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Where Do the

Laws of Physics Come From?

P.C.W. Davies

Arizona State University


A major focus of current research in theoretical physics is the formulation of a final unified

theory in which all the known laws would be amalgamated into a single compact mathematical

scheme. A popular contender for this complete unification is string/M theory; another is loop

quantum gravity. These developments are forcing physicists to confront the nature of physical

law: what are such laws, where do they come from and why do they have the form that they do?

Theorists are sharply split over whether a final theory would be unique, and so describe only one

possible world, or whether the observed universe is but one “solution” of a multiplicity of

possible worlds, and if so, whether our universe is an infinitesimal component in a vast and

variegated multiverse. Central to the issues involved is the fact that the laws of physics in our

universe seem uncannily suited to the emergence of life. Indeed, some commentators believe the

bio-friendliness of the universe has the air of a fine-tuned big fix, and cries out for explanation. A

fashionable idea is that the “unreasonable” fitness of the universe for life is the result of an

observer selection effect. Only in universes which by accident possess appropriate laws and

conditions will life arise and observers exist to ponder the significance of the cosmic fine-tuning.

Universes that are less propitiously endowed will be sterile, and so go unobserved. In this chapter
I critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of both the unique universe and multiverse

proposals, and argue that both fall short of providing an ultimate explanation for physical


1. Background

The laws of physics stand at the very heart of our scientific picture of the world. Indeed, the

entire scientific enterprise is founded on the belief that the universe is ordered in an intelligible

way, and this order is given its most refined expression in the laws of physics, which are widely

assumed to underpin all natural law. Physicists may disagree about the likely final form of the

laws of physics, or which of the known laws are fundamental and which are secondary, but the

existence of some set of laws is taken for granted. In this essay, I would like to put the laws of

physics under the spotlight, and ask some challenging questions, such as: Why are there laws of

physics? Where do they come from? Why do they have the form that they do? Could they have

been otherwise, and if so, is there anything special about the form we observe? Physicists do not

usually ask these sorts of questions. The job of the physicist is to accept the laws of physics as

“given” and get on with the task of working out their consequences. Questions about “why those

laws” traditionally belong to metaphysics. Yet they have been thrown into sharp relief by two

recent developments in physical theory. The first is the growing interest in the unification of

physics, in programs such as string/M theory (see, for example, Greene, 2000) and loop quantum

gravity (Smolin, 2002) which seek to amalgamate all physical laws within a single scheme. The

second is the realization that what we have all along been calling “the universe” might in reality

be just an infinitesimal component in a vast mosaic of universes with different laws, popularly

termed the multiverse.

The laws of physics possess three distinctive properties that have attracted considerable


*They are mathematical in form, a quality famously expressed in Galileo’s comment that

“the great book of nature is written in the language of mathematics,” and propelled to

prominence by Eugene Wigner in his 1960 essay “On the unreasonable efficiency of

mathematics in the natural sciences” (Wigner, 1960).

*They are bio-friendly, that is, they permit the emergence of life, and thereby observers

(e.g. human beings) in the universe (see, for example, Susskind, 2005; Davies, 2006). It is

easy to imagine universes with laws that are inconsistent with life, at least as we know it.

*They are comprehensible, at least in part. Again, it is easy to imagine universes with

laws so complicated or subtle that they lie beyond our grasp, or universes that have no

systematic laws at all (Davies, 1992).

In what follows, I shall ask whether these properties can be explained, and if so, what sort of

explanation we might seek.

2. Fundamental laws, effective laws and frozen accidents

When is a law not a law? Answer: when it is a frozen accident. Many features of the physical

universe that were once considered to be the product of a fundamental law eventually turn out to
be the product of historical happenstance. For example, Bode’s so-called law of planetary orbits

(Bode, 1772), which fitted the distances of the planets from the sun to a simple numerical

formula, turns out to be just a curious coincidence. The sizes and shapes of planetary orbits do

not conform to a fundamental law of nature, but are in large measure an accident of fate,

determined by complicated features of the proto-planetary nebula during the formation of the

solar system. Other planetary systems are known with very different statistics. Notwithstanding

the fact that Bode’s law isn’t a law at all, planetary orbits are not arbitrary, but conform to a

deeper and more embracing system of laws enunciated by Newton.

In reflecting on the significance of physical laws, we need to know which fall into the category of

frozen accident, like Bode’s “law,” and which are in some sense “true” laws. This may not be

straightforward. The electromagnetic and weak forces were originally considered to be separate

and fundamental, described by Maxwell’s theory and Fermi’s theory respectively (the latter was

recognized as an unsatisfactory first step, but it was widely supposed that a better theory could be

formulated). In the 1960’s these two forces were shown to be in fact part of an amalgamated

electroweak force, whereupon Fermi’s account of the weak force was revealed as merely an

effective theory, approximately valid only at low energy. As the energy, or temperature, is raised,

so the two forces converge in their properties. Similarly, the so-called grand unified theories, or

GUTs, that combine the strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions, have the feature that the

forces merge in identity as the energy is raised (see, for example, Weinberg, 1992).

The general tendency for the forces to converge at high energies, and for the (relatively) low-

energy effective laws familiar in laboratory experiments to transform into a deeper, unified, set of

laws, has important consequences for cosmology. As the universe cooled from an ultra-hot initial
state, so the forces separated into their distinct identities, with each force being describable by a

low-energy effective law that conceals the “true” underlying unified laws. The transition to low-

energy effective laws comes about as a result of symmetry breaking, for example, by the Higgs

mechanism (for a popular account of the Higgs mechanism, see for example Krauss, 1994). This

introduces a random element into the low energy physics that can create a cosmic domain

structure. In the case of the symmetry breaking that splits the weak and electromagnetic forces

into distinct entities, the random element involves only a locally unobservable phase factor, and

does not affect the form of the electromagnetic and weak force laws. But generically, spontaneous

symmetry breaking will serve to determine the form of the low-energy effective laws, for

example, in the case of grand unified theories that split at low energies into three or more forces

with different gauge symmetries (see, for example, Randall, 2005, Ch. 11). In some models,

random spontaneous symmetry breaking may also determine the values of particle masses and

coupling constants.

