Monday, March 17, 2014

Are Laws of Physics/Nature Descriptive or Prescriptive?

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According to Alfred North Whitehead Christianity contributed to the early development of science.  “In the first place, there can be no living science unless there is a widespread instinctive conviction in the existence of an Order of things (his emphasis), and in particular, in the order of nature.”[1]

This is a significant theological issues becuase the one side is the basis of modern naturalism while the other forms the basis for the implications of a creative mind at work behind the universe.

            In this chapter I will not be so concerned with actually making arguments to prove that God exits, but with the possibilities for observing indications of God and how that depends upon one’s perspective: the question of God and how it arises in relation to our observations of the universe. I wouldn’t argue to prove to the existence of God anyway, but to demonstrate the rational nature of belief. Arguing to prove that God exists [2]gives one an unnecessary burden because since God is beyond our understanding there’s really no way to prove there is a God. Nor should we want such a thing because that would mean that God is subject to our calculations. If we can make God an object of our observations we have demoted God to the level of a thing in creation. The potential for such arguments depends entirely upon the assumptions we are willing to make and the perspective from which we view the marital supporting the arguments. The point here is that our presuppositions govern the way we see to answer the question of God and the proper presumptions are philosophical and not scientific; we must do philosophy to answer the question of God.
            I’m going to start with a discussion about how physical law is understood today; the quote by Whitehead above is not so out of date as some might assume. There is still a contingent in science that will argue for law-like reality that is independent of the mind of the observer. I start with this issue for two reasons: (1) because the question about order of things and  what makes for order underlies one of the major God argument, from design; (2) it also underlies one of the  major (although not the only) reason for belief in God, the appeal to an origin, or an ordering principle upon which the existence and nature of the universe can be pinned. That view is so despised by the scientistic despisers of religion, yet it is far from being abandoned by all modern scientific thinkers.
            The modern view of physical law understands “law” as more or less a metaphor. Even though text books still speak in the language of law the popular understanding among “scientific thinkers” is that laws of physics are merely descriptions of the universe and how it seems to behave. The language of law is a hold over from the early days of the Greeks and the Christians, from philosophy and religion. Things have changed radically in the years since 1997 when Smolin’s words were first published but they still summarize the issue:

Even now that science has been severed from its religious roots, the idea that the laws of nature have an ideal and unchanging character have continued to be a central part of its basic world picture. For this reason it may seem strange to us if someone suggests that the laws of nature might be as much the result of contingent and historical circumstances as they are reflections of some transcendent eternal logic. But this is exactly the idea that I’m going to propose here. If we are willing to give up the idea that the laws of physics, or at least the parameters that measure the masses of the particles and the strengths of the forces, are fixed and immutable, we will see that new possibilities open up for understanding…[3]

Stephen Mumford excludes both simple regularity statements and Ayer’s concept of statements as laws in understanding the behavior of the universe. Statements summing up the nature of law must be made. If patters are found in nature then we know regularities exist. These things have their place in discussion of law, but that doesn’t mean that’s what law reduces to. In characterizing the “lawless” view point he tells us: “The world contains just a series of events on this account. Sometimes we find a pattern in the series but according to well known Humean arguments, there is nothing that has made the pattern. The pattern has just occurred there is no necessity in nature.”[4] Howard Sankey edits an anthology, Causation and Laws of Nature, which is billed as “Australasion” studies, Australian and Asian studies in history and philosophy of science, in which he demonstrates a controversial distinction between Hume’s empiricism as the limitation of the mind’s perception vs. the assumption of mind as independent reality.[5] The Humean view is that laws of nature/physics reduce to “phenomenal regularities,” in other words, the billiard balls; all we see is one stop and the other start, we don’t see causes, our understanding is limited to what we observe and that’s all. We observe a regularity we can describe but we can’t observe the reason for it. The counter to this view, in Australasian studies is the “realist” view that holds to the assumption of mind independent reality. Alan Chamlers’s article “Making Sense of the Laws of Physics”[6] while Brian Ellis leads the scientist essentialist contingent.[7]
            What we find is that there is still a lot of discussion about what the laws of physics and nature are, what makes them, and it doesn’t all reduce to description with no attribution to a framework or a “higher” set of “rules.” It depends upon what part of the world you are in as to how this all plays out. While in America laws of physics and nature are seen as purely descriptive.[8] There is a distinction between laws of physics which are rules of understanding physics, such as Newtonian laws, and laws of nature which are more a creation of philosophers and more general. Santo D'Agostino, who is an accomplished physicist and mathematician complains about text books that give the impression that mathematical equations really tell nature what to do.

