Friday, July 6, 2018

Laws of nature at Fermilab

Recently I spent a day at Fermilab and gave a talk on the topic ”What is a Law of Nature?”  I had a wonderful time and thank the kind folks at Fermilab for their hospitality.  You can now watch the video of the talk at the Fermilab website.  Abstract of the lecture here.  The handout to which I refer in the course of the lecture can be found here.

Links to video of other public lectures and the like can be found at my main website.


  1. Just tried it out with Mozilla and works fine.

  2. Interesting and well presented.
    I question the NEW ATHESIST 'scientists" you listed really are the top scientists. they gain audiences for advocacy reasons but what have they patented in science. Indeed what did Hawkings ever discover/create worthy to be remembered a decade from now? Nothing i say!
    What do the REAL scientists, ones who did things of note and to be mentioned on future lists, think about these things.
    Just a small point.

    I think laws was a word selected to imply a LAWgiver. God!
    What they really are is CONCLUSIONS in the universe. Final results in how things work. Ceiling and floor in a very fixed place.
    It does so imply a creators final product/conclusions that to imagine "laws" evolved/evolving is unreasonable and extreme.
    It all demands to intelligent people a intelligent creator with a intelligent construction that works on its own.

    1. "Indeed what did Hawkings ever discover/create worthy to be remembered a decade from now? Nothing i say!"

      Starting from the singularity theorems, to black hole theormodynamics and Beckenstein-Hawking radiation -- just to give a few examples. Even when his theories did not pan out, they make up, at least in most cases, what can be called illuminating and instructive errors.

      The claim that Hawking discovered nothing worthy of remembering is a decade is so preposterous and absurd that the only possible conclusion is -- and I am sorry if this is harsh, but them's the breaks -- you know absolutely nothing of physics and should probably remain quiet instead of mouthing off foolishly.

    2. I know two scientists personally, one physicist and one biologist. The physicist makes extremely good money and is well respected in his domain. Behind closed doors, he is up to his neck in occultism. From divination to spell casting to energy healing, this dude is the furthest thing possible from a materialist. Similar story with the biologist, who recently became a Hare Krishna. Both tell me that I shouldn't even pay attention to materialism.

    3. I disagree with your definition of real scientists. Sometimes, a scientist will find major discoveries by just getting lucky, like the two guys who found the cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang.

    4. grodrigues.
      I have watched youtube doc on hawkings and wiki.
      I still fail to see what he accomplished relative to the status he was presented to theb public.
      your list is trivial details and possibly, you suggest, not true.
      I don't agree error counts as accomplishment in science. Yes wrong ideas can help but then that list of ERROR ,akers would be a great list and itself question why Hawkings mattered.
      Black holes anatomy is speculative and surely not something that will be remembered.
      The public could tell you they know Hawkings but not what he discovered/created.
      Well ar you insusting ten years from now his theroms/black hole stuff will be on a list of science discoveries from the decades he lived in??
      Him and the others that the host listed I question contributed much relative to real contributors who are remembered later.
      I say they won't be on a list as one finds now for century/nation/subject .
      I might be wrong but not ignorant.
      Name your favorite and pledge this will be remembered for Hawkings.

    5. jay-dog
      I agree. A "scientist" , to me a thinking person about some subject touching on the natural world, is only someone who actually thinks.
      So getting lucky doesn't count. The guy who invented microwave ovens also bumped into it.
      anyways my minor point was how the a list of scientists is brought up that really are people who gained audiences but didn't actually do great, or good, accomplishments in science. Or any! So why ask them about science and religion or anything.
      Who is FAMOUS as scientists is different from who should be!

    6. @Robert Byers:

      "I still fail to see what he accomplished relative to the status he was presented to theb public."

      Since it is quite obvious that you know nothing about physics what exactly is the relevance of what you see or do not see? You cannot expect that your ignorant opinion has any value. Or are you so arrogantly dense that you do?

      "Black holes anatomy is speculative and surely not something that will be remembered."

