PDF Archive

Easily share your PDF documents with your contacts, on the Web and Social Networks.

Share a file Manage my documents Convert Recover PDF Search Help Contact



6 .pdf



Original filename: 6.pdf
Title: Laws of Nature | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Author: David Wall

This PDF 1.3 document has been generated by Firefox / Mac OS X 10.12.6 Quartz PDFContext, and has been sent on pdf-archive.com on 05/09/2017 at 23:43, from IP address 68.105.x.x. The current document download page has been viewed 201 times.
File size: 244 KB (17 pages).
Privacy: public file




Download original PDF file









Document preview


Laws of Nature | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

Laws of Nature
Laws of Nature are to be distinguished both from Scientific Laws and from Natural Laws.
Neither Natural Laws, as invoked in legal or ethical theories, nor Scientific Laws, which some
researchers consider to be scientists' attempts to state or approximate the Laws of Nature,
will be discussed in this article. Instead, it explores issues in contemporary metaphysics.
Within metaphysics, there are two competing theories of Laws of Nature. On one account,
the Regularity Theory, Laws of Nature are statements of the uniformities or regularities in
the world; they are mere descriptions of the way the world is. On the other account, the
Necessitarian Theory, Laws of Nature are the "principles" which govern the natural
phenomena of the world. That is, the natural world "obeys" the Laws of Nature. This
seemingly innocuous difference marks one of the most profound gulfs within contemporary
philosophy, and has quite unexpected, and wide-ranging, implications.
Some of these implications involve accidental truths, false existentials, the correspondence
theory of truth, and the concept of free will. Perhaps the most important implication of each
theory is whether the universe is a cosmic coincidence or driven by specific, eternal laws of
nature.  Each side takes a different stance on each of these issues, and to adopt either theory
is to give up one or more strong beliefs about the nature of the world.

Table of Contents
1. Laws of Nature vs. Laws of Science
2. The Two Principal Views
a. Regularity
b. Necessitarianism
3. Shared Elements in the Competing Theories
4. The Case for Necessitarianism
a. Accidental Truths vs. Laws of Nature
b. False Existentials
c. Doom vs. Failure

1 of 17

2017.9.5, 4:39 PM

Laws of Nature | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

5. The Case for Regularity
a. Naturalizing Philosophy
b. Revisiting Physical Impossibility
c. Regularity and Explanation
d. Problems with Necessitarianism I – Its Inverting the Truth-making Relation
e. Problems with Necessitarianism II – Its Unempiricalness
f. The Regularists' Trump Card – The Dissolution of the Problem of Free Will and
Determinism
6. Statistical Laws
7. Is the Order in the Universe a Cosmic Coincidence?
8. Notes
9. References and Further Reading

1. Laws of Nature vs. Laws of Science
In 1959, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences,
Michael Scriven read a paper that implicitly distinguished between Laws of Nature and Laws
of Science. Laws of Science (what he at that time called "physical laws") – with few
exceptions – are inaccurate, are at best approximations of the truth, and are of limited range
of application. The theme has since been picked up and advanced by Nancy Cartwright.
If scientific laws are inaccurate, then – presumably – there must be some other laws
(statements, propositions, principles), doubtless more complex, which are accurate, which
are not approximation to the truth but are literally true.
When, for example, generations of philosophers have agonized over whether physical
determinism precludes the existence of free will (for example, Honderich), they have been
concerned with these latter laws, the laws of nature itself.
It is the explication of these latter laws, the Laws of Nature, that is the topic of this article.
We will not here be examining the "approximate truths" of science. Thus, to cite just one
example, the controversy over whether scientific laws are (merely) instruments lies outside
the topic of this article.

2. The Two Principal Views
Theories as to the features of Laws of Nature fall into two, quite distinct, schools: the
Humeans (or Neo-Humeans) on the one side, the Necessitarians on the other.

