Why Would It Make Sense For The Physical Laws To Be A Priori

On the start two notes:

  • What is meant by a priori here, is not analytical a priori, where two concepts stand in some relation because of their content (where the concepts are nicely defined each on its own), but necessary relations which come from the impossibility of those notions to be taken as self-subsistent, but should be necessarily analyzed in some context (Hegelian sublation), in which these abstractions will show up as standing in necessary relation to other abstract notions which will appear in the context. More details further in the text…
  • By physical laws here I mean actual physical laws of the world (if we assume there are such things), and not the physical laws which are product of science, and which are of course a posteriori and believed for empirical reasons (be it that we come to them by process of induction, abduction, falsification, or scientific revolutions to new incommensurable theories based on insight etc..)

So here are the reasons why I think it would make sense for those (actual) physical laws to be a priori…

Physical laws transcend time and space. This is a characteristic of a priori relations, like those of mathematics or logic. That if something can be put under the notion of two, it can be also put under notion of two ones, is true for anything, no matter when and where.

2. As much as the physical laws relate more and more notions, the self-subsistence of those notions is removed, and the richness of the world lost. Special relativity made identities between energy and mass, space and time, and general relativity between mass and space. Each of them was thought before as something independent, for which laws would provide just how it  relates to the others in external manner. But now they disappear as something self-subsistent in this identity (this is connected also to the following point). The same happens in case of a priori relations – for example  1+1=2, where in their a priori relation both sides of the relation are not connected externally, but whatever is 2 is also 1+1.

3. There is also a reason why one might thing that they could be a priori. I’m not thinking of the Kantian approach (which I think has failed), but of an approach which would mix Hegelian holism and Einsteinian (Mach’s?) approach to what constitutes a measurement. Here is what I have in mind:

a) Some of the simple notions which appear in the physical laws, don’t make sense as self-subsistent notions. They make sense only in certain contexts (some richer notion), and those richer notions also implicitly show them in some specific relations to other abstractions from those contexts.
For example in the post on Hegelian dialectic method to which I pointed, I analyzed how left-right notions make sense only in context in which we have a “point of view”, which also has defined front and back, and top and bottom. All those abstractions – “top”/”bottom”, “back”/”front” then appear in some implicit a priori relations with the “left”/”right” notions within that context.
Or think about the notion of “movement”. It necessarily requires “something” (that will move), but also single something isn’t enough for movement – we need to imagine another something in relation to which this first something will move. So necessarily movement must be analyzed as moving-in-relation-to-each-other.

b) Measurement (or quantification) being what laws are about, the context in which those abstract notions (like “time”, “space”, “movement” etc…) appear, is necessarily extended to even more complex notion, in which those can show new a priori relations. To connect to the previous example of movement – measurement of space requires at least three things, A, B and C, so that a ratio can be made between the AB distance and BC distance. In same way measurement of time, requires two movements (or in general two changes), so a ratio can be made.

To summarize – some of the notions, as they don’t make sense as self-subsistent will necessarily be seen as abstraction in contexts (e.g movement as movement-relative-to-each-other, left/right as a fully oriented observer, etc…). Also by adding notion of quantity, this context will be extended necessarily to more complex notions – giving possibility for complex a priori relations between notions.

4. Symmetries appear to have central role in physical laws. Symmetries can easily appear in the necessary development from simple to more complex notions as described in the previous point.

5. It would provide a new way to address the mind-body problem. This will take some explanation too…

We could return to our naive-reality-kind being-in-the-world, in which the physical laws will then appear as necessary relations among different abstractions from it. And for any system, in which those abstractions are kept as more or less self-subsistent, the law will hold. The analogy can me made with a group of things, which we start dividing them into smaller groups through some procedure. As long as the things are self-subsistent (don’t disappear, multiply  etc…) mathematical rules will hold between the numbers of things in each group and the starting number. However the nature of the concrete is not at least affected by those mathematical relations. For those mathematical relations to hold, it doesn’t matter what kind of things those are. In similar way, the concrete can be more than its physical abstractions, and while those physical abstractions will fall into necessary relations, still the concrete can be more than those, and is, as the naive-reality-world stands to the physical abstractions, in a subject/predicate relation. There would be no need of doubling to two worlds – world of mind and world of physics, the being-in-the-world contains everything which is usually taken as problematic for explaining through physical world (qualia, intentionality, etc…), and the physical world is seen as a predicate of this being-in-the-world. (For sure there would be separate metaphysical issues even if the physical laws turn to be a priori)

6. If we believe that there is a reason why the laws are such as they are, there is no better reason than them being a priori. (Any other reason will require new reason, or we would have to assume lack of it).

