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Laws of nature


‘The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go’

Galileo Galilei

Our most systematically arranged and effective explanations (predictive knowledge that facilitates our understanding and management of the world) are embedded in our science. It is the law-like character of scientific prediction that is its major strength although few scientists today are interested in the character of the law-like statements that express the orderliness of the universe, and which have had such vast practical consequences through science’s applications to technology.

Unsurprisingly, the definition of what constitutes a law of nature has been disputed through history and physics has dominated the historical discussion. In recent times attention has turned more to the way all scientific disciplines, including social sciences, describe pattern and order in their subject-matter – of whatever kind. How are they to best understand, explain, and systematize this orderliness. What, if any, are the connections between the laws and principles of physics, chemistry, biology, and the social sciences?

Secure knowledge, like that expressed in the laws of physics has, over time, taken on less of the absolute quality it once had. So, for example, science is no longer spoken of so freely as ‘truth’. Similarly, attempts to unify science under physics have also struggled as more pragmatic and graded perceptions of scientific order have gained in popularity.

This article briefly outlines current philosophical thinking on the scientific regularities, principles, and laws that underpin our science, especially those that are used in biology.


It is the orderliness of nature that makes it both comprehensible and meaningful to us. It is only because there is order in nature that we can provide reasons and explanations, and make predictions.

Orderliness is of many kinds and it occurs at many scales – from the rigid regularities of physics that we refer to as universal laws to probabilistic regularities that only apply under very limited conditions as, say, when trying to predict the behavior of our fellow humans.

The language we use to describe orderliness can be a confusing mixture of tradition and context. The cement of order that holds our communication together is that of ‘cause’, but when the organic world and humans are being considered then the notion of cause tends to pass into those of ‘reasons’ and ‘purposes’. The notion of ‘purpose’, for example, sits uneasily between the self-directed activities of all organic matter and those phenomena relating to conscious human intentions.

Law & Order

Ancient Egyptian society perceived the world as a constant battle between the forces of order and chaos. From the earlist times humans have tried to account for the order that is evident in nature. We see order manifest not only in the structure of the universe but in the patterns of dynamic interaction that occur between the objects out of which it is constructed. science investigates and tries to account for this order.

These articles on causation have been investigating the way that science and philosophy explore order and why there is order at all – why there is order and not chaos.

The law

We have only two answers to the question of order in the universe. Either it is imposed on nature extrinsically by, say, a law-giver like God or it arises somehow intrinsically from within nature itself. If we remove God from this characterization then this problem repeats itself but with three possibilities. Does the order in the universe arise, as it were, extraneously or extrinsically as a consequence of general overriding laws, or does it emerge intrinsically as a consequence of the interaction of its constituents? Or are there other possibilities and ways of expressing this problem?

We tend to express the order of the universe by using the phrase ‘laws of nature’. But do the laws of nature govern the world? Do they force or impose order in some way or are they just the way things are – are they prescriptive or descriptive? Laws have law-givers and only after 18th century did people challenge the order of the universe as God-given. Without the idea of extrinsically imposed order we are left with the intrinsic regularities of nature itself.

Extrinsic laws

Social laws are externally imposed social constraints on our behaviour that carry penalties if not obeyed. We use the word ‘law’ in science as a metaphor since it seems that objects and processes in nature are ordered and constrained like us, they are not permitted to do whatever they like – nature too is obeying laws.

Laws are usually set out as statements like the ten commandments and although scientific laws can also be set out in this way, Newton’s laws of gravitation and laws of motion, the economic law of supply and demand. We ned to be clear about whether when we talk about laws we are refrring to the laws as statements or as the actual ordered patterns that we see in nature.

Intrinsic laws: physical constants and laws

Another way of expressing the order we see in nature is by using the language of physical constants, causation, and regularity. We notice law-like regularities operating in nature over many scales and in many ways from the ripples in sand on the seashore to the way that we can make frothy milk to sit on top of our coffee – but the regularities that have made the greatest impact in science are physical constants like the speed of light, Newton’s laws of gravitation, and the precision of findings such as the metal gold having the atomic number 79. The elucidation of these universal regularities, often expressed with the clarity of mathematical equations, are among the greatest achievements of Western science.

What is special about these particular regularities is that, to all intents and purposes, they are empirical generalization that apply universally over all of space and time. They have a kind of necessity in the sense that we cannot imagine things being otherwise, they are exceptionless, totally predictable and therefore the ‘strictest’ that we know. There are, of course, many other physical regularities that vary in their regularity and which are more probabilistic in character.


