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Revaluing Laws of Nature in Secularized Science

Part of the Jerusalem Studies in Philosophy and History of Science book series (JSPS)

Abstract

Discovering laws of nature was a way to worship a law-giving God, during the Scientific Revolution. So why should we consider it worthwhile now, in our own more secularized science? For historical perspective, I examine two competing early modern theological traditions that related laws of nature to different divine attributes, and their secular legacy in views ranging from Kant and Nietzsche to Humean and ‘governing’ accounts in recent analytic metaphysics. Tracing these branching offshoots of ethically charged God-concepts sheds light on how our ethical ideals and ideas of natural order can still be valuably integrated. Early modern intellectualists valued the law-governed order of nature as a sign of divine Reason. In turn, Reason traditionally ascribed to God has now been partly reclaimed for humans, reframing the value of natural order anthropocentrically, in terms of the value of our own intelligence. Alternatively, Reason may be reclaimed for nature itself, as in an ‘objective’ idealism or metaphysical rationalism. However, beyond divine Reason, an influential voluntarist tradition in theology stressed a connection between laws of nature and God’s Power or free Will. Tracking how divine Power has been reinvested in human beings provides a broader context for instrumentalism and related lineages of empiricism. But secularization can also transfer Power from God to the impersonal natural world. In this light, current scientific interest in lawlike order may also reflect the inherent value of brute necessity or inhuman causal power in nature: this is a deeper way to reject anthropocentrism and to show our respect for the environment.

Keywords

  • Secularization
  • Science and religion
  • Anthropocentrism
  • Environmental value
  • Intellectualism
  • Voluntarism

I am grateful to Gordon Belot, Yemima Ben-Menahem, Filipa Melo Lopes, Tad Schmaltz, and an audience at Fordham University for helpful feedback on earlier versions of this material.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Many historians locate a rapid rise to prominence of the idea of laws of nature in the seventeenth century, often identifying Descartes as its first major figure. See e.g. Oakley, 1961a, 433; Henry, 2004, 87–88; Garber, 2013, 45; Crombie, 1996, 86–87; Daston & Stolleis, 2008, 2. Joseph Needham (1951a, 29) points to the sixteenth century, too. On pre-sixteenth-century ideas of laws of nature, see also Ruby, 1986; Kedar & Hon, 2017.

  2. 2.

    Letter to Mersenne, 15 April 1630 (Descartes, 1991, 23).

  3. 3.

    Descartes, 1982, 59–62.

  4. 4.

    Query 31 (Newton, 1730, 377–378). See also Newton to Bentley, 10 Dec. 1692 (Cohen, 1958, 280).

  5. 5.

    On historians’ view of Newton on God, see Henry, 1994, 123; Snobelen, 2001, 198. See also note 37.

  6. 6.

    Needham, 1951b, 229. His elaboration that laws are “now thought of” as “descriptions not prescription” (ibid., 229) is belied by ongoing interest in ‘governing’ accounts of laws. See also Needham, 1951a.

  7. 7.

    Westfall, 1986, 234.

  8. 8.

    Compare e.g. Lewis, 1983, 1994; Ramsey, 1978; Loewer, 1996 (‘best system’ accounts); Armstrong, 1983, Armstrong, 1993; Dretske, 1983; Tooley, 1977, 1987 (‘necessitarian’ accounts); Carroll, 1994; Lange, 2000, 2009; Maudlin, 2007 (‘antireductionist’ or ‘primitivist’ accounts). One partial exception is ‘antirealist’ accounts—e.g. Giere (1999, 23) argues that “the original view of science as discovering universal laws of nature had little basis in the actual practice of science, but was imported largely from theology”; so, for Giere, it is natural that ‘laws’ should be purged from secularized science.

  9. 9.

    E.g. see Ben-Menahem & Ben-Menahem, 2020, 53. See also Giere, 1999.

  10. 10.

    Oakley, 1961a, 450–451.

  11. 11.

    Oakley, 1961a, 449 et passim; see also Oakley, 1961b.

  12. 12.

    Henry, 2009, 80.

  13. 13.

    Henry, 2009, 80.

  14. 14.

    Henry, 2009, 80.

  15. 15.

