Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Law and Time: Who's on First?

So I am in the midst of the annual NASA grant writing binge which is my excuse for not writing more on my new favorite topic: Law without Law.

Over the next few weeks I will be writing a piece for DISCOVER magazine on this strange and, for me, revolutionary topic. As the comments to the last post artfully reveal this is really where the metaphysical rubber meets the empirical road. For today let me just give a little background. The term "Law without Law" originated, as far as I know, with the great American theoretical physicist John Wheeler. Wheeler was so far ahead of the curve in so many ways its hard to tabulate them all. He managed to be both radical, skeptical, hard headed and a dreamer all at the same time.

In his essay of the same name Wheeler asked about the interaction between quantum phenomena and observers and used a thought experiment involving a gravitationally lensed quasar to muse on the notion of "observer-participancy". In this wide ranging essay Wheeler seems to be arguing that reality is ongoing creative interaction between what he calls elementary phenomena (individual quantum processes) and observers (you and me). Only taken together as a whole, he says, does the world take the form we see. It may be essential here to emphasize the "we see" part because Wheeler never doubts there is a world out there but what he is asking about is the form of the world that humans are part of as observer-participants.

One could go on quite a while about this article which I recommend and ask if its crazy or sloppy or insightful. The point for this post is the conclusion that sits above his specific thinking about quantum mechanics: the so-called Laws of Physics, the timeless, eternal constraints which hover above and beyond this world, may be a fiction. Using the evolution as his example Wheeler asks

"Are the laws of physics immutable and eternal or are theses laws, like species, mutable and of a higgledy-pigglety origin"

Wheeler points to the origin of individual species as the result of countless blind accidents and then asks could the laws of this universe have emerged in the same way? Do they still emerge in the same way?

As a number of people have pointed out in the comments this, on face value, would seem impossible and, if it were possible, would challenge some of the most cherished assumptions of the scientific enterprise. Since I spent the last month reading and talking with scientists like Lee Smolin, Stuart Kauffman and Andy Albrecht on just this subject I will try and unpack the idea a bit more in the some of these posts (while still diverging every now then onto different subjects).


Check out the Wheeler article if you have time. It is long an technical in places and even has a strange shift in font (which comes I believe because it is actually 2 different pieces put together for the particular volume it was published in). I suggest starting on page 20 with the section called Law without Law.


  1. A question that I've been asking of late that I think pertains here, goes like this: When we look at the world before us, and realizing that life could form itself in other ways, could we consider this life as complete?

    In other words, would anything else really just be analogous to what lies before us?

  2. @mike - On one level I quess life is never complete in the sense that evolution continually changes the structures and rules which go along with those structures but I think you mean something different. Are you asking if some other creatures/life-forms evolved into self-awareness would they "see" the same thing as "what lies before us"?

  3. Wheeler's use of evolution as an analogy for the development of Laws is a weak one. First there is a long trail of hard evidence for evolution, none for Wheeler's speculation. Secondly all that the way evolution works tells us is that is the way that evolution works. Extending this to other, unrelated processes or laws is a long shot indeed. Thirdly, random chance is merely one element of evolution, peer under that and you find an underpinning of many laws. Fourthly, where is there even the remotest piece of evidence that the Laws are changing or developing? This is fanciful speculation. Now I am all for speculation. I do this all the time in high mountain caves, fortified by one of our good local wines, in the congenial company of other mountaineers.
    I must ask the question - where is the necessity for this speculation? What is the motivation? When I look at the Many Worlds Interpretation, the cyclical bouncing universe, the vacuum foaming universes and now the Law without Laws I am struck by the fact that they are all determined attempts to avoid unpalatable metaphysical explanations.
    On the other hand I must admit that it is a thoroughly good idea to challenge assumptions, presumptions and prevailing mindsets, even if one is not ensconced in some high mountain cave:))

  4. @Adam, You're right about my use of complete. I guess what I'm wondering is something like, is potential energy always potential energy as we know it in any possible world? Could order ever occur without the transformation of energy? As far as consciousness goes, what could exist beyond subjective awareness?; another subjective being in another universe could have better or less performance in awareness, but where could evolution go beyond awareness itself?

    It seems to me, that in any other world, we could probably point to a thing and say, "that's like our....

