The Supernatural Laws of Physics

When I noted a while back that as usually viewed by scientists, the laws of physics fit the definition of "the supernatural" quite well. This produced a bunch of sputtering and muttering, but no real counter-arguments, except that "naturalists don't think of these laws as supernatural!"

Yes, well, that was my point: despite not consciously thinking of them as such, many scientists (and other naturalists) treat them as such.  And here is physicist Paul Davies, making the same point:

"The orthodox view of the nature of the laws of physics contains a long list of tacitly assumed properties. The laws are regarded, for example, as immutable, eternal, infinitely precise mathematical relationships that transcend the physical universe... In addition, it is assumed that the physical world is affected by the laws, but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe... It is not hard to discover where this picture of physical laws comes from: it is inherited directly from monotheism... Clearly, then, the orthodox concept of laws of physics derives directly from theology."

In other words, these laws are regarded as supernatural.

20 comments:

  1. Isn't this a bit like saying the rules of chess are not a part of any game of chess? No move is a rule after all.

    I am not presenting this as a counterargument. I think both statements are analogies that point up a category difference.

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    1. Ken, your analogy is spot on! If "nature" were a game of chess, the rules of chess absolutely would be supernatural in relation to the game. Well done!

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  2. What Davies is talking about is better termed the popular or old "orthodox" view.

    The view that laws of nature are "immutable, eternal, infinitely precise mathematical relationships that transcend the physical universe" was abandoned by philosophy of science years ago. You do not have to look far to find working scientists who know this perfectly well.

    Natural "laws" are now viewed as contingent and proven by empirical evidence. They may not be eternal. They seem to be endogenous to the universe, and determined by and emerging from what happened in the Big Bang and afterwards.

    E.g., not even the notion of necessary causation -- that view that every event must a have a necessary cause - is required anymore.

    Causation can be viewed merely, as Hume thought, as constant conjunction, and Bertrand Russell showed that advanced science can do perfectly well without the concept of necessary causation.

    Even the "uniformity of nature" principle is not sacrosanct.

    Only a few years ago some remarkable evidence was reported that the “fine structure constant” (or what is called “alpha”) – a fundamental law of nature – may not be constant throughout the universe:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100909004112.htm

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19429-laws-of-physics-may-change-across-the-universe.html#.UicDUX83dLo

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  3. Ah, that is the "old" view, and the "new" view is... Hume's! And Bertrand Russell!

    The disasters lurking in Hume's vew are well known. (See, e.g., the grue problem.) The "new" view is actually

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    1. Or, in other words, you are right up-to-date... with the philosophy of science of 1950.

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    2. Hume's problem of induction - and all the "new riddle of induction" arguments -- only prove that induction does not yield certainty, the uniformity of nature principle cannot be viewed as necessarily true and eternal, and that all scientific theories must be accepted only as provisionally true.

      But this is the great strength of science: it is non-dogmatic.

      And I've just put some clear evidence right in front of you that the "uniformity of nature" principle -- just as Hume suiggested! -- might not be universally true.

      This is devastating to the "immutable, eternal, infinitely precise mathematical relationships" view of science you seem to be postulating -- not to the one I reviewed above.

      For example, will science collapse and be thrown into chaos by the “fine structure constant” variation finding, if true?

      Not at all. That is because philosophy of science has moved on from the "immutable, eternal, infinitely precise" theory.

      And inductive reasoning still works, and we have no rational reason to give it up either, until it can be shown to be completely useless in day to day reasoning and argument.

      But for that we would have to see no regularities or consistency of any kind whatsoever in the universe in which we live.

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    3. 1) It is so nice to be lectured on these topics by a Humean who hasn't even grasped Hume!
      2) In both of your posts, you write as though I am *defending* the above view of the laws of physics! In fact, it is nutty. I am just saying what it implies.

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    4. You guys are debating different levels. LK is talking about particular rules ( cannot castle out of check). Gene is talking about the necessity of some form of rule.
      That Newton thought rules were forever and Smolen doesn't does not refute Gene's observation because it does not address it.

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    5. Right you are. If the laws change, it doesn't change this at all, so long as they change in a law-like, regular manner. If they don't, then obviously science over the longer term is impossible: we may have just been lucky the last couple of hundred years and hit a stable period.

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  4. Great quote Gene. I am amazed that Davies said that so explicitly.

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  5. Gene, are you talking about the laws of physics as we (well, educated physicists) currently understand them, the standard model plus general relativity, or the actual behavior of the physical universe that we do not currently, and probably will never fully, understand?

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    1. Or, the map or the territory, if you will?

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    2. *I* am not talking about the laws of physics per se at all. I am talking about how these laws are typically talked about, e.g., when Hawking claims the laws of physics caused the universe.

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    3. "when Hawking claims the laws of physics caused the universe."

      No, Gene Callahan, Hawking does not say that.

      At the Big bang, the current laws of physics did yet not exist.

      Just look at what he says in the paragraph 5 here:

      http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html

      The laws of nature emerged subsequently to Big Bang, probably after the Planck era. Their emergence was itself an evolutionary phenomenon inside the universe.

      If you're going to criticize science, at least get your science right.

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    4. Ha, good one, LK: you quote something old to refute his later views! Here is what he thinks now:

      "his new book, Stephen Hawking reiterates that there is no big gap in the scientific account of the big bang. The laws of physics can explain, he says, how a universe of space, time and matter could emerge spontaneously, without the need for God."
      http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/04/stephen-hawking-big-bang-gap

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    5. And note, LK, *nothing* in my remarks is in anyway a criticism of science, so what are you talking about?!

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  6. I used to be an avid reader of Scientific American and thinking back I can see the theological way in which the laws of nature were talked about. However, I do recall Stephen Hawking asking about what "breathes fire into the equations". I understand now (thanks to your way of explaining it) that declaring it not to be God is simply fallacious: it is a necessary truth (or something like that) that whatever does the fire breathing is divine in nature.

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    1. Yes, I think that is what we mean by "divine."

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  7. "I don't have time for that."
    http://theweek.com/article/index/261042/why-neil-degrasse-tyson-is-a-philistine

    Tyson would say all this talk is useless. I know most of us would disagree. In fact, Dr. Callahan, we shouldn't even ask these questions; it's a waste of time according to the narrator and host of the reboot of 'Cosmos'.

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