8 thoughts on “Why Would It Make Sense For The Physical Laws To Be A Priori

  1. I am confused. Which physical laws are not the product of science? Are you suggesting that relativity is one of them? It strikes me as slightly barmy to claim that relativity is not a posteriori.

  2. Hi Ponder,

    I tried to answer your first question in the starting notes, but obviously I did a poor job. I will attempt to be more clear here…

    The physical laws as theories are product of empirical research. They are formulated among other things on base of empirical reasons (e.g. to fit the observations), and the reasons why we believe that those laws are true are (among other things) empirical reasons (e.g. they do fit the observations).

    However we can also believe that there are actual relations which hold necessarily among different things in the world, independently of us knowing them or not, and talk about those relations as *actual physical laws*.

    So, the post was about those actual physical laws, and about the physical theories only as far they correspond exactly to the actual physical laws. (Of course we can’t ever know based on empirical reasons alone if the physical law which is a theory corresponds exactly with the actual physical law, as empirical reasons always leave place for falsification.)

    So, to answer your question about relativity…
    We might distinguish two different reasons:
    a)the reasons why we believe that the relativity holds in the world and
    b)if relativity does hold, the reason why it holds. (the reason can’t be that we believe it holds)

    While a) as far as science is concerned are obviously a posteriori, the post is mainly concerned with the b) issue.

    Hope this explanation makes the post look more clear, and less barmy. :)

  3. Ok. I understand now.

    However, I don’t understand how physical laws could transcend space and time. It is true that they apply anytime and anywhere in our universe (we don’t know if they do so in other universes, and we have no reason to believe that there exist physical laws that apply in all possible universes), but it seems like they are intimately dependent on our preexisting concepts of space and time (even if some, like relativity, alter our notions of what space and time are). Maybe the laws we know of turn out to be just particular manifestations of more general laws that apply to all conceptions of spacetime, but I have a hard time imagining how these would be distinguishable from mathematical laws.

  4. I’m not sure I understand your worries, but i will try to put my thoughts on some things you mentioned…

    Yes, by transcending time and space, I meant how they hold everywhere and anytime (which I guess is just another way to negate the absolute time and space).

    As for the notions of space and time… it is true that people (most of them?) looked at the notions of space and time as something self-subsistent, i.e. as absolute, as some kind of containers in which the things exist. (And I guess still most of people tend to understand them in such way – as containers). But I don’t think that the change brought by relativity, is a change of *the concepts* of space and time, or that relativity brought us new concepts of space and time which are different from the space and time in our experience. I think it still can be about the same concepts, only properly understood – as abstractions from richer notions (thing, change, etc…).

    It is clear that relativity goes against our intuition if by “intuition” we understand “something we assume/expect without even thinking about it”. But I don’t think it is fair to equate *such* intuition, with our possibility to understand/comprehend. After all almost everyone witnessed situation in which apparent contradiction happens, and our thoughts are blocked… but upon someone explaining it to us, that contradiction disappears, without our concepts changing. What changes is just that we understand that some of our expectations/assumptions were wrong.

  5. It is getting difficult to continue the discussion without defining what we mean by ‘concepts of space and time’.

    My worry about your saying that physical laws hold everywhere and anytime is that we can imagine different physical laws operating in a different universe. On the other hand, it is harder to imagine different mathematical laws operating in a different universe, or to imagine if that notion even makes sense, and that leads me to think the case for physical laws being a priori is weaker. The physical laws in our universe depend on certain assumptions about the nature of space and time in our universe — that it is continuous up till very small scales, that it is independent of whatever artificial coordinate systems we use to describe it, and so on through all the properties of a 4-manifold. We require spacetime to have a certain familiar mathematical structure in order that the physical laws we know can apply. Perhaps you can say that this mathematical structure defines spacetime. But I think one can imagine a spacetime that is discrete or granular on observable scales as the basis for another possible universe, and other mathematical oddities. Or perhaps you are speaking of physical laws that hold across all universes. I’m not sure that such things exist, or could exist.

    I’m not as confident as you are that relativity does not alter the concepts of space and time. Showing that space and time are not independent of one another but are really the same thing is, I think, a significant alteration. So is saying that mass alters the curvature of spacetime or that the curvature can act on objects on it, since this means spacetime is no longer a passive container. It all depends on what you think our concepts of space and time consists of. Maybe these constituents are minimal enough that relativity doesn’t affect them. But, for example, even defining ‘change’ in relativity is highly problematic, since what appears to be unchanging in one frame of reference could appear to be changing in other frames of reference, change cannot be defined exclusively as spatial change over time because of the interdependence of space and time, and so on.

  6. Ponder,

    Thanks for clarifying.

