Universal Law

Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier discovered that breathing (respiration) and fire (combustion) operated on the same principle. It was one of the most startling unifications in the history of science, for it brought together the mundane realm of matter and the sacred realm of life, which humans had divided into separate magisteria.

The first great simplification was that of Isaac Newton, who unified the course of the planets with the trajectory of a falling apple. The shock of this discovery was greater by far than Lavoisier’s. It wasn’t just that Newton had dared to unify the Earthly realm of base matter with the obviously different and sacred celestial realm, once thought to be the abode of the gods. Newton’s discovery gave rise to the notion of a universal law, one that is the same everywhere and everywhen, with literally zero exceptions.

Human beings live in a world of surface phenomena, and surface phenomena are divided into leaky categories with plenty of exceptions. A tiger does not behave like a buffalo. Most buffalo have four legs, but perhaps this one has three. Why would anyone think there would be laws that hold everywhere? It’s just so obviously untrue.

The only time when it seems like we would want a law to hold everywhere is when we are talking about moral laws—tribal rules of behavior. Some tribe members may try to take more than their fair share of the buffalo meat—perhaps coming up with some clever excuse—so in the case of moral laws we do seem to have an instinct to universality. Yes, the rule about dividing the meat evenly applies to you, right now, whether you like it or not. But even here there are exceptions. If—for some bizarre reason—a more powerful tribe threatened to spear all of you unless Bob received twice as much meat on just this one occasion, you’d give Bob twice as much meat. The idea of a rule with literally no exceptions seems insanely rigid, the product of closed-minded thinking by fanatics so in the grip of their one big idea that they can’t see the richness and complexity of the real universe.

This is the customary accusation made against scientists—the professional students of the richness and complexity of the real universe. Because when you actually look at the universe, it turns out to be, by human standards, insanely rigid in applying its rules. As far as we know, there has been not one single violation of conservation of momentum from the uttermost dawn of time up until now.

Sometimes—very rarely—we observe an apparent violation of our models of the fundamental laws. Though our scientific models may last for a generation or two, they are not stable over the course of centuries… but do not fancy that this makes the universe itself whimsical. That is mixing up the map with the territory. For when the dust subsides and the old theory is overthrown, it turns out that the universe always was acting according to the new generalization we have discovered, which once again is absolutely universal as far as humanity’s knowledge extends. When it was discovered that Newtonian gravitation was a special case of General Relativity, it was seen that General Relativity had been governing the orbit of Mercury for decades before any human being knew about it; and it would later become apparent that General Relativity had been governing the collapse of stars for billions of years before humanity. It is only our model that was mistaken—the Law itself was always absolutely constant—or so our new model tells us.

I may repose only 80% confidence that the lightspeed limit will last out the next hundred thousand years, but this does not mean that I think the lightspeed limit holds only 80% of the time, with occasional exceptions. The proposition to which I assign 80% probability is that the lightspeed law is absolutely inviolable throughout the entirety of space and time.

One of the reasons the ancient Greeks didn’t discover science is that they didn’t realize you could generalize from experiments. The Greek philosophers were interested in “normal” phenomena. If you set up a contrived experiment, you would probably get a “monstrous” result, one that had no implications for how things really worked.

So that is how humans tend to dream, before they learn better; but what of the universe’s own quiet dreams that it dreamed to itself before ever it dreamed of humans? If you would learn to think like reality, then here is the Tao:

Since the beginning
not one unusual thing
has ever happened.