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.

Emergence of Complexity

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

7.3 Emergence of complexity
As the universe evolves an increase of complexity takes place in local systems as new kinds of objects come into being that did not exist before—nuclei, atoms, stars and galaxies, planets, life, consciousness, and products of the mind such as books and computers.  New kinds of physical states come into being at late times such as Bose-Einstein condensates, that plausibly cannot exist without the intervention of intelligent beings.

The first atoms formed about 400 thousand years after the Big Bang.  The first stars, at about 100 million years.  The emergence of atoms, stars, planets, life, intelligence, humans, morality, a Brahms symphony, etc. are a natural consequence of all the physical laws that existed at the moment of the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.  There is nothing supernatural about the unfolding of the universe, remarkable as it is.  It is a completely natural process.  The only possibility of anything supernatural, I believe, is the cause of the Big Bang itself.  And, without scientific evidence…

We may never know or be able to understand the Big Bang, but the parturient possibilities contained in that creative moment are truly mind boggling: all that we see around us, all that was and is yet to be, existed then in a nascent state.  The universe as it evolves is not merely moving the furniture around, but it is creating entirely new structures and entities that never existed before.

Through the emergence of intelligence across billions of years, the universe has, at last, become self-aware.  Our consciousness is its consciousness.

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.

What Is and What Might Have Been

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

Thesis E2: We cannot take the nature of the laws of physics for granted.
One cannot take the existence and nature of the laws of physics (and hence of chemistry) as unquestionable in cosmology—which seems to be the usual habit in biological discussions on the origin and evolution of life.  This is in stark contrast to the rest of science, where we are content to take the existence and nature of the laws describing the fundamental behaviour of matter as given and unchangeable.  Cosmological investigation is interested in the properties of hypothetical universes with different physical behaviour.  Consideration of ‘what might have been’ is a useful cosmological speculation that may help throw light on what actually is; this is a statement of the usefulness of ‘Gedanken experiments‘ in cosmology.

Practical science, engineering, and technology are prescriptive.  If we do a, we know from experience that b will occur.  Using the laws of physics, we can predict the location of the Moon as a function of time, put a spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, or build a light bulb that will illuminate.  Though we may be curious, we are not required to know why or how these laws exist—or how they might have been different—only that they do work, time and time again.

Cosmology, though firmly rooted in science, is different.  We are passive observers in a very large and very old universe, and there is no absolute guarantee that the laws of physics that work for us so well in the here and now apply to all places and at all times.  We must attempt to understand the laws of physics in a larger context that does involve some well-reasoned and reasonable speculation.

“Not only does God … play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.” – Stephen Hawking

“Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having the answer.” – Brian Greene

In politics, governance, sociology, and philosophy, too, I would submit to you that consideration of “what might have been” is useful in helping us to understand what actually is.  Such reflection, en masse, might even lead to substantive change.

“Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?  We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it.  Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?” – Tony Judt

Getting back to cosmology, however, for the moment…

Indeed if one wants to investigate issues such as why life exists in the universe, consideration of this larger framework—in essence, a hypothetical ensemble of universes with many varied properties—is essential (this is of course not the same as assuming an ensemble of such universes actually exists).  However, we need to be very cautious about using any claimed statistics of universes in such a hypothetical ensemble of all possible or all conceivable universes.  This is usually not well defined, and in any case is only relevant to physical processes if either the ensemble actually exists, rather than being a hypothetical one, or if it is the outcome of processes that produce well-defined probabilities—an untestable proposal.  We can learn from such considerations the nature of possible alternatives, but not necessarily the probability with which they might occur (if that concept has any real meaning).

It is easy to imagine a universe without life.  But we obviously do not live in such a universe.  There may be other universes devoid of life.

For the more thoughtful among us, it is easy to imagine a civilization without war, guns, violence, extrinsic suffering1 caused by others, or deprivation.  Obviously, we do not live in such a society.  But how can we say it is impossible, or even improbable?  It would be easy to find many millions of people in the world even today that would never fight in a war, would never own or use a gun, who would never resort to violence, who would never cause others to suffer, and who would make eliminating deprivation and poverty a top priority.  The question for the scientists is: what is wrong with the rest of us?

1Extrinsic suffering is suffering caused by others or circumstances completely outside of one’s control.  Intrinsic suffering, on the other hand, is self-inflicted—through our own failings, poor judgement, or mistakes that we make.

Growing Older

As we grow older,
That which is older grows upon us.
Time accelerates,
And the world seems a smaller place.

The years go by like months,
The months go by like weeks,
The weeks go by like days,
The days go by like hours,
And the hours go by like minutes.

And our world which in our youth was all that we knew
Slowly reveals itself to be a surprisingly alien place,
Full of centuries of hard work, unlikely events, and compromise:
The world could be a very different (and better) place,
Even within the confines of human nature.

Taken to its natural conclusion
Were we each to live for millennia, perhaps longer
We would find eternity in an instant
And infinity at the door.

David Oesper

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.