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Best-Systems Analyses

Edited by Markus Schrenk (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf)
Assistant editor: Florian Boge (University of Cologne, University of Cologne)
About this topic
Summary The best known Best Systems Account of Laws of Nature is often referred to as the Mill-Ramsey-Lewis account. All three philosophers have formulated versions of it where David Lewis's is the most sophisticated. It says, roughly: Suppose you knew everything about the past, present, and future, all facts, all events, and you organised your entire knowledge as simply as possible in various systems. The statements in these systems must mention natural properties only. A contingent generalisation is, then, a law of nature if and only if it appears as an axiom or theorem in the one system that achieves a far better combination of simplicity, strength and fit than any of the other competing systems. To have strength is to bear a great deal of informational content about the world; to be simple is to state everything in a concise way, not to be redundant, etc., to fit is, especially for the probabilistic laws, to accord as much as possible with the actual outcomes of world history.
Key works The original Best System Analysis is in: Lewis 1973 (pp.73); and Lewis 1999 (esp. papers 8-55 and 224-247). Versions of it that are discussed under the heading Better Best Systems can be found here: Cohen & Callender 2009Schrenk 2006.
Introductions There are no introductions specifically on this subject but see the references in the general entry "Laws of Nature" and here under key works.
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  1. Helen Beebee (2006). Does Anything Hold the Universe Together? Synthese 149 (3):509-533.
    According to ‘regularity theories’ of causation, the obtaining of causal relations depends on no more than the obtaining of certain kinds of regularity. Regularity theorists are thus anti-realists about necessary connections in nature. Regularity theories of one form or another have constituted the dominant view in analytic Philosophy for a long time, but have recently come in for some robust criticism, notably from Galen Strawson. Strawson’s criticisms are natural criticisms to make, but have not so far provoked much response from (...)
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  2. Helen Beebee (2003). Local Miracle Compatibilism. Noûs 37 (2):258-277.
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  3. Helen Beebee (2000). The Non-Governing Conception of Laws of Nature. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61 (3):571-594.
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  4. Alexander Bird (2008). The Epistemological Argument Against Lewis's Regularity View of Laws. Philosophical Studies 138 (1):73–89.
    I argue for the claim that if Lewis’s regularity theory of laws were true, we could not know any positive law statement to be true. Premise 1: According to that theory, for any law statement true of the actual world, there is always a nearby world where the law statement is false (a world that differs with respect to one matter of particular fact). Premise 2: One cannot know a proposition to be true if it is false in a nearby (...)
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  5. Alexander Bird (2002). Laws and Criteria. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 32 (4):511-42.
    Debates concerning the analysis of the concept of law of nature must address the following problem. On the one hand, our grasp of laws of nature is via our knowledge of their instances. And this seems not only an epistemological truth but also a semantic one. The concept of a law of nature must be explicated in terms of the things that instantiate the law. It is not simply that a piece of metal that conducts electricity is evidence for a (...)
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  6. David Braddon-Mitchell (2001). Lossy Laws. Noûs 35 (2):260–277.
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  7. Rachael Briggs (2009). The Big Bad Bug Bites Anti-Realists About Chance. Synthese 167 (1):81--92.
    David Lewis’s ‘Humean Supervenience’ (henceforth ‘HS’) combines realism about laws, chances, and dispositions with a sparse ontology according to which everything supervenes on the overall spatiotemporal distribution of non-dispositional properties (Lewis 1986a, Philosophical papers: Volume II, pp. ix–xvii, New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 1994, Mind 103:473–490). HS faces a serious problem—a “big bad bug” (Lewis 1986a, p. xiv): it contradicts the Principal Principle, a seemingly obvious norm of rational credence. Two authors have tried to rescue Lewis’s ontology from the ‘big (...)
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  8. Jonathan Cohen & Craig Callender (2009). A Better Best System Account of Lawhood. Philosophical Studies 145 (1):1 - 34.
    Perhaps the most significant contemporary theory of lawhood is the Best System (/MRL) view on which laws are true generalizations that best systematize knowledge. Our question in this paper will be how best to formulate a theory of this kind. We’ll argue that an acceptable MRL should (i) avoid inter-system comparisons of simplicity, strength, and balance, (ii) make lawhood epistemically accessible, and (iii) allow for laws in the special sciences. Attention to these problems will bring into focus a useful menu (...)
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  9. Jeffrey Dunn (2011). Fried Eggs, Thermodynamics, and the Special Sciences. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62 (1):71-98.
