Skip to main content

No laws and (thin) powers in, no (governing) laws out

Abstract

Non-Humean accounts of the metaphysics of nature posit either laws or powers in order to account for natural necessity and world-order. We argue that such monistic views face fundamental problems. On the one hand, neo-Aristotelians cannot give unproblematic power-based accounts of the functional laws among quantities offered by physical theories, as well as of the place of conservation laws and symmetries in a lawless ontology; in order to capture these characteristics, commitment to governing laws is indispensable. On the other hand, ontologies that entirely exclude some kind of power ascription to worldly entities (such as primitivism) face what we call the Governing Problem: such ontologies do not have the resources to give an adequate account of how laws play their governing role. We propose a novel dualist model, which, we argue, has the resources to solve the difficulties encountered by its two dominant competitors, without inheriting the problems of either view. According to the dualist model, both laws and powers (suitably conceived) are equally fundamental and irreducible to each other, and both are needed in order to give a satisfactory account of the nomological structure of the world. The dualist model constitutes thus a promising alternative to current monistic views in the metaphysics of science.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. This tradition goes back to Descartes (1982). For a detailed account of this tradition and its relation to the earlier dominant Aristotelianism, see Psillos (2018).

  2. We think, but will not argue for this now, that the origins of this dualist model can be found in Leibniz’s mature (post 1680) work and especially in his critique of occasionalism, which posited laws but divested matter of all power. For some preliminary discussion, see Psillos (2018).

  3. We take Powerful Lawlessness to include any view that posits powers as fundamental and laws as derivative (or non-existent), even if it adopts the existence of categorical features (e.g. spatiotemporal relations, cf. Molnar 2003, Ellis 2005). So, the problems Powerful Lawlessness faces and are presented in this paper emerge both within a dispositional monistic framework with ‘thick’ powers (which are powers whose essences are ‘sensitive’ to categorical features because they have ‘absorbed’ the dependence of the strength of powers’ action on spatiotemporal relations), as well as within property-dualistic frameworks, as long as a) the categorical properties are not fundamental and their role is only, as Ellis (2005) says, to set the stage for the action of powers and b) laws just describe the action of powers. We discuss the relationship between powers and spatiotemporal relations further in Section 3.1.

  4. Cartwright and Pemberton acknowledge this, when they say: “[i]t might be objected that the account of powers we offer does not eliminate the need for laws of nature since it still leaves need for rules of combination that are independent of the powers in nature. So that unlike some other powers accounts, we may not have succeeded in getting governance back in to nature. We concede that this may be so. There may be ways to get rules for combining powers into nature itself in a way that fits a pure powers ontology and there may not. This remains work for the future” (2013, 94–95). Note also that our point that powers cannot account on their own for the nomological structure of the world holds, as far as we can see, regardless of how one views the manifestation of a power in ontological terms (e.g. as an event, state of affairs or process).

  5. The intertwinement of interaction laws with conservation laws can be also brought to the fore by the approximate conservation of flavour quantum numbers of elementary particles. It is well known that quantum numbers such as strangeness, charm or beauty that characterise types of elementary particles are preserved under strong and electromagnetic interactions, but not under weak interaction. This fact clearly suggests that a complete characterisation of, say, strong interaction and its differences with weak interaction cannot be provided without reference to the conservation laws of those quantum numbers.

  6. There is more that could be said about symmetries and conservation laws in relation to power ontologies; the purpose of sections 3.2 and 3.3 is to highlight some salient problems and sum up work that has been published elsewhere, which, for reasons of space, cannot be fully recited here. The interested reader should look at Chakravartty (2019), French (2014) and Livanios (2010, 2018).

  7. The existence of fundamental constants poses an additional significant threat to a power-based ontology. In the interest of space, we do not discuss this issue here but refer the reader to Livanios (2014), for a detailed account.

  8. It is important to note that there exist strong reasons to think that the Inference Problem equally besets those versions of PL according to which the nature of modal properties is relationally constituted by second-order stimulus-response relations. As Barker and Smart (2012) argue, on those versions of PL what does the governing is not the first-order instantiations of properties but the aforementioned second-order relational facts. In that case, however, PL’s explanation of governing does not significantly differ from Armstrong’s account of governing in terms of the nomic necessitation relation and therefore PL inherits the Inference Problem from LP.

  9. Marc Lange (2009) has developed the view that laws are maximal sets of principles which are invariant-under-counterfactual-interventions, but since he takes counterfactuals as having a primitive modal force, his view could be taken as a variant of primitivism.