    On Newton’s voluntarism, see Force, 1990, 89; Shapin, 1981; Snobelen, 2001, 176–177. Cf. Harrison, 2004. On voluntarism’s influence on Newton’s teacher, Isaac Barrow, see Malet, 1997. On Boyle vis-à-vis voluntarist views of creation in seventeenth-century England, see Klaaren, 1977. See also Burtt, 1925, 290.

  16. 16.

    On Gassendi’s voluntarism, see Osler, 1991, 157 et passim. See also Osler, 1994. On scholarly debate regarding Descartes, vis-à-vis voluntarism and intellectualism, see note 22 and references therein.

  17. 17.

    Klaaren, 1977, 123.

  18. 18.

    Henry, 2004, 91.

  19. 19.

    Henry, 2004, 91.

  20. 20.

    See especially Harrison, 2002, 2004, 2009.

  21. 21.

    See note 22.

  22. 22.

    Harrison (2002) argues that Descartes was both a rationalist and a voluntarist, and uses this example to “break[] the inexorability of the logic of a connection between voluntarism and empiricism” (Harrison, 2002, 66). Note that others have argued that Descartes is better described as an intellectualist (e.g. Davis, 1991; Osler, 1994). Here I would also echo John Henry (2009, 84): positions like voluntarism and empiricism can be deeply linked, historically and also conceptually, even if there is no “inexorable logic” binding them together—as the case of Descartes arguably illustrates. Cf. Harrison, 2004, 2009.

  23. 23.

    In England, Henry More and his notion of “divine reason” is a plausible example (Klaaren, 1977, 122).

  24. 24.

    Foster, 1934, 1935, 1936. Foster’s focus is on voluntarism. Henry (2009, 79) also invokes Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy, 1936) as a canonical study of the opposing (now ‘intellectualist’) approach.

  25. 25.

    Foster, 1934, 454.

  26. 26.

    Foster, 1934, 461.

  27. 27.

    Foster, 1934, 461.

  28. 28.

    Foster, 1934, 462.

  29. 29.

    Foster, 1934, 462.

  30. 30.

    Foster, 1934, 462.

  31. 31.

    Foster, 1934, 454.

  32. 32.

    Foster, 1936, 2.

  33. 33.

    Foster, 1934, 455 and 463–464.

  34. 34.

    Here I am elaborating more freely on Foster’s account. Compare Plato’s view that Forms are ‘really real Being’ (Phaedrus 247e), ‘more real’ (Republic 515d) than the sensible particulars that participate in them. Note that this does not mean really or more existent—see Vlastos, 1965, 1966; Guthrie, 1975.

  35. 35.

    Foster, 1934, 464.

  36. 36.

    Peter Harrison (2013, 147), a skeptic of ‘voluntarism and science’ hypotheses, stresses that ‘arbitrary’ just meant that “God’s will is not bound by considerations external to him”; still, he allows that the Newtonians here differed from Leibniz, who thought God had to create the best of all possible worlds.

  37. 37.

    Newton scholars disagree on this issue. E.g. Henry (1994), arguing against A. Rupert Hall’s, Alexandre Koyré’s, and I. Bernard Cohen’s view that “Newton relied more or less directly upon God to explain the force of gravity” (Henry, 1994, 125), suggests that Newton did believe in the possibility of gravity as action at a distance, grounded in a non-essential power of attraction superadded to matter by God. Cf. Janiak, 2008, 2013; for responses to Janiak, see Henry, 2011, 2014. See also Koyré, 1965, 149.

  38. 38.

    Newton to Bentley, 25 Feb 1692/3 (Cohen, 1958, 302–303).

  39. 39.

    On transcendence and immanence, see also Dupré, 1976 (theology), Crosby, 2003 (‘religion of nature’).

  40. 40.

    Quoted in Burtt, 1925, 291.

  41. 41.

    Boyle, 1686, 120.

  42. 42.

    Force, 1990, 84. See also Jacob & Jacob, 1980, 265; Shapin, 1981, 195; Oakley, 1961a, 436.

  43. 43.

    Force, 1990, 84.

  44. 44.

    On the influence of Calvinism on seventeenth-century scientific thought, see Klaaren, 1977.

  45. 45.

    Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I:5:5 (Calvin, 1960 , 58).

  46. 46.

    See e.g. Kuhn, 1977; compare Longino, 1995, Lichtenstein, 2021a.

