Are the laws of physics descriptive or prescriptive?

If the laws of physics are descriptive, as I have previously been inclined to think, then there may be a problem with saying that they are also designed.

One of the problems is that counterfactuals would not be grounded in anything because the counterfactual claim tells us what would occur if x circumstances obtained. However, if the laws are merely descriptive then they are essentially empirical, they are about phenomena, and it is never the case that any counterfactual conditional statement is true, since it is both logically and physically possible that the counterfactual conditionals be false. For instance, if the earth will continue to turn on its axis then the sun will appear to rise again tomorrow. Strictly speaking there is nothing in virtue of which that is true, because it is not grounded in any prescribed laws. That claim simply says that on ceteris paribus conditions we would expect that if P then Q. But it offers nothing stronger than a mere expression of our expectations. That would mean in principle that even an omniscient being could only have probabilistic knowledge of counterfactual conditionals, and that probability would be based merely on his observation. It would mean that God would not know to be true any counterfactual conditional statements about physics. He could not know them by deduction, nor could he know them by observing the world from beginning to end timelessly, since there are no counterfactuals which are part of the set of actual things (that is why we call them counter-factuals). Moreover, it is difficult to reconcile the idea that there is a designing intellect which created the rational world, dictating its order, and for there not to be prescriptive laws of physics in the same way that there are prescriptive laws of morality. Thus, with the view that the laws of physics are merely descriptive, I have two problems: first that it isn’t strong enough to ground any counterfactual conditional statements about the universe, and second that it seems to be irreconcilably incompatible with the notion that there is a designer God behind the intelligibility of the universe.

On the other hand we have to consider what problems may exist with saying that the laws of physics are prescriptive. Obviously when one says that these laws are prescriptive they do not mean that all the laws of physics recognized and articulated today are prescriptive, since one would in principle want to leave open the possibility that some of our ideas about physics are wrong. Rather, the person who says that the laws of physics are prescriptive means that there are some actual laws of physics, and that the job of the physicist is to ‘find them out’ as it were. Now, a possible problem with suggesting that the laws of physics are prescriptive might be the following: if the laws of physics are prescriptive, as, it would seem, would be entailed by their being designed, then isn’t it the case that God does in fact suspend the laws of physics for miraculous events? One normative Christian response to this has been that since the laws of physics only describe what would occur ceteris paribus (all things being equal) if the closed system in question were not to have any input from something outside itself, it cannot be a violation of them for God to act immediately in the world. In fact, the only thing in principle which could violate them is their failure to work within a closed system. The basic contention of the Theist is then that the universe, taken as the totality of contingent objects, is not a system which must always be closed, as it can in fact have input from God, who is outside of the universe and transcends the universe. However, if God acts immediately in the world, all bets are off precisely because the laws of physics only describe what would occur all things being equal, or in a closed system. But this response seems harder to swallow if one thinks of the laws not as predictions about what will occur all things being equal, but rather as divine prescriptions of how the universe ought to be or will be.

A thought: perhaps we could say that the laws of physics are prescribed with a ceteris paribus clause, in such a way that they prescribe how the universe would work as a closed system, and thus it remains senseless to say that the laws of physics are violated by the infringement of God’s immediate activity in the world (as opposed to acting by means of secondary causes).

An additional problem seems to be that these prescriptive laws of physics seem to be difficult to imagine as anything other than platonic forms. However, most philosophers agree, platonic forms are causally effete. Therefore, it is hard to see what sense we can make of prescriptive laws of physics being those things which ground counterfactual conditional statements, let alone impose order on the actual world.

Perhaps we could say that the world is designed, and that the laws of physics are merely descriptive insofar as they describe the universe, but the order and intelligibility of the universe does not come from prescriptive laws, but rather comes from the order and intelligibility of the universe which can be expressed as descriptive laws? If that were the case, perhaps counterfactual conditionals could be true not in virtue of the laws of physics, but in virtue of the universe which they describe.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
This entry was posted in Empiricism, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Religion and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Are the laws of physics descriptive or prescriptive?

  1. Reblogged this on Philosophies of a Disenchanted Scholar and commented:
    Really when people discuss legal laws, if they know their English they mean proscriptive – forbidding a certain act or event. Scientific laws rarely proscribe anything because Black Swan, they are the generally held truth. It wasn’t until recently that only doctors could write out prescriptions for example, and even a humble shopping list would count as one.

  2. Joe Hinman says:

    I enjoy your thoughts and your wiliness to think through hard questions. I have a MTS from Perkins I would like to know where you study?

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