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December 17, 2014

Comments

Hi Brett - this is a great series, lots of food for thought as to how Christian Theism integrates with science. Christians who are also professional scientists (like me, PhD physicist) are keenly interested in the integration of science and Christian Theism (see www.asa3.org, for example).

Your third point seems to me to have the relationship between the regularities and the generalizations reversed, this sentence in particular:

From such regularities, scientists can deduce law-like generalizations that are causally responsible for those regularities.

I'd like to offer an alternative statement of the point you are trying to make:
Let me define two concepts:
1. The Laws of Nature(the physical universe, designed and created by God): these are the properties and dynamics of the 'stuff' that the physical universe is made of. The regularities and patterns that we observe are due to these laws. From a Christian point of view, these are the Laws Of God's Physics - how Nature works as God understands it, and sustains it.
2. The Laws of Physics: these are our generalizations and mathematical frameworks that we have constructed to describe those regularities and patterns that have been designed and implemented in Nature and are inherent to Nature (by God Himself). Our generalizations are not causally responsible for Nature's dynamics - it is the other way around. Now, I am a critical realist and hold to a correspondence theory of truth, so I think our Laws of Physics are (hopefully, increasingly) good approximate descriptions of Nature (or perhaps even God's Physics), as we observe and experiment with various systems at ever increasing resolutions. The fact that we can apply our knowledge to construct technology that actually works suggests that we are on the right track.

What do you think?


Victoria, in most of the things I've read, "Law of nature" and "laws of physics" are used interchangeably. Are these technical definitions you're using, or is this the way these terms are generally used by physicists, or is this just how you prefer to use these phrases?

@Sam
I'm using the distinction to disambiguate between how Nature actually behaves (God's physics), and our descriptions and mathematical models of that behaviour (humankind's physics). I think that there can be a real correspondence between the two, and that we really can see what principles God used to design Nature - my current favourite is the universal applicability of the Principle of Least Action (or Stationary Action) - the fact that the dynamics of a system can be described by the time integral of a Lagrangian function, and requiring that this integral be stationary (first derivative = 0) to extract the dynamical equations (see the Euler-Lagrange equations) for the system. This carries with it a whole lot of implications: (see Noether's Theorems) related to symmetry and conservation laws; originally developed as a deeper understanding of Newton's 3 laws, it can be extended to electromagnetism, quantum theory, special and general relativity very naturally. This principle has to be postulated as axiomatic - there is as yet no more fundamental theory as to why this applies to Nature.

Ever wonder why gravity behaves as a spherically symmetric inverse-square-law force? Because we live in a universe where the macroscopic geometry of space-time is (3 space, 1 time) dimensional. But that only follows because Gauss' Divergence Theorem holds for any N-dimensional space, and the gravitational force is irrotational (zero curl - see Helmholtz's Theorem: a vector field can be completely specified if its divergence and curl are known).

Yet Newtonian gravity is only approximately correct - it works well enough in the appropriate scale limits, but we need General Relativity to understand what we can observe at higher resolutions.

Victoria,

I understand the distinction you're making. What I'm wanting to know is whether this distinction you codify with the phrases "laws of nature" and "laws of physics" is codified by those same phrases by all physicists or not. Are you just choosing to use these phrases this way, or are these technical definitions that all physicists would use?

I also think that the answer to Eugene Wigner's essay on the "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences", is that God thought of it first, and designed His Laws of Physics accordingly, so that we could have the joy and privilege of discovering it for ourselves.

@Sam
I can't speak for all physicists, but most of the Christian physicists I know would subscribe to that distinction. I'm sure if you went to the American Scientific Affiliation web site, you'd find articles discussing this very topic.

The reason and necessity for the distinction should be obvious - our 'laws of physics' are always subject to modifications and corrections, as our insight and ability to resolve details more precisely improves.

For almost three centuries, Classical Physics were 'The Laws of Physics = The Laws of Nature', until Relativity and Quantum Physics changed all that. Currently, Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity are our two fundamental frameworks, yet they are incompatible. From cosmology, we understand that there would have been a time when the entire universe (all of spacetime itself) was at a size where quantum effects would be important. Yet, we have no good theories for unifying QFT and GR yet (maybe M-Theory (or string theory), maybe Loop Quantum Gravity, maybe ???). Yet this is no problem for Nature or God - He has always known what the real physics is.

Even in QFT, all the really interesting calculations are perturbation series (see for example, 'determination of the fine structure constant from magnetic moment measurements'), and the mechanisms by which a field creates and annihilates its particles are opaque to us - the formalism describes what is going on in those terms, but doesn't let us see behind the veil.

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