A diagrammatic representation of the chaotic ‘quantum foam’ which quantum physics implies is the fundamental ground of reality below the ‘Planck Length’ scale at which the properties of space and time break down into chaos, yet from which order emerges at higher scales. Reproduced from Figure 5.1 in Brian Greene, 1999: The Elegant Universe, W.W. Norton & Company, New York. Note that although this figure is meant to provide a clue to understanding the chaos that quantum physics shows underlying the world, it is in fact somewhat misleading as it illustrates the underlying chaos (the top level of magnification in the figure) as complex spatial forms, whereas the point is really that definable ‘spatial relationships’ and ‘periods’ in space and time are actually meaningless at that level, and only emerge as real properties of the world at scales greater than the Planck Length of 1.616 x 10-33 centimetres (the second level down in the figure).
There are two competing paradigms or ‘narratives’ underlying most human efforts to understand the existence and order of the universe. The first, oldest and seemingly most – intuitive notion is that the world was (somehow) created complete, perfect and ordered out of nothing. There is often an implication in this notion that all subsequent change has been for the worse, towards degeneration and decay from the original state of perfection. Some version of this notion underlies most religious explanations of the world, and helps to explain why many religions insist that we must adhere to a divinely-ordained moral code, since any movement away from this is a movement away from the original perfection of the world. This essentially religious narrative was expressed philosophically by Plato in his ‘Theory of Forms’1.
The second paradigm is the one which has emerged in only the last 150 years or so from our increasing scientific understanding of the world, namely that order emerges spontaneously but inevitably from chaos or randomness, and that the world becomes more ordered, complex and interesting over time. This source of order was first glimpsed by Darwin and Wallace in the evolution of living things but has subsequently become apparent in all realms of science from quantum physics right up to the emergence of social order and indeed to the very evolution of ideas themselves.
The purpose of this essay is to argue that the emergence of order from chaos is the only non-contradictory and non-question-begging way to account for the existence of an ordered universe. If we assume, as is implicit in the older narrative, that everything that happens must have a cause, then if the universe was somehow created (already ordered, out of nothing) we must assume there was a creator or ‘first cause’ of creation ex nihilo. However if everything must have a cause, then we still haven’t provided a fully satisfactory explanation because we must then ask ‘what caused the first cause?’ If we answer that by proposing some even more fundamental cause, the question still goes begging because by the same logic we must then ask ‘what caused that cause?’. And so on ad infinitum in a rather unsatisfactory way. On the other hand, if we argue that the first cause somehow ‘just is’ without any need for further explanation, then right there we have a case of something which is uncaused, thereby contradicting the initial premise that everything must have a cause. So why not simply say the universe ‘just is’? No matter how much sophistry and obscurantism is applied by theologians to try to get around these conundrums, the basic implausibility of the religious paradigm remains as obvious as ever.
Fortunately, the last 150 years and more of scientific observations and discoveries have revealed that there is an intelligible way out of this seeming impasse. As has happened so often in the history of human inquiry into fundamental questions, millennia of religious and philosophical reasoning disconnected from the observable realities of the world have produced only undecidable arguments and confusion (such as that outlined above), whereas hard, empirical observations of the real world have identified credible solutions which pure philosophical reasoning never came close to recognising2. On the one hand, quantum physics has demonstrated – through observation and experimentation, not merely through theorising – that at its most basic sub-atomic levels the world is a random, chaotic and indeterministic ‘noise’ of virtual particles and vacuum fluctuations whose outcomes are probabilistic rather than deterministic, and which in virtue of their intrinsic randomness cannot be meaningfully said to either have or require a ‘cause’. On the other hand, over the same period it has become clear that increasing order and complexity does in fact arise from random variability in nature, and moreover that it does so spontaneously and quite inevitably without any need for a guiding ‘purpose’, ‘plan’ or ‘cause’. This realisation was first perceived by Darwin and Wallace in their profound insight that chance mutations acted upon by environmental pressures (i.e., by unguided ‘natural selection’) give rise to increasing complexity and order in biology. The subsequent realisation that similar unguided evolutionary mechanisms lead to the emergence of new order from random variability at all levels of reality from the physical right through to the social and even the conceptual has driven the Twentieth Century development of entirely new scientific disciplines commonly referred to as ‘Chaos’, ‘Complexity’ or ‘Emergence’ Theory3.
Given that the search for better understanding of the order of the Universe is arguably the fundamental driver of all science, the insight that the world is fundamentally chaotic (or random) at its most basic levels, but that order both can and does arise spontaneously and inevitably from chaos (or randomness), is arguably the deepest insight that science has yet provided full stop.
Thinking beyond the macroscopic4
Many people seem to find quantum physics ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘weird’. The notion that sub-atomic particles may have no precise location, that ‘virtual particles’ or ‘vacuum fluctuations’ may randomly flicker in and out of existence with no causal mechanism to explain this, and that even the seemingly fundamental framework of space and time may have no meaning at scales below the Planck scale (1.616 x 10-33 centimetres and 5.36 x 10-44 seconds: see more below) seems completely at odds with our everyday experience of the world. However, it would actually be even weirder if reality did have ordinary macroscopic properties such as location and causality all the way down to infinitely small scales of time and space; that would be the weirder notion because it would yield no explanation of how such properties arise, we would simply be faced with an infinite regression of unexplainable phenomena all the way down to the infinitely small with no comprehensible explanation in sight.