2 of 17

2017.9.5, 4:39 PM

Laws of Nature | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

a. Regularity
Recent scholarship (for example, that of J. Wright and of Beauchamp and Rosenberg) makes
a convincing case that the received view as to what David Hume offered as an explication of
the concept of law of nature was quite mistaken, indeed the very opposite of what Hume was
arguing. What, historically, until late in the Twentieth Century, was called the "Humean"
account of Laws of Nature was a misnomer. Hume himself was no "Humean" as regards laws
of nature. Hume, it turns out, was a Necessitarian – i.e. believed that laws of nature are in
some sense "necessary" (although of course not logically necessary). His legendary
skepticism was epistemological. He was concerned, indeed even baffled, how our knowledge
of physical necessity could arise. What, in experience, accounted for the origin of the idea?
What, in experience, provided evidence of the existence of the property? He could find
nothing that played such a role.
Yet, in spite of his epistemological skepticism, he persisted in his belief that laws of nature
are (physical) necessities. So as not to perpetuate the historical error as to what "Humean"
properly connotes, I will abandon that term altogether and will adopt the relatively
unproblematical term "Regularity" in its stead. At the very least, the Regularists' Theory of
Laws of Nature denies that Laws of Nature are 'physically necessary'. There is no physical
necessity, either in laws or in nature itself. There is no intermediate state between logical
necessity on the one hand and sheer contingency on the other.

b. Necessitarianism
Necessitarians, in contrast, argue that there is physical (or as they sometimes call it
"nomic" or "nomological") necessity. They offer two different accounts. According to some
Necessitarians, physical necessity is a property of the Laws of Nature (along with truth,
universality, etc.); according to other Necessitarians, physical necessity inheres in the very
woof and warp (the stuff and structure) of the universe.
Thus, for example, on the first of these two Necessitarian theories, electrons will bear the
electrical charge -1.6 x 10-19 Coulombs because there is a Law of Nature to that effect, and the
universe conforms to, or is 'governed' by, this physically necessary (i.e. nomological)
principle (along with a number of others, of course).
On the second of the two Necessitarian theories, the "necessity" of an electron's bearing this
particular electrical charge "resides" in the electron itself. It is of the very 'nature' of an
electron, by necessity, to have this particular electrical charge. On this latter account, the
statement "All electrons bear a charge of -1.6 x 10-19 Coulombs" is a Law of Nature because it

3 of 17

2017.9.5, 4:39 PM

Laws of Nature | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

correctly (veridically) describes a physical necessity in the world.[ 1 ]

3. Shared Elements in the Competing Theories
Regularists and Necessitarians agree as to five conditions necessary for a statement's being a
Law of Nature.
Laws of Nature
1.

are factual truths,
not logical ones;

"The boiling point of sulfur is 444.6° Celsius" expresses a factual truth. "Every number has a double" expresses a logical truth.

2.

are true for every
time and every
place in the universe;

There are no laws of nature that hold just for the planet earth (or the Andromeda Galaxy, for that matter), nor are there any that hold just for the
Eighteenth Century or just for the Mesozoic Era.

3.

contain no proper
names;

Laws of nature may contain general concepts, such as "mass", "color", "aptitude", "capital", "diabetes", "return on investments", etc.; but may not contain such terms as "the Fraser River", "the planet Earth", "$59.22", "June 18,
1935", "IBM", etc.

4.

are universal or
statistical claims;
and

"(All pure) copper conducts electricity" expresses a law of nature. But "Stars
exist" (although true) does not express a law of nature: it is neither a universal nor a statistical claim.

5.

are conditional
claims, not categorical ones.

Categorical claims which are equivalent to conditional claims (e.g. "There are
no perpetual motion machines of the first kind" which is equivalent to "If
anything is a perpetual motion machine then it is not of the first kind") are
candidates for lawfulness.[ 2 ] 
Categorical claims (e.g., again, "There are stars") which are not equivalent to
conditionals are not candidates for lawfulness.
Note: Laws of physics which are expressed mathematically are taken to be
elliptical for conditional truths. For example, the law "mv = mo/(1 - v2/c2)½ "
is to be read as equivalent to "for any massy object, if its velocity is v, then its
mass [mv] is equal to its rest mass [mo] divided by ..."

