General Question

mattbrowne's avatar

Why is the universe orderly?

Asked by mattbrowne (31600points) May 20th, 2009

Couldn’t it be otherwise? Why are all scientists convinced the universe is orderly, meaning we can really rely on what scientific laws predict? Even the elusive quantum mechanics can rely on ‘orderly’ probabilities.

Is order in the universe a must?

This question is intended to start a speculative discussion.

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62 Answers

MrGV's avatar

Your question has no true answer.

brettvdb's avatar

I think that there is a good deal of chaos in the universe as well.

For my worldview, general order in the universe (and by that I mean physical laws that govern the movements of different worlds) is pretty important. I don’t believe in a prime mover or divine entity, so laws that remain constant are needed for me to understand how all of this came about. That’s not a great answer I guess though, because the universe certainly isn’t orderly just because I need it to be.

I suppose that scientists are convinced that the universe is orderly because it has been tested and retested over and over, and predictions can now be made with an extremely high degree of accuracy based on these laws.

Jeruba's avatar

Is your premise sound, Matt? Are all scientists convinced? I don’t know enough about chaos theory and entropy to understand what role they play, but they’re in the picture too.

What we do know is that everything we perceive is filtered through the human mind and subject to the limitations of the human mind. In a sense all so-called knowledge is a picture of the inside of the human brain. We can’t know anything that we can’t know. If the predisposition to order is in us and supplies a template for our perceptions, then we can’t see anything outside that template. It comes as no surprise that people see what they expect to see and find patterns even where none exist.

What is outside the template? It would take a creature not of our kind to know that.

ragingloli's avatar

i think if there are supposed to be things in this universe that are “not orderly”, they would have to defy the principle of cause and effect.
I do not think this is possible.

chucklmiller's avatar

I believe the universe is indeed “orderly” and it is so because God created it that way.

bpeoples's avatar

It’s not so much “orderly” as it is obedient.

That is, having “laws” that govern its actions are ultimately required, otherwise life would have stopped working shortly after its creation. (Or not, depending on what changed).

There are some long standing questions about whether certain constants are actually constant, which are still being experimented on whenever someone can determine a way to investigate it.

_bob's avatar

I think it depends on your definition of orderly. Sure there are patterns that have been identified (and that have enabled us to live so comfortably), but there are still many, many things we don’t understand. Who’s to say we’ll ever do?

oratio's avatar

The question of entropy is really a question of time.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Jeruba – Okay, let’s rephrase it to ‘most scientists’, but I think there are not many scientists who think that the order of the universe on February 20 is different from the one on February 23. Even constants that might turn out not to be constant (for example the speed of light) do change in an orderly fashion.

@brettvdb – You said

‘Scientists are convinced that the universe is orderly because it has been tested and retested over and over, and predictions can now be made with an extremely high degree of accuracy’

Yes, I’m convinced too. But what you said is basically: we can confirm that the universe is orderly. Your answer does not explain ‘Why’ the universe is orderly.

brettvdb's avatar

Well this is a question that has been creating conflict amongst humanity for as far back as the record goes. There is no way to answer this question yet, but science is getting there one baby step at a time.

lillycoyote's avatar

It could be otherwise, could have gone another way, I suppose, but we probably be wouldn’t around to observe it and ask the question if it wasn’t. I would think there would have to be a certain amount of order in the universe to sustain life, even the simplest life.

mattbrowne's avatar

@brettvdb – No science is not getting there. It can’t in my opinion. There are limits of scientific explanation. I’m confident that science will uncover the missing links between the non-living and living world. One baby step at a time. But this is an entirely different matter. To be able to offer some answers to the ‘why’ question above I think we have turn to metaphysics, the humanities, philosophy or religion. I think we can only speculate, but I find this kind of speculation highly interesting.

kevbo's avatar

The thought that comes to mind is that “fractal geometry is the most efficent way to maximize surface area in a three dimensional space.” Secondly, a tenet from permaculture is that life is abundant at the “edge” (a riverbank or floodplain, e.g.) when rivers meander and change course, it increases the edge. Fractal patterns also increase the edge. So perhaps that sense of order is so prevalent because it is so efficient at sustaining life. One might argue that I have the cause and effect backwards, but if it’s true, then we likely wouldn’t be available to discuss the answer in a more chaotic universe.

CMaz's avatar

Orderly is just semantics. Even in the greatest form of disarray there is a series of events that had to take place in a specific manor for it to happen. A building being demolished can bee seen as very disorderly. But, in fact a great deal of order was needed, in order, for it to happen. Sort of the action reaction thing. The end result just might not be what you envision. The scenario can become so complicated, like the universe, that you want to say it is in disarray.

phoenyx's avatar

It is because you have a Boltzmann brain.

(All of your memories are false, sorry.)

mattbrowne's avatar

@kevbo – Are you referring to the anthropic principle?

mattbrowne's avatar

@phoenyx – So let’s hope God doesn’t push the stop button and keeps watching ‘The Matrix’ (or is it ‘The Universe’ ;-)

kevbo's avatar

That wasn’t my intention (never heard of it until now), but I suppose it fits. My main point is about the efficiency.

wundayatta's avatar

I dunno. It might not be orderly. The things we perceive might be orderly, but it is possible that there are things we can not perceive that are not orderly. However, we have not perceived disorder yet.

