What Are the Laws of Nature?

According to modern science, the universe is governed by laws, and it is the job of scientists to discover those laws. However, the question of where these laws come from, and what their precise nature is, remains mysterious.

If laws are all that are needed to explain the origins of the universe, the laws must somehow have existed prior to the universe, that is, eternally. But this raises some puzzling issues. Does it really make sense to think of the law of gravity as existing before the universe existed, before gravity itself existed, before planets, stars, space, and time existed?  Does it make sense to speak of the law of conservation of mass existing before mass existed? For that matter, does it make sense to speak of Mendel’s laws of genetics existing before there was DNA, before there were nucleotides to make up DNA, before there were even atoms of carbon and nitrogen to make up nucleotides? It took the universe 150 million years to 1 billion years to create the first heavy elements, including atoms of carbon and nitrogen. Were Mendel’s laws of genetics sitting around impatiently that whole time waiting for something to happen? Or does it make sense to think of laws evolving with the universe, in which case we still have a chicken-egg question — did evolving laws precede the creation of material forms or did evolving material forms precede the laws?

Furthermore, where do the laws of nature exist? Do they exist in some other-worldly Platonic realm beyond time and space? Many, if not most, mathematicians and physicists are inclined to believe that mathematical equations run the universe, and these equations exist objectively. But if laws/equations govern the operations of the universe, they must exist everywhere, even though we can’t sense them directly at all. Why? Because, according to Einstein, information cannot travel instantaneously across large distances – in fact, information cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Now, the radius of the universe is 46 billion light years, so if we imagine the laws of nature floating around in space at the center of the universe, it would take at least 46 billion years for the commands issued by the laws of nature to reach the edge of the universe — much too slow. Even within our tiny solar system, it takes a little over 8 minutes for light from the sun to reach the earth, so information flow across even that small distance would involve a significant time lag. However, our astronomical observations indicate no lag time — the effect of laws is instantaneous, indicating that the laws must exist everywhere — in other words, laws of nature have the property of omnipresence.

What sort of power do the laws of nature have? Since they direct the operations of the universe, they must have immense power. Either they have the capability to directly shape and move stars, planets, and entire galaxies, or they simply issue commands that stars, planets, and galaxies follow. In either case, should not this power be detectable as a form of energy? And if it is a form of energy, shouldn’t this energy have the potential to be converted into matter, according to the principle of mass-energy equivalence? In that case, the laws of nature should, in principle, be observable as energy or mass. But the laws of nature appear to have no detectable energy and no detectable mass.

Finally, there is the question of the fundamental unity of the laws of nature, and where that unity comes from. A mere collection of unconnected laws does not necessarily bring about order. Laws have to be integrated in a harmonic fashion so that they establish a foundation of order and allow the evolution of increasingly complex forms, from hydrogen atoms to heavier atomic elements to molecules to DNA to complex life forms to intelligent life forms. The fact of the matter is that it does not take much variation in the values of certain physical principles to cause a collapse of the universe or the development of a universe that is incapable of supporting life. According to physicist Paul Davies:

There are endless ways in which the universe might have been totally chaotic. It might have had no laws at all, or merely an incoherent jumble of laws that caused matter to behave in disorderly or unstable ways. . . . the various force of nature are not just a haphazard conjunction of disparate influences. They dovetail together in a mutually supportive way which bestows upon nature  stability and harmony. . .  (The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World, pp. 195-96)

There is a counterargument to this claim of essential unity in the laws of nature: according to theories of the multiverse, new universes are constantly being created with different physical laws and parameters — we just happen to live in a universe that supports life because only a universe that supports life can have observers who speculate about the orderliness of the universe! However, multiverse theories have been widely criticized for being non-falsifiable, since we can’t directly observe other universes.

So, if we are the believe the findings of modern science, the laws of nature have the following characteristics:

  1. They have existed eternally, prior to everything.
  2. They are omnipresent – they exist everywhere.
  3. They are extremely powerful, though they have no energy and no mass.
  4. They are unified and integrated in such a way as to allow the development of complex forms, such as life (at least in this universe, the only universe we can directly observe).

Are these not the characteristics of a universal spirit? Moreover, is not this spirit by definition supernatural, i.e., existing above nature and responsible for the operations of nature?