  47. 47.

    Einstein, 1949, 26.

  48. 48.

    Einstein, 1949, 29.

  49. 49.

    Einstein, 1949, 26.

  50. 50.

    Letter to Rabbi H. S. Goldstein, 25 April 1929 (The Albert Einstein Archives at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Reel 33, Item 272).

  51. 51.

    On “governing” vs. “descriptive” or “Humean” accounts of laws, see e.g. Loewer, 1996; Beebee, 2000; Schneider, 2007; Bhogal, 2020. For a recent survey of non-Humean views, see Hildebrand, 2020. For an account looking to combine aspects of governing and Humean views, see e.g. Roberts, 2008.

  52. 52.

    Maudlin, 2007, 174.

  53. 53.

    Quoted in Crombie, 1996, 85

  54. 54.

    Compare Suárez’s similar view that “acceptation of law” in nature is “metaphorical, since things which lack reason are not, strictly speaking, susceptible to law, just as they are not capable of obedience” (Suárez, 1944, 22; quoted in Ben-Menahem & Ben-Menahem, 2020, 50). Spinoza also suggests that this use of ‘law’ is only metaphorical—see Spinoza, 2007, 58; Ben-Menahem & Ben-Menahem, 2020, 51.

  55. 55.

    Maudlin, 2007, 15.

  56. 56.

    Maudlin, 2007, 15.

  57. 57.

    ‘Respect’ is ambiguous: for a state to respect laws could just mean that it conforms to laws; but it could also mean that it considers laws, or refrains from interfering with them. The first, weaker sense is innocuous, but fails to distinguish Maudlin’s view from Humean accounts, which he rejects. So he must mean something stronger, related to ‘ontological dependence’ (Maudlin, 2007, 174–178). But this is also ambiguous: Humeans can agree that facts would be different if the laws were very different, e.g.—since facts would have to be different in order for laws that just summarize facts to be very different—so even Humeans can admit a weak sense in which facts ‘depend on’ laws. So Maudlin seems to need a stronger notion of causal influence or acausal grounding, to insist that laws cause or ground events, and not vice versa. But laws are ill-suited to causally affect inanimate objects—despite Maudlin seeming to rely on ‘production’ being quasi-causal, or not being able to run backwards in time—see Lichtenstein, 2021d. Or, if it is grounding that is in play, then causal terms like ‘produce’ are misleading, even as metaphors.

  58. 58.

    The relevant kind of ‘grounding’ is often associated with ‘ontological dependence’, and has to be more than “purely logical” determination, since a ‘descriptive’ Humean about laws could agree that “you can deduce future facts from current facts plus the laws” (Beebee, 2000, 578). For a Humean view on which laws “generate descriptions of particular cases” in something like a purely logical way, see Ward, 2007.

  59. 59.

    Beiser, 2003a, 69.

  60. 60.

    Beiser, 2003a, 70. See also Beiser, 2003b .

  61. 61.

    Beiser, 2002, 11.

  62. 62.

    Cassirer, 1910. For analysis of Cassirer’s view and its intellectual historical context, see Friedman, 2000.

  63. 63.

    Even ‘objective’ idealism can be indirectly anthropocentric, insofar as it values things as possible objects of the kind of rational or intellectual capacity that many take to elevate us above less intelligent animals.

  64. 64.

    Critique of Pure Reason, A648/B676 (Kant, 1998).

  65. 65.

    Critique of Pure Reason A645/B673 (Kant, 1998). Compare Kitcher, 1986, 206.

  66. 66.

    Kitcher, 1986, 215.

  67. 67.

    Kitcher, 1986. Messina (2017) labels Kitcher’s view of Kantian laws, as deriving their necessity directly from systematic unification, a ‘Best System’ interpretation, in contrast to accounts according to which Kant thinks that (i) knowing particular laws to be necessary requires deriving them from underlying synthetic a priori principles, along with empirical data (e.g. Friedman, 1992, 2013); or (ii) empirical laws are necessary rules that obtain by virtue of specific objects’ natures (e.g. Messina, 2017; Watkins, 2005). See also Breitenbach, 2018. I take no real stand on this debate—I am mainly concerned to survey secularized views of the value of laws of nature, and my basic point about Kant is just that he takes the idea of nature as a law-governed unity to be a purely regulative ideal rooted in ‘reason’ rather than inherent in nature as sensibly given to us. Kitcher’s account is the most superficially compatible with the analogy I draw between Kant and Lewis. Watkins-style necessitation accounts draw Kant a bit closer to ‘bottom-up’ dispositional essentialists like Ellis (Messina, 2017, 137; see Sect. 7, below). And Friedman’s view draws Kant a bit closer to rationalists like Descartes. But all parties to this debate can still agree that Kant thinks that particular laws must conform to the pure idea of a system of nature.

