Old Moore’s Almanack

The discussion on my recent divine action piece has gone in a direction that is quite detailed. That’s all to the good, as there are not many blogs where serious work along these lines gets discussed. I’m aware, though, that for myself and probably many regular readers we’re operating beyond the limits of our knowledge of Aristotle, Aquinas and so on. Stick with it, though – the more we all get even slightly familiar with these metaphysical issues , which are central to the science-faith debate, the richer the result will be for all. Today, though, I want to revisit a more basic point that is probably still a difficulty for some of us.

That is, the idea that maybe extrinsic “laws of nature” is a bad way of thinking about scientific reality, in comparison with some variation on the older Aristotelian idea that the properties they describe are intrinsic to the natures of material things themselves. That’s what led to the more detailed discussions about powers, forms, essences and so on in the other post.

The basic point is that it’s pretty hard to conceive of what or where a “law of nature” actually is, and infinitely more so in atheistic science. Whereas it makes sense in either case to conceive of properties embodied in the things that actually act or are acted upon. An example, partly analogical (or at least scientifically dubious!) may help explain this to the bewildered.

That example is Moore’s Law, celebrating its fiftieth birthday this month. This is the “law” that says that the density of transistors that it is possible to pack into a circuit board will double approximately very two years. In fact, it was based on the observation of Intel’s Gordon Moore (who originally put the doubling period at a year, but later revised it). In either case, he was describing, and predicting, an exponential rise, which has persisted up until the present time and is illustrated by the difference in size, capacity and speed between a compact computer of the sixties and an Apple Watch.

It’s probably doubtful that anyone actually involved in computer technology has thought of Moore’s law as a true “law of nature”, in the sense of an abstract rule of the universe, like e=mc^2, somewhere “out there”, whose divine policing semiconductor technology has to obey. Or maybe some do, but if so they’re clearly wrong.

For a start, the limiting factors are that the law could only have come into existence when semiconductors were invented – or more significantly, when the commercial need and the industrial base to decrease their size kicked in. And it will, inevitably, cease to be true when the physical constraints of matter are approached, for it would appear that transistors cannot be reduced in size beyond the molecular scale, and they’re not far off that already. So what Moore was really observing was a highly constrained part of the human bit of the cosmos, and any patterns he saw reflected the internal nature of human theoretical ideas of computing, of an increasingly lucrative industry prompted by both the perception of new applications and mass-marketing, and of various more or less fortuitous factors like a stable world economy: a Nuclear War in the early seventies would have instantly falsified the law.

Furthermore, Moore’s Law has become a largely self-fulfilling prophecy, because it soon formed the basis for the R&D targets corporations like Intel set themselves.

But the key point is that within its limitations, any truth of Moore’s Law is entirely dependent on the “internal” nature of human activities. These activities (which in this case, being human, include free choices) impose the observed pattern on reality. They do not “obey” an external law, except to the extent that humans have formulated the pattern as a law and chosen to obey it in their industrial strategies.

Nevertheless, the fact that there is a widespread knowledge of Moore’s Law demonstrates that law-talk can be a helpful way of understanding and abstracting the relationships between the entities involved (ie people, companies, materials etc). But I hope we can agree that in this case, it’s literally a legal fiction – a way of handling reality, and in no way a description of reality itself.

The application to natural science ought to be obvious. If laws are useful but fictional in semiconductor development, they may in principle be so in natural science. They may be a purely human construction. And given the problems in making sense of what such laws might actually be, apart from the direct commands to completely inert matter of an “occasionalist” Deity, there is a very good case for arguing that they are purely human conveniences. It’s a lot more likely that the internal properties of entities, acting in predictable ways, impose patterns on the universe. I’m not sure how practicable it would be to reformulate the whole of mathematical science on such an assumption – those like Aristotle who originated it predate mathematical science. Perhaps it would be possible, but unwieldy. Perhaps it would provide new insights.

But in terms of our conception of the universe, it is a radical reversal of the corpuscular approach of the seventeenth century, in which matter was a mass of inert particles governed by God’s external laws. Instead, matter becomes a rich web of specific properties and powers, which to the Christian both originate from, and may be (without prejudice to their reality) individually governed by, God.

When one comes to think of it, the analogy of “divine laws of nature” with “God’s divine law to man” was never particularly good. In the New Testament, and also in the Old if ones theology is more than superficial, God’s Law was intended to be something written in human hearts, not something imposed externally by God on inert souls. In the Garden, it is conceived that by nature mankind was in congruence with God’s will for him – something we see supremely in the man Jesus, whose freedom consisted of obeying his Father’s will at all times, saying exactly what God told him to say and so on. The work of grace in the New Covenant is to write God’s law on our hearts, creating us anew in Christ’s likeness. Sin is not so much disobedience to an external Law, but bondage to a perverted intrinsic nature.

