Friday, May 15, 2009

Law without Law: an introduction

Here is a thought for the day.

For 2500 years (if we go back to the Greeks) the ideal of science has been to decipher the timeless laws which govern the universe. These laws, embodied in mathematical form, are the skeleton on which the flesh of the world is thought to be hung. They are the guide, the constraint, perhaps even the cause for the world having its appearance and structure. They are eternal and changeless, existing "outside" the material universe. For some they are like thoughts in the mind of God.

What if this very old, very powerful idea turned out to be just a metaphysical stance? What if there was a very different way to think about the nature of physical law that placed them squarely within the embodied, evolving world?

It makes my head spin.

To be continued...


  1. I look forward to this one. I'm ruminating on the idea of how in reality, it's the invisible that gives form to the visible. For instance, without the 'invisible' embodied by an architect, a building would only remain a pile of bricks. Yet, if there weren't the visible to manifest the invisible, would the invisible matter? The two seem to be in a dialectic relationship.

    I'm also wondering about the relationship of an idea - a potent invisible- to information; and I'm wondering if information itself could be seen as an irreducible element of reality.

  2. Adam, good to see that you are busy flexing your insight. I just ordered your book. :-)

    The Platonic idea - though in some cases does devalue the material cosmos - does, I believe, birth a particular paradigm which allows us to elucidate the physical world via its ontological ground: Forms. Though the classical understand of Plato's Theory of Form speaks to a multitude of issues - as well as raises many others - it can, nevertheless, bring us to a place where we can perceive the physical world as 'ordered' and 'structured' by that which is metaphysical.

    The Aristotelian critique, however, is that it is nonsensical to speak solely from a rationalistic/metaphysical perspective without any empirical weight.

    There is something to be said about allowing the guiding laws of nature to be embedded in the physical world and perhaps extending beyond it...

  3. Well, this is very refreshing, I have to admit: A scientists conceding that scientific truths don't imply metaphysical ones.;-) Sometimes I think scientists (or at least science students at UR) forget that their claims about the natural world do not automatically provide sound arguments for metaphysical claims about it. Science in out world can only be done (without driving anyone insane) if we all implicitly agree to a certain metaphysical nature of our world. This thought actually is encouraging, it reveals that we cooperate much better than I think we realize.

  4. I would say that atheists necessarily have to believe this.
    You say
    "These laws, embodied in mathematical form, are the skeleton on which the flesh of the world is thought to be hung. They are the guide, the constraint, perhaps even the cause for the world having its appearance and structure. They are eternal and changeless, existing "outside" the material universe.". The existence of such laws pose a most severe challenge to the atheist rationale and I have yet to see an atheist answer that rises to this challenge. The amusing part is that any atheist answer is so highly conjectural that one must conclude that atheists too must resort to 'faith' as a basis for their beliefs :))

  5. @occasional reporter and Adam- During this intermission, I'd like to use this 'occasion' to bring up some issues about "faith" as you use it here in the manner that the world of science keeps using it to denote soft headedness. By not understanding the underlying dynamic that the word faith originally points to, we'll remain unnecessarily confused about the relation of faith to reason.

    Though it involves 'thinking', faith doesn't describe a way of thinking. Rather, it describes a situation of 'acting' where the situation itself can't be construed in terms of certain or uncertain.

    For instance, in the late 1800's, Niagra Falls became a summertime tourist destination where tourists would congregate cliff-side around 4 o'clock and watch tight rope walkers perform. Imagine standing there watching one of these acrobats as he grabs a wheel borrow and rolling it to you he asks, "Sir, do you believe that I can roll this barrow across that wire"? Amazed by the feats you've already witnessed, you excitedly reply, "YES!" "Well, hop in then" he says with a daring tone.

    The question is, will you get in? It depends; how credible of an idea it is to you, that you will indeed make it across safely? If it is credible, you will have the faith to hop in for the ride; if you don't have the faith, then you are implying a lack of credibility in the venture. If you believed in the acrobat's skill, you'd hop in. In your expanse of this moment, you will engage all sorts of powers entailed in reason before you exercise your faith; faith requires credibility. If you believe that you're better off staying in the crowd, you'll stay. However, if you're up for some crowd adulation and you believe in, or have faith in the acrobat, you'll go.

