Archive for November 24th, 2008

This is somewhat of a follow up to my playful post on Absolute Truth. (read the comment there too for a nice follow up).  Here I explore the validity of “laws of nature” as a concept.  It appears more and more (at least to me) that our stated laws of nature are as Betrand Russell says, “They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance.”

Betrand Russell provides a nice set of statements of the dubiousness of “natural laws”:

We now find that a great many things we thought were natural laws are really human conventions. You know that even in the remotest depths of stellar space there are still three feet to a yard. That is, no doubt, a very remarkable fact, but you would hardly call it a law of nature. And a great many things that have been regarded as laws of nature are of that kind. On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was.

Why I am Not A Christian

Here’s a decent philosophical backgrounder on laws of nature.  A passage that resonates with the economic mess we’re in now and the growing body of “exceptions to the rule” explantions spilling forth from economists.

it is striking how little attention is given to the possible effects of context. Mightn’t it be that, when the economist utters a certain strict generalization sentence in an “economic setting” (say, in an economics textbook or at an economics conference), context-sensitive considerations affecting its truth conditions will have it turn out that the utterance is true? This might be the case despite the fact that the same sentence uttered in a different context (say, in a discussion among fundamental physicists or better yet in a philosophical discussion of laws) would result in a clearly false utterance. These changing truth conditions might be the result of something as plain as a contextual shift in the domain of quantification or perhaps something less obvious.

Consider these stated “economic laws”.  how many exceptions to these laws do we find in todays world?

Some of this discussion of “laws” gets into the Fine-Tuned Universe discussion.  This is the idea that our universe is “finely tuned” for nature as we see it and any variation in physical constants would change the laws of physics to make the universe unfit for nature.  This is a counter-factual discussion for now as we have no way of tuning the universe differently to see what would develop and we don’t have sufficiently powerful technology to simulate or create our own universes.

NIST provides a killer resource for all these constants.  Also worth reading are the guidelines on understanding and reporting on uncertainty.


I’ll borrow from the comments on the post on Absolute Truth mentioned at the beginning of this post.

The issue of validating or discovering new laws comes down to asking the question:

“Have any absolute truths been demonstrated and validated?” The answer to that question is also “no.” Two important things are different about asking the latter question. 1) it avoids a conundrum of syntactical verbiage allowing for an answer that can be understood without pleading to a meta language that is itself a problem. 2) it keeps open the idea that if an absolute truth were to be demonstrated and validated it would be interesting and a significant exception to what has been found to that date.

Personally, I’m highly skeptical of all generalizations and require a huge amount of evidence, both logical and empirical to accept abstractions from context.

Some who know me will claim I turn to math and logic a lot and it’s somewhat funky for me to decry generalization.  Yes, I have some training in and bias towards mathematical explanation, but I recognize math as useful modeling and analytic tool that helps us thinking through complicated situations.  When we’re really fortunate the math cuts through the noise and exposes relationships in a simple and understandable way.  Even when that happens, it still doesn’t provide us universal/absolute laws.

Read Full Post »