In my seminar we discussed a paper by Galen Strawson, “Real Materialism”. It’s a stimulating paper that contends that experiences should be declared “physical” just as such, without benefit of reduction. We don’t know enough about matter to rule out their being aspects of it–so why not call them “physical”? I appreciate Galen’s premisses but I resist the conclusion. I quite agree that our conception of matter is sketchy at best; as John Foster puts it, matter is “inscrutable”. I even see some force in the thesis that experiences constitute the intrinsic nature of matter (though I don’t in the end agree with it); but I see no point in calling this aspect “physical”. However, Galen gives a nice account of the Russellian thesis about the limitations of our knowledge of material reality. It’s a rather Kantian thesis–with the underlying reality of matter noumenal and our knowledge only capturing its appearance to us.
1. Objects are composed of stuff (“matter”, “energy”, “ectoplasm”). This stuff gives the substance of the object. Is it a substratum? We can say that, though it need not be unknowable. (Truisms quickly turn into absurdities here.) It is not a priori what kind of stuff the world contains, though it is a priori that it contains stuff of some sort. The same stuff can take many forms. An object is not identical to the stuff that composes it. Objects and stuff belong to different “categories”.
2. Natural laws are basic. They constitute objects. An object is a nexus of laws. The nature of an object is given by the laws that hold of it. A particular object is the product of its stuff and its laws. Causality is the expression of laws by means of objects. Laws are invisible, but their manifestations are not. There is no stuff without objects, and no objects without stuff. Laws are logically anterior to objects and stuff.
3. Not all states of affairs are constituted by laws and stuff. These may be called “ a priori”.
4. Laws are not constant conjunctions of objects or events, not even necessary ones; they comprise objects (and events). Even if the stuff of the mind were the same as the stuff of corporeal things, the laws would have to be different (same substratum, different nature). Mind and matter cannot share their parts, since parts are objects. Parts are not stuff: even the smallest parts (the basic objects) are composed of stuff (one can always ask “what is it made of?”). The parts of objects are also objects.
5. The ethical might be defined as what we wish the laws to be, and are disappointed they are not. The meaning of life is ethical, not natural (it cannot be extracted from the laws).
Beauty, however, is determined by the laws of nature (and not just natural beauty). It is consistent for a world to be both evil and beautiful. Politics arises from the realization that the rules of society are not dictated by the laws of nature. These rules are a matter of convention, not law. Conventions need to be justified; laws do not. We choose a political order; we don’t choose a natural order. Politicians have an interest in conflating the two sorts of order, though it is very hard to do so!
6. Ethical truths are not about supernatural objects; there are no such objects, if that means objects that obey no laws. Theological statements purport to be about supernatural objects. God cannot be an object unless he is constituted by laws. Then God is as defined by his laws as I am by mine, or as a lump of copper is. I am constituted by the laws of my soul. (The laws of my body are not me.) Is God constituted by the laws of his soul, as distinct from the body he doesn’t have? The truths of logic and arithmetic, by contrast, rest on no natural laws; they can survive the extinction of all natural (and supernatural) laws. Not so God. Nor can ethics be abrogated by the end of laws. But beauty dies when things do.
7. Even if we do not know that objects exist, we know that they obey laws. I may be hallucinating all these objects, but they obey laws anyway. Objects cannot fail to be governed by laws, even if they lack existence. For laws are essential to our ideas of objects.
8. Theological propositions try to be about objects that transcend the natural, but this would have to hold no matter what natural objects a universe contains. There cannot be a completely supernatural world, because the idea of the supernatural depends upon a contrast (so it is not like the concept of goodness, say). Even incorporeal spirits on earth are not supernatural enough! The substance of God cannot be the substance of the world, no matter what that substance is, including the kind of substance that composes my soul.
The idea of the substance of God is empty: it is what is not any other kind of substance.
The material of objects can indeed be “immaterial”; but that is not enough for God. God is really conceived as a kind of “limit case” of the natural.
9. What is visible is the combination of laws and stuff, not each singly. Laws don’t depend on particular objects, but objects do depend on laws. Hume’s empiricism got in his way. It takes work not to be an empiricist. Laws and empiricism will never be happy together. Laws are “entities”, though they cannot be seen or touched. Entities that cannot lose bits of their stuff are abstract (numbers, say). The abstract world is not composed of stuff of any kind, or else it would make sense to think of shedding bits of it. Nor is space a type of stuff for the same reason. The mind, though, can have bits chipped off, just like the brain. A law is not composed of anything; it has no substance.
10. The laws of nature are not unlike Plato’s Forms. Yet the laws of nature are the most “concrete” of things. Laws permeate the universe. They are part of empirical reality. Laws do not underlie reality, or transcend it, or correspond to it; they are reality (“is” of constitution). The reality of objects is inherently general or universal (though not in the trivial sense that the nature of an object is fixed by its properties). The particular cannot be separated from the universal (law). Just like Plato’s Forms, laws are both inside the world and outside it—immanent transcendents, so to speak. What is surprising is that this object is constituted by something so far-reaching, and so different in nature.
11. Reality is also intrinsically temporal, because laws operate over time. The idea of timeless natural objects makes no sense. Space and time are the theatre within which laws operate. The laws of space and time are really the laws of their occupants.
12. Laws keep working: they never run out of energy. A law is an unmoved mover. When a law makes something happen nothing is removed from it—there is no depletion of its power. All laws are perpetual motion machines. A law is limitless in its resources. There can be no such thing as a spent law. The basis of causality is therefore, in a sense, infinite. The counterfactuality of a law is simply its inexhaustibility. A law is like a bottomless well.
