So You Think There Are Laws in Nature?

Two friends debate over whether there are laws in nature. David is a “believer”; he sees regularities everywhere and supposes that some of them are “good enough” to be laws. Margaret is a “skeptic”; she feels that randomness prevails and the so-called laws are merely projections of our minds onto the world and nothing more. Their thoughts on laws, causation, chance, and free will are challenged.


Margaret (M): Here we are, another Thursday, meeting up before a movie premiere begins. Who would expect this friendship to last long enough to establish a movie habit together! 

David (D): I know! Some things in life happen rather accidentally, like the meeting of two strangers who become involved enough to have their own little patterns in a relationship. Actually, I’ve been thinking about patterns and regularities lately. I’ve started to notice them a lot.

M: I’ll consider that another side-effect of studying philosophy. Do you want to share your thoughts while we’re waiting?

D: Sure. Well, look around you. Open a history book if you need to. Study some physics—perhaps only the easy, classical mechanics stuff. Maybe even some economics. Observe your daily routines or the routines of your roommate. There are patterns everywhere. If it weren’t for patterns or repeated behaviors or, to be more philosophically sophisticated, regularities, life would be much more confusing and difficult on this planet. Why? Because it’d be much less predictable than it already is. The impulsive part of yourself might ask mischievously, “Wouldn’t that be interesting to see, though?” and maybe that’s a good point. The sun rising in the west would be an inspiring trouble-maker, a paradigm-shifter even. And it would definitely provoke a new kind of phrenitis on social media. We’ve grown to be thrilled to witness “extreme” things happening. Nevertheless, imagine all the things we would get messed up. No plans would be made, no promises would be kept. And it would be quite hard to have our meeting today or head to the movies later, as we had agreed. Though that isn’t my point. I’m pretty sure that us watching a movie on Thursdays is not a law of any sort even though it’s a regularity. It’s certainly been a long time since we didn’t go to a premiere on a Thursday. 

M: You start talking and it feels as if you could keep going on forever. But if I have to choose between your words and awkward silence I think I’d go for your words. At least this way I can challenge them myself! 

D: I’m glad I can share my thoughts with you. My point is that there are regularities everywhere you look. And that tells us something about how the world really is. Of course, as I said, not all regularities are laws of nature. Imagine having a stalker who observes us going to the movies every Thursday. After having seen us doing so for 25 Thursdays, he thinks to himself, “I can now predict what those two are doing this Thursday and I’m pretty sure my prediction will be true based on past evidence so I won’t follow them to the movies just for this time.” And yet, on that particular Thursday, our favorite band is in town and we decide to go to their concert, not to the movies. Our stalker, having trusted his inductive inference, believes that it is most likely we would go to the movies for the twenty-sixth time. However, he doesn’t think that we must go or that it’s necessary that we do so. After all, our stalker can do some basic probability calculations, may think he knows us well and doesn’t mind risking it for once. Contrarily, if it were a law of nature that we went to the movies every Thursday, it would happen necessarily; nothing could prevent it.  

M: First of all, why is seeing regularities everywhere telling us something about how the world is and not about how we are? I find that naïve, to say the least. Don’t you think that it’s merely because of how our brain is structured, the way our neurophysiology functions, that makes us perceive the world in such a manner so that it is psychologically viable, in other words, so that we aren’t constantly struck and unsettled by how chaotic the universe appears? It’s draining to be objecting to people who make assumptions about how the world really is based on their narrow experience. It’s both arrogant and ignorant. The inductive inference our imaginary stalker made is no different than many other inferences we make on a daily basis in order to survive and navigate through life. Induction may be problematic and sometimes lead to erroneous conclusions but we all admit it’s helping us out every single day more than it’s misleading us. This does not mean, however, that we can use induction as a tool to infer any sort of robust laws of nature. 

[Read “What Earthquakes Teach Us About Embracing Uncertainty“]

D: Regarding the first part of your argument, I feel that we are an inseparable part of nature, and when examining it, it’s important that we don’t exclude ourselves from what is under examination. In that sense, if our nature is regularity-oriented so must be nature itself reciprocally. Moreover, what you seem to be missing here is that it isn’t induction that makes a law what it is. There’s something more to each regularity that turns it into a law, something about the nature of the things linked with lawhood and the linking itself. 

M: Assuming the rest of nature is similar to us humans is a rather bold and risky analogy. The way the world really is is entirely inaccessible to us. I side with Kant here. I don’t believe we can know the thing-in-itself. We’re only discussing phenomena. What’s more, I can’t accept so easily that there’s something fundamental in the nature of things that allows lawhood to link them in the way you suggest. 

D: Even if we’re talking only about phenomena, my proposals can be true. Laws of nature manifest themselves in the phenomena and science takes up their inquiry. That way, science discovers the fundamental laws of the universe which are few and simple, as well as the results of these laws which are numerous and complicated. Phenomena inform us about reality through scientific reasoning because they are part of reality, to begin with. 

M: I feel that you shouldn’t give science credit for doing the impossible, namely understanding the core of the universe and to some extent, of existence itself. If you claim that laws of nature exist and the task of science is to discover them, then your thinking has gone astray. It’s a matter of pure luck that the human activity called “science” has had the success it’s credited with having. What’s more, the theories and laws it uses are mere instruments, tools; scientists employ them simply because they have managed to be effective thus far. There is no guarantee that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning. Likewise, there’s no guarantee that the universal law of gravity will continue to pull us to the center of the earth in the next minute. All we know is that it has worked so far. And we’re smart enough to behave as if it’ll continue to do so because that’s how our neurophysiology propels us to behave but there’s no epistemological guarantee of any sort to help us justify our behavior. 

