Fundamental and transitional explanations

Physics reduces things to conserved quantities, and so tells us how we can get an effect given a cause of the same kind, although all “cause” and “effect” mean is that the action we have now is the latest manifestation of the same action earlier.

By “action” physics means includes both actual and potential actions. Energy is one because all its modes are capable of moving an object over some distance, though capable could be either actually or potentially. In general, a quantity is conserved because we unify what it has done or is doing (its act) which what it can do (its potency). This gives us a conflicting relationship to time. On the one hand the only thing that makes the conserved quantity causal is its priority of being distinct in time; on the other hand we define the conserved quantity in a way that unites what it is as what it will do, which requires uniting all its actions in time.

Physics is a way of explaining physical actions given physical actions just as the theory of evolution is a theory of explaining life given life. Just as the problem of abiogenesis is pre-evolutionary the problem of the initiation of physical motion is pre-physical. Biology will play a role in explaining the origin of life even though it is a pre-biological question, and physics is in the same boat on the question of the origin of physical motion.

The basic axiom in play is that giving the origin of X is a hybrid problem on the border of the science of X. The borderline is marked by a moment when explanation ceases to be proper to a discourse but becomes somehow more fundamental, which is how most understand the origin of life from physics.

It’s an open question, however, whether physics is more explanatorily fundamental than biology. If the best physics can do is say that life is some happy accident of physical activity we haven’t explained life but merely defined it as an accident of a system with no structural relationship to the production of living things.


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