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Laws of Nature

Edited by Markus Schrenk (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf)
Assistant editor: Florian Boge (University of Cologne, University of Cologne)
About this topic
Summary To discover the laws of nature is often said to be the main task of the natural sciences. Yet, what that is, a law of nature, is controversial and people are guided by two different intuitions when they aim to characterise what a law of nature is. Some have the feeling that natural laws govern the events in the world: what a law says must happen (or, what a law forbids can’t happen). This intuition might partially originate in our actual day-to-day experiences when we feel resistance against some of our actions. Some goals are not merely difficult to achieve, they are impossible: we cannot, unaided, jump 10m high. In concert with the facts about our current body mass, leg muscles, and the earth’s gravitational field, the laws of nature prohibit this kind of leap. For other people, laws have more of a descriptive character: the laws are (merely) accurate reports of what regularly happens or is universally the case. This intuition comes from the observation that nature seems to be uniform. Alleged laws like Boyle's law (which says that for a fixed amount of an ideal gas kept at a fixed temperature, pressure and volume are inversely proportional (pV=k)) or Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence (E=mc2)) record these universal regularities. Those who hold the first intuition (that the laws necessitate what happens and prohibit what does not happen) do not think the second intuition is wrong. In fact, if, what the laws say, must happen, then it also does happen and we get the regularities for free. The necessities in nature supposedly produce the regularities and thus explain why they are there. Yet, those who subscribe to some kind of regularity view deny that laws necessitate anything because they usually agree with David Hume that the postulation of necessity in nature is suspect.
Key works The most important Humean view comes from David Lewis: Lewis 1973  (esp. pp73), Lewis 1999  (esp. papers 8-55 and 224-247). Armstrong, Tooley, and Dretske give expression to necessitating views of lawhood in: Armstrong 1983Tooley 1997Dretske 1977. Latest works on laws, relying, for example, on counterfactuals or on dispositions, come, respectively, from: Lange 2009Bird 2007
Introductions The best introduction is Psillos 2002 even if the book does not have "Laws" in its title. (Read it also if you are looking for an intro to causation or explanation!)
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Subcategories:History/traditions: Laws of Nature
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Anti-Realism about Laws
  1. A. J. Aver (1999). What is a Law of Nature? In Michael Tooley (ed.), Laws of Nature, Causation, and Supervenience. Garland Pub.. 1--52.
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  2. Yury V. Balashov (1992). On the Evolution of Natural Laws. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 43 (3):343-370.
    's argumentation in favour of essential invariability of the fundamental laws of nature is critically examined. It is contended that within the realist framework Poincareé's arguments lose their apodictical force. In this sense the assumption of inconstancy of even the fundamental laws of nature is methodologically legitimate.
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  3. Clint Ballinger (2007). Initial Conditions and the 'Open Systems' Argument Against Laws of Nature. Metaphysica 9 (1):17-31.
    This article attacks “open systems” arguments that because constant conjunctions are not generally observed in the real world of open systems we should be highly skeptical that universal laws exist. This work differs from other critiques of open system arguments against laws of nature by not focusing on laws themselves, but rather on the inference from open systems. We argue that open system arguments fail for two related reasons; 1) because they cannot account for the “systems” central to their argument (...)
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  4. Ruben Berrios, Anti-Realism and Aesthetic Cognition.
    Ruben Berrios Queen’s University Belfast Anti-realism and Aesthetic Cognition Abstract At the core of the debate between scientific realism and anti-realism is the question of the relation between scientific theory and the world. The realist possesses a mimetic conception of the relation between theory and reality. For the realist, scientific theories represent reality. The anti-realist, in contrast, seeks to understand the relations between theory and world in non-mimetic terms. We will examine Cartwright’s simulacrum account of explanation in order to illuminate (...)
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  5. 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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  6. Nancy Cartwright (1983). How the Laws of Physics Lie. Oxford University Press.
    In this sequence of philosophical essays about natural science, the author argues that fundamental explanatory laws, the deepest and most admired successes of modern physics, do not in fact describe regularities that exist in nature. Cartwright draws from many real-life examples to propound a novel distinction: that theoretical entities, and the complex and localized laws that describe them, can be interpreted realistically, but the simple unifying laws of basic theory cannot.
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  7. 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.
  8. Bas C. Van Fraassen (1993). Armstrong, Cartwright, and Earman on Laws and Symmetry. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (2):431 - 444.
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  9. 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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  10. Peter Lipton, From Metaphysics to Method.
