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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 God’s acting in the world is strongly affirmed.

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.

Stoeger’s 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, God’s 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 God acts.

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