Laws of Nature

Edited by Markus Schrenk (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf)
Assistant editor: Florian J. Boge (Bergische Universität Wuppertal, Aachen University of Technology)
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.
Related categories

1361 found
1 — 50 / 1361
Material to categorize
  1. On the Testability of Psychological Generalizations.David K. Henderson - 1991 - Philosophy of Science 58 (4):586-606.
    Rosenberg argues that intentional generalizations in the human sciences cannot be law-like because they are not amenable to significant empirical refinement. This irrefinability is said to result from the principle that supposedly controls in intentional explanation also serving as the standard for successful interpretation. The only credible evidence bearing on such a principle would then need conform to it. I argue that psychological generalizations are refinable and can be nomic. I show how empirical refinement of psychological generalizations is possible by (...)
Anti-Realism about Laws
  1. Are the Laws of Physics 'Economical with the Truth'?P. P. Allport - 1993 - 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 (...)
  2. Reply to Cartwright.Philip W. Anderson - 2001 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 32 (3):499-500.
    I am afraid that Nancy Cartwright and I will have to agree to disagree, on the whole. If my review comes through as harsh, it is perhaps the natural response of a quantum theorist who has worked in economics to a book in which physics and economics are treated as epistemically identical.
  3. What is a Law of Nature?A. J. Ayer - 1999 - In Michael Tooley (ed.), Laws of Nature, Causation, and Supervenience. Garland. pp. 1--52.
  4. On the Evolution of Natural Laws.Yury V. Balashov - 1992 - 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.
  5. Initial Conditions and the 'Open Systems' Argument Against Laws of Nature.Clint Ballinger - 2008 - 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 (...)
  6. Anti-Realism and Aesthetic Cognition.Ruben Berrios - unknown
    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 (...)
  7. Stephen Mumford Laws in Nature London, Routledge, 2004 Hardback £60.00 ISBN 0-415-31128-. [REVIEW]Simon Bostock - 2006 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57 (2):449-452.
  8. 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.
  9. The Big Bad Bug Bites Anti-Realists About Chance.Rachael Briggs - 2009 - 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 (...)
  10. How the Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW]Harold I. Brown - 1988 - International Studies in Philosophy 20 (3):102-103.
  11. Nancy Cartwright, How The Laws of Physics Lie Reviewed By.Jeffrey Bub - 1985 - Philosophy in Review 5 (3):104-107.
  12. Nancy Cartwright, How The Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW]Jeffrey Bub - 1985 - Philosophy in Review 5:104-107.
  13. The Dappled World. [REVIEW]Roger Caldwell - 2000 - Philosophy Now 28:42-43.
  14. Review: Laws in Nature. [REVIEW]J. W. Carroll - 2006 - Mind 115 (459):780-784.
  15. Reply to P. Andersons Review of "The Dappled World".Nancy Cartwright - unknown
  16. 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 (...)
  17. Do the Laws of Physics State the Facts?Nancy Cartwright - 1998 - In M. Curd & J. A. Cover (eds.), Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. Norton. pp. 865-877.
  18. Where Do Laws of Nature Come From?Nancy Cartwright - 1997 - Dialectica 51 (1):65-78.
  19. How the Laws of Physics Lie.Nancy Cartwright - 1983 - 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.
  20. The Reality of Causes in a World of Instrumental Laws.Nancy Cartwright - 1980 - PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1980:38 - 48.
    Philosophers of science nowadays are inclined to believe in physical laws, but generally, like Hume and Russell, to reject causes. This paper urges the reverse. Explanatory practice in physics argues that we must take literally the causal stories that our theories provide, but the fundamental laws and equations that are essential to modern science are merely instrumental.
  21. 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, (...)
  22. 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 (...)
  23. 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 (...)
  24. So the Laws of Physics Needn't Lie.Alan Chalmers - 1993 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 71 (2):196 – 205.
  25. O Que É Uma Lei da Natureza?Rodrigo Cid - 2011 - Master Thesis 1 (1):1-121.
    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 (...)
  26. Cartwright on Fundamentalism.Steve Clarke - 1998 - Theoria 45 (91):53-65.
  27. 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 (...)
  28. The Lies Remain the Same: A Reply to Chalmers.Steve Clarke - 1995 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73 (1):152 – 155.
