His study of the cosmos, black holes and the Big Bang led Stephen Hawking to believe that the Laws of Physics are not fixed, but have evolved over time. This may well be the next ‘disappointment’ in our believe that we understand reality. But also, it may be the tiny start of a new Big Story for humanity, hopefully bringing us more together.
Yesterday, I watched a replay of the three hour interview with professor Thomas Hertog on Dutch television. Hertog is a theoretical physicist, like myself. He used to work as a PhD and sort-of personal scientific assistant for, also theoretical physicist, famous professor Stephen Hawking (1942-2018). Hertog and Hawking specialize in cosmology, the science of the Universe.
Hertog is the author of the book “On The Origin of Time, Stephen Hawking’s Final Theory“. A lot of what was said in the interview was also written in the book.
Anyway, it was a fantastic interview, because it strongly resonated with my artistic philosophy.
Evolving Laws of Physics
So what is Stephen Hawking’s final theory? Let me try to explain it in simple terms.
Science is based on the falsification principle of Karl Popper, saying that “a scientific statement may be true, until proven untrue”. A scientific theory may hold for quite some time, until someone finds a situation or circumstance where the theory does not hold. It happened a number of times in history. Some important examples are:
- Niklaus Copernicus demonstrated that Earth circles the Sun and not the other way around, defying the Catholic dogma of a human-centric worldview
- Isaac Newton demonstrated that the Moon circling Earth and an apple falling from a tree are driven by the same force, gravity
- Albert Einstein demonstrated that at high speeds the Newtonian laws of physics no longer apply due to relativistic effects and that gravity is not a property of two objects but of the spacetime fabric they are placed in
- Nils Bohr and others demonstrated that at very small scale classical mechanics and relativity do not apply due to quantum effects, such as the observer effect, the wave-particle duality and the uncertainty principle
- Freud showed that we are way less rational than we want to be, and Crick and Watson showed that our ‘divine’ humanness is simply stored in a DNA molecule and can be manipulated by modifying parts of it
To paraphrase Thomas Hertog (“Het was niet zoals we dachten.”):
It wasn’t how we thought it was.
And that is a recurring pattern. We think we understand the world, until we find out that we don’t. We keep on overestimating our cognitive abilities, driven by an evolutionary need for certainty, predictability and control. We build a seemingly consistent and complete theory of the world – in my words a ‘mind model‘ – only to discover that it is, at least, incomplete or not valid in all circumstances.
Now, ‘Hawking’s final theory‘ is a next step in this process.
For the last thirty years or so, the main focus in theoretical physics has been on ‘unification’ theory, trying to create one theory for all existing forces, and one theory combining relativity theory and quantum theory. The “Grand Unified Theory of Everything”. Stephen Hawking has been a leading figure in this effort.
Relativity is the theory of large, heavy things. Quantum is the theory of small things. In a Black Hole, heavy and small come together, because the matter of an entire star is compressed into literally a cubic meter, or so. So, do relativity and quantum theory both apply in a Black Hole, or none of them, or something else? Well, at least something strange is going on there.
Hawking postulated that similar strange things happened during the Big Bang and early moments of the Universe. After all, then too huge amounts of mass were compressed into a tiny space.
Personal note. Or could it be that there was no matter initially, and that all matter results from pair production of particles and their anti-particles? In that case, there should be exacly as many particles as anti-particles.
Anyway, long time this was just theory, but recently first glimpses of proof of his theory have arisen with the detection of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime, the four-dimensional fabric of the Universe. (These were already predicted by Einstein, by the way.) In 2016, the LIGO detector received a signal created by the merger or collission of two black holes. Since then, more gravitational waves have been observed.
However, to proof Hawking’s statements about the Big Bang, gravitational waves from the Big Bang itself should be measured. That has not yet happened, so far. Hertog is opportunistic, that sometime in the future, we will.
Hawking further postulated that, if relativity – and quantum – theory did not apply during the Big Bang and its aftermath, and in Black Holes, then maybe the very Laws of Physics, that all of us were taught to be universally true, maybe aren’t universally true.
Personal note. So, what does it even mean, that the Laws of Physics have evolved? Did the underlying math change, did the formulas change, did the constants – such as Planck’s constant – gradually change, did the logic – such as cause and effect – change, were there totally different Laws?
Maybe, the Laws of Physics aren’t as static, fixed, universal as we always assumed. The Laws of Physics may have undergone an evolution as the Universe evolved. That explains the title of Hertog’s book, On The Origin of Time. It is a wink to Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, the book that explains the workings of biological evolution.