  5. Since I have been throwing around mountain references I can't resist this delightful quote from Robert Jastrow

    For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peaks; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."

  6. @occasional - I think the necessity of the speculation comes from a couple of different directions one of which is the failure of all attempts so far to find a theory of quantum gravity. Wheelers reason seems to be the need to have a theory that explains why something came from nothing.

  7. Something coming from nothing- isn't this the Mystery you guys? I can't see this ever being reduced to a puzzle. It seems to me that you could always ask, well where did THAT come from?

    I'm not asserting that god is the answer either; I can even speculate that god wouldn't know why he/she exists: part of the idea of god is that they are non-contingent: an ability to point to a purpose or reason for existing seems to establish a contingent state for god.

    Adam, I think I get your sense of Mystery. Originally, the word mystery was built from the concept. "a shutting of the mouth"- something that could be perceived so deeply that words couldn't communicate it; an experience that can only be revealed from the mystery itself. I use the word reveal in this context because I think it points to the fact that you can't make someone have that, "I get it" moment.

    For me, now, Mystery isn't the ultimate puzzle; I've come to experience it as a great beginning place from which to question into reality.

  8. @adam- I still can't link to Wheeler's article that you're citing, I get a 404 error code, (I googled and found some cool articles though).

    In the meantime, I'm curious that "laws" are termed as laws in the first place. We usually use laws to gain a moral high ground against another who we want to force compliance with the way we see things. Why aren't "laws" termed more like "the way of the world" or the "world's regularities as far as we know today"? Etc..

    And, aren't laws merely a story that describes how our world works? so which is a priori, nature or laws? So far, I'm not troubled by Wheeler's ideas; after all, theories are also insights: each theory illuminates something else to see; and I think seeing is always cool.

  9. @mike - i love that idea about "hand over mouth". That is the way a professor of classics described the orgins of the word "mysticism" in the greek eleusian mystery sects and that seems to be what you are saying as well. It wasn't about making up stories of spirits or gods but simply having experiences for which words would serve poorly in description.

    I also like what you are saying about god not being an answer. One reason I call myself a-theistic is the idea of god never did much for me. Somehow it always comes down to an idea, a concept and just like a Thoery of Everything I don't see how it answers the very human mystery of finding ourselves in the world everyday.

  10. @Adam- It's funny- I just said to a friend of mine a minute ago that the slippery thing about subjective being is that science can reduce it to the simplest of algorithms, but knowing them can't reduce the effort that it takes to be truly subjective; I still have to get up in the morning and make my way into the world in a manner that embodies more than just surviving or feeding basic drives- a very human mystery indeed.

    I can relate to your sensibilities around the Theory of Everything; as a thinker on the spiritual side of human being, I find that god, all too often, is sought as a means out of human being. So I especially like your thoughts in the second paragraph.

  11. I know we're addressing Wheeler's ideas here, but I suspect that in doing this, we're participating in a subtext- that of theories to human reality.

    Vaclav Havel wrote something years ago that I think pertains to our discussion today when he responded to the idea of being labeled a dissident: He didn't like the title because it implied that he and his fellow "dissidents" were originating themselves and their work from a governing regime that they disagreed with. Haval argued that they were actually originating themselves from reality; and in pursuing a closer coherence to reality, their understanding of human life ran counter to the governing regime of Czechoslovakia at the time.

    It seems when we make "laws" into laws, we set ourselves up to make it difficult to consider something outside the law; if we do, we're considered dissidents. I don't see Wheeler as a dissident: like Havel and those around him, they were seeking the true and beautiful.

  12. Mike, I would recommend you read Wigner's famous paper, The Unreasonable Effectivess of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.

    We don't make "laws" into laws, we uncover them. Two centuries of painstaking empirical investigation combined with the development of mathematical theory have 'revealed' that there 'are' laws and that there is this astonishing congruence beween the laws and mathematics. Even more astonishing is the fact, on our observation scale at a minimum, they are time and space invariant. It would seem, superficially at least, that they are eternal, fixed, always and everywhere applicable. If we accept this then the metaphysical implications are profound.

