I have no background in science, but I try to keep up on a few subjects because they interest me. Physics and cosmology, for instance. (Just don’t ask me to do the math.)
I’m aware that there are problems in contemporary physics. The theories of relativity and quantum mechanics both work very nicely within their own domains, or so I’ve read, but they appear to be incompatible with one another.
In order to explain what we see in distant parts of the heavens, cosmologists have arrived at a few ideas that the layman (that’s me) may find a bit of a stretch. The theory of inflation posits that during the first few minutes of its existence, the universe expanded much faster than the speed of light, though such a high velocity is thought, in ordinary situations, to be absolutely impossible.
In order to explain the apparent spin of spiral galaxies, an entirely unknown substance called dark matter is widely thought to exist. Also, at extreme distances the universe seems to be expanding too rapidly, so the idea is that something called dark energy is pushing it apart. Most of the mass of the universe is now thought to be in the form of dark matter and dark energy.
And then there’s quantum entanglement, in which two particles seem to be able to exchange information even when they’re widely separated and nothing at all is passing between them.
Here’s a more humble problem, one that I’m not sure physicists have grappled with, though it seems obvious to me. There are, in the universe, squillions and squillions of electrons. What’s weird is that they’re all exactly alike. Or so we’re assured. But why are they all exactly alike? Why are there no electrons that are maybe 3% heavier, or that have only 91% of the normal electron charge?
Or think about the fact that quarks have a charge of either +2/3 or -1/3, so that when three of them combine to form a proton or neutron, the result always has either a charge of +1 (neatly matching the electron’s -1) or a charge of zero. How could such a goofy, yet utterly tidy system possibly have arisen during the Big Bang?
I’ve head-scratched about this stuff for a while. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I’ve found a viable solution, but possibly I can suggest a fresh way to look for one.
In his 1958 book Nature, Man, and Woman, Alan Watts put it this way: “…the political cosmology of the Hebrew-Christian tradition … until very recently was also the cosmology of Western science and in some ways still remains so…. [A] political universe is one in which separate things, facts, and events are governed by the force of law. However much ideas of the laws of nature may have changed, there is no doubt that the idea of natural law first arose from the supposition that the world obeyed the commandments of a ruler conceived in the image of an earthly king.”
To borrow a line from Handel, God is conceived of as the “king of kings.” Modern science began with the notion that since God created and rules the universe, we can best learn about God by studying his handiwork as it manifests in physical forms. To oversimplify only slightly, all of those squillions of electrons are exactly alike because God has ordered (or created) them to be alike. They follow an unbreakable divine ordinance. And while physicists no longer talk about God, the implicit assumption hasn’t changed.
In a logical sense, this idea tumbles straight into an infinite regress. What is it in an electron that compels it to obey an externally imposed law? That would require a separate law — nothing to do with mass or electric charge. We might call it the “electrons must obey God’s law” law. But what compels them to obey that law?
What Watts is suggesting is that when physicists talk about the laws of nature (the law of gravity, for instance), they’re using a Medieval political metaphor in which a law is applied from the outside rather than arising naturally from within. Elsewhere, he talks about the fact that the cosmos is all one thing. It’s not made up of separate or separable things. There is literally no law that forces an electron to do anything, because in an important sense there is no such thing as an electron!
Let’s try clarifying that with better punctuation. There is no such “thing” as an electron. An electron is not a thing at all; it’s a phenomenon or, better still, a description of a process that physicists observe and then interpret. The existence of an electron is entirely mediated by all the other particles in the vicinity. Its electrical charge, for example, exists only with respect to nearby protons. Absent a proton, its charge is not just unmeasurable but meaningless. And vice versa. It makes no sense to talk about the charge of a proton if there are no other charged particles nearby.
But there are always charged particles nearby. Nothing exists in isolation. Also, “nearby” doesn’t mean what you think it means. If an electron in a distant galaxy emits a photon, that photon may travel across millions of light-years only to collide with an electron in one of the light-sensitive cells in your retina, or one of the light-sensitive molecules on a photo slide or a digital imaging device. As far as those two electrons are concerned, they’re “near” one another. They’re interacting directly. In an important sense the distance between them doesn’t even exist.
Everything is connected to everything else. There’s only one thing happening here, and it’s the whole universe at once, resonating with itself in unimaginably complex ways. The electrons are, as far as we can determine, all alike because they’re all manifestations of a single, very widespread form of resonance, a continually pulsating dance of the whole. There’s no “law” to it at all. The pulsations we call electric charge just happen to be what the universe is doing. And yes, what I’m implying is that this could change. But it probably won’t, unless for some reason it does.
Another oddity that has lingered in my noggin is the fact that science relies on logic as a basic method with which to develop an understanding of the universe. It does seem to work pretty well — until it doesn’t. Yet logic was invented by the ancient Greeks without, as far as we know, the performance of a single scientific experiment. It is simply assumed that the universe must be logical. Why should that be?