The view argued on this web site is that although everything in biology is physical, it cannot be adequately explained in purely physical terms. There is no privileged scale of description, explanation, or existence: multiple representations are required to engage epistemologically with nature. As Aristotle knew, the significance of life lies with the directed processes that are consequent on the special organization of constituents (formal cause) rather than the constituents themselves (material cause).

Science attempts to describe the world in a detached way that minimizes the impact of human subjectivity. But the objects we perceive, the criteria and cognitive faculties we use to discriminate between them, the sense of time in which they are experienced, the scales and aspects from which we view these objects . . . are all influenced by our humanity. 

This does not make the world a subjective illusion but, unsurprisingly, it make it our human interpretation. 

What is a law of nature?

What do we mean by ‘a law of nature’?

Four key criteria are used by philosophers to gain a foothold on the law-like statements of the kind we encounter in physics. These measuring rods were established in the mid-20th century and have become known as the ‘standard model’.

The standard model

Though, in broad terms a law is a universal empirical generalization, it is more closely defined as being:

1. Logically contingent (empirically verifiable)
2. Universal (apply across space and time)
3. True (exceptionless)
4. A consequence of natural necessity (not accidental)

In slightly different words: laws of nature express natural order in its most secure and reliable form as: factual and not logical; spatiotemporally universal or statistical; conditional not categorical; with greatest generality (with no proper names).

From this foundation has emerged two schools of thought, Regularists and Necessitarians. Regularists agree on these conditions but Necessitarians posit, in addition, nomic necessity.

Based on this ground-plan of law-like circumstances we can characterize biological empirical generalizations as follows:

Biological empirical generalizations differ from the above in being neither universal nor exceptionless. Of special interest (as outlined above) in nature there are naturally necessary regularities and accidental contingent truths. Like the laws of physics natural truths are logically contingent (they depend on facts of the world) however, this dependency is based, not on a prence-absence dichotomy of necessary contingent, but as a gradation or continuation of dependency that is often expressed in terms of their stability or strength.

Historical development

In the history and philosophy of science it was, for many years, maintained that scientific explanations take the form of the best possible systems of deductive logic based on the strongest and simplest premises (axioms as empirical generalizations). In more direct language, they follow a hypothetico-deductive or nomological-deductive path or, in other words again, an empirical generalization is cemented in place by a covering scientific law.

One attempt at a definition of a physical law might be that it is the statement of an empirical generalization (supported by reliably repeated observations and experiments over a wide range of conditions, and which are discovered rather than invented)[1] that is accepted by the scientific community.

In practice, the attempt to pin down what we mean by scientific ‘laws’ has proved elusive because regularities across the natural and special sciences have indicated phenomena of various scope and kind. There has also arisen a degree interdisciplinary tension. Does the fact that the regularities of, say, biology do not have the scope of physical constants diminish their significance or imply that they are subsumed by or reducible to physical laws?

Organisms and nature show order (regularity, predictability, stability) in many ways that are not universal.

Regularities imply constraints that are of various strength. Consider the following:

1. Everyone in the room is seated
2. All mammals have two nostrils
3. Unsupported objects fall to the ground
4. Day follows night, summer follows spring


Determinism suggests that any conjunction of circumstances is inevitably followed by a subsequent conjunction of circumstances in a law-like way. Not every singular case instantiates a universal causal law. But since this state of affairs can only occur once then it hardly warrants the title ‘universal law’, although that is, in effect, what it is. We are entitled to ask for the cause(s) of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 and expect meaningful answers and yet universal laws of nature do not instantiate at this scale (see granularity). In addition, the conventional event vocabulary used for causation does not sit comfortably with the language of scientific laws. Scientific laws only awkwardly cash out as events.

Antirealist (Fraassen, Mumford) universals (Armstrong), anti-reductionist (Carroll, Lange)

Biological laws

Biology takes for granted the physical constants of the universe. An unsupported elephant falls as a rock falls. It might seem that biological order is subsumed by, subservient to, or reducible to, the laws of physics. However, it is most closely concerned with the regularities of its own domain of concern, that of living organisms. These forms of order are most clearly expressed in biological, not physical or chemical, terms. Even the operations of the macromolecules so important to heredity are best understood in terms of their relationship to organisms as agents.

