Whence Physical Laws?

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, physicist and Templeton Laureate Paul Davies revisits an age-old question:

“The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?”

Essentially Davies is asking his physicist colleagues not to explain how the laws work but to provide an answer for why they exist. Or not that they are but why they are. Those who hold that this question is outside the realm of science, he asserts, are saying that the laws of the universe “exist reasonlessly,” which is a “deeply anti-rational” view to hold. Therefore he concludes that science is founded on faith. Like religion, science is founded “on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws.”

I’m not sure how he concludes that to pass on the question is to suggest that physical laws exist without reason or that one’s position is therefore not rational. Why can’t we take physicists at their word when they say that the question is outside the domain of science? As for the assertion that scientists have groundless faith in the same way that a Christian has faith that God created the universe, well that seems like an abuse of language to me. Every time I sit down in a chair I believe groundlessly that it will hold my weight. I have faith that this time, like all other times, the chair will not collapse beneath me. But who would wish to conflate this sort of pedestrian faith in a sturdy chair with religious faith in God? It destroys the common-sense meaning of the former and trivializes the latter.

“Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Martin Heidegger asked in his Introduction to Metaphysics. Heidegger considered this question to be “originary,” a philosophical brain teaser that pushed beyond the limits of being itself. Heidegger (and Wittgenstein after him) argued that the scope of the question was so broad that it pushed beyond the bounds of what can be thought. We cannot answer the question he concluded because we can never exceed it. Any being or cause to which we might look as a possible solution will always invite us to go one step further. For example, to decide that God is the original ground of the laws of physics — indeed of the universe itself — is to put God into the set of causes and effects.

That’s why Schopenhauer compared God to a “hired cab” that we dismiss once we reach our desired destination. And of course we atheists are fond of throwing a monkey wrench into the works by asking “what caused God?” I guess we’re not ready to get out of the taxi just yet. Or more accurately we strongly suspect that it is beyond human ability to regress back infinitely looking for an answer to the mother of all questions. It is a funny question and there’s something disturbing there when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and think long and hard about it. But at the end of the day it is certainly not the domain of science to dabble in metaphysics. Davies should realize this fundamental truth rather than tilt at windmills.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    Does Davies think it rational to claim that the laws of the universe were created by magic,literally by wishful thinking on the part of God?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    Didn’t Victor Stenger write a book about this subject?

    Personally I think that the origins of what we understand to be the ‘Laws of Physics’ are well within the scope of physical/scientific investigation. Asking where the Laws of Physics came from is not a Philosophical question but a Scientific one. There are real reasons why the physical Universe is like it is. How can that be beyond science?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12630941610457041268 Peter Bruin

    Davies also writes:

    Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

    He obviously means “faith” in the sense of “belief in a rational explanation”, not in the pragmatic sense of your “faith in the sturdiness of a chair” example. He is certainly not conflating this pragmatic faith (which is in no way particular to scientists) with the “groundless faith” of Christians that God is the creator of the world; you put words into Davies’ mouth there.

    I do not agree with Davies’ use of the word “faith”; like Lawrence Krauss in his response to Davies, I think the comparison is strained at best. However, this is not a good reason to discount his actual point, namely that it is not at all obvious that the widespread interpretation of the laws of physics à la Einstein (i.e. that the existence of the universe is explained by laws belonging to some Platonic realm) is more believable than the interpretation which affirms that the natural laws are God’s means of setting up creation.

    I accept Davies’ criticism of the popular view of the laws of nature, namely that “they just are” and do not require any further explanation; like Davies, I cannot see how someone who believes this can escape the conclusion that “nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.” The same holds for your claim that explaining the existence of the universe would force us to “regress back infinitely looking for an answer to the mother of all questions”.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04123863777408880111 Brigham.Narins

    I’m glad you’ve commented on this piece, it deserves looking at. And I think you’re resistance to Davies point is well founded. What strikes me about Davies is the sense that he is either confused about or willfully distorting the meaning of the word “laws” in “laws of physics.” In his account, “the laws” are extra-scientific, divine, or otherwise outside the physical universe we all share. For Davies they are like a creator’s recipe for a universe. But they’re not that, are they? The laws of physics are “merely” the accumulated observable characteristics of this physical universe we all share. The laws don’t exist as such. And they certainly can’t be assumed to predate the universe, as a recipe predates a cake. If Davies is asking why the observable data is not other than what it is, then he is either not asking a significant question (he’s in the same dorm room as posers like “is the color I see as blue the same as the color you see as blue?”) or he is–inadvertently–asking the fundamental scientific question: how did what I see come to be? In any case, in order to mystify the concrete and turn the rational enterprise of science into a faith-based game, Davies plays word games.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    Regarding “For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.”

    That is true, but “orthodox” science (what is unorthodox science?) correctly does not claim to have a complete account of physical existence while providing an always expanding partial explanation whereas monotheistic religion incorrectly claims it always has provided a complete account even though it provides nothing at all in the way of explanation, not even a partial account of physical existence. Instead religion just provides a catch-all declaration that illogically claims to be an explanation without evidence.

    If Davies cannot see this or won’t publically acknowledge this then I lose some respect for either his intellect or his integrity.