The Origin of Laws | On Beyond Darwin - Chapter 3


The Origin of Laws

Since the time of Sir Isaac Newton most scientists have assumed that the orderliness that we find in the universe stems from the fact that there are a number of principles or laws which govern—or describe—the behavior of all things. Newton laid down this philosophy clearly in his Principia :

To tell us that every species of things is endowed with an occult specific quality by which it acts and produces manifest effects is to tell us nothing. But, to derive two or three general principles of motion from phenomena, and afterwards to tell us how the properties and actions of all corporeal things follow from those manifest principles, would be a very great step in Philosophy, though the causes of those principles were not yet discovered.

In this statement Newton indicates a time sequence—properties and actions of all bodies follow from principles. The principles have separate—if not prior—existence apart from the bodies whose behavior they govern—or describe. It was Newton’s belief, and that of scientists ever since, that man could come to know these principles and that the same principles applied everywhere in the universe. Because the principles applied to all “corporeal things”—bodies—they were general principles or laws. A statement about a specific species of thing was scientifically worthless. Newton said it is “to tell us nothing.”

There is no doubt that scientists have made great progress on the basis of the assumption—faith, belief, intuition—that there are general principles—although for some reason they have not tried to discover the causes of those principles. I believe that it is time for a careful examination of this implicit assumption of the scientific enterprise. I believe that the existence of general principles would be strong evidence of design in the universe and, if there is design, there must be a Designer. Since I do not accept the idea that the evidence for the existence—or non-existence—of a Designer can be found from examining nature, either animate or inanimate, I must hold that the existence of general laws or principles is illusory.

But, how is the illusion created? It is, I will argue, mainly due to the natural recurrence of certain specific “species of things”—the fundamental particles of the universe. This means that the order that we experience in the universe, which I do not deny exists, can be accounted for in terms of the specific qualities by which certain species of things “act and produce manifest effects,” with no general principles whatsoever. I have dropped the word “occult” in connection with specific qualities—presumably Newton was implying that no natural explanation could be found for specific qualities. Newton was somewhat biased—as you notice he did not label general principles “occult” even though he added “though the causes of those principles were not yet discovered.”

If I take the position that the explanation of the order we find in the universe is in terms of specific qualities, rather than laws, any law which we have in Physics must be shown to be either a statement about specific qualities—a fact—or an artifact. By artifact I mean something not based on the real world, a creation of man. Laws or principles must be shown to be either fact or artifact, or a mixture of these two. A scientific fact is a statement such as the mass of the moon is 73.5 thousand, billion, billion kilograms —I use one thousand million as a billion. This particular fact about a one-of-a-kind thing like the moon would not be generally useful, but the fact that the mass of an electron is 9.11 thousand, billion, billion, billionth of a kilogram is extremely useful, because there are so many natural recurrences of electrons. If you know one, you know them all.

If a law, or principle, transcends a particular “species of thing,” I say that it must be explained. So, in a sense, I am taking the exactly opposite point of view from Newton. Newton said that facts about specific things must be explained by showing how they follow from general principles. I maintain that general principles must be explained by showing how they follow from facts about specific things. In the next chapter, I will be looking more generally at what needs explanation.

I have indicated Newton’s view of general laws and said that this view has persisted to this day. Here is a quote from a modern university textbook by F.W. Constant called Fundamental Laws of Physics :

The great laws of physics are those that express principles or relations which are independent of the specific properties of certain materials or objects. These laws will therefore be called our fundamental laws; they must be distinguished from those restricted laws which apply only to certain materials and only under a limited range of conditions. [1]

Sound familiar? Here is a more philosophical statement by Reichenbach:

The fact that nature lends itself to a description in terms of causal laws suggests the conception that reason controls the happenings of nature;… if-then-always is all that is meant by a causal relation. [2]

Reichenbach says earlier in his book, “Generalization, therefore, is the origin of science” and continues:

All these laws are generalizations; they say that a certain implication holds for all things of a specified kind… What we mean by explaining an observed fact is incorporating that fact into a general law. [3]

He, like Newton, says that facts need explanation—Newton called them “occult”—whereas general laws do not. The explanation of a fact according to Reichenbach consists merely in “incorporating that fact into a general law.” So you can see Newton’s great influence in our scientific thinking.