13. There is nothing magical about laws—though they seem awesome. We are nothing like laws, though they define us. Human agency is nothing like the agency of a law. Laws are immortal. It is wrong to speak of a law as existing over a period of time. A law must never be confused with its temporal manifestations (yet without time a law would be nothing.) A law can never perform at less than full strength. There is no such thing as a lazy or fatigued law. A law is never less than perfect in its operation.
14. Could God create the laws? Only if he was already governed by laws, and then they would be the true creators. God as the “first cause”: but the laws that define him are the real causal basis of his actions. Laws are really the first cause, the origin of all causality. “Nomologicism”: objects are to laws as mathematics is to logic (roughly). The mathematical objects sprout from logical roots, as natural objects owe their nature to the laws. (Is this a type of reductionism?)
15. Causation lies at the foundation of reality; it is not something superadded. The generality and agency of laws are essential to them, and are imparted to the world via causation. The great mistake is to think that laws are ushered in by particular objects, as one thing might be guided by another pre-existing thing. The laws are more like the threads of a garment: no threads, no garment. Even God cannot escape the laws of his nature; he cannot then exist. For it is part of his nature not to be subject to anything beyond him, even the laws that give him his nature! But laws themselves have no such dependence. Laws can seem more godlike than God.
16. There can be no causation without laws. A law determines how objects will behave, when they come to exist; thus, their causal powers. There are objects, laws, causation, and properties—but these are not four things (“realms”).
17. There is nothing psychological about laws–this is obvious. And a psychological law has as much efficacy as any law. So-called exceptions to laws are not their breakdown or suspension, but their being overridden by other laws. The effects of laws can be mitigated but not cancelled. The operation of a law never fails to be felt by the universe. A law cannot be turned off like a light, or even dimmed. Initial conditions merely set the stage for laws to do their unvarying work. Are some laws more powerful than others–stronger? No. Statistical laws are just as “rigid” as deterministic ones. The laws that govern heaven are just as onerous as those that govern earth.
18. Particulars without laws are empty; laws without particulars are paralyzed. An uninstantiated law is like a disembodied will—impotent. In this sense the law cannot precede the particular. Can laws exist without particulars? Whether the answer is yes or no, the important point is that laws constitute particulars. A particular has no efficacy without a law to “back” it. It is misleading (not false!) to speak of a particular as a cause, as if it could operate on its own, autonomously. All causal statements are really general in nature. Causes are universals (laws not properties—relations of properties perhaps). It is the law of gravity that causes bodies to move as they do. The movements of the bodies are effects, not causes (in the primary sense).
19. If you think of natural laws as like legal laws, you do them an injustice. No one lays down a natural law (not even the Universe). Natural laws cannot be repealed. Legal laws cause nothing, except insofar as they are accepted, whereas natural laws are indifferent to their acceptance. To call natural laws “mind-independent” is to understate the case.
20. Nothing concrete can exist without laws; they are the “ground of being”. Our senses are not attuned to laws, though we know their existence very well. The foundations of reality are unlikely to be directly revealed to us, though their symptoms are bound to be.
Though we do not see laws, everything we do see is the result of them. The existence of laws is not a conjecture. Science does not “uncover” laws, if that is taken to suggest a mode of perception; it seeks to state them. All this means is that laws are not sensible particulars—and who should have thought otherwise? Nor are laws imposed on the world; they are imposed by it. There is nothing optional about them (“conventionalism”).
21. The laws of motion strike us as paradigms: is that because motion is so readily detectable by the eye? Would other types of law seem paradigmatic to other types of creature? In motion one sees the laws at work—the fruits of their labor, so to speak.
Without the laws of motion objects would not continue in a straight line at a uniform velocity; nor would they swerve or slow down. Am I saying that laws are active and particulars passive? No, because particulars are the vehicle of laws—their “embodiment”. It is in virtue of the laws of a particular that that particular can be said to be causally active. You could change all the particulars in a world for distinct ones and preserve the same (causal) laws, but not vice versa.
22. In a way this is all a matter of placing the correct emphasis—but then so much of philosophy is. Philosophical advance often consists in a slight change of emphasis.
This is why italics carry so much weight in philosophical writing (and why non-philosophers often can’t see their point).
23. I want to say outright that laws necessarily come before everything, even God—but that is not quite right (though sometimes hyperbole serves sobriety). It is as if the laws of the world were the first item on God’s agenda, and once they were settled a lot else was too. The laws that govern God are an embarrassment to him, like wearing a low-ranking uniform; he wishes he could throw them off. But without them he is nothing, a pure untrammeled ego, a frictionless point, a featureless receptacle—a metaphysical vacuum. The laws of God would apply to other gods with his nature; he is subsumed by his laws. The idea of the supernatural is not scientifically dubious; it is metaphysically incoherent. Any object consists of law-governed stuff—so where is there room for the supernatural (in the sense of an object subject to no law—or to “quasi-laws”)? Try to conceive of a universe in which every object is supernatural. Supernatural compared to what? We think we have the idea of the absolutely free agent, a pure lawless will, a nomologically transcendent I–but without laws there is no nature, and hence no object. Of course, there is no contradiction in the idea of another kind of stuff (“ectoplasm”) subject to other types of law; but this is really the idea of another order of nature. No object could participate only in miracles, if a miracle is defined as an exception to natural laws. (A law is actually the nearest thing to a miracle that we have.)
