Maybe We Do Not Live in a Simulation: The Resolution Conundrum

Greetings from bucolic Banff, Canada, where we’re finishing up the biennial Foundational Questions Institute conference. To a large extent, this event fulfills the maxim that physicists like to fly to beautiful, exotic locations, and once there they sit in hotel rooms and talk to other physicists. We did manage to sneak out into nature a couple of times, but even there we were tasked with discussing profound questions about the nature of reality. Evidence: here is Steve Giddings, our discussion leader on a trip up the Banff Gondola, being protected from the rain as he courageously took notes on our debate over “What Is an Event?” (My answer: an outdated notion, a relic of our past classical ontologies.)


One fun part of the conference was a “Science Speed-Dating” event, where a few of the scientists and philosophers sat at tables to chat with interested folks who switched tables every twenty minutes. One of the participants was philosopher David Chalmers, who decided to talk about the question of whether we live in a computer simulation. You probably heard about this idea long ago, but public discussion of the possibility was recently re-ignited when Elon Musk came out as an advocate.

At David’s table, one of the younger audience members raised a good point: even simulated civilizations will have the ability to run simulations of their own. But a simulated civilization won’t have access to as much computing power as the one that is simulating it, so the lower-level sims will necessarily have lower resolution. No matter how powerful the top-level civilization might be, there will be a bottom level that doesn’t actually have the ability to run realistic civilizations at all.

This raises a conundrum, I suggest, for the standard simulation argument — i.e. not only the offhand suggestion “maybe we live in a simulation,” but the positive assertion that we probably do. Here is one version of that argument:

  1. We can easily imagine creating many simulated civilizations.
  2. Things that are that easy to imagine are likely to happen, at least somewhere in the universe.
  3. Therefore, there are probably many civilizations being simulated within the lifetime of our universe. Enough that there are many more simulated people than people like us.
  4. Likewise, it is easy to imagine that our universe is just one of a large number of universes being simulated by a higher civilization.
  5. Given a meta-universe with many observers (perhaps of some specified type), we should assume we are typical within the set of all such observers.
  6. A typical observer is likely to be in one of the simulations (at some level), rather than a member of the top-level civilization.
  7. Therefore, we probably live in a simulation.

Of course one is welcome to poke holes in any of the steps of this argument. But let’s for the moment imagine that we accept them. And let’s add the observation that the hierarchy of simulations eventually bottoms out, at a set of sims that don’t themselves have the ability to perform effective simulations. Given the above logic, including the idea that civilizations that have the ability to construct simulations usually construct many of them, we inevitably conclude:

  • We probably live in the lowest-level simulation, the one without an ability to perform effective simulations. That’s where the vast majority of observers are to be found.

Hopefully the conundrum is clear. The argument started with the premise that it wasn’t that hard to imagine simulating a civilization — but the conclusion is that we shouldn’t be able to do that at all. This is a contradiction, therefore one of the premises must be false.

This isn’t such an unusual outcome in these quasi-anthropic “we are typical observers” kinds of arguments. The measure on all such observers often gets concentrated on some particular subset of the distribution, which might not look like we look at all. In multiverse cosmology this shows up as the “youngness paradox.”

Personally I think that premise 1. (it’s easy to perform simulations) is a bit questionable, and premise 5. (we should assume we are typical observers) is more or less completely without justification. If we know that we are members of some very homogeneous ensemble, where every member is basically the same, then by all means typicality is a sensible assumption. But when ensembles are highly heterogeneous, and we actually know something about our specific situation, there’s no reason to assume we are typical. As James Hartle and Mark Srednicki have pointed out, that’s a fake kind of humility — by asserting that “we are typical” in the multiverse, we’re actually claiming that “typical observers are like us.” Who’s to say that is true?

I highly doubt this is an original argument, so probably simulation cognoscenti have debated it back and forth, and likely there are standard responses. But it illustrates the trickiness of reasoning about who we are in a very big cosmos.

