Laws of Nature

Edited by Markus Schrenk (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf)
Assistant editor: Florian J. Boge (Bergische Universität Wuppertal)
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. pp. 73-77), Lewis 1999  (esp. pp. 8-55 and 224-247). Armstrong, Tooley, and Dretske give expression to necessitating views of lawhood in: Armstrong 1983Tooley 1997Dretske 1977. Maudlin 2007 develops and defends a primitivist view of the laws of nature, i.e. one where nomicity is a fundamental unanalysable fact of our world. Latest works on laws, relying, for example, on counterfactuals or on dispositions, come, respectively, from: Lange 2009Bird 2007
Introductions A magnificent 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! A good start for further readings on laws is also the respective chapter in the more recent Schrenk 2017.
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  1. Bell's Theorem, Quantum Probabilities, and Superdeterminism.Eddy Keming Chen - forthcoming - In Eleanor Knox & Alastair Wilson (eds.), The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Physics. Routledge.
    In this short survey article, I discuss Bell’s theorem and some strategies that attempt to avoid the conclusion of non-locality. I focus on two that intersect with the philosophy of probability: (1) quantum probabilities and (2) superdeterminism. The issues they raised not only apply to a wide class of no-go theorems about quantum mechanics but are also of general philosophical interest.
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  2. Freedom Giving Birth to Order: Philosophical Reflections on Peirce's Evolutionary Cosmology and its Contemporary Resurrections.Zeyad El Nabolsy - 2020 - Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 16 (1):1-23.
    This paper seeks to show that Charles Sanders Peirce's interest in an evolutionary account of the laws of nature is motivated both by his desire to extend the scope of the application of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) and by his attempt to explain the success of our deployment of the PSR, which presupposes the existence of determinate causal structures. One can situate Peirce's concern with the explanation of the laws of nature in relation to the influences of Naturphilosophie (...)
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  3. Natural Laws as Dispositions.Florian Fischer - 2018 - De Gruyter.
    Chapter 1 serves as an introduction to the vast topic of laws of nature. Thus, it first outlines the alleged characteristics of the laws of nature, namely truth, objectivity, contingency, necessity, universality, grounding counterfactuals and their role in science. Among these aspects, the peculiar modal status of laws of nature will be identified as the ‘holy grail’ of the debate. The second part of this chapter is concerned with the three main families of theories of laws of nature – neo-humean, (...)
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  4. Intersubjectivity and Physical Laws in Post-Kantian Theory of Knowledge: Natorp and Cassirer.Scott Edgar - 2015 - In Sebastian Luft & J. Tyler Friedman (eds.), The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer: A Novel Assessment. Berlin: De Gruyter. pp. 141-162.
    Consider the claims that representations of physical laws are intersubjective, and that they ultimately provide the foundation for all other intersubjective knowledge. Those claims, as well as the deeper philosophical commitments that justify them, constitute rare points of agreement between the Marburg School neo-Kantians Paul Natorp and Ernst Cassirer and their positivist rival, Ernst Mach. This is surprising, since Natorp and Cassirer are both often at pains to distinguish their theories of natural scientific knowledge from positivist views like Mach’s, and (...)
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Anti-Realism about Laws
  1. No God, No Powers.James Orr - 2019 - International Philosophical Quarterly 59 (4):411-426.
    One common feature of debates about the best metaphysical analysis of putatively lawful phenomena is the suspicion that nomic realists who locate the modal force of such phenomena in quasi-causal necessitation relations between universals are working with a model of law that cannot convincingly erase its theological pedigree. Nancy Cartwright distills this criticism into slogan form: no God, no laws. Some have argued that a more plausible alternative for nomic realists who reject theism is to ground laws of nature in (...)
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  2. Consecuencias de Las Interpretaciones Actuales de la Metafísica Humeana En El Debate Sobre Las Leyes de Na Naturaleza.Bruno Borge & Roberto Azar - 2015 - Principia: An International Journal of Epistemology 19 (2):247-262.
    A highly influential position in the debate between nomological realists and antirealists is the regularist theory of laws. Its main feature is the defense of a humean metaphysics which denies the existence of real causal powers and necessary connections in nature. Regularism, however, rely on a traditional reading of Hume’s philosophy. In this paper we aim to revisit the discussion around laws of nature in light of nontraditional interpretations of his work, often labeled as the ‘New Hume’.
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  3. Principles of Motion and the Absence of Laws of Nature in Hobbes’s Natural Philosophy.Stathis Psillos & Eirini Goudarouli - 2019 - Hopos: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science 9 (1):93-119.