Material things, lacking freedom of will, will always be true to their natures. And so the old idea of “natures” in science is actually closer to the biblical concept of law than is the idea of “laws of nature” that modern science borrowed from the Bible.

Whether Robert Boyle would be convinced by that argument I don’t know – but if he lived now I guess both his science and his theology would have developed.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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7 Responses to Old Moore’s Almanack

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    I think “Moore’s Law” is a good example of a law which only apparent and not real, because the degree to which it is satisfied depends entirely on the detailed features of many different individual things and processes.

    If we think that natural laws are akin to Moore’s Law, then science should be taken to concern itself with the detailed powers and arrangements of particular things and the processes they are involved in. There will still of course be ‘scientific laws’, but they will now be laws describing the nature and operation of individual causes, not some sweeping generalities prescribed as if from afar.

    (As you say, it is like writing the law on individual human hearts. A wonderful similarity.)

    The result of such a shift in science is that we cannot after all be sure, unless we examine particular things, that all entities have internal properties of entities that act in predictable ways. That only follows if the entities had the same internal properties.

    In a similar vein, we cannot be sure even that the natures of things are constant, unless we examine them. For example, we cannot be sure that all physical things behave the same way in isolation as they do in the context of a living organism. We cannot be sure that the conservation of energy, having been tested for isolated systems, applies to all the subsystems of a biological organism, unless we investigate to find out.

    The challenge for science, then, it to explain the causes of the natures of things: to explain all their powers and substructures. In the light of field theory in quantum mechanics, that explanation begins to seem possible, though in a rather complicated manner we might look at in the future.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


      This discussion (continuing from that on the other thread) touches some quite revolutionary ideas. My first (gut) reaction to your discussion on the multiple effects of nature was “That’s a science stopper”, in that the scientific dream of one, or a few, simple laws describing reality suddenly retreats from view in a mass of individual interactions.

      In the past I’ve suggested that this may be true for biology – that we can no more find “a law of evolution” than we can find a law of history, and for the same reasons – the sheer complexity of interacting causes. I’d not really considered it in the study of the “hard” sciences, but it makes sense (if not being comforting for the growth of human omnisicence!).

      But, when it comes to it, whatever model of science one takes, considering God in theistic terms – ie, he makes choices about what happens in his cosmos – leaves one with a degree of the same problem. Even if there were a page of classical equations and we knew them all, a God who governs by choices rather than absenting himself will make the world an historical, not an algorithmic, system.

      Yet science, suitably humbled, could still continue to give true knowledge, because within approximations aspects of the world are predictable, and the study of the nature of natures should be no less fruitful than the study of the nature of laws.

      Ian, as a poor mathematician reformulating our useful generalisations like Newtons laws, or even perhaps Moore’s laws, from an “individual power/nature” perspective sounds as impractical as trying to calculate an orbital trajectory from quantum mechanics. As a physicist, do you think we’d be stuck with “legal” mathematical formulations, or could things be expressed in the new way by the simple manipulation of + signs or something?

      • Ian Thompson says:

        I would not be quite so pessimistic.

        We can already see many instances of powers and forms in physics. Electric charge, inertial mass, gravitational mass are all measures of powers to interact, as indeed are all coupling constants in quantum field theories. As are energy, especially potential energy. And the forms are the field shapes themselves.

        So we have powers in a certain spatial form, just like substances in certain forms. I think a lot of physics can easily be revisioned as the operations of various powers distributed in various spatial forms. Equations, such as Schrodingers equation, explain how energy generates the time evolution of those spatial forms. And I want to suggest that ‘to exist’ just IS ‘to be a persisting power’. That simplifies some issues.

        The predictability arises of one assumes that (say) all electrons have the same charge. That is what science assumes as its base theory. If true, it generates behaviour which be described by universal laws, and we are back to laws again but now they are derived and not fundamental. For if the electric charges varied, we would get different behaviour. (Some cosmologists do imagine that – a time varying of the structure ‘constant’ – so these are serious issues!)

        For theism the real question is how objects to have (or be) certain sets of powers. Just like those cosmologist, we can imagine powers (coupling constants) varying locally (not just globally according to the age of the universe).

        In theism, we imagine God as Life Itself and creation as the recipient of that life. If we translate that to physics, we would have the powers of objects arising by reception of powers from God. Possibly reception via intermediaries we know as yet little about. (This is theism as distinct from deism!)

        You see that new ways of thinking about laws suggest new ways of seeing how God sustains the universe: both its existence and its powers (or both, if these aspects are identical at some level).

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          OK Ian, that’s a satifying reply.