  68. 68.

    See Lewis, 1983, 1994. Compare Mill, 1843; Ramsey, 1978.

  69. 69.

    E.g. see Demarest, 2017.

  70. 70.

    Belot, 2010, 430. See also Belot (2022).

  71. 71.

    Lewis, 1986c, 122.

  72. 72.

    Lewis, 1986c, 122.

  73. 73.

    For analysis of Kant’s views on aliens and alternate forms of sensible intuition, see Belot (2022).

  74. 74.

    Compare Kant, 2000, 5:406–408. I take no stand here on which of these options is closer to Kant’s view.

  75. 75.

    Lewis, 1994, 479.

  76. 76.

    This ‘hope’ that nature is ‘kind’ also evokes Duhem’s appeal to an “act of faith” from which we are “powerless to rid [our] reason,” in assuming that the “logical order” into which physical theory arranges experimental laws reflects “real relations among things” (Duhem, 1991, 26–27).

  77. 77.

    Lewis’s appeal to simplicity and strength arguably does less to establish that laws or causal relations have species-wide intersubjective validity than do Kantian tactics like the ‘metaphysical deduction’ of categories from forms of judgment or the ‘transcendental deduction’ meant to show that any object given to us via sense must be categorically determined. That said, standards like simplicity may inform Kantian science aimed at law-governed unity, as scientists judge which theories are most ‘systematic’. Kant and Lewis may hope that reasonable people will agree, but this is a value-laden article of faith.

  78. 78.

    Insole, 2011.

  79. 79.

    Critique of Pure Reason A647/B675 (Kant, 1998).

  80. 80.

    Compare Nancy Cartwright’s view that “the source of order in nature is not laws but powers and mechanisms” (Cartwright, 2016, 56). She denies that there are “universal laws, laws that hold everywhere and everywhen” (ibid.; see also Cartwright, 1983, 1999; Cartwright & Ward, 2016; cf. Sklar, 2003). My ‘dynamism’ is less concerned with universality: causal powers can ground universal laws.

  81. 81.

    Twilight of the Idols “‘Reason’ in Philosophy” §6 (Nietzsche, 1974b, 481).

  82. 82.

    Twilight of the Idols “‘Reason’ in Philosophy” §3 (Nietzsche, 1974b, 484).

  83. 83.

    Compare my suggestions about ‘cognitive dominion’ vis-à-vis ‘ecological twists’ on Nietzsche, below.

  84. 84.

    Feuerbach, 1957, 33.

  85. 85.

    Feuerbach, 1957, 38–39. This influenced Marx’s similar view of religion—compare e.g. Marx, 1978, 53.

  86. 86.

    Feuerbach, 1957, 181.

  87. 87.

    Feuerbach (1957, 155) suggests that Christianity distinctively views “the individual by himself” as “a perfect being.” Its divinity is the perfection of the human species made present under the alienated guise of God’s self-standing individuality, reflecting man’s desire to individually achieve a human mode of being that is in fact realizable only by a social whole (82–83, 150–160, 182–184). This individualism is in turn given its “most unequivocal expression” in the doctrine of God’s incarnation as Christ (154).

  88. 88.

    van Fraassen, 1980, 87–88. Compare Rowbottom, 2010, 247.

  89. 89.

    For recent pragmatically-oriented best system accounts, see Dorst, 2019; Jaag & Loew, 2020—both are framed as fleshing out alternatives to ‘simplicity and strength’, however, not as developing pragmatist interpretations of these standards. See also Cohen & Callender, 2009.

  90. 90.

    Duhem is often grouped with Mach, but this ignores his notion of ‘natural classification’ (see note 76).

  91. 91.

    Mach, 1895, 198.

  92. 92.