      I did not speak of "Black holes anatomy" but of black hole thermodynamics. Yes, Black holes anatomy is so speculative that it does not even exist, and what has never existed cannot be remembered. Or may be you have in mind anal anatomy and diseases like hemhorroids. As far as I know Hawkings never wrote anything about the subject or suffered from it, I do not remember -- so I suppose you may have a point after all -- and to be quite honest, wouldn't want to.

      There is nothing speculative about black holes; it is a necessary consequence of a common physical scenario in GR. It is the virtual consensus of the physics community that they exist, along with considerable empirical evidence for them.

      "Name your favorite and pledge this will be remembered for Hawkings."

      The singularity theorems are from the 1960's, they are still remembered today as they are very important results in GR. So this means that they have withstood the test of time for about 50 years, that is 5 times more than you asked for. The work on black hole thermodynamics and Beckenstein-Hawking radiation is from the 70's and are among the top theoretical discoveries of the last 40 years. So they have remained about 40 years in physicist's minds, four times more than you asked. And of course, to see the truth of this, one only has to consult the list of prizes and citations given to Hawking by his peers, the experts of the relevant fields, throughout their whole history past and present, which ultimately is the only real gauge of the worth of a man's scholarly pursuits, not what some random ignorant jackass mouthing off on the internet thinks.

      But I can already see that this is all completely pointless (two responses were enough: I am getting good at spotting them). You made your prophecy (did you haruspicate the tea leaves at the end of a tea cup? divined the entrails of a dead bird?) and that is it.

    7. Theist and Science FanJuly 9, 2018 at 8:19 AM

      Hawking did contribute to taking seriously something implied by GR.

      Dr. Hawking was a rubbish philosopher of science and religion. It wasn't his field, physics was.

    8. grodridgues
      Well you make my point. Thats what i read on wiki on Hawkings.
      Again these are trivial details in these obscure points in a subject of physics.
      the public could never quote these and rightly so. The media never mentioned it when talking about him.
      black holes are a minor deatail in space/physics stuff.
      if this is notable then thousands of people in physics would be notable.
      They are not.They were not raised to the level Hawkings was.
      As to the stuff from the 70's. AGAIN big deal. whoever heard of these things/ tHey are chump change.
      Relative to the great field of physics and famous scientists in it this does not qualify .
      I predict Hawkings will not be remembered beyond careful lists in physic circles. lists that would include thousands of people.
      for example. i never watched the STAR TREK, recent series. yet once passing i saw three people on a program of it. einstein, newton, Hawkings.
      That means they were equation some time machine story, Hawkings with the real, famous science discoveries of the other two.
      Why? i ask on behalf of the people.?
      Holes and radiation???
      There is a hole in your claims and your favorite accomplishments of him radiates very little.
      i respected Hawkings as a man conquering a disability and living well despite it.
      MY HYPOTHESIS of why he was famous WAS that because physics was famous, upon his entry in the 60's, THEY wanted someone to carry the prestige forward. So a media etc etc imagined that because he was well known in physic circles tHEREFORE he had contributed a great deal.
      Yet in fact he had not and nobody did.
      Physics never moved much after the 60's, or earlier relative to the time before.

      you make my case.
      Your list of his "patents' is poor and irrelevant RELATIVE to the prestige he was held in for science.
      I see lots of this.
      I am open to worthy deeds from him but you failed to persuade despite your wrath.

      i think millions, who knew him from the SIMPSONS, other tv shows, would wonder, when he died, WHAT DID HE DO to justify his high standing in famous scientists??

  3. I have to try to be polite. But Ed must have found the interruptions from the 'not a question but a comment' guy annoying as hell. Ok, ok you want to respond but let me finish my thought!

