Ceteris paribus laws, component forces, and the nature of special-science properties

Noûs 42 (3):349-380 (2008)
Laws of nature seem to take two forms. Fundamental physics discovers laws that hold without exception, ‘strict laws’, as they are sometimes called; even if some laws of fundamental physics are irreducibly probabilistic, the probabilistic relation is thought not to waver. In the nonfundamental, or special, sciences, matters differ. Laws of such sciences as psychology and economics hold only ceteris paribus – that is, when other things are equal. Sometimes events accord with these ceteris paribus laws (c.p. laws, hereafter), but sometimes the laws are not manifest, as if they have somehow been placed in abeyance: the regular relation indicative of natural law can fail in circumstances where an analogous outcome would effectively refute the assertion of strict law. Many authors have questioned the supposed distinction between strict laws and c.p. laws. The brief against it comprises various considerations: from the complaint that c.p. clauses are void of meaning to the claim that, although understood well enough, they should appear in all law-statements. These two concerns, among others, are addressed in due course, but first, I venture a positive proposal. I contend that there is an important contrast between strict laws and c.p. laws, one that rests on an independent distinction between combinatorial and noncombinatorial nomic principles.2 Instantiations of certain properties, e.g., mass and charge, nomically produce individual forces, or more generally, causal influences,3 in accordance with noncombinatorial..
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DOI 10.1111/j.1468-0068.2008.00685.x
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