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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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  1. Clive Beed & Cara Beed (2000). Is the Case for Social Science Laws Strengthening? Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 30 (2):131–153.
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  2. Donald Nute (1981). Causes, Laws, and Law Statements. Synthese 48 (3):347 - 369.
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  3. F. P. O'Gorman (1974). The Nature of Necessity. Philosophical Studies 23:305-311.
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  4. Onora O'Neill (1989). Universal Laws and Ends-in-Themselves. The Monist 72 (3):341-361.
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  5. W. Russ Payne, Some Good and Some Not so Good Arguments for Necessary Laws William Russell Payne Ph.D.
    The view that properties have their causal powers essentially, which I will here call property essentialism, has advocates in Chris Swoyer,[1] Sydney Shoemaker [2], Alan Chalmers [3], Brian Ellis [4] and Caroline Lierse [5], among a few other authors in recent literature. I am partial to this view as well and I will shortly explain the grounds I find compelling in favor of it. However, we will also see that the essentialist view of properties and laws does not adequately do (...)
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  6. Roger Penrose (2011). Godel, the Mind, and the Laws of Physics. In Matthias Baaz (ed.), Kurt Gödel and the Foundations of Mathematics: Horizons of Truth. Cambridge University Press. 339.
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  7. Slobodan Perovic (2004). Brian Ellis, The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism Reviewed By. Philosophy in Review 24 (2):95-97.
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  8. Johannes Persson (2005). The Laws' Properties. In Jan Faye, Paul Needham, Uwe Scheffler & Max Urchs (eds.), Nature's Principles. Springer. 239--254.
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  9. Philip L. Peterson (1994). Which Universals Are Laws? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 72 (4):492 – 496.
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  10. Jonathan Powers (1984). Nancy Cartwright: How the Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW] Radical Philosophy 37:35.
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  11. C. F. Presley (1954). Laws and Theories in the Physical Sciences. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 32 (2):79 – 103.
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  12. George L. Proctor (1959). Scientific Laws and Scientific Objects in the Tractatus. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 10 (39):177-193.
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  13. Stathis Psillos, Cartwright's Realist Toil: From Entities to Capacities.
    In this paper I develop five worries concerning Cartwright’s realism about entities and capacities. The first is that while she was right to insist on the ontic commitment that flows from causal explanation, she was wrong to tie these commitments solely to the entities that do the causal explaining. This move obscured the nature of causal explanation and its connection to laws. The second worry is that when she turned her attention to causal inference, by insisting on the motto of (...)
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  14. Stathis Psillos (2002). Salt Does Dissolve in Water, but Not Necessarily. Analysis 62 (3):255–257.
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  15. Carl Hampton Putz (1970). The Nature of Scientific Laws. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh
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  16. Sam S. Rakover (1979). One or Two Different Sets of Laws of Learning—Is This an Empirical Question? Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 13 (1):41-43.
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  17. V. S. Ramachandran & William Hirstein (1999). Three Laws ofQualia. In Jonathan Shear & Shaun Gallagher (eds.), Models of the Self. Imprint Academic. 83.
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  18. J. Edward Rauth (1933). The Laws of Human Nature. New Scholasticism 7 (4):371-371.
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  19. M. L. G. Redhead (1984). Nancy Cartwright, "How the Laws of Physics Lie". [REVIEW] Philosophical Quarterly 34 (37):513.
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  20. Bruce Reichenbach (1976). Natural Evils and Natural Laws. International Philosophical Quarterly 16 (2):179-196.
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  21. D. G. Ritchie (1893). The Conception of Necessity as Applied to Nature and to Man. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 2 (3):19 - 35.
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  22. John T. Roberts (2014). CP-Law Statements as Vague, Self-Referential, Self-Locating, Statistical, and Perfectly in Order. Erkenntnis 79 (10):1775-1786.
    I propose understanding CP-law statements as statements that assert the existence of vague statistical laws, not by fully specifying the contents of those laws, but by picking them out via a description that is both self-referential and self-locating. I argue that this proposal validates many common assumptions about CP-laws and correctly classifies many examples of putative CP-laws. It does this while avoiding the most serious worries that motivate some philosophers to be skeptical of CP-laws, namely the worry that they lack (...)
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  23. John T. Roberts (2013). Measurements, Laws, and Counterfactuals. In Stephen Mumford & Matthew Tugby (eds.), Metaphysics and Science. Oxford University Press. 29.
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  24. Lawrence D. Roberts (1974). Libertarianism and Statistical Laws. Noûs 8 (2):195-199.