    1. He could have at least used the mic if he was going to constantly interrupt.

  4. Two papers of interest in this context

    1. Could you, or anyone, present the argument for laws of nature being ceteris paribus? It's a very common position esp. today and I don't really doubt it, but would like a summary before reading all those Cartwright works

  5. For those with playback problems, you can download the MP4 from here:

    1. Good find, thanks! Downloading 1.14 Feserbytes.

  6. I don't understand the mixing of the forms of Plato with laws. The "Forms" Plato is describing is the idea of "universals". If Prof. Feser alludes to Plato's Republic, why doesn't he mention Righteousness, (Δικαίος is a Natural Law. Plato, Rep. §433; Aristotle Pol. 3; Cicero, Resp. 233) a Law of Nature, that says, "All things are created to do one thing". Look at the five senses, smell, touch, sight, hearing, taste. They are all ensconced in their own individual organ. My feet are designed to do one thing, walk on them. I am wondering why the Law of righteousness, dikaios, (there are many meanings to that term in Greek but in Plato's Republic, is the sense of "all things are created to do one thing".) The Sun exhibits righteousness. It is also the "division of function". Females only bear children--not males; that is the law of righteousness. The division of function. The Law of Righteousness repeats thru the cosmos. If it repeats---Repetition is a characteristic of law. All things in the cosmos obey that dictum. Even man with his tools. All the tools of man exhibit righteousness---they are all constructed to do one thing. Plato is talking about Metaphysical laws of nature---not the physical laws found much later by Descartes, Hume and others.

    1. McTaggart also mentioned the difference between universals and laws of nature--related but not exactly the same concept.

  7. At some point you have to abandon the "principle of sufficient reason", unless "because" (or, the theological equivalent "God did it") is a sufficient reason.

    And there are at least two reasons for this. The first comes from science. John Conway's Free Will Theorem" proves that if man can freely choose what quantum observable to measure, then that quantum observable can take on a random value that is not based on any history whatsoever. It just happens "because".

    The other reason comes from Christian tradition. "... the secret things belong to the Lord our God". Being secret, they are inaccessible to reason. Otherwise, they wouldn't be secret.

    1. 1- sufficient reason does not mean entailing/necessitating reason.

      2- "the secret things belong to the Lord our God", then God knows the reasons. PSR does not state that humans can know the explanation for every fact, only that every contingent fact has an explanation.

  8. Nice talk but you don't discuss an important view of laws according to which the notion of law of nature is primitive and irreducible. I haven't read much on this but this view is advocated by some important philosophers like Marc Lange , Time Maudlin etc so few words on this would be appreciated.

    And also I don't think Sean Carroll is the recommended(although important) proponent of regularity view, is it because you were trying to engage with scientists only?

    1. @Red It seems to me that claiming that laws are primitive and irreducible would be a spin on the Platonic Form Theory, in which case they are either a primitive irreducible entity caused by God (theological option 1), with no cause (regularity option 2), or are caused by the essences of the substance’s themselves (in which case they aren’t primitive).

  9. I think that Hawking did contribute a lot to the "Black Holes have hair" idea of Beckstein.

  10. The fellow who was arguing from across the right side of room (camera perspective) and denying that he needed to be concerned with the principle of sufficient reason, was an excellent example of the mindset of some who appear here to argue, when all is said and done, 2 basic things:

    1. "I'm fine with that" i.e., the consequences of brute facts, because I don't care about that, and I get what I want out of the enterprise regardless.

    2. Don't call me an instrumentalist, don't call me a pragmatist, and don't insult Jerry Coyne ... because ... well just because.

    1. They have no interest in rational enquiry, only what they can get out of something while clinging to Science.

      Best part was when he made the discussion about him XD. "I respect some instrumentalists..."

      No one cares dude 9_9!

    2. My thoughts exactly. That guy was really annoying. People who dismiss the PSR fail to realize that, ipso facto, we can dismiss whatever they say, without argument.

    3. Its funny that in a field that purports to be so demanding with regard to evidence, one can hear comments such as these which seem to imply that such fundamental issues are simply a matter of personal preference.

      I've noticed this in discussions with some people. When you get to very basic first principles, they seem to be resigned to a kind of relativistic arbitrariness. Its almost like they don't want to believe that their first principles can be open to criticism, analysis, or even that any other first principles can even exist. It is at that very philosophical / metaphysical point that discussion tends to grind to a halt. Perhaps because people are not used to thinking at that level.

