Thursday, October 10, 2019

Approximatable laws

Some people, most notably Robin Collins, have run teleological arguments from the discoverability of the laws of nature.

But I doubt that we know that the laws of nature are discoverable. After all, it seems we haven’t discovered the laws of physics yet.

But the laws of nature are, surely, approximatable: it is within our power to come up with approximations that work pretty well in limited, but often useful, domains. This feature of the laws of nature is hard to deny. At the same time, it seems to be a very anthropocentric feature, since the both the ability to approximate and the usefulness are anthropocentric features. The approximatability of the laws of nature thus suggests a universe whose laws are designed by someone who cares about us.

Objection: Only given approximatable laws is intelligence an advantage, so intelligent beings will only evolve in universes with approximatable laws. Hence, the approximatable laws can be explained in a multiverse by an anthropic principle.

Response: Approximatability is not a zero-one feature. It comes in degrees. I grant that approximatable laws are needed for intelligence to be an advantage. But they only need to be approximatable to the degree that was discovered by our prehistoric ancestors. There is no need for the further approximatability that was central to the scientific revolution. Thus an anthropic principle explanation only explains a part of the extent of approximatability.


Atno said...

This also quite nicely avoid multiverse objections (while standard fine tuning has to appeal to further data, such as the surprisingly low entropy in our universe). I think it will become a standard argument in the next 20 years, as progress is made on this "new" fine tuning.

Philip Rand said...


Do you know the measured tolerence of the spheriocity of the electron?

You have a BIG problem using philosophical arguments that have no empirical foundations...

araybold said...

To continue with the objection and your response a little further, some of the more recently-discovered approximations allow for global thermonuclear war. Possible worlds in which a nuclear exchange destroys civilization, and perhaps all human life, are quite plausible - simply the number of false alarms which might have turned out otherwise is enough to establish that. How does one square this with a creator who cares about us?

Alexander R Pruss said...

We don't know if the creator would allow a global thermonuclear war if push came to shove. He might make a launcher misfire or something. Let's not do the experiment!

Seriously, when I reflect on the very close calls during the cold war (Cuban missile crisis, etc.), I think theism provides a decent explanation of why none of these close calls turned into a global thermoculear war.

araybold said...

One can always invoke divine intervention, but I think it weakens the argument. At this point, we have the proposition that the apparently-approximatable universe argues for a creator who cares for us, except that, on the one hand, there is the alternative argument that we would not have evolved sufficient intelligence to recognize these approximations unless the universe were somewhat approximatable, while on the other hand, divine intervention may be needed when we are all too effective at approximating!

This also raises the question of whether a creator had a choice in the matter. I do not know whether it is metaphysically possible to have a universe capable of supporting conscious beings while being incapable of supporting the production, by these beings, of thermonuclear weapons, but there are implications either way. If this is possible, then why did a creator who is nominally concerned for our welfare choose the version we are stuck with? On the other hand, if the creator had no choice, then a blanket argument from approximatability(!) to a benevolent creator has some holes in it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

This is helpful. There are pluses and minuses of approximatable laws like ours. The plus is that we have knowledge and technology that can help us a lot. The minus is that we have technology that can harm us a lot. But wouldn't it be a pretty good combination to give us such laws, but insert a small number of miraculous interventions to keep us from the worst misuses of it?

Compare scenarios:

1. No approximatable laws that enable beneficial technology.
2. Approximatable laws that enable beneficial technology but not global nuclear war level of destruction (GNWLD) technology.
3. Approximatable laws that enable beneficial technology and GNWLD technology and miracles to prevent GNWLD.

Clearly, 2 is better than 1. As you note, it's not clear whether 2 is possible. If 2 is impossible, then 3 is a good option.

But suppose 2 is possible. Then I think a case can be made that 3 is still better than 2. For in 3, we have the ability to freely exercise restraint from GNWLD. And that's a good that's not available in 2. And should we choose not to exercise the restraint, then God can just do a miracle and stop us. (As I think he might well have--at least that seems to be the best explanation of how we survived the cold war without GNWLD.)

So, if 3 is better than 2, we would expect a benevolent creator to provide 3.

A different (complementary?) answer to your comment is that on the Christian story, moral evil is not a part of the original plan. It's not surprising if things can go wrong in the system when the system is not being operated according to specifications. It is no complaint against a hammer that if you hit yourself on the head with it hard enough, it can kill you.

araybold said...

This discussion, and others like it, are helping me understand the philosophical approach. Formerly, I would have simply said that the invocation of divine intervention in the thermonuclear case seems predicated on a creator who cares about our fate and so is essentially begging the original question, and left it at that, but now I can see how you use it as a starting point for an extended analysis that is not just about accepting or rejecting the original argument.

As it happens, I think there is yet another possible response here (though not one that I, personally, would give much credence to.) There are those futurists who are concerned that humanity is ultimately doomed if it stays within the solar system, either from the progress of the sun along the main sequence, or from an asteroid impact. One could propose that our descendants' escape from that fate might be dependent on a physics that also makes fission and fusion exploitable as weapons of mass destruction, and the possibility of our self-destruction is a risk that cannot be avoided.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I really appreciated your comments about the downsides of technology and knowledge. I am too much an optimist at times.

I would find the considerations in your second paragraph compelling were it not that I am inclined to think that the Second Coming is soon. Of course, what "soon" means to an eternal being is unclear. But I am inclined to think it's sooner than the sun making our solar system uninhabitable. And I suspect that we will have means to prevent asteroid impact long before we have means to leave the solar system.

By the way, some time back I posted an argument for the existence of God from the nonoccurrence of a nuclear war. Here are the two posts: