The Comprehensible Cosmos

Where Do The Laws Of Physics Come From?

Published by Prometheus Books in 2006

CoverBack cover:

“… Stenger has written a fascinating and thought-provoking book…. It is a feast for both the specialist and the dedicated general reader.”
—New Scientist

“Symmetry is one of the central concepts in modern physics. Unfortunately, it is also often misunderstood…. Victor Stenger’s very readable new book will be helpful for anyone who wants a more realistic understanding of symmetry, particularly in the context of the question of where the laws of physics come from…. He brings out the excitement in physics that comes from asking deep questions about how the world works.”

—Taner Edis, author of Ghost in the Machine and Science and Nonbelief and associate professor of physics at Truman State University

Where Do the Laws of Physics Come from?

In a series of remarkable developments in the twentieth century, elementary particle physicists, astronomers, and cosmologists have removed much of the mystery that surrounds our understanding of the physical universe. They have found that the cosmos is, on the whole, comprehensible. Of course, no one can claim to understand or explain every facet of the structure of reality. However, we now have theories--mathematical models--that describe the general character of that reality. At this writing, these theories are consistent with all observational data, including measurements of incredible precision. While they will undoubtedly be superseded by better theories as science continues to advance, the great success of current schemes makes it likely that they are on the right track. The broad picture that is drawn by modern particle physics and cosmology is very probably the way nature is, and what we have yet to learn may be expected to fit comfortably on its foundation--just as these sciences fit comfortably on the foundation of Newtonian physics.

We now have a deep and revolutionary understanding of the true nature of the mathematical quantities and theories of physics. We have realized that they are basically human inventions, including the notions of time and space. The quantities of physics are defined by how we measure them. The laws of physics are not, as usually assumed, restrictions on the behavior of matter--handed down from above or somehow built into the logical structure of the Universe. Rather, they are restrictions on the way that physicists may formulate their theories.

Of course, the theories of physics must agree with observations. But, beyond that, they are formulated in such a way as to assure that they do not depend on any particular point of view. Otherwise they cannot be expected to faithfully describe an objective reality. Stenger calls this principle point-of-view invariance, although it is known technically as gauge invariance. When this requirement is met, the most basic principles of physics, as we know them, appear naturally.
Not everything in the Universe is thereby "explained." However, the structural details of the Universe, including basic facts such as particle masses and force strengths, can be understood as following from an accidental process known as spontaneous symmetry breaking. The origin of this structure may be likened to the origin of biological structure, the combined result of tautological necessity, random chance, and even some natural selection.

In the main text of this book, the arguments are laid out without mathematical details so that general readers can grasp the gigantic conceptual changes that have taken place over the last century. Mathematical supplements at the undergraduate level of sophistication are appended showing precisely how the basic principles of physics--from Newtonian mechanics through relativity, quantum mechanics, and the standard models of physics and cosmology--follow from gauge invariance. A scenario for the natural creation of the universe based on these well-established models is presented, along with an explanation of why there is something rather than nothing.
Victor J. Stenger is adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Before retiring to Colorado in 2000 he spent 40 years doing reseach on elementary particle physics and astrophysics. He is author of Has Science Found God?, Timeless Reality, The Unconscious Quantum, Physics and Psychics, Not by Design, and the New York Times 2007 bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis--How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.

“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”

—Albert Einstein

Where Do The Laws Of Physics Come From?

"V.J. Stenger . . . provides a scientific answer to the question, 'where do the laws of physics come from?' Remarkably, his elegant and mathematically detailed derivation of the laws is driven by the requirment that the models physicists develop to describe objective reality cannot depend on the standpoint of the observer."–Stephen Ames, History and Philosophy of Science Programme, The University of Melbourne (

This paper contains a highly positive evaluation of my proposal.

Review in New Scientist

Paper, Slideshow

Paper based on book. 3.4 Mb pdf.

PowerPoint 1.5 Mb. Original Keynote presentation. Fonts may not match.

The Superposition Principle (pp. 83-84)

Excerpt showing how the superposition principle, which is responsible for quantum interference, follows from point-ov-view invariance.

See Table of Laws for a list of the laws of physics and their sources.


All books have errors. Here I keep up to date all the corrections to errors I find in my own reading and those found by readers.  Please don't hesitate to pass on any you might  find.

A new printing has all but two of the errors corrected

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