How the Laws of Physics Lie

How the Laws of Physics Lie

How the Laws of Physics Lie

How the Laws of Physics Lie

Synopsis

In this sequence of philosophical essays about natural science, Nancy Cartwright argues that fundamental explanatory laws, the deepest and most admired successes of modern physics, do not in fact describe the regularities that exist in nature. Yet she is not 'anti-realist'. Rather, she drawsa novel distinction, arguing that theoretical entities, and the complex and localized laws that describe them, can be interpreted realistically, but that the simple unifying laws of basic theory cannot.

Excerpt

A long tradition distinguishes fundamental from phenomenological laws, and favours the fundamental. Fundamental laws are true in themselves; phenomenological laws hold only on account of more fundamental ones. This view embodies an extreme realism about the fundamental laws of basic explanatory theories. Not only are they true (or would be if we had the right ones), but they are, in a sense, more true than the phenomenological laws that they explain. I urge just the reverse. I do so not because the fundamental laws are about unobservable entities and processes, but rather because of the nature of theoretical explanation itself. As I have often urged in earlier essays, like Pierre Duhem, I think that the basic laws and equations of our fundamental theories organize and classify our knowledge in an elegant and efficient manner, a manner that allows us to make very precise calculations and predictions. the great explanatory and predictive powers of our theories lies in their fundamental laws. Nevertheless the content of our scientific knowledge is expressed in the phenomenological laws.

Suppose that some fundamental laws are used to explain a phenomenological law. the ultra-realist thinks that the phenomenological law is true because of the more fundamental laws. One elementary account of this is that the fundamental laws make the phenomenological laws true. the truth of the phenomenological laws derives from the truth of the fundamental laws in a quite literal sense-- something like a causal relation exists between them. This is the view of the seventeenth-century mechanical philosophy of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. When God wrote the Book of Nature, he inscribed the fundamental laws of mechanics and he laid down the initial distribution of matter in the universe. Whatever phenomenological laws would be true fell out as a consequence. But this is not only the view of . . .

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