Concepts of Law of Nature

Dissertation, University of Illinois (2011)
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Over the past 50 years, there has been a great deal of philosophical interest in laws of nature, perhaps because of the essential role that laws play in the formulation of, and proposed solutions to, a number of perennial philosophical problems. For example, many have thought that a satisfactory account of laws could be used to resolve thorny issues concerning explanation, causation, free-will, probability, and counterfactual truth. Moreover, interest in laws of nature is not constrained to metaphysics or philosophy of science; claims about laws play essential roles in areas as diverse as the philosophy of religion (e.g., in the argument from design) and the philosophy of mind (e.g., in the formulation of Davidson’s anomalous monism). In my dissertation, I consider and reject the widely-held thesis that the facts concerning laws can be reduced to the facts concerning the particular entities that the laws “govern,” and that the laws thus have no independent existence. I instead defend a version of nomic primitivism, according to which the facts about laws cannot be reduced to facts that are themselves non-nomic – i.e., to facts that do not fundamentally involve laws, counterfactuals, causes, etc. Insofar as the truth or falsity of reductionism about laws has implications for many of the problems mentioned above, I think that this result should be of interest even to those who who do not work in metaphysics or the philosophy of science. My methodology, which I lay out and defend in Chapter One, is a version of Carnapian explication. This method emphasizes the importance of articulating and maintaining clear distinctions between (1) the vague concept (or concepts) law of nature inherent in ordinary language and scientific practice and (2) the precise analyses of “law of nature” that philosophers have proposed as potential replacements for this concept. I argue that metaphysics-as-explication has clear advantages over rival conceptions of metaphysical methodology; in particular, it allows us to formulate evaluative criteria for metaphysical claims. In Chapter Two, I offer an example of how careful attention to concepts already in use can help resolve philosophical debate. Specifically, I argue that much recent literature has mistakenly assumed that there is only one concept of “law of nature” in use, while there are in fact at least two. Strong laws are the principles pursued by fundamental physics: they are true, objective, and bear distinctive relationships to counterfactuals and explanation. Weak laws, by contrast, lack at least one of these distinctive characteristics but play central roles in both the “special sciences” and in everyday life. In Chapters Three and Four, I offer extended arguments against the two most prominent versions of reductionism about laws – Humeanism and law necessitarianism. According to philosophical Humeans, the laws of nature supervene upon the non-modal, non-nomic facts concerning the behavior of particular things at particular times and places. Law necessitarians, by contrast, argue that the laws are in fact metaphysically necessary, and that which laws there are is determined by a class of primitive, modally loaded facts concerning the essences, natures, or dispositions. I argue that both of these views are mistaken insofar as they disagree with well-entrenched scientific practices and those in favor of reductionism have failed to provided sufficient reason for thinking that these practices should be revised. Much of my argument is focused on the role played by a number of supposed methodological principles, including appeals to intuition, parsimony, and methodological naturalism. While the conclusions of this dissertation are explicitly constrained to laws, many of the arguments should be of interest to those who are concerned about philosophical methodology (especially in the role of intuition in philosophical argument) or the appropriate relation between metaphysics, science, and the philosophy of science.

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Brendan Shea
Rochester Community And Technical College


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