24. Laws are produced by nothing but produce everything. Laws do not impose order on the world, as if the world were a disorderly place till they came along. Can you rely on laws of nature? Not as you rely on the word of a trusted friend. Laws are formative, not merely reliable or predictively useful. The sun may not rise tomorrow—it may be blown out of the sky by powerful aliens. But this is no abrogation of the laws of nature. To abrogate the laws of nature would be to have no sun to begin with. Obviously, laws do not govern the universe in the way a political party governs a country, and yet this dual use of “govern” invites illusions of independence. It would probably be best to re-invent our entire vocabulary for talking about laws.
25. “Laws + stuff = objects”: not such a bad way to put it. “Laws are made manifest in objects and events”: yes, but that doesn’t mean they acquire reality that way. “Objects instantiate laws”: true, but not as objects instantiate predicates (one wants to make a distinction here between internal and external instantiation.) “Objects have laws running through them”: better, metaphorically–and how metaphorical is “instantiate” anyway? (Compare: “objects ‘respect’ laws”.) If there were no laws, there would only be raw stuff—and that is impossible. Raw stuff is like the unarticulated given—a kind of contradiction. Stuff must come in the form of objects, as thoughts must come in the form of intentionality (rough analogy). Lawless stuff is like James’s “blooming, buzzing confusion”—a trick of language. Stuff, objects and laws come in a seamless package–as consciousness and intentionality do. There is no shaping of a pre-existing reality. (Remember that all analogies have their limitations.) Physical atoms are anything but formless; they are the parts of objects—not their stuff. God’s three major acts of creation—stuff, objects and laws—are really just one. Conceptual distinctions are not ontological distinctions.
26. Must the laws of nature be simple? Strange question (of course, our theories can be ranked according to simplicity). Could there be five seconds in every day in which the laws of nature break down? Laws cannot disappear, not even for a nanosecond. (An exception to a law is just another law.) Not every world is governed by the same laws, but once installed the laws cannot be varied. A law could cease to manifest itself for a while, but that doesn’t mean it has gone out of existence. And what would the resurrection of a law be like? If I destroyed all the copper in the world, there would no longer be any actual instance of the laws governing copper—but that isn’t to say that the laws of copper had themselves been destroyed. I find myself wanting to say that laws are eternal like numbers, but they are too woven into the world for that to be quite right.
27. The idea that laws are “contingent on particulars”: as if they are merely an addendum to the main story. It is a mistake to think that we “project” whatever we don’t see. Ask the objects themselves if we project laws onto them! For the most part, laws are assumed not discovered: consider your knowledge of the results of sitting down. Awareness of laws is animal instinct. Laws should not be “intellectualized”. Mathematics is not integral to the notion of law. Not all laws are “scientific”. Laws are principles of repeated happenings. Repetition is the essence of law. Boringness is an occupational hazard. Theory and law are not interrelated concepts. Laws aren’t even presupposed, any more than I presuppose that I have a body (or a mind).
28. Are laws, as I conceive them, “occult”? Not at all–they are part of the most mundane reality. What is the best label for my view of laws—“realism”, “objectivism”, “productivism”, “centralism”, “foundationalism”, “immanent transcendentalism”? None is quite right; and yet labels matter in philosophy.
29. There are unseen realities controlling everything—why does that disturb people so?
The notion of a material object is more interesting than many people think–more “queer”. (What does this do to “materialism”?) Fear of certain concepts is characteristic of philosophy; we need to conquer this fear. Laws are the absolute bedrock of any world, its tectonic plates. If we had “ontological eyes” the first thing we would see would be laws (I picture them as mile-high dinosaurs…).
30. A law is not a mere regularity among particulars, because any regularity can be made irregular. Laws do, however, give rise to regularities. Regularities are signs of laws. We can see regularities, but not laws. A world without repetition is no world at all. Every second billions upon billions of things are repeated. Novelty is not incompatible with law, but it also must be repeatable.
31.Where there is causation there is repetition. Causal relations require laws: but not because laws follow from causation; rather, laws are causation. We could say that laws are the only true causes and be accused of only mild exaggeration. It is not that a causes b and a and b fall under a law; rather, a’s causing b consists in their falling under a law. The causal ingredient is the law itself. Particulars can only be said to be causes in a derivative sense—as the transmitters of causal efficacy. Causation is the reflection of law in events. The ability of one event to bring about another depends entirely on the law that governs them. Of course, this doesn’t mean we always know the law in question. If the real causes are laws, it is not surprising that particular causes should always be “backed” by laws; there is nothing adventitious about it. The lawlike character of causes is not something tacked onto them. Laws are the “active ingredients” of the universe. (This whole subject has been distorted by the “bias in favor of the particular”.)
32. Any particular can in principle be destroyed; but laws are indestructible. The first law of laws is their persistence. There has never been even the slightest change in the law of gravity, even as the universe has gone through massive transformations. The unchanging is the source of all change (Plato). Causes don’t vary; initial conditions do. (It would be absurd to worship natural laws—though they are rightly feared.) Laws have effects, but not causes. It makes no sense to try to prevent a law of nature from operating. Once a law comes into existence nothing further is needed to keep it operating in perpetuity. It is self-sustaining.
33. “An explanation subsumes the particular case under a law”: that is, it says what law produced the particular case. When we can’t explain something we don’t know what law is responsible for it. Not every way we have of describing things identifies the laws that govern them (Davidson). The laws are often not obvious; nor is it always obvious what the nature of an object is. (But it is hard to know what it would be to be completely ignorant of the laws of nature.) Language is not automatically keyed to the laws, and thought is not always law-seeking. (These obvious truths are just that.)