Posted in Philosophy, Science | 85 Comments

You Should Love (or at least respect) the Schrödinger Equation

Over at the twitter dot com website, there has been a briefly-trending topic #fav7films, discussing your favorite seven films. Part of the purpose of being on twitter is to one-up the competition, so I instead listed my #fav7equations. Slightly cleaned up, the equations I chose as my seven favorites are:

  1. {\bf F} = m{\bf a}
  2. \partial L/\partial {\bf x} = \partial_t ({\partial L}/{\partial {\dot {\bf x}}})
  3. {\mathrm d}*F = J
  4. S = k \log W
  5. ds^2 = -{\mathrm d}t^2 + {\mathrm d}{\bf x}^2
  6. G_{ab} = 8\pi G T_{ab}
  7. \hat{H}|\psi\rangle = i\partial_t |\psi\rangle

In order: Newton’s Second Law of motion, the Euler-Lagrange equation, Maxwell’s equations in terms of differential forms, Boltzmann’s definition of entropy, the metric for Minkowski spacetime (special relativity), Einstein’s equation for spacetime curvature (general relativity), and the Schrödinger equation of quantum mechanics. Feel free to Google them for more info, even if equations aren’t your thing. They represent a series of extraordinary insights in the development of physics, from the 1600’s to the present day.

Of course people chimed in with their own favorites, which is all in the spirit of the thing. But one misconception came up that is probably worth correcting: people don’t appreciate how important and all-encompassing the Schrödinger equation is.

I blame society. Or, more accurately, I blame how we teach quantum mechanics. Not that the standard treatment of the Schrödinger equation is fundamentally wrong (as other aspects of how we teach QM are), but that it’s incomplete. And sometimes people get brief introductions to things like the Dirac equation or the Klein-Gordon equation, and come away with the impression that they are somehow relativistic replacements for the Schrödinger equation, which they certainly are not. Dirac et al. may have originally wondered whether they were, but these days we certainly know better.

As I remarked in my post about emergent space, we human beings tend to do quantum mechanics by starting with some classical model, and then “quantizing” it. Nature doesn’t work that way, but we’re not as smart as Nature is. By a “classical model” we mean something that obeys the basic Newtonian paradigm: there is some kind of generalized “position” variable, and also a corresponding “momentum” variable (how fast the position variable is changing), which together obey some deterministic equations of motion that can be solved once we are given initial data. Those equations can be derived from a function called the Hamiltonian, which is basically the energy of the system as a function of positions and momenta; the results are Hamilton’s equations, which are essentially a slick version of Newton’s original {\bf F} = m{\bf a}.

There are various ways of taking such a setup and “quantizing” it, but one way is to take the position variable and consider all possible (normalized, complex-valued) functions of that variable. So instead of, for example, a single position coordinate x and its momentum p, quantum mechanics deals with wave functions ψ(x). That’s the thing that you square to get the probability of observing the system to be at the position x. (We can also transform the wave function to “momentum space,” and calculate the probabilities of observing the system to be at momentum p.) Just as positions and momenta obey Hamilton’s equations, the wave function obeys the Schrödinger equation,

\hat{H}|\psi\rangle = i\partial_t |\psi\rangle.

Indeed, the \hat{H} that appears in the Schrödinger equation is just the quantum version of the Hamiltonian.

The problem is that, when we are first taught about the Schrödinger equation, it is usually in the context of a specific, very simple model: a single non-relativistic particle moving in a potential. In other words, we choose a particular kind of wave function, and a particular Hamiltonian. The corresponding version of the Schrödinger equation is

\displaystyle{\left[-\frac{1}{\mu^2}\frac{\partial^2}{\partial x^2} + V(x)\right]|\psi\rangle = i\partial_t |\psi\rangle}.

If you don’t dig much deeper into the essence of quantum mechanics, you could come away with the impression that this is “the” Schrödinger equation, rather than just “the non-relativistic Schrödinger equation for a single particle.” Which would be a shame.