Well, if that would be true, if the Laws of Physics have evolved in the past billion years – and, hence, likely will evolve in the coming billions of years – that would open a whole Pandora’s Box of new realities, new mind models.
Why is this important
Copernicus’ discovery and, later, Newton’s work designated the start of the Enlightenment, the most rationalistic period in the history of humanity (“Cogito, ergo sum“, René Descartes). Ultimately, it led to the great miracles of industrialization and technology, but also to alienation of the human species from – and grave abuse of – its environment, our planet Earth.
Einstein’s theory led to the development of the atomic bomb, Bohr’s work led to the broad realization that reality that we perceive may not be ‘real reality’. Scientific work of the last few centuries has led to modern technologies such as artificial intelligence and – soon – quantum computing. Ultimately, scientific discoveries have always steered societal development and philosophical convictions.
The last, say, thousand years mainstream thinking has always been based on the notion that the fundamental, ultimately all-determining, Laws of Physics were fixed. At least there was some universal truth.
Today, we live in the age of fake news. More than ever, powerful and powerless people have discovered the influential power of stories, of mind models if you wish. Marketeers discovered it a hundred years ago, already. Social media have accelerated it at great length, and artificial intelligence will bring it to great heights, or deep lows, rather – with the anticipated metaverse as its ultimate low point. Everybody can now create and live in their own reality.
Now, the notion that even the ‘universal’ Laws of Physics are not as universal as we thought will definitely be abused by people to create a completely unhinged world of “there is no truth but my truth”.
That worries me, a lot.
A Biophile Universe
There is a second interesting theme, that came from the Hertog interview. It’s about George Lemaître, a priest and scientist, and the discoverer/inventor of the Big Bang. A common question is “if there was nothing before the Big Bang, then what could have caused the Big Bang?” Lemaître states that the question is wrong. We tend to think in cause and effect, but why should there be a cause in the first place? For Einstein, there had to be a cause – based on his believe in the universality of the Laws of Physics.
Einstein, in a way, believed in the universal Laws of Physics as ‘his God’, the foundation of everything. Lemaître, on the other hand, intuitively felt that even the Laws of Physics might not be universally fixed, just like Hawking felt intuitively. Very daring, because – again, in history – it takes away our perceived certainty about the nature of – universal – reality.
Lemaître – priest and scientist – intuitively felt that next to the reality of the Laws of Physics, there had to be another reality. And, that these two realities somehow had to harmoniously co-exist.
Two paths to truth — George Lemaître
In the thinking world of Lemaître, next to – or maybe better, integrated with – the reality of physics, there has to be a reality that gives way to religion and art. A human reality, in my words. Hertog sees a lot of beauty and potential in this duality. It is a fruitful hypothesis to continue working on. It gives an opening for solving the mystery of the occurrence of the Big Bang, if the Laws of Physics cannot solve it. According to physics – as we know it – the Big Bang simply could not occur, because there was nothing to cause it to happen. So, there has to be something else, that was the origin of time, something that the current state of physics theory cannot explain. Lemaître called it God.
Hertog postulates, that evolution, and not static Laws of Physics, will have the last word. The process of development of the Laws of Physics in the very early stages of the existence of the Universe seems to have a Darwinian nature: variation and selection. We could have ended up with very different Laws of Physics, if something in that early process would have gone even slightly different that it really did. Maybe evolution theory is more broadly applicable than just to biology.
A Darwinian evolution of the Laws of Physics
So, we could have ended up with different Laws of Physics. And, here’s the quintessential point. We are here. We exist, in the Universe. And from our position – living, biological creatures on planet Earth – inside-out we look back to history and we wonder how it all happenend. We try to reconstruct the evolution of the Universe, similar to how Darwin constructed the Tree of Life, with all of its died-out branches. So, was there initially a plethora of Laws of Physics out of which the ones that we now know have, sort of, crystallized evolutionarily? Pure chance, experimentation, selected by its environment. We could have ended up with totally different Laws of Physics. So, our Laws of Physics are not an à priori fixed universal way of how it had to be – à la Einstein.
Personal note. Does this also imply that the underlying mathematics could have been totally different in a different evolutionary scenario? Are there different mathematical frameworks thinkable? Just like the underlying math of Relativity is different from that of Quantum.
Personal note. I’m not a subject matter expert, of course, but … if counting back in time the Laws of Physics were different in the years, days, seconds after the Big Bang, then there is no reason to think back according to the Laws of Physics that we know, resulting in a Big Bang start. Maybe, those different Laws of Physics didn’t require a Big Bang in the first place. That would not solve the issue (because we do not know those different Laws of Physics), but it would take away the mystery. Maybe, then, there never has been a Big Bang, but … something else, entirely, something that makes perfect sense according to those other Laws of Physics.