34. Events unleash laws. We can’t see the causes of events. An event is the site at which laws invisibly operate. The event of my flipping the switch didn’t au fond cause the light to go on: for the effect would not have occurred unless it was a law that switch flipping causes lights to go on. An event without a law would be causally impotent. We must not be too slavish about ordinary language here. Did I touch the door or was it my hand? We can say both, but my hand was the more basic thing. Laws are what power particulars—give them their charge.
35. When God contemplates the laws of nature what sort of feeling does he get? A sense of wholeness perhaps–of connectedness (God is surely a natural monist). I once saw a massive log holding up a roof: that is what a law is like. (It gave me a sense of insecure security.) A law is not like a repeated theme in music: that is too willful. We seem not to be able to get far beyond metaphors here, yet some are better than others. Is aphorism the best way to express what is so striking yet obscure about laws? An aphorism is a bit like a law, after all: condensed, but with large reach. The majesty of a law—or a line of poetry.
The human significance of laws is hard to put into words, which is why it figures little in philosophical discussions. Physicists often speak in awe of the laws of the universe (and then congratulate themselves on having discovered them). I keep returning to the amazing power of laws. Am I “reifying” them? I am giving them their due. If laws were persons we would be duly impressed; should we be less impressed knowing that they are not persons? What impresses me is their effortless fecundity. If events are the children of laws, then laws have endless families. It is interesting that we have a tendency to anthropomorphize laws. They are so inflexibly single-minded, so rigid of character.
36. Are laws “linguistic”? Clearly not, since there were laws before language (nor are they “propositional”). Of course, their formulation is, trivially. Laws are not entities that sit beside other entities in the world; they form those entities (as properties do). The “ontological type” of laws is sui generis—which is why they are always being forced in one direction or another. It is not true that laws literally “contain” their manifestations—though a sequence of events contains those events. A law is rather the ground of its manifestations. The same law can have manifestations that look very different (gravity, for instance). Laws unify disparate events. Laws can appear in disguise. Not knowing the laws of motion would be a shame on mankind. All laws are as compelling as the laws of motion. The laws of psychology largely relate what does not move (the mind) to what does (the body); this makes them unusual. Psychological causation involves the transmutation of non-movement into movement—thoughts into actions. It is exactly unlike billiard ball causation.
37. Would it be sensible for God to boast about the power of the laws he has created? No, because that power is intrinsic to them. Nothing gives a law power. The power of a law is internal to it. How many examples of laws do we need in order to grasp their essence? Not many—too many would be distracting. The concept of law runs through every law equally (not a “family resemblance”). What is the best way to find out the nature of laws? Examine them from every angle. As with most philosophy, there are moments when you seem to have it in your sights, and moments when it won’t stay still. One would think it would either be clear or not, but it seems to fade in and out of clarity. It is difficult not to think of laws as extremely big—the elephants of ontology. Clearly, laws have no size.
A “local law” sounds like a contradiction. The law of gravity holds here but not in Denmark? Try to conceive of one law gradually fading out and then being replaced by another. I keep coming back to the image of a law as a hard nugget storing enormous potential, like an atom containing so much pent-up energy. But this can’t be right (though it feels right). I want to concretize my idea of a law—which is a weakness, I admit. When I am being strict I simply say that everything happens because of the laws—but this leaves out so much about the concept. We say what is strictly true in the boring way, but this cries out for expansion—and then the distortions begin. I am trying to strike a chord in the reader (and myself)—even if she doesn’t like the chord struck. Part of my reader wants me to stop, but part wants me to go on. There is certainly something disturbing here, as if the spooky is gaining a foothold. A law is like a magic nugget of finest gold, pure and unadulterated, rich in potential and possessed of great power. It can also be described simply as a principle whereby what happens happens. “Nature and nature’s law lay hid in the night; God said let Newton be, and all was light.” As if Newton were a prospector who hit it big. Revealing laws makes the universe look a lot cleverer than we thought. Laws seem like brilliant inventions. They never disappoint us (“oh, what a stupid law!”). Mindless intelligence; insentient creativity. One can certainly imagine aliens for whom the existence of laws is the main reason for belief in God. It can seem uncanny that the world is governed by laws—a piece of enormous cosmic luck perhaps (one feels glad not to have born into a more lawless universe). I am speaking here of the phenomenology of our belief in laws.
38. The idea that God brought laws to lawless chaos can seem compelling. Laws appear too advanced to be taken for granted. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “Why are there laws rather than chaos?” Except that a chaos of objects is impossible. And objects are the only things there can be. Chaos is necessarily superficial. One does not take a lawless universe and convert it into a law-governed one by imposing laws on it. The universe cannot be guilty of “disorderly conduct”. “The cement of the universe”: in many ways a fine image, except that cement goes between bricks, without making them what they are. We call them “natural laws”, but in some moods they seem quite unnatural. Do we need to “naturalize” laws? Bad project. Laws are indeed metaphysically remarkable—there is something fabulous about them. Things are remarkable by contrast with other things. Life seems remarkable by contrast with inanimate things. But imagine a world of only living things…and then we add some inanimate things. Laws are not remarkable from their perspective. Russell’s ontological zoo—but the exotic species don’t see themselves that way.
39. Would the fact that something had no taste or smell count as a reason to doubt its reality? Whenever something is invisible and intangible we are apt to picture it as a haze—as if a law were like a mist enveloping particulars. It is interesting that we tend to picture the mind this way too. Laws and the mind: objects of suspicion, never quite cleared of all charges; and yet perfectly solid (!) citizens—though perhaps a little “eccentric”. Why is solidity taken to be a mark of respectability? We must first acknowledge metaphysical oddity, and then insist on its ultimate ordinariness.