    David Lewis ([1986b]) gives an attractive and familiar account of counterfactual dependence in the standard context. This account has recently been subject to a counterexample from Adam Elga ([2000]). In this article, I formulate a Lewisian response to Elga’s counterexample. The strategy is to add an extra criterion to Lewis’s similarity metric, which determines the comparative similarity of worlds. This extra criterion instructs us to take special science laws into consideration as well as fundamental laws. I argue that the Second (...)
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  10. John Earman & John T. Roberts (2005). Contact with the Nomic: A Challenge for Deniers of Humean Supervenience About Laws of Nature Part II: The Epistemological Argument for Humean Supervenience. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (2):253–286.
    In Part I, we presented and motivated a new formulation of Humean Supervenience about Laws of Nature (HS). Here in Part II, we present an epistemological argument in defense of HS, thus formulated. Our contention is that one can combine a modest realism about laws of nature with a proper recognition of the importance of empirical testability in the epistemology of science only if one accepts HS.
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  11. Review author[S.]: John Earman (1993). In Defense of Laws: Reflections on Bas Van Fraassen's Laws and Symmetry. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (2):413-419.
  12. M. Eddon & C. J. G. Meacham (forthcoming). No Work For a Theory of Universals. In Jonathan Schaffer & Barry Loewer (eds.), A Companion to David Lewis.
    Several variants of Lewis's Best System Account of Lawhood have been proposed that avoid its commitment to perfectly natural properties. There has been little discussion of the relative merits of these proposals, and little discussion of how one might extend this strategy to provide natural property-free variants of Lewis's other accounts, such as his accounts of duplication, intrinsicality, causation, counterfactuals, and reference. We undertake these projects in this paper. We begin by providing a framework for classifying and assessing the variants (...)
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  13. Adam Elga (2004). Infinitesimal Chances and the Laws of Nature. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 82 (1):67 – 76.
    The 'best-system' analysis of lawhood [Lewis 1994] faces the 'zero-fit problem': that many systems of laws say that the chance of history going actually as it goes--the degree to which the theory 'fits' the actual course of history--is zero. Neither an appeal to infinitesimal probabilities nor a patch using standard measure theory avoids the difficulty. But there is a way to avoid it: replace the notion of 'fit' with the notion of a world being typical with respect to a theory.
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  14. Mathias Frisch (2011). From Arbuthnot to Boltzmann: The Past Hypothesis, the Best System, and the Special Sciences. Philosophy of Science 78 (5):1001-1011.
    In recent work on the foundations of statistical mechanics and the arrow of time, Barry Loewer and David Albert have developed a view that defends both a best system account of laws and a physicalist fundamentalism. I argue that there is a tension between their account of laws, which emphasizes the pragmatic element in assessing the relative strength of different deductive systems, and their reductivism or funda- mentalism. If we take the pragmatic dimension in their account seriously, then the laws (...)
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  15. Ned Hall, Humean Reductionism About Laws of Nature.
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  16. John Halpin, Fine-Tuning Arguments and the Concept of Law.
    The Myopic Anthropic Principle: an attempt to show that the popular anthropic reasoning of our time — often taken to show that laws of nature are fine-tuned by a god for us — should be seen merely as an indication of fine-tuning by us. This preference for short-sightedness in this case is shown (shown?) to support the best-system account of scientific law.
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  17. John Halpin (2013). Briggs on Antirealist Accounts of Scientific Law. Synthese 190 (16):3439–3449.
    Rachel Briggs’ critique of “antirealist” accounts of scientific law— including my own perspectivalist best-system account—is part of a project meant to show that Humean conceptions of scientific law are more problematic than has been commonly realized. Indeed, her argument provides a new challenge to the Humean, a thoroughly epistemic version of David Lewis’ “big, bad bug” for Humeanism. Still, I will argue, the antirealist (perspectivalist and expressivist) accounts she criticizes have the resources to withstand the challenge and come out stronger (...)
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  18. John F. Halpin, On Chance and the Best-System Account of Law.
    David Lewis[ii] has long defended an account of scientific law acceptable even to an empiricist with significant metaphysical scruples. On this account, the laws are defined to be the consequences of the best system for axiomitizing all occurrent fact. Here "best system" means the set of sentences which yields the best combination of strength of descriptive content[iii] with simplicity of exposition. And occurrent facts, the facts to be systematized, are roughly the particular facts about a localized space-time region that are (...)
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  19. John F. Halpin (2003). Scientific Law: A Perspectival Account. [REVIEW] Erkenntnis 58 (2):137 - 168.