So, today, we are in the situation that we ended up with Laws of Physics that ultimately have allowed biological life to come in existence. Hertog calls it our “biophile cosmos“. Personally, I would rather call it a “biotolerant cosmos“, because so far there does not seem to be a lot of life around us. The key point is, that with the evolutionary course of the cosmos, luckily we ended up with Laws of Physics that love – or at least tolerate – biological life.
Anyway, so far, we have tried to understand the biophile cosmos, as if we were disconnected outsiders, not part of it, a divine perspective, if you wish. And from that perspective, since Copernicus and Newton physics has tried to understand the cosmos.
Hawking’s pledge has been to radically change this outside-in perspective into an inside-out perspective. Put biological life and the biophile nature of the cosmos central. And he suggested to do so by applying quantum theory on the cosmos – rather than, or together with, relativity theory. Why? Because in the quantum world reality only comes into existence by observing it. The Observer Effect. In the quantum world reality is not something that exists in itself, reality in the quantum world is the very result of the act of observation. The observer – ie. biological life – is an active participant of reality! Without observation, the quantum world is a sort-of ‘pre-existential’ world, a world of possibilities that do not yet really exist.
Phew. Very counter-intuitive, yes.
In the entanglement of observation reality crystallizes.
What quantum physics does is to bring humans – as observers – back into the formulas, where since Copernicus and Newton humans were banned to the sideline. This sidelined, divine perspective has been the succes of physics, cosmology and technology as we know them today. But if you want to answer questions about our position in the Universe, then you obviously cannot exclude humans from the equation in Hawking’s view.
Now, this is very interesting, of course. Since Copernicus and Newton, the whole Enlightenment thinking and practice – dominant up until today – was based on banning the human-centric model, originally of the Catholic Church, and replacing it by the human-as-observer model. Fundamentally, Hawking’s proposal is to keep the human-as-observer model, but in the quantum physics interpretation, especially the Observer Effect, which says that the observer always influences reality, ie. by observing it. The net effect of this, of course, is that you end up with a human-centric – or at least, human-involved or ‘biological-life-involved’ model again. Hertog calls it ‘biophile’.
With the idea of a biophile cosmos, Hawking puts (intelligent) biological life, as a sort-of inevitable evolutionary step, at the center of cosmology. Not banning the Enlightenment thinking, but somehow merging it with, yes, with what exactly? That is possibly where Lemaître comes in.
Personal note. Quantum effects occur at small scale – fundamental particles. Can these be simply one-to-one translated to meso-scale – humans?
Another question, the Fermi paradox.
Are we alone in the Universe?
If so, wow!
If not so, also wow!
Hertog thinks, as intelligent lifeform we may be alone. That would be an incredible opportunity. We could make a next step in our evolution. Hertog fervently hopes, that the theory of Stephen Hawking may be the start of a new nascent collective worldview that unites us. Maybe, we will be able to influence or steer the course of – biological, but moreover also cosmological – evolution. Different from how things went with the development of the atomic bomb. For instance in the case of artificial intelligence today – of which Hawking said “it could be either the best or the worst event in the history of our civilisation” – we need early intervention.
The key message of Hawking is that, if even the Laws of Physics are not cast in stone, we must be able to influence the evolutionary course of the cosmos and, hence, of ourselves.
So what for my art?
The Hertog interview ends with political philosopher Hannah Ahrend. Fundamentally, she felt that the disconnect between science and humanity – the divine, isolated outsider perspective – was wrong. She felt that science and technology had to take into account humanity and the human condition. That disconnect – in her view caused by Copernicus, Newton and the likes – was a big issue for her. The paradox that she saw is that by studying reality in the modern scientific manner we would actually alienate ourselves, disconnect from reality.
Exactly that was the fundamental shift that Hawking wanted to make, to bring humans – the “human condition”- back into the formulas, into the scientific loop. Based on the Observer Effect of quantum physics.
Ahrend has a very interesting message for artists.
“You will never win humanity in isolation or by publishing your work. Only who brings their life and personality – as a person – into the venture of publicity can achieve it. It is not about self-reflection. You express yourself – uniquely – by doing in word and deed. The second venture is that in starting something, anything, we connect ourselves with a network of relationships and we never know what it will lead to. And such a venture can only succeed if we trust the others, trust in the humanity of others. That’s the only way.”
