Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Nature makes sense to whom?

"[T]he concept of a law of Nature cannot be made sense of without God. … Laws of Nature are prescriptive, not merely descriptive, and – even stronger – they are supposed to be responsible for what occurs in Nature. … Aristotleanism, can offer a stand-in for laws – natural powers – that satisfies the major requirements on laws without the need to call on God.4 For those who cannot abide powers, I think there are no options left. Without God there cannot be laws of Nature, nor anything else with their crucial characteristics."

This statement is made by a major philosopher of science, Nancy Cartwright. Cartwright prefers to replace the more abstract concept of "natural laws" with the more concrete concept of natural dispositions had by physical entities. Interestingly, she favors the dispositional account of natural order as an explicit return to Aristotelian metaphysics. Dispositions, or "powers" (as the late George Molnar called them), are but Aristotelian final causes warmed over.

Recently, Edward Feser (pronounced "fayzer") posted a description of Baruch Spinoza's rejection of final causes, and noted that natural teleology need not be wedded to theism, since Aristotle himself asserted the existence of natural finality without reference to God (or his "Unmoved Mover") as their explicit source. Nevertheless, admitting final causes back into exact science is a huge step forward in wisdom––ironically enough, by being a big step backwards in time.

The question that has been on my mind is this: To whom do the most fundamental properties of the cosmos make sense?

The goal, and boast, of modern exact science has been progressively to strip away layer after layer of "common sense" about nature in order to reach the most basic truths about the natural world. Its goal and boast have been continuously to reduce one level of phenomena to a more basic, and again more basic, level of physical order. The higher levels, thus, only make sense by virtue of being understood in terms of, and with relation to, the lower natural order. Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that humans at some point reach the most basic natural order possible: we really hit pay dirt, our shovel strikes the foundation, and we see the pristine rudiments of nature, presumably all based on one simple natural process or system or dynamic. At that point, I wonder, how can we account for the most basic system being anything other than a law that controls all higher levels of being and change? If there is one fundamental law of nature from which all higher laws derive, to whom does it make sense? I am having trouble expressing my thought, I apologize, but this is because it is more of an intuition at present than a cogent argument.

Perhaps I should go for broke and say the point is simply this: Insofar as a most-basic law serves as an explanation of higher orders of nature only if it is 1) conceptually coherent as one formal truth and 2) if it illuminates the relation between itself and all subsequent, derivative structures in nature, then who or what has been doing the "coherence recognition" in 1) and the synthetic elaboration in 2)? Since the most basic law is a pristine predictor for all subsequent, derivative systems/events in nature, it would have to be grasped at once, intellectually, in conjunction with those chronologically later developments that just are the entailments of that law. Knowing the most basic law, in other words, just means knowing its exact entailments down the spacetime line. But what sort of mind could really do that, if not God Himself? The most-basic law that we will, ex hypothesi, discover had to have been "making sense" to someone prior to our knowledge of it, otherwise it would not be a prescriptive, law-like facet of nature. If extreme reductionism is determined to find a single most-basic law (or a small cluster of coordinate laws), reductionism seems bound to rediscover the Lawgiver.

Let me close with the reminder that I deny the cogency of my hypothesis about finding the most basic law(s) of nature, for two reasons: first, the nature of science would always render an alleged "final solution" a mere discovery away from falsifiability, and, second, Gödel's incompleteness theorems, as the late Stanley Jaki and Roger Penrose have argued in numerous places, vitiate the hopes of ever finding a formally deductive, and necessarily complete set of formalized laws. In other words, nature will never make sense to us with air-tight logical precision. We will always have to believe there is or are some most-basic law or laws of nature, without ever hoping to know it deductively, and then attribute its coherence to the vision of a higher mind, also known as God.


e. said...

"The goal, and boast, of modern exact science has been progressively to strip away layer after layer of "common sense" about nature in order to reach the most basic truths about the natural world. Its goal and boast have been continuously to reduce one level of phenomena to a more basic, and again more basic, level of physical order."

Isn't that the point of Ockham's Razor, on which Modern Science itself is fundamentally based?

That is, to strip down to the barest essentials and not multiply hypothesis without necessity?

This kind of reductionism is unavoidable but even a 'must' in the sciences.

I could be wrong, but perhaps it is this very reductionism that, quite ironically, Nietzsche himself had expressed such vehement displeasure at, appreciably recognizing the kind of harm to the individual that ultimately results from such an atrocious 'dissection' of life and noting the excruciatingly sterile confines and draconian rigidity of science, which Nietzsche found quite repugnant and utterly unacceptable.

Crude said...

One problem with that point of view is that Modern Science also is not fundamentally based on "truth", but pragmatism. Ockham didn't argue that the simplest explanation was the one most likely to be true, but the one most likely to be simple - and simplicity is valuable because of its pragmatism. If two methods return the same results reliably, but one is vastly easier to perform, then that's the one you use.

On the other hand, many times this struggle to include as few entities as possible (or, more specifically, to desperately keep certain particular entities from entering the picture) ends up yielding an incomplete or awkward result of our investigation. And of course, the modern trend seems to be away from reductionism in general.