Are these five conditions jointly sufficient for a proposition's being a Law of Nature?
Regularists say "yes"; Necessitarians, "no".

4. The Case for Necessitarianism
4 of 17

2017.9.5, 4:39 PM

Laws of Nature | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

Necessitarians lay claim to a number of examples which, they say, can be explicated only by
positing a sixth necessary condition for laws of nature, namely, by positing natural (physical
/nomic /nomological) necessity.

a. Accidental Truths vs. Laws of Nature
Moas (a large flightless bird that lived in New Zealand) have been extinct for more than a
century. We can assume (this example is Popper's [The Logic of Scientific Discovery,
Appendix *x]) that some one of them (we needn't know which one) was the oldest Moa ever
to have lived. Suppose it died at the age of n years. Thus the statement "No moa lives beyond
the age of n years" is true (where "lives" is being used as a tenseless verb). Moreover this
statement satisfies all the other necessary conditions specified above.
But, Necessitarians will argue, the statement "No moa lives beyond the age of n years" is not
a law of nature. It is counterintuitive to believe that such a statement could be on the same
(metaphysical) footing as "No perpetual motion machine of the first kind exists", or, citing
another example, "No object having mass is accelerated beyond the speed of light". The latter
statements are bona fide laws of nature; the former a mere 'accidental' truth. The difference
lies in the (alleged) fact that the latter two cases (about perpetual motion machines and
about massy objects) are physically necessary truths; the former (about moas) is a mere
accidental truth. To use Popper's terminology, genuine laws of nature "forbid" certain things
to happen; accidental truths do not. Suppose the oldest moa – we'll call him Ludwig – died,
of an intestinal infection, at the age of (let's say) 12 years. (I haven't any idea what the
average life span of moas was. It's irrelevant for our purposes.) Now suppose that Ludwig
had a younger brother, Johann, hatched from the same clutch of eggs, one hour later than
Ludwig himself. Poor Johann – he was shot by a hunter 10 minutes before Ludwig died of his
illness. But, surely, had Johann not been shot, he would have lived to a greater age than
Ludwig. Unlike his (very slightly) older brother, Johann was in perfect health. Johann was
well on his way to surviving Ludwig; it's just that a hunter dispatched him prematurely. His
death was a misfortune; it was not mandated by a law of nature.

b. False Existentials
False existential statements of the sort "Some silver burns at -22° Celsius" and "There is a
river of cola" are logically equivalent to statements satisfying all of the five necessary
conditions specified above. If those conditions were to constitute a set of sufficient
conditions for a statement's being a law of nature, then the statement "No river is constituted
of cola" would be a law of nature.[ 3 ]

5 of 17

2017.9.5, 4:39 PM

Laws of Nature | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

The oddity goes even more deeply. Given that what it is to be physically impossible is to be
logically inconsistent with a law of nature, then every false existential statement of the sort
"Some S is P" or "There is an S that is a P" would turn out to be, not just false, but physically
impossible.
But surely the statement "There is a river of cola", although false, is not physically
impossible. There could be such a river. It would merely require a colossal accident (such as
befell Boston in 1912 when a huge vat of molasses ruptured), or the foolish waste of a great
deal of money.
If "there is a river of cola" is not to be regarded as physically impossible, then some one or
more further conditions must be added to the set of necessary conditions for lawfulness.
Physical necessity would seem to be that needed further condition.

c. Doom vs. Failure
Suppose (1) that Earth is the only planet in the universe to have supported intelligent life;
and (2) that all life on Earth perished in 1900 when the earth was struck by a meteor 10,000
km in diameter. Clearly, under those conditions, the Wright Brothers would never have
flown their plane at Kitty Hawk. Even though tinkerers and engineers had been trying for
centuries to build a heavier-than-air motorized flying machine, everyone had failed to
produce one. But their failure was merely failure; these projects were not doomed. Yet, if the
universe had had the slightly different history just described, the statement "there is a
heavier-than-air motorized flying machine" would turn out to be physically impossible;
hence the project was doomed. But, Necessitarians will argue, not all projects that fail are
doomed. Some are doomed, e.g. any attempt to accelerate a massy object beyond the speed of
light, or, e.g. to build a perpetual motion machine of the first kind. Again, just as in the case
of accidental truths and lawful truths, we do not want to collapse the distinction between
doom and failure. Some projects are doomed; others are mere failures. The distinction
warrants being preserved, and that requires positing physical necessity (and – what is the
other side of the same coin – physical impossibility).

