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Gravity in Elfland

In a comment to my last post Dr. Torley notes that many scientists take the laws of nature as brute facts that “are ‘just there’ and cannot be changed.” According to Dr. Torley, “Scientists who take this view of Nature tend to fall into the intellectual trap of regarding the laws of Nature as necessary. In fact, they are nothing of the sort: they are totally contingent.”

What does Dr. Torley mean that the laws of nature are “contingent”? To answer this question let us consider what we mean by the phrase “law of nature” (synonyms: “natural law,” “physical law,” and “mechanical necessity”). Wikipedia has a pretty good discussion of what the term means here. The Wiki article makes clear that the phrase “law of nature” can be boiled down to the following definition: “An observed regularity.”

Consider this observation in the context of a particular law of nature, say the general law of gravitation. That law states that the gravitational force between two objects is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. That’s a lot of fancy talk for a fairly simple concept: Objects exert a gravitational attraction over other objects in proportion to their mass. Therefore, relatively massive objects (e.g., the moon, the earth, the sun) exert a lot of gravitational force compared to relatively less massive objects. That’s why when I let go of a hammer it falls toward the earth instead of the earth moving toward the hammer. However, the force is weakened by distance. The further away an object is, the less gravitational attraction it will exert. The key to the law (the reason it is called a “law” in the first place) is that objects conform precisely to the formula. We can count on the law like the rising of the sun. Indeed, the rising of the sun is an example of the law in operation.

Just as they have with many other physical laws, scientists have used their understanding of the general law of gravitation to achieve spectacular successes. Astronomers use the law to map the movements of stars and planets with astounding precision; astrophysicists use the law to put spacecraft on the moon, etc.. What, however, does the general law of gravitation (or any other physical law) tell us about the underlying nature of reality? Just here is where materialists go off the rails, because they seem to believe that by merely describing an “observed regularity” they have somehow explained it. But have they?

Why do massive objects attract instead of repel? Why shouldn’t the force become greater as distance increases? Why is gravitational attraction a function of mass and distance at all? I can imagine a universe where objects exert an attractive force based on, say, their color, with blue objects exerting more attractive force than red ones.

Saying “this is the way it always happens” is not the same thing as saying “this is why it happens this way.” I have always loved the way Chesterton described this issue in The Ethics of Elfland chapter of Orthodoxy.

When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a ‘law,’ for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, ‘law,’ ‘necessity,’ ‘order,’ ‘tendency,’ and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, ‘charm,’ ‘spell,’ ‘enchantment.’ They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.

The materialist says that water runs downhill because it is obeying the general law of gravitation — every molecule of water falls toward the center of the earth’s mass in proportion to the relative mass between the molecule and the earth and the inverse square of the distance between them. True enough. But what does that really explain? Why does the water molecule obey the general law of gravitation with such slavish devotion? Have we really explained the phenomenon when we merely say, “the phenomenon conforms with a previously observed regularity”? Do we have any warrant to believe that the previously observed regularity is necessary? Are there not possible worlds in which water would behave slightly (or even vastly) differently? In other words, isn’t the observed regularity contingent instead of necessary? These are questions materialists never seem to ask themselves, and as a consequence they are blind to much of the beauty and wonder of the universe.

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10 Responses to Gravity in Elfland

  1. Between your post and Dr. Torley’s comment that it references, things seem a bit confused. Perhaps the confusion is all mine.

    Firstly, Dr. Torley mentions three views, and suggests that Christian scientists tend to prefer the first. But later, he appears to credit that view to all scientists. However, since his three viewpoints are all based on theistic assumptions, that does not seem correct.

    Secondly, you say:

    In a comment to my last post Dr. Torley notes that many scientists take the laws of nature as brute facts that “are ‘just there’ and cannot be changed.” According to Dr. Torley, “Scientists who take this view of Nature tend to fall into the intellectual trap of regarding the laws of Nature as necessary.

    However, in the usual way we talk about things, to say that a statement is a brute fact is to say that it is contingent, while to say that a statement expresses a necessary truth is usually taken to say that the statement has no factual content.

    My impression is that Dr. Torley is using “contingent” in a theological sense while you are using it in an epistemological sense.

  2. I would like to clearly point out that the laws of nature do not arise from any material basis, as was/is presupposed by materialism, but that the laws of nature are ‘transcendent information constants’ that are imposed onto the temporal material realm from ‘outside’;

    notes:

    REPORT OF THE DARK ENERGY TASK FORCE
    The abstract of the September 2006 Report of the Dark Energy Task Force says: “Dark energy appears to be the dominant component of the physical Universe, yet there is no persuasive theoretical explanation for its existence or magnitude. The acceleration of the Universe is, along with dark matter, the observed phenomenon that most directly demonstrates that our (materialistic) theories of fundamental particles and gravity are either incorrect or incomplete.
    http://jdem.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs.....report.pdf

