Re: Kevin later wrote:

Kevin O'Brien (
Sun, 7 Mar 1999 21:39:06 -0700

>With your last note responding to Brian's query about
>Descartes' law of refraction, you have just redefined
>your original claim so as to make it a very different
>one from what you earlier asserted.
>If I remember correctly, you originally chose the example
>of relativistic vs. Newtonian mechanics, and claimed that
>the discovery of relativistic mechanics in the realm where
>v approaches c did not "overthrow" any "natural law" such
>as Newton's F=ma. This is debatable, but is not my concern
>now. By "natural law", you explained that you meant a
>mathematical description of a physical phenomenon. I know
>that is what you meant because you used that definition to
>rule out the phlogiston theory of combustion as a "natural

No, actually, I didn't, but the error was mine for not being more pedantic
(though in all fairness I didn't think I had to be). What I should have
said was the phlogiston was neither a physical phenomenon like combustion
(it was in fact a substance that supposedly caused combustion) nor an
abstract model meant to describe a physical phenomenon like combustion. It
was in fact a theory, a mechanism proposed to explain how combustion worked.

>Yet now, when faced with an example of a mathematical
>description of a natural phenomenon that indeed *was* shown
>to be incorrect (Descartes' law of refraction), you have
>reformulated your claim to assert that what you *really* meant
>was that the physical phenomenon of refraction itself was
>not overthrown, only the mathematical description of it
>(which most people would call the "natural law").

[snip quotation]

I reformulated nothing, but it might seem that way since I had overestimated
your familiarity with this subject and had not been pedantic enough. I hope
that my explanation in my reply to Brian clears up the matter somewhat.

>This is very different from your original claim, as perusal of your
>earlier messages will show. By no conceivable stretch of the imagination
>do people mean "physical phenomenon" when they say "physical law". The
>"law" is our description (which may be mathematical or not depending
>on the subject) of a phenomenon.

Once again, any "difference" stems from the fact that I had not been as
pedantic as it is now obvious I should have been. However, people in fact
do frequently mean phyisical phenomenon when they say physical law. Of
course they also simultaneously mean the abstract model of the phenomenon.
As I explained in my post to Brian, you have to have a physical phenomenon
before you can have a physical law, and you have to have a physical law
before you can have a description of that law. That's basic philosophy of
science. I frankly find it difficult to understand how any scientist does
not know this.

>Rather than get defensive....

I take it then that you define any attempt to point out your errors becoming
defensive. Tell me, is this how you react when someone claims that your
latest hypothesis is nonsense?

>...and try to convince people that you have
>been consistent with your terms throughout this thread....

I freely admit that it might seem as if I have not been consistent with my
terms, since I had not been so pedantic as to define everything I had been
discussing in excruciating detail. However, I have been consistent
regarding the concepts I have been discussing. This whole thread started
when Karen suggested that there might be unknown laws or mechanisms that
might allow a molten pluton to cool in under a year without boiling off the
flood waters. I pointed out that these unknown processes would violate a
number of known laws, by which I meant the physical phenomena we call
physical laws. Karen responed by implying that these known laws may be
wrong. I took that to mean that the physical phenomena may in fact not be
real, that they may just be figments of our imagination, like spontaneous
generation and phlogiston had been. I took issue with that by stating that
to my knowledge no physical law had been refuted (by which I meant the
physical phenomenon we called a physical law was shown to be illusionary).
Burgy took issue with that claim, but since he neither asked me to explain
what I meant or expressed any confusion over what I meant by physical law, I
assumed he knew I was referring to specific physical phenomena.
Unfortunately his "examples" were too vague to be sure what he was thinking,
and he continually refused to provide any more detailed examples or
explanations of what he meant. The one exception was phlogiston, so I
continued to assume that he believed certain physical phenomena had in fact
been shown to be untrue. Using that assumption I then explained how
Einstein had only altered the description of Newton's 2nd law and so
improved the formula based on that description, but had not proved the
physical law itself wrong and in fact assumed that the physical law must be
true. Apparently you did not read that part of my post too carefully.

In any event, throughout my discussion I have been consistent with regard to
the basic concepts. My only fault was that I assumed the list scientists
were as familiar with these concepts as I was. For a few of them this
apparently isn't true.

>...why don't you
>take some time to think about what you really meant when you asserted
>that "no physical law has ever been shown to be false".

I've been thinking about this for the past twenty-five years. And it is
still true that no physical law has ever been shown to be false, because no
physical phenomena that we recognize as a physical law has ever been shown
to be false. Our models of those laws are often shown to be crude and
inaccurate, and so are then improved, but the basic description always
remains unchanged, because the physical law itself remains unchanged.

>Then you can explain it better.

See my response to Brian's latest posts on this issue.

>In the form you put it in the message quoted
>above, it seems suspiciously like a tautology that runs something like:
>"real physical phenomena have never been shown to be not real".

It's true, isn't it? A tautology is nothing more than the simplist, most
basic truth one can utter about a subject. Such mathematical laws as A=A,
A=B:B=A, and A=B:B=C:A=C are tautologies, but are also considered to be
profound and powerful mathematical truths. When people like Karen are
confronted with physical laws that refute their scenarios, they tend to
blithely dismiss them with vague suggestions of unknown processes that would
overturn those laws. What they are in fact actually ignoring is that the
physical laws they would like to see evaporate are in fact immutable,
because they are based on real, observable or deducible phenomena that
cannot be refuted. They are in fact ignoring the profound and powerful
truth that real physical laws are **real**.

Kevin L. O'Brien