What happens if we go beyond the world of non-relativistic quantum mechanics? Is the poor little Schrödinger equation still up to the task? Sure! All you need is the right set of wave functions and the right Hamiltonian. Every quantum system obeys a version of the Schrödinger equation; it’s completely general. In particular, there’s no problem talking about relativistic systems or field theories — just don’t use the non-relativistic version of the equation, obviously.

What about the Klein-Gordon and Dirac equations? These were, indeed, originally developed as “relativistic versions of the non-relativistic Schrödinger equation,” but that’s not what they ended up being useful for. (The story is told that Schrödinger himself invented the Klein-Gordon equation even before his non-relativistic version, but discarded it because it didn’t do the job for describing the hydrogen atom. As my old professor Sidney Coleman put it, “Schrödinger was no dummy. He knew about relativity.”)

The Klein-Gordon and Dirac equations are actually not quantum at all — they are classical field equations, just like Maxwell’s equations are for electromagnetism and Einstein’s equation is for the metric tensor of gravity. They aren’t usually taught that way, in part because (unlike E&M and gravity) there aren’t any macroscopic classical fields in Nature that obey those equations. The KG equation governs relativistic scalar fields like the Higgs boson, while the Dirac equation governs spinor fields (spin-1/2 fermions) like the electron and neutrinos and quarks. In Nature, spinor fields are a little subtle, because they are anticommuting Grassmann variables rather than ordinary functions. But make no mistake; the Dirac equation fits perfectly comfortably into the standard Newtonian physical paradigm.

For fields like this, the role of “position” that for a single particle was played by the variable x is now played by an entire configuration of the field throughout space. For a scalar Klein-Gordon field, for example, that might be the values of the field φ(x) at every spatial location x. But otherwise the same story goes through as before. We construct a wave function by attaching a complex number to every possible value of the position variable; to emphasize that it’s a function of functions, we sometimes call it a “wave functional” and write it as a capital letter,


The absolute-value-squared of this wave functional tells you the probability that you will observe the field to have the value φ(x) at each point x in space. The functional obeys — you guessed it — a version of the Schrödinger equation, with the Hamiltonian being that of a relativistic scalar field. There are likewise versions of the Schrödinger equation for the electromagnetic field, for Dirac fields, for the whole Core Theory, and what have you.

So the Schrödinger equation is not simply a relic of the early days of quantum mechanics, when we didn’t know how to deal with much more than non-relativistic particles orbiting atomic nuclei. It is the foundational equation of quantum dynamics, and applies to every quantum system there is. (There are equivalent ways of doing quantum mechanics, of course, like the Heisenberg picture and the path-integral formulation, but they’re all basically equivalent.) You tell me what the quantum state of your system is, and what is its Hamiltonian, and I will plug into the Schrödinger equation to see how that state will evolve with time. And as far as we know, quantum mechanics is how the universe works. Which makes the Schrödinger equation arguably the most important equation in all of physics.

While we’re at it, people complained that the cosmological constant Λ didn’t appear in Einstein’s equation (6). Of course it does — it’s part of the energy-momentum tensor on the right-hand side. Again, Einstein didn’t necessarily think of it that way, but these days we know better. The whole thing that is great about physics is that we keep learning things; we don’t need to remain stuck with the first ideas that were handed down by the great minds of the past.

Posted in Science | 43 Comments

Space Emerging from Quantum Mechanics

The other day I was amused to find a quote from Einstein, in 1936, about how hard it would be to quantize gravity: “like an attempt to breathe in empty space.” Eight decades later, I think we can still agree that it’s hard.

So here is a possibility worth considering: rather than quantizing gravity, maybe we should try to gravitize quantum mechanics. Or, more accurately but less evocatively, “find gravity inside quantum mechanics.” Rather than starting with some essentially classical view of gravity and “quantizing” it, we might imagine starting with a quantum view of reality from the start, and find the ordinary three-dimensional space in which we live somehow emerging from quantum information. That’s the project that ChunJun (Charles) Cao, Spyridon (Spiros) Michalakis, and I take a few tentative steps toward in a new paper.

