The following is an email exchanged with a good friend of mine doing doctoral work on complexity theory as it applies to neuroscience at Florida Atlantic University. My email is in response to this Science Daily article about a measured variance in a specific physical constant: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100909004112.htm
Perhaps I’ll post his response when it comes if he is okay with it.
I think the next shift in human thought into whatever “integral” means will be bigger than the paradigm shifts Kuhn writes about in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. What our civilization needs is more than a new theory around which to structure a research program in enzymology or genetics or astrophysics. That so called “physical laws” do not hold constant everywhere in space and everywhen in time is no surprise to me. I think this article is reflecting a re-engagement between science and philosophy that has been going on really since evolution and thermodynamics, but without a doubt by the time relativity and quantum theories were discovered/invented. Before these revolutions within physics and biology, under the sway of Newtonian mechanism/deism, it was taken for granted by most physicists, and thinking people generally, that created nature was governed by deterministic and eternal laws decreed by a architect of infinite power and intelligence. It was also taken for granted that this same perfect architect had mathematicized the human mind just so as to give it access to the basic laws of nature’s operation, so as to give us dominion and control over it. Newton’s experimental science rests upon or implies a Cartesian cosmology, where mind and matter are separate substances which somehow still interact causally. This metaphysical picture is still the unthought background of the worldview of most scientific specialists and materialist philosophers. Dennett represents the sort of view I’m attacking, so I’ll just pick on him. He claims to be dispelling Descartes dualism, but he just reinvokes it by saying the mental substance is an illusion produced by an echo-chamber in the brain, which is itself really a causally determined physical substance. He leaves unasked how or why an entirely physical system made of inconscient bits of matter should come to experience the illusion of consciousness. Why is it that the ear and auditory cortex hears an illusory echo? He says the notion of epiphenomenalism is a waste and adds nothing to our knowledge, but his position seems to me to be precisely that consciousness is epiphenomenal. Then you have to factor in his schizophrenia, because he is also quite a liberal humanist when it comes to politics, education, and society. He believes strongly that people (who from his theoretical perspective are just very complicated machines) must in practice be treated as free actors with the right to individual expression. How does he deal with the cognitive dissonance produced by the divergence of his theory and his practice? Its as if he finds truth and goodness somehow contradictory (“in truth, the natural universe is a meaningless series of purely accidental relationships, while morally the human universe is a network of intelligible meaning and ethical action”).
To tie this all back into to the article, I’m not surprised that physical laws are not constant because the universe appears to me to be a living, evolving creature. The notion of a “physical law” is an artifact of an obsolete 17th century philosophy of science and theology. There are not and need not be such things as universal deterministic laws for science to be possible. There need only be a relative difference between rates of variance across and between space and time. Habit and regularity in nature are all you need for statistically predictive physical, chemical, biological, or even psychological theories. But when it comes to the science of spirit (call it theosophy/theology), it’s no longer about prediction and control, but about creativity. Spirit cannot be predicted. No sense trying. It can only be actively engaged and communed with.
A technical question for you: when Prof. John Webb is quoted in the article referring to the “magic number” revealing that the strength of electromagnetism “seems to vary continuously along a preferred axis through the universe”, what is he talking about?? Is he saying he has detected or can infer that there is a deeper pattern or form of order (an “axis”) that emerges out of the variance in the fine-structure constant across the universe? Is he saying, in other words, that though the universe is a process of change, and so cannot be assumed to obey fixed laws or constants, it nonetheless conforms to certain numerical patterns of order on a higher level? He called it a “dipolar” variation, which evokes in me the same sort of symmetrical asymmetry you find in a developing embryo. I think he is right, that a new theory, a deeper theory, will be discovered to account for not only this variance in the fine-structure, but for the inconsistency of gravitational laws in the context of galaxies and cosmic expansion. I’ve no doubt that a more complete mathematical formula will be discovered/invented. But it still will not be consistent with ALL the data which exists concerning the observable (and unobservable) universe. Because there are more than observable things in the universe. There are also observers.
There are numerical values to represent every physical relationship which may come to exist in the universe, but only because there exists also minds capable of thinking/discovering/inventing them. Whitehead gave up on the idea of the completion of a system, whether mathematical, logical, or metaphysical, and instead focused on a system’s or cosmology’s coherency (internal consistency) and adequacy to actual experience (experimental value). He knew that creativity, or spirit, had a role to play in the ongoing development of the universe. Nature is not a place which might be known once and for all by a disinterested intellect, but a living presence in the process of becoming more like itself (that is, more divine, more true, more beautiful, more good, more just, etc.). In the current phase of evolution, nature is doing this, at least on earth, principally through/as the human being, within whom spirit has taken up immediate residence.
Food for thought. Let me know how you digest it.