Where did the laws of physics come from?


In my experience, the vast majority of scientists couldn’t care less about the philosophy of science. I tend to favor this quote from Steven Weinberg:

" The value today of philosophy to physics seems to me to be something like the value of early nation-states to their peoples. It is only a small exaggeration to say that, until the introduction of the post office, the chief service of nationstates was to protect their peoples from other nation-states. The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion—by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers. I do not want to draw the lesson here that physics is best done without preconceptions. At any one moment there are so many things that might be done, so many accepted principles that might be challenged, that without some guidance from our preconceptions one could do nothing at all. It is just that philosophical principles have not generally provided us with the right preconceptions. In our hunt for the final theory, physicists are more like hounds than hawks; we have become good at sniffing around on the ground for traces of the beauty we expect in the laws of nature, but we do not seem to be able to see the path to the truth from the heights of philosophy. Physicists do of course carry around with them a working philosophy. For most of us, it is a rough-and-ready realism, a belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our scientific theories. But this has been learned through the experience of scientific research and rarely from the teachings of philosophers."
Steven Weinberg, “Against Philosophy” (from the book “Dreams of a Final Theory”)

I would hazard a guess that most physicists today don’t even understand the philosophical underpinnings of mechanical philosophy or materialism, nor do they care to. What they do care about is the ability to test a hypothesis against experiments. They are able to test the accuracy of the Standard Model and QM. They have been able to test for the existence of the Higgs Boson. If these things run afoul of somebody’s philosophy, then it is the philosophy that is tossed, not the science.


Curiosly enough, Weinberg himself is one of the famous atheists who claim that science can’t explain where the laws of physics come from.


To be clear, I don’t think scientists should base their research or decide what they can do based on philosophy. But if we are going to discuss matters of which science can’t study, at least for now, philosophy is the best we have. The second best option would be saying “I have no idea”. And note that saying “I believe science will eventually find a way to overcome this limitation somehow” is also a philosophical claim that assumes many onological claims about the nature of reality (that it is ultimately comprehensible, for instance).


Because they do not come from a place/location or other.

…“where did law of physics come from?” is a moot{ invalid } question. I.e. there is no answer to a question that is irrational at, or from, the get go.


You are basically “answering” the question by dismissing it. That is not what Weinberg does as far as I am aware, he just claims that God also don’t answer that.

(Jon Garvey) #106

My point exactly. And therein they differ from the greats I mentioned who actually shifted the ground of science, rather than filling in data points. These people realised that science is applied philosophy.

Richard Feynman _didn’t_ say: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

But I do say that although there are undoubtedly scientists who regard philosophy as so much woo, there are also undoudetly preachers who regard theology as hifalutin’ college talk.


I think all scientists, atheists and theists alike, would agree that we currently can’t explain where the laws of physics came from. However, I haven’t seen, read, or heard anything by Weinberg that says the answer can never be found. In fact, he seems to indicate just the opposite:

“Similarly, string theory, which predicts a multiverse, can’t be verified by detecting the other parts of the multiverse. But it might make other predictions that can be verified. For example, it may say that in all of the big bangs within the multiverse, certain things will always be true, and those things may be verifiable. It may say that certain symmetries will always be observed, or that they’ll always be broken according to a certain pattern that we can observe. If it made enough predictions like that, then we would say that string theory is correct. And if the theory predicted a multiverse, then we’d say that that’s correct too. You don’t have to verify every prediction to know that a theory is correct.”
Science’s Path From Myth to Multiverse

That’s not to say that I think everything Weinberg says is gospel. It certainly isn’t.


You mentioned mechanical philosophy and Newton earlier. We don’t celebrate Newton today because he adhered to a specific philosophy. We celebrate Newton because his theories were supported by data points. It isn’t the philosophy that matters, but the data that matters, at least in my estimation. Einstein’s ideas surroudning relativity was also a major changing point in physics, but again it was because the data supported his ideas, not because of a favored philosophy.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they regard philosophy as woo. Even Weinberg has some respect for the field. The point is that it really isn’t take into consideration.

(Jon Garvey) #109

Yet, curiously, Newton spent more time writing about philosophy, especially in challenging Descartes, than he did about science. And, not coincidentally, he subsequently changed the face of science for 300 years.

