Laws of Nature

I rarely, and I mean very rarely, write about philosophy of science. This is mostly because I am not at all qualified to talk about science. That said, this is a review of  Fred Dretske’s essay titled “Laws of Nature.” How we think about laws of nature is extremely interesting and if you find my review even mildly entertaining, I strongly suggest finding a copy of Dretske’s article. It is well worth the read.

“It is tempting to identify the laws of nature with a certain class of universal truths.”

So reads the opening sentence of Fred Dretske’s work titled “Laws of Nature.” It is in this article that he sets out to answer the question of what it means to be a law of nature. As can be inferred from the sentence above, he does not believe laws of nature form a certain class of universal truths. This short essay will examine the claim and supporting arguments Dretske offers in his article and also elaborate on the relevance of Dretske’s claim.

Dretske begins his article by asserting that laws are not “simply what universally true statements express, not even universally true statements” with unlimited scope.

He does not seem to think that this is statement is contested. He goes on to state that science seems to follow a certain formula for considering something a law of nature. According to Dreske the formula goes something like, a universal truth plus X, X being a “special function…or role that the universal truth must have.”

Dretske lists five possible “candidates” for X in his article that will not be stated here.

This formula for a law raises the question what is the distinction between and natural law and a universal truth? Dretske claims “Law like statements are singular statements of fact describing a relationship between properties and magnitudes.”

Using the example Drestke uses, the statement “All F’s are G’s” is linked such that F must be G because the properties of F generate G.

In order for this to be a natural law it must be the case that having property F necessitates that there must also be property G. “It is this which explains the power of laws to tell us what would happen if we did such-and-such and what could not happen whatever we did.”

As an argument in support of this claim, Dretske offers the following analogy. He describes how the United States’ government works with its system of checks and balances, each branch maintaining some power while being subject to the other two branches in particular and specific cases. Dretske then points out that there is nothing about the Constitution and these political laws that must necessarily be the way they are. This is to say that they could in fact be different. Rather, “the legal code lays down a set of relationships between various offices of government, and this set of relationships impose legal constraints on the individuals who occupy those offices.”

This is exactly the sense in which Dretske believes natural laws should be thought of. As governing relationships objects occasionally have with each other when they “occupy a certain office.”

Again thinking of this in the way presented in Dretske’s illustration. Namely that natural laws govern objects as a particular person must necessarily follow certain laws if that particular person is President of the United States and that such laws would not have necessarily applied if that particular person never became President. Thus, objects have properties, and there is the potentiality that these properties are connected in certain ways. When these properties connect in a way that is a physical necessity, Dretske claims such a relationship is a natural law.

So what is the significance and importance of Dretske’s claims? Dretske actually answers this directly in his article, “It is this which explains the power of laws to tell us what would happen if we did such-and-such and what could not happen whatever we did.”

Explaining this “power” of natural laws is the goal of all philosophical conversations about what constitutes a natural law. Whether or not Dretske is successful depends on his reader, but nonetheless this is the question he has attempted to answer. It is a relevant article because Dretske offers a he terms an “ontological ascent”, claiming that readers should cease talking about individual “objects and events” and instead talking about “quantities and qualities that these objects exemplify.”

Dretske states, “Instead of talking about green and red things, we talk about the colors green and red.”

This is clearly a very different way of thinking and talking about natural laws. As such its relevancy is based on its very new proposed answer to a very old question.


One Response to “Laws of Nature”

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