    An acceptable empiricist account of laws of nature would havesignificant implications for a number of philosophical projects. For example, such an account may vitiate argumentsthat the fundamental constants of nature are divinelydesigned so that laws produce a life permittinguniverse. On an empiricist account, laws do not produce the universe but are designed by us to systematize theevents of a universe which does in fact contain life; so any ``fine tuning'' of natural law has a naturalistic explanation.But there are problems for (...)
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  20. John F. Halpin (1998). Lewis, Thau, and Hall on Chance and the Best-System Account of Law. Philosophy of Science 65 (2):349-360.
    August 16, 1997 David Lewis2 has long defended an account of scientific law acceptable even to an empiricist with significant metaphysical scruples. On this account, the laws are defined to be the consequences of the best system for axiomitizing all occurrent fact. Here "best system" means the set of sentences which yields the best combination of strength of descriptive content 3 with simplicity of exposition. And occurrent facts, the facts to be systematized, are roughly the particular facts about a localized (...)
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  21. John F. Halpin (1994). Legitimizing Chance: The Best-System Approach to Probabilistic Laws in Physical Theory. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 72 (3):317 – 338.
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  22. Charles M. Hermes, Scientific Essentialism and the Lewis/Ramsey Account of Laws of Nature.
    Humean interpretations claim that laws of nature merely summarize events. Non-Humean interpretations claim that laws force events to occur in certain patterns. First, I show that the Lewis/Ramsey account of lawhood, which claims that laws are axioms or theorems of the simplest strongest summary of events, provides the best Humean interpretation of laws. The strongest non-Humean account, the scientific essentialist position, grounds laws of nature in essential non-reducible dispositional properties held by natural kinds. The scientific essentialist account entails that laws (...)
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  23. Michael Townsen Hicks & Peter van Elswyk (forthcoming). Humean Laws and Circular Explanation. Philosophical Studies.
    Humeans are often accused of accounting for natural laws in such a way that the fundamental entities that are supposed to explain the laws circle back and explain themselves. Loewer (Philos Stud 160(1):115–137, 2012) contends this is only the appearance of circularity. When it comes to the laws of nature, the Humean posits two kinds of explanation: metaphysical and scientific. The circle is then cut because the kind of explanation the laws provide for the fundamental entities is distinct from the (...)
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  24. Jakob Hohwy (2003). Capacities, Explanation and the Possibility of Disunity. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 17 (2):179 – 190.
    Nancy Cartwright argues that so-called capacities, not universal laws of nature, best explain the often complex way events actually unfold. On this view, science would represent a world that is fundamentally "dappled", or disunified, and not, as orthodoxy would perhaps have it, a world unified by universal laws of nature. I argue, first, that the problem Cartwright raises for laws of nature seems to arise for capacities too, so why reject laws of nature? Second, that in so far as there (...)
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  25. Andreas Hüttemann (2014). Scientific Practice and Necessary Connections. Theoria 79:29-39.
    In this paper I will introduce a problem for at least those Humeans who believe that the future is open.More particularly, I will argue that the following aspect of scientific practice cannot be explained by openfuture- Humeanism: There is a distinction between states that we cannot bring about (which are represented in scientific models as nomologically impossible) and states that we merely happen not to bring about. Open-future-Humeanism has no convincing account of this distinction. Therefore it fails to explain why (...)
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  26. Frank Jackson, Graham Priest & Adam Elga (2004). Infinitesimal Chances and the Laws of Nature. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 82 (1):67 – 76.
    The 'best-system' analysis of lawhood [Lewis 1994] faces the 'zero-fit problem': that many systems of laws say that the chance of history going actually as it goes--the degree to which the theory 'fits' the actual course of history--is zero. Neither an appeal to infinitesimal probabilities nor a patch using standard measure theory avoids the difficulty. But there is a way to avoid it: replace the notion of 'fit' with the notion of a world being typical with respect to a theory.
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  27. Lydia Jaeger (2002). Humean Supervenience and Best-System Laws. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 16 (2):141 – 155.
    David Lewis has proposed an analysis of lawhood in terms of membership of a system of regularities optimizing simplicity and strength in information content. This article studies his proposal against the broader background of the project of Humean supervenience. In particular, I claim that, in Lewis's account of lawhood, his intuition about small deviations from a given law in nearby worlds (in order to avoid backtracking and epiphenomena) leads to the conclusion that laws do not support (certain) counterfactuals and do (...)
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  28. Robert Kowalenko (2011). The Epistemology of Hedged Laws. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (3):445-452.
