The first blog entirely devoted to the history of physics.

Anecdotes, philosophical issues, great discoveries, and much more from first-hand participants.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The laws of physics

''The concept of physical law, as it is used in modern natural science, does not contain any ideas of command and obedience. Yet it obviously originates in a juridical metaphor. In a well governed state there will be laws which are for the most part observed by the citizens. Lawbreaking will occur comparatively seldom, and will be punished when detected. The more powerful the government and the cleverer the police is, the rarer it will be. Let us suppose now the government to be omnipotent and the police to be omniscient. In this ideal case the behavior of the citizens would completely conform to the demands of the lawgiver and laws would be always observed. With such an ideal state nature was compared in the seventeenth century. The observable recurrent associations of physical events, in which the philosophers and scientists of the period began to be interested, were interpreted as divine commands and were called natural laws. Thus the concept of natural law originated in theological ideas. Later these non-empirical components fell gradually into oblivion. Our historical investigation, therefore, will have to trace the idea of God as a lawgiver to nature and the influence of this idea on the rising natural sciences. Since one is, generally speaking, inclined to consider contemporary ideas as a matter of course and to ascribe them uncritically to thinkers of the past, we shall bring into prominence the differences from modern thinking before the seventeenth century. Finally we shall try to explain sociologically why the concept of physical law was lacking then and why it developed in the period of Descartes, Hooke, Boyle, and Newton.''

In Zilsel, ''The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law''.

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