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Instabilities in Nature & Art

Malcolm E. Brown and Steve Hubbard ask if scientific laws are fact or fiction.

Although neither is a philosopher, the authors found themselves discussing philosophy. Steve, a physicist, observed that there seemed to be no laws in sociology of the apparent absolute status of, for example, the laws of thermodynamics, and thought it strange. Malcolm, a sociologist, agreed; but inflamed, pushed the discussion into just what that ‘lack’ meant. We opened a can of cognitive worms that have surprised and fascinated us, and we report our position for readers to consider. We tentatively concluded that there is a universal state of instability which goes further and deeper than either of us expected, applying to every aspect of the natural world, the human condition, and human experience.

This instability is surely evident. Witness, for example, the weather that even supercomputers cannot predict a week ahead, the complexity of human relationships, and the jiggling, apparently random, Brownian motion of dust particles suspended in water, as seen under the microscope. We suggest that instability underpins everything we can perceive about our surroundings including, somewhat to our surprise, scientific laws and artistic creativity.


That all things are in flux or constant change is not news: Heraclitus (535-475 BC) asserted it, and this is, indeed, what our senses tell us. He, Aristotle, and many other philosophers, believed that our senses tell us the truth about the real world. We do too, although we note that perception may be very partial and limited. This idea is well illustrated by Plato’s famous allegory, which says that we are like prisoners in a cave who see the real world only as shadows cast upon its back wall. We also presume that other species have different perceptions. For example, saccharin never fools butterflies into treating it as sugar. And reflect on the world of an electric eel. It discharges electricity and detects disruptions in that field, which enables it to hunt its prey in darkness. Can we even imagine what it’s like to perceive the world in this way? However, we presume that some sort of strong positive correlation does exist between what we perceive and what exists ‘out there’.

We also perceive stability in what we might regard as the background to everyday life; that is, the general conditions of life seem not to change. However we suggest that this is an illusion which we tolerate, and could not function without. This illusion of stability is founded on the scale and experience of our species, in regard to our physical size, strength, life expectancy, and familiarity with the physical constants of our planet such as its gravity. And we like to simplify things into stable patterns if we can. This tendency may be a biological vestige that offered survival value when deciding whether a predator was or was not waiting for us on the African plains, where getting that right was a matter of life or death. So put bluntly, we cannot help perceiving patterns and stabilities. For instance, we accept that the sun and the solar system are unstable and will ultimately come to an end, but the timescale of this relative to a human lifespan is such that we happily assume the sun will rise tomorrow. We also presume that when we awake tomorrow we will be the same person. We ignore instability. It’s simpler that way.

Moreover, the discoveries and the physical laws that constitute post-Enlightenment science predict well, and their predictions are useful. When for example the lights come on when we flick a switch, we have enough to eat, or an anaesthetic deadens pain, we have tested those laws, and our confidence that they work increases. So things do seem stable – but when we delve deeper, it appears that they are not.

Instability In Science

The evidence for the instability of scientific laws comes from two directions: first from the methods by which physical laws are formulated, and second from the philosophy of science.

Considering first the methods: practising scientists know that patterns are unlikely to be perceived if the situation under analysis is too complex or unstable. Their strategy to overcome such problems – their stock-in-trade – is to simplify. Experiments are often designed to only change one variable at a time (e.g. temperature), so that any results that change may be attributed to that specific changing variable. Scientists also make simplifying assumptions. This is not deceitful: rather, experience has shown that simplification is the way to move towards a useful empirical conclusion. However, the outcome, in the form of an apparently stable or fixed physical ‘law’, is recognised by scientists as (a) not fully representing a complex real-world situation, and/or as (b) being vulnerable to the validity, or otherwise, of the underlying assumptions. We might even go as far as to call laws that are formulated in this manner ‘pseudo-laws’. For example, Kepler’s First Law (1609), infers that the earth is in a regular elliptical orbit around the sun. But this is a simplification. All the other planets in our solar system – in fact, all the matter in the universe – also affect earth’s orbit: only a little, but enough to make our orbit round the sun slightly irregular.