The recognition that the laws of physics operating in the relatively low-energy world of everyday

physics may be merely effective laws and not the “true,” fundamental, underlying laws, has led to

a radical reappraisal of the nature of physical law. To use Martin Rees’s terminology (Rees,

2001), what we thought were absolute universal laws might turn out to be more akin to local by-

laws, valid in our cosmic region, but not applicable in other cosmic regions. (A cosmic region

here might encompass a volume of space much larger than the observable universe.)

3. The Goldilocks effect

Let me now turn to the bio-friendliness of the laws, a topic that has received a great deal of

attention in recent years (Barrow and Tipler, 1986; Rees, 2001; Susskind, 2005; Davies, 2006,

Carr, 2007). Expressed simply, if the observed laws of physics had been different in form,

perhaps only slightly, it is likely that life would be impossible. For example, if gravity were a bit

stronger, or the mass of the electron a bit larger, then certain key processes necessary for the

emergence of life may have been compromised. We can imagine the laws of physics being

different in two ways. The form of the laws might have been otherwise (e.g. the equations of the

electromagnetic field could have contained a nonlinear self-coupling term or a mass term), and

the various “constants of nature,” such as the fine structure constant, might have assumed

different values. Physics as we currently understand it contains between twenty and thirty

undetermined parameters, whose values must be fixed by experiment. These include the

parameters of the Standard Model of particle physics, for example, quark and lepton masses, the

coupling constants describing the strengths of the fundamental forces, and various mixing angles.

If cosmology is also considered, then there are additional undetermined parameters, such as the

value of the density of dark energy and the amplitude of primordial density fluctuations that

seeded the universe with large scale structure (Tegmark et. al. 2006). The presence of life in the

universe seems to depend rather sensitively on the precise values of some of these parameters,

and less sensitively on others. That is, had the values of some parameters differed only slightly

from their measured values, then the universe may well have been sterile.

One way to envisage this is to imagine playing God and twiddling the knobs of a Designer

Machine: turn this knob and make the electron a bit heavier, turn that and make the weak force a

bit weaker, all else being left alone. Then it seems that some knobs at least must be rather finely
tuned so that the associated parameters lie close to their observed values, or the tinkering would

prove lethal.

Many examples of fine-tuning have been discussed in the literature (e.g. Barrow and Tipler

2006), so I will briefly mention only one here by way of illustration. Life depends on an

abundance of the element carbon, which was not present at the birth of the universe. Rather, it

was manufactured by nuclear fusion reactions inside the massive stars that first formed about half

a billion years later. Stars like the sun burn from the fusion of hydrogen to form helium, but there

is no nuclear pathway leading from helium to carbon via two-body interactions (the relevant

isotopes of beryllium and lithium are highly unstable). What happens instead is that three helium

nuclei fuse to form a nucleus of carbon. Because a triple encounter is involved, the statistics of

the reaction look very unfavorable. However, by good fortune there is an excited state of the

carbon nucleus which produces a strong resonance in the capture cross-section at just the right

energy, opening the way for the production of abundant carbon. History records that Fred Hoyle,

guessing that such a resonance must hold the key, pestered Willy Fowler to confirm it by

experiment in the early 1950s (Mitton, 2005).

The position of the carbon resonance depends on the interplay of the strong and electromagnetic

forces. If the ratio of the forces were different, either way, even by a few per cent, then the

universe would be starved of carbon, and life may never have arisen (Barrow and Tipler, 1986).

Hoyle was so struck by this apparent coincidence that he later described it as if “a super-intellect

has been monkeying with the laws of physics” (Hoyle, 1982). Today we know that the force

binding together the nucleons in carbon is not fundamental, but a by-product of the strong force

between the constituent quarks, mediated by gluon exchange (described by quantum

chromodynamics, or QCD). A full understanding of the carbon resonance at the deeper level

would require an elaborate lattice QCD calculation, including the electromagnetic contributions

to the masses. The relevant “tuning parameter” would no longer be the phenomenological

coupling constant between nucleons versus the fine-structure constant, but the parameters of the

Standard Model, including the Higgs mass. As this calculation has not been done, it is not

possible to know how sensitively the carbon production will depend on these parameters.

The foregoing point raises the difficult question of which parameters are truly independent and

therefore separately “tunable,” and which might be linked by a deeper level of theory. For

example, in the days before Maxwell, the electric permittivity of free space, the magnetic

permeability of free space and the speed of light were regarded as three undetermined parameters

of physical theory, to be fixed by experiment. But Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism

eliminates one of them by expressing the speed of light in terms of the other two. In the same

vein, one wonders how many of the twenty-odd parameters in the Standard Model of particle

physics are independent. It is expected that at least some of them would be linked at a deeper

level through a unification scheme that goes beyond the Standard Model, such as one of the

Grand Unified Theories (see, for example, Greene 2000). Of greater significance for the present

essay is whether all of the parameters will ultimately turn out to be inter-dependent. Some

string/M theory advocates believe that a full understanding of the theory would reveal a unique

solution in which there are no free parameters: everything would be fixed by the theory. I shall

henceforth refer to this as the NFP (no free parameters) theory.