    Notice how I used the words, faith and believe interchangeably according to the grammar of the sentence. Believe is the verb form, while faith is the noun form, that together, denote the human dynamic that arises from situations that can't be approached by the dynamic that we label with the word certainty. We can be certain about the situation of adding 2+2; but how can you be certain in situations that aren't like simple addition? like simply driving to the store and back?

    The ideas from which we are willing to organize our lives around, are the ideas that we believe in; we could also call these beliefs; we could call our core originating beliefs, our faith: Anyone, if they put any thought whatsoever into their personal way into this life is engaged in this world by faith. It is those who don't put critical thought into their way, who instead mumble along with the heard that don't have faith: the opposite of faith is something more like the dynamic of nihlism.

    Dawkins being a critical thinker of his way into the world, is rightly a man of faith: for him, the idea of god is not credible, so he stays out of that wheel barrow. The idea that is credible to him, and central enough to originate his life from- the wheel barrow that he can ultimately believe in- seems to be embodied by the Gene.

    Now Dawkins, might rebuff the idea that his book, The Selfish Gene, is his faith statement. He might argue that as a rationalist he operates from the dynamic of certainty: he could argue this if he were willing to reduce the scope of lived experience to that of adding numbers. Faith does not arise from religion: faith arises from our having neo-cortexes et al that give rise to human levels of consciousness.

    Faith understood properly is a good thing as it lets any situation remain true to itself and I can adjust my coherence according to my growing understanding, because unlike certainty, faith, which always involves trust and recognizes complexity beyond 2+2, is a flexible way into the world. Once a person is invested in a certainty, and utilizing it in a complex situation suited to faith, they'll find it difficult to let go of their form of understanding even when the situation requires a change.

    The irony that I'll finish with, is that Christians are very guilty of confusing certainty for faith, and doing so, they make god a trivial situation as well as make it personally difficult to change their ideas of god when reality warrants change.

    What do you guys think?

  6. @joesph, maya and occasional. OK so you guys lay out the poles of the dilemma. It always seemed to me that physics was the embodiment of the platonic ideal. These incredibly effective laws must exist somewhere "out there" timeless and eternal. But now I am not so sure... Where is the boundary between empiricism and metaphysical positioning in the domains of science?

  7. @gottschalk - thank you, that was a thought provoking way of putting describing it. Are you equating faith with a responce to situations where action, praxis, is required? Are you saying its not a matter of a desire for certainty but an attitude of commitment like Kirkegaard's leap of faith?

  8. @gottschalk - it seems you are saying that faith is the source we draw on in organizing our lifes. We create structures in our life around that which we beleive in be it a sense that the world is comprehensible or a sense that there is a ground of being that is more than can be explicated with reason and empirical investigation.

    Is meaningful then to talk about believers and non-believers. What seperates an atheist from one who chooses to follow a religious path that includes a description of deity?

  9. No matter how you look at it, this problem won't go away. If the laws are an eternal, unchanging framework for the universe then we have large metaphysical questions about their origin. If we postulate some way in which the framework of laws emerge or evolve you are still left with meta-laws that describe how they can emerge or evolve. Now we are back to metaphysical questions about the origin of the meta-laws.
    If we abandon our assumptions about unchanging laws or the 26 or so fixed constants of physics you must still answer questions about the laws that describe how they can change.
    The most surprising thing of all is the so far observed constancy of the laws of physics. Why should they be constant? Even on our small observation scale? If this was a truly random, purposeless universe I would expect to reflect this fact in its structure. This is the largest metaphysical question of all.
    Adam I can understand why you say it makes your head spin, mine does :)) Is it possible that these questions reveal the asymptotic limits to human knowledge and understanding? That we must admit we can go so far and no further but there is much more that we can never observe, not ever. Then we have found faith.
    That for me is faith. It is a path where reason has taken me until it reaches an abyss where reason can go no further except to say there is more that reason cannot reveal, merely point towards. Now my act of faith is to accept the guidance of reason, then release its hand and to commit my self to leaping across the abyss.

