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I was reflecting on the difference between the subject of physics and the subject of biology, and this was the conclusion I reached: Physics is the study of the laws of objective reality, while biology is the study of the processes of living objects. The difference between a biological process and a law of physics is that all biological processes have a failure rate. If a biological process has a 100% with infinite sigfigs success rate, then it officially becomes a law of physics.

Therefore, from this perspective, what is the word for the relationship between a process and a law of physics?

According to my education in logic, I want to reach for saying that a process is a generalization of a law of physics, because all laws of physics are processes, but not all processes are laws of physics. But "generalization" is not the correct word for this relationship, because that would imply that processes are stronger than laws of physics, but because biological processes have a failure rate, they're weaker.

So what would be the correct word for the relationship between a process and a law of physics? Conceptually speaking, processes subsume laws of physics, but because processes are weaker than laws of physics, it's not correct to call them a generalization. So what is the correct word?

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  • How do you figure that any laws of physics are processes? On the standard understanding, they are rather constraints (equalities or inequalities, in simplest cases) that processes obey. The difference between physics and biology is rather the difference of focus, physics studies laws and processes common to both life and non-life, while biology focuses on the former only.
    – Conifold
    Oct 10, 2023 at 4:58
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    For your spec the word sounds like 'subset', laws of physic is just a subset of processes. Btw loosely speaking not all laws of physics are necessarily processes, such as the classic Hook's law F=-kx without differential/integral w.r.t time. Though some contemporary advanced quantum gravity theories such as Sorkin's causal set theory do intend to model fundamental quantum physics entirely via causal processes where spacetime is modeled as a collection of discrete spacetime points as elements of the causal set and "sum-over-causal sets" path-integral grows a causal set one element at a time... Oct 10, 2023 at 5:25
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    A "process" is something that happens in the world outside us: planets moving in the cosmos; a "law" is part of a scientific theory aimed at describe and explain a process: the law of universal gravitation. Oct 10, 2023 at 8:05
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA I disagree with your definition of a law. A law is an expression of the logical conditions under which certain events must or must not occur. "What goes up (when thrown under a certain threshold of force) must come down" is an example of a law.
    – Fomalhaut
    Oct 10, 2023 at 8:10
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    Reflecting is not a useful way to find out what is meant by words in common use or in shared formal use within a particular discipline. You want a dictionary or an encyclopedia, respectively. Otherwise you can't have a philosophical perspective, just a "not speaking the same language as anybody else on the planet and therefore cannot communicate" perspective.
    – g s
    Oct 11, 2023 at 2:36

3 Answers 3

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I think you are using the word generalisation in an odd way. The word is usually used to refer to the move from a narrow set of instances of applicability to a wider set. In that sense, since the laws of physics apply universally (as far as we know), they are already general.

A process, in the context you have cited, is the evolution of a system in accordance with the laws of physics. Understandably, similar systems will evolve in similar ways, since they are all subject to the same governing principles. However, since the starting positions and environments vary from case to case, and some of the underlying steps involve quantum indeterminacy, the outcome of the sequence is likely to vary from case to case.

You are perhaps being optimistic if you are hoping that the relationship between physical laws and biological processes can be encapsulated in a single word!

You can use the word process in a number of ways. It could be used to refer to a specific instance, such as the sub-division of one particular cell to become two cells, or it could be used to refer to all instances of a type, such as the subdivision of all plant cells, or it could be used in a more abstract sense to refer to any and all instances of the change of biological systems over time. Depending on which use of the word you have in mind, the relation ship between it and the idea of a physical law will be different.

I think the closest affinity between process and law arises in the second of the three use cases I summarised above. If we take lettuce seeds, for example- under the right circumstances they will germinate and grow into lettuces according to a common pattern or sequence of events. That blueprint, if you like, effectively says that if you take a particular type of collection of atoms (ie the seed) and you place it in the right environment (ie warm wet soil) then the laws of physics will ensure that the collection of atoms interacts with other atoms in the immediate environment in a particular sort of way. The process can therefore be seen as a set of interactions for a particular configuration of particles, allowed- or if you prefer, mandated- by the laws of physics. The process is therefore a consequence of the laws of physics. You might put it this way: the laws of physics say x, y, x etc, therefore when you get a collection of atoms in the form of a seed they do z.

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  • "You are perhaps being optimistic if you are hoping that the relationship between physical laws and biological processes can be encapsulated in a single word!" The first philosopher of science--Aristotle--thought that physical laws and biological processes were very similar. And he was no dummy! So we ought to ponder... how did he come to see them as so similar (even if in the end he was mistaken)?
    – Fomalhaut
    Oct 12, 2023 at 1:41
  • @HolyKnowing indeed, that is a very good point. I often reflect on the fact that the beliefs of the wisest people two millennia ago are now seen as plainly wrong, and therefore perhaps much of what we smugly imagine to be our correct insights into philosophy and physics today will seem nonsensical in 2000 years time! Oct 12, 2023 at 6:09
  • @HolyKnowing I suppose that the conceptual overlap between a law and a type of biological process is that they both describe predictable patterns of behaviour, the laws typically referring to the simplest cases and processes being the result of the laws acting on more complicated systems. Oct 12, 2023 at 6:15
  • I think it is very arrogant and presumptuous of us to think that just because we have more information that therefore we are wiser and more intelligent than the ancients. In reality, we just might have more accumulated accessible knowledge and better division of labor (there were fewer people born in Ancient Greece). How many modern mathematicians know how to calculate the square root of 2023 by hand or intuition?
    – Fomalhaut
    Oct 13, 2023 at 7:39
  • @HolyKnowing agreed. Oct 13, 2023 at 7:55
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Process in this context means: A series of changes that happen naturally.

Physical biological processes follow the laws of physics just like any non-biological process like weather. There is no concept of failure or success, there is no attempt to achieve any goals. Well, you could say that biological processes do make an effort to postpone the inevitable degeneration to dead matter, but that is doomed to fail eventually.

But there is another meaning for process: A series of actions that you take in order to achieve a result.

This kind of process does include the concept of failure. The result may or may not be achieved. The reason for that is that intentional processes are planned by mental processes. Mental processes are biological (not physical) interactions of ideas (not matter or energy). Only mental processes can want some results to be achieved and make action plans for achieving them.

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  • "There is no concept of failure or success, there is no attempt to achieve any goals" <- Highly controversial. Even those who take a materialistic approach to biology--that it is blind, chance done by mindless natural selection--have to introduce the concept of "teleonomy" that is, that biological organisms have the appearance of goal-seeking functions. See Massimo Pigliucci.
    – Fomalhaut
    Oct 10, 2023 at 4:46
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Laws of physics express fundamental reality. Whether it is laws of mechanics or laws of thermodynamics or laws of optics or laws of wave or laws of nuclear physics or laws of relativity or laws of quantum mechanics etc , they in most cases express a conditional observation which stands true if conditions are met. Based on those facts a process can be created or gets created for example a feedback process , an input output process or multi-processor , blood flow process , heat separation process , cooling process , high speed process , kidney process , intestines process etc.

Laws of physics are utilised to create the process or the process gets created. All processes have a failure rate whether biological or physical.

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