What are those things we call “laws of nature”?

by Neil Rickert

There was a recent post at Aeon by philosopher Marc Lang:

I want to discuss that, and to discuss some of my disagreements. My first disagreement, is that I don’t believe there are such things as laws of nature. But there are certainly things that people call “laws of nature”. I’m okay with calling them scientific laws. But I doubt that they come from nature. That is to say, I see these laws as human constructs. I do not see them as something that we can just read from nature itself.

In our science classes, we all learned some examples of what scientists currently believe (or once believed) to be laws of nature. Some of these putative laws are named after famous scientists (such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton). Some are generally called ‘laws’ (such as the laws of motion and gravity), while others are typically called ‘principles’ (such as Archimedes’ principle and Bernoulli’s principle), ‘rules’ (such as Born’s rule and Hund’s rule), ‘axioms’ (such as the axioms of quantum mechanics), or ‘equations’ (such as Maxwell’s equations).

It is interesting to note the expression “what scientists currently believe (or once believed) to be laws of nature” for that already suggests that scientists can change their minds as to what they take to be laws of nature. And this seems to agree with my point that these laws are actually human constructs.

The author, Lang, is clearly aware that scientists can change their minds. For he clarifies what he is discussing, with:

“By ‘laws of nature’, I will mean the genuine laws of nature that science aims to discover, not whatever scientists currently believe to be laws of nature.”

My own skeptical view is that there are no genuine laws of nature. And if there are no genuine laws to discover, then scientists cannot be discovering them. At best, they can only construct what they take to be laws.


Lang asks about laws, “Just what kind of necessity do they possess?” He sees this as an important characteristic of such laws:

What all of the various laws have in common, despite their diversity, is that it is necessary that everything obey them. It is impossible for them to be broken. An object must obey the laws of nature.

This does not work for Boyle’s law. According to Boyle’s law, the pressure and volume of a body of gas are related by PV = C where C is just a constant. This assumes that everything else (particularly the temperature) does not change. This is an important law of physics. Yet it is does not have the kind of necessity that Lang wants. I learned about Boyle’s law in high school, and it was immediately obvious that it can be broken. It was obvious, because I already knew that if you compressed a gas enough, it would liquefy. And Boyle’s law would not allow that to happen. So Boyle’s law must fail as the gas approaches the point of liquefication. This was obvious to me as a high school student, and it is surely obvious to all physicists. So Boyle’s law fails the requirement that it cannot be broken. Perhaps Lang can simply say that it is not a genuine law. The physicists deal with this by describing as an ideal gas law. That is, it is true for imagined ideal gasses, but it is not quite right for actual gasses.

We can look at Newton’s laws as another example. These days, most physicists will say that Newton’s laws are false. But there was a time in the past when Newton’s laws were considered to be necessary. So we can examine what kind of necessity they had at that time. As I see it, Newton’s laws were necessary because they were analytic statements. That is to say, that were true by virtue of the meanings of their terms. But today, Newton’s laws are seen as false, mostly because of other developements in science such as Einstein’s relativity.

How is that possible if Newton’s laws were analytic? Quite simple, the meanings of the terms have now changed in subtle ways, so that Newton’s laws are no longer analytic in terms of the current meanings.

Rules of the the game

Lang looks at the rules of chess, to consider a particular kind of necessity. But he does not see that as applying to laws of science:

The natural laws obviously do not ‘govern’ the Universe in the way that the rules of chess govern a game of chess. Chess players know the rules and so deliberately conform to them, whereas inanimate objects do not know the laws of nature and have no intentions.

He is right that inanimate objects have no intentions and do not follow laws as rules. He is looking at scientific laws the same way as most people do. And that inanimate objects are not obliged to follow our laws seems to make laws mysterious.

I look at this rather differently. I see the laws of physics as the rules of the game of physics. The physicists do know these rules, and they do deliberately conform to them.

That standard view of Newton’s second law, is that when a force is applied to an object, then that object will accelerate in accordance with f=ma. Looked at from my perspective, however, Newton’s second law is telling the physicist that when he sees an object accelerating, he must ascribe a force as the cause of that acceleration. So I see it as a rule for physicists to follow, rather than a rule for inanimate objects to follow. In effect, I see Newton’s laws as rules for physicists to follow when using terms such as mass, velocity, acceleration, force. If we go with Wittgenstein’s saying, that meaning is use, then by defining the rules on how we use those terms, Newton’s laws are implicitly establishing the meanings of those terms. And that’s why Newton’s laws were analytic. But these days, physicists instead use rules from Einstein’s relativity, which are subtly different and lead to subtly different meanings.