We find all this difficult to grasp because we are macroscopic creatures, not sub-microscopic beings. We perceive and intuitively understand the world at spatial scales from millimetres to kilometres and on time scales from seconds to years. Our minds and our practical capabilities have evolved to perceive and respond to the world at these scales in order to be able to deal with the day-to-day challenges of survival which confront us at that level. We have no intuitive grasp – because we have never needed it – of the notion that the macroscopic properties of the world which we perceive and understand like space, time, causality, solidity, and shape are not fundamental, but rather are emergent phenomena which have arisen from the complex interactions of more fundamental underlying quantum phenomena at vastly smaller scales.
Indeed, in just the same way, further ‘strange’ properties such as time-space curvature and singularities emerge at cosmological scales of light year distances and billion year times which are so much greater than our macroscopic environment as to be similarly incomprehensible. In order to understand reality at both quantum and cosmological levels, we need to remind ourselves of this, and think logically and mathematically – but not intuitively – without trying to shoehorn our understanding of those levels of reality into our evolved macroscopic perspectives on the world, which are simply misleading for understanding quantum and cosmological phenomena.
A common conceptual trap that intuitive ‘macroscopic thinking’ often leads us into is to naïvely think of emergent phenomena (such as ‘the self’, consciousness, time, causality, solidity, etc.) as ‘illusions’, once we realise they have emerged from other more basic phenomena that do not themselves have these properties. But to do so is really just a failure to understand the process of emergence which is so fundamental to understanding how order and complexity arise in the Universe. To give a macroscopic analogy to this fallacy, consider the complex emergent things we call ‘houses’. We could say that a house is really just a collection of nails, screws, boards and bricks, and that since none of these things constitute a ‘house’ in themselves, the house we perceive is therefore an illusion. But of course it is not; a house is the entirely real and complex structure that emerges when all the component parts – none of which are houses in themselves – are organised in a certain way. In the same way, atomic and sub-atomic particles are not solid (or liquid or gas) in any recognisable sense of those concepts; yet if millions of them are organised in certain ways such that they are bound together by their electromagnetic fields (which are also not solid), then what emerges are stable macroscopic structures which resist interpenetration by other such stable structures, and hence have the (very real) macroscopic property of ‘solidity’. The fact that none of the sub-atomic components of such structures are ‘solid’ does not in any way diminish the reality of the macroscopic property of solidity which has emerged from the whole combination of all these sub-atomic components.
The same principle of emergence underlies all the other properties of the world that we consider so fundamental at our macroscopic level of perception; things such as the arrow of time, the three-dimension regularity of space, and in particular non-random causality can and do emerge from more fundamental phenomena that do not themselves have these properties. This doesn’t make these things ‘illusions’ – they are entirely real macroscopic properties of the universe – it just means that they are also emergent properties which arise from more fundamental (quantum) phenomena. And importantly, a key insight that has emerged from the last 150 years of scientific discovery is that causality itself arises from chaotic quantum (sub-atomic) phenomena, each of which is intrinsically random and unpredictable, yet which in sufficiently large numbers have probabilistically definable outcomes that yield the properties of causality and predictability at atomic and molecular scales up to the macroscopic.
As is well known, Albert Einstein himself could not believe that the world is fundamentally emergent from intrinsic randomness; he famously said ‘God does not play dice with the Universe’5. But as the physicists Lee Smolin and Marco Gleiser have pointed out, the lingering desire amongst even some physicists to find an ultimate underlying cause for everything that happens in the Universe – a deterministic ‘Theory of Everything’ – is really a lingering hangover from religion, not science6. Whilst some scientists still need to free themselves from this traditional religious view of the world as having an ultimate cause of some sort, many mainstream quantum physicists have long since accepted that intrinsic, uncaused randomness is the fundamental ground of reality. Seen from the perspective of the understanding that order emerges from chaos, it is only a short step to understanding that even the most basic laws and constants of physics are not fundamental rules that somehow existed in some sense ‘before’ the universe and determined its origin, they are simply descriptions of the order that did in fact emerge from the underlying quantum chaos7. The notion that different physical laws and constants could have emerged is entirely plausible8.
Chaos – the fundamental ground of reality
For the purposes of this discussion, I define ‘chaos’ as: ‘things which either are intrinsically and irreducibly random, indeterministic and have no cause, reason, origin or explanation whatever (mostly at quantum levels); or else events or things which are in principle causal and deterministic, but whose webs of deterministic causes are so complex as to be for all practical purposes undefinable and effectively random (mostly referring to events at those microscopic to macroscopic levels at which causality is a real, albeit emergent phenomenon)’. We can think of these two slightly different types of chaos as ‘intrinsic chaos’ (or ‘intrinsic randomness’) and ‘effective chaos’ (or ‘effective randomness’), respectively.