Why? Well, our perceptions would not be possible if the world were disorderly. Since we perceive what we perceive, the universe we perceive is orderly.

Now, does it matter whether there is a disorderly universe if we can not perceive it? Only if it affects the orderly universe we know. Of course, it would be possible to prove a disorderly universe exists, since a lot of things would happen only once. You can’t prove that a phenomenon exists when it happens only once. So it is not possible for us to verify the disorderly universe. We might perceive it, but it probably doesn’t matter. It will be unrelated to any of the order we perceive.

The universe appears to be orderly because we can not perceive it any other way.

AstroChuck's avatar

Take it furthur and ask, Why is there anything?

AstroChuck's avatar

@bob- Good question.

gailcalled's avatar

Quantum Physics posits that it is not orderly; the teeny particles behave in a binary manner. Oops, was that a flavored lepton that just went by? Where?

AstroChuck's avatar

Sorry, Gail. I just spilled (or spilt, if you prefer) carton of strawberry-kiwi neutrinos.
Leptons? Can’t you tell the difference?

gailcalled's avatar

Not unless I get new glasses. And there are also those pesky muons and bosons.

“There are six flavours of leptons, forming three generations. The first generation is the electronic leptons, comprising the electrons (e−), and electron neutrinos (ν

). Each lepton has a corresponding antiparticle – these antiparticles are known as antileptons.”

Darwin's avatar

The universe seems to have bits that are orderly (ie. follow the rules that physicists come up with) at least until someone discovers something that doesn’t fit. Then smart physicists amend the rules until it does.

On a personal note, the only orderly thing about my universe is that the sun does come up every morning, and my son will call me a dickhead or worse at least once every 24 hours.

Jack79's avatar

The universe is not at all ordered. It’s a complete mess.

Ivan's avatar

Eventually we will figure that out, and it will be just another natural phenomenon which explains it.

Alegio618's avatar

What makes you think the universe is orderly?

YARNLADY's avatar

The only order to the Universe is the order we impose on it. It seems to us the sun rises every morning, but how many mornings will “always” be? It is a small piece of the Universe we observe for a very short time on the Universal Clock.

mattbrowne's avatar

@gailcalled – In a sense, there’s law and order in the quantum world as well. Much of modern technology operates at a scale where quantum effects are significant. The study of semiconductors led to the invention of the transistor, which is indispensable for modern electronics. Why do you trust your computer when you turn it on to log onto Fluther? We do you trust the probabilities of quantum mechanics? Because there’s order in the universe. Because there are laws we can rely on (including those of quantum mechanics) which worked yesterday and still do so today. Just have a look at

Do the formulas look chaotic?

mattbrowne's avatar

@Ivan – Eventually we will figure that out? No, we can’t and I can prove this to you, if you like. There are limits to science and I can prove this as well. If you prefer the notion of the multiverse we can also ask ‘Why is the multiverse orderly?’ supposedly producing countless (or an infinite amount of) universes of which at least one follows the laws we are observing. Now what? Another natural phenomenon which explains this? What about the next level? A meta-universe or meta-multiverse?

brettvdb's avatar

@mattbrowne I would like to see you prove that we’ll never figure it out please.

FYI I think I agree that we may never be able to figure it out – there ARE limits to science, but I would never be so absolute as you have been about what we will and will not discover in the future.

mattbrowne's avatar

@brettvdb – Okay, here’s the proof why science cannot answer all questions. You’ll see that there’s the fatal flaw of self-contradiction in scientism i.e. that science can at least in principle explain everything.

The statement that only science can lead to truth is not itself deduced from science. It’s not a scientific statement but rather a statement about science, a so-called metascientific statement. Therefore , if scientism’s basic principle is true, the statement expressing scientism must be false. Do you see the contradiction?

chucklmiller's avatar

The further we get in scientific understanding, the closer we get to God…

ragingloli's avatar

@chucklmiller and the farther away from his “revealed truth”.

brettvdb's avatar

@mattbrowne yep that makes perfect sense to me. I was kind of already thinking along those lines but you made it much easier to understand.

mattbrowne's avatar

@chucklmiller – I would rephrase this to

‘The further we get in scientific understanding, the greater the wonder and the awe of God’s creation.’

Just take cosmology. Truly mind-boggling the deeper you explore…

brettvdb's avatar

Carl Sagan is about the best introduction to Cosmology I can think of. Watch his TV series “Cosmos” from 1980 and he will blow your mind 6 ways from Sunday.

gailcalled's avatar

@mattbrowne: The math is way beyond me; I believe that the equations are not chaotic; I am thinking of Heisinger’s Uncertainty Principle, Schrodinger, and the wave vs. particle issues or position vs. momentum.

