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Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Intelligence Is Unnatural, and Why That Matters

Photo: Globular cluster NGC 6544, by ESA/Hubble & NASA, W. Lewin, F. R. Ferraro.

One of the advantages we have in our study of nature is our ability to observe an entire “unpolluted” universe. By “unpolluted” I mean that as we look out from Earth, we observe an almost unlimited theater of the natural. And what do we observe? Mostly empty space, visibly interspersed with galaxies composed of stars and nebulae. The regularities of the laws of nature also reveal unseen actors such as dark matter and energy, planets, and even black holes.

Speaking of the laws of nature, the heavenly stage extends so far away that light’s finite speed shows us scenes that happened in the past — from about one and one fourth seconds in the past, when we look at the moon, to more than 13 billion years ago in recent images of distant galaxies revealed by the James Webb Space Telescope. The physical universe provides astronomers with a time machine for viewing nature throughout the history of the cosmos. And what we see confirms the unchanging nature of the laws of physics.

What Spectroscopy Reveals

Using spectroscopy, astronomers not only observe the large-scale features of the universe, but through analysis of the specific wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation received, details of the atomic components of stars and gas clouds also are revealed. In the past as well as in the present, both near to home in our solar system and out to the most distant reaches of the visible universe, the same atomic characters fill the arena of the universe. Throughout the entire long history of the universe and in every direction we look, nature has only managed to produce a very limited playlist of elements — 92 different elements, from hydrogen with one proton as its nucleus to uranium with 92 protons.1

The reason I emphasize the limited number of types of elements in the entire universe is to suggest that one of the characteristics of nature is its “sameness” or redundancy. Now, there’s a reason for this: natural outcomes are governed by natural law. Only four fundamental forces of nature exist. Gravity pulls masses together; the electromagnetic force has twice the fun and can both push and pull masses that possess electric charge. The strong nuclear force also pulls,2 but with restrictions. It only acts on nucleons (protons and neutrons, but not electrons), and it has an extremely short range of about one fermi (10-15 m). The weak force neither pushes nor pulls, but is responsible for certain decay processes of elementary particles.

An example of the sameness of the cosmos is seen in the limited range of star masses.  From at least a billion trillion stars in the universe, we find that their masses vary only over a range of about 1800, from 8 percent of the sun’s mass up to about 150 times the sun’s mass. These mass limits are not accidental; they are fixed by the laws of physics. 

Seemingly Endless Variations

But what about the seemingly endless variations in the palette of sunset colors and patterns in the western sky? Doesn’t that run counter to the concept of limited diversity of natural phenomena? Certainly, we all appreciate the beauty of the rosy colorations of clouds illuminated by the rays of the setting sun. However, if we spent a thousand evenings watching the sun set, the sky would simply depict variations on a theme, with amorphous shapes of clouds shaded with gradations of color. Air, clouds, and light all respond according to the laws of nature, limiting their arrangements to forms devoid of specific complexity. Sameness prevails.

Turning our gaze away from sky and stars to the biosphere of Earth, we are struck by diversity unlimited. First, consider the unbelievable range of sizes and forms and behaviors of the millions of species of creatures that have lived on Earth. From tiny diatoms to enormous dinosaurs, from worms to eagles, and ants to people, the variety of living forms on Earth is astonishing compared to the overall sameness of the entire non-living universe.

The stark contrast between our life-filled planet and the rest of the cosmos sharpens further when we take into account all of the things produced by humans throughout our relatively short history on the stage of existence. Clocks, cars, computers, castles, clothing, and can openers. Besides physical creations, humans have produced a fantastic variety of musical and literary forms and coding for computer programs. Our prolific creativity seems limitless, and the scope of what we make spans an enormously broad spectrum with a variety that’s anything but “more of the same.”

The contrast between variety in living forms on just one planet, compared to the vast sameness of the non-living universe suggests a clear-cut distinction between even the simplest living organisms and non-living arrangements of matter. An objective consideration of the flourishing creativity of human endeavors compared to the routine instinctual behaviors of other creatures further suggests a categorical difference between human beings and other creatures.

A Physics Point of View

The exceptionalism manifested by humans, when compared to the predictably limited outcomes of non-living matter, is evidence that the choices and actions of intelligent beings are not governed by the laws of physics. My body is affected by gravity, but the force of gravity doesn’t determine what I eat for lunch. My cellular biochemistry is affected by the electromagnetic force, but my decision about what topic to address in my next article is not. The strong force holds the nuclei of my carbon atoms together, but it in no way determines what color my wife will choose to paint the living room.

How did we become so unnaturally creative? The Judeo-Christian tradition offers one possible answer. The belief that human beings are made in the image of God resonates with the unique creativity expressed by humanity throughout history. The more closely related the created is to the Creator, the more attributes of the one are to be expected in the other. 

With our intelligent and creative minds, we can bring together the raw materials of the natural universe into an unlimited variety of forms that are both functional and purposive. Human expression manifests the unnatural attributes of creating art, literature, and technology — outcomes that would never arise by the influence of natural processes alone. Freedom and creativity complement one another; neither will flourish under controlling forces. If the forces of nature governed our thoughts and actions, would we see the vast panoply of creative human expression displayed throughout the history of civilization? It seems not.


  1. A few more (or fewer) natural elements could be considered, depending on whether one includes those that are extremely rare or have a very short half-life.
  2. The strong force becomes repulsive for inter-nucleon distances less than about 0.5 fermi.