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I am a former middle and high school science teacher pursuing a doctorate in Science Ed. at George Mason University, with a concentration in cognitive science and the evolution of cognition and learning. Postings on this blog represent my own views, not those of my employer or school. All writing displayed on this page is original work unless otherwise noted, and thus copyrighted.

02 December 2010

Laws of Nature: Nomic or Gnostic?

Some of the issues with Foster's argument have been left alone due to the instructions of the professor for whom the paper was written. These are apparent in any case.     

 John Foster, in The Divine Lawmaker, believes that he has made headway on a philosophical account of natural laws by taking natural laws as causal regularities that are (or were) enacted by a universal creator.  While this may be satisfying to the theist, both as a teleological proof of a deity and as an account of natural laws, it is lacking in the way of parsimony and explanatory power. There is utility in Foster’s nomic account of laws as causing regularity in the universe: it is possible to present an account of natural laws that properly describes what the laws of nature are and excludes those regularities that are accidental. After a careful examination of Foster’s views, along with some pertinent criticisms of them, this paper will attempt to make sense of Foster’s account of laws without the need for the involvement of a supernatural agent.

Foster’s Account of Regularity in Nature

Foster notes the existence of regularities in nature, a pattern of instances of our experience in which a given substance (or more than one) acts in a manner that is consistent with other recorded instances. This is difficult, in Foster’s opinion, to deem coincidental, and thus the existence of such regularities requires explanation. Non-basic regularities, those that can be reduced to the interactions of more basic regularities, can be effectively explained in this manner.
 What of the basic regularities? Foster finds these more vexing:

The interesting issue arises when we reach the level of the basic regularities-those regularities which cannot be explained in terms of others. These will need to be accounted for in some other way… For the fact that any specific regularity was in principle explicable in terms of others would not mean that the overall regularity of the world was self-explanatory (p.148).

In effect, Foster is arguing that explaining regularities in terms of others is not satisfactory to him because it fails to explain why there is regularity in the world at all. Simply creating an explanatory regress in which one regularity is explained by more basic regularities does seem to leave a vacuum of explanation at the most basic level, presuming of course that such a basic level exists.
 Foster, in accepting that there are basic regularities, is left with the need to explain their existence in a coherent manner. Although briefly offering the possibility of a supernatural entity, Foster first explores a naturalistic account of natural laws.

In clarification of what is meant by natural laws, Foster states:
            In this sense, laws (if such there be) are what govern or control events in the natural world: not a matter of things happening to be regular in certain ways, but of things having to be regular in these ways. So the law of gravity would consist, not in the regularity of gravitational attraction, but in the necessity of this regularity-in the fact that bodies have to be subject to a force of mutual attraction, and that the strength of this attraction has to be a function of their masses and distance in the specified way (p. 150).

In light of this explanation, Foster is presenting laws as necessary in some sense. They do not simply explain the existence of regularities, but they are also responsible for the existence of such regularities. The uniformity of behaviour of objects under the influence of gravity, for example, results due to the necessity that they are attracted to one another. Regarding the manner in which such natural laws are necessary, Foster states:

Well, the first thing that needs to be stressed is that the necessity involved is not a form of strict or absolute necessity. The claim that it is a law of nature that bodies always behave gravitationally, or are subject to the relevant gravitational forces, does not imply the absolute impossibility of cases in which this regularity fails: it does not imply that there are no possible situations, of any kind, in which bodies do not behave in this way, or are not subject to these forces. (p. 152)

Given this view, Foster states that, while the laws appear to be enforced in our world, it does not follow that they will hold sway in all possible worlds.

 It is also put forth that, since we can imagine worlds in which a given natural law does not exist, we can also imagine that natural law can be contravened, as in the traditional view of a miracle as created by a supernatural entity. As Foster states:

 Not only are laws contingent, but I think that we can also envisage the possibility of a law being contravened. If this were not so, then the traditional notion of a miracle, as a case where a law is overridden by the intervention of a supernatural agent, would not make sense, and it seems to me that it does. (pp. 152-3).
Foster uses both the ‘all possible worlds’ argument, and the ‘miracles happen’ argument to support his claims that laws of nature, as described using only naturalistic concepts, cannot be taken as strictly or absolutely necessary.

            In an attempt to support the necessity of natural laws through naturalistic means, Foster turns to Armstrong’s ‘Universals Approach’. Armstrong holds that laws of nature can be viewed in terms of relations between properties in the known world. If all F’s are G’s, then there is a relationship between the property of F-ness and the property of G-ness. Armstrong’s use of ‘holds in relation N to’ is interpreted by Foster as ‘necessitates’.  Foster critiques Armstrong thusly:

 For what he is claiming is that it is precisely by thinking of laws as relationships between universals that we are able to grasp their real nature; and representing laws as such relationships will not help to illuminate that nature if, as in this case, the relationships selected can only be understood in terms of the holding of laws. The difficulty is in seeing what other sorts of relationship are available to play the role that Armstrong envisages (p. 155).

