UNIVERSAL ORDER AND PURPOSE
By Roland Watson
In this article, I am going to start discussing universal order, and purpose, and the extent to which we can understand them or not. I'm going to begin with this because the first dimension of the life experience is that we live in a universe, this universe.
This is in fact our most basic form. The universe is the context of and the environment for our existence. It is our most essential condition, and influence. We are humans in the universe.
I have reviewed in other talks how the universe is chaotic, which is part of the reason why the occurrence of events is uncertain; and also that it is in flux, meaning that nothing lasts forever, that everything changes.
The universe is further subject to something called entropy. This - in layman's terms - means dissolution. The universe, gravity notwithstanding, appears to be slowly moving from an organized state, with stars, planets and galaxies, to one of total disorder, when all the matter of the universe will be disseminated completely: a universal soup of unorganized particles.
The web of order
The universe at the present time, though, does exhibit great evidence of order, even if it is not always apparent to our senses.
We have already seen that there is an underlying order in the patterns of chaos, in what are called strange attractors. There is another form of order that is linked to chaos theory as well, which I haven't mentioned yet, which is the sameness of scale that exists from large events and structures to small.
Then, there are the cyclical tendencies of systems within the universe, the processes that they follow as they attempt to reach an equilibrium. And finally, there is time itself, or cause and effect, or actions have consequences.
There is also much more specific evidence of order, including the basic universal forces - strong, electromagnetic, weak, and gravity - and universal laws, including quantum mechanics and relativity theory.
There are further the universal constants, such as the speed of light, and something called Planck's constant, which is used to calculate the size of units, or quanta, of energy.
All of these are reflected, manifested, in the organization of the universe: in the ways in which subatomic particles interact and combine to form atoms; that there are set types of atoms, which form the chemical elements; and that there is organic life, which is made from the elements, notably carbon, and which has DNA as its blueprint.
The universe is an absolute web of order.
Does order equal purpose?
Many people have asked, it is perhaps the central question of philosophy, if this order is evidence of purpose? Why is the universe here, and why is it set up the way it is, with this order? Also, are there linkages between the order in the physical world, the laws that govern particles and atoms, and galaxies, and the order of the behavioral world, the laws or forces that govern the behavior of life?
Intuitively, one believes that this must be so, and that any unified theory of science will have to provide the answers not only to our questions concerning the physical world, but also to all of our questions concerning the existence and behavior of life.
As this infers, the question of universal purpose extends to life. Does life have a purpose?
I have described the universe as containing many different systems, with life being one of them. I further said that such organization seems to imply purpose, some reason for the systems' existence.
What we don't know
Unfortunately, while this observation makes sense, common sense, it can never be proven. And, by further extension, such a unified theory of science can never be created. This is because, to us, the universe is essentially unfathomable. The above questions are unanswerable. They can only be the subjects of speculation.
In the fourth and final part of the University of Life, I will offer a broad, and I believe comprehensive, set of speculations.
To continue, these questions simply cannot be answered, definitively, regardless of the amount of science that we develop. Indeed, many of the specific questions of science will probably never be answered, either. For example:
We know a lot about mathematics, which is the language of science and the most precise means we have yet developed to describe the universe. We know many of the rules and patterns of its internal order, of the characteristics and relationships of numbers and of shapes. But, we do not know why it has these specific rules and patterns.
For instance, one of the things that drives mathematicians mad is what are called prime numbers. These are numbers that can only be divided, without a fractional remainder, by 1 and themselves.
Prime numbers are oddly distributed throughout the sequence of whole numbers, meaning, 1, 2, 3. Trying to understand this distribution, and nobody has figured it out yet, is one of the core questions of what is called number theory.
Next, we do not know how the first life on earth was created or formed. We do know a lot about DNA, but not how it came into being - although there is now some evidence that RNA is its precursor: some viruses have RNA but not DNA.
And, we know the effects - some of the effects - of many individual genes, and the apparent means by which these effects are achieved, such as through activating an enzyme or synthesizing a chemical. We even know a lot about the underlying process of gene expression, of how strings of four nitrogen bases, adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine, enable the construction of amino acids and proteins, of which the enzymes and other chemicals themselves are composed. But, we do not know how such a simple structure is able to do all this, how it can possibly have such complex effects.
More generally, we do not understand how anything does anything.
We have also begun to understand the electrochemical processes that are active in the brain, but we do not know how they are able to create what we perceive as thought: our consciousness.
We know there are some ninety-two elements that occur naturally on earth - ninety-three, if you add a small amount of naturally-occurring plutonium, but not why exactly this many and no more, nor why they occur in the proportions that they do. For instance, there are only trace amounts of many elements.
We also know that energy relates itself to - or is simply another form of - matter, through the constant of the speed of light: 186,000 miles, or 300,000 kilometers, per second. However, we do not know, and very likely never will know, why the speed of light is this number, this velocity.
Why not 190,000 miles per second?
We do, however, know that the speed of light cannot be exceeded, but it is curious, a paradox, that in a supposedly infinite universe it is not possible to go infinitely fast; that such a limit, that any limit, exists at all.
We also know the value of Planck's constant, but not why it has this specific value. This is the same situation with the other fundamental constants.
Further, we have developed great knowledge about sub-atomic particles, including of their specific masses, and that there are many families of particles, and also three main types - leptons, quarks, and bosons. Moreover, particles have no inherent mass, except the Higgs boson that is, which apparently gives mass to everything else.
However, we do not know why these final particle masses are their specific amounts, nor do we understand the overall structure which encompasses all such categories.
Said another way, particle physicists are still puzzling out the attributes of what is referred to as the Standard Model.
Also, the model encompasses not only matter, but something called anti-matter, in which every particle has a corresponding particle with the opposite electric charge. However, while we think there should be equal amounts of matter and anti-matter in the universe, almost all of the anti-matter appears to be missing.
Not only that, experiments suggest that in addition to matter and anti-matter, there should also be something else called dark matter, and something else again called dark energy. But, even though the experiments say that dark matter and dark energy should actually constitute most of the mass of the universe, we can't even observe them.
Finally, we know a lot about the basic forces and laws of the universe, but not why it has these specific basic forces and laws, nor how they reconcile. Indeed, under the formulations of quantum mechanics, there is doubt as to whether physical forces, such as gravity, are in fact forces at all.
The first fundamental fact
For the last question, we could say, as some physicists have, that the universe has these forces and laws because they are the ones that work. This means the overall structure is self-sustaining. However, this is not a real answer.
Indeed, even if science somehow, someday, comes up with the answer to any one of these questions, this will inevitably lead to new, even more difficult, and quite possibly unanswerable questions.
The unfathomability of the universe, and the doubt and uncertainty that we have over it, is the first fundamental fact defining our existence. We are not only humans in the universe, we are humans in an unknowable universe.
In the next article, I will explain why this is the case.
© Roland Watson 2014