We saw earlier that the interest in natural theology by the bug hunting Victorians was an attempt by man “to explore nature in the only way that seemed to make nature, as well as God, intelligible—in terms of design.” Charles Darwin showed that the apparent evidence of design or teleology in nature could be explained as far as the animate world is concerned. Quoting Reichenbach again:

Chance in combination with selection produces order. It was the great discovery of Charles Darwin that the apparent teleology of living organisms can be explained in a similar way by a combination of chance and selection. [4]

But, Darwin was trying to show that there were general principles that governed—or described—the behavior of living things: the principle of evolution, the principle of natural selection, the principle of variation, and so on. His placing of the quotation by Whewell on the title page of the Origin shows this ambition.

But with regard to the material world we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine Power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws. [5]

The establishment of general laws was presumably by the “Divine Power.”

The need for general laws is deeply rooted. It is like the need for a map of the land to let you know where you are. Ernst Mach spent a long time thinking about laws. In his book The Significance and Purpose of Natural Laws he writes:

In our view of the matter, natural laws are the consequence of our psychological need to find our way in nature, and to avoid having to confront it as a confused strange world… The earliest attempts at self-orientation are mythological, demonological, and poetic… the period of Copernicus and Galileo strove for a primarily qualitative, preliminary orientation, and ease of comprehension, simplicity and aesthetic satisfaction were accordingly the principles governing the search for those laws which might contribute to the mental reconstruction of the observed facts… With the accumulation of information… the demand for intellectual economy… and as general an applicability and practicality as possible becomes particularly pressing… It is only natural that in periods lacking in epistemological sophistication the psychological motive for scientific research is projected into nature itself. It is God or nature which strives toward simplicity and aesthetic satisfaction—at a later period toward a firm regularity and specificity—finally, toward frugality and economy in all respects, toward the attainment of every end with the least possible expense. [6]

Mach brings up several themes here that we will have to explore in detail. Beside self-orientation, the laws “contribute to the mental reconstruction of the observed facts.” This is an information science point of view of science and is to me, as a computer—or information—scientist, the essence of science—to distil information into a compact form so that it can be stored for retrieval or passed along from generation to generation. Anyone familiar with the information explosion will appreciate the paramount importance of information compression. If we have a compressed piece of information, like a scientific formula, we can explode it—often using a computer—into detailed information about specific situations. From a practical point of view, that is really all science needs to do for us other than to discover new facts. But that is a great deal!

But as Mach continues, there is a “psychological motive for scientific research.” Scientists have striven to see in nature “simplicity and aesthetic satisfaction” and later “frugality and economy in all respects.” Does it make nature more “intelligible” to see simplicity or beauty? Is there a need to feel the Designer’s hand ever-present? Or do we need confirmation that our view must be correct because our laws are simple or mathematically elegant? Listen to Heisenberg:

Especially in physics the fact that we can explain nature by simple mathematical laws tells us that here we have met some genuine feature of reality, not something that we have—in any meaning of the word—invented ourselves. [7]

Bridgman questions this stand in his book on The Nature of Physical Theory :

The feeling that all the steps in a mathematical theory must have a counterpart in the physical system is the outgrowth, I think, of a certain mystical feeling about the mathematical construction of the physical world. This mystical feeling involves, I think, a feeling for the “real existence” of principles according to which this universe is run. [8]

Very often a scientist will have preconceived ideas of the nature of the principles on which the “universe is run” and if he is the right person at the right time he can make progress by matching his preconceptions to observed facts—using his metaphysics to do physics. Lewis S. Feuer has analyzed the philosophic influences on several outstanding physicists of this century in his book on Einstein and the Generations of Science :

Every great physicist approaches the world of physical phenomena with guiding philosophical analogies that express his innermost emotions and longings. He is fortunate if the objective physical data and problems allow for a fruitful conjuncture with his subjective standpoint. The emotional-intellectual standpoints of creative scientists can be utterly diverse; Newton was enthralled by a vision of a neo-Platonic unity; Einstein was sustained by the spirit of Marxian-Machian rebellion; Bohr felt the dramatic urge of Kierkegaard’s qualitative dialectical leaps of the stadia of human existence… Indeed in the history of scientific ideas it is probably the case that the overwhelming majority of such generative emotions underlying the variations in ideas, that is, the novel scientific hypotheses are extinguished by the factual, experimental environment. Yet without such generative emotions, the nisus toward scientific creativity would be gone. [9]