40. “The hardness of the logical ‘must’”: is it really harder than the nomological “must”?
Your house may not be there when you get home, but the laws of nature will be. “Laws structure the world”: misleading metaphor. “Laws are the pith of reality”: except that they do not lie inside objects. In dreams we escape from laws. Can there be any doubt that we would like to escape from them? Gravity treats us with disdain. The mindless brutality of laws. Our attitudes towards laws are complex. Laws are implacable. The master-slave relationship. Accepting the reality of laws is a mark of maturity (powerlessness). In philosophy sometimes all we really need are hints.
41. Even the most trivial event is a manifestation of a momentous law. Laws are as limitless as space and time. Consider all those different galaxies, and all the atoms in them–but always the same few laws. (Could this numerical ratio be inverted?)
42. The essence of a law is…not this, not that, but… One feels there exists a perfect completion, but nothing one produces seems to add up to it. Tip of the tongue phenomenon. A law is not bounded, but is it infinite? It keeps repeating ad infinitum.
Laws have no natural termination, no given lifespan. They are “self-renewing”. The more they do, the more they can do. I find myself looking out of the window as if to catch a law in action. I do see the iron grip of laws in every movement. It is possible to see the world as a nexus of laws. They infiltrate everything. They are numbingly mechanical. They are both comforting and burdensome. I hesitate to say this but they remind me of the Freudian unconscious–hidden, yet where all the power resides—with that peculiar combination of the elusive and the ubiquitous–the “id” of the universe. It is so easy to turn them into will o’ the wisps, but they are anything but. I am forcing myself to confront the unconscious of the natural world (big “as it were” here). Philosophical poetry is a neglected genre.
43. Science fiction is largely about the human relationship to laws. At some time in the future we have triumphed over them; the master-slave relationship has been reversed.
This is probably a fantasy. The psychoanalysis of laws: breast or penis? Do laws nurture or thrust? The anthropology of laws: boring subject (too universal). We don’t learn that nature obeys laws. All species have evolved to cope with the same laws. Laws are in our bones. Is this why it is so hard to articulate their human meaning?
44. What is the minimum number of laws a world can contain? Whatever is necessary to fix the nature of its objects. Objects can be no simpler than the laws that govern them (and no more complex). Are some laws simpler than others? We need a measure of simplicity to answer this. One object is simpler than another when fewer laws apply to it (more or less). Laws are no more linguistic or conceptual than objects.
45. Oscar Wilde on laws: “Her hair turned quite gold with grief”. The great charm of laws is their utter lawlessness. The working class is subject to the laws of nature; the middle class to the laws of the state; and the aristocracy to the laws of God. That is why the aristocracy behaves so atrociously. The chief characteristic of aphorisms is their utter disregard for falsehood. Aphorisms court rejection, unlike arguments.
46. How much point is there in being a “physicalist” once the correct conception of laws is accepted? Are laws physical entities? What point is there in insisting that all of Plato’s Forms are physical once you have accepted the reality of Forms? “Every law is a physical law”: but are these laws themselves physical?
47. Events can be borderline legal, but not borderline law-governed. Can it be indeterminate whether something is subsumed by a law? No. Should we then say that natural laws are never vague but legal laws can be?
48. Our concepts enable us to see things that are hard to put into words. We know quite well when we have not found the right words. Is there something ineffable about laws? Difficult question. One wants to reach the point where there is nothing left to say. It is possible to say it all several times in a discussion. The right thing may need to be said several times (in different contexts, if not always in different words). I want to describe laws as they are when no one is looking. Laws must be detached from their appearance to us, but connected to our real sense of their nature.
49. Natural laws are as pure as logical laws (as “sublime”). Do laws contain their instances in a “queer way” (cf. Wittgenstein on rules)? “Laws constitute the logical scaffolding of the world”. No, but the metaphor is natural. Laws relate particulars and properties, not propositions. “Constant conjunction”: an excellent description of what a law is not. “Laws sustain counterfactuals”. Not quite: they are what counterfactuals report. It is not that laws come first and counterfactuals second. Laws extend their reach beyond what actually happens, but this is no kind of bleaching out at the borders of actuality. A law is uniform across its actual and counterfactual instances.
50. Why does metaphysics lend itself to this kind of writing? Metaphysics is “informally axiomatic”. There is more assertion than argument in it. Also, it is inescapably meta-philosophical (“meta-metaphysics”).
51. Hume discovered this topic, but then he left too deep a mark on it. We find it difficult to see beyond him. Hume gave an anthropocentric description of laws and causality.
He encouraged us to focus on how things look. But laws do not reveal their nature to the senses. “Causality is one damn thing after another”: the “after” clearly understates the case, but the “damn” is what really hits the wrong note. The Humean picture of things is, indeed, alluring; one has to fight not to be swayed by it. His view of laws is too flattering to us. There is something bleak (though exhilarating) about the correct view. Not that there is anything heroic about accepting it (resigned perhaps). Laws cannot be cut down to our size. Their esse is not percipi (except in the mind of God).
52. One has to be sensitive to one’s concepts as to a tender finger. It can be thrilling to gain insight into one’s own concepts, strangely enough. Philosophy can give no excuse for its lack of conceptual insight, which is why it is such a chastening subject. I ought to know the answer to this. How hard can it be to say what “law” means? It is difficult to avoid pretentiousness while discussing the nature of philosophy.
53. An atheist is someone who believes that laws are all that lie behind the sensible world. A theist thinks that the laws need external validation. The feeling that the laws must have been chosen. (At the end of these remarks I should write: “Discuss”.)