Simplified physical laws are hugely useful. Applying them means, for example, that seldom do bridges collapse or gas cylinders explode. But the value of such laws lies not in their stability, let alone their truth, but to the extent to which we can get away with assuming their (illusory) stability in a world which is actually unstable.

Philosopher Martin Hollis (1938-1998) writes about degrees of complexity and the associated emotional difficulty, and he created the following table to illustrate these relationships:

individuals (simple components) totalities (complexities)
emotionally difficult ACTORS GAMES
emotionally easy AGENTS SYSTEMS

Let’s peer through this four-pane window onto the world. The element iron, for example, is an agent: when iron rusts with the (re)agent oxygen in a system, that may be associated with complex science, but is emotionally easy. However, as an actor, impaling your palm on a rusty nail is more difficult emotionally, and produces a resultant yelp. Also emotionally difficult is a bridge rusting through because of poverty, and collapsing with resultant deaths in a developing country (a tragic game). In brief, changes involving people tend to be comparatively emotionally difficult to handle; or alternatively put, resist having a simple pattern imposed upon them. We are unaware of any single English word that can convey our desired combination of complexity, flux and emotional difficulty, and we have chosen to make do with ‘instability’, and so have forced that word to carry a heavy semantic freight. But perhaps here lies the key to our original question – ‘Why are there no fundamental laws in sociology?’ We shall return to this question soon.

The second strand of evidence for our suggestion that the laws of the physical sciences are based on instability comes from the philosophy of science, particularly from the work of Karl Popper (1902-1994) and Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996).

Briefly, Popper argues that the only sorts of law worth calling ‘scientific’ are those that can be falsified. Famously, the proposition ‘All swans are white’ can be shown to be false if even one black swan is observed. One problem with this perspective on science is that the proposition could only be demonstrated to be true after every swan is examined, and that may take until the end of time – a luxury that we lack. And this model of science is too demanding to apply to the behavioural sciences, which consider the likelihoods of competing explanations.

One tactic the behavioural sciences use is to test empirical data against the assumption of chaos. That is to say, if the probability that the phenomenon under investigation is present merely because of random factors is equal to or less than, say, 1 in 20 (p ≤ 0.05), some force other than chaos is assumed to be acting to produce it. Sometimes, different explanations of phenomena are tested, and the probabilities of their being valid explanations are ranked. So it’s easy to see that with the hindsight of more data or different questions, one’s perception of the explanation may change. Also, when scientific laws are applied in the real world, Popper’s criterion of scientific truth is less useful. For example, when your doctor is diagnosing your disease, absolute certainty seldom occurs, even about what can be ruled out, or ‘falsified’ (although the pathologist may be more certain after your post-mortem). Furthermore, history has taught us that diagnoses are in flux, and improvements in diagnostic science are to be anticipated in the future. Also, chemical analysis machines routinely rank the probabilities of specific identities of samples against their reference libraries. These examples all illustrate that we recognise our scientific uncertainty, but routinely accept it.

Briefly, Kuhn argues that scientific progress is not an inevitable gradual progression, but a series of paradigm shifts (scientific revolutions) that occur when experts lose faith in a previous way of perceiving the world and prefer a new way with better explanatory power. One illustration of a paradigm shift is the change from the belief that the sun went around the earth to the reverse. As previously unknown data become available, or unexplainable phenomena become known, further paradigm shifts are expected.

This Kuhnian line of reasoning recognises the illusory nature of scientific laws by regarding them as forever provisional; and hence no ‘absolutely true’ law (or as we would put it ‘absolutely stable’ law) is even anticipated – scientists expect to be proved wrong in the long term.

Consequently, we tentatively suggest that in both the foundation and the practice of the sciences lies the recognition that there is no absolute stability in the laws it formulates. However there is a spectrum based on the extent to which we can ‘get away with’ assuming stability; and the reason that some disciplines have laws which seem more reliable than the laws of other disciplines, is simply that they occupy different positions on that spectrum of instability.

