Recently, we were informed that the laws of physics are inevitable:
By considering simple symmetries, physicists working on the “bootstrap” have rederived the four known forces. “There’s just no freedom in the laws of physics,” said one.
Compared to the unsolved mysteries of the universe, far less gets said about one of the most profound facts to have crystallized in physics over the past half-century: To an astonishing degree, nature is the way it is because it couldn’t be any different. “There’s just no freedom in the laws of physics that we have,” said Daniel Baumann, a theoretical physicist at the University of Amsterdam.
Since the 1960s, and increasingly in the past decade, physicists like Baumann have used a technique known as the “bootstrap” to infer what the laws of nature must be. This approach assumes that the laws essentially dictate one another through their mutual consistency — that nature “pulls itself up by its own bootstraps.” The idea turns out to explain a huge amount about the universe.Natalie Wolchover, “Why the Laws of Physics Are Inevitable” at Quanta
Ever since bootstraps went out of fashion, people have forgotten that you actually can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.
All modern theories of physics are formulated in mathematical terms. To have a physically meaningful theory, however, mathematics alone is not sufficient. One also needs to have an identification of mathematical structures with observable properties of the universe. The maybe most important lesson physicists have learned over the past centuries is that if a theory has internal inconsistencies, it is wrong. By internal inconsistencies, I mean that the theory’s axioms lead to statements that contradict each other. A typical example is that a quantity defined as a probability turns out to take on values larger than 1. That’s mathematical rubbish; something is wrong.
Of course a theory can also be wrong if it makes predictions that simply disagree with observations, but that is not what I am talking about today. Today, I am writing about the nonsense idea that the laws of nature are somehow “inevitable” just because you can derive consequences from postulated axioms.
It is easy to see that this idea is wrong even if you have never heard the word epistemology. Consequences which you can derive from axioms are exactly as “inevitable” as postulating the axioms, which means the consequences are not inevitable. But that this idea is wrong isn’t the interesting part. The interesting part is that it remains popular among physicists and science writers who seem to believe that physics is somehow magically able to explain itself.Sabine Hossenfelder, “Why the laws of nature are not inevitable, never have been, and never will be.” at Back(Re)Action
As with so many of these controversies, there is an underlying issue, and it is suggested over at Evolution News and Science Today:
What is inevitable here is not the mathematical beauty of physical law, but the circumlocutions scientists use to evade design in nature. If anything in the universe is “inevitable,” it is entropy and chaos. Nature falls apart, inevitably. Yet there is nothing inevitable about nature’s elegant harmony. Mathematical physics indeed reveals deep structure in nature, and most remarkably, that structure is beautiful, full of unexpected simplicity and poetic coincidence. Antimatter is hidden in Dirac’s relativistic wave equation, and oscillating bodies from galaxies to ocean waves to quarks are described quite elegantly by the simple calculus of oscillating springs. Einstein’s metric tensor contains the Big Bang and black holes and an enormous but finite universe curved back in on itself.
None of this splendor and precision is “inevitable,” any more than a Shakespearean sonnet or the Sistine ceiling are inevitable. The mathematical subtlety of physics is the work of a living Mind of inexpressible grace and power.
“Are the Laws of the Universe ‘Inevitable’?” at Evolution News and Science Today
Of course, neither Wolchover nor Hossenfelder would be allowed to notice that design is obvious but not inevitable. And so, spar on!
See also: What becomes of science when the evidence does not matter?