    See Zimmerman, 1990, 34; Thomson, 2019, 179. Compare Jünger, 1993. See also Lichtenstein, 2021b.

  93. 93.

    Compare e.g. Heidegger, 1977, 23. See also Young, 2002, Thomson, 2019.

  94. 94.

    The Will to Power §610 (Nietzsche 1968, 328); The Gay Science §373 (Nietzsche 1974a, 335). For discussion, see Lichtenstein, 2021b.

  95. 95.

    Not all interaction is or should be hierarchical, but many asymmetrical relations of influence in nature are unproblematic—and humans exerting control over various parts of nature is perfectly acceptable.

  96. 96.

    Ben-Menahem, 2018, 18.

  97. 97.

    Ben-Menahem, 2018, 19.

  98. 98.

    Ben-Menahem, 2018, 46–47.

  99. 99.

    Cartwright, 2016, 56.

  100. 100.

    Cartwright, 2016, 60. Cartwright qualifies that her focus on contingency is “not motivated by the free will problem,” but rather stems from an aspiration to metaphysical modesty (ibid., 60). Still, conscious ‘motivation’ by ethical views is not the only way that metaphysics can reflect or reinforce ethical views.

  101. 101.

    Certain metaphysicians do argue that (some or all) laws of nature are necessary truths—e.g. see Bird, 2005; Ellis, 2001. Cf. Sidelle, 2002; Vetter, 2012. I address Bird-style dispositional essentialism, below.

  102. 102.

    Compare Bird’s claim that his ‘dispositional essentialism’ “entails that laws are necessary at least in the weak sense that they hold in all possible worlds where the grounding universal exists” (Bird, 2007, 169).

  103. 103.

    See Harrison, 1995, 2002; Henry, 2009.

  104. 104.

    Armstrong, 1983, 85. See also Dretske, 1983; Tooley, 1977, 1987.

  105. 105.

    Armstrong, 1993, 422.

  106. 106.

    Views of this sort may even have a Humean dimension. E.g. Demarest (2017) defends a “Potency-Best System Account of Laws,” pairing a Humean view of laws (as systematizing, not governing, the world) with an anti-Humean fundamental ontology (including basic ‘potencies’ in nature). Compare Bird, 2007. Demarest (2017, 44) takes Drestke, Tooley, and Armstrong all to claim that laws govern nature. Note, then, that when I say laws describe causes without governing, I do not ascribe this view to Armstrong.

  107. 107.

    Thanks to Yemima Ben-Menahem for this suggestion.

  108. 108.

    Compare Lewis’s description of Humean Supervenience as the view that “all there is to the world is a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact, just one little thing and then another” (Lewis, 1986d, ix).

  109. 109.

    A similar critique applies to Kantians vis-à-vis (what they see as) inscrutable ‘things in themselves’.

  110. 110.

    Compare Kant, 2000, 5: 251–260.

  111. 111.

    For elaboration of this ideal of objectivity in application to art, see Lichtenstein, 2021c. On how Kant’s aesthetics encodes a rationalistic view of humanity, and a distinct approach, see also Lichtenstein, 2019.

  112. 112.

    Aristotle, De Caelo 310b. See also Machamer, 1978.

  113. 113.

    Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics 1224a15.

  114. 114.

    Compare T. C. Hammond’s claim that natural processes are “no longer conceived as the arbitrary determinations of creative power,” but rather as “the necessary expressions of an inner reality developing itself in and by these very processes”—which he links to the idea of an immanent God (Hammond, 1911, 198). To others, ‘arbitrary determinations of creative power’ presumably sounds apt.

  115. 115.

    Compare Jacob & Jacob, 1980, 255–256; Christianson, 1984, 307 (cf. Force, 1990, 91–92).

  116. 116.

    Nietzsche, 2002, 30; see also Ben-Menahem & Ben-Menahem, 2020, 53. Compare Nietzsche, 1996, 216.

  117. 117.

    Stace, 1952, 129–130. To be clear, Stace is here discussing religious mysticism and not laws of nature.

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Lichtenstein, E.I. (2022). Revaluing Laws of Nature in Secularized Science. In: Ben-Menahem, Y. (eds) Rethinking the Concept of Law of Nature . Jerusalem Studies in Philosophy and History of Science. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-96775-8_13

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