The Laws of Physics and the Description of Nature

Historians who examine the past may argue that they are trying to describe history in the best objective manner they can. Thinking about historical books as an objective description of human history might cause us to feel uncomfortable and to wonder if human history is the same as the history of natural phenomena. Furthermore, we know that different people hold different world views, different values or in short a different perspective on things. An historical answer to a question like “What was the cause of the war or how the war could have been prevented?” also depends on the ideological world view of the historian we choose to trust.

Since humans are not natural phenomena or automatic machines it is more difficult to describe the real causes of poverty, wars, nationalism, communism etc. It seems we can never describe someone’s acts and at the same time to leave our ideological world view behind. But is it the same when we deal with sciences such as physics or even mathematics? Can we say that the laws of physics are a depiction of nature? Furthermore, how can we be sure that there is some kind of natural law that forces natural laws to exist?

A physicist investigates natural phenomena and he does not research goals, objectives or the values that nature holds. Nature exists and we approach it and try to describe it the best that we can. But does it mean that our description is the description of nature?

This question might look at first as a rhetorical one, but the truth is that it might be more difficult to come up with an answer for this question. At the beginning of the 20th century there were thinkers who maintained that the character or “spirit” of a nation influence the way it does science. It was not only the Nazis who presented paradoxical phrases regarding what they defined as “Jewish science”. The idea that science exposes the national features of the scientist was also presented by humanists like Miguel de Unamuno who criticized Franco’s dictatorship.

So what is this thing that scientists really do or if we try to ask it differently what are the laws that physicists present? Do these laws present a real description of nature? In the following lines I will present three main arguments that will help me answer whether or not a physical law is a real description of nature.

1. The laws of nature are not being affected by our national characteristic. However, they are influenced by the special way humans perceive the world. Imagine that one day we will actually meet with aliens. Will they have the same laws of physics as we do or maybe they will say that this or that law is ‘an earthling’s physics law’? First of all, it also depends on the way these aliens perceive the world. For example, if they live in five dimensions in which for example time acts as a real dimension we can almost be sure that the second law of entropy (second law of thermodynamics) or the human concept of ‘time arrow’ would not make much sense for them at first. They will define it as an earthling’s law. This means that the laws of physics depend on our biological perception of space and most of all with our perceptions of time.

2. If we move to mathematics and ask we if there might be another language that could have been used as the language of science. How do aliens write their science, what system of numbers do they have? These are interesting but at the same time too speculative questions. Therefore, I think that for now we should only focus on the following question: If mathematics is truly the language of nature, how can a mathematician describe the nothingness? You can say that the number zero might be an appropriate number to depict the beginning of time and space. But can we say a sentence like this one: “at the beginning there was zero and then the universe was created”? Is it convincing? Can we say that at the beginning there was zero “universe”? I believe that this potential numerical explanation might not be persuading enough.

3. Imagine we need to approach the most elusive scientific question that I personally like to spend infinite time to think about: “Where did the Big Bang occur?” This is surely not a plausible question whatsoever, are we even allowed to ask this? I believe we can and also that we should ask this question. However, our inability to answer it empirically might be a sign that it is alright for physicists not to know everything.

It is true that science does describe nature and can allow us to learn about reality. However, it is also important to remember that it depicts it in a manner which is special for us earthlings. Real science is not determined by ideological world views, but it does depend on our limits as humans.

About the Author
Lior Rabi is an author and researcher who writes about philosophy and science, esp. on the philosophy of mathematics; He has publications in scientific peer-reviewed journals. He has also studied mathematics education and works as a math teacher. Vegetarian since 1997 and basketball lover since the moment he was born.