You might think that mathematics and mathematical proofs seem candidates for the greatest stability, and we would agree. However, even in this domain, instability retains some hold. For instance, Pythagoras’ Theorem was for centuries seen as inviolable, and its proof remains so. However, following the paradigm shift brought about by Einstein, it is now orthodoxy to suppose that there is no such thing as a truly straight line in the real physical world, in a triangle or anywhere else, at least in our universe. Thus, the proof of Pythagoras’ Theorem remains valid, but only for a universe where straight lines exist – which is not our universe. Generally speaking, in the purely conceptual realm, mathematical proofs may be seen as achieving absolute permanence, but we suggest that when transferred across to the real world, the spell is broken: the precision and permanence are lost, and in the real world they lie on our suggested spectrum of instability. However, Pythagoras’ Theorem, and countless others in mathematics, remain hugely useful, because we can so often get away with applying their concepts.

Instability In Art

Turning to the arts, we suggest that the concept of instability is relevant here too. Total regularity and symmetry – analogous to stability – attracts us, but quickly becomes tedious. Complete chaos is also unappealing. However, there are states between the two which fascinate us, and in works of art created by the hand of a genius, this unstable ‘almost but not quite’ situation transcends fascination, and leads to beauty and deep significance. Consequently, artists who hope to ingeniously encapsulate the human condition instinctively grope in the unstable ground between complete regularity and complete chaos.

Here we can borrow an insight from the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1921-2007), who writes about the ‘clean’, the ‘unclean’, and the ‘taboo’. We can illustrate her thinking using food. It may be stable – safe but boring – or it may be so different (unstable) that we dare not eat it, fearing that it is poison – dangerous chaos. At somewhere near to poison, but not poison, it becomes exciting, craved. An extreme gourmet example is the honourable fugu fish of Japan. The expert chef removes most, but not all, of certain poisonous parts. The diner is left with a tingling on the tongue; if he or she were left with more it could prove fatal. Similarly, ‘abject art’ uses materials that are far from boring, yet not quite so unpleasant that they are ugly (chaos), but nearly so, such as faeces or blood. Such art is designed to be ‘edgy’: to shock – to zap powerful emotion directly into the brain – but not be quite so shocking that it is censored and rejected.

Art is an extreme case, perhaps situated in the most complex, most emotionally difficult corner of Hollis’s grid. Here, individual subjectivity is cherished. Artists celebrate that their perceptions are as limitless as the number of artists. We are unable to discern any universal laws in art, which could be superseded. This may help explain why the masterpieces of art tend to have more staying power than those of science. For example, in the Seventeenth Century Vermeer’s genius painted Girl with a Pearl Earring. It remains eloquent and potent, whilst Seventeenth Century science is today perceived as a fledgling that science historians struggle to interpret.


We suggest that the notion of a spectrum of instability has value because all human endeavors can be positioned on it, from the most fickle situations of human interactions, to the pillars of physical science. Moreover, the greater the instability, the more difficult it is to formulate lasting or fundamental laws. Towards one end of our spectrum, the physical sciences reside at a position of low (but not zero) instability, hence they can ‘get away with’ plenty of laws (or pseudo-laws). On the other hand, sociology, quite distant from the physical sciences on our spectrum, manifests high instability. But this should not be surprising since sociology embraces residues of anthropology, geography, history, and multitudinous causes and effects in complex tangled human systems with feedback loops and emergent synergies, and also has to deal with the emotional complexity of human free will. Thus in sociology fewer authoritative ‘laws’ may be expected.

The brain comprises only 2% of an individual’s body weight. Despite this, even while resting, that brain guzzles 20% of that body’s energy. So humans (including philosophers) invest heavily in their brains. From an evolutionary viewpoint, such investment has increased our survival fitness. It has also yielded questions with which the more luminary brains have tangled over millennia, but have been unable to answer. But our brain investment has also made us very good at ‘making things up’ (i.e., perceiving stable patterns), and telling each other stories. We suggest that the illusion of stability, with its attendant ‘laws’, is one of those satisfying tales – but fiction nonetheless. We may be better served by replacing this fantasy of fixed laws with our suggested spectrum of instability.

© Dr Malcolm E. Brown & Dr Steve Hubbard 2013

Malcolm E. Brown and Steve Hubbard met at the Norwich Astronomical Society, where other members were puzzled to observe them gesticulating.

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