that has many expansion phases (a Phoenix universe), whether this occurs globally or locally. Much the same comments apply as in the previous case. 3: Quantum Mechanical. It could occur through the existence of the Everett-Wheeler “many worlds” of quantum cosmology, where all possibilities occur through quantum branching. This is one of the few genuine alternatives proposed to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which leads to the necessity of an observer, and so potentially to the Strong Anthropic interpretation considered above. The many-worlds proposal is controversial: it occurs in a variety of competing formulations, none of which has attained universal acceptance. The proposal does not provide a causal explanation for the particular events that actually occur: if we hold to it, we then have to still explain the properties of the particular history we observe (for example, why does our macroscopic universe have high symmetries when almost all the branchings will not?). And above all it is apparently untestable: there is no way to experimentally prove the existence of all those other branching universes, precisely because the theory gives the same observable predictions as the standard theory. 4: Completely disconnected. They could occur as completely disconnected universes: there really is an ensemble of universes in which all possibilities occur, without any connection with each other. A problem that arises then is, What determines what is possible? For example, what about the laws of logic themselves? Are they inviolable in considering all possibilities? We cannot answer, for we have no access to this multitude of postulated worlds. We explore this further below. In all these cases, major problems arise in relating this view to testability and so we have to query the meaningfulness of the proposals as scientific explanations. They all contradict Ockham’s razor: we “solve” one issue at the expense of envisaging an enormously more complex existential reality. Furthermore, they do not solve the ultimate question: Why does this ensemble of universes exist? One might suggest that ultimate explanation of such a reality is even more problematic than in the case of single universe. Nevertheless this approach has an internal logic of its own which some find compelling. Option 5: Cosmological Natural Selection. If a process of re-expansion after collapse to a black hole were properly established, it opens the way to the concept not merely of evolution of the Universe in the sense that its structure and contents develop in time, but in the sense that the Darwinian selection of expanding universe regions could take place, as proposed by Smolin. The idea is that there could be collapse to black holes followed by re-expansion, but with an alteration of the constants of physics through each transition, so that each time there is an expansion phase, the action of physics is a bit different. The crucial point then is that some values of the constants will lead to production of more black holes, while some will result in less. This allows for evolutionary selection favouring the expanding universe regions that produce more black holes (because of the favourable values of physical constants operative in those regions), for they will have more “daughter” expanding universe regions. Thus one can envisage natural selection favouring those physical constants that produce the maximum number of black holes. The problem here is twofold. First, the supposed ‘bounce’ mechanism has never been fully explicated. Second, it is not clear—assuming this proposed process can be explicated in detail—that the physics which maximizes black hole production is necessarily also the physics that favours the existence of life. If this argument could be made water-tight, this would become probably the most powerful of the multiverse proposals. Option 6: Purpose or Design. The symmetries and delicate balances we observe require an extraordinary coherence of conditions and cooperation of causes and effects, suggesting that in some sense they have been purposefully designed. That is, they give evidence of intention, both in the setting of the laws of physics and in the choice of boundary conditions for the Universe. This is the sort of view that underlies Judaeo-Christian theology. Unlike all the others, it introduces an element of meaning, of signifying something. In all the other options, life exists by accident; as a chance by-product of processes blindly at work. The prime disadvantage of this view, from the scientific viewpoint, is its lack of testable scientific consequences (“Because God exists, I predict that the density of matter in the Universe should be x and the fine structure constant should be y”). This is one of the reasons scientists generally try to avoid this approach. There will be some who will reject this possibility out of hand, as meaningless or as unworthy of consideration. However it is certainly logically possible. The modern version, consistent with all the scientific discussion preceding, would see some kind of purpose underlying the existence and specific nature of the laws of physics and the boundary conditions for the Universe, in such a way that life (and eventually humanity) would then come into existence through the operation of those laws, then leading to the development of specific classes of animals through the process of evolution as evidenced in the historical record. Given an acceptance of evolutionary development, it is precisely in the choice and implementation of particular physical laws and initial conditions, allowing such development, that the profound creative activity takes place; and this is where one might conceive of design taking place. [This is not the same as the view proposed by the ‘Intelligent Design’ movement. It does not propose that God tweaks the outcome of evolutionary processes.] However from the viewpoint of the physical sciences per se, there is no reason to accept this argument. Indeed from this viewpoint there is really no difference between design and chance, for they have not been shown to lead to different physical predictions.
A few comments.
1: Random chance. At first, this strikes one as intellectual laziness, but perhaps it is more a reflection of our own intellectual weakness. More on that in a moment.
2: Necessity. Our intellectual journey of discovery and greater understanding must continue, and it may eventually lead us to this conclusion. But not now.
3: High probability. How can we talk about probability when n = 1?
4: Universality. We can hypothesize the existence of other universes, yes, but if we have no way to observe or interact with them, how can we call this endeavor science? Furthermore, explaining the existence of multiple universes seems even more problematic that explaining the existence of a single universe—ours.
5: Cosmological Natural Selection. We do not know that black holes can create other universes, or that universes that contain life are more likely to have laws of physics that allow an abundance of black holes
6. Purpose of Design. The presupposition of design is not evidence of design. It is possible that scientific evidence of a creator or designer might be found in nature—such as an encoded message evincing purposeful intelligence in DNA or the cosmic microwave background—but to date no such evidence has been found. Even if evidence of a creator is forthcoming, how do we explain the existence of the creator?
I would now like to suggest a seventh option (possibly a variant of Ellis’s Option 1 Random Chance or Option 2 Necessity).
7. Indeterminate Due to Insufficient Intelligence. It is at least possible that there are aspects of reality and our origins that may be beyond what humans are currently capable of understanding. For some understanding of how this might be possible, we need look no further than the primates we are most closely related to, and other mammals. Is a chimpanzee self-aware? Can non-humans experience puzzlement? Are animals aware of their own mortality? Even if the answer to all these questions is “yes”1, there are clearly many things humans can do that no other animal is capable of. Why stop at humans? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that there is much that humans are cognitively incapable of?
Why do we humans develop remarkable technologies and yet fail dismally to eradicate poverty, war, and other violence? Why does the world have so many religions if they are not all imperfect and very human attempts to imbue our lives with meaning?
What is consciousness? Will we ever understand it? Can we extrapolate from our current intellectual capabilities to a complete understanding of our origins and the origins of the universe, or is something more needed that we currently cannot even envision?
“Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having the answer.” —Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe
“To ask what happens before the Big Bang is a bit like asking what happens on the surface of the earth one mile north of the North Pole. It’s a meaningless question.” —Stephen Hawking, Interview with Timothy Ferris, Pasadena, 1985
1 For more on the topic of the emotional and cognitive similarities between animals and humans, see “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves” by primatologist Frans de Waal, W. W. Norton & Company (2019). https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DP6MM92 .
References 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. [http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]