If you really believe that a scientific law tells a physical system how to behave, what happens when there is a historic change of perspective (a “scientific revolution”)? One can end up tied up in mental knots. Imagine saying in the 19th century that a physical system “obeys” Newton’s laws of motions, only to have to revise your opinion in the 20th century in light of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Do you now say that the same system “obeys” the equations of relativistic mechanics, and only approximately “obeys” Newton’s laws? Or do you say that you were wrong in your earlier statement, but now you’ve got it right; this is problematic, because how do you know you’re right? What if there is yet another revolutionary change in perspective? I find this awkward.[9]

This laves us with two views battling it out for supremacy in the area of modern thought about the nature of natural and physical laws. It’s the “scientific essentialists” or those who posit something like prescriptive laws that tell the universe how to act, vs. the Hume crowd, those who just see physical law as a description of the way the universe seems to work and don’t bother to explain how or why. Both sides represent modern science; both are stocked with atheists, theists, deists, and so on. In thinking about the nature of natural and/or physical law as a potential indication of God’s reality, both sides have their problems.
            The scientific essentialists (the prescriptive law side) have the problem of explaining how disembodied laws can just “exist” somewhere (where that is we don’t know) outside of a mind. To explain that one must dart over to the other side in saying “it’s not really law.” “Law” is just an unfortunate choice of terms. It’s a bit more than that. Award Wining Physicist Paul Davies points out the traditional view of transcendent laws is just a hold over from the seventeenth century monotheism with God removed. As Davies said, “Then God got killed off and the laws just free-floated in a conceptual vacuum but retained their theological properties,”[10] It seems that “law” is not just an unfortunate choice but a hold over from the older concept that the order and regularity we see is the result of a mind that created it to be orderly, the use of the term law is apt because it refers to the command of that mind that created it. This of course raises the question “why does it have to be God?” Even to ask this question is to invite theological issues and open to the door to theological questions. To open the door to theology is to invite physicists to show their ignorance of theology.

Steven Weinberg plays theologian:
QUESTION: Over the past decade, many physicists have been making an association between their science and "the mind of God". What do you think of this association being made?
MR. WEINBERG: It makes me nervous when physicists use the word "God" loosely, as talking about the laws of nature as the mind of God, or even Einstein's famous remarks about God playing dice with the cosmos. I think mostly they're just using the word "God" in the metaphorical sense.
By "God" most of them simply mean the laws of nature, the principles that govern everything. And, well, there's nothing wrong with the metaphor, I suppose, but the word "God" is charged with so much meaning, it carries so much historical freight, and I think one ought to be careful about how one uses it.[11]
Since we don’t know Weinberg’s theological education level it is entirely possible that his understanding of theology is not up to par with his understanding of physics. It’s possible that he thinks God has to be a big man on a throne with a white beard (and he has to be literally a male). This is just another example of physicist playing theologian because he assumes that knowing physics means he knows it all. God need not be male, need not have a white bread, need not be anthropomorphic and need not even be “personal” or ‘sentient.’ Any transcendental signified is by definition (top of the metaphysical hierarchy) God. Thus the idea of disembodied laws making things happen and having no explicable origin of their own is not an alternative to belief in God, it may well be a belief in God. It is an alternative to belief in a theistic God. Moreover, that side also has a problem proving how laws could exist outside a mind.
            The descriptive (Humean) side has a similar problem. Similar because as the recourse to the prescriptive side is to lighten up on the concept of a law, so the fact of description results in the obvious point that what is being described is very law-like order. Davies’s statement above was in response to a reaction against his statement that science required faith. He was deluged with “letters to The Times, pointing out that the order we perceive in nature has been explored and tested for more than 2,000 years by observation and experimentation. That order is precisely the hypothesis that the scientific enterprise is engaged in testing.”[12] The order is always there, it dependable enough that glider pilots and roller coaster makers can risk the lives of their passengers on it. There surely must be some point to the never ending scientific testing, that point must be something along the lines of  eventually placing confidence in the findings. Nor is it the case that the predominant school has always been the Humean or descriptive. If we look at the history of science references to the transcendent law idea are much more prevalent than are the descriptive side. For example Whitehead writes about it (as late as 1925) as though no one would dare question the omnipotence of physical law:

We are content with superficial orderings form diverse arbitrary starting points. ... Science which is employed in their development [modern thought] is based upon a philosophy which asserts that physical causation is supreme, and which disjoins the physical cause from the final end. It is not popular to dwell upon the absolute contradiction here involved. [13]

It hasn’t been that long that the law side was strong. It seems also that it’s just an ideological take on things because what is being described is order. To make a philosophical position on the nature of the order, even if that position leaves it up for grabs, is a metaphysical move and thus in the sense that imports metaphysics into science its basically an ideological move.
            One more problem with the descriptive side, unless our descriptions are 100% accurate then inclusion of other descriptions broadens the base for behaviors in which we might find the universe engaging. That is to say one might be justified in saying “people don’t grow back new lungs overnight.” That’s just not part of the description. Yet the Catholic saint making miracles recorded that it is in at least one case. So as a rarity sometimes the universe does grow back lungs.  Or one would be perfectly justified in saying “people just don’t come back form the dead.”  Yet that’s not a 100% accurate statement because it’s part of the description of several hundred people in the Vatican achieves that some did come back form the dead.[14] Yet the skeptic will always come back and argue, if nothing else, as did Hume that these events are not to be believed:

a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined….The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case, there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.[15]