At the most fundamental level, ‘intrinsic chaos’ or ‘intrinsic randomness’ includes the underlying ‘noise’ of the ‘quantum foam’, that chaotic breakdown of time, space and gravity themselves which one of the central principles of quantum physics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, implies is the ground state of reality below the ‘Planck scale’. This scale, below which the concept of definable lengths or times becomes meaningless, is calculated to be 1.616 x 10-33 centimetres (the Planck Length, a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimetre) and 5.36 x 10-44 seconds (the Planck Time)9. The term ‘quantum foam’ was coined in 1955 by the physicist John Wheeler10 who realised that this random chaotic state must be the fundamental underlying fabric of the Universe. Although to date the quantum foam remains a theoretical implication of quantum theory rather than an observed phenomenon, it does have implications which are potentially observable in the characteristics of gravity waves, and experiments have been proposed which could provide empirical tests of the reality of this fundamental prediction of quantum physics theory11.
Associated with the quantum foam are ‘vacuum fluctuations’ or ‘virtual particles’, which are typically the temporary appearance from the quantum foam of energetic particle / antiparticle pairs with a photon, which then mutually annihilate after a very short period of time. These particles do not violate the physical law of conservation of energy because they exist for only very short times consistent with the uncertainties in energy/time variables permitted by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, before mutually annihilating. Nonetheless virtual particles are not merely a theoretical notion but have measurable effects such as the Casimir Effect, which is the force generated between two very closely spaced uncharged metallic plates by virtual electromagnetic particles (photons) interacting with them12. Indeed, one leading theory for explaining the currently accelerating observed expansion of the universe is that this is being caused by the increasing amount of vacuum fluctuation energy (in this context also known as ‘dark energy’) that is becoming available as the ‘vacuum’ of space expands13.
Even more fundamentally, one implication that has become apparent from the phenomenon of vacuum fluctuations is that the well-established ‘Big Bang’ event from which our entire Universe of seemingly stable particles emerged was itself simply a random uncaused vacuum fluctuation of extremely low but nevertheless finite probability, whose matter vs. gravitational energy balance sums to zero. As a consequence the time for which the Heisenberg Uncertainty permits such a zero-energy vacuum fluctuation to exist without violating physical conservation laws is infinite14.
Intrinsic randomness is not only found at the level of the quantum foam and vacuum fluctuations, but also amongst more seemingly-stable quantum and nuclear particles such as atomic nuclei, electrons and photons. Perhaps the simplest example, and one which is a commonplace in several areas of scientific research including atomic physics and geochronology (the dating of rock sample ages), is the phenomenon of radioactive decay. This occurs when the nucleus of an atom spontaneously emits radiation such as alpha particles (proton-neutron pairs), beta particles (electrons or positrons and neutrinos) or gamma particles (high-energy photons). This results in the nucleus transmuting to a more stable isotope. It is impossible to predict when any particular atom will undergo radioactive decay; there are no properties of a radioactive atom which can tell us that, say, one atom is about to undergo radioactive decay whereas another is still very far from decaying. Radioactive decay at the level of individual atoms is an intrinsically random process.
It is important to understand that the notion that quantum physical processes are intrinsically or irreducibly random and chaotic at their most fundamental levels is not merely an assumption based on the apparent randomness of experimentally observed phenomena such as radioactive decay. In 1964 the physicist John Bell, noting that quantum theory cannot predict the outcomes of individual quantum events, but rather only the probabilistic outcomes of large numbers of such events, and considering in particular the phenomenon of quantum entanglement (correlations between the behaviour of well-separated quantum particles), derived a theorem (‘Bells Theorem’) which showed there were two options for explaining these aspects of quantum physics by means of ‘hidden variables’, that is by deterministic causes that we have not yet discovered15. The first is that observed quantum phenomena are explained by ‘local hidden variables’, that is, by unknown underlying causes whose influence on the behaviour of individual quantum particles propagates at speeds no faster than the speed of light. The other option is that there are hidden variables but these are ‘non-local’, such that quantum phenomena in one location can instantaneously affect those in other locations no matter how distant16.
Subsequently there have been a series of experimental tests (‘Bell test experiments’) of this theorem utilising polarisation effects in light photons, notably the 1982 tests by Alain Aspect and his colleagues in Paris17. These tests have strongly supported the conclusion that observed quantum effects are not the result of ‘hidden local variables’, albeit it remains true that the experimental set-up of all tests to date have allowed some loopholes which could – although in rather contrived ways – still permit the involvement of hidden variables. The other option, non-local hidden variables, raises major problems which are difficult to reconcile with our understanding of physics, including a requirement for faster-than-light (‘superluminal’) communication of information and violations of causality (predictable cause-effect relations) on the macroscopic scales at which causality is a real, emergent property of the world (see below)18. Since superluminal communication or causality violations at macroscopic scales have not been demonstrated by compelling evidence and are not otherwise required by current theory, the principle of parsimony19 implies that there is no adequate reason to propose the sorts of extraordinary modifications to well-established physical theory that the acceptance of non-local hidden variables would require. Thus, it is widely accepted in the quantum physics community that Bell test experiments to date strongly argue for the irreducibly random nature of quantum processes. With increasingly sophisticated technology it is likely that it will soon be possibly to conduct experimental tests which close the various loopholes in earlier experiments20, thus allowing a definitive falsification of the ‘hidden variables’ explanation of quantum phenomena.
The emergence of order from chaos
However the reality of intrinsic randomness at the quantum level does not mean that causality is in any sense an illusion. Rather, causality – the predictable relationship between prior causes and subsequent effects – is an emergent phenomenon which is entirely real and meaningful on scales from the molecular and microscopic up to the macroscopic and beyond.
