Characterized abstractly, the laws of nature are principles that provide information about the entire universe. But they are not just any sort of principles. It turns out that the laws of nature posited by our best scientific theories collectively possess some striking features:
Highly informative dynamical implications
Spatial and temporal locality
Spatial, temporal, and rotational symmetries
A marked degree of simplicity
How might one attempt to explain the fact that the actual laws of nature exhibit these features to considerable degrees?
One way to do so is to direct our question outward: “Why does the universe behave in these ways?" This question naturally leads to the following sorts of answers: maybe there are higher-order metaphysical constraints that require the laws to have these features, or maybe the presence of these features simply has no explanation, because the laws are themselves explanatorily fundamental. Another way to attempt to explain the presence of these features is to direct our questions inward: “Why would creatures like us look for principles with these features?" This question leads to a different answer. In particular, it leads to the realization that the above five features render the laws quite useful for predictive purposes. To wit: these features allow us to use the laws to predict how a variety of systems behave using information that we are usually in a position to ascertain empirically.
I am interested in trying to explain why the laws are so predictively useful. My current work explores the possibility of explaining the laws’ predictive utility as the product of a selection process inherent to scientific practice that is designed to generate predictively useful principles. According to this pragmatic explanation, the predictive utility of the laws is ultimately a function of our own epistemic interests. The metaphysical picture most consonant with this idea is a form of reductionism. Drawing from David Lewis’s conception of the “Humean mosaic," I start with the notion that, fundamentally, the universe is comprised of a collection of particular matters of fact (whose nature is subject to debate), and the job of our various scientific concepts, such as that of law, is to systematize those particular matters of fact in ways that are useful to creatures like us. The laws, for example, are principles that systematize the particular matters of fact in a way that is maximally predictively useful. I call this the “Best Predictive System Account” of laws, or “BPSA.”
Having articulated this conception of lawhood, the challenge is then to use it to account for some of the most important scientific roles attributed to the laws, such as their counterfactual resilience and their role in scientific explanations. Part of my current research aims to explain why, if the BPSA is correct, the laws would naturally play these roles in scientific practice.
I am also interested in exploring alternative explanations of the laws’ predictive utility. In the next phase of my research, I aim to compare the pragmatic explanation offered by the BPSA with another potential explanation based on anthropic considerations. Anthropic reasoning is concerned with observational selection effects. For example, we cannot conclude from the mere fact that we exist here on Earth that conditions permitting intelligent life must be common throughout the universe. For even if there were only one occurrence of intelligent life in the entire history of the universe, those creatures would inevitably find themselves in conditions that permit their existence. Similarly, the character of the laws of nature may itself be correlated with our existence. After all, the laws constrain the behavior of physical systems in the universe, and we ourselves are physical systems in the universe. Thus, it may be that the predictive utility of the laws is a precondition for the existence of creatures like us.
Both of these potential explanations are promising because they render the predictive utility of the laws something to be expected, rather than treating it as a fortuitous coincidence. But they cannot both be correct, since they adopt explanatory strategies that proceed in opposite directions. Essentially, the pragmatic explanation accounts for the laws’ predictive utility by appealing to features of our own epistemic situation, whereas the anthropic explanation accounts for features of our own epistemic situation by appealing to the character of the laws. My hope is that further exploration of these competing explanations will reveal that one of them is clearly preferable.
Presentations, Commentaries, and Panels
Panel Discussion: "The Neurological Basis of Consciousness and Free Will." Synapse: Wash U Neuroscience Club. St. Louis, MO. November 2018.
"Why do the Laws Support Counterfactuals?" Society for the Metaphysics of Science Annual Conference. Milan IT. August 2018.
Comments on Siegfried Jaag and Christian Loew's "Humean Reductionism and (Iterated) Counterfactuals." Society for the Metaphysics of Science Annual Conference. Milan IT. August 2018.
Comments on David Kinney's "Bayesian Networks and Multi-Level Causation." Central APA. Chicago, IL. February 2018.
"Laws of Nature, Prediction, and Reductionism." Eastern APA. Savannah, GA. January 2018.
"Why are the Laws so Useful?" CU Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science. Boulder, CO. October 2017.
"A Tension in the Best System Account of Laws of Nature." Pacific APA. Seattle, WA. April 2017.
Comments on Katie Elliott's "The Applicability Problem for Chance Explanation." UNC Philosophy of Science Workshop. Chapel Hill, NC. November 2015.
Comments on Lynn Chiu's "An Ecological Challenge Against the Propensity Interpretation of Fitness." Pacific APA. Vancouver, BC. April 2015.
Comments on Guy Hetzroni's "Causation and Unification in Quantum Mechanics." Hebrew University/UNC Joint Conference in Philosophy. Chapel Hill, NC. May 2014.
"The Conventionality of the Brain's Functional Topography." Pitt-CMU Graduate Conference in Philosophy of Science, Pittsburgh PA. March 2014. (Presentation Slides)
For current drafts of these papers, please email me.
Why do the Laws Support Counterfactuals?
This paper aims to explain why the laws of nature are held fixed in counterfactual reasoning. I begin by highlighting three salient features of counterfactual reasoning: it is conservative, nomically guided, and it uses hindsight. I then present a rationale for our engagement in counterfactual reasoning that aims to make sense of these features. In particular, I argue that counterfactual reasoning helps us evaluate the evidential relations between unanticipated pieces of evidence and various hypotheses of interest. Given this goal, it makes a great deal of sense that counterfactual reasoning would have the aforementioned features. Additionally, it turns out that this account of counterfactual reasoning is particularly amenable to Humean accounts of laws. In particular, it can explain, in a Humean-friendly way, both why the laws are counterfactually resilient, and why we may be inclined to have anti-Humean intuitions in the first place, even if some form of Humeanism is correct.
Humean Laws, Explanatory Circularity, and the Aim of Scientific Explanation
One of the main challenges confronting Humean accounts of natural law is that Humean laws appear to be unable to play the explanatory role of laws in scientific practice. The worry is roughly that if the laws are just regularities in the particular matters of fact (as the Humean would have it), then they cannot also explain the particular matters of fact, on pain of circularity. Loewer (2012) has defended Humeanism, arguing that this worry only arises if we fail to distinguish between scientific and metaphysical explanations. However, Lange (2013, 2018) has argued that scientific and metaphysical explanations are linked by a transitivity principle, which would undercut Loewer’s defense and re-ignite the circularity worry for the Humean. I argue here that the Humean has antecedent reasons to doubt that there are any systematic connections between scientific and metaphysical explanations. The reason is that the Humean should think that scientific and metaphysical explanation have disparate aims, and therefore that neither form of explanation is beholden to the other in its pronouncements about what explains what. Consequently, the Humean has every reason to doubt that Lange’s transitivity principle obtains.
(2017) "In All Probability, Quite Handy." Metascience. DOI: 10.1007/s11016-017-0282-y
(2016) "Evidence, Significance, and Counterfactuals: Schramm on the New Riddle of Induction." Erkenntnis. 81.1: 143-154.