People pray that certain things won’t happen, but they don’t pray for a law to be suspended. Nor do they pray that logical laws will fail.
54. One cannot know the laws of a given world without living in it: this is why they are a posteriori. But not all knowledge of a world requires living in it—such as the general properties of laws. This shouldn’t seem surprising.
55. The “moral law”—where does this notion come from? Is it modeled on the notion of natural law, or vice versa? Both would be philosophically interesting. There is, of course, nothing prescriptive about natural laws—they don’t tell the world what it ought to do.
56. The idea that laws exist but don’t cause anything: epiphenomenalism. Epiphenomenalism about laws: what could be more wrong? The law of gravity—an idle cog?! Events without laws—now they would be causally null. Epiphenomenalism about laws and the mind: which is the more implausible? We do have a desire to cut the powerful down to size. Cartoons often make light of laws, ridiculing them almost. Our psychological relation to laws is not irrelevant to philosophical thinking about them. (Compare our psychological relation to matter: Berkeley was surely emotionally repelled by the very idea of material things). Perhaps we need another branch of philosophy: “affective metaphysics”.
57. Could there be a nomological “zombie world”—one just like ours in its particulars but lacking any laws? Could there be an “inverted world”—one that agrees in respect of particulars but obeys different laws? (Rhetorical questions.) Then do the laws “supervene” on the particulars? Now we are headed in the wrong direction. We have become too interested in whether one thing depends on another (“co-varies”), instead of how the two are internally related. Everything supervenes on itself, after all. What if something constitutes what it supervenes upon? At this point I am saying nothing fresh, and my feet drag. Then what about this: Could there be a world in which the very same laws that are natural laws in our world are moral laws in that world? So, for example, God has commanded everything to obey the law of gravity, with suitable rewards and punishments attached; objects, including persons, do not obey this law naturally. Oddly enough, this is coherent. As also is this: a world in which our moral laws occur as natural laws—people refrain from stealing, say, as a matter of psychological law. Would we like to live in a world in which keeping promises was part of the natural order? Try to imagine feeling guilty about not obeying the law of gravity (difficult). (Here I should insert something about the importance of play in philosophical thinking. Is philosophy a serious subject? Of course, but people do try to make it seem more dignified than it is, more straight-laced. Philosophical humor is not external to the subject.)
58. You can’t be interested in laws without being interested in metaphysics. The name “metaphysics” is just a label for a set of problems, e.g. the nature of laws. The problem of laws is as philosophical as philosophical problems can be. It touches every philosophical nerve. It gives rise to a tingling sensation in the concept area—by turns painful and pleasant. Where do laws fit in the scheme of things? The characteristic philosophical question is: “What do I really think?”. The coyness of our concepts, their reticence:
the maddening glimpse. The marvel is that one can come to a clearer view. Surprisingly, metaphysics is possible. I often feel like I just have to take the plunge (others may feel differently). Am I being disorganized? Not at all! Is this stream of consciousness philosophy? Well, it does attempt to be candid, and to flow. The natural history of philosophical thought is not without interest.
59. The cause of a specific particular is actually quite general. Universals cause particulars. It is not that the cause isn’t specific or “local”—laws are not spread out where their instances are. A law is manifested at places it is not. Don’t ask where the law of gravity is. The cause of a located event is not itself located. One pictures a law bearing down on its effects—or scooping them up. Particular events are the transmitters of causation rather than causation itself. The so-called causal power of an event is really the law it manifests. The wire is necessary for the electrical signal, but it is the signal that has the power; just so the particular is necessary for the law to operate, but the law has (is) the power. The law of gravity just caused the pen to drop from my hand. It would be wrong to say it was merely the opening of my fingers that did the real causing (not that events cannot be said to cause in a derivative sense). The sweep of a law—yet it hooks up with the minutest particular. The cause of an event has a much broader scope than we thought. One can’t help thinking of something very large causing something very small—but this is too crude. The effect of a cause is not itself a cause, in the primary sense. As it were, events float on a sea of laws. There is a fundamental asymmetry between causes and effects: laws cause events but events don’t cause laws, or indeed what laws cause. Events might be viewed as portals through which laws operate (and hence function as necessary conditions). It is not that events pay laws the courtesy of taking them along for the ride, as if they are the ones really in charge of the universe’s journey. (Here I want to make the Wittgensteinian point that I am not denying anything the ordinary man believes.)
60. There is an analogy between laws and the mind—particularly concerning the tendency to collapse both into their manifestations (hence Humeanism and behaviorism).
What I would describe as causal the collapser describes as constitutive. No doubt people see one problem through the lens of the other: behaviorism here, Humeanism there. No doubt I also see the problem of laws through the problem of mind; hence I resist the collapse. The regularity theory of laws and causation is a kind of behaviorism about laws (with or without counterfactuals). I say that events express laws as behavior expresses the mind–roughly. But we must be careful not to press the analogy too far: events cannot be deceptively related to laws. (The tendency to give an account of something “from a distance”. We need to adopt the point of view of the thing itself.)
61. Question: If there were intrinsically imperceptible events, would we still want to insist that laws reduce to their instances? Wouldn’t the point of this insistence be lost? We would certainly not be making laws any less invisible. And what if, per impossibile, laws were visible and events invisible? Would we then want to reduce the events to the laws? Would behaviorism appeal to people if behavior were unobservable? Doubtful. The regularity theory seems predicated on a metaphysical contingency (as does behaviorism).
