Sponsored Events
Coffee Talks
Distinguished Speaker Series
Boulder Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science

Affiliated Faculty

October 13-15, 2017, CU Boulder
Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science:
Metaphysics and the Laws of Nature


Keynote: David Albert: Laws and Physical Things
Recent discussions of the ontology of quantum-mechanical wave-functions seem to me to have raised new and deep and urgent questions about how to make sensible distinctions between laws (on the one hand) and concrete physical things (on the other). I will describe some of those questions here, and consider some strategies for addressing them.


Coffee and Bagels

Chris Dorst: "Why are the Laws So Useful?" (Comments: Erica Shumener)
In this paper, I present a general argument in favor of reductionist theories of laws of nature. First, I argue that the laws of nature are remarkably predictively useful to creatures like us, and that their predictive utility depends on certain pervasive features that they exhibit. I then argue that the general metaphysical commitments of nonreductionism render it unable to provide a satisfactory explanation of the laws' predictive utility. Conversely, the general metaphysical commitments of reductionism put it in an excellent position to explain the predictive utility of the laws. Roughly, reductionists can claim that the laws are those regularities that are distinguished based on their predictive utility.

Thomas Blanchard: "Unificationist Best System Account" (Comments: Bixin Guo)
A number of critics have argued that despite what its proponents claim, the Best System Account (BSA) of laws of nature doesn't fit scientific practice very well. I will argue that a substantially modified version of the BSA can overcome these objections. On the approach I propose, the role of laws is to unify the mosaic, 'unification' being understood along the lines of Friedman's and Kitcher's unificationist theory of explanation. I will argue that this alternative Best System approach fits well with how scientists think about the laws, and nicely explains why laws play a central role in scientific practice.

Barry Loewer: "The Metaphysics of Laws and Time" (Comments: Nina Emery)
David Lewis' Best System account of fundamental laws requires there to be a preferred language relative to which the Best System (BS) is formulated. He proposes that the basic terms in this language (in addition to mathematical and logical terms) refer to what he calls "perfectly natural quantities." Bas van Fraassen objected that "perfectly natural properties" involve a metaphysical posit that disconnects the Best System account from scientific practice and leads to an unwelcome skepticism about laws. In my talk I develop an alternative version of the BS account that avoids this objection and interestingly is neutral between Humean and non-Humean accounts of laws.

Lunch – Restaurants on the Hill

Kevin Morris: "Multiple Realization's Last Stand?" (Comments: Jonah Branding)
The idea of mental properties and processes as multiply realizable has been at the center of discussions about the place of mind in nature since Jerry Fodor and Hilary Putnam’s influential discussions in the 1960s and 70s. I offer a partial assessment of the charge, developed in most detail by Tom Polger and Larry Shapiro, that given an account of multiple realization (MR) robust enough to support the "nonreductive" consequences that Fodor, Putnam, and others propose, there is reason to think that MR is far less extensive in nature than has often been thought. I argue that the case for the multiple realizability of mental properties, and special science properties generally, is probably not as dire as Polger and Shapiro maintain. I conclude by briefly discussing the significance of MR under the demanding account that Polger and Shapiro defend.

Elizabeth Miller: "Local Qualities" (Comments: Mike Hicks)
For Humean atomists, cosmic contents supervene on a spatiotemporal "mosaic" of modally independent elements. One specific piecemeal subspecies of Humean atomism promises more than global supervenience—somehow or other—on this separable mosaic; it constrains how exactly elemental inputs combine to yield all other cosmic contents. Roughly, the distribution of basic, freely recombinable elemental states within or across one part of our space-time cosmos metaphysically suffices for the more complete local contents of that part, with one result a general link between spatiotemporal localization and metaphysical insulation. But piecemeal Humeanism is not the only option: on a non-piecemeal alternative, derivative features or happenings can be recognizably local to or manifest within one part of our cosmos while reflecting a more global elemental base. To explicate the sense of locality at issue, Humeans can draw on the insights of some anti-Humean opponents.