I still don’t believe that the plane will take off, or if it manages to, will not crash at the first opportunity.


mattbrowne's avatar

@brettvdb – Yes, he’s a great guy. Thanks for the tip. I read several of Sagan’s books. Do you know “The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms” by Marcus Chown? It will also blow your mind away. The scientific hunt for the triple-alpha process in stars for example sounds like a real detective story. It’s supposedly the first real scientific application of the anthropic principle. Here’s a nice blog entry about it:

The Triple-alpha process is a set of nuclear fusion reactions by which three helium nuclei (alpha particles) are transformed into carbon. An early paper of Sir Frederick “Fred” Hoyle made an interesting use of the “anthropic principle. In trying to work out the routes of stellar nucleosynthesis, he observed that one particular nuclear reaction, the Triple-alpha process, which generated carbon, would require the carbon nucleus to have a very specific energy for it to work. The large amount of carbon in the universe, which makes it possible for carbon-based lifeforms (e.g. humans) to exist, demonstrated that this nuclear reaction must work. Based on this notion, he made a prediction of the energy levels in the carbon nucleus that was later borne out by experiment.

However, those energy levels, while needed in order to produce carbon in large quantities, were statistically very unlikely. Hoyle later wrote:

Would you not say to yourself, “Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule.” Of course you would…A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.

@gailcalled – Well, we might call it orderly uncertainty ;-)

brettvdb's avatar

@mattbrowne I haven’t heard of that book before – the Marcus Chown one. I have added it to my Amazon wishlist though!

_bob's avatar

Traffic cop stops Heisenberg.
Cop: Do you know how fast you were going?
Heisenberg: No, but I can tell you where I am.

gailcalled's avatar

@bob_ Now, that is a funny joke.

@mattbrowne; “Orderly uncertainly” describes my life, as might also “uncertain order.”

Ivan's avatar


It is not wise to impose the current limits of our logic to future problems. We cannot conclude that understanding something is impossible. Science has the potential to explain everything; the only limitation is time.

_bob's avatar

@Ivan Which is why I haven’t given up on science ever explaining how women think.

gailcalled's avatar

@bob: If I laugh, then it’s funny.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Ivan – No, science doesn’t have the potential to explain everything, even during an infinite amount of time. Scientism is the view that science can at least in principle explain everything.

Obviously you fail to see the contradiction in this:

“The statement that only science can lead to truth is not itself deduced from science. It’s not a scientific statement but rather a statement about science, a so-called metascientific statement. Therefore , if scientism’s basic principle is true, the statement expressing scientism must be false.”

Ivan's avatar

Who said that only science leads to truth?

mattbrowne's avatar

@Ivan – Richard Dawkins for example.

_bob's avatar

@mattbrowne And who made Richard Dawkins Mr I-decide-the-truth?

mattbrowne's avatar

@bob_ – Some of the disciples of his new movement who lack critical thinking. Actually, many atheists think that Dawkins went too far with some of his statements made in ‘The God Delusion’. And had he left out the polemic remarks, maybe the book would have been received differently.

Ivan's avatar


Dawkins says no such thing. Science may be the only viable method we currently have of verifying whether an explanation is true, but it is not the only method of attaining truth. Honestly, your attempt to pull a “gotcha” here with petty semantics is ridiculous.

mattbrowne's avatar

He said things that are far worse. Here are a few quotes from Dawkins work:

“I am utterly fed up with the respect we have been brainwashed into bestowing upon religion.”

“When one person suffers from a delusion, it’s called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it’s called religion.”

“Believe in God is just like believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus.”

“If this works works as I intend, religious leaders who will open it will be atheists when they put it down.”

Does the book work as intended?

ragingloli's avatar

@mattbrowne doesn’t sound too bad.

also the book can’t work as intended, for the same reason many/most creationists will never abandon their position.

Ivan's avatar


Probably not. That, however, says more about the religious leaders than it does about the book.

mattbrowne's avatar

@ragingloli – I like the comparison. I see a lot of similarities. It’s a shame because as a scientist Richard Dawkins accomplished a great deal. I admire his scientific work. I would have never expected that he resorts to the same polemics as do the young-earth creationists. Ah, well. The world is full of surprises. At least Dawkins started an interesting debate by provoking a lot of people.

Ivan's avatar

@mattbrowne I think you misunderstood ragingloli’s comment

Shuttle128's avatar

If the Universe wasn’t orderly we wouldn’t be here to ask why it wasn’t.

Although I don’t subscribe to the hard version of the anthropic principle it does warrant some thought. There may not be a reason that the Universe is orderly; however, it is. Because it is orderly, sentient life has developed. The reason we find ourselves in an orderly Universe is because we are a direct result of the Universe having consistent laws.

It is entirely possible that all Universes exist whether orderly or not and that the only reason we find ourselves in one that is orderly is because the consistent laws are what created us.

AstroChuck's avatar

I think you mean ”Who is the universe orderly?”
I believe his name is Floyd.

mattbrowne's avatar

Like in Pink Floyd? Gee, the letters y and o are so close on keyboards… Thanks for noticing!

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