A mistake that is often made, is to assume that scientific laws are valued because they are true. In practice, however, they are valued because they are very useful. That’s a pragmatic judgement rather than a judgement of truth. Boyle’s law is a good example of this. As discussed above, it is not strictly true. But it still works very well for the situations where it is used. Likewise, Newton’s laws are often seen as false, in the light of relativity. Nevertheless, Newton’s laws work well for many uses, and they are easier to use than the corresponding statements from relativity.

Can laws be analytic?

A view I often see expressed, is that analytic statements are tautologies and therefore have no actual value. So they could not be scientific laws. I disagree with that, and I did discuss that in an earlier post.A

As I see it, the mistake is to view laws as propositions. When considering a statement to be a proposition, you are presupposing the meanings used and folding those in as part of the proposition. That cannot work when part of the role of the law is to implicitly define the meanings being used.

Scientific laws are not all analytic. As discussed above, Boyle’s law is false, so cannot be an analytic truth. However, because the laws are very useful, they are much used. And if we go with Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use”, then those laws will tend to affect meanings. It should not be a surprise if, as a result of using these laws, the scientist’s meanings shift toward making the laws analytic.

33 Comments to “What are those things we call “laws of nature”?”

  1. There is a lot of holdover in western thought of natural law, gods law, right and wrong, etc, but that there are laws at all of any kind is a human invention. Law is actually an organic process that must meet current, acceptable standards. It’s en evolutionary process, but where certain mindsets believe an infinite ruler actually has laws, therefore everything is based on a law of some kind. But overall, the idea of a law which is rich from Hebrew tradition, where say in ancient China, the words for law were equivalent to “norm” or “model”. This is the difference between cultures with and without mythological ontologies.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Take a college physics course. You will learn that the laws of nature are not human inventions but actual laws that govern our universe. All our buildings, bridges, roads are possible because engineers understand Newtonian mechanics (a collection of natural laws), all expressed as mathematics which is not a social construct.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That isn’t the least but true. Laws of nature are simply associated regularities that can also be untrue in different circumstances or understandings.
        Have it your way, but there are no laws of nature or governors commanding into being and behaving. What appears to be normal can easily be adjusted in science. Religion, not so much, obviously

        Liked by 1 person

        • Newton’s Laws of Motion are not associated regularities and are not applicable to anything other than physics. Flat earthers think the earth is flat and nothing anyone says to the contrary can convince them otherwise. The denial of natural law is the denial of science.


  2. A quick jump off your roof top will prove to you that natural laws are not human constructs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That actually misses the point.

      Yes, reality behaves in the way that it does. But what we call “laws” are human constructs intended to describe that behavior.

      Liked by 2 people

      • We have rightfully discarded belief in the Hebrew god, but we have held the idea of law, which defiles the process in science. It permeates the culture more than we’d like to believe.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I did not miss the point at all. Galileo wrote that the laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics. Mathematics is not a social construct and thus, neither are the laws of nature.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Galileo wrote that the laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics.

          That would make them human constructs.

          Mathematics is not a social construct …

          As a mathematician, I disagree.

          Liked by 1 person

          • That there are laws is an arbitrary conditioning of culture. It hasn’t always been the case.

            Liked by 1 person

          • There is nothing arbitrary about mathematics.


          • Let’s cut right to the meat. If your comment is true it would always be true.
            Roger Penrose argues that human consciousness is non-algorithmic, and thus is not capable of being modeled by a conventional Turing machine, which includes a digital computer.
            The incomputability of the Entscheidungs problem, or decision problem, makes it clear many things that are regular can be computed, but what does the computing (the mind) cannot.


          • Jim, Your comment is a non sequitur that jumps the shark of common sense. Natural law is about the nature of things. Human beings have their own nature, just as dogs and cats have their own natures. These natures pertain to the creature itself. Thus, they cannot be human constructs.

            The same applies to other parts of the natural world. Gravity has a nature. Stars have natures. So do planets. None of these are human constructs.

            The mathematics through which we understand the natural world, likewise is not a human construct, but a monumental cornucopia of discoveries.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Nice dodging. How can what makes you aware not be part of the equation? Ah yes, your hope to be right so you dismiss it.


          • All sentient creatures process their surroundings according to their natures. We are called H o m o Sapiens – Man who knows. Our human nature allows us to take deep dives into the nature of reality.


          • So you think we do. I would suggest we think we can outsmart our own neurology and consciousness and that is pure arrogance, as evidenced by the repeated outsoles. Sort of like your faith—mathematically incoherent but oh so true. Lol


          • If you trust mathematics why not trust Neils expertise on the subject. Are you more qualified than a real mathematician? Sounds like you adopted some opinion without real knowledge of the subject.