    In her 1983 work How the Laws of Phyiscs Lie [1] Nancy Cartwright argued for antirealism about fundamental laws alongside realism about phenomenological laws. Her position was considerably altered by 1989 when, in Nature's Capacities and Their Measurement [2], she argued for a realist construal of capacities (close relations of Powers, natures, tendencies, propensities and disptısitions), which she took fundamental laws to be about. Most realists about capaeities, and their ilk, are realist about fundamental laws as well. However this is (...)
  29. Review of HOW the Laws of Physics Lie, by N. Cartwright. [REVIEW]C. Dilworth - 1987 - Epistemologia 10:143-145.
  30. 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 (...)
  31. In Defense of Laws: Reflections on Bas Van Fraassen's Laws and Symmetry.Review author[S.]: John Earman - 1993 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (2):413-419.
  32. How the Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW]James H. Fetzer - 1985 - Philosophical Books 26 (2):120-124.
  33. 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 (...)
  34. Book Review:How the Laws of Physics Lie Nancy Cartwright. [REVIEW]Malcolm R. Forster - 1985 - Philosophy of Science 52 (3):478-.
  35. Armstrong, Cartwright, and Earman on Laws and Symmetry.Bas C. Van Fraassen - 1993 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (2):431 - 444.
  36. Precis of Laws and Symmetry.Bas C. Van Fraassen - 1993 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (2):411 - 412.
  37. Armstrong, Cartwright, and Earman on Laws and Symmetry.Bas C. Van Fraassen - 1993 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (2):431--44.
  38. Review: Nancy Cartwright's New Philosophy of Physics. [REVIEW]Peter Gibbins - 1984 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 35 (4):390 - 401.
  39. Laws of Nature and Physical Existents.D. Goldstick - 1993 - 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 (...)
  40. Briggs on Antirealist Accounts of Scientific Law.John Halpin - 2013 - 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 (...)
  41. Nancy Cartwright on Scientific Laws and Scientific Explanation.I. Hanzel - 1999 - Filozofia 54 (10):717-730.
  42. Scientific Laws and Scientific Explanations: A Differentiated Typology.Igor Hanzel - 2008 - 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 (...)
  43. Nancy Cartwright and Leszek Nowak on Scientific Laws and Scientific Explanation.Igor Hanzel - 2005 - In Jan Faye, Paul Needham, Uwe Scheffler & Max Urchs (eds.), Nature's Principles. Springer. pp. 103--135.
  44. Urbach on the Laws of Nature.Christopher Hitchcock - 1992 - Analysis 52 (2):61 - 64.
  45. How the Models of Chemistry Vie.James R. Hofmann - 1990 - PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1990:405 - 419.
    Building upon Nancy Cartwright's discussion of models in How the Laws of Physics Lie, this paper addresses solid state research in transition metal oxides. Historical analysis reveals that in this domain models function both as the culmination of phenomenology and the commencement of theoretical explanation. Those solid state chemists who concentrate on the description of phenomena pertinent to specific elements or compounds assess models according to different standards than those who seek explanation grounded in approximate applications of the Schroedinger equation. (...)
  46. How the Laws of Physics Lie. [REVIEW]Geoffrey Joseph - 1985 - Philosophical Review 94 (4):580.
  47. How Untidy is God's Mind? A Note on the Dynamical Implications of Nancy Cartwright's Metaphysics.Harmke Kamminga & Reza Tavakol - 1993 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 44 (3):549-553.
    One of the points of principle made by Cartwright is that the fundamental laws do not describe reality because they are always employed together with ceteris paribus clauses, the implication being that ceteris paribus assumptions always have dire consequences. We here wish to offer a dynamical interpretation of ceteris paribus laws in terms of their stability or fragility. On this interpretation, the consequences of ceteris paribus assumptions become concretely dependent on the nature of the laws under consideration and cannot be (...)
  48. Czy prawa fizyki są prawdziwe? (N. Cartwright, \"How the Laws of Physics Lie\", New York 1983). [REVIEW]Władysław Krajewski - 1986 - Studia Filozoficzne 246 (5).
  49. Book Review:Nature's Capacities and Their Measurement Nancy D. Cartwright. [REVIEW]Frederick M. Kronz - 1994 - Philosophy of Science 61 (1):155-.
1 — 50 / 1361