Foster believes that the application of Armstrong’s view results in an understanding of natural laws that is bound to be circular; natural laws can only be understood in terms of a relationship between universals, yet this relationship can only be understood in terms of natural laws.
            After dismissing Armstrong’s account because we cannot understand what such relationships are, Foster moves to another naturalistic account of laws: that laws are the result of causation.  By this account, an object struck by another object is moved because the first caused the second to move. In order for a causal relationship to count as a natural law, this would have to be by imposing a regularity as such, rather than causing each instance independently, since causing each instance independently would not “yield a necessity with the right kind of generality for a law” (p. 155). This account of laws is incomplete, in Foster’s view, because it fails to provide a mechanism by which the law is instantiated.
            Having eliminated the existing naturalistic accounts of laws that fit his view of laws as necessary, Foster falls back to a  theistic explanation of  regularities. While not denying that the existence of natural laws is possible, he reasons that the only way to explain the existence of natural laws at this point is to assume that they were created, along with the world, by the Judeo-Christian God that imposes the laws on the natural world.

2. Beebee’s Criticisms
            In criticism of Foster, Beebee points out that, as far as explanation of how laws are instantiated, Foster’s account is as unsatisfying as Armstrong’s. In order to overcome this, Foster would need to explain how God creates the laws, and would then still need to explain how those laws impose the observed regularities in the natural world. It is Beebee’s view that Foster fails to demonstrate how God is to causally impact the actions of the particles that obey natural laws, as Foster does not propose that the Universe was created and left to run, nor are the vast majority of particles that obey natural laws of the type that can consciously obey commands issued by a supernatural agent. As Beebee puts it:

God is not, on Foster’s view, doing anything to the intrinsic natures of objects; he thinks the very same objects with the same intrinsic natures might (had God so wished) have behaved quite differently. So God seems to be causing some very general feature of the universe: that it unfolds in such a way as to deliver a particular set of regularities. It is not clear to me that we can really make sense of this, for, as we use the terms ‘cause’ and ‘effect’, effects are required to be specific, local facts or events or states of affairs (p. 454).

This is a reasonable criticism in that Foster’s argument has the same result (despite a different source of error) that he sees as problematic in Armstrong’s account; it is not possible, given Foster’s account of natural laws, to understand how they come about or are applied to the world.
 It is also demonstrated in Beebee’s critique that Foster has done nothing to halt the explanatory regress created by the existence of regularities in Nature. While he posits that there might be natural laws put in place by a creator, he does nothing to explain how that creator came to exist, even if we were to determine that the method for instantiating laws is trivial (p. 456).

3. New Criticisms
Foster’s account of natural laws has other flaws as well. Firstly, the assumption is made that there are only two means by which we can explain regularities in the world, and that one of these is that they were put in place by a supernatural entity (in Foster’s thinking, the Judeo-Christian God). While there might be some plausibility to a teleological argument for the existence of a deity, Foster is begging the question of the existence of such a deity in order to use that deity to explain the regularities found in Nature. Using God to explain the existence of natural laws, and then turning around to use the existence of those natural laws as evidence for the existence of God seems to be circular.  
Foster’s reasoning seems to mirror scientific inference-to-the-best explanation for other events/particles that are not directly observable, but there is an important distinction here: scientists making inferences regarding the nucleus of an atom began with observations that led to the supposition of that nucleus and then built further predictions around that model that were later observed to be true, whereas Foster is using only the selfsame evidence for both pieces. For example, JJ Thompson’s model of an atom included the concept of positively charged mass throughout the atom, and it was only after Rutherford’s ‘gold foil’ experiments, which established that positively charged alpha particles did not deflect or rebound with the frequency expected for a solidly constructed atom, that serious consideration was given to the idea of a small, dense centre to each atom. Operating under Rutherford’s model allowed those who would eventually develop the current quantum mechanical model a starting point, but each new piece of evidence was used to revise the model and explain observations made after that revision. Continued support of atomic theory and the realisation of predictions made based upon that theory then allows for the initial phenomena to be observed using that model without the threat of circularity. As an alternate example, scientists do not use comparative DNA sequencing as evidence for evolutionary theory and in the same breath use evolutionary theory to explain the similarities and differences in DNA sequences for ostensibly related species; other means of establishing evolutionary theory predate the use of such molecular evidence, and the validation of predictions made from that theory serve to support the theory as a whole.
Doubts about his theism aside, Foster’s account of natural laws is still unsatisfactory. We are left with questions of how God “lays down the law, and how we are to understand the manner in which the laws impose regularity on the world. Upon reflection, it appears that Foster has managed to double the number of unanswered questions presented by the naturalistic account of regularity before we come to questions of how God came to exist. It is difficult to see how one might attempt to address such questions without resorting to special pleading or multiplying the unsupported claims needed to explain this account. If we are to be left with an unexplained explanation for the regularities in the world, it would be more parsimonious to have one rather than three, given that they explain the regularities themselves equally well.
Foster’s teleological argument for God, although intended as a halt to the explanatory regress created by the existence of regularities, has the same flaw as any teleological argument: it is wholly based on an argument from incredulity. Foster makes statements such as “The fact that we always get the same outcome in the same conditions, over such a large number of cases, makes it almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that there is something responsible for keeping things regular in the relevant way.”(p. 146) He also says, “It seems to me that there is only one way of making sense of the notion of a law of nature.” (p. 159), and “Well, it would be hard to think of the cause or causes as lying within the natural realm” (p. 159).  While these statements may seem reasonable on first examination, a lack of imagination does not invalidate an argument nor would rationalisations of how laws might create regularities be an empirically satisfying form of explanation. Foster’s claim that regularity-as-coincidence  is implausible does not make it impossible, nor does it lend credence to other equally implausible accounts of those regularities. Foster, in short, bases his transition from natural to supernatural explanations on the implausibility of the natural explanations and his inability to conceive of a natural means for regularity to exist, rather than evidence in favour of a supernatural explanation.
The final critique of Foster’s account of laws of nature is the easiest to make and directed at the portion that Foster himself calls the most controversial. As quoted above, Foster believes that natural laws can be contravened, because “If this were not so, then the traditional notion of a miracle, as a case where a law is overridden by the intervention of a supernatural agent, would not make sense, and it seems to me that it does.” (p. 153) This is born solely of Foster’s presumption of the veracity of Judeo-Christian mythology in a form that would not necessarily be accepted even by those who subscribe to many of the same beliefs, and has no place in an attempt to create an objective account of the laws of nature.

