Recently I have been thinking about the laws of nature. More accurately – about the different interpretations of what it means to be a law of nature. At first glance, all seems to be clear. Right? When you think about it, I am certain you can easily come up with your own rough definition. A law of nature means (insert your version). That’s what I also thought. But then, as it often happens, things turn out to be more complex and more interesting once you start digging below the first-impression surface. Here’s where my digging got me so far.
Does nature actually have any laws at all? And what makes something a law in the context of nature? Where lies its lawhood? After all, the concept of ‘law’ is a purely human invention. Could it be that we, humans, imbue nature with something that we like to call its laws?
Philosophers have struggled with such and similar questions for many, many years. From what I could gather in my explorations so far, there are two main general directions of thought when considering the idea of the laws of nature: the ‘laws-govern’ direction (laws govern how everything in nature behaves) and the ‘laws-describe’ direction (laws do not govern anything, they are our best-generalized descriptions of what actually goes on in nature).
My personal first-impression opinion was definitely more on the ‘laws-govern’ end. I thought – well, of course, that’s why they are laws, they govern the way everything happens in nature, they are these necessary connections, principles of sorts. That is how they can explain the natural processes. I had a strong view against the ‘laws-describe’ approach because I couldn’t see how such mere generalized descriptions of natural processes can explain anything at all. Now, however, I am gradually changing my viewpoint. It is not fully formed yet, but here is what I have learned so far.
The ‘laws-govern’ direction is the oldest of the two. That is unsurprising if you think about it. The idea that there are fixed, fundamental laws (principles) that govern the behaviour of everything in nature implies that there is a ‘lawgiver’. When you observe nature and notice that there are certain regularities and uniformities in it, you may think that there must be some laws governing all this organized operation. If so, such laws must have their origin too. The laws can therefore be understood as the expression of the lawgiver’s will.
Now, depending on whether I am more or less religiously inclined, I can interpret the idea of the lawgiver behind the governing laws of nature differently: I could say that it is God, gods, spiritual realm or principle, or necessities inherent in nature itself. A crucial point here is that this approach addresses our very-human need for an explanation of meaning. It searches for causes and underlying connections that can answer our question ‘why’.
The ‘laws-describe’ direction is the younger of the two. Of course, there have already been attempts to approach the exploration of nature from an impartial perspective, to the extent feasible in the respective historical environments. For example, the 6th century BCE pre-Socratic philosophers of the Ancient Greek city Miletus (by the names of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes) have been noted as probably the first thinkers to try and describe nature with as little recourse to their contemporary spiritual explanations as possible.
However, for the majority of our history, these were isolated cases not at all coherent with the prevailing worldviews. In other words, for the longest time of human history, we explained nature by instilling some variation of meaningfulness into it (along the lines of the ‘laws-govern’ approach).
The ‘laws-describe’ direction started to gradually develop only with the increasing authority of natural sciences. The idea of this approach is this: when we try to understand nature we observe it and then we gather all our knowledge and strive to create best systems of general statements about how nature actually behaves. These generalizations, if true, can be called the laws of nature. The name, however, is a legacy. The notion of ‘law’ can indeed be misleading under this account. Crucially, there is no precondition that a law must be something that ‘prescribes’ or ‘regulates’ the behaviour of nature. The idea of governing is absent. Instead, the goal is to create an ever-improving general system of describing the behaviour of natural phenomena. In other words, the focus here is on the ‘how’. A much more humble goal, we might say.
This approach is known as the best systems account (the best system of true generalizations describing nature), and it was fully formulated as recently as the second half of the 20th century. Why is it called ‘best’? Because it is supposed to be a system of true generalized descriptions of nature that strikes the best balance between simplicity (not more details than required) and strength (informative).
The best systems account builds on ideas that were suggested earlier: in the 19th century by John Stuart Mill and in the 18th century by the well-known philosopher empiricist David Hume. In fact, Hume’s influence is so strong that the supporters of this ‘laws-describe’ approach are sometimes referred to as Humeans. This quote from Hume himself will show why:
“When we look about us towards external objects …we are never able, in a single instance, to discover any power or necessary connexion; any quality, which binds the effect to the cause, and renders the one an infallible consequence of the other. We only find, that the one does actually, in fact, follow the other.” (my emphasis)
It is exactly this focus on finding the “power or necessary connection” that compels nature to behave the way it does that is central to the ‘laws-govern’ direction and that the ‘laws-describe’ direction endeavour to avoid. In other words, the latter approach looks for the best way to describe that and how natural phenomena occur. The former, older approach looks for a way to explain why it occurs.
Where does that leave us? Although our search for meaning is a very understandable wish in us, humans, and something that I find to be of crucial importance to our existence, I just don’t feel that nature is in any way bound to comply with our expectations. Therefore, when we speak of the laws of nature from the perspective of trying to understand how nature operates (and only from this perspective), I think we should be aware of our own inclination to imbue nature with meaning. In other words, to better understand nature, I think, it is useful to make a mental distinction between the question ‘how’ and ‘why’.
To better understand ourselves, however, we should always keep our meaning-searching-nature in mind. This human quest is valuable and existentially crucial in and of itself. But sometimes our own nature can partially get in our way of better understanding the bigger nature that we all belong to. Simply acknowledging this may lead us to both liberating and humbling recognition of our potentials and limits.
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