  10. Ontic structuralists offer yet another version of LP. Structuralism reconceptualises laws as being the ultimate structural features of reality grounded in determinable relations, where relations are understood as not being dependent on the first-order properties of objects (Ladyman and Ross 2007; French 2014). Ontic structuralism then does away with properties as fundamental and recovers them from relations. In particular, properties are recovered from the relations embodied in the laws. Objects too, insofar as they are allowed in some sense, depend on laws. As French sums it up: “the purported objects are dependent on the structures (and here the role of symmetries in presenting that dependence is fundamental) and the properties are dependent on the laws themselves” (2014, 302). The relation of metaphysical dependence that French favours, is the relation between determinable and determinates: “(…) the nature of the dependence between the structure and kinds, properties, and putative ‘objects’ (e.g. elementary particles) is shaped, or fleshed out, by the relationship between determinables and determinates” (2014, 290). Laws themselves are “relation-determinables” (2014, 283) and as such they yield “determinate instances of these properties”. We are not going to discuss here the idea for laws as relation-determinables (for reasons to be skeptical with this view see Psillos (2016)). For our purposes, the main question is whether there is conceptual space within structuralism for a notion of ‘governing’. For Cei & French, for example, in structuralism the ‘governing metaphor’ is replaced by the relation of metaphysical dependence. But in view of such a dependence, it does not seem to be meaningful to ask how the structure governs the properties. And yet, Cei and French admit that “there is still a kind of governance (…) in that the behaviour of entities, both unobservable, such as electrons, and observable such as chairs, can be thought of as ‘governed’ by the relevant laws” (2010, 37). As the resulting view of the structuralist account of laws is far from clear, and in particular as it is not clear whether structuralists adopt a genuine concept of governing (given their thesis of metaphysical dependence of entities and properties on the structure), we will not discuss this view further here.

  11. The view that powers are thin is compatible with various accounts about the nature of properties; for example, properties can be pure (thin) powers or powerful qualities. In adopting DM, we are not committed to any such specific view about properties, as such a view would require independent arguments that we leave for another occasion.

  12. As Weiland and Betti (2008) note, the relata-specificity of first-order relations can explain the unity that characterises first-order states of affairs. Perhaps then the relata-specificity of second-order nomic relations can explain the unity of nomic facts.

  13. In order to avoid misunderstandings, we should make clear that according to the dualist model (whose main tenets we outline here) laws do not govern the behaviour of properties via their [i.e. properties’] powers. If that were the case, then the proposed model would not be explanatorily superior to LP theories regarding the Governing Problem because it (like LP accounts) would also invite the question of how laws manage to govern properties which, in this case, are or have (thin) powers. In our view, however, laws govern properties by having as ontological constituents relata-specific nomic relations. Nevertheless, thin powers are needed to ensure properties’ nomic governability, that is, properties’ capability to enter into nomic relations.

  14. The suggested account is metaphysically deflationary in the sense that it does not posit a sui generis governing relation. It is important to stress that the discussion concerns the governing of the behaviour of properties, not of objects. The latter is intimately related to (or even identified with) the relation of necessitation of natural regularities by laws (see, for example, Hildebrand 2013).

  15. Here we follow Barker’s (2009) terminology for the different kinds of internal relations.

  16. Kistler argues that since the ascription of a disposition is a relational fact, its truthmaker should have a relational part (which, for him, is the law). The ontological structure of a truthmaker, however, does not have to mirror the structure of its associated truth.

  17. What determines this possibility? The dispositional nature of modal properties or independent laws? What kind of possibility is this? If it is physical, we probably have a circularity here. Alien properties should be physically possible in order to figure in cp clauses but the latter delimit the range of disposition-manifestation and so, according to power realists’ own lights, determine the physically possible events.

References

  • Armstrong, D. M. (1983). What is a law of nature? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Armstrong, D. M. (1993). The identification problem and the inference problem. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 53, 421–422.

    Google Scholar 

  • Barker, S. (2009). Dispositional monism, relational constitution and quiddities. Analysis, 69(2), 242–250.

    Google Scholar 

  • Barker, S., & Smart, B. (2012). The ultimate argument against dispositional monist accounts of Laws. Analysis, 72(4), 714–722.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bigelow, J., Ellis, B., & Lierse, C. (1992). The world as one of a kind: Natural necessity and Laws of nature. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 43, 371–388.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bird, A. (2007). Nature’s metaphysics: Laws and Properties. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carroll, J. W. (2008). Nailed to Hume’s cross? In J. Hawthorne, T. Sider & D. Zimmerman (Eds.), Contemporary debates in metaphysics (pp. 67–81). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

  • Carroll, J. W. (1994). Laws of nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cartwright, N., & Pemberton, J. (2013). Aristotelian powers: Without them, what would modern science do? In R. Groff & J. Greco (Eds.), Powers and capacities in philosophy: The new Aristotelianism (pp. 93–112). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cartwright, N., & Ward, K. (Eds.). (2016). Rethinking order: After the Laws of nature. London: Bloomsbury.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cei, A., & French, S. (2010). Getting away from governance: A Structuralistic approach to Laws and Symmetries. Methode: Analytic Perspectives, 4, 25–48.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chakravartty, A. (2019). Physics, metaphysics, dispositions, and symmetries – À la French. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 74, 10–15.

