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Humeans are out of this world


I defend the following argument in this paper. Premise 1: Laws of nature are intrinsic to the universe. Premise 2: Humeanism maintains that laws of nature are extrinsic to the universe. Conclusion: Humeanism is false. This argument is inspired by Hawthorne’s (Noûs 38(2):351–358, 2004) argument in “Humeans are out of their Minds”. My argument differs from his; Hawthorne focuses on Humean views of causation and how they interact with judgments about consciousness. He thinks Humeans are forced to treat certain mental properties (insofar as they involve causal features) as extrinsic to conscious minds. I do not discuss causation or consciousness here. I focus on Humean accounts of laws. I argue that Humean laws are extrinsic to the entire universe. As such, Humeans are not just out of their minds; they are out of this world. I aim to show that premises 1 and 2 are well-supported and that denying either of them comes at a cost. Nevertheless, some Humeans may prefer to reject 1 or 2 rather than give up Humeanism. Even if the Humean takes one of these routes, the argument above has philosophical import: it shows that Humeanism involves surprising commitments.

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  1. This is Lewis (1994, p. 473). For discussion and defense of Humean accounts of laws, see for example Lewis (1973, 1999), Beebee (2000), Schrenk (2006), Cohen and Callender (2009), Loewer (2012), Miller (2015), Bhogal and Perry (2016), Dorst (2017) and Hicks (2017).

  2. One class of exceptions would be Armstrong (1983), Dretske (1997), and Tooley’s (1977) accounts of laws, where laws are certain relations holding between universals.

  3. One may question this test for the intrinsicality of a law. Perhaps we should forget about Q entirely. Instead we could maintain that (∀x) (Fx ⊃ Gx) is intrinsic to a system S when the predicates appearing in it pick out properties that are intrinsic to S.

    The problem is that this is not an adequate test for intrinsicality in general. This is easiest to recognize when assessing the intrinsicality of other universal generalizations. Suppose a fact is intrinsic to a system S iff all the predicates appearing in that fact are intrinsic to S. We will get the result that the following is an intrinsic fact of the universe:

    (∀x) (x is part of u)

    which intuitively captures the fact: “The universe is the entirety of what exists,” i.e. everything is a part (improper or proper) of the universe u.

    This will be an intrinsic fact of the universe as long as is part of is an internal relation that x stands into u. And plausibly is part of is an internal relation. But this is the wrong result; the universal generalization above captures the fact that the universe has the property of being lonely and loneliness is an extrinsic property. The lesson, I think, is that we can’t just look at the predicates/properties appearing within the universal generalization to determine whether the universal generalization is intrinsic to a system S. This is why I first “convert” the law into a property Q. I will later use two established accounts of intrinsicality to test whether that property Q is intrinsic to the universe. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for very helpful discussion here.

  4. If abstract objects exist, like numbers, we can include them as components of the universe as well—perhaps ones that are spatiotemporally isolated from concrete entities.

  5. For use of this “in virtue of” locution in this context, see Lewis (1983a, pp. 111–112, 1986, p. 61), Sider (1996, p. 3), Weatherson and Marshall (2014), Witmer et al. (2005).

  6. For simplicity, I assume the existence of a fundamental base instead of a “gunky” descent of more and more fundamental properties/relations/facts.

  7. I do not take a stand on whether we should understand “in virtue of” modally or rather in terms of hyperintensional notions like Ground or other, per Wilson’s (2014) locution, “small-g” grounding relations.

  8. For the purposes of discussion, I assume rest mass is intrinsic. But some philosophers (see Dasgupta 2013) disagree.

  9. While the spatiotemporal relations are extrinsic to the points/objects standing in them, the fact that points/objects stand in these relations is still intrinsic to the universe. Let’s spell this out: suppose that point a is 5 meters from point b. This relation is extrinsic/external to points a and b: a and b do not stand in this relation in virtue of their intrinsic properties. Nevertheless, the property being such that a is 5 meters from b is intrinsic to the universe u. u has this property solely in virtue of facts involving its parts (a and b) and the relations (5 m from) they stand in to each other.

  10. It is unclear whether the Anti-Humean will find a variant of this argument compelling. There are three relevant points of difference between the Humean and the Anti-Humean: A. If the Anti-Humean denies that laws are universal generalizations, they will take law properties to have a different form than Q (see section 10). B. It is not an explicit tenet of Anti-Humeanism to take all fundamental facts to be intrinsic to the universe. And 3. Even if the Anti-Humean takes all fundamental facts to be intrinsic to the universe, she will likely think the universe includes more elements than the Humean accepts, such as universals, primitive powers/dispositions, and/or primitive modal properties.

  11. For instance, the universe may have the extrinsic property of being all that exists.

  12. Fundamental extrinsic properties are controversial. The accounts of intrinsicality we discuss in the next section assume that fundamental properties are intrinsic. However, I offer a modification of one of the accounts of intrinsicality (see footnote 24) that allows for extrinsic fundamental properties. For the possibility of fundamental extrinsic properties, see Bricker (1993), Yablo (1999) and Weatherson (2006). An anonymous reviewer provided very helpful insights here.

  13. See Field (1980), Melia (1998) and Baker (2009) for discussion.

  14. This may not be the only concern about intrinsic explanations impacting the Humean explanations involve explaining instances like Gb in terms of Fb and (∀x) (Fx ⊃ Gx). Some philosophers have worried that, by invoking the regularity, the explanation contains information that isn’t relevant to b itself (see Bird 2007, pp. 86–90). Can we understand this notion of irrelevance to b (at least partially) in terms of extrinsicality to b? This is a worthwhile question to investigate. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for bringing this to my attention.