We human beings, even those who have been studying quantum mechanics for a long time, still think in terms of a classical concepts. Positions, momenta, particles, fields, space itself. Quantum mechanics tells a different story. The quantum state of the universe is not a collection of things distributed through space, but something called a wave function. The wave function gives us a way of calculating the outcomes of measurements: whenever we measure an observable quantity like the position or momentum or spin of a particle, the wave function has a value for every possible outcome, and the probability of obtaining that outcome is given by the wave function squared. Indeed, that’s typically how we construct wave functions in practice. Start with some classical-sounding notion like “the position of a particle” or “the amplitude of a field,” and to each possible value we attach a complex number. That complex number, squared, gives us the probability of observing the system with that observed value.

Mathematically, wave functions are elements of a mathematical structure called Hilbert space. That means they are vectors — we can add quantum states together (the origin of superpositions in quantum mechanics) and calculate the angle (“dot product”) between them. (We’re skipping over some technicalities here, especially regarding complex numbers — see e.g. The Theoretical Minimum for more.) The word “space” in “Hilbert space” doesn’t mean the good old three-dimensional space we walk through every day, or even the four-dimensional spacetime of relativity. It’s just math-speak for “a collection of things,” in this case “possible quantum states of the universe.”

Hilbert space is quite an abstract thing, which can seem at times pretty removed from the tangible phenomena of our everyday lives. This leads some people to wonder whether we need to supplement ordinary quantum mechanics by additional new variables, or alternatively to imagine that wave functions reflect our knowledge of the world, rather than being representations of reality. For purposes of this post I’ll take the straightforward view that quantum mechanics says that the real world is best described by a wave function, an element of Hilbert space, evolving through time. (Of course time could be emergent too … something for another day.)

Here’s the thing: we can construct a Hilbert space by starting with a classical idea like “all possible positions of a particle” and attaching a complex number to each value, obtaining a wave function. All the conceivable wave functions of that form constitute the Hilbert space we’re interested in. But we don’t have to do it that way. As Einstein might have said, God doesn’t do it that way. Once we make wave functions by quantizing some classical system, we have states that live in Hilbert space. At this point it essentially doesn’t matter where we came from; now we’re in Hilbert space and we’ve left our classical starting point behind. Indeed, it’s well-known that very different classical theories lead to the same theory when we quantize them, and likewise some quantum theories don’t have classical predecessors at all.

The real world simply is quantum-mechanical from the start; it’s not a quantization of some classical system. The universe is described by an element of Hilbert space. All of our usual classical notions should be derived from that, not the other way around. Even space itself. We think of the space through which we move as one of the most basic and irreducible constituents of the real world, but it might be better thought of as an approximate notion that emerges at large distances and low energies. Continue reading

Posted in arxiv, Science | 70 Comments

Father of the Big Bang

Georges Lemaître died fifty years ago today, on 20 June 1966. If anyone deserves the title “Father of the Big Bang,” it would be him. Both because he investigated and popularized the Big Bang model, and because he was an actual Father, in the sense of being a Roman Catholic priest. (Which presumably excludes him from being an actual small-f father, but okay.)

John Farrell, author of a biography of Lemaître, has put together a nice video commemoration: “The Greatest Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of.” I of course have heard of him, but I agree that Lemaître isn’t as famous as he deserves.

The Greatest Scientist You've Never Heard Of from Farrellmedia on Vimeo.

Posted in Science | 150 Comments

The Big Picture: The Talk

I’m giving the last lecture on my mini-tour for The Big Picture tonight at the Natural History Museum here in Los Angeles. If you can’t make it, here’s a decent substitute: video of the talk I gave last week at Google headquarters in Mountain View.

I don’t think I’ve quite worked out all the kinks in this talk, but you get the general idea. My biggest regret was that I didn’t have the time to trace the flow of free energy from the Sun to photosynthesis to ATP to muscle contractions. It’s a great demonstration of how biological organisms are maintained through the creation of entropy.

