Laws and dispositions

Philosophy of Science 65 (1):121-135 (1998)
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Laws are supposed to tell us how physical systems actually behave. The analysis of an important part of physical practice--abstraction--shows, however, that laws describe the behavior of physical systems under very special circumstances, namely when they are isolated. Nevertheless, laws are applied in cases of non-isolation as well. This practice requires an explanation. It is argued that one has to assume that physical systems have dispositions. I take these to be innocuous from an empiricist's standpoint because they can--at least in principle--be measured. Laws can be applied whenever such a disposition is present, they describe how the physical system would behave if the disposition were manifest.

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Andreas Hüttemann
University of Cologne


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