There are many kinds of biological order. Biology has its own universal patterns. All organisms metabolize in similar ways, they reproduce, pass on genetic information to new generations that resemble past generations, and all this happens in a law-like way. We also see regularities that are not universal but which apply only to certain parts of the biological world. We have, for example, ordered the living world into taxonomic groups with varying degrees of morphological and genetic similarity – wide-ranging groups like plants, animals, and fungi, and narrower groupings like snails and geraniums. There are degrees of similarity in behaviour between animal groups, we can form ecological groupings and all sorts of general principles. Wherever any scientist can make predictions with some degree of certainty, whether it be physics, biology, economics, or politics, then nature is displaying order. And insofar as it is displaying order it is displaying regularity and being law-like.

We seem to like our laws to be totally authoritative, firm, and applying to everyone. Since biological regularities apply to organisms and the major laws of physics apply to everything then biology is already a lesser concern. But biological law-like regularity is still law-like no matter what scale or domain of knowledge we are considering. It can be useful to know that humans give birth to other humans, not snails or oak trees. A colony of ants of one species exhibits great consistency in the behaviour of its individuals and the structures it builds. A way of understanding this simple principle of regularity is to think, like Laplace, that given full scientific knowledge of the world at t1 we should be able to predict what it will be at time t2 shortly after. In other words even this single unrepeatable event can be law-like, totally predictable, but since it will not repeat we do not grace it with the name ‘law’. These general principles of order and regularity apply whether we are studying biological systems as mechanisms or models.

The nature of a scientific law

Historically there has been a preoccupation with the establishment of universal laws as the epitome of what it is to be a true science. Exceptionless laws help to define what it is to be a science. With this in mind it might be assumed that to be good science it is necessary to adopt the methodology that was so successful in establishing the universal laws of physics. By implication, anything that does not follow this methodology is not really science.

Consequently much intellectual effort has been expended in trying to determine exactly what this methodology is – the defining characteristic of scientific explanation that distinguishes science from non-science – is it the application of a special logic, , combined with special kind of empirical generalizations? Is it hypothetico-deduction, nomological-deduction as the covering-law model of explanation, or something else? This is discussed further in Reason & science. Suffice it to say here that the attempt to establish a mode of scientific explanation that is both necessary and sufficient to distinguish it from other modes of explanation has run aground.

Then again, perhaps there are genuine scientific laws and psedo-scientific laws. Can we draw a distinction between a ‘law of nature’ and a mere regularity? Can the fact that most plants photosynthesize be regarded as a scientific law? Perhaps genuine laws, apart from being exceptionless and mathematical, permit the prediction of all past and future states given the variables at a particular time, and they are incorporated into wider theories: they are empirical generalizations with theoretical backing. Sometimes known as process laws these may be replaced, as in biology, by inferior pseudo-laws like causal laws, developmental laws, historical laws, or descriptive generalizations.

Many law-like empirical generalizations, like those of biology, may be criticized for their lack of certainty, the fact that exceptions can be found. These are called ceteris paribus (other things being equal) laws, they have general application but are by no means watertight as in ‘raising interest rates will halt inflation‘. But then many of the laws of physics that we take as being exemplary laws are ceteris paribus laws. Galileo’s law that ‘bodies fall with constant acceleration regardless of their mass‘ depends on the idealized situation of other forces being ignored. A feather will not fall at the same rate as a lump of lead. Similar caveats apply to Newton’s laws of motion. Much science is descriptive, true by definition, (water = H20) and though this does not carry all the trappings of laws that we have been discussing, good definitions are law-like empirical generalizations that have both discovered something useful about the world and facilitated the improvement of scientific discourse by clarifying our scientific definitions. In other words definitional truths (which we might consider as being only trivially true) are valid scientific truths.

Problems with the laws of nature

The picture of rigid determinism and strict order presented to us by science is not without its detractors, notably in the debate about free will and determinism. The popular conception of a law of nature is as a universal, pervasive, and monolithic controlling factors in the world. A more restrained outlook perceives laws more as constraints, factors limit the range of possible outcomes. Of the few physical laws that exist it might be claimed that they are ‘… narrow in scope, strictly applicable only to the relatively small number of situations that correspond closely to the physical models that supply those laws with their concrete interpretations, and applying only ceteris paribus (other things being equal), even when they do apply‘.[1] This is all part of an unspoken assumption that the end-point of science is to deliver a set of ‘laws’ that account for everything in the universe.



