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Laws and Chance: What is a “Law of Nature”?

What makes an equation express a law of nature? or as Stephen Hawking asks “What breathes fire into the equations? The Rutgers Templeton Project in the Metaphysics of Laws of Nature is a philosophical exploration into what differentiates some naturalistic generalizations from others. Why do some express laws of nature while others are generalizations of a different sort?

Laws of Nature

There are many different ways that the concept “law of nature” can be understood. Some think that laws of nature characterize forces that are active at a fundamental level. For those that hold this sort of view, clearly a law of nature differs from other sorts of generalizations by whether or not it involves fundamental forces. Others reject that there are fundamental forces, and instead hold that structure is fundamental. In these sorts of views, laws of nature might be construed as generalizations that describe this structure. These are two options from a wide range of possibilities.

Having an understanding of what makes a law of nature different from other sorts of generalizations has a range of implications for many other issues in philosophy. Not only is it tied to fundamental ontology, it also has implications for the natures of objective chance, causation, counterfactuals, time, space, and free will. The metaphysics of laws of nature is also relevant to issues in the foundations of physics (e.g. interpretations of quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics) and theology (e.g. fine-tuning arguments). This places the conceptual understanding of laws of nature at a very fundamental level in the more general study of metaphysics.

The Package Deal Account

Barry Loewer, a philosopher at Rutgers University and PI for the Laws and Chance project, is currently developing a book-length exploration of these topics. His account of laws of nature, called the “Package Deal Account” (PDA) develops this view.

The purpose of the Laws and Chance project is to bring together philosophers, scientists and mathematicians to discuss the implications and assumptions of various views. To do this, in the course of this grant, we will hold a series of conferences and a summer school.

The first conference, in October 2019, explores the foundations of probability. Probability is integral to the study of the concept of scientific laws since a lot of empirical evidence is statistical, and so probabilistic statements seem like natural generalizations. Since our experience of the world indicates to us that there are objective probabilities, some views on laws of nature reflect this experience. But is this correct? Many that would say there is no such thing as objective probability. The conference in October explores this and other issues.

The second conference, in April 2020, focuses directly on the concept of scientific laws. The purpose of this conference is to promote dialog between academics who hold differing views on the fundamental nature of scientific laws.

The summer school will take place in July 2020 in Budapest, Hungary. This two-week summer program is hosted by CEU.