Other than solipsists and those of us in a persistent vegetative state, most of us have noticed that there is a reality, called nature, independent of our human experiences. We've also noticed that there are certain regularities in nature, meaning that there are certain propositions about nature that are always true, in all times and places, regardless of our beliefs or knowledge.

For example, even if no one bothered to notice, the speed of light in a vacuum would still be 299,792,458 meters per second. These are what we call the laws of nature or physical laws (when describing relationships, or physical constants when describing values). They are the real facts about the universe that all of our scientific models are based on. Physical laws are contingent, factual truths (not logical truths), they are true in all times and places in the universe, they contain no proper names and are universal statements. It is these regularities that can be used to make predictions about our world and what form the foundation of all scientific knowledge.

For the inquisitive mind, the next natural question is, “why do these regularities appear?” This is where we can get into trouble if we aren’t careful to only make claims that can be backed up empirically. If we let our imaginations run wild we might come up with the idea of physical necessity, the idea that there is something that controls the speed of light, something that forces it into obeying the “law”. After all, there has to be some reason it’s always that way.

This view, instead of the laws taking their truth from reality, has the laws dictating the truth to reality. If you’re nodding your head in agreement right now it’s because you’ve always stopped this far and went no further. The next question you should ask is the very same question as before, “why do these laws that govern regularities appear?” The typical response is “that’s just the way it is”.

Everyone can agree that all explanations must come to an end at some point. The problem then is that this idea of physical necessity takes the end one step out of reach. Instead of just saying “the speed of light in a vacuum is 299,792,458 meters per second and that’s just the way it is” you’re saying that there is a “law” or some hidden cause with no empirical evidence of its existence that “somehow” controls or governs the speed of light and “that’s just the way it is”.

The entire goal of science is to cut out superfluous explanations. As “luminiferous aether” was rejected, as “phlogiston” was rejected and as “vitalism” was rejected; so too should the superfluous and unempirical idea of “physical necessity” be rejected. When Laplace said, regarding God, that “I have no need of such a hypothesis”, I too can say the same for physical necessity.

“To abandon necessitarianism means to elevate – and to live with – contingency: the world does not have to be the way it is; it just is. The charge on the electron does not have to be –1.6 × 10–19 coulombs; it just is. Light does not have to have a constant, finite, velocity; it just does. To invoke [physical] necessities to 'account' for such constancies (order, etc.) is to engage in explanatory hand-waving. Is it really any more informative to be told that light has a constant velocity because there is a law of nature to that effect than to be told that opium is sleep-inducing because it has a 'dormative power'? The form of an explanation has been given, but the content is chimerical.

There is orderliness in nature. That's the way nature is. There are no secret, sublime, mystical laws forcing nature to be that way. Or at least, there is no good rational reason to believe that there are such queer entities. Physical laws are descriptions, they neither are, nor function like, prescriptions.” Laws of Nature – Essays on the Philosophical, Scientific and Historical Dimensions, pp. 67-91

The idea behind there being some sort of magical universe cop making up laws and enforcing them can obviously be traced back to its theistic roots but our demand for explanation is guilty for perpetuating this myth of physical “laws” that govern us. We need to remember that all explanations must stop at some point and we should make sure they stop before they cross the line into unempirical metaphysical claims if we wish to remain scientific. The physical laws aren’t really laws. They don’t control or govern anything. They are merely true descriptions of whatever happens in the universe.

Some will still want to claim that these regularities are too large to simply be coincidences, that there has to be some reason that forces the universe to be the way that it is. Unfortunately such claims will always be beyond the realm of science. As far as science is concerned, the laws of nature are just a description and a description has never forced anyone to do anything.

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Comment by Jack Slattery on January 13, 2009 at 9:46pm
Good job.
Comment by Clarence Dember on January 11, 2009 at 12:52am
May I play Devil's advocate?
"As far as science is concerned, the laws of nature are just a description and a description has never forced anyone to do anything." So did you mean
Homeostasis of the body is just a description and has never forced me to breathe when I was unconscious?
Well, ok. I'm addicted to breathing then.
If I turn myself over to the faith based dogma person may be he or she can help me break the habit sooner?
Comment by Michael S on January 11, 2009 at 12:00am
I suppose I sort of threw out some excess baggage. One man is not outside nature but pretty much smack dab in the middle of it. We are but the only ones that bother to have a collective means to describe it in the mist of crude terms.

Why is there a reason it is humanity excuse to place anything in a container and say I know this is what it is..to boast to others see I know and or solved a problem. Reason is of self now art on the other hand is purely selfish truth exposed.

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