  4. Natural Laws in Scientific Practice. [REVIEW]Kent Staley - 2002 - Review of Metaphysics 56 (2):435-436.
    One might view the literature on laws of nature as dividing into two camps: the “metaphysical” advocates of laws as objective realities beyond any actual regularities, and the “antimetaphysical” skeptics. Hard-liners in both camps will find much to disagree with in Marc Lange’s Natural Laws in Scientific Practice. I mean that as a compliment to Lange’s work.
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  5. What If There Are Laws of Nature? Reflections on van Fraassen’s Laws and Symmetry: Bas C. Van Fraassen: Laws and Symmetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989, 410pp, £31.49 PB.Stathis Psillos - 2019 - Metascience 28 (1):3-12.
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  6. Rethinking Order: After the Laws of Nature.Nancy Cartwright & Keith Ward (eds.) - 2016 - Bloomsbury.
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  7. Duhem and Cartwright on the Truth of Laws.Paul Needham - 1991 - 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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  8. Nature's Capacities and Their Measurement.Tim Maudlin & Nancy Cartwright - 1993 - Journal of Philosophy 90 (11):599.
    This book on the philosophy of science argues for an empiricism, opposed to the tradition of David Hume, in which singular rather than general causal claims are primary; causal laws express facts about singular causes whereas the general causal claims of science are ascriptions of capacities or causal powers, capacities to make things happen. Taking science as measurement, Cartwright argues that capacities are necessary for science and that these can be measured, provided suitable conditions are met. There are case studies (...)
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  9. Laws and Symmetry. Bas C. Van Fraassen.Joel M. Smith - 1993 - Philosophy of Science 60 (4):661-662.
  10. Stephen Mumford Laws In Nature London, Routledge, 2004 Hardback £60.00 ISBN 0-415-31128-4. [REVIEW]Simon Bostock - 2006 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57 (2):449-452.
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  11. Laws of Nature Outlawed.Stephen Mumford - 1998 - 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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  12. Where Do Laws of Nature Come From?Nancy Cartwright - 1997 - Dialectica 51 (1):65-78.
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  13. The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science.Storrs Mccall - 2003 - Mind 112 (445):99-106.
  14. Science Without Laws.M. Suarez - 2002 - Mind 111 (441):111-114.
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  15. Review of Nature's Capacities and Their Measurement by Nancy D. Cartwright. [REVIEW]Frederick M. Kronz - 1994 - Philosophy of Science 61 (1):155-157.
  16. Review of Laws and Symmetry by Bas C. Van Fraassen. [REVIEW]Joel M. Smith - 1993 - Philosophy of Science 60 (4):661-662.
  17. Fundamental Laws and Ad Hoc Decisions: A Reply to Curry.Christopher Ray - 1991 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 23 (4):661-664.
  18. In Defense of Laws: Reflections on Bas van Fraassen’s Laws and Symmetry.John Earman - 1993 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (2):413-419.
    The topic of laws of nature provides a kind of Rorschach test for philosophy. Some philosophers see in laws only Humean regularities; others see a kind of physical necessity; others see a necessity closer to logical necessity; others see expressions of causal powers; others see inference tickets; still others see relations between universals; ... ; and some see only a messy inkblot. We can also perform a meta-Rorschach test on the results of the first test. When van Fraassen and I (...)
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  19. The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science. [REVIEW]Eric Winsberg, Mathias Frisch, Karen Merikangas Darling & Arthur Fine - 2000 - Journal of Philosophy 97 (7):403-408.
  20. How the Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW]Geoffrey Joseph - 1985 - Philosophical Review 94 (4):580.
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  21. Laws Are Not Descriptions.Federico Laudisa - 2015 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 29 (3):251-270.
    The view that takes laws of nature to be essentially nothing more than descriptions of facts is still rather popular. The present article, on the contrary, defends the claim that the only real motivation for defending a descriptive view of laws—the quest for ontological parsimony—entails too high a price to pay in philosophical terms. It is argued that nomic primitivism, namely the alternative option that takes laws to be primitive fundamental entities in our ontology, is decisively more appealing, since it (...)
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  22. Cartwright and the Lying Laws of Physics.Ronald Laymon - 1989 - Journal of Philosophy 86 (7):353.
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  23. Nature's Capacities and Their Measurement. Nancy Cartwright.Huw Price - 1991 - Isis 82 (3):605-606.
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  24. Contra Cartwright: Structural Realism, Ontological Pluralism and Fundamentalism About Laws.Dan Mcarthur - 2006 - 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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  25. Laws and Lawlessness.Stephen Mumford - 2005 - 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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  26. The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science.Nancy Cartwright - 1999 - Cambridge University Press.