    A second point of view is that the laws are merely observational patterns that look like laws because of our limited observational scale. In other words laws are merely models we construct to describe patterns we see in observations, but they are not 'Laws'. For a thoughtful discussion of this point of view see this articleA third point of view, which Adam is putting up for discussion, is that there are indeed Laws but they have somehow evolved or emerged from 'nothingness'.
    To quote from an interview with Wheeler:
    'Wheeler: To me, the greatest discovery yet to come, will be to find out how this universe, coming into being from a Big Bang, developed its laws of operation. I call this Law without Law or Order from Disorder"

    The problem with Wheeler's statement is contained in this phrase "...how this universe,... developed its laws of operation". The "how" is nothing more than another law remaining to be discovered. This will be a meta-law of laws and then we have to ask the question, where did the meta-law of laws come from? Sooner or later we are compelled to admit that we stand at the edge of the abyss where reason cannot penetrate. The alternative is endless circular reasoning where we define the problem out of existence.
    For me the real question is this: is the abyss empty or is there there more in the abyss that we can never, ever perceive? Is it possible for reason to say that the abyss is not empty but that reason and science can never delineate it? I think that it is the inability of science to contemplate this possibility which gives rise to increasingly bizarre scientific conjecture.

  13. I think what I'm getting at occasional, is about a choice of words; after all of the painstaking empirical work at uncovering underlying ways of the world, we notice deep and regular patterns and name them laws.

    It's interesting to me that the chosen name, law, comes from a legal context. A name like Radical Consistency, or Eternal Dependability etc. could have been used as well. And if names like this didn't feel scientific enough, I'm sure there were Latin or Greek equivalents that would convey them with enough academic sophistication. But doesn't a relationship which is based on legal terms feel different from one based on trust?

    When Newton watched the apple fall, his A HA did more than spark an idea of gravity, it put the final nail in the coffin of the Aristotalian Cosmology: the apple falling fell because everything-even celestial bodies, those perfect forms floating in the perfect place, were falling just like terrestrial elements- which fell due do to their imperfect nature: There was no longer a difference between the place of perfection and earth. Newton ended a world view developed by Aristotle and adopted by the western world and the church.

    If I were to sum up the enlightenment, I would call it a monumental shift of world view based on the idea of ridding our world of all things arbitrary. A legal relationship gives leverage to both parties against the other. A legal based relationship also keeps the parties at a professional distance from each other.

    I really don't care what we name the "laws of nature", but I care deeply about our approach into the world; I would profess that we can move past the legal objective posture that we've been in for the last few centuries, and move into a full subjective one without being arbitrary. I agree whole heartedly with you, in that, we can uncover laws all day long and the abyss doesn't recede one nano bit. So the question that faces each of us is, do we dread the abyss as a fatal ending point, or do we believe in life and leap into the abyss as a starting point? You strike me as one who has leapt.

  14. Some thoughts on the original post:

    This idea of ‘law without law’ is indeed a fascinating one; nevertheless, this is no doubt bound under the phenomenological realities of human experience. Our experience of the world vis-à-vis empirical senses ties us into the cosmos in such a way as to never have the possibility of objectivism in a cold, “non-human” way, simply because we are, as it has been said, the measure of all things. We are in-the-world; we are embedded by virtue of our experience of it (Heidegger) and to say that we truly have an external relationship to all that is would probably be somewhat deluded.

    What are the implications of this? And how does this speak to the question of a law without a law?

    If we are forever ‘caught up’ and inextricably bound to all that is (which, interestingly enough, sounds very much like the Buddhist doctrine of interconnectedness), can we even truly say that there exists laws that are above and beyond the human element? And if these laws are in fact somehow intimate to the human domain, and are not cold, transcendent, “bounds and borders” over and against the human element, then how are these laws in the first place? This, of course, is not to say that a law, whether legal, physical or even spiritual, cannot be such if it is intimately tied up with human realities vis-à-vis existential phenomenology, but it does bring up some interesting thoughts. In fact, to be a “law” it must, I believe, have something to do with the economy of creature-hood, something to do with being human (simply – if for any other reason – because we perceive them as such).

    Eh… I am bouncing around…and in some sense I do not want to say that one can collapse all of reality to the experience of humanity; but in light of the nature of experience and consciousness, how can we not?

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