    The stimulating programme of The Dappled World is metaphysics in the service of methodology. To say that the world is dappled is to say that the laws of nature only apply to certain regions. A central argument for this claim is epistemic. Although the laws, especially laws of physics, are typically thought of as universal, in fact we have only managed to construct precise quantitative models for a very limited range of cases, most of which lie within the artificially simplified (...)
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  11. Dan Mcarthur (2006). Contra Cartwright: Structural Realism, Ontological Pluralism and Fundamentalism About Laws. Synthese 151 (2):233 - 255.
    In this paper I argue against Nancy Cartwright’s claim that we ought to abandon what she calls “fundamentalism” about the laws of nature and adopt instead her “dappled world” hypothesis. According to Cartwright we ought to abandon the notion that fundamental laws (even potentially) apply universally, instead we should consider the law-like statements of science to apply in highly qualified ways within narrow, non-overlapping and ontologically diverse domains, including the laws of fundamental physics. For Cartwright, “laws” are just locally applicable (...)
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  12. Stephen Mumford (2005). Laws and Lawlessness. Synthese 144 (3):397?413.
    I develop a metaphysical position that is both lawless and anti-Humean. The position is called realist lawlessness and contrasts with both Humean lawlessness and nomological realism – the claim that there are laws in nature. While the Humean view also allows no laws, realist lawlessness is not Humean because it accepts some necessary connections in nature between distinct properties. Realism about laws, on the other hand, faces a central dilemma. Either laws govern the behaviour of properties from the outside or (...)
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  13. Stephen Mumford (1998). Laws of Nature Outlawed. Dialectica 52 (2):83–101.
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  14. Paul Needham (1991). Duhem and Cartwright on the Truth of Laws. Synthese 89 (1):89 - 109.
    Nancy Cartwright has drawn attention to how explanations are actually given in mathematical sciences. She argues that these procedures support an antirealist thesis that fundamental explanatory laws are not true. Moreover, she claims to be be essentially following Duhem's line of thought in developing this thesis. Without wishing to detract from the importance of her observations, it is suggested that they do not necessarily require the antirealist thesis. The antirealist interpretation of Duhem is also disputed. It is argued that Duhemian (...)
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  15. L. A. Paul, Limited Realism: Cartwright on Natures and Laws.
    A leaf falls to the ground, wafting lazily on the afternoon breeze. Clouds move across the sky, and birds sing. Are these events governed by universal laws of nature, laws that apply everywhere without exception, subsuming events such as the falling of the leaf, the movement of the clouds and the singing of the birds? Are such laws part of a small set of fundamental laws, or descended from such a set, which govern everything there is in the world?
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  16. David Spurrett (2001). Cartwright on Laws and Composition. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 15 (3):253 – 268.
    Cartwright attempts to argue from an analysis of the composition of forces, and more generally the composition of laws, to the conclusion that laws must be regarded as false. A response to Cartwright is developed which contends that properly understood composition poses no threat to the truth of laws, even though agreeing with Cartwright that laws do not satisfy the "facticity" requirement. My analysis draws especially on the work of Creary, Bhaskar, Mill, and points towards a general rejection of Cartwright's (...)
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  17. Paul Teller (2004). The Law‐Idealization. Philosophy of Science 71 (5):730-741.
    There are few, perhaps no known, exact, true, general laws. Some of the work of generalization is carried by ceteris paribus generalizations. I suggest that many models continue such work in more complex form, with the idea of ceteris paribus conditions thought of as extended to more general conditions of application. I use the term regularity guide to refer collectively to cp‐generalizations and such regularity‐purveying models. Laws in the traditional sense can then be thought of as idealizations, which idealize away (...)
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  18. Bas C. van Fraassen (1993). Armstrong, Cartwright, and Earman on Laws and Symmetry. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53:431--44.
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  19. Bas C. Van Fraassen (1989). Laws and Symmetry. Oxford University Press.
    Metaphysicians speak of laws of nature in terms of necessity and universality; scientists, in terms of symmetry and invariance. In this book van Fraassen argues that no metaphysical account of laws can succeed. He analyzes and rejects the arguments that there are laws of nature, or that we must believe there are, and argues that we should disregard the idea of law as an adequate clue to science. After exploring what this means for general epistemology, the author develops the empiricist (...)
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  20. Review author[S.]: Bas C. van Fraassen (1993). Armstrong, Cartwright, and Earman on Laws and Symmetry. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (2):431-444.
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  21. Torsten Wilholt (2012). Conventionalism: Poincaré, Duhem, Reichenbach. In James R. Brown (ed.), Philosophy of Science: The Key Thinkers. Continuum Books. 32.
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Best-Systems Analyses
  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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