Physical Laws, Ontological Underdetermination, God and Fine Tuning
Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on December 29, 2008
There are probably lot of ways to look at the physical laws, here I will point to two and in relation to those discuss possibility of God.
a)Laws governing the Universe
In the first way the laws are seen as governing the universe. Given the state of the universe at the time t1, the physical laws determine how the universe will be at the t1+dt.
This view is incompatible with the idea of God, as according to this there can’t be any talk about God taking part in determining the events in the Universe. It is then said that God might have made the universe, created those physical laws, set everything in motion, but that from that moment everything happens according to those laws which were set. At this point, a person that believes in God can bring up the fine tuning argument also – that is… that physical laws and constants are set in just the right way for appearance of life (and thus intelligent life). If you change those constants and laws just a little bit, it becomes impossible for this to happen.
Of course it is also possible to take this position with further note that God can and does do things which go against the laws of physics – some kind of miracles. Also there is the possibility that God made the laws in such way that they leave him open hands for intervening without breaking those laws. In such way for example, given the quantum mechanical indeterminacy (we don’t know of a law that fully determines the collapse of a QM system), God has freedom of doing anything, without in fact breaking the laws of physics. We may say, that the laws are intentionally left not fully determining what will happen (I will call this ontological underdetermination, not sure if it is good term, but can’t think of a better one), so that either God is constantly guiding (to some amount) the events in the Universe, or alternatively he is throwing dices when he doesn’t really prefer how certain collapses would happen. Now, that is I guess consistent position, it does provide a way to make sense of God (and further it makes fine tuning argument possible), but in my opinion it is quite inelegant all over. The explanation is full with choices which are made just to defend the possibility of God, and which explain nothing more but that possibility.
b)Laws as necesary relations between measurables
And that brings us to the second way to view the physical laws. In this view the laws are necessary relations which hold among different measurables (what kind of necessity this is – is it metaphysical necessity, or is it just a necessity in the actual world is separate issue which I will touch on later). In this kind of view the laws are not seen now as governing the universe. So, they are not things which are moving the state of the universe at time t to the state at time t+dt. In fact, the time is now seen as just another measurable, and what the laws tells us is the necessary relations in which the measurables will stand – measurables which are aspects of the Universe (where it is seen as becoming, so that it includes temporal facts). I think firstly that this kind of view of laws is much better than the previous one – it seems really much closer to the actual way the physical laws are specified in physics (through equations, and not through ‘if system is X at t, it will be Y at t+dt’ kind of formulations), and secondly by seeing time as another measurable it is much more inline with the modern theories of physics (relativity and quantum mechanics).
Other interesting stuff is though that ontological underdetermination can now be presented not as an incidental feature of the laws which we add to our explanations post hoc, but as something which can be made sense of metaphysically. Let me try to explain this…
When we speak about measurables, we imagine that those have independent existence in the world, and that they are self-subsistent. So that there is definite fact about how long something is, or that there is a definite fact about how much mass something has, and so on. Now, we should be clear that measuring does incude more than just the reality of the property being measured, as it includes comparing, and thus inevitabely all kinds of complications which are related to that. So, we might measure something in inches or meters, we can’t measure it in nothing. Further, as we know from relativity, when we do the measuring, it will come up differently depending how we (as “measurer”) move. But putting all this aside, I think we usually do allow for the reality and selfsubsistence of the property being measured. It has certain length by itself, certain mass by itself, and so on. But, I don’t think this is cearly true also. It would be true if things would exist as some kind of “bag of independent properties” – in that case we would have to allow reality to each of them, and we would have to allow that it has certain mass, certain volume which is independent from that mass, certain speed which is independent from the volume and the mass, and so on. It might also be, however, that what is ontologically primary is the thing itself, and that those measurables can be thought of only as aspects of it, which don’t have reality of their own, so that there is no *certain mass*, *certain volume* and so on to speak of. Given this, the necessary relations are among the ideal forms of those measurables, where we are just treating them as having self-subsistent reality – we are ignoring that they have no such nature. What we have then described as “governed” by those necessary and fully deterministic laws are the systems in their ideality. But those systems are actual, and there are more facts about them than this ideal description. And thus we should expect that sooner or later, we will see how we can’t figure out the behavior of the system deterministically treating it as mere bag of mutually-determining properties.
The picture we basically have now is this – if, and only as long a concrete system falls under the abstract description (in this case physical description), the relations between the aspects of that physical description will be necessary. But as long we move from that ideal cases to the real world, what is happening in the Universe is underdetermined in relation to those necessary relations. So, QM indeterminacy in this kind of view is not incidental, it is a metaphysical consequence of the physical description failing to fully determine the world. Now, we have, which I think is, more elegant way to make sense of non-physical reasons affecting the world – what is denied is that the world is merely physical in first place. In that way we not only make metaphysical sense of quantum indeterminacy, but also we make sense of the possibility for non-physical reasons being behind the changes of the physical measurables.
Metaphysical necessity, or just neccesity in actual world?
At the end, let me return to the issue of the kind of necessity of the physical laws. It might be that those are necessary just in the actual world, or it might be that they are metaphysically necessary. What I especially see as metaphysically elegant possibility is this second option. It seems to me that it makes lot of sense for them to be metaphysically necessary relations. So, not just that those happen to be such in the actual world, but that those relations have to be such in any possible world. Or if we use logical in the wide sense of the world, that it is logical for those relations to be the way they are. Now this kind of result (if we ever get to it), is good because it answers why laws are same everywhere in the universe, it can give explanation of the relativity, symmetries, and so on… And basically it would be a way to make sense of there being such necessary relations in first place.
Let me try then to give an analogy with a metaphysical relations that we know hold, and for which we understand why they hold – the arithmetical relations. We can say this – as far a group of individuals don’t disappear or multiply, said simply – as far they fall under the certain mathematical abstraction – say e.g. – ‘being 5 things’, there will be metaphysically (in this case mathematically) necessary relations. Such that for any particular thing in this group, there will be four more things. Or that, those can’t be divided to 3 groups, such that in each group will be identical number of things. So – we have certain necessary relations, which hold just as far the thing at hand falls under the abstract description. But it is clear that real things aren’t reducible to those descriptions – sooner or later, for no reason apparent within the abstract description, the thing will no more fall under that description. We may have 3 rabbits, and they might become 4 rabbits. But that won’t be something which is result merely of the mathematical description. The necessary relations among physical measurables should be then be taken analogously to think case.
It might not be common for a person who beliefs in God to take physical laws as metaphysically necessary relations, which even God can’t change (for simple reason that there is no sense in even thinking of the concept of changing of metaphysically necessary relations), however to me it seems as the most elegant metaphysical view, which even in its metaphysical necessity doesn’t restrict the possibility for non-physical reasons for the changes in the physical aspect.
What should be pointed to is though, that if a person buys this, the Fine Turning no more points to existence of some kind of plan – if the laws have to be the way they are, then there is no sense in asking how come that they are such as they are. I do believe in this metaphysical picture of things, so I can’t count fine tuning as a reason why I should believe in God. However buying this picture does present a reason why one should believe that there is something further than what can be put in the physical descriptions, and is one of the reasons why I believe in God.
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