What if gravity suddenly stopped working? Or what if e=mc3 rather than e=mc2? Could the fundamentals of physics really change?
What Is It
From airplanes flying overhead to the cellular activity inside us, all events that take place in the world obey the laws of physics. Physicists seem to be getting closer and closer to understanding the physical laws that govern our universe. But what if our physical laws changed? Could that even be possible? How might changing of physical laws affect us? Or is just that what we take to be laws changes over time? Should we still call the laws of physics “laws”? The philosophers conserve mass with Massimo Pigliucci from the City University of New York, author of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk.
Part of our series A Philosophical Guide to the Cosmos.
Ken wonders if the idea of the laws of physics changing even makes sense, to which guest host Jenann Ismael, visiting from the University of Arizona, answers that the evolution of physical laws could be possible. She proposes that a kind of “cosmic selection” could have selected for the fine-tuned universe that we have today. That is, after different trial runs, the physical laws that could not sustain cosmology died out, while the ones that could survived. But Ken is still skeptical that the laws of physics are mutable, reminding us that we inherited the concept of “fundamental physical laws” from Newton. Even the idea that the laws of physics abide by a law of evolution seems paradoxical to Ken.
The philosophers welcome Massimo Pigliucci, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, to a second run on the show. Massimo argues that the word “law” (in the context of a “law of physics” or “law of nature”) is problematic. He maintains that the concept of a law raises the question of who or what decided the law to be that way. Massimo also notes that although Newton insisted that physicists should think in terms of immutable laws of nature, this idea was controversial in his day. Newton’s contemporaries, including Galileo, believed that scientists should avoid rhetoric about physical laws since they believed that scientific observations are only local and empirical. From this the philosophers agree that, unlike other fields like biology or sociology, physics insists fundamental laws to perhaps its detriment.
After a few callers and a short break, Ken asks Massimo what consequences would follow if physicists confirmed that the laws of physics change. Massimo responds that evidence for changing physics would force physicists to consider how different causal interactions and parameters in physics create novel effects more in depth. He adds that the philosophy of physics is now increasingly turning to biology in order to understand phenomena of this kind.
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