Four explanations for cosmic bio-friendliness have been discussed in the literature.
A. It is a fluke. The laws of physics just happen to permit the existence of life and

consciousness, and nothing of deep significance can be read into it, because life and

consciousness themselves have no deep significance. They are just two sorts of

phenomena among many.

B. Multiverse. The observed universe is but one among very many, each possessing

different laws, perhaps distributed randomly among the cosmic ensemble, or multiverse.

The observed laws are in fact local by-laws which, purely by accident, happen to favor

life. In other words, we are winners in a cosmic lottery. Obviously we would not find

ourselves located in a cosmic region incompatible with life, so the bio-friendly character

of the observed laws is simply the result of a straightforward selection effect, sometimes

called the weak anthropic principle.

C. Providence. The universe is fit for life because it is the product of purposive agency.

The agent might be anything from a traditional god (or gods) to a universe-creating super-

civilization in another universe, or another region of our universe. A variant on this theme

is that the universe is actually a deliberately engineered simulation (e.g. a virtual reality

show in a supercomputer).

D. Something else. Other possibilities include self-synthesizing universes, self-creating

universes, loops in time, retro-causation, and variations of the so-called strong anthropic

principle, in which the emergence of life and mind is built into the nature of physical law

in a manner that makes observers (or at least the potential for observation) inevitable.
I shall now briefly examine each proposal A – D in turn.

4. Could there be a unique final theory?

Einstein once remarked that the thing which most interested him was whether “God had any

choice in the creation of the world.” In other words, could the universe could have been

fundamentally different from what it is, for example, by having a different law of gravitation, or

massive photons, or neutrons lighter than protons? If the universe could have been different, then

it would raise the question of why it is as it is, i.e. why the laws of physics are what they are. And

in particular, one would want to know why those laws are so weirdly bio-friendly. Some

advocates of the NFP theory think the answer to Einstein’s question is no. There is only one

possible universe, and this is it (see, for example, Gross, 2003). If so, the fact that the one and

only universe permits life and consciousness would simply be a bonus, a fluke of no significance.

How seriously can we take the claim that there exists a unique final theory, even if such a theory

has not yet been exhibited? Is this just promissory triumphalism? In its strongest form, the claim

is clearly false. We can easily describe other universes that are logically possible and internally

self-consistent, but are not descriptions of the observed universe. Indeed, it is the job of the

theoretical physicist to construct simplified models of the real world chosen for their

mathematical tractability. These models capture some aspect of reality, but they are only

impoverished descriptions of the observed universe. Nevertheless they are possible worlds. For

example, it is common practice for theoretical physicists to use models that suppress one or more

space dimensions. I myself worked a lot on quantum field theory in one space and one time

dimension (Birrell and Davies, 1981). One example I considered was an exactly soluble two-
dimensional non-linear quantum field theory called the Thirring model (Birrell and Davies,

1978). It describes a possible (rather dull) world, which is clearly not this world. Another popular

impoverished model is general relativity in three spacetime dimensions, i.e. a world of two space

dimensions in which gravitation is the only force and classical mechanics applies.

It’s not necessary to consider radically different universes to make the foregoing point. Let’s start

with the universe as we know it, and imagine changing something by fiat: for example, make the

electron heavier and leave everything else alone. Would this arrangement not describe a logically

possible universe, yet one that is different from our universe? To be sure, there is much more to a

satisfying physical theory than a dry list of parameter values. There should be a unifying

mathematical framework from which these numbers emerge as only a part of the story. But a

finite set of parameters may be fitted to an unlimited number of mathematical forms. Most of the

mathematical forms will be ugly and complicated, but that is an aesthetic judgment. Clearly no

unique theory of everything exists if one is prepared to entertain other possible universes and

complicated or inelegant mathematics.

Many physicists would be prepared to settle for a weaker claim. Granted, there may be many

self-consistent unified theories describing worlds different from ours, but perhaps there is only

one self-consistent theory of this universe. Perhaps if we knew enough about unifying theories

we would find that only one knob setting of the Designer Machine (i.e. only one theory) fits all

the known facts about the world – not just the values of the constants of nature, but such things as

the existence of galaxies and stars, life and observers. It could be that there are many possible

NFP theories describing many possible completely-defined universes, but only one of those

theories fits all the facts about the actually-observed universe. An appealing embellishment of
this conjecture would be if the set of laws describing the observed universe is the simplest

possible consistent with the existence of observers. Needless to say, there is no evidence in our

present state of knowledge that such is the case.

It is important to realize, however, that even if something like the foregoing claim were true, it

would fall short of providing a complete and closed explanation of physical existence. One could

still ask why, from among the multiplicity of logically possible universes, both those described by

NFP theories and those described by non-NFP theories, this one has been “picked out” to exist.

Or, to use Stephen Hawking’s more colorful description, “What is it that breathes fire into the

equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” (Hawking, 1988) I shall return to this

“fire-breathing” conundrum later.

Belief that an NFP theory will flow from sting/M theory remains an act of faith, since there is

neither a solution to the theory, nor even much of a hint about how to find one. Meanwhile,

perturbative solutions have been examined in some sectors of the theory, and they point strongly

against a unique solution, and more toward a vast multiplicity of different solutions. That is, the

theory predicts a stupendous number and variety of possible low-energy effective laws,

demolishing any hope that the observed world might be the unique solution of the theory, and

therefore the only possible string/M theory world. While the proliferation of apparent solutions to

string/M theory may be regarded by NFP believers as unwelcome, others have seized upon it as a

natural way to explain the mysterious bio-friendliness of the universe.