    I don’t have a priori arguments at all to say that physical laws are a priori. I’m just thinking that it would make sense if they were. Having said that:

    1.The argument that they transcend space and time (without talking about possible worlds), was meant as an appeal to the issue of “why do they”?

    2.Yes, we believe that math is a priori, and that math theorems will hold in every possible world. On other side we can imagine possible world with different physical laws. But our possibility to imagine can be because of our ignorance. Here is a analogy with a math: I look at some of the unsolved conjectures in math. I can imagine that it can be true or false. But if someone provides a proof that it is true (or wrong), and if I understand it and can’t any more imagine it being a wrong. So, it might be that it is because of our ignorance we think that physical laws are not metaphysically necessary.

    3.As for the concept of space and time, I was pointing to the possibility that we are not speaking *of* some other space and time in relativity, but about the same ones of which we spoke before the theory of relativity – or even before science. What I think changes is our understanding of them – from looking at them as independent, to seeing them as abstractions from change and movement. (BTW, I agree with your note about how change is not self-subsistent either, and I think that is a reason to “move” from notion of moving-body to a richer notion of bodies-moving-relative-to-each-other).

  7. Re point 2,

    We do not think it is possible to prove that physical laws are wrong, though, in the way we can prove mathematical theorems. Physical laws are usually ‘proven’ wrong or right by reference to the universe at hand, not deductively. (Is there a good example of a physical law that was rejected because it was logically inconsistent with other physical laws, and not because it was inconsistent with our experiences?) The reason for this, I suspect, is that inconsistencies in physical laws can only checked by reference to their projected physical implications — they invariably depend on ‘real world’ (extra-logical) concepts like mass and charge and space, and there is a whole host of ways in which we can modify these latter concepts to accommodate our theories. Hence we are ready to accept even extremely counter-intuitive implications (like in quantum mechanics) in order to preserve the consistencies within physics — the ‘paradoxes’ are never really logical paradoxes, but counter-intuitive statements about things that could possibly exist in the real world.

    To put it another way, there are an infinite number of ways in which physical laws can vary without leading to logical paradoxes. This is not the case for mathematics, which has a tighter web of logical connections. I cannot deny that it is possible that there are many hidden implications in physical laws that would actually lead to inconsistencies if the laws were other than they were, and that we haven’t found all these implications yet, but my sense is that there is something in the conceptual structure of physics that essentially allows for an infinity of variations in physical laws. And what of the popular strategy of simply introducing new ‘particles’ or new ‘forces’ in order to eliminate inconsistencies? I don’t quite see how this strategy can ever be shown to be logically unjustifable. Perhaps you would say, one can do the same thing for mathematics as well. My suspicion is that it can’t be done for mathematics, at least not with anywhere as much freedom as in physics, but I don’t think I have enough mathematical knowledge to justify my suspicion.

    The crux is, I suppose, that I don’t see how laws that do not relate to possible manifestations of reality can be even considered as physical laws, and this reliance on concepts dealing with manifestations of reality (space, time, substance and so on) gives physics the room to manoeuvre that mathematics lacks, since laws that relate these concepts may result in physical ‘contradictions’, but not logical contradictions.

  8. Hi,

    I don’t think I can give another reasons except the ones that I already gave in the post, which weren’t supposed to show that those “actual physical laws” are a priori (or even that there are such things, which again might be seen as an open question), but that there is a logical possibility for those to be a priori, and that it would make sense for them to be such. It is of course another matter how those reasons might carry certain weight in given web of beliefs one person has (e.g. mine), but will not be very convincing given some other web of beliefs.

    I’m aware that centuries of scientific research, if not in principle, then at least in their attitude are not friendly towards metaphysical thought. And, I would say that it is for good reason, as that pragmatic attitude has contributed to the fast development of sciences. That is of course matter which philosophy of science is discussing.

    Anyway, I think that I understand your main worry. It is not about the reasons of why would it make sense for the “actual physical laws” to be a priori, but what would it mean – how they could be? And I agree that is the hardest problem for the claim that physical laws could turn out to be a priori. I gave a sketch in the point 3. of the post, but I know that it is not very convincing as it assumes certain metaphysical point of view. To repeat it in short, it is the view that some of our notions don’t make sense taken by their own, without a proper context; and that the context necessitates a priori relations among its abstractions. So, that whenever we want to talk about time and space, we can’t think of them without motion and things. That we can’t talk about speed, acceleration, etc… without a context in which a ratio (measurement) can be done, hence we need some context in which we have something that we can call a clock, etc… Again, I’m not trying to say that it is like that, but that I can’t see a priori reasons why this kind of metaphysical development is not possible.

    But again, it depends on the whole web of beliefs of the person, how serious this kind of possibility would be taken.

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