Natural order in all its forms – nature’s ordering principles

Order in the world comes in many forms. For most of its history scientific explanation has followed the example set by Aristotle and best exemplified by syllogism and mathematical proof. Secure empirical generalizations (laws of nature), are used as founding axioms in a deductive argument (see Reason & science for a discussion of scientific explanation). It is still conventional to assume the unity of science such that the order of the universe derives ultimately from the universal laws of physics acting as axioms for the rest of science. This worldview is now under challenge as a new scientific paradigm takes shape. The many regularities that have been discovered in biology, whether or not they are embedded in physics, are regularities that apply only to biological systems and this is so for all the special sciences. Even assuming the unity of science in this sense it is simply not possible to explain the theory of natural selection in the language and concepts of basic physics. The same is so for the orderliness and regularities investigated by all the special sciences. Put simply the orderliness we see in the world is not just the orderliness emenating from the laws of physics. We see orderliness manifest in all kinds of regularity, not just the regularities we associate with physics.

So what are the ordering processes that are not part of fundamental physics? Here is a first pass brainstorming of organizing principles in the universe: laws of nature, physical constants, causation, natural selection, all other general principles and regularities, indeed any observation that can be used as a means of prediction. A regularity is a defined state of affairs which when subjected to certain defined conditions gives rise to further defined conditions. This generalization can apply on a universal scale to encompass the laws of physics.


Each domain of knowledge tries to be comprehensive within its own domain. Biology deals with living organisms, a small and spatiotemporally bounded component of the universe. The search for a unified field theory, string theory, or M theory in physics is unlikely to have any impact on biology. The empirical findings of biology concern the structures and functions that occur in biology and which are unique to biology. Organisms are made of the same fundamental stuff as everything else but it is organized differently. The sytem of laws we find in physics do not account adequately for strictly biological phenomena.

Ott,W. 2009. Causation and Laws of Nature in Early Modern Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Some philosophers think physical explanations stand on their own: what happens, happens because things have the properties they do. Others think that any such explanation is incomplete: what happens in the physical world must be partly due to the laws of nature. Aristotle advocated the notion of causal power , that causes are “intrinsically directed” at what they produce. But when the Aristotelian view is faced with the challenge of mechanism, the core notion of a power splits into two distinct models, each of which persists throughout the early modern period. We have “top‐down” and “bottom‐up” views of the laws of nature. The scholastic view is a bottom‐up picture: although God must concur with the powers of bodies, those bodies determine the precise course of events. Descartes’s invention of the laws of nature results in a top‐down picture: what happens in the world depends directly on the will of God (divine command theory). The bottom‐up conception employs the core scholastic Aristotelian notion Descartes jettisons: power. Confronted with the mechanist ontology, the scholastic notion of power splits in two: a cognitive model, which locates causal power in the intentional states of a divine mind, and a geometrical model, which accounts for the directedness of causal powers in terms of the mechanical properties of bodies.

This chapter argues in detail that Aristotelian causation is logical necessitationand the ontology of relations, establishing a key feature of scholastic powers: their esse‐ad, or directedness. Scholastic power is intrinsically directed toward its characteristic effect. Descartes mocks the scholastics for having imbued bodies with “little souls” that direct their behavior.

Hume is a subjectivist or a projectivist about causation: does he think that all causal claims merely report our own reactions, or does he think that we are mistakenly projecting causal connections onto the world?

For the Aristotelian conception of power was not discarded so much as reinvented during the modern period, issuing in the cognitive and geometrical models of causation and hence in the top‐down and bottom‐up conceptions of laws. It is a mistake to think of the scholastic concept of power as lingering on without justification, long after it was unmoored by the “new” philosophy. Instead, it was adopted and transformed. The argument is that the top‐down conception of laws is unintelligible in the absence of the theological underpinnings moderns like Descartes provide. It should thus be jettisoned in a version of a bottom‐up theory, one which is not hamstrung by Hume’s unreasonable limitations on intentionality.

Causation in science

Science has no officially accepted definition of cause although, following the classical and pre-Socratic philosophers, it is still regarded in general terms as the critical factor(s) that allow us to give a naturalistic account of movement and change, the key factor(s) constraining or determining possible outcomes and therefore controlling what happens. Today science, for the most part, and at least in principle, treats cause as being of two kinds, material and efficient. Of these it is efficient cause that takes priority, the efficient cause being regarded as the specific agent of change whether it be a man lifting a weight, a force attracting two bodies, or chemical reaction producing growth.

