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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. P. P. Allport (1993). Are the Laws of Physics 'Economical with the Truth'? Synthese 94 (2):245 - 290.
    It has been argued that the fundamental laws of physics are deceitful in that they give the impression of greater unity and coherence in our theories than is actually found to be the case. Causal stories and phenomenological relationships are claimed to provide a more acceptable account of the world, and only theoretical entities — not laws — are considered as perhaps corresponding to real features of the world.This paper examines these claims in the light of the author's own field (...)
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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. Harold I. Brown (1988). How the Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW] International Studies in Philosophy 20 (3):102-103.
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  8. Jeffrey Bub (1985). Nancy Cartwright, How The Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW] Philosophy in Review 5:104-107.
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  9. Roger Caldwell (2000). The Dappled World. [REVIEW] Philosophy Now 28:42-43.
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  10. J. W. Carroll (2006). Review: Laws in Nature. [REVIEW] Mind 115 (459):780-784.
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  11. 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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  12. Esteban Cespedes (2011). Laws of Nature and Counterparts. Kritike: An Online Journal of Philosophy 5 (2):185-196.
    The events of nature are, at first glance, related to each other in a necessary way, as if they were subject to certain rules, a fact that is closely linked with the ontology of natural laws. However, there are several conflicting theories about their existence, such as the Humean view as well as realism. Mumford proposes a third way: to accept natural regularity, but deny that this is due to the real existence of natural laws. Finally, some ideas about a (...)
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  13. Alan Chalmers (1993). So the Laws of Physics Needn't Lie. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 71 (2):196 – 205.
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  14. Steve Clarke (1998). Cartwright on Fundamentalism. Theoria 45 (91):53-65.
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  15. Steve Clarke (1998). Metaphysics and the Disunity of Scientific Knowledge. Monograph Collection (Matt - Pseudo).
    The central current of ideas in modern philosophy - through Hume, Kant and Hegel, to the present - can be understood as a reaction to the percieved threat of disorder. Against this background, the author argues for acceptance of a metaphysics of disorder, and outlines a number of important philosophical consequences of such an acceptance. When appropriately constrained by empiricist concern, such a metaphysics allows us to make sense of ourselves as as knowers who must make do in a world (...)
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  16. 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.
  17. James H. Fetzer (1985). How the Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW] Philosophical Books 26 (2):120-124.
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  18. Aldo Filomeno (2014). On the Possibility of Stable Regularities Without Fundamental Laws. Dissertation, Autonomous University of Barcelona
    This doctoral dissertation investigates the notion of physical necessity. Specifically, it studies whether it is possible to account for non-accidental regularities without the standard assumption of a pre-existent set of governing laws. Thus, it takes side with the so called deflationist accounts of laws of nature, like the humean or the antirealist. The specific aim is to complement such accounts by providing a missing explanation of the appearance of physical necessity. In order to provide an explanation, I recur to fields (...)
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  19. 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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  20. D. Goldstick (1993). Laws of Nature and Physical Existents. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 7 (3):255 – 265.
    Abstract Nominalists, denying the reality of anything over and above concreta, are committed to a reductive account of any law of nature, explaining its necessity?the fact that it not only holds for all actual instances, but would hold for any additional ones?in, for example, epistemic terms (its likelihood/certainty of holding beyond the already observed instances). Nominalists argue that the world would be no different without irreducible modalities. ?Modal realists? often object that this parallels a common phenomenalist argument against believing in (...)
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  21. 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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  22. I. Hanzel (1999). Nancy Cartwright on Scientific Laws and Scientific Explanation. Filozofia 54 (10):717-730.
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  23. Igor Hanzel (2008). Scientific Laws and Scientific Explanations: A Differentiated Typology. Organon F: Medzinárodný Časopis Pre Analytickú Filozofiu 15 (3):323-344.
    The paper tries to provide an alternative to C. G. Hempel’s approach to scientific laws and scientific explanation as given in his D-N model. It starts with a brief exposition of the main characteristics of Hempel’s approach to deductive explanations based on universal scientific laws and analyzes the problems and paradoxes inherent in this approach. By way of solution, it analyzes the scientific laws and explanations in classical mechanics and then reconstructs the corresponding models of explanation, as well as the (...)
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  24. Igor Hanzel (2005). Nancy Cartwright and Leszek Nowak on Scientific Laws and Scientific Explanation. In Jan Faye, Paul Needham, Uwe Scheffler & Max Urchs (eds.), Nature's Principles. Springer. 103--135.
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  25. Władysław Krajewski (1986). Czy prawa fizyki są prawdziwe? (N. Cartwright, \"How the Laws of Physics Lie\", New York 1983). [REVIEW] Studia Filozoficzne 246 (5).
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  26. 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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  27. 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 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 refinements of (...)
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  28. 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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  29. Stephen Mumford (1998). Laws of Nature Outlawed. Dialectica 52 (2):83–101.
    SummaryThere are two rival ways in which events in the world can be explained: the covering law way and the dispositionalist way. The covering law model, which takes the law of nature as its fundamental explanatory unit, faces a number of renown difficulties. Rather than attempt to patch up this approach, the alternative dispositionalist strategy is recommended. On this view, general facts are dependent upon particular facts about what things do, rather than vice versa. This way of viewing the world (...)
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  30. 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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  31. 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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  32. Jonathan Powers (1984). Nancy Cartwright: How the Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW] Radical Philosophy 37:35.
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  33. 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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  34. M. L. G. Redhead (1984). Nancy Cartwright, "How the Laws of Physics Lie". [REVIEW] Philosophical Quarterly 34 (37):513.
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  35. Hubert Schleichert (1963). The Communicable Content of the Conventional Bases for the Natural Laws. Philosophy Today 7 (1):33.
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  36. 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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  37. 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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  38. M. Suarez (2002). Review: Science Without Laws. [REVIEW] Mind 111 (441):111-114.
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  39. 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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  40. Emma Tobin (2006). Laws in Nature. [REVIEW] Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy 9.
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  41. Roger Vajda (2000). A Defense of a Pragmatist View of Scientific Laws. Dissertation, Michigan State University
    Laws of nature have, since Descartes, been seen as a central feature of scientific inquiry and philosophical analysis. The standard empiricist analysis of laws has come under challenge by realists, like Armstrong, who believe the analysis leaves out important features we intuitively ascribe to laws , and by antirealists like van Fraassen who believe the very notion ensnares us in metaphysics. In my dissertation, I defend the view against both the realists and van Fraassen that an empirically respectable notion of (...)
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  42. Bas C. van Fraassen (1993). Armstrong, Cartwright, and Earman on Laws and Symmetry. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (2):431--44.
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  43. 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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  44. 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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  45. Jonathan Walmsley (1998). How the Laws of Physics Still Lie. The Philosophers' Magazine 4:36-38.
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  46. 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.
    Recently several thought experiments have been developed which have been alleged to refute the Ramsey-Lewis view of laws of nature. The paper aims to show that two such thought experiments fail to establish that the Ramsey-Lewis view is false, since they presuppose a conception of laws of nature that is radically at odds with the Humean conception of laws embodied by the Ramsey-Lewis view. In particular, the thought experiments presuppose that laws of nature govern the behavior of objects. The paper (...)
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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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