Could the Laws of Physics Ever Change?

Sunday, December 22, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, August 13, 2017

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.

Listening Notes

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. 

  • Roving Philosopher (Seek to 6:57): Holly McDede interviews Sidney Perkowitz about the obligations and ethical commitments that science fiction works have.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:41): Ian Shoales explains how indeterminacy, such as non-local entanglement in Quantum theory, became recognized as a feature, not a bug, of quantum mechanics, and cites Einstein as its begrudging skeptic. He also briefly discusses how the peak of high energy physics in the 1960s interfaced with hippie counterculture at the time. 

 

Comments (4)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 -- 3:17 PM

Physics laws (?)

The question was: could the laws of physics ever change? Yes, they could. We just don't know how. Yet.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, December 1, 2019 -- 10:52 AM

On a comment about a

On a comment about a different post, one reader made a reference to time travel, appearing to say that it is inevitable. I don't know if anyone has said this before, and since I am pedestrian when it comes to physics, I have no way of knowing if it could be true. Does anyone know? Thanks,
Neuman

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, December 11, 2019 -- 9:36 AM

This is the droid you looking

This is the droid you are looking for ...
https://www.ttbook.org/show/time-travel
This is perhaps more on topic of the show and blog...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Hi4VbERDyI

Lee Smolin is smart if not respected. He is referenced in the show.

Time travel is real, relative and tricky as heck to think about. You can travel back in cosmological time by looking at the sky at night unfortunately in fewer and fewer environs. You could do the same by looking at your analog TV screen between the channels. That too is being removed with digital broadcasts (another form of light pollution or is there a conspiracy a foot to completly detach humans from the real world?)

If that seems like cheating then what is perception? The sun could blow and we wouldn't know it until 8 minutes later. The mirror is a similar way of looking at your past self.

Certainly time is relative, it travels at different rates. In a similar vain nothing goes faster than the speed of light yet muons traverse certain media faster than light... that is cherenkov radiation.

Physics confounds me. I hope someone actually answers your question ... but I tell you everything I have written above is likely true and the majority of Physicists would agree ... except for the part about Lee Smolin being smart.

Harold... complete threadjack here but... you were exactly right about Bentham BTW... I put an inter library loan request in and it was not honored. I was able to get some of his writing over the dark web. That evidently is real even if dark matter and energy can't be detected through millions of public science dollars.

Best to you. We are at least traveling in the same time if at different rates, it seems to be speeding up in my reference frame. That speeding up however is the only law I'm certain of at the moment.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, December 11, 2019 -- 9:35 AM

Cross posting this with the

Cross posting this with the blog... I liked this show but it made me feel not so confident I know anything.

This is my blog post...

Physics has so so much to do.

Newton was falsely taken in by his times and internecine academic rivalry to rise above his inherent bias toward the fundamentality of creation. He saw it as part and parcel of his world view. I would have to read his work much more in depth to say whether the previous sentence is right or not. Now that I have said it... I think back and I do recall several passages where Newton seems to break and speak directly to the reader, like Galen, that the reader or future generations must decide and look.

Regardless of Newton's own view, his very astute insight has caused us all to believe we understand the heavens and that laws here are laws there... and by this profundity... laws exist. They don't. Einstein has done worse. He has defied reason, used his own profundity to question entanglement... and by this denial... created a bit of a cult. Science persists with or without cults but is the worse for indulging them. This is evidenced in wasted effort and denial of plausible alternative hypotheses. It is a sham that Darpa is often the forward thinking fund source over our own public science. But ... I digress.

Causality is fine to presume. I prefer turtles all the way down. Physics has it's own emergent paradigms that defy causal reasoning... I think.

Why are there 12 fermions and only 3 required to make everything we know? What do the other nine do? What is dark matter or dark energy and why can't we detect it like Newton detected gravity? Why is dark matter only interactive gravitationally on cosmic scales? Why is gravity so weak and why no graviton? Why can we only touch 5% of matter? The list goes on and on... Physics is a mess. Don't get me started on funding. There is a phoneme that leads to a Lewis Carrollian rabbit hole. Again I digress... but it is all about the benjamins.

Yet Physics is pointed to as a fundamental science. It is not. It is only a science. A very important science but not the most important one. Certainly it is no indicator of immutable laws, which is what Newton unfortunately promulgated.

I have a very difficult time seeing how we could detect laws changing on cosmic or even personal scales when time and perception are tied to activity and proximity in the brain. Remove the fusiform gyrus and we can't recognize faces yet we still understand the concept of face and even see it?? I'm not sure generational perceptions are preserved in my own lifetime. The laws of physics could alter over millenia and this just may not compute. We haven't done that either much less explained the super voids of the cosmos.

Particles hit the earth, millions of them, at velocities that defy explanation. There are laws to be re-written. Bring on the turtles. Science is all about the turtles ... all the way down.

This is kind of cool. You can download an app to help detect these cosmic rays... https://crayfis.io/about

I don't know what made me add on that last plug... I'm not sure there is causality. But I too am not betting my pension on that.

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Guest

Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy, City University of New York

 
 
 

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Research By

Eliane Mitchell
 

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