Please note that I am not arguing here that the laws of nature prove the existence of a personal God who is able to shape, reshape, and interfere with the laws of nature anytime He wishes. I think that modern science has more than adequately demonstrated that the idea of a personal being who listens to our prayers and temporarily suspends or adjusts the laws of nature in response to our prayers or sins is largely incompatible with the evidence we have accumulated over hundreds of years. Earthquakes happen because of shifting tectonic plates, not because certain cities have committed great evils. Disease happens because viruses and bacteria mutate, reproduce, and spread, not because certain people deserve disease. And despite the legend of Moses saving the Jews by parting the Red Sea and then destroying the Pharaoh’s army, God did not send a tsunami to wipe out the Nazis — the armies of the Allied Forces had to do that.

What I am arguing is that if you look closely at what modern science claims about the laws of nature, there is not much that separates these laws from the concept of a universal spirit, even if this spirit is not equivalent to an omnipotent, personal God.

The chief objection to the idea of the laws of nature as a universal spirit is that the laws of nature have the characteristics of mindless regularity and determinism, which are not the characteristics we think of when we think of a spirit. But consider this: the laws of nature do not in fact dictate invariable regularities in all domains, but in fact allow scope for indeterminacy, freedom, and creativity.

Consider activity at the subatomic level. Scientists have studied the behavior of subatomic particles for many decades, and they have discovered laws of behavior for those particles, but the laws are probabilistic, not deterministic. Physicist Richard Feynman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on the physics of subatomic particles, described the odd world of subatomic behavior as follows: “The electron does whatever it likes.” It travels through space and time in all possible ways, and can even travel backward in time! Feynman was able to offer guidance on how to predict the future location of an electron, but only in terms of a probability based on calculating all the possible paths that the electron could choose.

This freedom on the subatomic level manifests itself in behavior on the atomic level, particularly in the element known as carbon. As Robert Pirsig notes:

One physical characteristic that makes carbon unique is that it is the lightest and most active of the group IV atoms whose chemical bonding characteristics are ambiguous. Usually the positively valanced metals in groups I through III combine chemically with negatively valanced nonmetals in groups V through VII and not with other members of their own group. But the group containing carbon is halfway between the metals and nonmetals, so that sometimes carbon combines with metals and sometimes with nonmetals and sometimes it just sits there and doesn’t combine with anything, and sometimes it combines with itself in long chains and branched trees and rings. . . . this ambiguity of carbon’s bonding preferences was the situation the weak Dynamic subatomic forces needed. Carbon bonding was a balanced mechanism they could take over. It was a vehicle they could steer to all sorts of freedom by selecting first one bonding preference and then another in an almost unlimited variety of ways. . . . Today there are more than two million known compounds of carbon, roughly twenty times as many as all the other known chemical compounds in the world. The chemistry of life is the chemistry of carbon. What distinguishes all the species of plants and animals is, in the final analysis, differences in the way carbon atoms choose to bond. (Lila, p. 168.)

And the life forms constructed by carbon atoms have the most freedom of all — which is why there are few invariable laws in biology that allow predictions as accurate as the predictions of physical systems. A biologist will never be able to predict the motion and destiny of a life form in the same way an astrophysicist can predict the motion of the planets in a solar system.

If you think about the nature of the universal order, regularity and determinism is precisely what is needed on the largest scale (stars, planets, and galaxies), with spontaneity and freedom restricted to the smaller scale of the subatomic/atomic and biological. If stars and planets were as variable and unpredictable as subatomic particles and life forms, there would be no stable solar systems, and no way for life to develop. Regularity and determinism on the large scale provides the stable foundation and firm boundaries needed for freedom, variety, and experimentation on the small scale. In this conception, universal spirit contains the laws of nature, but also has a freedom that goes beyond the laws.

However, it should be noted that there is another view of the laws of nature. In this view, the laws of nature do not have any existence outside of the human mind — they are simply approximate models of the cosmic order that human minds create to understand that order. This view will be discussed in a subsequent post.

2 thoughts on “What Are the Laws of Nature?

  1. Pingback: What Are the Laws of Nature? – Part Two | Mythos/Logos

  2. Pingback: What Does Science Explain? Part 5 – The Ghostly Forms of Physics | Mythos/Logos

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