D: I don’t agree with any of this. We have at least a minimum understanding of how the world really is and that’s provided through the discovery of laws of nature. That’s why scientific inquiry is the best activity we have. And I would submit that our neurophysiology indeed makes our understanding easier. We’re able to spot causal relations and often, under many circumstances, predict the future. That’s how we understand the laws of nature, thanks to the powerful tools our minds are providing us. You shouldn’t underestimate the human mind. 

M: Okay, so how does the powerful human mind recognize a law of nature? I’m sure there are many connections of events that seem like laws but it’d be an exaggeration to call them laws.

[Read “A Community of Consciousness: Bridging the Gap Between Mind and Matter“]

D: That’s a good point. You’re essentially asking how we discern between conjunctions establishing causal relations which are the true laws of nature and other less important regularities.  A common example is day following night and so on. Day, however, is not causing for night to arrive and neither does night for day. It’s just an accidentally true generalization of an observed conjunction. If there was a causal relation between the two, the regularity would be a law of nature. But it isn’t.

M: Interesting. Let’s say I play along for a while assuming that your fundamental laws are nothing but what our minds perceive as such since we have no access to the reality of them. What you’re saying is that to have a law, it’s not enough to observe regularities in the world. They have to establish causal relations. Let’s say, for instance, that it’s a law that “All As are Bs”. What does that mean?

D: It means that A causes B and B follows only when A precedes. A and B are tied together. 

M: So can B choose not to happen after A? Because it seems that B inevitably follows A. 

D: That is exactly what it means to be a law of nature. It’s going to happen inevitably, no exceptions. 

M: Is everything pre-determined then? No free will? No choices to make?

D: In the physical level it seems that everything is indeed pre-determined. The past determines the future because future effects have their causes in the past and the causes necessarily lead to the effects. That is what allows us to feel safe on this planet. We have a sense of universal regularity. But that is only the case with the regularities that are actually laws of nature. Other regularities have no commitment to be repeated, just like I mentioned in the day following night example. True laws of nature are very few and the determinism implied does not greatly affect our freedom. 

M: How can you argue that? If the physical world is governed by laws and their products you can’t claim that human agents are free to have things as they like.

D: Well, if you think that you’re not free because you can’t stop gravity or influence the laws of thermodynamics then you’re in big trouble. We are free at all levels of existence but we cannot affect the scaffold of nature. And we shouldn’t be able to, if you think about it. Imagine how dangerous it’d be if we could. Our freedom has to do with numerous things that matter to us and we are responsible for, things we create within the context of the world we were born in, the people we interact with, and so on. But the very core of nature shall remain untouched. 

[Read “The Power of One Idea“]

M: I hope you realize how contradictory your claim is. You’re saying that we are free at all levels of existence, and yet there’s something we cannot affect in any way but it’s certainly affecting us every moment we’re alive on this planet. 

D: Let me give you an example and see if my argument becomes clearer. Suppose you’re an improv stand-up comedian and your show is tonight. You enter a room in which people are wearing certain clothes, holding certain items, and so forth. There are chairs, a microphone—you know how the stage looks like. You’re holding tight to the idea of entertaining them but you don’t know for sure how that’s going to work out. You have some tools though. Your thoughts, your voice, and some past experience to give you clues as to what makes people laugh. Are you free to say and do whatever you want or not?

M: I’m free to say whatever I want as long as it serves the purpose of the very specific job I was assigned. I’m also probably free to exit the room, having to deal with a series of consequences following this choice. 

D: See? That’s how life works too. You’re writing the script while acting it. The way the stage is doesn’t prevent you from freely running your show and defining every moment of it. Analogously, the way nature is structured doesn’t prevent you from freely being yourself.

M: Even if this appears convincing, I’d still argue that since our resources are limited we’re fundamentally not free, even when making this conversation. The world isn’t just a stage. The world is all that there is. And we are trapped inside it. If laws of nature exist, then they are the chains in the prison this world is. 

D: What’s a better alternative then? No laws? Chaos?

M: All I can say is that your fundamental laws of nature are more likely not to exist than to exist. Either way, I wouldn’t want to commit to your ontological assumptions. 

D: How can you not be convinced? The universe is harmonious! If it weren’t for laws you wouldn’t even exist! And sometimes it’s true that we have to make some assumptions in order to produce a system of theory. Otherwise, we’d have mere rambling. 

M: I’m afraid rambling is better than lack of consistency when trying to theorize in metaphysics. For what is worth, I can’t believe in the existence of metaphysical monstrosities like laws of nature. The world isn’t as tidy and predictable as you think. Uncertainty is everywhere. You’re merely finding some temporary solace in your law-governed world because you’re a human being and that’s what allows you to function or seems beneficial for you. I wouldn’t be arguing against it if you’d just keep laws of nature at a lower instrumental level, but you insist that you know what you don’t. 

D: I think we’ve reached a point where silence is better than our words. The movie will start soon. We should stop here and both reconsider our views until we can discuss them again with more clarity.

Eleni Angelou

Eleni is a philosophy Ph.D. student at the City University of New York, The Graduate Center. She has a BSc in history and philosophy of science from the University of Athens, Greece. She also studied philosophy and comparative literature at Harvard University.Her research interests lay in the areas of metaphysics and theory of science, cognitive science, and nineteenth-century American philosophy, especially Henry David Thoreau and pragmatist philosophers (William James and C.S. Peirce). She has worked for the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods in Lincoln, Massachusetts and for the Hellenic National Bioethics Commission in Athens, Greece.She is the translator of Thoreau’s Letters to Harrison Blake into Greek.

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