5. A multiverse could explain the Goldilocks enigma

A multiverse of some sort can be expected on generic grounds if the universe cools from a hot big

bang via a sequence of symmetry breaks, as this leads naturally to a cosmic domain structure. But

the richest form of multiverse follows from string/M theory if one accepts the existence of a

multiplicity, or “landscape,” of solutions, each describing a different world. According to

Susskind (2005), there are at least 10500 possible worlds on the string theory landscape. However,

the mere possibility of other universes with other laws does not mean that they actually exist. To

instantiate them, there has to be some sort of universe generating mechanism.

Cosmologists agree that the universe began with a big bang. It was either a natural event or it was

not; if it was not, then it would be beyond the scope of science to explain it. If it was a natural

event, then it makes little sense to insist it was unique, for what law-like physical mechanism is

restricted to operate only once? The very early universe was dominated by quantum mechanical

effects, and quantum mechanics is founded on indeterminism and probability. So it seems

reasonable to attribute a finite (but otherwise unknown) probability to the emergence of a

universe in a big bang. A finite probability implies that big bangs will have happened many (even

an infinite number of) times, that is, quantum mechanics automatically predicts a multiverse of

big-bang-initiated universes. A specific model of how this might occur is given by the eternal

inflation model, according to which our universe originated by nucleating from an eternally

inflating, or exponentially expanding, superstructure, like a bubble of vapor in a liquid (Linde,

1990). The eternal inflation theory predicts that other bubbles exist in other regions of the

superstructure, and at earlier and later times, forming an ending assemblage of “pocket

universes,” each starting out with a big bang and following its own evolutionary pathway.

Quantum uncertainty demands that the initial states of the bubbles are not identical, but are

distributed (with some as-yet unknown probability measure) across the space of all possibilities,
e.g. across the sting/M theory landscape. The low-energy physics and the distribution of matter

and energy in the pocket universes will therefore differ from one to another. Mostly the bubbles,

or pocket universes, are conveyed apart by the inflating superstructure faster than they can

expand, and so they do not intersect, although there is a tiny probability that one bubble can

nucleate inside another. In this manner, quantum cosmology provides a natural universe-

generating mechanism to populate the string theory landscape, or to instantiate whatever cosmic

possibilities are encompassed within one’s favorite unified theory.

The success or otherwise of the multiverse explanation of the Goldilocks effect depends on how

densely the ensemble populates the relevant parameter-space (i.e. the space spanned by “bio-

sensitive” parameters). If there is a rich selection of possible low-energy effective laws (e.g. with

closely-spaced possible values of particle masses, force strengths, etc.) then there will be many

universes with laws and parameter values that permit life. The string theory landscape model

seems well suited to this scenario. A possible statistical test of the multiverse explanation follows

if one makes the additional assumption that within the set of all life-permitting universes, ours is

a typical member (Weinstein, 2006). We would then expect the measured values of any

biologically relevant parameters to not lie in an exceptional subset of the parameter range.

The above point can be illustrated with the help of a simple analogy. The Earth’s obliquity (the

tilt of its spin axis relative to its orbital plane) is about 23o, a configuration that produces

interesting but not vicious seasonal variations. The seasonal cycle is an important driver of

evolution, but a much bigger obliquity, closer to 90o, would disrupt complex life. So something

between, say, 15o and 30o is probably optimal. The fact that Earth’s obliquity has a typical value

lying in the desirable range is no surprise, because otherwise complex intelligent life forms would
not have evolved here. So there is no justification in seeking any deeper significance in the actual

value of the obliquity. Now Earth’s obliquity is within a few per cent of the number π/6 radians.

Had it been indistinguishable from π/6 to, say, 6 significant figures, we would be justified in

concluding that it was not a typical value in the range needed to permit complex life to evolve,

but in an exceptional subset of that range, and we would be justified in seeking a deeper physical

theory that might yield π/6 exactly for reasons unconnected with a biological selection effect.

The fact that the multiverse hypothesis is vulnerable to falsification in this statistical manner

qualifies the theory for the description “scientific,” even though we may never, even in principle,

be able to directly observe other universes in the ensemble.

6. Providence

A straightforward explanation for why the universe is fit for life is that it is the product of

deliberate engineering, i.e. that an agent (or agents) picked judicious “knob settings on the

Designer Machine” so that life would emerge and sentient beings evolve. Note that this

explanation is very different from the claims of the so-called Intelligent Design movement,

whose advocates invoke miraculous intervention by an unspecified agent on a sporadic basis

throughout history, in order to “fix up” biological evolution. In the case of cosmological fine-

tuning, all phenomena can be consistent with a naturalistic explanation, i.e. the universe is still

subject to physical laws at all times and places, but the laws themselves are regarded as the

product of some sort of design. There are many variations on this theme. The simplest is to posit

the existence of a transcendent designer who creates a universe suited for life, as a free act, after

the fashion of the monotheistic creation myths (Holder, 2004). The drawback with this
explanation is that it is totally ad hoc, unless one has independent reasons to believe in the

existence of the designer/creator. It also raises the issue of who created/designed the designer.

Theologians have argued that God is a necessary being, i.e. a being whose existence and qualities

do not depend on anything else, and is therefore self-explaining (see, for example, Ward, 2005).

Few scientists, however, find the arguments for a necessary being persuasive. An added problem

is that unless one can also demonstrate that the necessary being is necessarily unique, the way lies

open for an ensemble of necessary beings creating an ensemble of universes. Not only is the latter

very far from traditional monotheism, it renders the creator beings redundant, for one might as

well posit an ensemble of unexplained universes ab initio, without the complication of attaching

a creator to each one.

