Stoeger, William R. Contemporary Physics and the Ontological Status of the Laws of Nature."
How should we think of the
laws of nature? Bill Stoeger poses this
as an absolutely crucial question underlying the entire discussion of
science, philosophy and theology. In
his essay, Stoeger defends the thesis that the laws, although revealing
fundamental regularities in nature, are not the source of those regularities,
much less of their physical necessity.
They are descriptive and not prescriptive and do not exist independently
of the reality they describe. Stoeger
thus rejects a Platonic interpretation of the laws of nature. They have no pre-existence with respect to
nature; this means that they do not ultimately explain why nature is as it
is. Instead, the regularities which the
laws of nature describe stem from the regularities of physical reality itself,
a reality whose complexity subverts any attempt at a reductionist approach to
science. Thus a theory of everything
is ruled out, and the possibility in principle of Gods acting in the world is
The laws of nature are
approximate models, idealized constructions which can never be complete and
isomorphic descriptions of nature.
Prevailing theories are eventually replaced or subsumed, often entailing
a radically different concept of nature.
Moreover, no theory, no matter how complete, can answer the ultimate
question: why nature is as it is and
not some other way. Stoeger is thus
critical of those realists who make excessive claims about the correspondence
between theory and the structures of reality.
The illusion that we are somehow discerning reality as it truly is in itself is a pervasive and dangerous
one. Stoeger also argues that
ontological reductionism and determinism are untenable. The laws of nature are in fact human
constructions guided by careful research.
The intermediate-level regularities which they model originate in the
relationships of fundamental entities in a multi-layered universe, many of
which remain beyond our purview. An
understanding of the ultimate origins of these underlying regularities takes us
to the limits of what can be known.
Stoegers account of the
status of the laws of nature leads him to argue that the laws neither exist
independently of the universe nor are they prescriptive of its behavior. It thus does not make sense to suppose that
there may be other sets of actual or potential laws that might describe
universes different from our own. This
reduces the cogency of many-worlds arguments which hypothesize the existence
of other universes as a means of explaining away the (supposed) fine-tuning of
our own universe.
Stoeger then turns to the
problem of divine action in light of his nuanced realism. God can be thought of as acting through the
laws of nature. However the term laws
refers here to the underlying relations in nature and not principally to our
imperfect and idealized models of them.
Moreover, as their ultimate source, Gods relationship to these laws
will be from within and God will not need to formalize it. Our relationship to them will always be
from without and it will be only partially manifested through our laws. Finally, as imperfect models of the
regularities and relationships we find in nature, our laws only deal with
general features in nature. They cannot
subsume the particular, special and personal aspects, though these aspects are
part of the deeper underlying regularities and relationships of nature. It is through these aspects, as well, that
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