    It is often supposed that the spectacular successes of our modern mathematical sciences support a lofty vision of a world completely ordered by one single elegant theory. In this book Nancy Cartwright argues to the contrary. When we draw our image of the world from the way modern science works - as empiricism teaches us we should - we end up with a world where some features are precisely ordered, others are given to rough regularity and still others behave in (...)
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  27. What is a laws of nature? / O que é uma lei da natureza?Rodrigo Cid - 2011 - Dissertation,
    The goal of this thesis to defend the philosophical view of the new ante rem substantivism against its supposed alternatives. To achieve such goal, we will present four views about the nature of laws, two kinds of realism and two kinds of anti-realism, and evaluate them critically. The disadvantages from those theories are going to be presented for us to show that they are insufficient to provide a metaphysics that is able to explain the world's counterfactuality, universality, and regularity, and (...)
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  28. Getting Away From Governance: A Structuralist Approach to Laws and Symmetries.Angelo Cei & Steven French - unknown
    Dispositionalist accounts of scientific laws are currently at the forefront of discussions in the metaphysics of science. However, Mumford has presented such accounts with the following dilemma: if laws are to have a governing role, then they cannot be grounded in the relevant dispositions; if on the other hand, they are so grounded, then they cannot perform such a role. Mumford’s solution is drastic: to do away with laws as metaphysically substantive entities altogether. Dispositionalist accounts are also deficient in that (...)
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  29. How the Laws of Physics Can Be Confronted with Experience.Rinat M. Nugayev - 1992 - Theoria Et Historia Scientiarum:24-36.
    Nancy Cartwright’s arguments in favor of the phenomenological laws and against the fundamental ones are discussed. I support and strengthen her criticism of the standard covering-law account but I am skeptical in respect to her radical conclusion that the laws of physics lie. Arguments in favor of the opposite stance are based on V.S. Stepin’s analysis of mature theory structure. A mature theory-change model presented here demonstrates how the fundamental laws of physics can be confronted with experience. Its case studies (...)
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  30. On the Possibility of Stable Regularities Without Fundamental Laws.Aldo Filomeno - 2014 - 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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  31. Ronald Giere: Science Without Laws. [REVIEW]Jim Woodward - 2002 - Philosophy of Science 69 (2):379-384.
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  32. Bas C. Van Fraassen Laws and Symmetry. [REVIEW]Michael Tooley - 1995 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 46 (2):280.
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  33. Nancy Cartwright, How The Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW]Jeffrey Bub - 1985 - Philosophy in Review 5 (3):104-107.
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  34. Laws in Nature. [REVIEW]Emma Tobin - 2006 - Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy 9.
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  35. Nancy Cartwright: How the Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW]Jonathan Powers - 1984 - Radical Philosophy 37:35.
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  36. The Communicable Content of the Conventional Bases for the Natural Laws.Hubert Schleichert - 1963 - Philosophy Today 7 (1):33.
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  37. A Defense of a Pragmatist View of Scientific Laws.Roger Vajda - 2000 - 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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  38. Science and the Systematicity of Nature: A Critique of Nancy Cartwright's Doctrine of Nature and Natural Science.Philip Ellery Catton - 1991 - Dissertation, The University of Western Ontario (Canada)
    Whether nature is or is not systematic sounds at first like an idle metaphysical question, but considered in relation to the aims of science and the methods of appraisal of scientific theories, it can be given clear content. It is also necessary to ask the question in order to study the relation of causation, laws of nature, and theoretical structure. ; Aims. The doctrines that science aims to provide explanations, that science achieves success in this aim, that explanation involves unification, (...)
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  39. Metaphysics and the Disunity of Scientific Knowledge.Steve Clarke - 1998
    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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  40. Nancy Cartwright, "How the Laws of Physics Lie". [REVIEW]M. L. G. Redhead - 1984 - Philosophical Quarterly 34 (37):513.
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  41. Laws of Nature and Counterparts.Esteban Cespedes - 2011 - Kritike 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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  42. Review of HOW the Laws of Physics Lie, by N. Cartwright. [REVIEW]C. Dilworth - 1987 - Epistemologia 10:143-145.
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  43. Précis of Laws and Symmetry.Bas C. Van Fraassen - 1993 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (2):411-412.
  44. Laws and Symmetry. [REVIEW]Joel M. Smith - 1993 - Philosophy of Science 60 (4):659.
  45. Laws and Symmetry. [REVIEW]Michael Tooley - 1995 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 46 (2):280.
  46. Capacities, Natures and Pluralism: A New Metaphysics for Science?Peter Menzies - 2002 - Philosophical Books 43:261-270.
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