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Initial Conditions and the ‘Open Systems’ Argument against Laws of Nature

Abstract

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 (nor the implied systems labeled ‘exogenous factors’ in relation to the system of interest) and 2) they are nomocentric, fixated on laws while ignoring initial and antecedent conditions that are able to account for systems and exogenous factors within a fundamentalist framework.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Other critiques also focus on the inference by many open-systemists from anti-fundamentalism to ‘natures,’ ‘tendencies,’ or ‘capacities,’ which we do not discuss here. If correct, our argument preempts this inference.

  2. 2.

    Some of the points briefly raised in Earman et al. 2002 come closest to our argument. They criticize Lange 1993, who presents an argument on ‘provisos’ similar to the position of Cartwright, for inattention to boundary conditions (Earman et al. 2002, p. 284) and argue that Cartwright confuses laws and differential equations of motion while neglecting initial conditions (286 and endnote 5). Otherwise, to our knowledge there has been little sustained attention to the importance of initial conditions to the open system argument. Bhaskar 1975 does discuss initial conditions towards its conclusion (1975, pp. 236–237); however, by that point the discussion is entirely within terms of his ‘transcendental realist’ argument. Cartwright mentions initial conditions in scattered remarks; again we find no passage that clearly addresses our concerns. A point similar to part of our argument on systems is made by Ruphy (2003), particularly when she asks Cartwright how theoretical domains are to be divided into “bits and pieces” (2003, p. 61).

  3. 3.

    Other examples include the unification of Charles’ law and Boyle’s law under the Ideal Gas law and Maxwell’s unification of theories of electro-magnetism and optics.

  4. 4.

    Many philosophy articles that do mention initial conditions do so within a modal or “possible worlds” context, discussing the necessity/contingency of laws (e.g., Schlesinger 1987; Sklar 1991; Beebee 2002; Bird 2002); the direct relevance of these to our discussion of explanation in the actual universe is not clear (however, see Frisch 2004 for a possible exception).

  5. 5.

    Even when initial conditions are recognized as important, precisely how and why seldom seems to be pursued by philosophers. For example, in their discussion of inflationary cosmology, Earman and Mosterin state that “[t]hese issues about the nature of scientific explanation and the role of initial/boundary conditions are well worth pursuing, but we will not do so here” (1999, p. 20).

  6. 6.

    The study of quantum-to-classical transitions with an emphasis on their ubiquity in our universe of open systems. Systems can be caused to decohere by outside interference as faint as radiation from the Cosmic Microwave Background (Zurek 1991).

  7. 7.

    Open-systemists also use the terms interchangeably, e.g., in reference to economics and its “concepts” (law-like regularities) Cartwright states that: “nothing follows from the concepts themselves without embedding them in a structure, and only special structures (i.e. “nomological machines”) will yield any deductive consequences at all” (2002b, p. 147).

  8. 8.

    This of course begs the question of whether we can explain the beginning of the universe, as in chaotic inflation, multiverse and anthropic principle scenarios (Tegmark 2004 provide a useful classification of the possibilities). This is beyond the scope of our discussion. However, it is possible that laws, constants, and initial conditions of the universe may simply have to be accepted as “brute facts” (see Callender 2004).

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Correspondence to Clint Ballinger.

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Ballinger, C. Initial Conditions and the ‘Open Systems’ Argument against Laws of Nature. Int Ontology Metaphysics 9, 17–31 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12133-007-0019-2

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Keywords

  • Initial conditions
  • Laws of nature
  • Open systems
  • Cartwright
  • Quantum Decoherence