The phenomenon of random radioactive decay mentioned above provides a simple example of how causality emerges from the chaos of intrinsic quantum randomness. In this case, whereas it is impossible to predict when any individual atom will spontaneously undergo radioactively decay, when we measure the decay of a radioactive sample comprising (say) millions of atoms of a given type (‘element’ or ‘isotope’) we find a quite predictable pattern whereby half of the radioactive atoms will decay within a well-defined period known as the ‘radioactive half-life’. Whereas different radioactive elements will have different half-lives, for any particular atom type (or ‘isotope’) the half-life is quite consistent and predictable. A predictable effect (the half-life) arises from random radioactive decay of a particular isotope by a probabilistic (or ‘stochastic’) process whereby very large numbers of random decay events taken together yield a highly probable outcome that half of those atoms will have decayed within a predictable time. In quantum theory there is always a small but finite chance that half the atoms could decay in less than or more than the probabilistic half-life, but as the sample size (the number of radioactive nuclei) increases, the chances of a deviation from the half-life become vanishingly small, such that when we reach the macroscopic scale of our everyday experience the chances of such a deviation actually occurring to any noticeable degree become so vanishingly small that we have what is for all practical purposes – indeed, what is in fact – an entirely predictable causal relationship.
In essence, causality emerges from random chaos at the level at which enough (say, millions to trillions or more) random quantum events yield statistically probable or predictable outcomes overall. In effect, with a large enough number of random events occurring, the uncertainties cancel each other out to yield a predictable or ‘most likely’ overall outcome. In other words, the uncertainties of intrinsic randomness at quantum levels cancel out to yield causality and order at atomic and molecular levels (i.e. the predictable laws of chemistry).
However, chaos does not cease to play an effective role in the workings of nature once causality emerges. Even though the interactions of things from the molecular level upwards may in fact be governed by causality and determinism, such interactions become extremely complex as soon as they begin to involve large numbers of things. The complex web of interactions between the millions of gas molecules in an air-filled system, for example, may indeed be entirely governed by predictable causal processes. However the complexity of interactions occurring simultaneously between all those millions of molecules is so great that it would not in practice be possible to individually predict the result of each interaction leading to an overall predicted outcome (such as a net flow of air from areas of higher to lower pressure) without virtually infinite computing power (not to mention the practical impossibility of obtaining data on the initial states of each and every gas molecule, which such a prediction would also require). For all practical purposes the complex interactions of gas molecules are still effectively random processes, even though in principle they are causally determined.
However, in the same way that order emerges out of intrinsic chaos, so too it emerges out of effective chaos. For example, the (effectively) random chaotic interactions of millions of atoms in a hydrothermal fluid within the Earth’s crust will yield the highly ordered structures of mineral crystals as millions of atoms randomly interact and bounce off each other until they each (randomly) happen to interact with other atoms of the right valency and the right thermal (kinetic) energy as to allow them to chemically bond. From such exceeding complex webs of chaotic atomic interactions are built highly ordered crystals which are in many ways the epitome of order and regularity in nature. In the same way, the well-known principles (or physical laws) of thermodynamics emerge from the statistically-averaged effectively-random interactions of the myriad atoms that comprise normal macroscopic substances21.
Crystals – quintessentially ordered, yet the product of effectively random chemical precipitation processes
The emergence of order from (effective) chaos was famously first recognised at the slightly more complex level of biological processes by Darwin22 and Wallace23. They recognised the enormous inheritable variation found within any individual species (later discovered to be the result of random ‘mistakes’ or mutations in the DNA that defines each individual organism) and saw that changing environmental conditions could lead to certain variants becoming more useful than previously for survival and reproduction than others. From this, they realised, could come the gradual emergence of different organisms better suited to changed new environmental conditions than those that went before (which were better suited to earlier conditions), and thus to the ongoing emergence of new biological forms through an entirely random and unguided natural process. And importantly, Darwin and Wallace’s insight implied not only that new better-adapted organisms could arise through a random unguided process, but importantly that such ongoing unguided emergence was inevitable given the inheritable variability that random processes provided and the inevitability of environmental change.
It is important to realise that examples such as these of the emergence of order from chaos in nature are not rare or unusual cases; far from it they are the norm, the only way by which order does emerge in nature. The individual atoms in a hydrothermal fluid do not proceed directly to their appointed places in a crystal lattice in a calm and orderly fashion; instead millions of them just charge about chaotically until quite by chance they each finally happen to run into another atom that they can chemically bond with to form part of a growing lattice. Biological species do not embark on goal-directed organic changes in response to an environmental challenge (as the early evolutionist Lamarck proposed), they simply breed and breed until – if they are lucky – some offspring happen to express the right random genetic variants (mutations) to cope better with environmental challenges than their predecessors or competitors.
Indeed, the only examples we have of new levels of order emerging as a result of deliberate goal-oriented actions are those of our own. We humans, as (emergently) conscious beings, do indeed from time to time conceive of new things and set out deliberately and purposefully to build or create those things in a planned and non-random fashion. Consciousness is arguably necessary to explain the emergence of order from any source other than chaos (which of course explains the conviction so many have that some sort of ‘greater consciousness’ must underlie the existence of order in nature).