Physicists have already figured out that the universe is not actually logical. Not all of them seem to have grasped the implications of this, however. The double-slit experiment can be used, depending on how the apparatus is set up, to demonstrate that a single electron is either definitely a particle or definitely a wave. It can be shown logically that during the experiment a single electron passed through only one of the two slits (because it’s a particle) or that it passed through both of them (because it’s a wave).
The usual interpretation of this conundrum seems to be that the scientists’ conscious awareness is somehow (though we don’t know how) influencing the behavior of the electron. But that idea rests on the assumption that the electron must logically be doing either one thing or the other. It must be behaving like a particle, or it must be behaving like a wave.
But why should an electron be compelled to obey the laws of logic? At the level of subatomic particles, logic may not apply at all. Is it a particle at the moment, or is it a wave? Yes.
If physicists acknowledged this, their entire discipline would dissolve into pudding, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see them resist the idea. But really, let’s ask the question again: What would compel an electron to behave in a logical manner?
In biology, we can see examples of what are called emergent properties. For a simple example, we might look at the development of multi-celled animals and plants. If you had dropped in on Earth two billion years ago, you would have found an abundance of living creatures, but all of them would have been too small to see with the naked eye. (The eye hadn’t been invented yet, but we’ll ignore that.) Nothing in your examination of these single-celled creatures would have allowed you to imagine that someday a few million of their direct descendants would have joined forces as a grasshopper or a hummingbird. All of the behavioral and metabolic complexity of multi-celled creatures is emergent. For billions of years, it didn’t exist, and then it did. Life, which as everybody knows is built entirely out of electrons, protons, and neutrons, acquired new and unexpected properties.
Human language is also an emergent property. If you had stepped out of your time machine in Africa six million years ago, nothing in your study of the direct ancestors of chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans would have allowed you to infer that before too very long one set of their descendants would be building chemically powered metal vessels that would take them to the Moon and back. Human language, culture, and technology are an emergent phenomenon.
For that matter (literally), when cosmologists talk about symmetry-breaking in the very early universe, what they’re talking about is the emergence of physical properties that had not existed, and suddenly began to exist.
Here’s a random quote from a web page that purports to describe the process: “With respect to the Universe, a phase change during symmetry breaking is a point where the characteristics and the properties of the Universe make a radical shift. At the supergravity symmetry breaking, the Universe passed from the Planck era of total chaos to the era of spacetime foam. The energy release was used to create spacetime. During the GUT symmetry breaking, mass and spacetime separated and the energy released was used to create particles.”
What I think is interesting about this quote is the phrase “was used,” which the author deployed twice. This is exactly what Alan Watts was referring to. In reality, nothing was used in order to do anything, because there was no user. All that can really be said is that spacetime itself is an emergent property.
An emergent property of what? Don’t ask.
Turning to the problem of dark matter, we have to acknowledge from the get-go that there’s no special reason why the universe couldn’t include matter that doesn’t interact electromagnetically, but only through gravity. That’s not inherently unlikely. And of course such a substance would be basically impossible for us to detect, because we observe things using electromagnetic radiation.
The theory of dark matter is proposed as a way of explaining the observed fact that the outer rims of galaxies seem to be rotating faster than they ought to be, based on what we know about how gravity causes things to orbit.
Obviously, we can’t actually see the rotation. A measurable change in the angular position of a single star wouldn’t pop up for thousands of years. The observation rests on a couple of pillars. First, the Doppler shift of lines of emission and absorption in light coming from those galactic regions allows us to estimate the speed at which the stars are moving. That seems sensible, and I’m not going to quibble about whether the electrons emitting those light waves are functionally the same as our local electrons. That assumption is a freebie. Second, the total visible mass of a galaxy is calculated by estimating the number of stars in it; and the number of stars is estimated by measuring the observed brightness of the galaxy. At that point, a simple calculation based on the law (or do I mean “law”?) of gravitation allows us to figure out how fast stars ought to be traveling as they orbit the center of mass of the galaxy.
The numbers come out all wrong. The stars are orbiting too fast. From this, it’s deduced that the structure of the galaxy must include quite a lot of mass that we’re not seeing. We call it dark matter.
But why should we assume that gravity operates throughout the universe in exactly the way it operates in our own neighborhood? Isn’t it just as likely that a change in the force of gravity is an emergent property of spinning galaxies?
There’s an alternate theory that proposes a reinterpretation of gravity. It’s called modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND). The trouble, as I understand it, is that the MOND equations don’t describe the motions of clusters of galaxies very well. The MOND idea is that beyond a certain distance, gravitation gets stronger, because the equation that rules the law of gravity is more complex than the equations that Newton and Einstein proposed. If the MOND equations are correct, gravity ought to do things to galactic clusters that we don’t see happening.
But why should we expect that gravitation would propagate outward forever through the rest of the universe according to the MOND equations? Or in accordance with any equations at all? Maybe the stronger gravitational attraction is an emergent property that only operates within and near individual galaxies.
Physicists expect the universe to be logical. They expect it to be consistent. What I’m suggesting is that that may be a bad assumption. It may be, at best, a provisional and very inadequate description of the world we live in.
Once you throw that door open, other ways of looking at much more modest things begin to drift into view. I may write about a few of them soon. We’ll see.