To have a “guiding philosophical” viewpoint is no guarantee of success in science. As with mutations, most “generative emotions” are not productive. But, what is surprising is that scientists like Newton, Einstein, and Bohr, all with revolutionary ideas, have strong philosophic viewpoints; most of them have shared these viewpoints in scientific memoirs after their fame was achieved. The philosophic viewpoint remember is not the science, it is only a guide to creativity in science. It is a heuristic: an aid to guessing a solution. The philosophic viewpoints of different scientists can be diametrically different. Feuer says:

Einstein sought to subsume all reality within a system; Bohr denied that such a system was possible, and wondered whether “all reality” had a meaning. [10]

Even a single scientist can change his philosophy during his career. Look at Einstein according to Feuer:

By the end of World War I, Einstein’s relativist mood began to subside. His thinking was no longer isoemotional with revolutionary trends. His longing was for harmony, indeed, for a realization of God’s mind in nature… Asked by a Rabbi whether he believed in God, Einstein responded: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all being”… He [God] entailed the “inner consistency and the logical simplicity of the laws of nature”… His [Einstein’s] Spinozist faith, however, was more than a personal admiration or even religious ethic; it became a regulative principle for discovery of the laws of nature. [11]

Here, Feuer calls Einstein’s philosophic viewpoint “a regulative principle for discovery,” what we call a heuristic principle.

In an editorial in the American Scientist , Melvin Kranzberg stresses the personal nature of a scientist’s method of doing science:

Because the myth of “the scientific method” stresses objectivity and impartiality, we too often lose sight of the human personal element in science. Thus in research reports the passive voice predominates… To depict science as an impersonal body of agreed-on knowledge is to deny the fact that scientific knowledge is constantly undergoing change and correction… The fact is that science possesses a personality or many personalities—because individual scientists approach problems in distinctly different ways. To deny the personality of science is to deprive it of the human element and to deny that the human creative imagination, ingenuity and intelligence have anything to do with enlarging boundaries of scientific knowledge. [12]

Kranzberg is emphasizing that the science itself bears the stamp of the scientist and his philosophic influences.

This is the way that scientists work—but does the science they create validate their philosophic or theological position in any way? Can the theology be wrong and the science right? Mach worries about this with respect to scientists like Newton:

The question may now justly be asked if the point of view of theology which led to enunciation of the principles of mechanics was utterly wrong, how comes it that the principles themselves are in all substantial points correct. The answer is easy. In the first place, the theological view did not supply the contents of the principles but simply determined their guise, their matter was derived from experience. [13]

Einstein was originally influenced very much by Mach’s work and admired Mach’s willingness to reexamine physical theory from the point of view that it was “man-made” rather than “God-given.” This encouraged Einstein to have revolutionary thoughts about space and time. Einstein wrote about Mach, emphasizing Mach’s views about being critical of every theory, law, or principle:

Notions which have proved useful in the ordering of things acquire such an authority over us that we forget their worldly origin, and accept them as irrevocable givens. [Mach taught us to]… analyze the too familiar notions… by doing so their excessive authority is broken. [14]

But, it is not usual in science to go around “doubting everything” as Descartes advised. Kuhn notes:

Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. [15]

And if we “know what the world is like” we must be ultra-conservative if someone comes along with an upsetting new way of looking at things. Kuhn continues:

… Maxwell’s equations were as revolutionary as Einstein’s, and they were resisted accordingly.. a new theory, however special its range of application, is seldom or never just an increment to what is already known. Its assimilation requires the reconstruction of prior theory and the re-evaluation of prior fact, an intrinsically revolutionary process that is seldom completed by a single man and never overnight. [16]

Kuhn explains that although new ideas are resisted, and reasonably so, scientists are more open to them whenever their present view encounters facts that it cannot incorporate or when progress seems to be at a dead end:

Mopping-up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers. They constitute what I am here calling normal science… Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others… [But] normal science possesses a built-in mechanism that ensures the relaxation of the restrictions that bound research whenever the paradigm from which they derive ceases to function effectively. [17]

I have said that I have a somewhat unusual viewpoint: that the existence of laws, by which I mean general laws or principles, is illusory. I believe that we should seek to unmask the illusion. But, why would I not be happy to leave well enough alone? As I explained, I have found logical discrepancies in the theories presently accepted. This led me to questioning the fundamental laws. In my questioning I was guided by a philosophic viewpoint that rejects natural theology, no matter how well disguised it may be. I believe too, that too much reliance on the laws may be why we have difficulty in moving forward. After all, special relativity and quantum theory were born in the early twentieth century. Perhaps we are making strides in understanding nuclear structure or particle systematics but we have not had any new general laws lately. A fresh viewpoint can perhaps be beneficial.

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