Yet despite this, even at the level of human society, actions and thought, much of the social and intellectual order that has emerged has in fact been driven not by the planned design and creation of new things from scratch, but simply by a social and intellectual ferment of competing ideas and ambitions no less chaotic than those processes which drive the rest of nature. Such diverse things as new technologies, better functioning cities, more inclusive moral ideals and new political ideologies have all emerged as people have (effectively randomly) experimented with innumerable ways of organising things and ideas until eventually some of those ways proved stable and successful enough to persist and provide the basis for emergence of even higher levels of organisation and order24. Indeed, Steve Johnson25 has argued that the most fertile environments for the generation of what is arguably the highest level of order that has evolved to date – the emergence of successful ideas themselves from consciousness – are those social environments in which the greatest diversity of ideas, theories, hunches, experiments, failures and successes are (effectively randomly) in play, allowing those paying attention to discover ideas that work and to make occasional connections between hitherto unrelated ideas that result in innovative new insights. Similarly, a major socio-economic study by Richard Florida26 found that those places and communities which best encouraged diversity and tolerance of differences (a key indicator of which is acceptance of homosexuality) tend to flourish best economically because they were the most open to creativity and change and thus have the greatest diversity of (effectively random) new ideas being generated, which amongst other things translates into innovation and commercial success.
Whilst the (orderly) process of logical deduction and inference (itself an emergent discovery of human thought) plays an important role in the development of ideas, without a complex interplay of effectively random new arguments and new empirical observations such orderly processes have little to work on to produce new insights, and can end up as barren sophistry (which as noted previously has been the fate of much of traditional philosophy and theology that have relied on logic and sophistry while ignoring new input from empirical discoveries).
Just as intrinsic randomness gradually yields the emergence of order and causality in the fuzzy transition from quantum to molecular levels, so too effective randomness continues to yield the emergence of still more order at higher and higher levels up to the macroscopic and beyond.
Why order emerges from chaos
I have a confession to make: whereas many people seem to find the idea that order emerges from chaos unbelievable and counter-intuitive, for me it is precisely to opposite. To me, it is simply obvious that order must inevitably arise from chaos; the notion that order would not ever arise from chaos just doesn’t make sense:
If large numbers of random events (of whatever sort) occur, some of them must – infrequently but inevitably, simply by chance – result in stable (or ‘useful’ or ‘successful’ or ‘better’) outcomes. Such outcomes – no matter how rare or low-probability they may be – will persist while less stable (or ‘unsuccessful’) outcomes decay or disappear (i.e., continue to behave chaotically). Thus the population of stable (or successful) outcomes will gradually increase. These stable outcomes will themselves randomly interact with each other, perhaps only rarely at first but more frequently as the population of stable things increases. As more and more such higher-level random interactions occur sooner or later some of these will – quite by chance – result in even more complex stable outcomes occurring and persisting. And so on, all the way up the scale from the emergence of stable sub-atomic particles out of the quantum foam in the random zero-energy vacuum fluctuation we call the ‘Big Bang’, through the accumulation of stable chemistries to living things to consciousness and to ideas themselves. All that is needed is some sort of random process (be it vacuum fluctuations, DNA mutations or random social interactions) which occurs in sufficiently large numbers that even though stable (or ‘useful’) outcomes result in only a tiny proportion of cases, these can accumulate to the point where they in turn can interact with each other (or ‘feedback’) to produce even higher-level stable outcomes. As Prigogine & Stengers27 have pointed out, stable – or irreversible – outcomes are the key to order emerging from chaos. With a sufficiently large number of random interactions occurring, progressively higher and higher levels of order and complexity cannot but arise gradually and incrementally from chaos28.
Thus, in a world whose fundamental underlying fabric is a chaotic ‘foam’ of innumerable entirely causeless random vacuum fluctuations, and which exhibits random chaotic processes at every level from there up, how could some sort of order not ultimately arise?
The explanatory power of chaos
It is still common to hear the claim that the question of ‘Why does an ordered Universe exist at all?’ is one that science cannot even in principle answer. The claim is typically that reason and logic pre-suppose the existence of an ordered universe and therefore only make sense within such a universe, but cannot in any way explain why such a universe exists in the first place.
However this is an assumption – and has only ever been an assumption – whose time to be questioned has finally come. By thinking outside the restrictive box of such an assumption, it is possible to see that reason and logic can indeed address even so fundamental a question as this. And the question does have an intelligible answer, namely that the ordered universe we experience emerges randomly yet inexorably from uncaused chaos. Which, as science, logic and reason actually show (experimentally and observationally), is the fundamental fabric of reality. Moreover this is the only explanation that makes sense without leaving unanswered questions (if you think it leaves unanswered questions, you haven’t understood it). And it is the answer that several hundred years of increasing scientific observation and knowledge leads us to.
When one first begins to wonder about how and why the universe exists, only two possibilities seem intuitively apparent: either the universe somehow came into existence from ‘absolute nothingness’, or it has always existed in an ordered state. However neither of these possibilities seem intelligible, which is probably why so many assume the question to be unanswerable. It quickly becomes apparent that both these possibilities are burdened with unanswerable questions: the first requires some ultimate cause or explanation which however then requires an even more ultimate cause and so on ad infinitum; the second similarly reduces to an infinite regression (in time) of causal chains with no ultimate cause or beginning in sight. Neither provides a satisfactory explanation of anything, they both simply reduce to an infinite regression of causes and thus provide no answer at all.