Another version of providential design is closer to Plato’s demiurge than to the monotheistic

deity. It is based on the notion of baby universes that are a feature of quantum cosmology,

according to which universes can form, or nucleate, from other universes (see, for example,

Hawking, 1994, Smolin, 2002). It is then but a small step to the speculation that baby universes

might be created artificially by a sufficiently advanced technological civilization or super-

intelligent agency residing in a “mother” universe. Such a civilization or agency would have the

option of designing the baby universe to be fit for life, by fixing the laws of physics and any free

parameters judiciously. Speculations about artificial baby universes have been made by Farhi and

Guth (1987), Linde (1992) and Harrison (1995), among others. One may envisage that

intelligence first evolves naturally, and then develops over an immense duration to the point

where a super-intelligence emerges with cosmic-scale technology, and manufactures our universe

with its life-encouraging potential. A variant on this theme, published by cosmologists Gott and
Li (1998), involves a causal loop: a baby universe loops back in time to become its own “mother”

universe, i.e. it is a self-creating system.

A more extreme speculation is that our universe is not only artificial, but fake, i.e. it is a gigantic

simulation, a virtual reality show being run on a superdupercomputer, in a manner reminiscent of

The Matrix series of movies. The so-called simulation argument is popular among certain

philosophers (Bostrom, 2003), and has also been defended by some cosmologists (Tipler, 1994;

Barrow, 2003; Rees, 2003). It conforms naturally to the multiverse scenario: the step from a

multiplicity of real universes to a multiverse that includes both real and simulated representatives

is but a small – indeed inevitable – one. To be sure, human beings remain a long way from the

ability to simulate even rudimentary consciousness, let alone the conscious experience of a

sentient being inhabiting a coherent and complex world. But we may imagine that such ability

will be attained in the future, or by advanced civilizations elsewhere in the universe, or in a

subset of universes within a multiverse. Because fake universes are cheaper than real ones, a

single real universe could spawn a vast number of simulations inhabited by a vast number of

sentient beings. According to how one does the statistics, it is easy to imagine that the fake

universes and their inhabitants will greatly outnumber the real ones, so that an arbitrary observer

is far more likely to inhabit a fake universe than a real one. This leads to the disturbing – some

might say ridiculous – conclusion that this universe is probably a fake! If one were to take such a

bizarre conclusion seriously, it would imply that the laws of physics are the product of intelligent

design, in the form of skillfully crafted software running on an information processing system in

another reality to which we have no access.

7. Strong anthropic principle

The final set of ideas about the origin of the laws of physics, and their curious life-enabling

qualities, is based on the notion that life and observers, and the underlying laws of physics that

permit them to emerge in the universe, are somehow mutually explanatory. The so-called strong

anthropic principle (SAP) is one statement of this inter-dependence (Carter, 1974; Barrow and

Tipler, 1986). It asserts that the laws of physics must be such that observers will arise somewhere

and somewhen in the universe. To use Freeman Dyson’s much-cited phrase (Dyson, 1979), “the

universe must in some sense have known we were coming.”

A link between the existence of living observers on one hand and the laws that permit their

emergence on the other is a tantalizing idea, but not without deep conceptual difficulties that go

to the very heart of the scientific enterprise. A founding tenet of physical science, dating at least

from the time of Newton, is the existence of a duality of laws and states. The laws of physics

normally have the status of timeless eternal truths that are simply “given.” By contrast, physical

states are contingent (on the laws and also on initial and boundary conditions) and time-

dependent. Thus, according to orthodoxy, the laws affect how states of the world evolve, but are

themselves unaffected by those changing states. There is a curious asymmetry here: the laws

“stand aloof” from the hubbub of the cosmos even as they serve to determine it. This “aloofness”

accords well with the strong flavor of Platonism running through theoretical physics. Most

physicists think of the laws as really existing, but in a realm that transcends the physical universe

and is untouched by it. It is a point of view inherited from mathematics. Plato envisaged a realm

of perfect mathematical forms of which the geometrical and arithmetical arrangements of the

physical world were regarded as but a flawed shadow. In the same vein, theoretical physicists are
wont to envisage the laws of physics as perfect, idealized mathematical objects and equations

located in an abstract transcendent domain.

So long as one is wedded to a Platonic interpretation of the nature of physical law, the strong

anthropic principle looks just plain ridiculous. Why should the laws of physics, which are

universal and apply to all physical systems, “care about” such things as life and consciousness?

In what manner does a very special and specific state of matter – the living state – serve to

determine or even constrain the very laws of the universe, in a manner calculated to ensure

cosmic bio-friendliness? If states and laws inhabit separate conceptual realms, then the laws are

what they are in the Platonic world, irrespective of which specific states may or may not evolve

in the physical world.

A second serious problem with the strong anthropic principle concerns its teleological character.

The living state, let alone the conscious state, presumably emerge in the universe only after some

billions of years of cosmic evolution, yet the laws of physics are either timelessly determined, or

“laid down” (somehow!) at the time of the big bang. Even if one can accept some sort of coercive

link between life (and/or mind) and laws, how does the existence of the living state at later time

“reach back” and ensure that the universe starts out with the right laws and initial conditions to

bring life about billions of years later? What is the mechanism of this retro-causation? Orthodox

physics has no place for such teleology.

One may clearly conclude that the standard picture of physical law has no room for the strong

anthropic principle. However, the standard picture of Platonism and revulsion of teleology is

based on little more than an act of faith, and has the status more of a convenient working
hypothesis than an empirically tested theoretical framework. For example, the dualism of

timeless idealized mathematical laws and temporal contingent states enables the laws of physics

to be expressed in the form of differential equations, from which unique solutions follow by

imposing contingent initial and boundary conditions. The very basis of science hinges on this

convenience. Notice that to pursue the scientific project along these lines, one has to take

seriously the real number system, perfect differentiability, unbounded exponentiation, infinite and

infinitesimal quantities and all the other paraphernalia of standard mathematics, including

Platonic geometrical forms. These structures and procedures normally require an infinite amount

of information to specify them.