    Standard objections to the notion of a hedged, or ceteris paribus, law of nature usually boil down to the claim that such laws would be either 1) irredeemably vague, 2) untestable, 3) vacuous, 4) false, or a combination thereof. Using epidemiological studies in nutrition science as an example, I show that this is not true of the hedged law-like generalizations derived from data models used to interpret large and varied sets of empirical observations. Although it may be ‘in principle impossible’ (...)
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  29. M. Lange (2011). Meta-Laws of Nature and the Best System Account. Analysis 71 (2):216-222.
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  30. David Lewis (1994). Humean Supervenience Debugged. Mind 103 (412):473-490.
    Tn this paper I explore and to an extent defend HS. The main philosophical challenges to HS come from philosophical views that say that nomic concepts-laws, chance, and causation-denote features of the world that fail to supervene on non-nomic features. Lewis rejects these views and has labored mightily to construct HS accounts of nomic concepts. His account of laws is fundamental to his program, since his accounts of the other nomic notions rely on it. Recently, a number of philosophers have (...)
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  31. David Lewis (1986). Philosophical Papers Vol. II. Oxford University Press.
  32. David Lewis (1983). New Work for a Theory of Universals. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61 (December):343-377.
  33. David K. Lewis (1999). Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology. Cambridge, Uk ;Cambridge University Press.
    This volume is devoted to Lewis's work in metaphysics and epistemology. Topics covered include properties, ontology, possibility, truthmaking, probability, the mind-body problem, vision, belief, and knowledge. The purpose of this collection, and the volumes that precede and follow it, is to disseminate more widely the work of an eminent and influential contemporary philosopher. The volume will serve as a useful work of reference for teachers and students of philosophy.
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  34. David K. Lewis (1973). Counterfactuals. Blackwell Publishers.
    Counterfactuals is David Lewis' forceful presentation of and sustained argument for a particular view about propositions which express contrary to fact conditionals, including his famous defense of realism about possible worlds and his theory of laws of nature.
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  35. Barry Loewer (2012). Two Accounts of Laws and Time. Philosophical Studies 160 (1):115-137.
    Among the most important questions in the metaphysics of science are "What are the natures of fundamental laws and chances?" and "What grounds the direction of time?" My aim in this paper is to examine some connections between these questions, discuss two approaches to answering them and argue in favor of one. Along the way I will raise and comment on a number of issues concerning the relationship between physics and metaphysics and consequences for the subject matter and methodology of (...)
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  36. Barry Loewer (2007). Laws and Natural Properties. Philosophical Topics 35 (1/2):313-328.
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  37. D. H. Mellor (1990). Laws, Chances and Properties. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 4 (2):159 – 170.
    Abstract The paper develops a unified account of both deterministic and indeterministic laws of nature which inherits the merits but not the defects of the best existing accounts. As in Armstrong's account, laws are embodied in facts about universals; but not in higher?order relations between them, and the necessity of laws is not primitive but results from their containing chances of 0 or 1. As in the Ramsey?Lewis account, law statements would be the general axioms and theorems of the simplest (...)
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  38. Frank Plumpton Ramsey (1931/1978). Foundations: Essays in Philosophy, Logic, Mathematics, and Economics. Humanties Press.
  39. John Roberts, Contact with the Nomic: A Challenge for Deniers of Humean Supervenience About Laws of Nature.
    This is the first part of a two-part article in which we defend the thesis of Humean Supervenience about Laws of Nature (HS). According to this thesis, two possible worlds cannot differ on what is a law of nature unless they also differ on the Humean base. The Humean base is easily to characterize intuitively, but there is no consensus on how, precisely, it should be defined. Here in Part I, we present and motivate a characterization of the Humean base (...)
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  40. John Roberts, Laws About Frequencies.
    A law about frequencies would be a law of nature that imposes a constraint on one or more (actual, global) frequencies. On any of the leading philosophical approaches to laws of nature, there could be laws about frequencies. Hypotheses that posit laws about frequencies turn out to behave very similarly to hypotheses that posit corresponding laws about probabilities or chances -- they make the same predictions, provide similar explanations, and are confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical evidence in the same ways. (...)
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  41. John Roberts (1999). "Laws of Nature" as an Indexical Term: A Reinterpretation of Lewis's Best-System Analysis. Philosophy of Science 66 (3):511.
    David Lewis's best-system analysis of laws of nature is perhaps the best known sophisticated regularity theory of laws. Its strengths are widely recognized, even by some of its ablest critics. Yet it suffers from what appears to be a glaring weakness: It seems to grant an arbitrary privilege to the standards of our own scientific culture. I argue that by reformulating, or reinterpreting, Lewis's exposition of the best-system analysis, we arrive at a view that is free of this weakness. The (...)