However it turns out these two explanations are a false dichotomy; they are not the only possible answers at all. There is another explanation, which not only does not involve infinite chains of question-begging, but is actually grounded in the observable nature of the world which our scientific enquiries have revealed to us. Order – the universe we see – emerges out of chaos. And chaos inherently and fundamentally requires no further explanation, because it is by definition causeless and intrinsically random.
The actuality of a (timeless) fundamental sub-quantum chaos – the quantum foam – is a much more satisfactory conception of the fundamental ground of reality than the traditional notion of an initial ‘absolute nothingness’ from which ‘something’ arose (not least because this latter pre-supposes something arising in time, which is itself an emergent property of the universe, not a fundamental pre-existing one).
In fact, standard quantum theory implies that ‘absolute nothingness’ would be unstable. This is a consequence of the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty, which implies that, just as the position and velocity of a quantum particle cannot both be precise quantities simultaneously, so too the value of a field (or force) and its rate of change cannot both be precise values simultaneously. Thus the value of a field and its rate of change cannot both be precisely zero, which would be the case for a state of absolute nothingness29. Instead, what we think of as the ‘vacuum’ is actually a state of chaotic fluctuation, producing random virtual particles whose effects are not just theoretical but real and detectable as noted previously. Absolute nothingness would be a perfectly ordered state, a state of absolute certainty – or zero uncertainty – which the Principle of Uncertainty does not allow. Such a perfect state would itself require some sort of (extraordinary) explanation or cause, and could not therefore be an ultimate uncaused state preceding the creation or existence of anything else. But as it turns out, we don’t need to worry about trying to understand what would cause a state of perfect nothingness, because we can understand that ‘nothing is unstable’30, which is to say that the closest there can be to ‘nothing’ is actually a quantum foam of vacuum fluctuations or virtual particles randomly popping in and out of existence.
The creative power of chaos
The realisation that the order of the Universe emerges because the Universe is spontaneously self-organising, and not because it was somehow created with pre-ordained order, is the most fundamental conceptual shift that has yet occurred in our understanding of the world. Randomness or chaos is not just a quirk of physics; it is the raw material for creativity that allows order to emerge in many new and marvellous forms. Without randomness there would be no change, no new order arising from the old.
The fact that order emerges from chaos means that the future is open. Creativity is not bounded or limited by what has gone before, by an inexorable determinism. It has no limits because what may arise in the future need not be merely a linear extension of what has gone before. Chaotic and random processes and interactions may throw up new possibilities that nobody thought of before, from which we may select those that yield successful solutions to problems that previously seemed insoluble, or that open possibilities for new ways of acting or being that were not previously apparent.
The predictable objection that the idea of order and creativity arising from chaos is ‘just bleak reductionism’ gets things the wrong way around; order and creativity do not ‘reduce’ to chaos, rather they emerge from it. It’s a holistic creative phenomenon, not a reductionist one. Entirely new things emerge from reducible precursors, yet have properties greater than the sum of the component parts from which they emerge (like the properties of warmth, safety, comfort and well-being which emerge when we build a house from components which in themselves are nothing more than bricks, mortar, boards and nails).
The world was not created complete and perfect and therefore pre-determined and closed, with nothing for us to do but preserve and maintain that which already exists. Efforts to ‘freeze’ society in a particular closed state claimed by religious or political ideologues to be ‘perfect’ invariably fail as they must, because change will not stop emerging – it is what the universe does. Openness to the changes that emerge gives us the capacity to adapt to new challenges such as climate change, whereas a closed belief that we already know what a perfect society should look like only prevents us from successfully changing and adapting to new challenges. It is arguable that human strife and discord, of which there is so much, at least in part results from futile (generally ideologically-driven) efforts to prevent or avoid change which is inevitable.
From the Platonic and religious idea of creation as perfect and ended, scientific discovery has allowed us to move to an understanding of the world (and humanity itself) as progressive, emerging and open systems with at least the potential for futures that can be better (or at least more interesting) than anything that has gone before. The world has emerged from the creative ferment of chaos at all levels, and in the same way new things will continue to emerge at all levels from the physical, the biological and the social to the conceptual, because this is how the Universe has always evolved anyway – and it’s not likely to stop now.
1 The ‘Theory of Forms’ was expressed by Plato in the ‘Simile of the Cave’ in his major work ‘The Republic’.
2 As noted by Lawrence M. Krauss, 2012: ‘A Universe from Nothing’; Free Press, New York, p. 178: ‘…philosophy and theology are ultimately incapable of addressing by themselves the truly fundamental questions that perplex us about our existence. Until we open our eyes and let nature call the shots, we are bound to wallow in myopia.’
3 Some key references include: Ilya Prigogine & Isabelle Stengers, 1984: ‘Order out of Chaos – Man’s New Dialogue with Nature’; Bantam Books, Great Britain, 349pp; and: John H. Holland, 1998: ‘Emergence – From Chaos to Order’; Perseus Publishing, Massachusetts, 259pp.
4 The term ‘macroscopic’ refers to things that manifest on the scales we perceive and intuitively understand without artificial aids, the scales at which we conduct practical everyday affairs and which we have evolved to be able to visualise and understand. These are scales ranging from millimetres to kilometres, and seconds to years.
5 Private letter to Max Born, 4th Dec 1926, Albert Einstein Archives, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, reel 8, item 180.
