The Fact of Coherence

Einstein once said (I think it was Einstein, anyway), “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” The universe we live in is really a very strange place, and the deeper physicists dig, the more strange it appears. And yet, everywhere we look within the strangeness, we find surprising patterns of regularity. That’s what Einstein was talking about.

I have a sort of half-formed idea about this. I present it not as a statement of fact, merely as a mild observation. Make of it what you will.

I got to thinking about this last month while trying to work through a personal dilemma (the details aren’t important) by consulting the Tarot and the I Ching. Now, any scientist who knows that the sun comes up in the East will assure you that the results you get by shuffling a deck of cards and then laying out ten or twelve of them are entirely random. Likewise casting the I Ching — toss three coins six times, and the results will be entirely random.

And yet, these oracle devices seem to work pretty well for me. As a rock-ribbed atheist, I don’t attribute the apparently meaningful outcomes to the guidance of invisible spirit entities. That would be very silly. But when you ask the I Ching whether to concentrate on music or fiction writing and you get a text that refers specifically to music … what is an atheist to think about this?

As we all know, the Second Law of Thermodynamics assures us that over time, in any closed system, entropy (that is, randomness) increases. Order decreases. And yet, everywhere we look in the universe, we see order.

A cosmology book I was reading a couple of months ago pointed out that at the time of the Big Bang, the distribution of particles in the universe was in a state of very high entropy. The distribution of particles was pretty much the same everywhere. It was smooth. We know this, because when we look at the cosmic background radiation we see that it’s pretty much the same in every direction. However, at the time of the Big Bang the force of gravity was in a state of extremely low entropy. That is, there was a huge amount of potential energy in the form of gravity, which began to turn into actual energy as bits of the early universe started clumping together. If gravity had already been in a state of high entropy, stars and galaxies would never have formed.

As an aside, this book explained that life on Earth doesn’t exist by virtue of the energy the sun shines down upon us, in spite of what you’re taught in biology class. In fact, the amount of energy on the surface of the Earth is pretty much constant. At night, just as much energy is radiated away into space as was absorbed during the day. What the sun actually sheds in our direction is low entropy.

The low entropy of gravitation was not, of course, the only way in which the early universe exhibited an extremely regular structure. All of the electrons in the universe (and there are quite a lot of them) are identical, as far as we’re able to determine experimentally. Why are they all the same? There’s no explanation for that; they just are, that’s all. Likewise, the speed of light is a constant. (In fact, there are more than 20 numerical constants — pure numbers — that physicists need in order to describe how the universe works. Physicists have no explanation at all for how those numbers came to have the values that they have.)

The charge of an electron exactly balances the opposite charge of a proton; it isn’t 5/8 of the value of a proton’s charge, or 1.374906 times the value of a proton’s charge. The precise balance of charges between the proton and the electron is about as anti-entropic a phenomenon as you could hope to find. Also the way electrons form shells around atomic nuclei, which is what allows molecules to form and remain stable. Nothing random going on among the electron shells, in spite of the incessant froth of quantum indeterminacy.

Everywhere we look in the universe, we see structure. Galaxies, stars, and planets. The organization of subatomic particles into atoms and molecules. And as we look around at the normal state of affairs on our lovely planet, we see trees, rocks, clouds, hair follicles — structure everywhere!

It may be objected that the existences of trees and hair follicles is accounted for by evolution. And that’s certainly true. Evolution is pretty much a logical necessity, once you have any type of cellular life that is kept organized by large molecules and can reproduce itself. But that fact doesn’t falsify what I’m suggesting; it’s just another example of it. Everywhere that structure can appear, structure appears. Look at a geode sometime. No evolution is involved in the production of geodes — the forces that produce geodes are of an entirely different character from the forces of evolution. Likewise the force of gravity. Gravity has nothing whatever to do with the ability of atoms to gather into large molecules endowed with unique properties. The causes of the structure are different in each case, but in each case, structure arises.

So when I cast the I Ching and get a meaningful answer, the reason it happens isn’t gravity, or evolution, or quantum mechanics. All I can say for certain is that the result of my action has a structure. It appears not to be governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which would dictate that the fall of the coins be entirely random; instead, something different seems to be happening. It’s a pretty darn weak structure, frankly, but it appears to me that the universe is, here as in so many other ways, organizing itself into a regular structure.

Anyway, the Second Law is highly suspect. What it actually says is that entropy increases in a closed system. But we don’t actually know that the universe is a closed system. We don’t know whether the universe is finite (which would make it a closed system) or infinite. What we are fairly sure of is that the structure of subatomic physics — that is, the way electrons and quarks move and interact — has not increased in entropy during the past 3 billion years.

This is not an argument for the existence of “God.” We have no evidence at all that the universe was created. It just is. Nor is it an argument in favor of progress, morality, or anything else, though I’m sure some woolly-minded people would like to think of it that way. I’m just ruminating.