          • A mathematician who says mathematics is a human construct is not a mathematician. I am educated in electrical engineering, biotechnology and philosophy. I know the difference between mathematics and leftist propaganda. Since I have a brain of my own I don’t need an “expert” to tell me what to think.


          • You also believe in Jesus. Sorry man, your bias is sticking out. How is math leftist unless your a conspiracy nutter?


          • Jim, I have not used religious faith in any of my comments. I have used my understanding of mathematic, science and philosophy in my comments.


          • I have a very solid example of where ultimately math fails and you dismissed it outright instead of explaining how I was in error and having a discussion. You can always tell an engineer, but you can’t tell them much.


          • I did explain how you are in error. The argument you presented was nonsense.


          • The fact that I had that argument entirely shoots yours in the foot unless you want to discount your predictable reply.


          • Gravity has a nature. Stars have natures. So do planets. None of these are human constructs.

            Stars are not human constructs. The word “star” is a human construct. The sentences that we write to describe stars are human constructs.

            As used in the Aeon post which I was discussing, “laws” refer to those sentences, so they are human constructs.


          • Words are speech which is uniquely human. But even words find their origins in the drive every creature has to stay alive. The drive to stay alive is powered by the vegetative powers: consumption of energy (eating and breathing), reproduction, shelter from the environment, etc.

            At the root of our socialization and all social constructs is survival and flourishing. Therefore, our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not social constructs, but integral to the fulfillment of our human nature.


          • If you disagree with the nature of mathematics than you are a mechanic who teaches method, nothing more.


  3. Laws is a poor choice of words. It’s simply how nature, which encompasses everything, behaves some of the time, most of the time, all of the time. Sometimes we know know how this behavior comes about or we suspect how it comes about. At bottom line, it’s evolution and the emergence qualities it can produce. Man is the discoverer, not the inventor and sometimes can bend them to his will. Nature or evolution or whatever you want to call it, is the inventor. And the why?..well there is no why. It’s just the way it is.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. 1) Do not understand your objection to Boyle’s Law at the point of liquifecation. Seems to me that at such point the substance is no longer a gas, thus the Law is not applicable.

    2) As a mathematician, I disagree that mathematics is a social construct.

    3) Do not see why Newton’s Laws are now to be considered false. Qualifications merely have been added which were not evident originally.

    4) You state initially that you do not believe laws exist. I what sense has anything you’ve said demonstrate that they do not? You have merely indicated several debates along the lines of their possible character, or not. Nothing was said about their existence.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Do not understand your objection to Boyle’s Law at the point of liquifecation. Seems to me that at such point the substance is no longer a gas, thus the Law is not applicable.

      Boyle’s law will fail before it reaches the point of liquifecation.

      Do not see why Newton’s Laws are now to be considered false. Qualifications merely have been added which were not evident originally.

      Best to ask physicists about that.

      You state initially that you do not believe laws exist. I what sense has anything you’ve said demonstrate that they do not?

      I have not claimed to demonstrate that. But I still don’t believe that laws exist.

      Laws are linguistic constructs. And all of human language is a human construct.


  5. Since science and mathematics seem too arcane, how about seeing natural law through brewing beer and wine, and making cheese.

    All three endeavors are accomplished with different species of bacteria consuming the nutrients in their environment. Beer brewing has the added complication of the malted wheat which is turned into bacteria growth medium (wort).

    These bacteria function best at a temperature particular to their species. Malted wheat gives up its sugars into the growth medium at a particular temperature. The target temperatures are natural laws determined by the bacteria and wheat malt.

    Quality is determined by how well the brewer or cheese maker adheres to the natural laws presented to him by the bacteria and malted wheat.

    Similarly, our human nature presents us with natural laws. Our quality of life is determined by how well we follow those natural laws.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have to admit that Aeon article lost me when I read it. I keep meaning to go back and take another shot.

    On whether laws exist, I guess it depends on what we mean by that term. The article author does try to make a distinction between the human constructs and the underlying reality. Probably nothing humans have come up with perfectly matches the reality. Yet we seem able to come up with rules that provide increasingly reliable predictions (and retrodictions) across ever wider spans of applicability. That seems to imply that we’re getting closer to something.

    Now, we could quibble about what to call these somethings we’re getting closer to. There’s something “law like” about them. But since a law in this context is sort of a crutch concept anyway, I don’t know that it hurts anything to call this something a “law”. The real question is how close we are to really understanding it. No matter how close we are, we can always discover that we’re not there yet and that we have to revise what we currently have. But that’s science.

    So maybe the right way to look at it is there are laws, that we can get increasingly closer to, but never arrive at. And the things we call “laws”, probably should be thought of as ~laws, which get ever closer to actual laws.

    Liked by 2 people

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