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A few years ago I read a very thought provoking paper by Victor Stenger called Where Do The Laws Of Physics come from: PDF link

Basically it postulates they come from point of view invariance. I have researched it a bit and do not agree it is true of all laws eg the laws of Quantum Mechanics can't be deduced from it (despite Stenger's claim) but it really is astonishing what can eg the laws of Classical Mechanics can be deduced from Quantum Mechanics and Galilean Invariance.

I am curios what objectivism makes of this.

asked Oct 04 '11 at 11:08

bhobba's gravatar image


edited Oct 04 '11 at 15:11

Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

Andrew Dalton ♦

There is certainly a strong Kantian influence in modern physics, but there are dissenters and mixed cases, as well. The Stenger paper, as I understand it, seems somewhat mixed.

The main metaphysical and epistemological content of the paper is stated in the paper's opening sentences:

The laws of physics were not handed down from above. Neither are they rules somehow built into the structure of the universe. They are ingredients of the models that physicists invent to describe observations. Rather than being restrictions on the behavior of matter, the laws of physics are restrictions on the behavior of physicists. If the models of physics are to describe observations based on an objective reality, then those models cannot depend on the point of view of the observer.

Rejection of "rules somehow built into the structure of the universe" certainly sounds like a rejection of the law of identity. And "models that physicists invent to describe observations" typically become a license to sever models enitrely from whatever it is that physicists "observe," and to focus intead on the "clean and pure" mathematical manipulations of the models themselves. Physicists look for models that most lend themselves to such manipulation, at the expense of largely abandoning any enduring concern for how well the models actually correspond to reality, i.e., to whatever it is that physicists "observe," and with no solution for the problem of how to "conceptualize" instances where the models don't correlate fully to reality. The passage above seems to recognize the idea of "objective reality" as real and absolute, and man as an "observer" of it, while striving primarily to unravel relationships between "models" rather than how best to formulate models that are closely representative of reality.

Despite some dubious philospohical formulations, it appears to me that this paper as a whole may have great value in showing a wide range of mathematical relationships between various different principles of physics. To that extent, it could be a highly illuminating attempt at integration of otherwise disparate principles.

The main Objectivist criticism of fields like Quantum Mechanics is the lack of effort (often active opposition) to relate mathematical equations to a conceptual meaning in an objective reality. Sometimes the physicists can't even agree on what the individual terms in the equations refer to in observational data, and the essential "postulates" on which any practical application of the Q.M. equations depend are generally little more than heuristic "rules of thumb."

For those who are interested in learning more about Quantum Mechanics at an introductory level, I have found the following sources to be helpful to me in my own informal studying during the past few months:

  • J.S. Bell, "Bertlmann's Socks and the Nature of Reality" (June 1980), link. I first learned of this paper from another Objectivist Answers discussion.

  • Eric Dennis, "Modern Physics and Objective Reality," lectures given at the Objectivist Summer Conference 2010, available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore. Search on "Eric Dennis" (not to be confused with Eric Daniels). These lectures describe the rift between the "Copenhagen interpretation" of quantum mechanics and the "minority" line represented by physicists such as Einstein, de Broglie, Schrodinger, David Bohm, and J.S. Bell.

  • Jim Al-Khalili. Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed (2003), available here. Mixed premises, but a very wide-ranging survey of the whole Q.M. field, with good recognition of the counter-Copenhagen viewpoints of Einstein, Bohm and others.

  • answered Oct 06 '11 at 01:34

    Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

    Ideas for Life ♦

    edited Oct 06 '11 at 01:49

    A very interesting analysis that I am quite drawn to but need to think about a bit before giving it my thumbs up. I particularly like your honing in on the statement about restrictions on the behavior of physicists which I categorically reject and great physicists like Wienberg do as well - physics is about describing objective reality - not about the behavior of physicists. The theories really do tell us something about reality. It is interesting however just how much beauty in the math and symmetry is a sure indicator of a correct theory - why that is I think is a bit of a mystery.

    (Oct 06 '11 at 07:04) bhobba bhobba's gravatar image

    The other important thing is that Quantum Mechanics is a complex technical subject requiring a certain amount of mathematical sophistication by which I mean advanced calculus etc. Popular accounts by avoiding the math can skip over important details. If you have a background in math by far the best book I have found is Quantum Mechanics - A Modern Development by Leslie E Ballentine. Here you will find an axiomatic development based on two axioms with the derivation of stuff like Schrodengers equation from Galelean invarience rather than a postulute - which it isn't.