Julie Godfrey: "The Problem of Meta-Laws for Dispositional Essentialism" (Comments: Neil Williams)
Dispositional Essentialism (DE) has great difficulty accounting for meta-laws. DE takes properties as fundamental and laws as resulting from the dispositions of properties. Meta-laws are hard to account for as they are high-level and cannot supervenes on individual properties. Meta-laws hold of many properties if not the whole world. Steven French argues that this points towards Ontic Structural Realism (OSR). OSR is a reverse-engineering of DE (2014, 264) where laws (as opposed to properties) are fundamental. For French only making meta-laws fundamental avoids DE's problem. I explore various lines DE can use to defend itself and account for meta-laws. Further, I consider the prime example used against DE: conservation laws. It is hard for DE to account for (i) the conservation of mass-energy, (ii) many different properties being conserved. I argue only (i) -- the conservation of mass-energy -- is a concern for DE. I then show how DE can account for this and other meta-laws in future.

Alyssa Ney: "Physics and Fundamentality"
What justifies the allocation of funding to research in physics when many would argue research in the life and social sciences may have more immediate impact in transforming our world for the better? Many of the justifications for such spending depend on the claim that physics enjoys a kind of special status vis-a-vis the other sciences, that physics or at least some branches of physics exhibit a form of fundamentality. The goal of this paper is to articulate a conception of fundamentality that can support such justifications. I argue that traditional conceptions of fundamentality in terms of dynamical or ontic completeness rest on mistaken assumptions about the nature and scope of physical explanations.

Dinner at TBA


Coffee and Bagels

Ioan Muntean: "A Bottom-up 'Better Best System of lawhood: comprehensibility, patterns, and mining Big Data" (Comments: Zanja Yudell)
This paper starts with an empiricist concern about the future of lawhood in science: a more substantial relation with experimental data is needed when approaching laws of nature in the 21st century. One reason is the shift in many disciplines (astronomy, genetics, neuroscience, climate science, particle physics, social sciences, etc.) towards data-oriented and computational-intensive scientific practice.

Al Wilson: "Modalizing Regularity Theories" (Comments: Christina Conroy)
A very natural diagnosis of the failures of the regularity theory of laws of nature is that it reflects only regularities holding over actual events, and accordingly is subject to the vagaries of happenstance and coincidence. Generalizing the theory to regularities over actual and possible events resolves these problems, but this move is typically regarded as a non-starter. I argue that the prospects for a modalized regularity theory of laws have not been properly appreciated, and I show how the theory finds a natural home within the context of Everettian quantum mechanics, interpreted as a form of modal realism.

Michael Tooley: "Philosophy and Science"
How are philosophy and science related? This question arises because some philosophical claims are incompatible either with some apparently well-confirmed scientific theories, or with some apparently widely accepted views concerning relevant areas of science. Given such conflicts, how are they to be resolved? My view is that it depends upon the specific conflict. In some cases, science rules, and the philosophical view in question must be abandoned. In other cases, philosophy rules. Where do these conflicts arise? Many of them arise in metaphysics, concerning such questions as whether tensed theories of time are acceptable, whether fundamental laws of nature are temporally symmetric, whether the world can contain backward causation, and, indeed, whether causation is even a real relation in the world at all. Others involve the claim that the physical world is causally closed, a view that is incompatible with important theories in both metaethics and philosophy of mind. Still others involve assumptions that, arguably, are not justified given the present state of epistemology, with physicists and other scientists all in effect assuming that there are satisfactory solutions to the problem of external world skepticism and the problem of inductive skepticism.

Questions? Please email heather.demarest@colorado.edu

The Committee on the History and Philosophy of Science is co-sponsored by the Departments of Philosophy and Physics, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Foster Endowment.

Philosophy Home
© 2002 University of Colorado Board of Regents