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Laws of Nature

Edited by Markus Schrenk (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf)
Assistant editor: Florian Boge (University of Cologne, University of Düsseldorf)
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 2016.
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Subcategories:History/traditions: Laws of Nature
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  1. Ernest Albee, Wilbur Marshall Urban & J. H. Muirhead (1910). Valuation: Its Nature and Laws. Philosophical Review 19 (2):205.
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  2. Sebastián Álvarez Toledo (1st ed. 2015). Kinds, Laws and Perspectives. In Antonio Manuel Liz Gutiérrez & Margarita Vázquez Campos (eds.), Temporal Points of View. Springer Verlag.
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  3. Philip W. Anderson (2001). Reply to Cartwright. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 32 (3):499-500.
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  4. John Bigelow & Robert Pargetter (1999). Critical Notice of Tim Crane, Ed. Dispositions: A Debate by D.M. Armstrong, C.B. Martin and U.T. Place. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 29 (4):619-633.
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  5. A. Bird (2002). On Whether Some Laws Are Necessary. Analysis 62 (3):257-270.
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  6. Alexander Bird (2008). The Epistemological Argument Against Lewis’s Regularity View of Laws. Philosophical Studies 138 (1):73-89.
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  7. Alexander Bird (2001). David Armstrong, Charlie Martin, and Ullin Place, Edited by Tim Crane Dispositions: A Debate; Stephen Mumford Dispositions. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 52 (1):137-149.
  8. Andrea Bonomi & Paul Volken (2009). Accidental Discrimination in the Conflict of Laws: Applying, Considering, and Adjusting Rules From Different Jurisdictions. In Andrea Bonomi & Paul Volken (eds.), Yearbook of Private International Law: Volume X. Sellier de Gruyter.
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  9. Hans-Georg Bosshardt (1984). Deskriptions- Und Interpretationsprobleme Beim Psychologischen Erklären. Analyse & Kritik 6 (2):160-189.
    In this paper, the descriptive information contained in empirical laws is contrasted with common-sense descriptions of situations and behavior. According to the Hempel-Oppenheim-Schema, explanation is, essentially conceived as a matter of deductive reasoning in which the fact to be explained is subsumed under one empirically valid generalizations or laws. However, this kind of explanation is necessarily based on intuitive processes of diagnosis and interpretation. It is argued that these intuitive processes enable the scientist to formulate descriptive sentences which form the (...)
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  10. Simon Bostock (2006). Stephen Mumford Laws in Nature London, Routledge, 2004 Hardback £60.00 ISBN 0-415-31128-. [REVIEW] British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57 (2):449-452.
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  11. Darren Bradley (forthcoming). A Priori Causal Laws. Inquiry:1-15.
    Sober and Elgin defend the claim that there are a priori causal laws in biology. Lange and Rosenberg take issue with this on Humean grounds, among others. I will argue that Sober and Elgin don’t go far enough – there are a priori causal laws in many sciences. Furthermore, I will argue that this thesis is compatible with a Humean metaphysics and an empiricist epistemology.
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  12. Robert Brown (1986). The Nature of Social Laws: Machiavelli to Mill. Cambridge University Press.
    This volume is a study of the development of the idea that human social behaviour is governed by laws comparable to the laws of natural science. The author sets out to provide a clear account of the arguments put forward from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries about the nature and possibility of social laws. Although analytical rather than historical in approach, the discussions are always informed by a knowledge of the relevant context and sufficient detail is provided to characterise (...)
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  13. Craig Callender (2004). Measures, Explanations and the Past: Should ‘Special’ Initial Conditions Be Explained? British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 55 (2):195-217.
    For the generalizations of thermodynamics to obtain, it appears that a very ‘special’ initial condition of the universe is required. Is this initial condition itself in need of explanation? I argue that it is not. In so doing, I offer a framework in which to think about ‘special’ initial conditions in all areas of science, though I concentrate on the case of thermodynamics. I urge the view that it is not always a serious mark against a theory that it must (...)
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  14. H. A. Carr (1931). The Laws of Association. Psychological Review 38 (3):212-228.
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  15. H. Cason (1924). Criticisms of the Laws of Exercise and Effect. Psychological Review 31 (5):397-417.
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  16. Angelo Cei & Steven French, Getting Away From Governance: A Structuralist Approach to Laws and Symmetries.
    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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  17. F. John Clendinnen (1992). Nomic Dependence and Causation. Philosophy of Science 59 (3):341-360.
    The paper proposes an explication of causation in terms of laws and their explanatory systematization. A basic notion is "nomic dependence". The definition given by David Lewis is suitable for deterministic laws, and a general definition drawing on Wesley Salmon's statistical-relevance model of explanation is proposed. A test is offered for establishing that one chain of nomically dependent events is more direct than another that ends with the same event by considering the relationship between the two chains when an explanation (...)
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  18. Barry Cohen & Edward H. Madden (1973). Harré and Nonlogical Necessity. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 24 (2):176-182.
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  19. Stuart C. Dodd (1962). How Momental Laws Can Be Developed in Sociology by Deducing Testable and Predictive “Actance” Models From Transacts. Synthese 14 (4):277-299.
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  20. Raymond Dodge (1917). The Laws of Relative Fatigue. Psychological Review 24 (2):89-113.
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  21. John J. Doyle (1953). The Laws of Thought. [REVIEW] New Scholasticism 27 (2):235-237.
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  22. John M. Eyler (1979). A Social History of MedicineFrederick F. Cartwright. Isis 70 (3):453-454.
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  23. Arthur Fine (1964). Physical Geometry and Physical Laws. Philosophy of Science 31 (2):156-162.
