Notes on Literature: Chance, Fundamental Laws, and Narratives

Despite being a talk by no less an intellectual personage than Murray Gell-Mann himself, Beauty, truth and … physics? is a warm, charming, clear, no-nonsense, and non-technical exposition of the aesthetic framework underlying the laws of fundamental physics. Yet, that’s not why I’m writing about it. I’m doing so because Gell-Mann provides a clear, matter-of-fact statement of a fundamental truth about the universe that is so obvious, and yet so subtle and profound, that most scientists don’t even bother stating it in black and white: That the universe is a consequence of the laws that govern its fundamental phenomena plus chance occurrences (accidents).

So what that means is that the history of the universe is not determined just by the fundamental law. It’s the fundamental law and this incredibly long series of accidents, or chance outcomes, that are there in addition.

And the fundamental theory doesn’t include those chance outcomes; they are in addition. So it’s not a theory of everything.

Life can emerge from physics and chemistry, plus a lot of accidents. The human mind can arise from neurobiology and a lot of accidents, the way the chemical bond arises from physics and certain accidents. It doesn’t diminish the importance of these subjects to know that they follow from more fundamental things, plus accidents. That’s a general rule, and it’s critically important to realize that.

(Transcript of “Beauty, truth and … physics?”)

Why is this a “note on literature”? Because, be it the humanities or the sciences, there are theories (Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy; Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) and then there are narratives (“Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go …”; “A few tens of billions of years ago the Universe was a uber-dense singularity …”) and the relationship between the two isn’t always obvious. But apply Gell-Mann’s “rule,” and it becomes abundantly clear that narratives do not spring from theories alone, but from theories and a sequence of accidents (or choices, in the case of literature). While the fundamental theory is an integral component of a narrative, it’s the accidents and choices that set it on its course. In the end, it’s the story that matters.

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