If this traditional conceptual straitjacket is relaxed, however, all sorts of possibilities follow. For

example, one may contemplate the co-evolution of laws and states, in which the actual state of

the universe serves to determine (in part) the form of the laws, and vice versa. Radical though this

departure may seem at first blush, it comes close to the spirit of the string theory landscape, in

which the quantum state “explores” a range of possible low-energy effective laws, so that the

late-time laws that emerge in a bubble have the character of “congealing” out of the quantum

fuzziness of the bubble’s origin. There is even the possibility of a bubble-within-a-bubble

triggering a region in which the laws change again depending on the quantum state within the

bubble. In the string theory landscape example, there is still a backdrop of traditional fixed and

eternal fundamental laws – e.g. the string theory Lagrangian – that escape the mutational

influences of evolving quantum states. It is only the low-energy effective laws that change with

time. A more radical proposal has been suggested by Wheeler, in which “there are no laws except

the law that there is no law” (Wheeler, 1983). In Wheeler’s proposal, everything “comes out of
higgledy-piggledy,” with laws and states congealing together from the quantum ferment of the

big bang (Wheeler, 1989).

One motivation for considering the kind of looser picture of physical law suggested by Wheeler

comes from the burgeoning science of quantum information theory. The traditional logical

dependence of laws, states of matter and information is as follows:

A. Laws of physics → matter → information.

Thus, conventionally, the laws of physics form the absolute and eternal bedrock of physical

reality, and cannot be changed by anything that happens in the universe. Matter conforms to the

“given” laws, while information is a derivative, or secondary property having to do with certain

special states of matter. But several physicists have suggested that the logical dependence should

really be as follows:

B. Laws of physics → information → matter.

In this scheme, often described informally by the dictum “the universe is a computer,”

information is placed at a more fundamental level than matter. Nature is treated as a vast

information-processing system, and particles of matter are certain special states which, when

interrogated by, say, a particle detector, extract or process the underlying quantum state

information so as to yield particle-like results. It is an inversion famously encapsulated by

Wheeler’s pithy phrase “It from bit” (Wheeler 1994). Treating the universe as a computer has

been advocated by Fredkin (1990), Lloyd (2002, 2006) and Wolfram (2002) among others.
An even more radical transformation is to place information at the base of the logical sequence,


C. Information → laws of physics → matter.

The attraction of scheme C is that, after all, the laws of physics are informational statements. In

the orthodox scheme A, it remains an unexplained concordance that the laws of physics are

mathematical/informational in nature, a mystery flagged by Wigner in his famous paper (Wigner


For most purposes the order of logical dependence does not matter much, but when it comes to

the informational content of the universe as a whole, one is forced to confront the status of

information: is it ontological or epistemological? The problem arises because what we call the

universe (perhaps only a pocket universe within a multiverse) is a finite system. It has a finite age

(13.7 billion years), and a finite speed of light that defines a causal region of about a Hubble

volume. Lloyd has estimated that this finite spacetime region contains at most 10122 bits of

information (Lloyd, 2002). A similar result follows from appealing to the so-called holographic

principle (‘t Hooft, 1993; Susskind, 1995). So even if we were to commandeer the entire

observable universe and use it to compute, we would be limited in the degree of fidelity of our

calculations. If one believes in a Platonic heaven, then this practical limit is irrelevant to the

operation of physical laws, because these laws do not compute in the (resource-limited) universe;

they compute in the (infinitely resourced) Platonic realm. However, if one relinquishes idealized
Platonism then one may legitimately ask whether the finite information processing capacity of the

real universe carries implications for the fidelity of physical law.

Rolf Landauer for one believed so. He was a strong advocate of the view that “the universe

computes in the universe,” because he believed that “information is physical.” He summed up his

philosophy as follows (Landauer 1967):

“The calculative process, just like the measurement process, is subject to some limitations. A

sensible theory of physics must respect these limitations, and should not invoke calculative

routines that in fact cannot be carried out.”

In other words, in a universe limited in resources and time – a universe subject to the information

bound of 10122 bits in fact – concepts like real numbers, differentiable functions, and the unitary

evolution of a quantum state – are a fiction: a useful fiction to be sure, but a fiction nevertheless.

To understand the implications, consider as an example a quantum superposition of two

eigenstates φ1 and φ2:

ψ = α1φ1 + α2φ2. (1)

The amplitudes α1and α2 are complex numbers which, in general, demand an infinite amount of

information to specify them precisely (envisage them written as an infinite binary string). If

information is regarded simply as a description of what we know about the physical world, as is

implied by Scheme A, there is no reason why Mother Nature should have a problem with infinite

binary strings. Or, to switch metaphors, the bedrock of physical reality according to Scheme A is
sought in the perfect laws of physics, which live elsewhere, in the realm of the gods – the

Platonic domain they are held by tradition to inhabit, where they can compute to arbitrary

precision with the unlimited amounts of information at their disposal. If one maintains that

information is indeed “merely epistemological,” and that the mathematically idealized laws of

physics are the true ontological reality, as in Scheme A, then infinitely information-rich complex

numbers α1and α2 exist contentedly in the Platonic heaven, where they can be subjected to

infinitely precise idealized mathematical operations such as unitary evolution. And the fact that

we humans cannot, even in principle, and even by commandeering the entire observable universe,

track those operations, is merely an epistemological handicap. So in Scheme A, there is no further

implication of the information bound (3). To repeat, A says: The universe does not compute in the

(resource-limited) universe; it computes in the (infinitely resourced) Platonic realm.