62. You really feel the efficacy of a law—in your marrow, as it were–when your skis start to lose control on the downhill. Magnets provide an excellent example of hidden laws. Sometimes a law can seem to burst to the surface. The idea that the laws of nature are determined by the economy of thought is not only absurd but insulting (to the laws). Scoffing is characteristic of philosophers, and shows something not merely about them. Father Time, Uncle Gravity: the need to visualize. Picture the laws of nature as an august committee. We long to condense the immense into the manageable. Do we feel humiliated by laws? I am sure that some people enjoy thinking of others merely as behaving organisms. We have no first-person perspective on laws, and so no corrective. The concept of a disposition has proved a useful one to hide behind (laws as dispositions to have certain effects, mental states as dispositions to behavior).
63. There has always seemed to be something occult about causation—understandably so. Effects are given, causes inferred. Causes don’t oblige the perceptual apparatus. Does regularity have anything to do with laws? Does the body have anything to do with the mind? Yes, in both cases. I’d like to say that laws animate the world, as minds animate bodies. The imprecision of a formulation does not always count against it. Nor is it always easy to say what counts as the literal truth. Analogies can be amazingly helpful in philosophy, as well as the source of much misunderstanding. We try to make our concepts point at each other, in the hope of mutual recognition. Concepts are reluctant to reveal their secrets in isolation (this has nothing to do with “holism”). One concept might be the key to another. I arranged a meeting between the concept of mind and the concept of law; they hit it off.
64. If we don’t believe in laws, but only in particulars, doesn’t causation drop out, to be replaced by mere succession? “But when we speak of causes we refer to particular events”: yes, but when we speak of times we also refer to events—that doesn’t show that times are events. After all, objects can be said to be causes too, but this is surely a derivative use. The question is not whether events (or facts) are truly described as causes; the question is what picture we have of this.
65. I can imagine a philosopher so impressed with the reality of laws that he denies the reality of objects and events. Philosophers make a (dubious) virtue of excluding some things in favor of others. What about the suggestion that objects and events are merely the appearances of laws– the noumenal law and the phenomenal particular? There have been wilder ideas in philosophy. (Pan-lawism: perfectly true.) Instead of saying the only realities we can say the basic realities. Objects and events: “nomological danglers”?
66. There is a lot of wishful thinking in philosophy. Philosophical opinion and political opinion: close cousins. It is easy to lose one’s nerve in philosophy, or to develop numbness of the nerves. I grant that my view of laws makes me nervous (and sometimes numb)—just as mathematical Platonism does. Reluctant belief is a mark of the philosophical state of mind.
67. There isn’t anything between a particular and a law, an entity of intermediate status (or “size”). Reality is either pointedly particular or majestically general. Does anything else make sense? (The “limits of intelligibility”.) The reason some people were driven to maintain that metaphysical questions are meaningless is that they are so obviously meaningful—and difficult to answer. I sometimes picture philosophical questions smirking to themselves. If philosophy just consisted of the question of laws, it would still be a big subject—because that question brings a lot with it. It sums up, encapsulates, what philosophy is. I might put the point by saying that the problem of laws is philosophy at its starkest.
68. Am I trying to give a nuanced account of laws? No, I am striving for bluntness; crudity, even. Someone asks me to prove the existence of laws as I conceive them—as if I believed in ghosts or fairies. That is not the situation. Do you expect me to parade a law before you or take a photograph of one? Proofs of existence obviously vary with the subject matter. The obsession with whether laws are necessary or contingent. The real question is whether they are productive. Positivism, of course, has a lot to answer for here, in its desire to make science philosophically reputable. It may not be (by your standards). Science presupposes the efficacy of the unobservable—even when it is entirely about the observable. It is a mistake to say that it is the force of gravity that is the cause and not the law of gravity—for the force only operates as it does because of its properties, i.e. the laws that govern it. If the force of gravity did not obey the inverse square law, it would not cause what it does. And note how artificial it is to try to separate the explanation of an event from its cause—as if a law could be the former but not the latter. What explains the effects (sic) of a force are the laws governing that force. Strictly, forces are no more the ultimate cause of things than events are. A cause, remember, is what makes things happen as they do—what brings about states of affairs. In a loose sense, even objects can be causes, as can places, times and numbers (we use “because” very promiscuously). The question “Causes in virtue of what?” only comes to an end with the statement of law.
69. It is worth remembering that objects remain stable only because of the laws manifest within them. Stability is not the way things are irrespective of laws. There is never a time or place where laws are not operating. The Humean tendency to think of laws as “side-effects” of particulars—a sort of effervescence. (Compare a certain view of mind and brain.) Laws as “emergent properties” of particulars: I invert this. Particulars owe their very being to laws. Laws are the nerves and tissue of nature. There is no contradiction in the notion of a law that never produces an actual regularity, since it may always be overridden by other laws. What if there was so much wind in the universe that planets never moved in the elliptical orbits they “should” move in? The characteristic expression of a law is an actual regularity—but that is all.
70. Laws necessitate the occurrence of things; this makes their necessity differ from all other kinds. You cannot take a law and remove the necessity from it. The necessity is not something tacked on. We only seem to have one good word for laws, namely “law”, and it has many other meanings (legal, moral). Why this poverty? Is it because our thinking about laws is so primitive? (Compare the poverty of our modal vocabulary: we keep having to multiply the types of things we uniformly call “necessary”.)
71. Physics has the best laws. Why? The natural mysticism of physicists—is it their proximity to the most basic laws? How does a physicist look at the universe? As if the particular were just a symptom of a more general order. Physicists look at the world with two pairs of eyes. The physical insignificance of the particular. Laws as reasons (the word is not wrongly used here): once you know the reason for things, the reason stands out from the things. Laws belong in the intellectual foreground.