Posted in Big Picture | 152 Comments

Give the People What They Want

And what they want, apparently, is 470-page treatises on the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of naturalism. To appear soon in the Newspaper of Record:


Happy also to see great science books like Lab Girl and Seven Brief Lessons on Physics make the NYT best-seller list. See? Science isn’t so scary at all.

Posted in Big Picture | 20 Comments

Big Picture Part Six: Caring

One of a series of quick posts on the six sections of my book The Big PictureCosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, Caring.

Chapters in Part Six, Caring:

  • 45. Three Billion Heartbeats
  • 46. What Is and What Ought to Be
  • 47. Rules and Consequences
  • 48. Constructing Goodness
  • 49. Listening to the World
  • 50. Existential Therapy

In this final section of the book, we take a step back to look at the journey we’ve taken, and ask what it implies for how we should think about our lives. I intentionally kept it short, because I don’t think poetic naturalism has many prescriptive advice to give along these lines. Resisting the temptation to give out a list of “Ten Naturalist Commandments,” I instead offer a list of “Ten Considerations,” things we can keep in mind while we decide for ourselves how we want to live.

A good poetic naturalist should resist the temptation to hand out commandments. “Give someone a fish,” the saying goes, “and you feed them for a day. Teach them to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” When it comes to how to lead our lives, poetic naturalism has no fish to give us. It doesn’t even really teach us how to fish. It’s more like poetic naturalism helps us figure out that there are things called “fish,” and perhaps investigate the various possible ways to go about catching them, if that were something we were inclined to do. It’s up to us what strategy we want to take, and what to do with our fish once we’ve caught them.

There are nevertheless some things worth saying, because there are a lot of untrue beliefs to which we all tend to cling from time to time. Many (most?) naturalists have trouble letting go of the existence of objective moral truths, even if they claim to accept the idea that the natural world is all that exists. But you can’t derive ought from is, so an honest naturalist will admit that our ethical principles are constructed rather than derived from nature. (In particular, I borrow the idea of “Humean constructivism” from philosopher Sharon Street.) Fortunately, we’re not blank slates, or computers happily idling away; we have aspirations, desires, preferences, and cares. More than enough raw material to construct workable notions of right and wrong, no less valuable for being ultimately subjective.

Of course there are also incorrect beliefs on the religious or non-naturalist side of the ledger, from the existence of divinely-approved ways of being to the promise of judgment and eternal reward for good behavior. Naturalists accept that life is going to come to an end — this life is not a dress rehearsal for something greater, it’s the only performance we get to give. The average person can expect a lifespan of about three billion heartbeats. That’s a goodly number, but far from limitless. We should make the most of each of our heartbeats.


The finitude of life doesn’t imply that it’s meaningless, any more than obeying the laws of physics implies that we can’t find purpose and joy within the natural world. The absence of a God to tell us why we’re here and hand down rules about what is and is not okay doesn’t leave us adrift — it puts the responsibility for constructing meaningful lives back where it always was, in our own hands.

Here’s a story one could imagine telling about the nature of the world. The universe is a miracle. It was created by God as a unique act of love. The splendor of the cosmos, spanning billions of years and countless stars, culminated in the appearance of human beings here on Earth — conscious, aware creatures, unions of soul and body, capable of appreciating and returning God’s love. Our mortal lives are part of a larger span of existence, in which we will continue to participate after our deaths.

It’s an attractive story. You can see why someone would believe it, and work to reconcile it with what science has taught us about the nature of reality. But the evidence points elsewhere.

Here’s a different story. The universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns of nature with scrupulous regularity. Over billions of years it has evolved naturally, from a state of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a featureless equilibrium condition. We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle; a miracle in that it is wondrous and amazing how such complex, aware, creative, caring creatures could have arisen in perfect accordance with those laws. Our lives are finite, unpredictable, and immeasurably precious. Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world.

That’s a pretty darn good story, too. Demanding in its own way, it may not give us everything we want, but it fits comfortably with everything science has taught us about nature. It bequeaths to us the responsibility and opportunity to make life into what we would have it be.