But if information is ontological, as for example in the heretical Scheme C, then we are obliged

to assume that “the universe computes in the universe,” and there isn’t an infinite source of free

information in a Platonic realm at the disposal of Mother Nature. In that case, the bound of 10122

bits applies to all forms of information, including such numbers as α1and α2 in Eq. (1), as well as

to the dynamical evolution of the state vector ψ. In general, a state vector will have an infinite

number of components, or branches of the wave function, expressed by the practice of describing

that state vector using an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space. If one takes seriously Landauer’s

philosophy and the 10122 bound, it is simply not permissible to invoke a Hilbert space with an

indefinite number of dimensions plus coefficients of branches of the wavfunction expressed by

idealized complex numbers that require an infinite amount of information to specify. The

consequences of accepting Landauer’s restriction is there will be an inherent sloppiness or

ambiguity in the operation of physical laws whenever our description of those laws approaches
the bound. For many practical purposes, the bound is so large that any ambiguity will be

insignificant. Problems arise, however, when exponentiation is involved, such as in systems with

event horizons (runaway red-shift factors), in combinatorically explosive systems and in

deterministic chaos.

To take a specific example, consider the case of quantum entanglement, which lies at the heart of

the proposal to build a quantum computer. A simple case consists of a system on n fermions, each

of which has two spin eigenstates, up or down. Classically, this system has 2n possible states, but

quantum mechanically it has 2n states, on account of the possibility of superposition and

entanglement. It is this exponential improvement that holds the power and promise of quantum

computation (for an introduction, see Nielsen and Chuang, 2000). By evolving the quantum state

in a controlled way, exponentially greater computing power is available. The presence of

“exponential” here is a warning flag, however. If the system contains more than about 400

particles, then the size of the Hilbert space alone exceeds that total information capacity of the

universe, so that even using the entire universe as an informational resource, it would not be

possible to specify an arbitrary quantum state of 400 particles, let alone model its evolution with

time. Does this render practical quantum computation a pipe-dream? Not necessarily. Although

an arbitrary quantum state of > 400 particles cannot be specified, or its unitary evolution

described, there is a (tiny) subset of quantum states that can be specified with very much less

information: for example, the state in which all coefficients are the same and in which a small

margin of error in the amplitudes is of no consequence. If the problems of practical interest enjoy

this compressibility, then the initial states of the quantum computer might be constructed to

within the required accuracy, allowed to evolve, and the answer read out. Note, however, that

during the evolution of the state, the system will in general invade a region of Hilbert space far in
excess of 10122 dimensions. Obviously no human system – indeed, no system within the

observable universe – could follow or micro-manage this evolution on a dimension-by-dimension

basis. But if one is a Platonist that doesn’t matter: the unitary evolution will run smoothly in the

Platonic heaven untrammeled by the 10122 bits bound operating within the physical universe. On

the other hand, if one adopts Landauer’s philosophy, then there is no justification whatever for

believing that the wave function will evolve unitarily through an arbitrarily large region of

Hilbert space. In general, unitary evolution will break down under these circumstances. What is

not clear is whether departures from unitarity, which would be manifested as an irreducible

source of error, would serve to wreck a practical calculation. It may not be too long before the

experiment can be performed, however, because entanglements of 400 or more particles are

already the subject of experimental programs.

Paul Benioff, one of the founders of the theory of quantum computation, has also examined the

nature of computation is a resource-limited universe. Rather than advocating a Platonic realm of

perfect, idealized mathematical objects and operations that just happen to exist, and a physical

universe that just happens to appropriate a subset of those objects and operations to describe its

laws, Benioff (2002) proposes that physics and mathematics co-emerge in a self-consistent

manner. In other words, mathematics comes out of physics even as physics comes out of

mathematics. Landauer has advocated something similar (Landauer, 1986): “Computation is a

physical process … Physical law, in turn, consists of algorithms for information processing.

Therefore, the ultimate form of physical laws must be consistent with the restrictions on the

physical executability of algorithms, which is in turn dependent on physical law.” This scheme, in

which mathematical laws are self-consistently emergent rather than fundamental and god-given,
automatically addresses Wigner’s observation about the unreasonable effectiveness of

mathematics in physics (Wigner, 1960).

Returning to the issue of the strong anthropic principle, the view of physical law expounded by

Wheeler, Landauer and Benioff, where laws are rooted in the actual states of the physical

universe, opens the way to a scheme in which laws and states co-emerge from the big bang, and

co-evolve, perhaps in the direction of life and consciousness. One way to express this is that the

state space of physical systems (phase space, Hilbert space) might be enlarged to include the

space of laws too. In this product space of states and laws, life could be distinguished as

something like an attractor, so that the universe would evolve laws and states that eventually

bring life into being, thus explaining the appearance of teleology in terms of the mathematical

properties of the product space. Of course this is nothing more than hand-waving conjecture, but

the post-Platonic view of physical law coming from the quantum information revolution will

clearly have sweeping implications for our understanding of the very early universe, the

properties of which include the unexpected suitability of the universe for life.

8. The problem of what exists

The holy grail of theoretical physics is to produce a “theory of everything” – a common

mathematical scheme, preferably deriving from an elegant and simple underlying principle,

which would provide a unified description of all forces and particles, as well as space and time.

Currently string/M theory and loop quantum gravity are popular contenders, although over the

years there have been very different proposals, such as Wheeler’s pre-geometry (Wheeler, 1980)

and Penrose’s twistor program (Huggett and Tod, 1994). Although full unification remains a
distant dream, many discussions of the prospect give the impression that if it were to be achieved,

there would be nothing left to explain, i.e. that the unified theory would constitute a complete and

closed explanation for physical existence. In this section I shall examine the status of that claim.