Definition 5 – Efficient cause is the agent that initiates the process of change

Sometimes change, or what happens, is more readily explained and understood, not so much in terms of an agent of change but more in relation to the materials concerned. For a chair, the wood; for a statue, the marble; for the properties of a metal, the metal itself. That is, the material itself out of which something is made plays a major role in the constraints and possibilities (causes) related to that object.

Definition 5 – Material cause is the material out of which the moving or changing object is composed

These kinds of causes were the legacy of the classical world to the scholastics of the Middle Ages, notably Aristotle’s four causes. These were not so much causes in the modern sense but ‘becauses’, what Aristotle believed were the commonest modes of explanation: the material, efficient, formal, and final causes. Aristotle claimed that when we ask the question ‘What is it?’ we resort to these four basic kinds of explanation. The Scientific Revolution took a mechanistic view of the world as matter in motion, rejecting Aristotle’s formal and final causes as explanations that were either too obscure or, in all likelihood, simply mistaken. This legacy from early modern science remains with us today. Though formal and final ‘be-causes’ might occur in various guises in the scientific literature it is still only material and efficient causes that are regarded as scientifically respectable.

Matter is the ‘material cause’. But it is not just matter that ‘constrains’ outcomes it is the particular mode of organization (or what determines that particular form) of matter, say, whether the wood matter is a table or a tree and this is the ‘formal cause’. But deterministic causation so much a part of scientific explanation takes the form of causal necessity ‘If X then Y’. That is, Y is the actualization of X and because of the potentiality in X and inexorability of Y, the process of actualization is known as the ‘final cause’. Though evident in all the physical world final cause is most obviously exemplified in the myriad functions we see in nature: the structures and processes that are ‘for’ some reason or purpose. Final cause is important because it plays a crucial role in the process of reverse-engineering that makes up so much of biological research and explanation. The form is what makes a particular thing what it is, a major factor constraining causal possibility. As a counterfactual, for example, it ensures that an unaided human cannot fly.

Causation and laws of nature : reductionism Jonathan Schaffer
In Theodore Sider, John Hawthorne & Dean W. Zimmerman (eds.), Contemporary Debates in metaphysics. Blackwell. pp. 82-107 (2008) Causation and the laws of nature are nothing over and above the pattern of events, just like a movie is nothing over and above the sequence of frames. Or so I will argue. The position I will argue for is broadly inspired by Hume and Lewis, and may be expressed in the slogan: what must be, must be grounded in what is.

Determinism & the Law of Causality

Determinism, in the context of physics, means having the ability to predict the exact values of the relevant physical properties of a system, such as, position and momentum. For example, you want to measure the position of a certain particle. Then, if the system is deterministic, you should be able to unambiguously predict the position of the particle, using various laws etc. The power of causation lies in its predictive potential. By understanding causes and their effects we can both predict and manage many aspects of the future. ‘Cause’ is thus an integral part of the scientific language of orderly change that we call determinism. Physicist Laplace (1749-1827) vividly expressed cause and effect taken to its logical scientific conclusion in a form, variously expressed, but often referred to as ‘The Law of Causality’:

‘We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.’ Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

Laplaces statement is the locus classicus for determinism, setting the stage for an endless debate on whether free will is possible. Laplace regarded uncertainty as a consequence of our igorance of the full state of affairs. As science increases knowledge of the causal factors in a system, the causal model approaches determinism.

This is the most potent aspect of science: with determinacy we can explain why things happen and since we can make predictions based on causal regularity we can then manage the future: it is because changes have causes that we can establish matters of fact.

Rigid determinism is challenged by chaos theory and quantum indeterminacy. Further, the word ’cause’ is not so common in the scientific literature. Scientific laws are not framed as ‘A causes B’ but in the form of ‘functional relations between certain events at certain times‘:[8] it is simply not possible to overcome the complexity of listing all antecedents necessary as A to ensure that B will follow. Expressed in the form ‘every phenomenon is determined by its conditions’ or ‘same causes will produce same effects’ its truth and utility are suspect. Be that as it may, for mere humans causes (as configurations of the world) and their effects differ in complexity and that means that our capacity for prediction is often restricted to probabilities and unknowing.

