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Non-Humean Laws and Scientific Practice


Laws of nature have various roles in scientific practice. It is widely agreed that an adequate theory of lawhood ought to align with the roles that scientists assign to the laws. But philosophers disagree over whether Humean laws or non-Humean laws are better at filling these roles. In this paper, I provide an argument for settling this dispute. I consider (epistemically) possible situations in which scientists receive conclusive evidence that—according to the non-Humean—falsifies their beliefs about the laws, but which—according to the Humean—does not falsify their beliefs about the laws. I argue that, in these possible scenarios, all law-related aspects of scientific practice would remain unchanged. In other words, scientists would treat the regularities “preferred” by the Humean as the laws of nature. On this basis, I conclude that non-Humean laws fail to align with scientific practice.

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  1. This formulation is from Roberts (2008, 191). Lange (2000, 53) calls his formulation \(\Lambda \)-preservation.

  2. Lange (2000, 143–156) adjusts this characterization to avoid counterexamples, but I set these details aside.

  3. It is sometimes claimed that, in addition to explaining their instances, laws explain regularities as a whole. This is plausible for accidental regularities and for regularities corresponding to non-fundamental laws. For example, Kepler’s laws can be derived from (and explained by) Newton’s laws plus assumptions about initial conditions [see, e.g., Fowler (2002)]. Both Humeans and non-Humeans accept that laws explain these kinds of regularities.

    As for the regularities corresponding to the fundamental laws themselves: this is less obvious. While non-Humeans share this intuition, it is not clear that scientists use the laws this way. For example, when reading a physics textbook, one does not typically read anything about what explains the regularity corresponding to Schrödinger’s Equation. So for simplicity, I follow the recent literature by focusing on the role of laws in explaining their instances. This will not affect the discussion ahead. [And, at any rate, Dorst (2019, fn. 3) and Hicks (ms) argue that Humeans laws are capable of explaining (fundamental) regularities as a whole. So this is unlikely to be a deciding factor in the dispute over Humeanism.]

  4. See Lange (2000, 2.4) for discussion.

  5. See, e.g., Carroll (1994, 58) and Loewer (1996).

  6. Strictly speaking, the denial of HS does not entail that there are actual-world Döppelgangers. One might say, for example, that some possible worlds share a Humean base while having different laws, even though the actual world is not among them. But see Earman and Roberts (2005, 263) for discussion of why this stance would be implausible.

  7. As I discuss in Sect. 3.2, the descriptions of the evidence in last two sentences are not quite equivalent. I will use the latter when speaking precisely.

  8. See Carroll (1994, 17–18) and Lange (2000, 51). See also Beebee (2000, 580–581) and Loewer (1996, 115) for discussion from a Humean perspective.

  9. See, e.g., Stalnaker (1996), Gilovich et al. (2003), Epstude and Roese (2008), Summerville and Roese (2008).

  10. The non-Humean might say that, even if it is pedagogically useless, telling the students that there are no explanations is useful for another reason: it conveys an important fact about the world revealed to the Oracle. (I thank an anonymous referee for this suggestion.) I address this objection below in fn. 12.

  11. On the other hand, Humeans seem to accept a different range of nomically possible worlds than do non-Humeans. So, if scientists were to learn that the world was Humean, wouldn’t this require changes in how scientists treat nomic possibility? I consider this objection in Sect. 3.6.

  12. The present discussion also helps address the objection from fn. 10: that post-Oracle scientists would start saying “There are no explanations” because (according to the non-Humean) this is an important metaphysical fact about the world. While philosophers are interested in whether there is something “behind the scenes” governing the trajectories of electrons, this kind of fact is not important to scientists in their everyday work. After all, scientists rarely (if ever) think about the debate over Humeanism. (If the reader is not convinced, I note that both (II) and (III) also tell against the suggestion that post-Oracle scientists would stop giving informative explanations.)

  13. And, at any rate, there is extensive empirical support for the prevalence of counterfactual reasoning and its importance to deliberation, planning, and behavior regulation—see, e.g., fn. 10.

  14. I discuss the unification case shortly hereafter.

  15. I thank an anonymous referee for raising this objection.

  16. One caveat: since these scenarios contain Oracle testimony, they do not share quite the same Humean base as the actual world (which does not contain such testimony). But this technicality can be set aside. What is important for the current argument is that, throughout their entire history, these scenarios are exactlylike the actual world in terms of which “lawlike regularities” (e.g., \(f=ma\), \(F_{G}=\frac{Gm_{1}m_{2}}{d_{1,2}^{2}}\)) obtain.

  17. With one irrelevant exception—see previous footnote.

  18. The non-Humean may reply that, even so, post-Oracle scientists could not accomplish the project of giving “governing explanations”: the kinds of explanations that primitive laws are supposed to provide (see Sect. 3.1). But it is doubtful that this is a genuine scientific project, given that scientists are typically indifferent to the debate over Humeanism. See Bhogal (forthcoming) for further discussion of the distinction between metaphysical explanations and the nomothetic explanations given by scientists.

  19. I thank an anonymous referee for this objection.

  20. As an alternative, one might imagine scientists questions such as “Under the fiction that there are laws, what explains \(\ldots \)?” or “Under our changed understanding of laws, what explains \(\ldots \)?” In effect, these questions would allow (non-Humean) scientists to maintain their explanatory practices post-Oracle. I think these proposals are best understood as an objection to premise 2, so I address them in Sect. 4.

  21. See Lange (2009, 54) for this example.

  22. I thank an anonymous referee for this objection.

  23. I discuss this account below in Sect. 5.

  24. For example, see Lange’s (2013) response to one recent attempt to show that Humean laws can explain their instances.

  25. Not even argument (III)—about the post-Oracle success of scientific projects—made any claims about what Humean laws can or cannot do. It merely relied on the claim that scientists would be able to continue successfully pursuing their projects, given that the scenarios in question are exact Döppelgangers of the actual world.

  26. See Burgess and Rosen (2005, 532–534).

  27. Similar remarks apply to proposals that view law discourse as involving pretense or fiction.

  28. But how could the inferential role remain the same given that Humeans and anti-Humeans disagree on nested counterfactuals, nomic possibility, and explanation? As discussed in Sect. 3.6, recent Humean accounts are designed to align with what scientists say about these phenomena. I assume, as a working hypothesis, that the Humean adopts such an account. (See Sect. 3.6 for further discussion.)

  29. I thank an anonymous referee for this suggestion.

  30. Could it be operating tacitly? No: even little children who do not yet have the idea of a “microscopic level” can apply the term solid, and they apply it just like we do.

  31. The non-Humean might reply that, at least in Humean world (see Sect. 3.2), it would not be irrational for scientists to reject E because it would be extraordinarily unlikely for observed empirical regularities to obtain without something over and above the mosaic governing it. But this latter claim is at least as controversial as the thesis of non-Humeanism itself. And it hardly seems rational to accept a controversial philosophical thesis over a source of testimony that has made millions of (correct) surprising predictions. And regardless, this response is not applicable to the fragile world (see Sect. 3.3).

  32. See Lange (2009, 54) for this kind of example.

  33. Alternatively, we might say that humans and aliens employ slightly different law concepts.


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I thank Chris Dorst, Marc Lange, John Roberts, and two anonymous referees for very detailed and thoughtful comments on this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Robert Smithson.

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Smithson, R. Non-Humean Laws and Scientific Practice. Erkenn (2020).

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