I do hope people enjoy the book. As I said earlier, I don’t presume to be offering many final answers here. I do think that the basic precepts of naturalism provide a framework for thinking about the world that, given our current state of knowledge, is overwhelmingly likely to be true. But the hard work of understanding the details of how that world works, and how we should shape our lives within it, is something we humans as a species have really only just begun to tackle in a serious way. May our journey of discovery be enlivened by frequent surprises!

Posted in Big Picture | 34 Comments

Big Picture Part Five: Thinking

One of a series of quick posts on the six sections of my book The Big PictureCosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, Caring.

Chapters in Part Five, Thinking:

  • 37. Crawling Into Consciousness
  • 38. The Babbling Brain
  • 39. What Thinks?
  • 40. The Hard Problem
  • 41. Zombies and Stories
  • 42. Are Photons Conscious?
  • 43. What Acts on What?
  • 44. Freedom to Choose

Even many people who willingly describe themselves as naturalists — who agree that there is only the natural world, obeying laws of physics — are brought up short by the nature of consciousness, or the mind-body problem. David Chalmers famously distinguished between the “Easy Problems” of consciousness, which include functional and operational questions like “How does seeing an object relate to our mental image of that object?”, and the “Hard Problem.” The Hard Problem is the nature of qualia, the subjective experiences associated with conscious events. “Seeing red” is part of the Easy Problem, “experiencing the redness of red” is part of the Hard Problem. No matter how well we might someday understand the connectivity of neurons or the laws of physics governing the particles and forces of which our brains are made, how can collections of such cells or particles ever be said to have an experience of “what it is like” to feel something?

These questions have been debated to death, and I don’t have anything especially novel to contribute to discussions of how the brain works. What I can do is suggest that (1) the emergence of concepts like “thinking” and “experiencing” and “consciousness” as useful ways of talking about macroscopic collections of matter should be no more surprising than the emergence of concepts like “temperature” and “pressure”; and (2) our understanding of those underlying laws of physics is so incredibly solid and well-established that there should be an enormous presumption against modifying them in some important way just to account for a phenomenon (consciousness) which is admittedly one of the most subtle and complex things we’ve ever encountered in the world.

My suspicion is that the Hard Problem won’t be “solved,” it will just gradually fade away as we understand more and more about how the brain actually does work. I love this image of the magnetic fields generated in my brain as neurons squirt out charged particles, evidence of thoughts careening around my gray matter. (Taken by an MEG machine in David Poeppel’s lab at NYU.) It’s not evidence of anything surprising — not even the most devoted mind-body dualist is reluctant to admit that things happen in the brain while you are thinking — but it’s a vivid illustration of how closely our mental processes are associated with the particles and forces of elementary physics.


The divide between those who doubt that physical concepts can account for subjective experience and those who are think it can is difficult to bridge precisely because of the word “subjective” — there are no external, measurable quantities we can point to that might help resolve the issue. In the book I highlight this gap by imagining a dialogue between someone who believes in the existence of distinct mental properties (M) and a poetic naturalist (P) who thinks that such properties are a way of talking about physical reality:

M: I grant you that, when I am feeling some particular sensation, it is inevitably accompanied by some particular thing happening in my brain — a “neural correlate of consciousness.” What I deny is that one of my subjective experiences simply is such an occurrence in my brain. There’s more to it than that. I also have a feeling of what it is like to have that experience.

P: What I’m suggesting is that the statement “I have a feeling…” is simply a way of talking about those signals appearing in your brain. There is one way of talking that speaks a vocabulary of neurons and synapses and so forth, and another way that speaks of people and their experiences. And there is a map between these ways: when the neurons do a certain thing, the person feels a certain way. And that’s all there is.

M: Except that it’s manifestly not all there is! Because if it were, I wouldn’t have any conscious experiences at all. Atoms don’t have experiences. You can give a functional explanation of what’s going on, which will correctly account for how I actually behave, but such an explanation will always leave out the subjective aspect.

P: Why? I’m not “leaving out” the subjective aspect, I’m suggesting that all of this talk of our inner experiences is a very useful way of bundling up the collective behavior of a complex collection of atoms. Individual atoms don’t have experiences, but macroscopic agglomerations of them might very well, without invoking any additional ingredients.