    Google Scholar 

  • Demarest, H. (2017). Powerful properties, powerless Laws. In J. Jacobs (Ed.), Causal powers (pp. 38–53). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Descartes, R. (1982) [1644]. Principles of philosophy. Miller, V.R. and Miller, R.P. (trans) Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company..

  • Dretske, F. (1977). Laws of nature. Philosophy of Science, 44, 248–268.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dumsday, T. (2019). Dispositionalism and the metaphysics of science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ellis, B. (1999). Causal powers and Laws of Nature & Response to David Armstrong. In Sankey, H. (ed.) Causation and Laws of Nature. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 19-34, 39–44.

  • Ellis, B. (2001). Scientific Essentialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ellis, B. (2005). Universals, the essential problem and categorical properties. Ratio, 18, 462–472.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fraassen, B. V. (1989). Laws and Symmetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • French, S. (2014). The structure of the world: Metaphysics and representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Handfield, T. (2004). Counterlegals and necessary Laws. The Philosophical Quarterly, 54, 402–419.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hildebrand, T. (2013). Tooley’s account of the necessary connection between law and regularity. Philosophical Studies, 166, 33–43.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kistler, M. (2020). Powers, dispositions, and laws of nature. In A. S. Meincke (Ed.), Dispositionalism: perspectives from metaphysics and the philosophy of science (pp. 171–188). Cham: Springer.

  • Ladyman, J., & Ross, D. (2007). Every thing must go. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lange, M. (2009). Laws and Lawmakers: Science, metaphysics, and the Laws of nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Livanios, V. (2010). Symmetries, dispositions and essences. Philosophical Studies, 148, 295–305.

    Google Scholar 

  • Livanios, V. (2014). The “constant” threat to the dispositional essentialist conception of Laws. Metaphysica, 15, 129–155.

    Google Scholar 

  • Livanios, V. (2017). Science in metaphysics: Exploring the metaphysics of properties and Laws. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Livanios, V. (2018). Dispositionality and symmetry structures. Metaphysica, 19, 201–217.

    Google Scholar 

  • Marmodoro, A. (Ed.). (2010). The metaphysics of powers: Their grounding and their manifestations. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Maudlin, T. (2007). The metaphysics within physics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Molnar, G. (2003). Powers: A study in metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mumford, S. (2004). Laws in nature. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mumford, S., & Anjum, R. L. (2011). Getting causes from powers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mumford, S., & Anjum, R. L. (2018). What tends to be: The philosophy of dispositional modality. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Noether, E. (1918). Invariante Variationsprobleme. Nachr. d. Konig. Gesellschd. d.Wiss. Zu Gottingen, Math-phys. Klasse, 23557.

  • Pages, J. (2002). The Dretske-Tooley-Armstrong theory of natural Laws and the inference problem. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 16, 227–243.

    Google Scholar 

  • Psillos, S. (2016). Broken structuralism. Metascience, 25(2), 163–171.

    Google Scholar 

  • Psillos, S. (2018). Laws and Powers in the frame of nature. In L. Patton & W. Ott (Eds.), Laws of nature (pp. 80–107). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schaffer, J. (2016). It is the business of Laws to govern. Dialectica, 70(4), 577–588.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sider, T. (1992). Tooley’s solution to the inference problem. Philosophical Studies, 67, 261–275.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tooley, M. (1977). The nature of law. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 7, 667–698.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tooley, M. (1987). Causation: A realist approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tugby, M. (2016). Universals, Laws, and governance. Philosophical Studies, 173(5), 1147–1163.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vetter, B. (2009). Review of Nature’s metaphysics: Laws and Properties. Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy, 12, 320–328.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vetter, B. (2012). Dispositional essentialism and the Laws of nature. In A. Bird, B. Ellis, & H. Sankey (Eds.), Properties, powers and structures: Issues in the metaphysics of realism (pp. 201–215). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vetter, B. (2015). Potentiality: From dispositions to modality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Weiland, J. W., & Betti, A. (2008). Relata-specific relations: A response to Vallicella. Dialectica, 62(4), 509–524.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stavros Ioannidis.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

This article belongs to the Topical Collection: Powers in the world of science

Guest Editors: Andrea Roselli, Anna Marmodoro

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ioannidis, S., Livanios, V. & Psillos, S. No laws and (thin) powers in, no (governing) laws out. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 11, 6 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13194-020-00304-x

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13194-020-00304-x

Keywords

  • Laws of nature
  • Powers
  • Neo-Aristotelianism
  • Governing problem
  • Dualist model