So, if we do not have the desired ultimate truth – in my words, if we do not know and never will know universal reality – then what do we have? A fundamental trust and believe in humanity. And the only way to stimulate that is to engage in conversation, to enter the public arena, by having interaction.
There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in
Hertog says: “It is in our imperfection, in our humanity, that our strength lies. In our search for the universal reality, by studying the Big Bang, we ultimately ended with ourselves.”
Maybe there is room for art here, in bringing together the Sciences and the Humanities, science and humanity. Bringing together different realities. No, demonstrating that different realities are mere projections, simplifications in our mind, our brain, of a universal reality, that we will never fully comprehend – with our current brain.
— [AFTER-THOUGHT — 26th July, 2023] —
I watched the interview twice now, because it fascinates me.
But I keep on being haunted by a thought.
The effort to try to bring “the human condition” into the evolution of the Cosmos (the Biophile Cosmos) … it feels artificial to me. For me it is nothing but an obstinate urge of the brain to give humanity a more important role than we really have, and ultimately, to take away our existential feeling of loneliness.
Somehow, our brain just cannot cope with coincidence, cannot cope with the fact that our mere existence happens to be nothing more than a brilliant accident. We are an evolutionary variation that happened to be viable.
We are an unplanned child of cosmic evolution, nothing more, nothing less
Just another emotion-driven mind model, the Biophile Cosmos.
Just like Lemaître said, “there is no cause”.
But there’s more. Could a next step in art history – art future – be to incorporate the Observer Effect into artworks? And how?
“Biophile Art” is based on the “Art Observer Effect”, bringing the Observer Effect of quantum physics into an artwork
Of course, we already know the “beholder’s share” in art (introduced more than a hundred years ago – the days that, also Austrian, Sigmund Freud’s theories about the mind became very popular – by Austrian art historian Alois Riegl and popularised by Ernst Gombrich, denoting that part of an artwork’s meaning must be contributed by the viewer). The “Observer Effect in Art” would take this a small step further. It would mean that the artwork itself (reality) is brought to physical life by the act of observation.
So, unobserved, let’s say in the archives of a museum or stored as a financial asset in a so-called freeport in a tax-haven, an artwork may be equivalent to a wave function in quantum physics: a set of possible states in the observed world. It only becomes a ‘real’ artwork, when observed by an observer. And, the observer and the act of observation determine the actual state of the ‘real’ artwork – which, hence, may be different for different observers and acts of observation.
Beholder’s Share or Observer Effect?
How is this different from the original idea of the beholder’s share? The beholder’s share means that the mind of the observer adds their own interpretation to the artwork, based on the cognitive and emotional world in the brain of the observer. The observer effect in art is different. In quantum physics, the act of observation causes the wavefunction with it’s many possible states, to collapse into just one of these – all of them known in advance – states. So, the art observer effect would still treat the artwork as an object. In the idea of the beholder’s share, the artwork subjectively enters the world of experience in the mind of the human/biological observer, but physically remains the same object. It’s a subtle, but fundamental difference. Beholder’s share happens in the mind of the observer, observer effect impacts the object itself.
Inspired by the “biophile cosmos” one could call art based on the art observer effect “Biophile Art“.
Biophile art is more and less than the beholder’s share. With the beholder’s share, the physical artwork remains unchanged; it is just that the observer’s interpretation may be different from person to person – the artwork becomes a part of the experience world in the mind of the observer. A biophile artwork, based on the art observer effect, is physically modified by the act of observation, and is itself be different in each observation. One could say, that the beholder’s share breathes the world view of Freud and that the observer effect is based on the world view of Nils Bohr.
Note. I’m still struggling with the question to what degree we can project quantum effects of the micro-scale (elementary particles) to the meso-scale (artworks).
I must say, the beholder’s share idea intuitively seems to fit better with the Hanna Ahrend idea of taking into account the human condition. It forces us to deal with science and technology in a human-friendly way, so to say. But science and technology still are an object. It is about how we deal with science and technology. It is about us. So is the beholder’s share idea: it says that our subjective interpretation of the physical artwork, our experience must be considerd as an fundamental addition to, maybe even part of (our subjective experience) the artwork. In the observer effect, the physical state – ie. the physical object – of an object does not exist without an observer observing the object’s wave function. This makes that the observed object becomes an integral part of the observer; without observer there is no object. That is big step further than Hanna Ahrend could propably ever have imagined.
Wow, biophile art.
Thank you, Stephen Hawking.
Thank you, Thomas Hertog.