    Testing Creation Using the Proton to Electron Mass Ratio
    Excerpt: The bottom line is that the electron to proton mass ratio unquestionably joins the growing list of fundamental constants in physics demonstrated to be constant over the history of the universe.,,,
    http://www.reasons.org/Testing.....nMassRatio

    Stability of Coulomb Systems in a Magnetic Field – Charles Fefferman
    Excerpt of Abstract: I study N electrons and M protons in a magnetic field. It is shown that the total energy per particle is bounded below by a constant independent of M and N, provided the fine structure constant is small. Here, the total energy includes the energy of the magnetic field.
    http://www.jstor.org/pss/2367659?cookieSet=1

    Finely Tuned Big Bang, Elvis In The Multiverse, and the Schroedinger Equation – Granville Sewell – audio
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4233012

    At the 4:00 minute mark of the preceding audio, Dr. Sewell comments on the ‘transcendent’ and ‘constant’ Schroedinger’s Equation;

    ‘In chapter 2, I talk at some length on the Schroedinger Equation which is called the fundamental equation of chemistry. It’s the equation that governs the behavior of the basic atomic particles subject to the basic forces of physics. This equation is a partial differential equation with a complex valued solution. By complex valued I don’t mean complicated, I mean involving solutions that are complex numbers, a+b^i, which is extraordinary that the governing equation, basic equation, of physics, of chemistry, is a partial differential equation with complex valued solutions. There is absolutely no reason why the basic particles should obey such a equation that I can think of except that it results in elements and chemical compounds with extremely rich and useful chemical properties. In fact I don’t think anyone familiar with quantum mechanics would believe that we’re ever going to find a reason why it should obey such an equation, they just do! So we have this basic, really elegant mathematical equation, partial differential equation, which is my field of expertise, that governs the most basic particles of nature and there is absolutely no reason why, anyone knows of, why it does, it just does. British physicist Sir James Jeans said “From the intrinsic evidence of His creation, the great architect of the universe begins to appear as a pure mathematician”, so God is a mathematician to’.

    i.e. the Materialist is at a complete loss to explain why this should be so, whereas the Christian Theist presupposes such ‘transcendent’ control,,,

    John 1:1
    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    If the preceding evidence wasn’t enough to show that material particles are governed by transcendent mathematical (logical information) laws, quantum teleportation removes all doubt by reducing photons and even entire molecules to transcendent information:

    An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number of protons, giving it a net positive or negative electrical charge.

    Ions have been teleported successfully for the first time by two independent research groups
    Excerpt: In fact, copying isn’t quite the right word for it. In order to reproduce the quantum state of one atom in a second atom, the original has to be destroyed. This is unavoidable – it is enforced by the laws of quantum mechanics, which stipulate that you can’t ‘clone’ a quantum state. In principle, however, the ‘copy’ can be indistinguishable from the original (that was destroyed),,,
    http://www.rsc.org/chemistrywo.....ammeup.asp

    Atom takes a quantum leap – 2009
    Excerpt: Ytterbium ions have been ‘teleported’ over a distance of a metre.,,,
    “What you’re moving is information, not the actual atoms,” says Chris Monroe, from the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland in College Park and an author of the paper. But as two particles of the same type differ only in their quantum states, the transfer of quantum information is equivalent to moving the first particle to the location of the second.
    http://www.freerepublic.com/fo.....1769/posts

    of technical interest:

    Quantum Computing – Stanford Encyclopedia
    Excerpt: Theoretically, a single qubit can store an infinite amount of information, yet when measured (and thus collapsing the Quantum Wave state) it yields only the classical result (0 or 1),,,
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entr.....tcomp/#2.1

    The Word – Sara Groves – music
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ofE-GZ8zTU

  3. Barry Arrington wrote: “relatively massive objects (e.g., the moon, the earth, the sun) exert a lot of gravitational force compared to relatively less massive objects. That’s why when I let go of a hammer it falls toward the earth instead of the earth moving toward the hammer”

    This wording is very misleading. The hammer exerts the same force on the Earth that the Earth exerts on the hammer. The reason the hammer moves toward the Earth is that the same force acting on two different objects (the hammer and the Earth) produces a different acceleration on each object inversely proportional to each object’s mass).

  4. 4

    Neil, in the article I use “necessary” in its usual metaphysical sense: A proposition that is true or false (as the case may be) in all possible worlds. Conversely, a contingent proposition is one that is true in some possible worlds and false in others. That is why I referred to “possible worlds” in my example. I believe Dr. Torely used the term in this sense as well.

  5. Materialists are blind to much of the beauty and wonder of the universe.. Are they ? What are they missing ?

  6. Hi Barry and Neil,

    Indeed I did. Metaphysical necessity is a richer concept than mere logical necessity, which attaches to those propositions whose denial entails a contradiction. Metaphysical necessity, by contrast, attaches to (i) states of affairs which cannot be otherwise, and hence obtain in all possible worlds, or (ii) the propositions describing those states of affairs. Thus a proposition may be metaphysically necessary (i.e. true in all possible worlds) even though it is logically contingent (i.e. capable of being denied without contradiction).

