Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Rules of the Game: Preface

We will now consider the more specific rules of the physical world, the rules operated upon by the fundamental principles of self-organization and emergence (with which they are completely intertwined), the rules that gave rise to the Universe and the physical structures that made possible the emergence of our species. The ultimate nature of the physical world is so strange in comparison to our everyday experience, and its internal operations so arcane, that only a relative handful of humans understand them in any great depth. Those who wish to have the deepest understanding of fundamental physical reality must master the language of mathematics, and possess a sense of the beautiful perfection that particular language reflects and expresses.

It has taken many centuries for our species to learn the rules of the physical world. The first rules that humans (partially) understood pertained to celestial events and phenomena, as people attempted to find regularities and patterns in the movements of the Sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets. Eventually, the more advanced intellects of many different societies began trying to figure out the functioning of their own senses, the nature of the phenomena that stimulated these senses, and the rules that seemed to govern the movements of physical objects in general. Much brilliant thinking went into these quests, and some surprisingly advanced hypotheses came out of some very old cultures. And yet, religious and philosophical notions were often tangled up in these ideas, muddying the intellectual waters. Few actual experiments were conducted, and in every society technical expertise far outstripped theoretical knowledge.

In many places, scientific minds worked in relative isolation, and the pace of innovation and discovery often slackened, succumbing to official hostility or indifference and popular ignorance and superstition. But in some regions, the first philosophical inquiries gradually brought forth a new method of observing and testing the natural world. In the West, after many fits, starts, set-backs, and dead-ends, this process led to the rise of a new, disciplined, professionalized, mathematically sophisticated cohort of scientists, and a genuinely empirical and systematic way of examining nature. True organized science had come into being.

By the mid-1800s, it seemed as if most of the essential questions about the operation of the physical world had been answered. The towering genius of Isaac Newton, building and elaborating on the work of many others, had, in the 17th century, established a coherent, intellectually consistent picture of physical reality, one that seemed admirably suited to the needs of civilization. And yet, as the 19th century wore on, new discoveries in physics and mathematics began to point the way to a deeper, more abstract, less intuitive, and less familiar picture of the physical Universe. These new discoveries began to supplant the mechanistic picture of the world with one that was not easily comprehended, one filled at its deepest levels with probabilities and relative perspectives rather than absolute certainties and a single unmovable frame of reference. During the 20th century the scientific community of the world broke into more and more specialties, many of them incredibly abstruse. The gap between scientists and the general public seemingly grew to enormous size, occasionally bridged by talented scientists and science writers who authored explanations, designed for non-specialists, of the new discoveries.

By the early 21st century, the picture of physical reality and the rules by which it operated was radically different than that which had existed in the year 1700. It was apparent that physical reality was not what it had once seemed to be. And those who studied the nature of reality and the place of humans within it had to take this new, radical vision of the Universe into account if a coherent picture of the human experience were to be constructed.

The effects of the basic physical rules can often be perceived, but much more often are imperceptible to us (or are so taken for granted that they are no longer consciously noticed). Since this work is not a physics text (and I wouldn't have the faintest qualification to write such a book!), I will not attempt to explain these rules in any sort of mathematically sophisticated way. Using popular sources rather than specialist works, I will simply attempt to gather all the basic essential facts into one place. Why attempt this, in a project looking at human history’s emergence? Because these rules are the foundation of our existence. In describing the parameters of physical reality, they also describe the limits of the possible. Everything in the known Universe has arisen from them. (They in turn used the methods of self-organization and emergence to construct the Universe.) They are utterly inviolable, and they are, in a very real sense, expressions (if still indirect) of That Which Is, however that might be interpreted or understood (and I make no claims of understanding).  If we really want to attempt to understand human emergence in any sort of comprehensive way, these basic rules must be at least touched on. Every aspect of our lives is made possible by these ultimate laws of nature. They are the very texture, the very foundation of physical being itself. This does not mean that these rules are not capable of surprising, or even shocking us when we uncover them. 

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