The fact we don’t celebrate his philosophy (or his even more voluminous theology, come to that) reveals more about us than it does about Newton and his discoveries.


That’s because we use his formulas all of the time, and not his philosophy. Principia is certainly a must read for those who are interested in the history of philosophy as it applies to science, but I don’t know of any physics class at any level that uses it. That’s not to downplay it since I think it is one of the most amazing things to come out of the 17th century.

Perhaps. There are many philosophical works that definitely deserve attention (e.g. Plato’s “Republic”), but they just seem to be an entity separate from the science.


I just don’t see how God “just makes more sense”. Even more to the point, don’t have faith in anything. Keep looking and keep asking questions. If you don’t know how something occurred, then you don’t know.


The hard part is determining what science can’t study. As a human endeavour, philosophy is certainly interesting and puts us in touch with what makes us human, but I don’t know how useful it is for determining how the universe works or where it came from. At least with science there is a possibility of actually doing something instead of ending on speculation.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #113

The claim that God created the universe is not an assertion. It is a fact based on philosophy, science, and theology. Until you take these rational disciplines seriously there is no way to rationally discuss this issue.


Now you have asserted that it is a fact based on philosophy, science, and theology without anything to support the assertion. I don’t think this is an improvement.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #115

The question which is important here is how to separate fact from speculation. That has been determined by the philosophy of science by saying that scientific fact must be testable scientifically, that is by experimentation or field studies and falsifiable.

That does not mean that things cannot be studied, but it does mean that they must be backed up by more than speculation and math. I read an article not long ago saying that before his death Stephen Hawking has prepared an experiment which he hoped would verify his theory about the beginning of the universe. I would have hoped that, if this were true we would have heard more about this project.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #116

Very good. And this is exactly the context in which I offered my standing observations. I’m glad you are sensitive to logical fallacies – I’m trying to help you identify one here which I think might be escaping you still. There is the sense of “you can’t do that” that I think you’re still stuck on here: the sense of “you shouldn’t do that” or “we will try to prevent you from doing that.” But the second sort that still seems to be in a surprisingly large blind spot of yours is the “I bet you can’t do that” – or the “I just dare you to try to do that.” Which may have nothing at all to do with impositions from philosophy or religion, but more likely is just an expression of incredulity. That it motivates others to actually do it is a great thing – (if the thing actually needed doing).

There was much low-hanging fruit of these last centuries for science / technology to pick from the “surely you can’t do this” tree. Enthusiasts may gush on to say that all the rest of the fruit can (at least in principle) be picked without remainder. I don’t see such a thing as remotely close to possible (gaps are getting bigger instead of smaller), but my belief there has nothing to do with discouraging the attempt. Consider it rather to be a motivating taunt: “I dare you.” And I will even be happy as a science teacher to help work against my own bet here.

Realistic acknowledgement of darkness should never be confused with a campaign to ban the manufacture of flashlights. Rather, it is a motivation for making more of them.


Read this transcript of the discussion between him and Polkinghorne:

While he definetely believes that science can come up with a theory of everything, he does admit that are question beyond the scope of science, and that even if we have this theory, people still may ask “but why is that theory true?”. The difference between him and Polkinghorne is mainly that he don’t see God as a an answer to this questions, but he definetely don’t dismiss them as incoherent.


I don’t think philosophy has that goal, just like a scientist can admit he was wrong about his theory when contrary evidence shows up, so does a philosopher.

(Randy) #119

But wasn’t Newton’s theology somewhat odd?

(Jon Garvey) #120

Yeah - he was an Arian (but notably theist as opposed to Leibniz’s deism). The point is that the science, as always, arose from the convictions, which were developed seriously and at length, informing the research and thereby breaking new ground.

I’m currently reading Heisenberg’s popular account of the development of quantum theory - on more than one occasion, he accounts for the probabilistic nature of quanta by reference to Aristotelian “potencies.” No doubt his familiarity with such a “mediaeval” idea fed into the Copenhagen Conference where the great minds hammered out what is not a scientific paradigm.

That doesn’t show that Aristotelianism is right - but it does show that good science does not arise purely from data, in an intellectual vacuum.