    (Oct 06 '11 at 07:15) bhobba bhobba's gravatar image

    Gave it my thumbs up because I agree with the basic thrust. But a couple of issues. Yea I suppose one could think modern physics has a Kantian influence however I think its more Platonic - some physicists openly say the equations are the reality. Some of the math is so beautiful its easy to get that feeling and its is a deep mystery why it is like that. Also a lot of work has been done on what QM is actually saying and the issues are pretty well known these days - see the book by Ballentine. Without going into the details its boils down to what exactly a quantum state is.

    (Oct 06 '11 at 10:25) bhobba bhobba's gravatar image

    Thanks for the reference to Ballentine's book. I will certainly keep it in mind. I took a quick look on Amazon and found that the book apparently is a textbook for a two semester college course. That's a bit more than I have time for at the moment, but I might come back to it someday. I also give you a strong "thumbs up" for your observation that it "boils down to what exactly a quantum state is." I have had exactly that same thought in the course of my own reading so far. Not only what a state is, but what it is a state of. I wonder if it would be valid to think of the "thing" that has the "state" as a QEME -- quantum energy-matter entity, since it's not really a "particle" in the usual sense, nor a pure energy "packet," either.

    (Oct 07 '11 at 02:42) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

    Thanks Ideas For Life. The issue with a state is if you think of it as an object like say an electric field is then you run afoul of the collapse of a state issue. This is what causes it to randomly change to another state when observed. However another view is it is simply the abstraction for the sample space of the outcomes of a statistical experiment like observing the top card of a shuffled deck. This resolves the collapse issue but now raises what causes the particular observation to occur like shuffling a deck does.

    (Oct 07 '11 at 04:36) bhobba bhobba's gravatar image

    In fact this 'ensemble' view of a state is nothing new - as Ballentine points out it was Einsteins view. Why it didn't catch on initially is it very naturally needs to Einstein's view - namely QM is incomplete - one needs a mechanism like the 'shuffling'. BTW the view that Einstein didn't believe in QM is wrong - he thought it incomplete - not incorrect. But the other view leads to difficulties so severe that, as Ballentine explains, it really should be abandoned. Also in modern times mechanisms have been postulated such as Primary State Diffusion to explan that 'shuffling'.

    (Oct 07 '11 at 04:49) bhobba bhobba's gravatar image
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    From the Stenger paper: "If the models of physics are to describe observations based on an objective reality, then those models cannot depend on the point of view of the observer."

    This viewpoint seems heavily influenced by the ideas of Immanuel Kant, specifically the idea that actual knowledge requires that the consciousness of the observer have no role in the acquisition of the knowledge -- that the identity of one's consciousness have no impact on the nature of the knowing -- that objective reality is beyond the grasp of any particular consciousness.

    Objectivism completely repudiates this. Consciousness, and its identity, are essential to the act of objectively understanding reality, and that includes formulation of the laws of physics.

    I have not read more of Stenger paper, so it could be that its apparent thrust is mitigated further on, but from a first look, I'd say it is at odds with Objectivism, because Objectivism holds that the nature of consciousness is essential to knowing as such.

    Kant tried to disqualify consciousness on grounds that it has identity. Ayn Rand's famous quote on this follows:

    "His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them."

    See here: http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/kant,_immanuel.html

    answered Oct 05 '11 at 11:28

    John%20Paquette's gravatar image

    John Paquette ♦

    While I rather liked the second answer I think you have a point and gave it my thumbs up because of it. I understand what Stenger is trying to say and strictly speaking it actually puts human consciousness front and center in figuring out what does not depend on coordinate systems and other man made artifices, but, and its a big but, the way it is expressed does not convey that.

    (Oct 06 '11 at 10:37) bhobba bhobba's gravatar image

    On further reading of the paper, it strikes me that the paper is based almost purely on mathematics, and hardly at all on observation. The goal of the paper appears to be to deduce laws of physics from some rather advanced mathematics. What the paper perhaps achieves is a good description of how the laws of physics relate to each other from a mathematical standpoint. But I strongly disagree that physical law, or models, can, or should be, mathematically deduced.