5. The Case for Regularity
With the dawning of the modern, scientific, age came the growing realization of an extensive
sublime order in nature. To be sure, humankind has always known that there is some order
in the natural world – e.g. the tides rise and fall, the moon has four phases, virgins have no
children, water slakes thirst, and persons grow older, not younger. But until the rise of
modern science, no one suspected the sweep of this order. The worldview of the West has
6 of 17

2017.9.5, 4:39 PM

Laws of Nature | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

changed radically since the Renaissance. From a world which seemed mostly chaotic, there
emerged an unsuspected underlying order, an order revealed by physics, chemistry, biology,
economics, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, geology, evolutionary theory, pharmacology,
epidemiology, etc.
And so, alongside the older metaphysical question, "Why is there anything, rather than
nothing?", there arises the newer question, "Why is the world orderly, rather than chaotic?"
How can one explain the existence of this pervasive order? What accounts for it?

a. Naturalizing Philosophy
Even as recently as the Eighteenth Century, we find philosophers (e.g. Montesquieu)
explicitly attributing the order in nature to the hand of God, more specifically to His having
imposed physical laws on nature in much the same way as He imposed moral laws on human
beings. There was one essential difference, however. Human beings – it was alleged – are
"free" to break (act contrary to) God's moral laws; but neither human beings nor the other
parts of creation are free to break God's physical laws.
In the Twentieth Century virtually all scientists and philosophers have abandoned theistic
elements in their accounts of the Laws of Nature. But to a very great extent – so say the
Regularists – the Necessitarians have merely replaced God with Physical Necessity. The
Necessitarians' nontheistic view of Laws of Nature surreptitiously preserves the older
prescriptivist view of Laws of Nature, namely, as dictates or edicts to the natural universe,
edicts which – unlike moral laws or legislated ones – no one, and no thing, has the ability to
violate.
Regularists reject this view of the world. Regularists eschew a view of Laws of Nature which
would make of them inviolable edicts imposed on the universe. Such a view, Regularists
claim, is simply a holdover from a theistic view. It is time, they insist, to adopt a thoroughly
naturalistic philosophy of science, one which is not only purged of the hand of God, but is
also purged of its unempirical latter-day surrogate, namely, nomological necessity. The
difference is, perhaps, highlighted most strongly in Necessitarians saying that the Laws of
Nature govern the world; while Regularists insist that Laws of Nature do no more or less
than correctly describe the world.

b. Revisiting Physical Impossibility
Doubtless the strongest objection Necessitarians level against Regularists is that the latter's
theory obliterates the distinction between laws of nature (for example, "No massy object is
7 of 17

