Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Can Law Make Worlds?

As the recent Obamacare decision teaches, law does not read or apply itself. For that you need judges, agents who exercise judgment on how to first see and then apply the generalities of law to the particularities of a situation. (Machines will never do this.) The inherent impotence of law combined with the freewheeling power of agency — essentially the physically undetermined will to act, the power to put ideas/values to work — can lead to some unexpected results.
Physical law, no different from other kinds of law, is at bottom a set of ideas expressed in language. Bare ideas do nothing and live nowhere unless mindful agents first generate them, hold them in thought, and then act upon them. Law is, to use a philosophical term, a mind-dependent reality. If there is law, then there is mind. If there is no mind, then there is no law.
Against this, UC Berkeley astrophysicist Alex Filippenko recently said in a comment reported at MSNBC:

The Big Bang could’ve occurred as a result of just the laws of physics being there. With the laws of physics, you can get universes.

Where are, or were, the laws of physics? Why, “there,” says Filippenko. But where is “there,” exactly? Filippenko doesn’t say. And he probably doesn’t want to say. To avoid saying that the universe has always existed, or that there is behind it an infinite series of causes, Filippenko apparently wants a first cause of some sort, but not a personal first cause, not a mind, not an agent.
So he subtly turns physical law into a mind-independent reality, something that is self-sufficiently “there” at the beginning, something that can thus be filled with world-creating agency and power. But what would you call “law” that lives nowhere in particular yet could of its own accord decide when, where and how to apply itself? In seeking to identify such a strange power, the one name we cannot give it is “law.”
Here, for the patient, is a more reverent treatment of the big question.

Joshua Youngkin

An attorney, and previously, Discovery Institute Program Officer in Public Policy and Legal Affairs.