Header 1

Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Sunday, July 6, 2014

What Kind of Phenomena Would Violate the Laws of Nature?

Skeptics often like to debunk alleged paranormal phenomena by saying, “That can't have happened, because it would be a violation of the laws of nature.” But how valid is such reasoning? Let's consider: what type of phenomena would or would not be a violation of the laws of nature? As we will see, the number of things that are clearly prohibited by the laws of nature is much smaller than one might at first think. In this post I will not try to persuade you that any of the phenomena I discuss is likely. I will merely discuss whether any of them is ruled out or excluded by the laws of nature.

Something That Occurs For a Completely Unknown Reason

Skeptics sometimes evoke the law of causality (the law that everything has a cause) when trying to exclude a wide range of phenomena. The reasoning goes like this: we don't understand what could have caused alleged phenomenon x, so we should not believe that phenomenon x occurred, because it would be a violation of the law of causality.

But this reasoning is fallacious. The fact that we have no understanding of the cause for a particular phenomenon does not mean that it did not have a cause. It is entirely possible that there are 1001 types of causes we do not understand because of our ignorance. In short, we can't really exclude any paranormal event on the basis of it being a violation of the law of causality, because there might always be some unknown possible cause.

Something That Suddenly Disappears

I do not know of anyone alleging a case of an object suddenly disappearing, although such disappearances are often parts of magic acts. Let's consider whether such an event would violate the laws of nature. There is a law of nature called the law of the conservation of mass and energy. This law holds that while matter can be converted to energy, and energy can be converted to matter, it is impossible to either create or destroy mass-energy. From the perspective of this law, a piece of matter cannot simply disappear, but it can be converted to energy. However, the formula for this conversion is Einstein's famous equation E = mc2 . This means that converting even a very tiny piece of matter to energy would produce a gigantic amount of energy, greater than the energy of a H-bomb.

This might seem to suggest that it would be a violation of the laws of nature for an object to suddenly disappear, unless there was a gigantic release of energy at the same time. But this isn't necessarily so, because of some loopholes. For one thing, some paranormal process might have some strange ability to soak up the energy produced by the conversion of a piece of matter to energy. Secondly, when a piece of matter disappears it might simply be converted to a different form of matter. For example, a process might convert the atoms of a piece of solid matter into subatomic particles, which might dissipate into the air. Third, the matter in a disappearing object might pass through a space-time wormhole, and end up someplace else. Fourth, the matter in an object that disappears might simply be condensed. Since atoms are almost entirely empty space, some process might shrink those atoms to become matter too dense to be seen. In short, the sudden disappearance of something (without a huge explosion at the same time) would not necessarily violate any laws of nature.

Something That Suddenly Appears

The sudden appearance of small objects has been alleged by certain mediums, who claim that objects can sometimes appear as a result of communication with the dead. From the standpoint of the law of the conservation of mass and energy, the matter for a new object could be produced from energy, but a huge amount of energy would be needed. But there would be a simpler way to get the matter to make an object suddenly appear: just get it from the air. In theory, some paranormal process or technological process could grab as many protons, electrons, and neutrons as it needed from the ordinary air, and convert those subatomic particles into some material object. No one might notice the missing air, as other air in the atmosphere would move in instantly to fill the gap. So it would not seem to violate any laws of nature for a small object to suddenly appear somewhere. Another possibility is that the object might be prepared at some other location, and then transported through a space-time wormhole. After traveling through the wormhole, the object might seem to suddenly appear at a particular location.

Levitation

Levitation has been alleged to occur in certain seances, and certain Eastern mystics have claimed to have had a power of levitation. In the 19th century numerous reputable witnesses claimed to have seen Daniel Dunglas Home levitate heavily weighted tables and himself.

D. D. Home, called the most interesting man in the world

Regardless of whether such claims are credible, levitation seems to involve no violation of the laws of nature. A naïve view is that levitation would violate the law of gravitation, but that isn't so. In order for something to levitate, you merely need some force underneath the object that equals the very weak gravitational force tending to keep the object on the ground. Such a force might be produced by any number of factors, normal or paranormal. The amount of energy needed for levitation of a person or table is almost trivial.

Sudden Physical Transformations

A literary example of a sudden physical transformation is the scriptural story of the changing of water into wine. Another example (just to imagine something randomly) is the changing of a rock into an apple. Are such things prohibited by the laws of nature? No. If such things were to occur, they would be just kind of rapid molecular reconfigurations, a rearrangement of atoms within some unit of space. Such a rearrangement would merely require some highly sophisticated power or technology. We can, for example, expect that super-advanced alien technologies might be able to do things such as quickly change rocks into apples, by using a very advanced molecular rearrangement technology.

Telepathy

Telepathy is sometimes declared to be a violation of the laws of nature on the basis that it violates "inverse square laws," and does not seem to diminish with distance. But this idea is fallacious. Telepathy might involve some type of energy we do not understand, one that does not follow an inverse square law. Currently cosmologists say that most of the universe's mass-energy is some completely mysterious energy known as dark energy.  Since we know nothing about what rules apply to such energy, we have no basis for assuming that some unknown or poorly understood energy must behave like other types of energy we do understand.

Precognition

Precognition (the alleged ability to learn about the future in a paranormal way) is sometimes declared to be a violation of the laws of nature, on the basis that it violates our understanding of the linear nature of time. But this statement is premature. We simply don't understand yet exactly how time works. Physicists have many strange theories about the nature of time, and it is possible that one such theory (or an accurate theory not yet imagined) may allow for precognition. Time may be a lot more complicated than the simple "film strip" idea we have of it.

Miraculous” Cures

Some people claim that there are cases of very sick people who were suddenly cured in a way that cannot be accounted for. Would such a thing violate the laws of nature? No, it wouldn't. All alleged cases of miraculous cures can be classified as cases of molecular and atomic rearrangement, and as mentioned before, such rearrangement is not prohibited by the laws of nature. Any sufficiently advanced technology could achieve such rearrangements.

Life After Death

One popular idea about life after death is that there is some kind of soul that lives on after death. According to this thinking, life after death can be imagined as a kind of information preservation, state preservation, or partial state continuity. There is nothing in the laws of nature that prohibit such a thing. Another popular idea is the idea of the mass physical resurrection of the dead at some day of judgment. This idea seems to be declining in popularity, but it is not prohibited by the laws of nature. If one considers a particular person to simply be an arrangement of atoms, then a mass resurrection of the dead can be considered as simply a large-scale case of atomic or molecular rearrangement – rearranging randomly available atoms and molecules to match a previously existing arrangement of atoms. Such a possibility may be highly improbable, but is not clearly prohibited by the laws of nature.

The “What If Aliens Could Do It?” Thought Experiment

The next time you are tempted to exclude some alleged phenomenon on the basis of “that's impossible,” try this thought experiment. Imagine that our planet receives visitors from some gigantic extraterrestrial spaceship, and the visitors claim to be millions of years more advanced than us. Suppose the visitors then claim that they can do whatever paranormal thing you have ruled out as an impossibility. Would you then believe that such a thing is possible? If so, then you probably have no business ruling out such a possibility now on the basis of impossibility.

What Type of Phenomena Would Violate the Laws of Nature?

After considering all these cases of possible unusual phenomena that would not violate the laws of nature, I need to balance things by considering some possibilities that would violate the laws of nature. I can think of a few.

It would violate a law of nature for a very gigantic mass of particles to drift around in a particular small area of outer space without ever contracting into a denser state. That would violate the law of gravity.

It would violate a law of nature for a very large positive charge to exist in outer space for a long time 1 millimeter away from another very large positive charge, without the two ever flying apart from each other. That would violate a law of electromagnetism called Coulomb's law.

It would violate a law of nature for an asteroid hurtling between Jupiter and Mars to suddenly stop in space, without any force acting on it to stop its motion. That would violate Newton's first law of motion.

It would violate a law of nature if I sent out a radio signal from Earth, and it was instantly received by a radio receiver on Mars. That would violate a law that electromagnetic radiation cannot travel faster than the speed of light.

It would violate a law of nature if two cannons pointed at each fired iron cannon balls at each other, the balls collided at very high speed, and then simply fell directly to the ground, both resting next to each other (but unattached) at a spot below the point of collision. That would violate Newton's third law of motion.

So there are actually things we can imagine that would violate the laws of nature. But examples such as these are very different from the type of things one reads about in books about alleged paranormal phenomena. The laws of nature are almost never rules involving impossibility. The most fundamental laws of nature are most commonly “whenever” type of rules, rules such as “whenever x occurs, force y shall occur.”

In short, regardless of the credibility of claims of the paranormal, it seems that the laws of nature actually leave the door wide open to the possibility of such phenomena.