2017.9.5, 4:39 PM

Laws of Nature | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

accelerated beyond the speed of light") and accidental generalizations (e.g. "No Moa lives
more than n years"). Thus, on the Regularists' account, there is a virtually limitless number
of Laws of Nature. (Necessitarians, in contrast, typically operate with a view that there are
only a very small number, a mere handful, of Laws of Nature, that these are the 'most
fundamental' laws of physics, and that all other natural laws are logical consequences of [i.e.
'reducible to'] these basic laws. I will not further pursue the issue of reductivism in this
article.)
What is allegedly wrong with there being no distinction between accidental generalizations
and 'genuine' Laws of Nature? Just this (say the Necessitarians): if there is a virtually
limitless number of Laws of Nature, then (as we have seen above) every false existential
statement turns out to be physically impossible and (again) the distinction between (mere)
failure and doom is obliterated.
How can Regularists reply to this seemingly devastating attack, issuing as it does from deeply
entrenched philosophical intuitions?
Regularists will defend their theory against this particular objection by arguing that the
expression "physically impossible" has different meanings in the two theories: there is a
common, or shared, meaning of this expression in both theories, but there is an additional
feature in the Necessitarians' account that is wholly absent in the Regularists'.
The common (i.e. shared) meaning in "physically impossible" is "inconsistent with a Law of
Nature". That is, anything that is inconsistent with a Law of Nature is "physically
impossible". (On a prescriptivist account of Laws of Nature, one would say Laws of Nature
"rule out" certain events and states-of-affairs.)
On both accounts – Necessitarianism and Regularity – what is physically impossible never,
ever, occurs – not in the past, not at present, not in the future, not here, and not anywhere
else.
But on the Necessitarians' account, there is something more to a physically impossible
event's nonoccurrence and something more to a physically impossible state-of-affair's
nonexistence. What is physically impossible is not merely nonoccurrent or nonexistent.
These events and states-of-affairs simply could not occur or exist. There is, then, in the
Necessitarians' account, a modal element that is entirely lacking in the Regularists' theory.
When Necessitarians say of a claim – e.g. that someone has built a perpetual motion
machine of the first kind – that it is physically impossible, they intend to be understood as
claiming that not only is the situation described timelessly and universally false, it is so
8 of 17

2017.9.5, 4:39 PM

Laws of Nature | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

because it is nomically impossible.
In contrast, when Regularists say that some situation is physically impossible – e.g. that
there is a river of cola – they are claiming no more and no less than that there is no such
river, past, present, future, here, or elsewhere. There is no nomic dimension to their claim.
They are not making the modal claim that there could not be such a river; they are making
simply the factual (nonmodal) claim that there timelessly is no such river. (Further reading:
'The' Modal Fallacy.)
According to Regularists, the concept of physical impossibility is nothing but a special case
of the concept of timeless falsity. It is only when one imports from other theories
(Necessitarianism, Prescriptivism, etc.) a different, modal, meaning of the expression, that
paradox seems to ensue. Understand the ambiguity of the expression, and especially its
nonmodal character in the Regularity theory, and the objection that the Necessitarians level
is seen to miss its mark.
(There is an allied residual problem with the foundations of Necessitarianism. Some recent
authors [e.g. Armstrong and Carroll] have written books attempting to explicate the concept
of nomicity. But they confess to being unable to explicate the concept, and they ultimately
resort to treating it as an unanalyzable base on which to erect a theory of physical
lawfulness.)

c. Regularity and Explanation
Another philosophical intuition that has prompted the belief in Necessitarianism has been
the belief that to explain why one event occurred rather than another, one must argue that
the occurring event "had to happen" given the laws of nature and antecedent conditions. In a
nutshell, the belief is that laws of nature can be used to explain the occurrence of events,
accidental generalizations – 'mere truths devoid of nomic force' – can not be so utilized.
The heyday of the dispute over this issue was the 1940s and 50s. It sputtered out, in more or
less an intellectual standoff, by the late 60s. Again, philosophical intuitions and differences
run very deep. Regularists will argue that we can explain events very well indeed, thank you,
in terms of vaguely circumscribed generalities; we do not usually invoke true generalities, let
alone true generalities that are assumed to be nomically necessary. In short, we can, and
indeed do several times each day, explain events without supposing that the principles we
cite are in any sense necessary. Regularists will point to the fact that human beings had, for
thousands of years, been successfully explaining some events in their environment (e.g. that
the casting cracked because it had been cooled down too quickly) without even having the
9 of 17

2017.9.5, 4:39 PM


Related documents


PDF Document 6
PDF Document smartcheckr richard schwartz
PDF Document kripke naming and necessity
PDF Document drthesisgullan whur spinozasmind bodyproblem
PDF Document physics of truth
PDF Document life is one kind of nonmaterial structure having spirituality


Related keywords