    (Oct 08 '11 at 00:05) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

    That the paper places so much emphasis on deduction, and so little emphasis on observation, inclines me to identify the paper as rationalistic. While the paper might make some interesting identifications of how physical laws relate, where it goes astray is in assuming that these mathematical relationships are the genesis of physical law as such.

    (Oct 08 '11 at 00:08) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

    Physical laws, fundamentally, exist to describe physical behavior, enabling us to predict it. Physical laws, then, come from observations of physical behavior, and a rational integration of these observations. "Point of view invariance" might be a fact about physical laws, but by no means is it their source. Math can not substitute for observation.

    (Oct 08 '11 at 00:13) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

    Yes indeed physical laws are used to describe physical behavior and is based on observation. The interesting thing is many physical laws are in fact logically equivalent to invariances. For example it is mathematically provable (this is Noethers Theroem) that if the laws that govern the system are time invariant then that is equivalent to energy being conserved. Both of course are observational statements the truth of which is determined by observation.

    (Oct 08 '11 at 06:04) bhobba bhobba's gravatar image

    The paper seems to me to be more aligned with the view that, while acquisition of knowledge is via observation, once we identify an object's identity, that identity is independent of our observations.

    (Oct 09 '11 at 14:41) Justice Justice's gravatar image

    It also seems to be aligned with the view that laws are knowledge. Qua knowledge, they come from observation and therefore do not come "handed down." Likewise, they come from observation and so are not inherent in objects. The phrase "restrictions on the behavior of physicists" seems to be a play on words to emphasize the point that the laws are knowledge from observation, not a priori and not inherent.

    (Oct 09 '11 at 14:41) Justice Justice's gravatar image

    The point of the paper also seems to be that the disparate laws of physics may be integrated into a new simple principle (with derivations from the principle shown) that the laws of physics must describe entities' identities independently of the person making the identification, i.e. that identity is to be identified, not to be formed by identification. In other words, the principle being that all identifications of identity must simply be consistent.

    (Oct 09 '11 at 14:46) Justice Justice's gravatar image

    This last comment by Justice seems far too charitable towards the paper's author. It's virtually a re-statement of the primacy of existence principle. Sure, primacy of existence might be implicit in the author's thinking, but it certainly isn't explicit.

    Again, I'm no expert on Lagrangians, nor Noether's theorem, both of which require analysis and criticism in their own right. But what I question is any attempt to make a philosophical argument based on mathematics. If you ask me, the paper is either far too terse, or it requires a lot of context to understand at all.

    (Oct 10 '11 at 12:15) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image
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    "Where do the laws of physics come from?"

    Nowhere. The laws of physics don't have a source; they just are -- like the universe itself.

    We can use our senses and our mind to observe the universe and to apply conceptual logic (induction) to come up with various mathematical descriptions of what we perceive. But the laws would exist whether or not humans were around to describe them.

    Or, to directly contradict the paper quoted in the original question: They are rules built into the structure of the universe.

    answered Oct 30 '11 at 02:50

    Rick's gravatar image

    Rick ♦

    This answer conflates reality and our knowledge of it.

    A law of physics is a valid principle regarding the behavior of physical objects.

    What's the source of these valid principles? The HARD WORK of great scientists.

    (Oct 30 '11 at 10:49) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

    I specifically said that "We can use our senses and our mind to observe the universe and to apply conceptual logic (induction) to come up with various mathematical descriptions of what we perceive."

    And yes, that process requires hard work.

    Is a "law of physics" the description of some aspect of how the universe works (as reduced to a principle), or is it the actual way the universe works? I'm suggesting it's the latter -- that the "law of gravity" existed before Newton's discovery and description of it.

    (Oct 30 '11 at 17:46) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image

    Asking "where" the laws of physics come from is a valid question, like any question the aim is to "know" more. To say one already has the answer to such a question is (i.e. "nowhere") is extreme arrogance and ignorance.

    If they are rules they come from "somewhere". Its the task of physicists to find of "where" and even "why".

    (Dec 28 '11 at 15:09) MarcT MarcT's gravatar image
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    Asked: Oct 04 '11 at 11:08

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    Last updated: Dec 28 '11 at 15:09