    Here’s an example I once heard from a philosophy lecturer in my undergraduate days: the proposition “The same thing cannot be at once red all over and green all over”. The “cannot” here does not refer to a logical contradiction, since the assertion that X is red all over does not contradict the assertion that it is green all over.

    Scientists who take the laws of Nature as states of affairs that cannot be changed are thus ascribing metaphysical necessity to them, even if they do not ascribe logical necessity to them. This is an intellectual vice, as it discourages free inquiry into how the world could have been different and why it is the way it is.

    Neil, you remarked (rightly) that in my original comment (see here: http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ent-398007 ), I mentioned three views – conservationism, concurrentism and occasionalism. You then claimed (incorrectly) that I asserted that Christian scientists tend to prefer the first, and (again incorrectly) that I later appeared to credit that view to all scientists – which, as you rightly point out, is odd, since all three views presuppose theism.

    To be clear: in my original comment, I spoke of “three views of Divine causality: conservationism, concurrentism and occasionalism.” It should be obvious that only theists could entertain any of these views. I favor the second: concurrentism, which affirms that God not only immediately conserves things in being, but He is also an immediate cause of any change occurring in the natural world, working in conjunction with the natural agent causing that change.

    I then went on to say that “Darwinist Christians adopt the first view” (conservationism). I didn’t say “all Darwinists”, and I didn’t say “Christian scientists”. I said Darwinist Christians. I added that the second view (concurrentism) was, in my opinion, more ID-friendly than the first, as it gives the Creator greater freedom to act, while affirming the reality of scientific laws (which the third view, occasionalism, denies). Nevertheless, I acknowledged that a believer in front-loading could accept ID while adopting the first view.

    Finally, I wrote:

    Conservationism, however, by regarding scientific laws as set in stone, discourages intellectual inquiry as to why these laws hold in the first place. Laws are “just there” and cannot be changed. Scientists who take this view of Nature tend to fall into the intellectual trap of regarding the laws of Nature as necessary. In fact, they are nothing of the sort: they are totally contingent.

    In other words, conservationism is a view which (in my opinion) has anti-theistic implications, when taken to its logical conclusion. Others might disagree with me on this point, but that’s what I think.

    I then added that concurrentism offers a middle way: it allows scientists to ask why God acts in the way He does, and why He made the laws He did. That’s a question that neither a conservationist nor an occasionalist would feel inclined to ask: the former takes laws as a metaphysical given (and hence as unalterable), while the latter denies the reality of laws of Nature.

    I hope that answers your questions, Neil. Thanks again for your comment, and thanks, Barry.

  7. Metaphysical necessity, by contrast, attaches to (i) states of affairs which cannot be otherwise, and hence obtain in all possible worlds, or (ii) the propositions describing those states of affairs.

    But that is what I find confusing. For to say that something is a state of affairs is to imply that alternate states are possible. And thus states of affairs cannot be necessities.

    Let’s take an example, namely Newton’s f=ma. Well, it should really be f=d(mv)/dt, but that’s harder to write. I take that law to be a necessary truth, but I do not take it to describe a state of affairs. You say:

    Conservationism, however, by regarding scientific laws as set in stone, discourages intellectual inquiry as to why these laws hold in the first place.

    To me, that seems to be based on a misunderstanding of science, albeit a common misunderstanding. C.I. Lewis, in “A Pragmatic Conception of the A Priori” (a 1923 paper) wrote “the fundamental laws of any science—or those that are treated as fundamental—are a priori because they formulate just such definitive concepts or categorical tests by which alone investigation becomes possible.” That seems about right to me. If we want to find why those laws hold, we examine the history of the science to see why they were formulated.

  8. Neil,

    Thank you for your post. I would respectfully disagree with C.I. Lewis’s claim that “the fundamental laws of any science… are a priori because they formulate just such definitive concepts or categorical tests by which alone investigation becomes possible.” Laws are discovered a posteriori, and there is no necessary connection between the terms they relate, insofar as these terms are empirically known. Of course, on a theoretical level, one may define these terms in a way that brings them all together, and one may even formulate an underlying mathematical model which explains the theoretical relationship between the terms. But we can still meaningfully ask why our universe instantiates this model, rather than some other model. And that’s not a trivial question. What’s more, we still have to discover which model applies to our universe.

  9. I’ve heard many a YEC argue that the laws Science discovers a posteriori can only be said to be true for the present. To say that those laws have remained constant, or even existed in the past is an a priori assumption. On that basis, it’s not possible to know how the universe was instantiated or if mathematical elegance held true.

  10. Laws are discovered a posteriori, and there is no necessary connection between the terms they relate, insofar as these terms are empirically known.

    That’s what philosophers mostly say. But science does not and could not work that way. If you study the history of science you might begin to see the problem.

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