Academic journal article Analysis and Metaphysics

Objectivity and Natural Laws

Academic journal article Analysis and Metaphysics

Objectivity and Natural Laws

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT.

The principle of the "uniformity of nature" states that reality is subject to natural laws. In this paper I argue that a weak version of the principle of the uniformity of nature is a necessary truth. According to this weakened principle, every reality for which the question of its subjection to natural laws can arise is subject to natural laws. I argue that this question arises only for a subject who knows of the existence of objective reality, qua objective (that is, reality which is independent of any knowledge of it). I show that a necessary condition for knowledge of objective reality, qua objective, is that the subject can acquire knowledge of past and future events, which he does not perceive directly through his senses, and that only natural (contingent) regularities enable the subject to do so. Hence, I conclude that every reality for which the question of its subjection to natural laws can arise is subject to natural laws.

Keywords: Hume, Kant, natural laws, objectivity, uniformity of nature

1

The question whether reality is subject to natural laws was put on the philosophical agenda by Hume, who formulated his query in terms of the "Uniformity of Nature," that is, the question whether, or on what grounds, we assume that "the course of nature continues always uniformly the same" (Hume 1978: 89). The question whether reality is subject to natural laws is of major importance. Natural laws are an essential feature of our conception of reality, and play a key role in our thinking about our place in it, both as agents and as spectators.1 However, Hume argued, the claim that nature is subject to natural laws is not a conceptual truth ("relation of ideas"), for it is possible to "conceive a change in the course of nature" (Hume 1978: 89). As a contingent proposition ("matter of fact"), however, not only is it impossible to verify this principle, due to the unrestricted general character of this claim, which extends way beyond our perceptions, it is not even confirmable. For any attempt to confirm the principle of the uniformity of nature is question-begging. It requires drawing a conclusion regarding what we do not perceive, based on the things that we do perceive, and therefore necessarily assumes the uniformity of nature - the same principle it seeks to confirm.2

Many have wrestled with Hume's conclusion, in an attempt to establish at least the legitimacy, if not the truth, of the claim that nature is subject to natural laws.3 However, there seems to be almost unanimous agreement amongst philosophers that Hume was right in his claim that the principle of the uniformity of nature is not a conceptual truth, and nowadays it seems that philosophers take this principle for granted.4 A notable exception is Kant. Although Kant agreed with Hume that the principle of the uniformity of nature is not a conceptual truth, he nevertheless maintained that it is a necessary truth. In his Critique of Pure Reason, in the "analogies of experience" (B218-B265), Kant attempts to prove that objective reality is necessarily subject to causal laws. Hume found one of the sources of the "illusion" of the existence of the external world in our expectation of regularities (Hume 1978, 195). Kant reversed the order and, following his attempt to establish the necessary existence of an objective reality of which any self-conscious subject has experience, tried to prove that a necessary condition for a subject to acquire knowledge of objective reality is the subjection of this reality to natural laws. Nowadays there seems to be a general agreement that this argument is flawed (as discussed in detail in the next section). However, I believe that Kant's argument offers an important insight into the connection between objectivity and natural laws.5

Following Kant, I argue in this paper that a weak version of the principle of the uniformity of nature is a necessary truth. I do not argue that every possible reality is subject to natural laws. …

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