Laying Down the Law

Tue 18 Dec 2007 08:31 AM

The New York Times has just run a perverse item about the origin of laws of nature. The article is a muddle in more ways than I can count.

The author, Dennis Overbye, quotes some physicists as proposing that there might be some underlying random context in which the complex laws of nature evolved.* Overbye writes

I love this idea of intrinsic randomness much for the same reason that I love the idea of natural selection in biology, because it and only it ensures that every possibility will be tried, every circumstance tested, every niche inhabited, every escape hatch explored.
This is simply to misunderstand natural selection. There is no assurance that mutation will generate every permutation of traits. In fact, quite the opposite: Evolution is path dependent just because it isn't constantly trying out every possibility.

Throughout, the story presumes that laws of nature are claims that are true always and everywhere. This is what Nancy Cartwright dubs fundamentalism. It motivates wild metaphysical speculation, but why thinks it's true?

When I was an undergraduate, I majored in both philosophy and physics. It seemed to me that there were philosophers who took physics seriously and had clever things to say, but that most physicists who tried to do metaphysics did it poorly. And so I became a philosopher.**

* The evolution of law was proposed in the 19th century by C.S. Peirce. It was wacky then, and it's still wacky.

** To be fair, it is hard to know how much the physicists are responsible for the confusion in this article.