Musings on laws of nature

I am always puzzled by philosophical talk of laws of nature. The terms “law”, “govern”, and so forth amount to an extended metaphor drawn from human affairs, and thoroughly unnatural ones at that. It is a recurrent philosophical mistake to suppose that the most fundamental thing about the universe can only be treated with philosophical precision through a human metaphor. Without “laws”, and the corresponding but evidently false idea that it is possible to break them, contemporary metaphysics would look quite different. If you ask a philosopher whether it is possible to walk through a wall, she will say “Yes”, because only the laws “prohibit” it – even though everyone knows you can’t walk through a wall.

4 thoughts on “Musings on laws of nature

  1. Personally I would replace talk of “laws of nature” with talk of the personal rule of the Triune God. Laws of nature sound kind of divine anyway, in the sense that they are omnipresent and apparently have existence “a se”. What would you replace them with? Presumably you want to affirm the idea of some kind of order in the universe?


    • Hi Tom – the objection I make here would apply equally to the personal rule of a divine being. The point is that we can’t disobey, and so the analogy with human rule is misleading. Maybe it has also been misleading in theology; I think it has in philosophy. As for what to call order instead of “law of nature”, I’m really not sure; some philosophers have experimented with “powers” but that notion suffers from the same anthropomorphism that bothers me about laws. We could do with a neutral phrase along the lines of “the way things work” – e.g. “the way things work regarding universal gravitation”. But I admit that is not terribly catchy.


  2. I think there’s a serious confusion between the things that obey certain rules and the properties of the things. For example, we say matters obey the laws of gravitation, but in fact what we can equally say is that matters have a certain property of being attracted to each other in a specific way, and we call that specific way law of gravitation. You are right that “law of nature” sounds tyrannical and monotheistic, it’s time to distribute that power into each natural entity, and democratize the way we perceive the natural world.


  3. Alex, aren’t you assuming that (a) there’s a clear notion of law as prescriptive rule, and (b) that talk of laws of nature is an extension of this? It’s not obvious to me that either are true. Maybe the notion of being regular, or orderly, is in some sense primary, and then the social notion of being regulated (governed by laws) is partly derivative? Apparently the English word ‘law’ comes from a root meaning something like ‘fixed down’. I don’t know about the Latin ‘Regula’.

    Nagel has a nice extended discussion of the idea of a law in ‘The Structure of Science’. I’d quote from it, but my copy is at home and I’m commenting from my office.


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