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  42. John T. Roberts (2005). Contact with the Nomic. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (1):1-22.
    This is the first part of a two-part article in which we defend the thesis of Humean Supervenience about Laws of Nature (HS). According to this thesis, two possible worlds cannot differ on what is a law of nature unless they also differ on the Humean base. The Humean base is easy to characterize intuitively, but there is no consensus on how, precisely, it should be defined. Here in Part I, we present and motivate a characteriza- tion of the Humean (...)
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  43. Susan Schneider (2007). What is the Significance of the Intuition That Laws of Nature Govern? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 85 (2):307 – 324.
    Recently, proponents of Humean Supervenience have challenged the plausibility of the intuition that the laws of nature 'govern', or guide, the evolution of events in the universe. Certain influential thought experiments authored by John Carroll, Michael Tooley, and others, rely strongly on such intuitions. These thought experiments are generally regarded as playing a central role in the lawhood debate, suggesting that the Mill-Ramsey-Lewis view of the laws of nature, and the related doctrine of the Humean Supervenience of laws, are false. (...)
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  44. Markus Schrenk (2014). Better Best Systems and the Issue of CP-Laws. Erkenntnis 79 (10):1787-1799.
    This paper combines two ideas: (1) That the Lewisian best system analysis of lawhood (BSA) can cope with laws that have exceptions (cf. Braddon-Mitchell in Noûs 35(2):260–277, 2001; Schrenk in The metaphysics of ceteris paribus laws. Ontos, Frankfurt, 2007). (2) That a BSA can be executed not only on the mosaic of perfectly natural properties but also on any set of special science properties (cf., inter alia, Schrenk 2007, Selected papers contributed to the sections of GAP.6, 6th international congress of (...)
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  45. Markus Schrenk (2007). The Metaphysics of Ceteris Paribus Laws. ontos.
    INTRODUCTION I. CETERIS PARIBUS LAWS An alleged law of nature—like Newton's law of gravitation—is said to be a ceteris paribus law if it does not hold under ...
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  46. Markus Schrenk (2006). A Theory for Special Science Laws. In H. Bohse & S. Walter (eds.), Selected Papers Contributed to the Sections of GAP.6. mentis.
    This paper explores whether it is possible to reformulate or re-interpret Lewis’s theory of fundamental laws of nature—his “best system analysis”—in such a way that it becomes a useful theory for special science laws. One major step in this enterprise is to make plausible how law candidates within best system competitions can tolerate exceptions—this is crucial because we expect special science laws to be so called “ceteris paribus laws”. I attempt to show how this is possible and also how we (...)
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  47. Aaron Segal (forthcoming). Half-Hearted Humeanism. Oxford Studies in Metaphysics.
    Many contemporary philosophers endorse the Humean-Lewisian Denial of Absolutely Necessary Connections (‘DANC’). Among those philosophers, many deny all or part of the Humean-Lewisian package of views about causation and laws. I argue that they maintain an inconsistent set of views. DANC entails that (1) causal properties and relations are, with a few possible exceptions, always extrinsic to their bearers, (2) nomic properties and relations are, with a few possible exceptions, always extrinsic to their bearers, and (3) causal and nomic properties (...)
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  48. Bradford Skow (2007). Earman and Roberts on Empiricism About Laws. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 75 (1):158-162.
    Earman and Roberts (2005) argue that a standard definition of '“empiricism about laws of nature” is inadequate, and propose an alternative definition they think is better. But their argument against the standard definition fails, and their alternative is defective.
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  49. Matthew H. Slater & Chris Haufe (2009). Where No Mind has Gone Before. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 23 (3):265-276.
    Do the laws of nature supervene on ordinary, non-nomic matters of fact? Lange's criticism of Humean supervenience (HS) plays a key role in his account of natural laws. Though we are sympathetic to his account, we remain unconvinced by his criticism. We focus on his thought experiment involving a world containing nothing but a lone proton and argue that it does not cast sufficient doubt on HS. In addition, we express some concern about locating the lawmakers in an ontology of (...)
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  50. Matthew H. Slater & Chris Haufe (2009). Where No Mind Has Gone Before: Exploring Laws in Distant and Lonely Worlds. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 23 (3):265-276.
    Do the laws of nature supervene on ordinary, non-nomic matters of fact? Lange's criticism of Humean supervenience (HS) plays a key role in his account of natural laws. Though we are sympathetic to his account, we remain unconvinced by his criticism. We focus on his thought experiment involving a world containing nothing but a lone proton and argue that it does not cast sufficient doubt on HS. In addition, we express some concern about locating the lawmakers in an ontology of (...)
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