Is it the case that the universe obeys the laws of physics? I believe there is a misunderstanding about what the laws of physics actually is. I believe that the laws of physics merely describe what the universe is like anyway. Nothing can travel faster than light, but not because there is a "law" that states it can't. Rather, because nothing can travel faster than light, we call the statement "Nothing can travel faster than light" a law of physics. So, my question really is, has any philosopher clarified this matter, before me?

  • "Has any philosopher clarified this matter, before me?" It's unlikely that, for untold ages, humans used the word law or its counterparts in other languages, to refer to compulsory regularities in the flow of the environment and themselves as embedded within it, and mistakenly thought they were referring to statutes that the environment was 'obeying.' They might've had a God in there, to be sure, and True Words, etc. but analogies between compulsory regularities and statutes was not lost on them (as allegorical). Apr 16, 2022 at 14:22
  • Laws are formulate by scienziati in the context of theories, see Newton law of gravitation. When we say that universe "obeys" laws me mean that the law holding without restrictions. Apr 16, 2022 at 15:06
  • To obey implies will and the universe is not a human. Apr 16, 2022 at 15:08
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    It should be quite clear the word law is defined in natural language as some external statement (proposition) to be obeyed. And physics is all about natural laws borrowed from its mundane meaning... The real question is what's the meaning and innate character here?... Apr 16, 2022 at 19:54

5 Answers 5


The word law has multiple different meanings, and dictionary definitions. physical law: " A universal statement about the operation of nature, based on empirical observations of physical behavior, tested using scientific method"

  • I think that Newton was quite clear when he proposed his ‘laws’ that they were based on observation. It’s certainly not the case that conservation of momentum, for example, was optional before he described it.
    – Frog
    Apr 16, 2022 at 4:37

It's the other way round. Physical laws obey the universe.

Let me elaborate a bit. Laws of conduct in society are written or implicit rules which we apply in social interaction. They are culture dependent and members of society are more or less obliged to obey to the laws. There is no such obligation of obedience in the physical domain. An electron isn't obliged to obey the laws of quantum field theory or quantum mechanics. The laws of nature are descriptions of natural phenomena, These laws follow from observed behavior of natural phenomenon. They have to obey the phenomena but the phenomenon don't have to obey to them, as we have to obey to the social constructs of the law. Natural phenomena just happen. Obeying means that they would be able to show a variety, a manifold, a spectrum of behaviors. And that they had to had to show one of them in particular. Which isn't the case. Of course the figure of speech is used that nature obeys the laws of physics. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we remember that it's no more than that and it's actually the other way round. It is rather arrogant to say nature obeys to man-made laws.


Does the universe obey the laws of physics?

Not literally, no.

The universe is not a person. It is not the sort of thing that could obey.

Talk of the universe obeying the laws of physics is just a lazy metaphor.

We could say instead that the universe is regular, but we would inevitably end up saying that the universe follows regularities...

This is only a problem for literal-minded people, though.


my question really is, has any philosopher clarified this matter

If you want us to name names, we need to tease apart which aspect they're supposed to have clarified.

Your question touches on the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive laws, the former including laws of physics and the latter including the laws of governments. These laws have at times been, if not outright conflated, then at least more compared than contrasted, e.g. to argue both must have an author, in the former's case a deity. So while Bertrand Russell might not have been the first philosopher to emphasize the distinction, he certainly mentioned it in critiquing that argument.

Your question also touches on the distinction between regularities that merely happen not to lack exceptions and those that cannot have counterexamples. Since you describe superluminal travel as the latter, I want to emphasize how strong a claim that is. To quote Karl Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, making a point he attributes to William Kneale:

assume that the biological structure of the moa organism is of such a kind that under very favourable conditions, a moa might easily live sixty years or longer. Let us further assume that the conditions met by the moa in New Zealand were far from ideal (owing, perhaps, to the presence of some virus), and that no moa ever reached the age of fifty. In this case, the strictly universal statement ‘All moas die before reaching the age of fifty’ will be true... this universal statement will not be a law of nature... it is only due to accidental or contingent conditions

Roughly speaking, laws of nature (or physics or whatever) are something more, but not something logic alone enforces, so we can conceive of worlds contradicting them. Why is it no mere accident there is no superluminal motion? That question is difficult enough to answer - physicists' hands down, please, because if you blame a deeper law we can repeat the question for that one - that it clearly points to an important characteristic of such laws, about which much has been said, by various philosophers named in those two pages.


Physical "laws" are mathematical representations of the real world. The most powerful and useful ones are those in which a closer study of the law reveals a deeper principle at work in the universe, of which the particular law might hence be a specific example of that deeper principle. This means that the relationship between a physical law and the universe which exhibits it is a far more complicated thing for physicists than, for example, the seventh-power approximation for the velocity distribution in turbulent pipe flow that engineers derive from experiment and then use to solve problems in petroleum refineries.

For example, one of Maxwell's laws of electromagnetism states that the divergence of a magnetic field is zero. This implies in turn that every magnetic field line in the universe (not just in the electric motors used to run the pumps in a petroleum refinery) must exist as a closed loop, and that "magnetic monopoles" cannot exist in the universe we inhabit. This places severe restrictions upon what sort of subatomic particles can be found in our universe no matter where we might look. So then the experimentalists go out and start looking for violations of those restrictions (the prize for which would be spelled N-O-B-E-L), find none, and assert that the mathematical representation really is the way the universe works, within the accuracy limits of their experiments.

In this sense, the foundational principle behind the convenient statement of a physical law tells us mathematically that this is the reason why that particular law is valid in our universe. Note here that it is common for theoretical physicists to formulate their own laws which don't serve as valid representations of the physical world, and then use those formulations as a tool to discover the deeper principle in the universe which that formulation fails to contain.

  • Scientific laws are the very opposite of "reasons." Newton's law of gravity is not the reason the planets revolve around the sun the way they do. He was criticized at the time for NOT providing a reason, but only a description. This is his famous "I frame no hypotheses" remark. Science is descriptive, not explanatory. If you meant to write what you wrote, then you are entirely wrong. Maxwell's equations don't explain the "why" of anything. They're just mathematical models that match reality to the extent that we can perform experiments and take measurements.
    – user4894
    Apr 16, 2022 at 20:49
  • I stand by my answer and I do not believe it is entirely wrong. Are you a philosopher, or a physicist? Apr 17, 2022 at 4:08
  • Well I'm not an electric bassist, so you've got me there. Funny question considering. Scientific laws aren't reasons. You're wrong.
    – user4894
    Apr 17, 2022 at 20:44
  • But to fix ideas: Do you think Newton's law of gravity explains (or is a reason for) gravity? That's the historical datapoint at issue.
    – user4894
    Apr 17, 2022 at 20:51
  • @user4894 as written, newton's law of gravity precisely describes a scalar potential that is propagated in three dimensions of space and which is proportional a scaling constant times the product of the masses. This tells us that each individual mass element in one of the masses is interacting with all the individual mass elements in the other mass, that it must obey an inverse-square law, and that the scaling constant is a fundamental property of the universe. This means that if you assembled a world with those characteristics, you obtain gravity. More... Apr 17, 2022 at 21:18

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