Naturalism & the Laws of Nature.

Theoretical physicist Paul Davies wrote:

But what are these ultimate laws and where do they come from? Such questions are often dismissed as being pointless or even unscientific. As the cosmologist Sean Carroll has written, “There is a chain of explanations concerning things that happen in the universe, which ultimately reaches to the fundamental laws of nature and stops… at the end of the day the laws are what they are… And that’s okay. I’m happy to take the universe just as we find it.”

Assuming that Davies is correct, I find it odd that there is little interest for understanding the laws of nature. There are some interesting questions to be answered, such as: Where do the laws come from? How do they cause things to happen?

Physicist Neil Turok once posed the question:

What is it that makes the electrons continue to follow the laws?

Indeed, what power compels physical objects to follow the laws of nature?

The question I would like to focus on is: what would a naturalistic explanation of the laws of nature look like?

Frankly, I don’t know where to start. What I do know is that a bottom-up explanation runs into a serious problem. A bottom-up explanation, from the level of say bosons, should be expected to give rise to innumerable different ever-changing laws. Different circumstances, different laws.

But this is not what we find. Again, Paul Davies:

Physical processes, however violent or complex, are thought to have absolutely no effect on the laws. There is thus a curious asymmetry: physical processes depend on laws but the laws do not depend on physical processes. Although this statement cannot be proved, it is widely accepted.

If laws do not depend on physical processes, then it follows that laws cannot be explained by physical processes. IOWs there is no bottom-up explanation for the laws of nature.

But what does it mean for naturalism if there is no bottom-up (naturalistic) explanation for the laws of nature? How does the central claim ‘everything is physical’ make sense if there is no physical explanation for the laws of nature? What if it is shown that the laws of nature control the physical but are not reducible to it?




364 thoughts on “Naturalism & the Laws of Nature.

  1. walto,

    Like Alan, you seem to be struggling with the whole “Skeptical Zone” concept.

    Crackpot claims — whether about evolution, math, or anything else — get challenged here, walto. You’ll enjoy your visits more if you come to grips with that.

  2. keiths:

    It does affect the mathematical notation. Mathematicians use curly braces to enclose the contents of a set. {a, b} is a set containing two elements. {x} is a set containing one element. { } is a set containing no elements — the empty set.

    The definition of ‘intersection’ uses curly braces:

    A ∩ B = {x : x ∈ A ∧ x ∈ B}

    If A and B have no elements in common, then the braces end up empty:

    A ∩ B = { }

    It’s perfectly coherent. It just requires you to use the mathematicians’ concept of set instead of the dumb Erik concept. One definition applies in all cases.


    The two statements can be equated if x can be zero or empty and division with such is permitted. These assumptions are not explicitly seen in the first statement. Until then it’s not perfectly coherent. It’s just yammering and assertion.

    Why do you keep bringing division into this, of all things? Division is irrelevant here.

    And of course the definition doesn’t state that the curly braces can be empty. It doesn’t have to, because that follows as a natural consequence of the definition.

    Let’s see your competing definition.

  3. keiths,

    I just want to make sure you don’t fart out on this. I’d stay after Erik on his “no empty sets” thing for at least a year. Then you’d be showing what a sterling skeptic you really are.

    I’d even put you up for Skeptic of 2017 if you’re still interested!

  4. dazz:
    Erik is simply withholding his logical proof of the self-contradiction in the definition of empty set until someone pledges allegiance to the law of non-contradiction, so here I go:

    “I pledge allegiance to the Law of Non-Contradiction, and to Plato’s Republic, for which it stands, one Logic under God, indivisible, with premises and conclusions for all.”

    Can I hear an AMEN!?!?

  5. walto,

    Your complaints about skepticism at TSZ remind me of Gregory’s complaints about apostasy.

    Um, wouldn’t a rational person expect to find those things here?

  6. walto,

    …and on an unrelated note, can you please recommend a good primer on philosophy? I got A compelling introduction to philosophy by Simon Blackburn after some googling. Is it any good?

  7. walto:
    I don’t know that book, but i’ve read some Blackburn. He’s good. What does KN say?

    Thanks Walto, if KN also wants to chime in that’d be great too

    Alan Fox:
    This is a bit tongue-in-cheek but I found this book a great intro into who’s who. Of course Richard Rorty gets an adequate write-up!

    thanks Alan, I’ll check it out

  8. Erik:

    Should elegance trump logic? Trump is preferable because he is more elegant than Hillary? What if Trump is empty inside and Hillary a can of worms, how do you pick elegance then?

    I vote for the Libertarian.

  9. Origenes at UD:

    I have news for you: matter is directed by immaterial laws of nature.

    Theoretical physicist Paul Davies recently wrote…

    It’s as if this thread never happened.

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