6 Lee Smolin, 1997:’The Life of the Universe’; Oxford University Press, p.198; Marcelo Gleiser, 2010: ‘Imperfect Creation: Cosmos, Life and Natures Hidden Code’; Black Inc., Melbourne, p.222.
7 As noted by (for example) the physicist Victor J. Stenger, 1988: ‘Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe’; Prometheus Books, New York, p. 27.
8 Lawrence M. Krauss, 2012: ‘A Universe from Nothing’; Free Press, New York, p. 176.
9 Victor J. Stenger, 1988: ‘Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe’; Prometheus Books, New York, p. 26, 108-109, 196; Brian Greene, 1999: ‘The Elegant Universe’; W.W. Norton & Co., New York, p.130. The Planck Time is related to the Planck Length by the speed of light, such that the Planck Time is the time light would take to travel the Planck Length.
10 J.A. Wheeler, 1955: ‘Geons’; Physical Review, Vol. 97(2), p. 511-536. (DOI: 10.1103/PhysRev.97.511).
11 Giovanni Amelino-Camelia, 1999: ‘Gravity-wave interferometers as quantum-gravity detectors’; Nature, Vol. 398, p. 216; cited in: Michael Brooks, 1999: ‘Quantum foam’; New Scientist Vol.28, Issue 2191, p. 28, 19th June 1999.
12 Lambrect, A., 2002: ‘The Casimir Effect: A force from nothing’; Physics World, Sept. 2002; Genet, C., Intravaia, F., Lambrect, A., & Reynaud, S., 2004: ‘Electromagnetic vacuum fluctuations, Casimir and Van der Waals forces’; Ann. Fond. L. de Broglie, Vol. 29, p. 311-328, arXiv:quant-ph/0302072v2
13 See: Riess, A.G., & 19 other authors, 1998: ‘Observational evidence from supernovae for an accelerating universe and a cosmological constant’; The Astronomical Journal, Vol. 116, p. 1009-1038, doi:10.1086/300499 (In the context of this paper, the ‘cosmological constant’ refers to ‘vacuum energy’ or ‘dark energy’, i.e., the energy of vacuum fluctuations).
14 This idea was first proposed by E.P. Tryon, 1973: ‘Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?’; Nature, vol. 246, p. 396-397. See Lawrence M. Krauss, 2012: ‘A Universe from Nothing’; Free Press, New York, Chapter 10 (‘Nothing is Unstable’) for a recent discussion. This hypothesis suggests that the total amount of energy in the Universe is exactly zero, because the amount of ‘positive energy’ in the form of matter (equivalent to energy via E=mc2) is exactly cancelled out by ‘negative energy’ in the form of gravity (i.e., gravitational potential energy). When a virtual particle pair spontaneously appears out of the vacuum they must disappear again within the very brief time permitted for their existence by quantum uncertainty (the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle). However the uncertainty allows that the lower the energy of the vacuum fluctuation, the longer it can exist. In the case that the total energy of the universe is zero as suggested by Tryon, which can be the case if the Universe is spatially exactly ‘flat’ as it does indeed appear to be (see Krauss 2012), it can therefore theoretically last forever. This idea is also known as the ‘zero-energy universe’ hypothesis. If the origin of the Universe (which we call the ‘Big Bang’) was in fact a very low probability random vacuum fluctuation of very unusual scale and with zero total energy (due to cancelling out of matter/energy and gravitation), then quantum uncertainty allows it to exist (and continue expanding) forever.
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow expressed this idea in their 2010 book ‘The Grand Design’, where they wrote ‘If the total energy of the universe must always remain zero, and it costs energy to create a body, how can a whole universe be created from nothing? That is why there must be a law like gravity. Because gravity is attractive, gravitational energy is negative: One has to do work to separate a gravitationally bound system, such as the Earth and moon. This negative energy can balance the positive energy needed to create matter, but it’s not quite that simple. The negative gravitational energy of the Earth, for example, is less than a billionth of the positive energy of the matter particles the Earth is made of. A body such as a star will have more negative gravitational energy, and the smaller it is (the closer the different parts of it are to each other), the greater the negative gravitational energy will be. But before it can become greater (in magnitude) than the positive energy of the matter, the star will collapse to a black hole, and black holes have positive energy. That’s why empty space is stable. Bodies such as stars or black holes cannot just appear out of nothing. But a whole universe can.’ (p. 180).
15 Bell, J.S., 1964: ‘On the Einstein Podolsky Rosen Paradox’; Physics, Vol. 1, p. 195-200; See also: Wiseman, H., 2014: ‘Physics: Bells Theorem still reverberates’; Nature, Vol. 510, p. 467-469 (26th June 2014), doi:10.1038/510467a
16 Victor Stenger 1995: ‘The Unconscious Quantum’; Prometheus Books, New York, p. 110.
17 Aspect, A., Dalibard, J., & Roger, G., 1982: ‘Experimental Test of Bell’s Inequalities Using Time-Varying Analyzers’; Physical Review Letters, Vol. 49 (25), p. 1804–7, doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.49.1804 ; see also Victor Stenger 1995: ‘The Unconscious Quantum’; Prometheus Books, New York, Ch. 4 for further explanation of the Bell test.
18 Victor Stenger 1995: ‘The Unconscious Quantum’; Prometheus Books, New York, Ch.5.
19 Sometimes known as Occam’s razor, the eminently sensible principle of parsimony states that we should not postulate the existence of things for which there is no compelling evidence or theoretical requirement.