  15. It is important that it is the universal generalization, not Qu, which appears in scientific explanations. This is because the Humean desires to maintain a logical inference from the laws (and initial/boundary conditions) to particular matters of fact. For example, we can logically deduce that a is G from the fact (∀x) (Fx ⊃ Gx) and Fa. This is an advantage that Humeans often take their explanations to have over Anti-Humean nomological explanations. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for highlighting and emphasizing this.

  16. It’s important to distinguish the metaphysical notion of “in virtue of” from the notion of a scientific explanation here: If all the premises/explanans of a scientific explanation of E hold solely metaphysically in virtue of facts intrinsic to u, then the explanans (of the scientific explanation) should be intrinsic to u.

  17. For example, see Loewer (2007, p. 321).

  18. Lewis preferred locution is ‘naturalness’ rather than ‘fundamentality’, but I will continue to appeal to fundamentality.

  19. See, for example, Schaffer’s (2010, p. 318) discussion of the possibility of expansion in Russell (1985) and Parsons’ (2006) views.

  20. Aaron Segal (2015) also discusses the possibility of expansion and how adopting it can render the Humean’s laws extrinsic under the Duplication Account. My discussion differs from Segal’s. First, I show that we do not need to accept the possibility of expansion to show that the Humean’s laws are extrinsic. Second, Segal does not raise the possibility of extrinsicality as an issue for the Humean about laws. Instead, he is interested in comparing the intrinsicality of Humean accounts of laws with those of causation.

  21. There are also similarities between analysis accounts and Francescotti’s (2014) relationist account of intrinsicality.

  22. I opt for a metaphysical analysis account over a grounding account because I think Analysis Accounts can avoid some of the problems for a grounding account raised by Marshall (2013). In particular, grounding accounts of intrinsicality have trouble accommodating the extrinsicality of certain properties related to loneliness. See Bader (2013) for criticism of Rosen’s (2010) account in this respect. See Shumener (ms.) for criticism of Bader’s account on related issues.

  23. Further refinements of this account are needed to accommodate the intrinsicality of relations, higher-order properties, and situations where no fundamental properties are available. See Shumener (ms) for discussion.

  24. As written above, the proposal treats fundamental properties as intrinsic. This is because if x possesses P fundamentally, ‘Px’ will have no metaphysical analysis. But this may not be acceptable if we think that some fundamental properties can be extrinsic to their bearers. See footnote 13 for discussion. To allow for the possibility of fundamental extrinsic properties, we can accept an alternative treatment of fundamental properties on the Metaphysical Analysis proposal. We can attach an addendum to the criterion above:

    1. (1)

      If ‘Px’ has no metaphysical analysis, then P is intrinsic to x when every (first-order) quantifier in ‘x is P’ is restricted to x’s parts. And the only (object) names in ‘x is P’ name x’s parts.

    In other words, even though ‘x is P’ doesn’t have a further metaphysical analysis, we can still look at the quantificational structure, predicates, and names appearing in ‘x is P’ to determine whether P is intrinsic to x.

  25. Metaphysical analyses are somewhat similar to Sider’s (2011) “metaphysical semantics.” We have a choice between representing metaphysical analysis as a relation, metaphysically analyzes, holding among facts or propositions. But we can also represent “metaphysically analyzes” as a sentential operator. I opt for the latter alternative.

  26. Alternatively, if we want to appeal to possible worlds instead of the concrete universe, Q’’: (∀x) ((x is located at possible world w and Fx ⊃ Gx) is an axiom of the best-system at w). The same problems will hold for Q’’ as for Q’.

  27. Although, see Lewis (1981) for discussion of whether counterfactuals like these involve breaking the laws.

  28. Lewis (Lewis 1983a).

  29. See Pallies (2019) for further discussion of Weatherson’s response.

  30. Some philosophers distinguish three varieties of intrinsicality, “a property P’s being intrinsic”, “a property’s P’s being intrinsic to x” and “x possessing a property P intrinsically”. See Humberstone (1996) and Bader (2013). The distinction between “Q being intrinsic/extrinsic to u” and “u possessing Q intrinsically/extrinsically” will not make a difference in this context.

  31. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for helpful insights here.

  32. Would it help if local laws could be false universal generalizations? I´m not sure, but see Braddon-Mitchell (2001) for discussion of this idea.

  33. For instance, see Dretske (1997), Tooley (1977) and Armstrong (1983) for universals-based accounts of laws. See Bird (2005, 2007) and Lange (2009) for dispositionalist and counterfactual accounts of laws. See Carroll (1994) and Maudlin (2007) for primitivist accounts.

  34. See Armstrong (1986) for discussion of structural universals.


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I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers at Synthese for their insightful and (very patient!) feedback, without which this paper would be in a much worse state. Thanks as well to Martín Abreu Zavaleta, Dmitri Gallow, Ronald Houts, and Evelyn Zamora-Vargas for helpful comments on the ideas in this paper. I would also like to thank the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México for their support.

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Shumener, E. Humeans are out of this world. Synthese 198, 5897–5916 (2021).

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  • Metaphysics
  • Intrinsicality
  • Laws of nature