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.

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