Adam asked:

Recently, just this past month, I’ve thought about existence, but I ran into a problem. I couldn’t find any explanation for the ‘differentiation’ of the universe, such as why each object in my room isn’t one foot to the left of where it is… or why gold bullion bars don’t suddenly appear on the side of the road when I go out for a walk, or why China has large deposits of rare earth minerals.

My College astronomy (taken during my previous semester) book said that it was due to quantum mechanics at the big bang, but then I asked myself: What says that quantum mechanics is certainly existing among all other options that can, such as non-differentiation or simply just the nonexistence of quantum mechanics.

Maybe things I/we am/are not watching are uncertain and not certain! Could there be like Schrodinger gold mines’, ‘Schrodinger business ideas’, or ‘Schrodinger forests’ then?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The reason why you have this problem is because you are taking for granted (as most of us do, especially scientists) that the material universe is the default state of the world. But even if you accept (as we all do nowadays) that matter and energy are interconvertible, you still have no avenue to differentiation. This is where the ultimate human naivety comes from, when on analogy with human invention we suppose a prior ‘plan’, also known as the argument from design.

When you really think deeply about it, you will sooner or later come upon the realisation that something is missing from these preconceptions. If you don’t accept a designer universe, you have basically two options:

Either, the differentiation (or order) which we make and perceive is not per se, but an outcome of the survival strategy of conscious creatures, which in our mind-endowed estate leads us to recognise a relation between those features and characteristics and ourselves. This is a bit like saying: The Chinese deposits are not differentiated ‘in themselves’ and independently of any mind, but in virtue of our mind doing the differentiation – which could then be explained as an evolved differentiation capacity in the service of survival. Some of the things Schrodinger writes lend themselves to such an interpretation.

The other option is to accept that every item in the universe stands in some relation to every other item. Such an idea is at the back of the appropriately named relativity theory. The difficulty for us is that we can only cope with this idea is a very limited way. We tend to mathematise those relations, which leads to an ambiguity in the sense that, on one hand, we reify time and space in accordance with our formulas, or else we insist that these are also creatures of the mind and that the mathematical understanding is all we can have. Arguments of this ilk cut across quantum mechanics in the pronouncements of such as Wigner (‘the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’) and Wheeler (‘the participating universe’), or of Feynman (‘don’t worry, it’s all in the equations’), and of course Schrodinger again (his ‘Cat’). Yet as far as differentiation is concerned, the notion of the collapse of a wave front is not a bad approximation to a possible real state of the perceivable universe.

I don’t think we need to consider the big bang. Textbooks tend to lag far behind current doctrines and your textbook on physics is evidently unaware that the ‘inventors’ of the big bang hypothesis have long ago abandoned it.

We might come closer, therefore, with a third option, which involves the recognition that the differentiation is an adjunct of existence as such – or put another way, that existence IS differentiation. Undifferentiated existence is inconceivable. But then we need an element or process or feature, i.e. some kind of trigger and a default condition to effect the differentiating and engender existence. This has at least the virtue of being conceivable, namely in the conception of a residual force with differentiable charges. The force does not exist per se. It represents a potential; and being such, it can be actualised. E.g. given any event such as a single flutter by the superposition of positive and negative charge, a ripple effect would propagate itself with the twofold capacity of bonding opposing charges and catapulting them into existence; and, consequent upon this state change, cascading into a whirl of ‘birthing relations’. The meaning of ‘residual’ and ‘potential’ in this context implies a dividing line between existence and non-existence which is defined by the ‘actualisation’ that results from the default state of this condition being changed. It is an idea that began its life with Anaximander and Anaxagoras (always the Greeks there first!), went through an elaborate doctrine of force in Leibniz’s philosophy and can be found resurfacing in Prigogine’s book ‘The End of Certainty’.

It does not, I will admit at once, terminally banished infinite regress (in fact Anaxagoras needed a ‘nous’ giving a single kick to start this ball rolling). Moreover, it suggests an autophagous universe. But Leibniz dealt with this problem very well (drawing the sting from the issue of infinite regress) and Barrow & Tipler in their book on the Anthropic Principle theorise that that consciousness in fact ‘consumes’ matter en route to total consummation. You can see from this, that there is a slender thread of tradition in philosophy where your worries were sounded and struggled with, and you might find it worth your while to pursue this further on your own bat.