M: No they won’t. No matter how many non-feeling atoms you pile together, they will never start having experiences.

P: Yes they will.

M: No they won’t.

P: Yes they will.

I imagine that close analogues of this conversation have happened countless times, and are likely to continue for a while into the future.

Posted in Big Picture | 133 Comments

Big Picture Part Four: Complexity

One of a series of quick posts on the six sections of my book The Big PictureCosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, Caring.

Chapters in Part Four, Complexity:

  • 28. The Universe in a Cup of Coffee
  • 29. Light and Life
  • 30. Funneling Energy
  • 31. Spontaneous Organization
  • 32. The Origin and Purpose of Life
  • 33. Evolution’s Bootstraps
  • 34. Searching Through the Landscape
  • 35. Emergent Purpose
  • 36. Are We the Point?

One of the most annoying arguments a scientist can hear is that “evolution (or the origin of life) violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics.” The idea is basically that the Second Law says things become more disorganized over time, but the appearance of life represents increased organization, so what do you have to say about that, Dr. Smarty-Pants?

This is a very bad argument, since the Second Law only says that entropy increases in closed systems, not open ones. (Otherwise refrigerators would be impossible, since the entropy of a can of Diet Coke goes down when you cool it.) The Earth’s biosphere is obviously an open system — we get low-entropy photons from the Sun, and radiate high-entropy photons back to the universe — so there is manifestly no contradiction between the Second Law and the appearance of complex structures.

As right and true as that response is, it doesn’t quite address the question of why complex structures actually do come into being. Sure, they can come into being without violating the Second Law, but that doesn’t quite explain why they actually do. In Complexity, the fourth part of The Big Picture, I talk about why it’s very natural for such a thing to happen. This covers the evolution of complexity in general, as well as specific questions about the origin of life and Darwinian natural selection. When it comes to abiogenesis, there’s a lot we don’t know, but good reason to be optimistic about near-term progress.

In 2000, Gretchen Früh-Green, on a ship in the mid-Atlantic Ocean as part of an expedition led by marine geologist Deborah Kelley, stumbled across a collection of ghostly white towers in the video feed from a robotic camera near the ocean floor deep below. Fortunately they had with them a submersible vessel named Alvin, and Kelley set out to explore the structure up close. Further investigation showed that it was just the kind of alkaline vent formation that Russell had anticipated. Two thousand miles east of South Carolina, not far from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the Lost City hydrothermal vent field is at least 30,000 years old, and may be just the first known example of a very common type of geological formation. There’s a lot we don’t know about the ocean floor.

Lost City

The chemistry in vents like those at Lost City is rich, and driven by the sort of gradients that could reasonably prefigure life’s metabolic pathways. Reactions familiar from laboratory experiments have been able to produce a number of amino acids, sugars, and other compounds that are needed to ultimately assemble RNA. In the minds of the metabolism-first contingent, the power source provided by disequilibria must come first; the chemistry leading to life will eventually piggyback upon it.

Albert Szent-Györgyi, a Hungarian physiologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1937 for the discovery of Vitamin C, once offered the opinion that “Life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest.” That’s a good summary of the metabolism-first view. There is free energy locked up in certain chemical configurations, and life is one way it can be released. One compelling aspect of the picture is that it’s not simply working backwards from “we know there’s life, how did it start?” Instead, its suggesting that life is the solution to a problem: “we have some free energy, how do we liberate it?”

Planetary scientists have speculated that hydrothermal vents similar to Lost City, might be abundant on Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Future exploration of the Solar System might be able to put this picture to a different kind of test.

A tricky part of this discussion is figuring out when it’s okay to say that a certain naturally-evolved organism or characteristic has a “purpose.” Evolution itself has no purpose, but according to poetic naturalism it’s perfectly okay to ascribe purposes to specific things or processes, as long as that kind of description actually provides a useful way of talking about the higher-level emergent behavior.