His argument is predicated upon the idea that the laws of nature are stable law-like facts. We have seen that a whole school of thought (one named for him in fact) sees them as nothing more than the compilation of a description of what happens in the world—that description can’t be 100% accurate and it is challenged by those who observe other things. The school that bears his name sees them as description rather than law. In essence what he’s saying is that we can’t accord these kinds of events as much acceptance as we do ordinary events because we never have before. It doesn’t conform to our observations of the way the universe behaves and thus has presumption against it. That’s just a matter of where you come from. For some, those who have seen such things, they do conform to the way the universe works at times. Of course the real assumption is the natural vs. supernatural origins of the phenomena. All Hume is really saying at that point is that we choose not to value such claims because we never have before. The principle he says out is self defeating because anything more miraculous would have to be doubted more, nothing could ever establish a miracle no matter how good the evidence was. We see this in the words of Hume himself:

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should have really happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of the testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.[16]

The principle is argued against both testimonial evidence of miracle and those directly experienced.[17]  By the power of this premise nothing could ever establish a miracle, they must always be doubted. But upon what basis is it doubted? That is Hume privileges his position as 100% even though we know it’s not?  If one is coming from a tradition where such things are accepted as being within the realm of possibility then they are part of the description. After all to say “a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature” either assumes laws of nature (with all their problematic of disembodied law makers) or they are the result of a description of the way the world operates, one that is not 100% and is challenged. While this doesn’t mean that there’s proof for the existence of God or some higher reality, it certainly gives a reason to think there might be. The miracle denying skepticism is basically circular reasoning or question begging. Moreover, we might consider the fact that Hume never had the M scale of Hood to tell him that religious experience is universal when it should not be, or that it has a vast dramatic transformative effect which can’t be reduced or explained away (see previous chapter). How would those facts change the assumptions Hume would make?
            It is understandable that naturalistic thinkers are uneasy with the concept of miracles. So should we all be watchful not to believe too quickly because it is easy to get caught up in private reasons and ignore reason itself. Thus has more than one intelligent person been taken by both scams and honest mistakes. By the same token, however, it is equally a danger that one will remain too long in the skeptical place and become overly committed to doubting everything. From that position the circular reasoning of the naturalist seems so reasonable. There’s never been any proof of miracles before so we can’t accept that there is any now. But that’s only because we keep making the same assumption and thus have always dismissed the evidence that was valid.

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern world. Cambridge England, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1926, 1932, 4.
[2] I use the term “exist” advisedly as it is a contradiction to my Tillichian view (Paul Tillich) that “existence” refers to contingent things while God Is the ground of being.
[3] Lee Smolin, Life of the Cosmos Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 76.
Preview on Google books.
Smolin Is professor of physics Pennsylvania State Universe, center for Gravitational Physics and Geomeery. He’s contributed several key Ideas to the search for a grand unfied theory of quantum theory, cosmology and relativity.
[4] Stphen Mumford,  Laws in Nature. London, New York: Routledge. This edidtion published in the Taylor &Francis e -library 2004, 8.
Mumford is professor of philosophy at University of Nottingham.
[5]Howard Sankey. Causation and Laws of Nature. Accord Station, Hingham Ma: Kluwer Academic Publishers, Howard Sankey, editor, xi 1999.
[6] Alan Chalmers in Sandey, op cit “Making sense of the laws of Physics,” 3-18
[7] Brian Ellis, in Sankey, op cit, “Caual Powers and Laws of Nature” 19-34
[8] My rendition of things may be a bit slanted. First of all, there are realists in Ameirca and realizing is not necessarily about laws of physics being prescriptive, but I think that may be an implication of it. Realism is very general term that’s used in many different ways by those who claim it’s banner. Essentially it means that the aspects of physics such as slingalruty and the phenomena described in physics are real and actually there, while the anti-realists and other groups have a  large variation on the theme that sees these objects as theoretical the result of verisimilitude; the theoretical placeholders for our calculations, in other words, “constructs.” Just to make things more confusing I know atheists with phsyics degrees who style themselves in the anti-realist camp but hwo mock and riedicule constructivists such as Thomas Kuhn. For documentation on this point and an excellent article on the subject of scientific realism see:
Chakravartty, Anjan, "Scientific Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
[9] Santo D'Agostino, “Does Nature Obey the Laws of Phsyics?” QED Insight Posted on blog URL:  visited 12/18/12
[10] Dennis Overbye, “Laws of Nature, Source Unknown.”New York Times, “science,”  (December 18, 2007)
[11] Steven Weinberg, Interview on PBS, full transcript on “Interview” website PBS. Org.  visited 12/18/12
[12] ibid.
[13] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and The Modern World,. New York: free Press, 1925, (1953) p.76
[14] Douffin, Jacqueline, op cit (see previous chapter).
[15] David Hume,  1748 et seq., An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Ed. Tom L. Beauchamp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.86-87
[16] ibid
[17] Michael Root, “Miracles and the Uniformity of Nature,” American Philosophical Quarterly.26 (October 1989) 338-339.

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