This morning I read this NYRB article on symmetry in quantum mechanics, which I highly recommend. The overall theme is the use of the assumption of various types of symmetries in nature as a guide to scientific research, even when there isn’t much else to go on. What emerges through the argument, however, is the fact that some apparent symmetries in nature aren’t actually symmetrical at all, but are near-symmetrical side effects of more fundamental, underlying symmetries. He uses the example of the near-symmetry that particle physicists had detected between protons and neutrons — as it turns out, that apparent symmetry was just a coincidental after-effect of the symmetries among the particles that make them up.
Being a philosopher and theologian, however, I naturally found the most interesting part of the article to be his highly speculative account of the apparent order in the universe:
As far as we can see, when averaged over sufficiently large scales containing many galaxies, the universe seems to have no preferred position, and no preferred directions—it is symmetrical. But this too may be an accident.
There is an attractive theory, called chaotic inflation, according to which the universe began without any special spatial symmetries, in a completely chaotic state. Here and there by accident the fields pervading the universe were more or less uniform, and according to the gravitational field equations it is these patches of space that then underwent an exponentially rapid expansion, known as inflation, leading to something like our present universe, with all nonuniformities in these patches smoothed out by the expansion. In different patches of space the symmetries of the laws of nature would be broken in different ways. Much of the universe is still chaotic, and it is only in the patches that inflated sufficiently (and in which symmetries were broken in the right ways) that life could arise, so any beings who study the universe will find themselves in such patches.
This is all quite speculative. There is observational evidence for an exponential early expansion, which has left its traces in the microwave radiation filling the universe, but as yet no evidence for an earlier period of chaos. If it turns out that chaotic inflation is correct, then much of what we observe in nature will be due to the accident of our particular location, an accident that can never be explained, except by the fact that it is only in such locations that anyone could live.
For me, this idea resonated with Meillassoux’s infamous concept of “hyperchaos.”
In addition, the mention of Plato’s Timaeus, combined with the “intro to fine arts” class I’ve been auditing as part of my training at Shimer, led me to wonder if we might be living in a “well-tempered” corner of the universe, similar to the way Plato’s demiurge has to “force” the universe to fit together in approximate whole-number ratios because the real whole-number ratios won’t actually work. (This last bit might make no sense to anyone but me, though.)