4. A Workable Nomic Account of Natural Law?
In his dismissal of Armstrong, Foster ignores what could be an important point regarding the laws of nature. Armstrong’s definition of laws as relationships between universals does not give a satisfactory account of what laws really are. However, Armstrong’s account could be modified to become a workable nomic account of natural laws. As the main worry associated with Armstrong’s account lies with ‘stands in relation N’, that place holder needs to be effectively and satisfactorily defined.
            Armstrong’s use of ‘necessitates’ in place of ‘N’ may or may not belie a desire to hitch his argument to the nomic concepts he purports to be avoiding, yet it gives us a starting point from which we might seek to define ‘N’. If we define ‘N’ as necessitates, in that something that is intrinsic to F-ness necessitates or causes the property of G-ness, we now have a coherent account of laws. In regards to important vacuous laws, Newton’s First Law of Motion for example, they get in because there is something intrinsic to inertial bodies that ensures they have no acceleration. Unimportant vacuous laws, of the sort we might seek to exclude through making all definitions of science purely objective, are not counted by this approach, because there is nothing in the nature of the entity that necessitates the property attributed to it. For example, ‘All plaid pandas weigh 5 kilograms’ would not be counted as a law because nothing intrinsic to pandas being plaid necessitates a mass of 5kg. Likewise, accidental truths, like all the gold in my fillings having belonged to Julius Caesar, are also excluded as there is nothing in the nature of my fillings that necessitates that they can only be made of gold atoms once owned by Julius Caesar.
            A concern that will arise here is that the use of a nomic concept introduces subjunctive conditionals. However, given the failure of nonnomic accounts to say anything interesting or useful, is this truly a worry with which we should be concerned? It seems that it might not be, as adherence to strict positivism is unable to get the job done. A more salient concern would be that this account fails to explain the origin of natural laws beyond ‘They just are’, or ‘Laws of nature are part of the fabric of the Universe itself’. To that, there is a ready reply: however it came to be, there must be a Nature in which the laws act for such laws to exist.

            5. Conclusions
            Foster seeks to explain regularities in Nature through a deity that imparts natural laws (or the regularities themselves) after dismissing natural accounts as inadequate, but he fails to provide satisfactory explanation while ignoring the possibility that such regularities are coincidental because he finds it implausible. Instead, a nomic version of Armstrong’s account gives us an effective version without adding a supernatural layer of explanation. While it may be intuitively more satisfying to think of something causing the regularities in Nature, it does not necessarily follow that they have to be caused at all apart from their interplay with one another, or that they cannot simply be part of the Universe itself.

Batterman, Robert, "Intertheory Relations in Physics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Beebee, Helen, “Review of J. Foster: The Divine Lawmaker” ,Brit. J. Phil. Sci. 60 (2009), 453–457

Carroll, John W., "Laws of Nature", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Foster, John,  “Regularities, Laws of Nature, and the Existence of God” ,
Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 101 (2001), pp. 145-161

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