          Particularly significant is your reminder that the different possible theoretical approaches we have may well be equally descriptive of nature, but will differ in the questions they lead us to ask about the world – and of course about God.

  2. GD GD says:

    One of a number of way of discussing what we may mean by “laws of science” is to consider the general notion of a theory that is accepted by that community of scientists – this is mainly understood as a current paradigm. My point however, is that acceptance also means adherence – thus as a community accepts a law giving a speed limit of say 50km/h, and everyone drives within that limit (unless for some reason they do not, and can be penalised). This changes imo the meaning of “law” into something that human beings endeavour to conform to. I think much of science and scientists may be understood in this way. That is why people may say “Newton’s theory”, “Einstein’s equation”, and so on.

    At a deeper level however, scientists create formulae and sentences that we believe would encapsulate the particular physical object/phenomena studied. We understand there is truth content is such formulations and it is this that I think causes scientists and philosophers to provide detailed articulations – I find this area very interesting since any ‘truth content’ must in some way point to the source of all truth. As humans we are prone to error, so we are faced with a dilemma; just how true is this observation, formula, experiment, and so on. I think an adequate philosophy of science would examine these questions and seek ways to articulate truth content and also ways to identify error. It is this fascinating aspect of the Sciences that will motivate us to further examine, for example, the distinction(s) between properties and causes, forces and motion, instrumental observations and intuition. We may argue for the divine image as underpinning or enabling humanity, and also we may argue the creation is endowed with (for the sake of argument) with the property of being examined and thus subject to human enquiry and reason. I guess we may also argue for a causal series commencing from God as an initial cause, but I find this unpersuasive – mainly because the language talking of God differs from that dealing with causality.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


      As I understand you, you’re proposing that one should accept “laws” as human approximations (or even distortions, if we were to follow some kind of Aristotelian path about intrinsic natures). The scientists who formulate them would seek to conform to them almost as a working convention or professional discipline, aware that they must be sharply distinguished from the realities of nature. They would bind themselves to, say, quantum equations – in conscious recognition that they werent binding nature or God by them.

      That would be rather like an poet or musician working within the constraints of a genre, well aware that in some other human culture the conventions could be very different, though still aiming at true “communications” between the natural reality and human understanding.

      That seems to be the way they operated in Mediaeval times – all that “saving the appearances” stuff, where the watchword was best utility, rather than absolute truth. Such theories would tell truths about nature (and hence also serve the functions of natural theology in pointing to God’s ways), but would have to be accepted as treating nature, and God, as analogically as poetry or music does.

      In fact, it would seem that science already does that by both the symbolic abstractions of the language of maths, and the pictures we use of particles, waves and fields, quarks possessing charm and spin, and so on. If I’m right in interpreting you, the shift would be one of perception of the scientific task (in the direction of humility).

      • GD GD says:

        Hi Jon,

        Responding to your comments:

        “The scientists who formulate them” would be motivated by insights and previous formulations – in that sense they would seek not to conform to current thinking – but I see this as a vast simplification. Nonetheless the discipline consistent with that area is the current state of understanding and how that was achieved to that time. The distinction I am making is between accepting and using these by most, or all scientists working in that area, and this acceptance would enable us to regard them as “laws” – instead of a legislator body declaring laws for a community (ie speed limit), the scientists declare the formulation as a formal statement, describing the “state of the art” that is imposed as part of the ddiscipline.

        The analogy with art or poetry includes an act of creation, rather than discovery. An artist creates something that has ‘things’ that no-one had made or constructed before. It is the unique and novel aspect of the work of art that is recognised by others. However the artist is still using material that is available to him and then adds his creativity within this context. The scientist may think in ways that others may not have, but he is directly concerned with the object/phenomena, and less interested in something entirely new or uncreated.

        Theologically Thomas argues from Aristotle, arriving at the eternal matter which needs to be given motion, and Thomas says that prime mover is God. This in effect modifies Aristotle to make him compatible with the theology of Thomas.

        To use an example; the doctrine is creation from nothing – a scientist may equate nothing with a vacuum and notice this is part of the Universe. Or he may articulate this differently; nowadays we may say God created space, time, and all therein, and is not bound to this in any way – so we may end up saying, God created heaven and earth, and included as part of that creation a beginning we may comprehend. We may need to debate ‘nothingness’ not as an act of humility, but to improve our understanding of the notion or concept (and what is such a beginning?) We can discuss other notions in this way (going back to what science may think), such as energies and God sustains. In any event, looking to laws of science for such a discussion may leave some of us disappointed, but seeing science as bringing better insights of the creation would be sensible.

        I am inclined to view ‘appearances’ and ‘form’ as vague notions, but I understand that we need to conceptualise things as part of our ability/desire to understand.

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