Part of our understanding of causes relating to their degree of determinism is that they may be necessary, sufficient or contributory. If C is a necessary cause of E, then the presence of E necessarily implies the presence of C. The presence of C, however, does not imply that E will occur. If C is a sufficient cause of E, then the presence of C necessarily implies the presence of E. However, another cause C2 may alternatively cause E. Thus the presence of E does not imply the presence of C. A contributory cause of influence is one among several other causes that all contribute to an effect.

Whether or not science is grounded in a ‘Law of Causality’ or ‘Causal Maxim’ (everything that exist must have a cause) it is certainly an integral guide to action, even though science is not constructed on invariable reguarities, and we need to be clear about what controls necessity as degrees of certainty and what makes relations non-accidental.

Determinism is more than belief in causality. The defining feature of determinism is a belief in the inevitability of causality. The essence of determinism is that everything that happens is the only thing that could possibly happen (given the past) under those circumstances. The category of the possible and the category of the actual are exactly the same. If you knew everything about the world today and knew all the causal principles, you could calculate everything in the future and the past with 100% accuracy. To a determinist, the universe is just grinding along as a giant machine with no uncertainty whatsoever. The future and the past are both set in stone, so to speak. Check any textbook or handbook of philosophy. Many psychologists defend determinism thinking that they are defending the notion of causality itself. They think, science studies causes, and if we abandon causation, we cannot do science. But these fears are irrelevant. Everyone believes in causes. The important difference is between probabilistic causation and deterministic causation.

Determinism might or might not be correct. Determinism is impossible to prove or disprove. It directly contradicts the everyday experience of making choices and having multiple options, but everyday experience could be mistaken.))

There is a conflation of causality and determinism. At leastthe possibility that determinism may be a strong form of causality. Often the term “Causal Determinism” is used. I maintain that the notions of causality and determinism are not the same.

Determinism generally is the notion that given a specified state of the world at time T, and given that the laws of nature are fixed, the course of future events is fixed as a matter of natural law. (There is only one possible future which is determined by the current state of the world and the laws of nature). Any earlier complete state of the world entails any later state of the world in all its details. The present could also be used to specify the conditions of the past. Determinism is a bidirectional in time notion.

Chance & necessity

Given the circumstances that existed in the brief moments when the accident occurred then it was all but inevitable: it happened as a matter necessity. But … if I had lingered over my breakfast that day I would have arrived at that particular point in the road later in time and would not even have seen the dog. If I hadn’t been born then the accident could not possibly have happened. In fact if the history of the universe had been different with the Earth closer to the Sun, or the Big Bang had not occurred, then the accident could not have happened because there would be no life on Earth, and maybe no Earth at all.

This thought experiment demonstrates how, ultimately, absolutely everything from the beginning of the universe is connected by its sequence of antecedents. If we want a complete explanation of the configuration of the universe as it exists right now then we must trace its history in every minute detail. Our individual existences are a consequence of the complex interplay of the present moment’s antecedents and, viewed from the present moment, it seems extremely probable that things could have been different. When viewed in this way my car accident was an infinitessimally unlikely event: pure chance.

Pragmatic causation: the boundary conditions, context, or frame

We need to distinguish ‘causes’ from general influences or constraints. If I had not been born then I could not have had a car accident, so was my birth a causal factor in my car accident. Causation generally concerns itself with actual or token causation which is particular events producing particular consequences. There may be a pragmatic ‘frame of interest’ such that the cause of a car crash may be interpreted in various ways depending on our particular interest.

This draws attention to the fact of multi-factor causation and the importance of background circumstances for the occurrence of certain events. In general questions and answers or explanations are given in relation to particular contexts. This generally applies in a court of law. When assessing the legal cause of a car or plane crash there is recognition of the many contributing factors and unique circumstantial factors (background factors that were necessary if the event was to occur at all but which are taken for granted). In such cases it is the most salient causes, given the particular context and specific interests, that are given priority.

Principle 2 – Everyday, ‘legal’ or ‘folk’ causation depends on the context and interests of those assessing them

Causal order & regularity as a consequence of the laws of nature

Hume’s regularity as the operation of laws of nature.
One solution to the idea of exceptions to regularity (night following day) was provided by John Stuart Mill who claimed that exceptionless regularity is provided by laws of nature as a deterministic process. This provided a way of distinguishing causation and correlation. If determinism is accepted as a thesis (broadly accepted by the majority of scientists) then every situation is a potentially causal situation. The situation becomes confusing when we fail to consider the situation as a whole. If we fully understand a particular state of affairs and its boundary conditions or context then, if it is truly determined, then it is also law-like. We only give the attribution ‘law’ to events that are frequently encountered. But, any configuration of the universe if repeated exactly in precisely the same conditions but elsewhere would give rise to identical consequences and in this sense would constitute a universal law. But we do not call this a law if we, and others, are never likely to encounter this particular state of affairs again. What we identify as a cause is generally only a small part of a wider and more complex whole and therefore incomplete. This is why we must accept probabilistic or ‘soft causality’ without strict determinism. But the assumption of strict determinism underlies most scientific theories.