  10. Sorry, my last sentence was incomplete, here it is again:

    Now my act of faith is to accept the guidance of reason, then release its hand and to commit my self to leaping across the abyss, in the direction that reason was pointing.

  11. @Adam#1 Yes, and your use of action and praxis in this context helps flesh this out. As human being, in contrast to animal being, we have the capacity to act in a manner beyond satisfying urges; our ability to create a "now" makes a space for us to consider potential future "worlds" that are based on our choices now, AND, we can't be certain of that future world until we can look at it historically.

    For instance, when you go through the simple act of driving your car to the store, who's to say that you'll return home safely? In other words, how can you know with certainty that your world in an hour from now -now being the world you can know- won't be the world of an emergency room- a potential world that is impossible to know?

    If you want to act from a place of certainty, then the coherent thing to do would be to drive without wearing your seat belt. But now your coherence to an idea has made you incoherent to reality. Further, you have to do a mental gymnastic thing to quell the cognitive dissonance that you introduce to the situation.

    Faith as a means of entering into our future, which is an inherently unknown world, supports and allows for full subjective being as it's based on having to move into worlds that can't be known with certainty, only probability. So why do you go to the store? You size up the situation using your full range of human capacities, and believing in your abilities to drive, in your fellow drivers, civil engineers etc. etc. you hop in to get your bag of snacks. And you put your seat belt on, because you are free to be coherent to reality.

    This follows for praxis as well; we'll invent into reality that which we believe to be "right".

  12. @Adam#2 Yes, and I this is why I think it's important to rescue the word faith from its misuse by theists and atheists alike. If you've been to enough weddings, you'll have encountered the Biblical text about faith, hope and love. Considered in a religious context, these three are seen more like moral imperatives. I'm arguing that it's time to leave the religious context and operate from a full human context; when I do that, I see faith as a human need that is as strong as our needs for hope and love: needs that stem from the part of us that is best described in existential terms as opposed to moral or physical terms. (Existential here is used generically to denote a domain and not a philosophy).

    If faith is seen as an existential type of need, then we can ask a question like, what do we suffer when we're not believing in anything? I would argue that walking in the world by faith feels much more fulfilling than just going through the motions. I see faith as necessary to full and alive subjective being. I also think that the proper understanding of faith will be involved in our work of getting past our bottle neck.

    As to the believer/nonbeliever thing, I'll refer to your last vlog with Eliazer where you refered to yourself as a nonbeliever and ask, didn't you believe your arguments to be coherent? And didn't you believe that in comparison to Eliazars ideas, your ideas were more coherent than his? If you didn't believe this, you guys would have just had a delightful little chat fest. Instead you guys conducted a robust dialogue; you each believed differently about some aspects of reality, and at the same time, believed similarily when it came to an idea about god.
    A man of faith, gets on a vlog and argues his ideas and writes a book; if you didn't have this faith, you wouldn't. So, you strike me as a believer Adam, and a good one at that: primarily because, you leave room in your ideas for what you don't know; I don't see certainty as having this capability, unless you attach a rheostat function to it, but now you distort the meaning of certainty as certainty inherently operates more like an on/off switch: you're either certain or you're not.

    When it comes to distinguishing between theism and atheism, I think we first need to recognize the complexity inherent to the world views: While I'm not willing to see human being as the accidental pinnacle of intelligence in all the universe, I'm also not willing to consider god as another finite agent who acts in this world with a point punctiliar ability. So, am I more like a theist or an atheist?

  13. @occasional, I would further your thinking here by bringing in Adam's use of Mystery: When we truly encounter Mystery, we are indeed brought to the edge of an abyss that has no bottom. I think its the experience of Awe that sparks our faith to leap in spite of the terror we experience in truly looking into infinity.

    I know this leap first hand: that's why, when I encounter someone who easily believes in God, or someone like Eliazer, who refuses to consider Mystery as an ontological reality, I suspect that they have yet to stand at the abyss.

    I would add, that the rite of leaping into the abyss, requires our jumping in, and not just across.... ;)

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