The sense that only the universe acts

The familiar argument against free will really proves that only the universe acts – the attempt to isolate any smaller system as a source of action would, so the argument goes, would remove it from the laws of nature. But what would it mean to say that only the universe acts? Leaving aside the implausible idea that the universe is an organism, all this could mean is that it acts because there is nothing else to act upon it. But this is no more reason to act than not to act; and to get action out of this would be to try to get something out of nothing.

We can make the universe infinite in time and so deny that there was ever a set of initial conditions with nothing before it. But all this would be is to respond to the question “what does it mean to say the universe acts?” by saying that it has always done so.

This is not a critique but an argument that we seem to have reasons to think that the universe both must act and that there can be no coherent account of what it would mean for it to do so.



  1. July 12, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    Funny this pair of posts come along just now. I have thought lately about the recourse to physical laws as a final explanation for the universe and everything that happens in it.

    It strikes me as Parmenidean, in a way, to place laws of nature over all things, with the motion of the things themselves being wholly contained in a description of the laws and their initial conditons.

    And yet, it moves.

    • July 13, 2014 at 8:15 am

      Another problem is that science since Newton has been committed to the idea that motion and rest are the same since neither needs a cause any more than the other – a move that Einstein finally made complete by identifying even acceleration and a rest state. And so one of the deep problems of the science of nature is that it can only explain the things it sets out to explain (why things move and act as they do) by denying that they are any different from their contraries – which seems worse than saying, with Parmenides, that motion and becoming don’t exist at all.

  2. jerry said,

    July 13, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    I have a question about the “laws”. Wouldnt the laws just be descriptions about how the world acts based on observations? And we have no inductive way to tell if they are even applicable to the whole universe because we havent searched the whole universe.

    • July 14, 2014 at 8:28 am

      Laws are descriptions based on observation.

      Are they valid everywhere, or do they vary? If the latter, can the variance be described as lawlike itself, or no? If yes, the conclusion is just moved up a level. If no, the first instinct of science would be to exhaust itself trying to find the law of variance anyway. It would be for philophers to put up the white flag – based on induction, ironically.

      The question a no-stone-unturned empiricist answers in the negative is whether the observation gets past discrete events at all. The position reduces to ‘no inductive way’, full stop. But what is there is a method of induction we have not observed yet?

      • July 14, 2014 at 8:46 am

        Perhaps this is better put saying that science seeks causes. Mathematical science seeks the descriptive laws and assumes, at least on one reading, that something is underwriting any consistency of observation so described.

        Finding inconsistency will drive it to find a law to unify its observations at a deeper level, search for some other intervening or disruptive cause that can be worked into the existing model at the same level, or conclude it is looking at something else.

        A electron observed to behave differently from all others previously observed, it being somehow judged there is no explanation in the current framework, nor any possible at all, is lo longer an electron as far as tjis science is concerned.

  3. July 14, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Indeed, for the universe to act alone it must have always done so with no comprehensible origin. Of course, then why would something without a sentient mind make such actions?

  4. Maureen said,

    July 20, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Sorry if this inference is out of line for this matter. My inference would be, (ignorant of the math or total scientific knowledge) but solely as my understanding from only the readings of Aquinas, Aristotle, Ethics, etc. There are not alot of drawings to express the dimensions I could see expressed. That being said, on a flat piece of paper could something like Aristotle’s writings be drawn to a conclusion; and what at that?
    But the writing became something of dimension, something more to be taken into consideration in the argument to prove anything. Surely, the best and most perfect understanding still leaves one with the transcendence of something that could not be drawn into conclusion – what it is that caused the sense of understanding it!

    So, if the history of flat, or concrete paper, eg.:
    Plato (427–347 BC) travelled to southern Italy to study Pythagorean mathematics. When he returned to Athens and established his school, Plato also taught his students that Earth was a sphere though he *offered no justifications.* “My conviction is that the earth is a round body in the centre of the heavens, and therefore has no need of air or of any similar force to be a support”. [end quote]

    Then Aristotle gave it more dimension:
    (On the Heavens;By Aristotle;Written 350 B.C.E)
    And even if the motion round a circle is the contrary of the reverse motion, one of the two would be ineffective: for both move to the same point, because that which moves in a circle, at whatever point it begins, must necessarily pass through all the contrary places alike. (By contrarieties of place I mean up and down, back and front, and right and left; and the contrary oppositions of movements are determined by those of places.) One of the motions, then, would be ineffective, for if the two motions were of equal strength, there would be no movement either way, and if one of the two were preponderant, the other would be inoperative. So that if both bodies were there, one of them, inasmuch as it would not be moving with its own movement, would be useless, in the sense in which a shoe is useless when it is not worn. But God and nature create nothing that has not its use. [end quote]

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