Posted in Big Picture | 14 Comments

Big Picture Part Three: Essence

One of a series of quick posts on the six sections of my book The Big PictureCosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, Caring.

Chapters in Part Three, Essence:

  • 19. How Much We Know
  • 20. The Quantum Realm
  • 21. Interpreting Quantum Mechanics
  • 22. The Core Theory
  • 23. The Stuff of Which We Are Made
  • 24. The Effective Theory of the Everyday World
  • 25. Why Does the Universe Exist?
  • 26. Body and Soul
  • 27. Death Is the End

In Part Three we get our hands dirty diving into some of the central features of how our world actually works: quantum mechanics, field theory, and the Core Theory describing the actual particles and forces that make up the visible universe. The discussion of the basics of quantum mechanics itself is quite brief, and I mention the Many-Worlds formulation only to emphasize that there’s nothing about QM that implies we need to be idealist, anti-realist, or non-determinist. (Those options are open, of course — but they’re not forced on us by what we know about quantum mechanics.)

More directly relevant to this discussion are the ideas of effective field theory and crossing symmetry that let us conclude the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known. (I used to say “…completely understood,” but too many people chose to quibble about whether we “really understand” them rather than grasping the point, so I’ve switched to “known.”) (No, I don’t think it will really help either.) In early drafts I went on a bit too long about all the quarks and gluons and so forth, since personally I think that stuff is endlessly fascinating. But it dragged down the pace a bit, so now I have an Appendix in which I give the full Core Theory equation and explain — tersely but accurately! — every single term that appears in it.

In the body of the text I concentrate more on explaining what the claim actually says and why it has a chance of being true. For example, why it doesn’t matter for everyday purposes that we don’t yet understand quantum gravity.

Physicists divide our theoretical understanding of these particles and forces into two grand theories: the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which includes everything we’ve been talking about except for gravity, and general relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity as the curvature of spacetime. We lack a full “quantum theory of gravity” — a model that is based on the principles of quantum mechanics, and matches onto general relativity when things become classical-looking. Superstring theory is one very promising candidate for such a model, but right now we just don’t know how to talk about situations where gravity is very strong, like near the Big Bang or inside a black hole, in quantum-mechanical terms. Figuring out how to do so is one of the greatest challenges currently occupying the minds of theoretical physicists around the world.

But we don’t live inside a black hole, and the Big Bang was quite a few years ago. We live in a world where gravity is relatively weak. And as long as the force is weak, quantum field theory has no trouble whatsoever describing how gravity works. That’s why we’re confident in the existence of gravitons; they are an inescapable consequence of the basic features of general relativity and quantum field theory, even if we lack a complete theory of quantum gravity. The domain of applicability of our present understanding of quantum gravity includes everything we experience in our everyday lives.

There is, therefore, no reason to keep the Standard Model and general relativity completely separate from each other. As far as the physics of the stuff you see in front of you right now is concerned, it is all very well described by one big quantum field theory. Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek has dubbed it the Core Theory. It’s the quantum field theory of the quarks, electrons, neutrinos, all the families of fermions, electromagnetism, gravity, the nuclear forces, and the Higgs. In the Appendix we lay it out in a bit more detail. The Core Theory is not the most elegant concoction that has ever been dreamed up in the mind of a physicist, but it’s been spectacularly successful at accounting for every experiment ever performed in a laboratory here on Earth. (At least as of mid-2015 — we should always be ready for the next surprise.)

Princess Elisabeth of BohemiaOne of my favorite chapters in the book is 26, Body and Soul, where I relate the story of Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes. And how, you may ask, does quantum field theory relate to an epistolary conversation carried out in the seventeenth century? Descartes, of course, was famously a champion of mind/body dualism. Elisabeth challenged him on this, asking how something (the immaterial soul) that had no location or extent in space could possibly influence something (the physical body) that manifestly did. The updated version of Elisabeth’s challenge is to ask, “How could an immaterial soul possibly affect the evolution of the particles and fields in the Core Theory? How should that gloriously precise and well-tested equation be modified?”

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