Definition 3 – Given the complex conditions X (constraints or boundary conditions) it must be the case that Y – this will be a law of nature but one which only applies under these local, rare, or unique circumstances

Thus the RTC claims that regularities as laws of nature are both necessary and sufficient for causation although in the everyday sense in which we speak of causation is neither necessary nor sufficient. Today’s extensions to Hume’s argument are referred to as the Regularity Theory of Causation (RTC) which has been refined over time. The canonical statement of RTC is (this defines a cause not a cause for an event):

Definition 4 – C causes E iff at a time earlier than E, C is part of a set of events at t that non-redundantly (that are collectively essential) suffices for E

RCT sems to neglect a stronger sense in which science usually treats causation.

Scientifically causation is daunting for its degree of abstraction. Our need for material certainty leads us to a mental picture of causation as one physical object impacting in some way on another. And yet the structure of an organism is a consequence not just of its physical parts but of their dynamic interaction, the relations between them, their organization. Put simply, cause in biological systems is not just about stuff, it is about stuff in a certain dynamic relationship or organinization. In unpopular Aristotelian terms we are not restricted here to material cause, we are also concerned with formal cause. Modern science tends to focus on material cause ‘what it is made of’, Aristotle’s formal cause is ‘that which makes it what it is’. Biologists have far greater need of this mode of explanation than physicists.

This gives us The situation is so complicated that we simply cannot say what will happen next in precise detail. To overcome this difficulty we focus on those relata that are of special interest to us, or which appear likely to have the greatest impact on us.

We can refer to the complex of interactions going on in the world as a ‘state of affairs’. Our special interest then becomes foreground which occurs, causally, in the context of the background state of affairs. The background state of affairs (boundary conditions) may be of varying significance for the foreground concerns – but never totally inconsequential.

Causation, determinism & predictability

Whenever outcomes have greater or lesser predictability – when they are deterministic – when they proceed as a matter of cause and effect – we can speak very loosely of destiny, goal, purpose, or fate.
Consider the following as aspects of necessity:

b) The laws of physics constraining or limiting the possible paths of cosmic evolution
c) Natural selection constraining or limiting the possible paths of organic evolution
a) One billiard ball hitting another drives the hit ball along a predictable path
d) Constrained outcomes in living systems resemble the constraining effect of conscious deliberation
e) Conscious deliberation is not a ‘free’ activity (free will) but, like any other biological process, constrained in its possibe outcomes (determinism)

Perhaps there is a gradation or continuum of constraint (predetermination) as we pass from the inanimate to the organic and self-conscious and this is an important part of what Aristotle was trying to convey through his concept of telos.

If determinism is valid, given the causal antecedents of circumstance of C, Y must follow, then a coin falling to the floor when released was no more causally necessary than Napolean losing the Battle of Waterloo. Here we are are comparing universal laws (the law of gravitation) with singular and unrepeatable circumstances (the Big Bang and historical events). History is a stream of non-recurring singularities.


Should biology aspire to the ideal of physics as exemplary science? Should biology accept that it is either a pseudo-science or inferior science? Or is biology just a different form of science?

The discussion here has considered many of the points of contention in this debate and concluded that whether something is a law or not depends of course on what is meant by ‘law’. We have no conclusive evidence for physics having either a unique ‘scientific’ mode of explanation or of producing unique ‘scientific’ laws. We do not have a unified science and each domain of knowledge seems to adopt its own methodology for the investigation of order in the world. We create distinctions between disciplines based not on whether they are science or pseudo-science but on the quality, reliability, and evidential basis for their conclusions.

Science takes very seriously its investigation of order as manifest in the patterns and regularities of the natural world. Of course we spend much of our everyday lives in a similar way but for science this is an obsession. When the particular kind of order is universal and exceptionless then this is of special interest but any form of order is of interest. It does not seem too far fetched to suggest that our deep respect for the most extreme kind of order (universal and exceptionless) is a relic of our former respect for absolute authority and the belief that exceptionless laws are a manifestation of God’s presence in the world.