20 For example see: García-Patrón, R., Fiurácek, J., Cerf, N.J., Wenger, J., Tualle-Brouri, R., & Grangier, P., 2004: ‘Proposal for a Loophole-Free Bell Test Using Homodyne Detection’; Physical Review Letters, Vol. 93 (13), p. 130409, doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.93.130409
21 Victor Stenger 1995: ‘The Unconscious Quantum’; Prometheus Books, New York, p. 105.
22 Charles Darwin 1859: ‘The Origin of Species’.
23 Alfred Russel Wallace, 1858: ‘On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type’; Proceedings of the Linnaean Society of London, Vol. 3, p. 53-62. In one of history’s best examples of two scientists simultaneously yet independently coming to a realisation whose time had come, Alfred Wallace arrived at the theory of evolution through natural selection independently of but virtually simultaneously with Charles Darwin. When he sent his ideas to Darwin in 1858, Darwin recognised that Wallace had reached similar conclusions to himself and generously had some of both Wallace’s and his own writings on the subject read at a meeting of the Linnaean Society of London on 1st July 1858. This prompted Darwin to finally publish his own ideas the following year in the ‘Origin of Species’.
24 See for example: Steven Johnson, 2001: ‘Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software’; Scribner, New York, 288 pp.
25 Steven Johnson, 2010: ‘Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation’; Penguin Books (Allen Lane), 326 pp.
26 Richard Florida, 2002: ‘The Rise of the Creative Class; and how it’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life’; Basic Books, USA, 434pp.
27 Ilya Prigogine & Isabelle Stengers, 1984: ‘Order out of Chaos – Man’s New Dialogue with Nature’; Bantam Books, Great Britain, 349pp.
28 A number of fallacies are commonly encountered in discussions of the evolution of order from randomness. Perhaps the most common is the notion that highly complex ordered structures cannot in principle arise randomly from chaotic processes because the probability of it happening is so incredibly low that it would never happen in reality. However the sorts of examples typically offered are generally along the lines of ‘how could something as complex as an eye just randomly evolve?’ These are straw man arguments which assume that what is being suggested is that a highly complex ordered structure will just suddenly evolve in a single evolutionary step. Of course, nothing of the sort is being proposed; what is actually being asserted is that over sufficiently long periods of time, with sufficiently large numbers of random interactions occurring, innumerable incremental changes will occur, persist and interact in increasingly complex ways, resulting in further gradual changes that lead ultimately to more and more complex ordered things. Seen from this perspective, the probability of some sort of stable incremental changes occurring, and leading gradually to some sort of emergent order, is in fact virtually inevitable.
Another common fallacy revolves around the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Simplistically, this Law states that all thermo-dynamic processes produce some random dis-ordered thermal energy, such that over time the amount of order in a closed system decreases and randomness (entropy) increases. This is sometimes simplistically interpreted as meaning that the amount of order in a system cannot increase, but only decrease over time as a result of thermo-dynamic interactions. However this is true only for the entropy of a closed system, that is, one into which there is no input of new or additional energy to replace that lost to entropy. However systems such as the Earth’s biosphere are not closed systems; the Earths biosphere for example constantly receives vast inputs of new energy, both in the form of geothermal energy (heat generated within the Earth) and solar energy (solar radiation entering the Earth’s atmosphere). These inputs of new energy more than compensate for losses to entropy and so drive the system to continually generate and sustain ordered structures and their ongoing evolution to increasingly complex levels of order. In fact, the emergence of order from chaos and the breakdown of order into chaos (entropy) are both complementary aspects of the behaviour of broader systems; it is overly simplistic to suppose that only one or the other can occur but not both. Chaos may indeed accumulate in a system over time as ordered structures break down, but at the same time order can continue to emerge from chaos within the system as long as energy is available to drive the chaotic processes which produce that order. That is in fact what we see – the underlying chaos of quantum phenomena continues to dominate the world at its most fundamental levels, the chaos never goes away and indeed maybe the amount of chaos (disorder) in the Universe is increasing with time as the Second Law implies. But alongside that chaos, ordered systems (such as we find on the surface of the Earth) continue to emerge and evolve.
29 See Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, 2010: ‘The Grand Design’; Bantam Books, New York, p. 113.
30 Lawrence M. Krauss, 2012: ‘A Universe from Nothing’; Free Press, New York, p. 170.
*Chris Sharples is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania where he dabbles in geomorphology and the effects of sea-level rise on coasts. He is also interested in trying to spot elephants in rooms, and state the bleeding obvious about them.
• George Smiley in Comments: This makes a great wow-factor introductory lecture to particle or astrophysics. But there’s something familiar about it in the way the unknown is pushed into a corner once again, this time it’s one so small no-one will ever be able to shine a light in there and who knows, if the laws of thermodynamics don’t apply there and it’s really that easy to produce another universe (just wait long enough) so long as it conforms to something observable like conservation of net baryon numbers that leaves a lot of room for god …
• Chris Sharples in Comments: #4 Fantastic, there is no greater accolade a writer can get than to know his writing gave someone else a flash of insight! I’m well chuffed! Actually that’s my criterion of a good book, if it didn’t give me an insight or an epiphany it’s boring. All the books in my references list did …