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  25. H. Romer (1999). Given by Nature or Invented? How Much Freedom is There in Physics?(Scientific Laws). Philosophisches Jahrbuch 106 (1):220-232.
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  26. Richard Rorty (1976). Necessity and Realism: Milton Fisk's Nature and Necessity. Noûs 10 (3):345-353.
  27. William L. Rowe (1971). Neurophysiological Laws and Purposive Principles. Philosophical Review 80 (October):502-508.
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  28. Michael Ruse (1988). Rigorous Regularism: Physical Laws Without Necessity. Dialogue 27 (03):523-.
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  29. Hubert Schleichert (1963). The Communicable Content of the Conventional Bases for the Natural Laws. Philosophy Today 7 (1):33.
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  30. Tad M. Schmaltz (2011). From Causes to Laws. In Desmond M. Clarke & Catherine Wilson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy in Early Modern Europe. Oup Oxford.
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  31. Warren Schmaus (1983). In Defense of Historical Laws. Philosophy of Science 50 (1):146-150.
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  32. Karl Schmidt (1933). The Existential Status of Facts and Laws in Physics. The Monist 43 (2):161-172.
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  33. Gerhard Schurz (2011). Alexander Bird: Nature's Metaphysics. Laws and Properties. [REVIEW] Erkenntnis 74 (1):137-142.
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  34. Peter Schuster (2011). Power Laws in Biology: Between Fundamental Regularities and Useful Interpolation Rules. Complexity 16 (3):6-9.
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  35. Peter Schuster (2010). Power Laws in Biology. Complexity 16:6-9.
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  36. Wilfrid S. Sellars (1948). Concepts as Involving Laws and Inconceivable Without Them. Philosophy of Science 15 (October):287-313.
  37. R. A. Sharpe (1971). Laws, Coincidences, Counterfactuals and Counter-Identicals. Mind 80 (320):572-582.
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  38. Anna Sherratt (2001). Are the Laws of Logic Necessary or Contingent? Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 101 (3):379–384.
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  39. Henry Shue (2010). Laws of War. In Samantha Besson & John Tasioulas (eds.), The Philosophy of International Law. Oxford University Press.
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  40. Ansgar Alfred Augustinus Simon (1996). A Probabilistic Analysis of Causal Laws. Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles
    Probabilistic theories of causation develop the idea that a cause's presence increases the likelihood of its effect as compared to its absence. The common explication, that a cause do so in a complete background context of other causes, is shown to rely on the intuition that a cause produces the probability increase on its own. This requires that, in the background context, the relevant probabilities express non-causal probabilistic laws, i.e., are nomic. A law holds of a kind; this kind determines (...)
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  41. Lawrence Sklar (2003). Dappled Theories in a Uniform World. Philosophy of Science 70 (2):424-441.
    It has been argued, most trenchantly by Nancy Cartwright, that the diversity of the concepts and regularities we actually use to describe nature and predict and explain its behavior leaves us with no reason to believe that our foundational physical theories actually "apply" outside of delicately contrived systems within the laboratory. This paper argues that, diversity of method notwithstanding, there is indeed good reason to think that the foundational laws of physics are universal in their scope.
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  42. Brian Skyrms (1978). Statistical Laws and Personal Propensities. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1978:551 - 562.
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  43. Frederick Brian Skyrms (1964). The Concept of Physical Necessity. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh
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  44. Mary Ann Wrynn Smith (1973). Scientific Laws and Necessity. Dissertation, Michigan State University
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  45. Sheldon R. Smith (2007). Causation and Its Relation to 'Causal Laws'. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 58 (4):659 - 688.
    Many have found attractive views according to which the veracity of specific causal judgements is underwritten by general causal laws. This paper describes various variants of that view and explores complications that appear when one looks at a certain simple type of example from physics. To capture certain causal dependencies, physics is driven to look at equations which, I argue, are not causal laws. One place where physics is forced to look at such equations (and not the only place) is (...)
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  46. J. G. Spurzheim (1839). Philosophical Catechism of the Natural Laws of Man. Marsh, Capen, and Lyon.
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  47. Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1825). A Sketch of the Natural Laws of Man. J. And R. Childs.
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  48. Lucie Beckham Stevens (1907). The Progressive Life and its Requirements, or, the Beneficence of Nature's Laws.
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  49. John Stewart (1813). The Scripture of Reason and Nature the Laws of Intellect : The Laws of Virtue : The Laws of Policy : The Laws of Physiology, or, the Philosophy of Sense : Developing the Origin, End, Essence and Constitution of Nature. Printed for T. Egerton.
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  50. M. Suarez (2002). Review: Science Without Laws. [REVIEW] Mind 111 (441):111-114.
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