Each law describes one regular possible partial contributor to real-world behavior, and says absolutely nothing about what other contributors there might be. The gravitation law says nothing about whether there is also electromagnetic interaction, or vice-versa, and neither says anything about what else might be on the list of possible causal factors. Moreover, nothing about any of the laws says that all of the other causal factors must also be lawlike. The questions of whether there are probabilistic laws (like those of Quantum Mechanics) or causal factors that are not lawlike at all (like free will and miracles) is left open.

The foregoing suggests the basic lineaments of an alternative conception of laws that has a growing following in philosophy of science. This is sometimes called the “causal account of laws”. As a point of departure, consider a natural reading of Newton’s inverse square law of gravitation. What does this law claim? What it seems to claim is that there is a gravitational force (F, in the equation) that is proportional to the product of the masses of two objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This force is one among many factors that will contribute to the actual behavior of the bodies in question. As there are more than two bodies in the universe, there will be additional gravitational forces acting pairwise on bodies. There is also the inertial force that was known to Newton, as well as forces discovered after his time, such as electromagnetism. The gravitation law does not tell us what other factors there may be, and indeed that is part of the genius of such laws: they pick out real and sometimes fundamental causal factors while leaving open the question of what others there may be.

While it is natural to characterize law in terms of “forces” in fundamental physics, that characterization may seem a bit strained when we come to the laws of chemistry, much less biology or the human sciences. Philosophers of science have thus been wont to use other, more general, terms to characterize this basic view of laws, such as that laws express “causal powers” or “causal capacities”. Or, as I prefer to put it, “potential partial contributers to real-world behavior”. We may refer to such views generally as the “causal account” of laws.

So, where are we now? On the Empiricist interpretation, laws are universal and deterministic, and this would mean that we cannot act freely in the material world. (Though we might be able to think freely without putting it into action if we are immaterial souls.) But the Empiricist interpretation will not work, for reasons having nothing to do with free will. And we should not be bothered by the fact that so grossly erroneous a characterization of laws would imply determinism and the denial of free will. The other interpretation of laws I have sketched here, sometimes called the “causal account”, takes laws to express something on the order of causal capacities of objects – or, as I prefer to put it, potential partial causal contributors. But on the causal account, each law is absolutely silent on what other causal factors might exist, and even if we have a complete list of all the causal factors that are lawful, these in no way exclude the possibility of additional factors that are spontaneous, such as free will. (Or-and this would please Newton-miracles.)

Does this prove that we really have free will? No. There might be other reasons to think our behavior is determined rather than free. And the fact that free action is compatible with natural laws does not imply that we are free; the natural laws are equally compatible with our actions being fully determined, or, in the case of some laws, random. What it is intended to show is this: If you feel you have reason to believe in free will, but are worried that this belief is incompatible with a belief in natural laws, you can breathe a sigh of relief. On the best sorts of account of the nature of laws we have today in philosophy of science – some version of the causal account – laws are compatible with freedom.

Do the laws of nature justify our concept of cause and effect?

(Causal mechanisms in social systems have been attributed to agents (individual choices manifest in collective behavior), structures (social structures or institutions e.g. tax collection), social influence.

Steven Horst is Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, USA, and author of three books: Laws, Mind, and Free Will (MIT Press, 2011), Beyond Reduction (Oxford University Press, 2007), and Symbols, Computation, and Intentionality: A Critique of the Computational Theory of Mind (University of California Press, 1996)

Foundationalism – there is possibly a confusion between foundational laws of nature acting as the axiomatic underpinning of the universe and the foundational structure of matter as consisting of fundamental particles. Does each aspect require new laws, concepts, and generalizations – a shift from quantitative to qualitative difference?

Language used to describe the ‘constraints’ will vary according to aspect. Molecules are ‘about’ molecular properties, they are not ‘about’ thoughts and sensations.
Does each aspect reduce the scope of the one that is simpler, more exclusive or of a different scale.

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Stele incorporating the first known written Code of Law, the Hammurabi Code

The relief depicts King Hammurabi (c. 1810-1750 BCE), sixth king of the first Babylonian dynasty, receiving the laws from Sun God Shamash
Courtesy Luestling, Wikimedia Commons

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David Deutsch – Which Laws of Nature are Fundamental?

Closer to Truth – 2016 – 13:28

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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