Proponents of NFP final theories argue that if all observed quantities are determined (correctly,

one assumes) by the theory, then theoretical physics (at least in its reductionistic manifestation)

would be complete. Such a completion was foreshadowed many years ago, somewhat

prematurely as it turned out, by Hawking, in the context of N = 8 supergravity (Hawking, 1980).

However, as I have explained in Section 4, it is possible to conceive of many alternative putative

final theories, including many NFP theories, which describe universes very different from the one

we observe. So even with a NFP final theory at our disposal, one would still have to explain why

that particular theory is the “chosen” one, i.e. the one to be instantiated in a physical universe, to

have “fire breathed into it.” Why, for example, didn’t the Thirring model have fire breathed into

it? Why was it a unified theory that permits life, consciousness and comprehension that got

picked out from the (probably infinite) list?

Which brings me to the vexatious question of what, exactly, performs the selection? Who, or

what, gets to choose what exists? If there is no unique final theory (which there clearly isn’t),

then we are bound to ask, why this one? That is, why did the putative final theory by hypothesis

describes the observed world get singled out (“You shall have a universe!”), while all the rest

were passed over?

The problem reappears in another guise in the multiverse theory. At first sight, one might think

that something like the sting theory landscape combined with eternal inflation would instantiate
all possible universes with all possible effective laws. But this is not so. Many unexplained

ingredients go into the string theory multiverse. For example, there has to be a universe

generating mechanism, such as eternal inflation, which operates according to some transcendent

physical laws, for example, quantum mechanics. But these laws, at least, have to be assumed as

“given.” They are completely unexplained. It is easy to imagine a different universe-generating

mechanism: for example, one based on an analogue of quantum mechanics, but with the Hilbert

space taken over the field of the quaternions or the real numbers rather than complex numbers. In

addition, one has to assume the equations of string/M theory to derive the landscape. But it is

easy to imagine a different theory describing a different landscape. Remember, we do not need

this different theory to be consistent with what we observe in the real universe, only that it

describes a logically possible universe.

At rock bottom, there are only two “natural” states of affairs in the existence business. The first is

that nothing exists, which is immediately ruled out by observation. The second is that everything

exists. By this, I mean that everything that can exist – everything that is locally possible –really

does exist somewhere. The multiverse would contain all possible universes described by all

possible laws, including laws involving radically different mathematical objects and operations

(and all possible non-mathematical descriptions too, such as those that conform to aesthetic or

teleological principles). Just such a proposal has been made by Tegmark (2003), who points out

that the vast majority of these possible worlds are inconsistent with life and so go unobserved.

Although observation cannot be used to rule out Tegmark’s “everything goes” multiverse, I

believe that very few scientists would be prepared to go that far. More scientists assume that what

exists, even if it includes entire other universes that will le forever beyond our ken, is less than
everything. But if less than everything exists, a problem looms. Who or what gets to decide what

exists and what doesn’t? In the vast space of all possible worlds, a boundary divides that which

exists from that which is logically possible but in fact non-existent. Where does this boundary

come from, and why that boundary rather than some other? Anthropic selection can help separate

that which is observed from that which exists but cannot be observed, but it can do nothing to

explain why that which does not exist failed to do so. Therefore, unless one adopts Tegmark’s

extreme multiverse hypothesis, we are still left with a metaphysical mystery concerning the

ultimate source of existence: why that which is favored to be selected for existence, even if it is a

multiverse containing of mostly sterile universes, contains a subset of universes that support life

and observers. The multiverse seems to offer progress in explaining cosmic bio-friendliness in

terms of a selection effect, but in fact it merely shifts the enigma up a level from universe to

multiverse. The vast majority of multiverses that fall short of the Tegmark ideal will be

multiverses that possess no universe in which the laws and conditions permit life. So the ancient

mystery of “why that universe” is replaced with a bigger mystery: why that multiverse?

10. Conclusion

In reviewing the various explanations for the laws of physics, I am struck by how ridiculous they

all seem. To summarize the choices on offer:

A. The universe is ultimately absurd. Its laws exist reasonlessly, and their life-friendly qualities

have no explanation and no significance. The whole of reality is pointless and arbitrary.

Somehow an absurd universe has contrived to mimic a meaningful one, but this is just a fiendish

bit of trickery without a trickster.

B. There exist a stupendous number and variety of different unseen universes. The laws of

physics in our universe are suited to life because they are selected by our own existence. The fact

that the laws of nature are also comprehensible is an unexplained fluke. The existence of a

universe generating mechanism, and a set of base laws, e.g. quantum mechanics, is also


C. Everything that can exist does exist. Nothing in particular is explained because everything is


D. The universe and its life-friendly laws were made by an unexplained transcendent pre-existing

God, or are the product of a natural god, or godlike superintelligence, that evolved in an

unexplained prior universe.

E. The universe, its bio-friendly laws, and the observers that follow from them, are somehow

self-synthesizing or self-creating, perhaps by constituting an attractor in the product space of laws

and states.

It is hard to see how further progress can be made in addressing these ultimate questions of

existence, and in the end it may be necessary to concede that the questions have no answers

because they are ultimately meaningless. The entire discussion – indeed, the entire scientific

enterprise – is predicated on concepts and modes of thought that are the product of biological

evolution. The Darwinian processes that built our minds compel us to address issues of cause and

effect, space and time, mind and matter, logic and rationality, physics and metaphysics in certain
well-defined ways. Both religion and science proceed from these universal human categories and

we seem bound to seek explanations within their confines. It may well be that “explanation”

couched in these ancient modes of thought will inevitably fail to encompass the deepest problems

of physical existence and leave us facing irreducible mystery.


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