      Maybe I'm expecting too much from people. Because thinking at that level can be fundamentally threatening to one's world view, I suppose. Or perhaps admitting that PSR might be necessary to make rational sense of the universe gives too much power and credit to a field outside of one's realm of competence. What field wants to be the handmaid to philosophy. Shouldn't all fields have physics envy? :)

    4. "Its almost like they don't want to believe that their first principles can be open to criticism, analysis, or ..."

      or ... that these principles apply to them.

      "No men have souls!" he says.

      "You are a man, therefore you are soulless" I say.

      "How dare you dehumanize me!" He replies.

      "The world is meaningless" he says.

      "As you are a part of the world, it follows that you are ..." I reply.

      "You are a sociopath!", he screams.

      "Under your system of analysis, sociopathy cannot carry the objective moral freight or implications you wish to impute to the label." I observe.

      "Did I say you are not welcome here?!?" he shouts. "You are not welcome here!", he screeches, as if he expects this utterance to deliver some kind of psychological or moral impact.

      And so it goes ...

    5. LOL - too true. :)

      I've been reading Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, and he has been making similar point with regard to various moral hot button issues. You get to a point in discussions / debates where people's primary assumptions are laid bare, and often times people haven't even arrived by their assumptions in a systematic fashion. So when these assumptions get challenged and shown to be incoherent, then tend to get shrill.

      That is not to say that everyone is like that. But for common folks (and I have to be honest, I am certainly one of them) it is unpleasant to be challenged at this level - because the implications of changing one's mind here have consequences to one's entire world view. More often than not, the knee jerk reaction is to get angry and dismiss the other side as cranks, bigots, socialists, alt-right, and so on. Wave the magic pejorative wand, and your discomfort vanishes.

  11. I would counter Dr. Feser’s final comment when saying that philosophy doesn’t have a practical technological aspect. I would argue that science has been slowed many times because people have clung to a particular view of philosophy of nature. For example, quantum mechanics did not jive well with the accepted Cartesian philosophy that is very limiting on the potencies of substances. The Aristotelian worldview allows for a much greater realm of possibilities and this keeps scientists more open-minded. Furthermore, it is the only philosophy of nature that cannot be easily done from the armchair. The theological view easily leads to God-of-the-Gaps explanations while the regularity view doesn’t even bother with trying to give an explanation. With the Aristotelian view, one can endlessly search for more subtle and intricate causal powers, and because of its middle-grounded approach, it is not easily falsified by a single example. So the Aristotelian could learn that the impetus hypothesis is mistaken and then begin to look for an alternate explanation instead of merely shrugging his shoulders or desperately clinging to a dead theory in the hopes that maybe it can be salvaged without killing his philosophical assumptions.

  12. If, though, the only rational response to one who denies the law of non-contradiction is a stick, the only response to someone who thinks a man can be a woman, or that two males can marry each other is, "You only think that because you are a moron."

  13. Although the exchange that occurred near the end of the Q&A was frustrating, I do think it highlighted an area where this talk could've been improved.

    One of the criticisms of the regularity view given in the talk was that it's typically combined with a rejection of PSR a la Carroll; however, one cannot reject PSR without also undermining the epistemological foundations of empirical inquiry, following Pruss and Koons. While I think this latter point is correct, I don't think it's the case that a regularity view of laws must also involve a commitment to brute facts. In theory (at least) one could say that laws of nature merely describe the regularities that exist in the world, while remaining agnostic about whether such regularities can be explained in some deeper sense. The real problem with the regularity view for its proponents, I think, is that it lacks the metaphysical resources needed to overcome Hume's problem of induction, as this view does not admit the Aristotelian insight that the regularities we observe tell us something intrinsic to the objects of our inquiry (if it did, then there would be no point in distinguishing it from the Aristotelian view in the first place). Proponents of the regularity view are stuck saying that sciences like physics and chemistry are in the business of uncovering law-like regularities despite the fact that such regularities cannot be inductively established in the technical sense. Even the pragmatist who thinks that our science is nothing more than the uncovering of regularities that help us build smartphones has to worry whether our sciences are rationally justified in inferring such regularities.

  14. This really is a terrific exposition for a layman like me. Thanks Prof Feser