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  24. S. J. Frisch (1967). On the Study of Regularities in Evolution. Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 3 (2):65-71.
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  25. W. B. Gallie (1939). An Interpretation of Causal Laws. Mind 48 (192):409-426.
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  26. García-Encinas María José (2011). Singular Causation Without Dispositions. Theoria: Revista de Teoría, Historia y Fundamentos de la Ciencia 26 (1):35-50.
    Singular causation may be best understood within a dispositionalist framework. Although the details of just how a claim that this is in fact the case have not yet been fully worked out, different philosophers have made some positive contributions in this direction. In opposition to such suggestions, I claim that any possible account of singular causation in terms of real, irreducible, dispositions contains unresolvable flaws in its metaphysical foundations.First, I present two main constituents that I take to be necessary for (...)
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  27. Alan Gewirth (1954). Can Men Change Laws of Social Science? Philosophy of Science 21 (3):229-241.
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  28. Michael Ghins (2015). Causal Powers as Metaphysical Grounds for Laws or Nature. Epistemologia 2 (2):183-201.
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  29. Alan H. Goldman & Michael N. Goldman (1990). Paternalistic Laws. Philosophical Topics 18 (1):65-78.
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  30. Amparo Gómez Rodríguez (2015). Are Social Mechanisms the Antonym of Laws? Epistemologia 1:31-46.
  31. Emile Grunberg (1957). Notes on the Verifiability of Economic Laws. Philosophy of Science 24 (4):337-348.
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  32. Igor Hanzel (2008). Idealizations and Concretizations in Laws and Explanations in Physics. Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 39 (2):273-301.
    The paper tries to provide an alternative to 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 types of (...)
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  33. Daniel Heard (2003). Marc Lange Natural Laws in Scientific Practice Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 12 (1):53-59.
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  34. Tobias Henschen (2014). Kant on Causal Laws and Powers. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 48:20-29.
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  35. Johannes Hunger (2002). Laws, Lamps, and Pianos. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 33 (1):117-123.
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  36. Gary Iseminger (1967). V—Uses, Regularities, and Rules. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 67 (1):73-86.
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  37. Ben Jeffares (2008). Testing Times: Regularities in the Historical Sciences. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 39 (4):469-475.
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  38. Geoffrey Joseph & Nancy Cartwright (1985). How the Laws of Physics Lie. Philosophical Review 94 (4):580.
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  39. S. A. K. & Reuven Yaron (1992). The Laws of Eshnunna. Journal of the American Oriental Society 112 (3):544.
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  40. Ricardo Karam (2015). Obtaining Laws Through Quantifying Experiments: Justifications of Pre-Service Physics Teachers in the Case of Electric Current, Voltage and Resistance. Science and Education 24 (5 - 6):699-723.
    The language of physics is mathematics, and physics ideas, laws and models describing phenomena are usually represented in mathematical form. Therefore, an understanding of how to navigate between phenomena and the models representing them in mathematical form is important for a physics teacher so that the teacher can make physics understandable to students. Here, the focus is on the “experimental mathematization,” how laws are established through quantifying experiments. A sequence from qualitative experiments to mathematical formulations through quantifying experiments on electric (...)
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  41. Alfred Landé (1976). The Laws Behind the Quantum Laws. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 27 (1):43-50.
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  42. Hans Lind (1993). A Note on Fundamental Theory and Idealizations in Economics and Physics. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 44 (3):493-503.
    Modern economics, with its use of advanced mathematical methods, is often looked upon as the physics of the social sciences. It is here argued that deductive analyses are more important in economics than in physics, because the economists more seldom can confirm phenomenological laws directly. The economist has to use assumptions from fundamental theory when trying to bridge the gap between observations and phenomenological laws. Partly as a result of the difficulties of establishing phenomenological laws, analyses of idealized 'model-economies' play (...)
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  43. Nicholas Lobkowicz (1971). Historical Laws. Studies in Soviet Thought 11 (4):235-249.
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  44. M. T. McGuire (1995). Why Are There Anti-Loitering Laws, and Why Are They Voided? Social Science Information 34 (1):67-77.
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  45. David L. Miller (1947). The Nature of Scientific Statements. Philosophy of Science 14 (3):219-223.
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  46. Charles A. Moore & Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1957). Chapter V. The Laws of Manu. In Charles A. Moore & Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (eds.), A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton University Press. pp. 172-192.
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  47. Thomas Mormann (1994). Accessibility, Kinds, and Laws: A Structural Explication. Philosophy of Science 61 (3):389-406.
    "Accessibility" is a crucial concept of possible worlds semantics. The simplest approach to accessibility is the "magical theory" that construes this relation as analogous to spatial or temporal relations. In this paper I give a nonmagical structural account of the accessibility relation that can be used to give a necessitarian account of kinds and laws. Laws are characterized in a structural way as stable invariants of the world's gestalt. Finally, I point out how the structural approach can be embedded in (...)
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  48. Thomas Mormann (1993). Review of "Science and Necessity". [REVIEW] British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 44 (3):567-565.
  49. Margaret Morrison (1994). Causes and Contexts: The Foundations of Laser Theory. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 45 (1):127-151.
    One of Nancy Cartwright's arguments for entity realism focuses on the non-redundancy of causal explanation. In How the Laws of Physics Lie she uses an example from laser theory to illustrate how we can have a variety of theoretical treatments governing the same phenomena while allowing just one causal story. In the following I show that in the particular example Cartwright chooses causal explanation exhibits the same kind of redundancy present in theoretical explanation. In an attempt to salvage Cartwright's example (...)
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  50. Everett J. Nelson (1964). XVI—Causal Necessity and Induction. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 64 (1):289-300.
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