Can Physical Laws Cause Things?

Can Physical Laws Cause Things?

There are a few scholars today, mostly scientists, who continue to postulate that the laws of nature cause things to happen in the world. One of these claims is that the laws of nature created the universe itself. Can physical laws cause things in the world?

In his 2010 book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking said,

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing… ” IStephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010)

I’ve written elsewhere why saying the universe can create itself from nothing is silly nonsense and claiming to transcend the world in order to tell the rest of us how wrong we are is self-defeating, so I won’t repeat that here. The main emphasis here is to examine the claim that laws of nature can cause things to happen.

The claim that the laws of nature actually cause things is a primitive view of physics. Physical laws do not create or cause things. Physical laws describe reality, they do not cause things to happen in reality. Laws of nature are descriptive, not prescriptive.

Physical laws are generalized descriptions of patterns and regularities in the world. They don’t exist outside and apart from the world they describe. Laws of physics don’t have causal power and cannot make things, create things or cause things. The law of gravity doesn’t actually cause your body to remain on earth. What it does is it explains how your body remains on earth. The gravitational force is what keeps your body on earth. The law simply explains how the force acts.

Why Do Skeptics Imbue Laws with Causal Power

I generally try not to speculate, but on this occasion, I cannot resist. I suppose some may simply have the wrong idea of what laws are. Others, I suspect, don’t care all that much to dig and find out. I think for many, embuing laws with causal power is a means of escaping the difficulty of having to grapple with an infinite regress of finite causes. After all, laws are not physical. If laws are given the power to create and cause, the skeptic has relieved himself from having to grapple with the problem of an infinite regress.


I Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010)