72. “Laws are confirmed by their instances”: but after a certain point positive instances do not add further confirmation of the law. Is the law of gravity made more probable every day? No. Instances reveal laws to us; they don’t aggregate on a scale of confirmation. We are inclined to picture a law as a partly concealed line the future direction of which must be predicted from its exposed segment. Then the idea of endless confirmation by instances seems appropriate. A principle can be manifest in a single instance, if the instance is good enough. A law is an “invariable sequence” (OED); no, it is the principle of such a sequence. Laws cause invariable sequences. Do laws lurk behind regularities? They inform them. Laws are constant; their manifestations may not be. Whenever a cause occurs you know it will repeat itself. In this sense causes are uncreative.
73. We speak of laws of nature, but isn’t nature defined as what is subject to laws? This gives us no independent grip on what a law is. “The concept of law is indefinable”: true, but scarcely illuminating, since so many concepts are indefinable. Are laws “primitives”? Yes, so long as this description is not misunderstood (they are not “structureless”). Laws are not “constructions” out of anything else, least of all their manifestations. It has never been settled what form an illuminating philosophical account should take. “To shed light on a concept”: unhelpful metaphor. A good account of a concept should make it seem vital—indispensable and alive. Some concepts strike us as formidable, and rightly so.
74. Space, time, and laws: the basic ingredients of the world—any world. Without time laws would be unable to breathe. To call laws timeless is misleading; time is their natural medium. Laws and time are internally related—as objects and space are. Events occur in time, and they are the visible embodiment of laws. Since objects are constituted by laws, they are also bound up with time. It is not an accident that objects exist in time (as well as space). We say that laws specify how objects behave through time; would it be wrong to say that they specify how time behaves with respect to objects? Laws make contact with time by means of events. An event is the occupation of time by laws. Objects, events, laws, time: a single package. The shaping of stuff by laws is essentially temporal. Objects emerge from stuff through the temporal operation of laws (this is not a statement about history). Events are therefore a pre-condition of objects: no events, no objects. Laws cannot create objects without the mediation of events. Neither can there be events without objects. Stuff, objects, events, laws—coeval categories. The nexus consisting of stuff, objects, events and laws constitutes concrete reality. Each is a facet of the others. This nexus has no natural name, but it is the crux of the world. It forms a natural unity. One might almost say that objects, events and laws form a “trinity”. The path from laws to objects goes via events, but it is not possible to reach events without objects for laws to operate on. Objects and events are “one flesh”. It is not that they are married, since that assumes a prior separation. Much of our discourse is about this nexus, but, importantly, not all (e.g., ethics, logic). There is no difficulty in saying things about what does not belong to the nexus. We might give a name to it, so that its unity is acknowledged: the SOLE nexus. The basis of concrete reality is SOLE. There is no deeper metaphysical category that unifies the elements of SOLE; these elements are ontologically basic. There is no reality of which these elements are merely aspects. What is linguistically separable may not be ontologically separable. The concepts of stuff, object, law and event don’t form a “family”; they are too tightly connected for that. It is more that they constitute a single organism. Nor are they the “building blocks” of reality, since building blocks may stand alone. They are more like perspectives on the same reality, each containing a glimpse of the others. When I approach reality with one of these concepts I bring the others along—though they are not transparently connected.
75. The connection between objects and laws is no weaker than that between properties and laws, since what makes an object the kind of object it is are the properties it has.
The connection between properties and laws is obvious once it is pointed out. Since there are no propertyless particulars, no particular can be such that it obeys no laws.
76. The interplay between the elements of SOLE is what is fundamental: that they are joined is metaphysically basic.
77. People used to talk about the “vital spirit” that inhabits all life. But isn’t this idea as appealing for objects in general? Laws are the “vital spirit” of the universe (or would be if there were such a thing). The divide between the living and the nonliving seems less (metaphysically) pronounced once one has taken the measure of laws. Of course, the living and nonliving obey different laws. Equivalently: the idea of a vital spirit loses its appeal once one sees that all of nature has its own kind of “animation”. Laws are intangible causes, and inexhaustible sources of power (the “entelechies” of the natural world). They have some of the properties attributed to God; yet nothing could be more “natural”. It would be a complete mistake to think of them as “spiritual”.
78. The relation between a law and its manifestations is like nothing else. It is hard to find the right words for this relation. The law does not consist in its manifestations, and it does not “underlie” them. Trying to understand this relation is like trying to squeeze between two concepts that are stuck together. Laws seem both fully present in their instances and yet curiously removed from them.
79. We must try to speak of what we often pass over in silence.
I’m beginning this blog with a big chunk of metaphysics, written in the high Wittgensteinian style-a series of linked aphorisms. The ideas came to me in that way and it felt forced to try to present them in the usual discursive form. I usually don’t write in this style, and vaguely disapprove of it. Partly because of the unorthodox format, finding an orthodox way to publish Principia Metaphysica proved something of a problem; so I publish it now, on the Web, so that it might see the light of day.
I intend to write a good deal about philosophy on this blog, generally as and when topics arise in my academic life. This semester I’m teaching a graduate seminar on ontology, which will have a lot of physics in it-as well as consciousness and meaning. No doubt I’ll submit reports of how this is going. In the first class, next Tuesday, I’m going to present a paper in which I argue that traditional ontology isn’t possible. It has long been assumed that there are three great categories of being-the physical, the mental, and the abstract-and that metaphysics is concerned to decide whether entities from each category exist, and whether one category can be reduced to the others. Thus we have materialism, idealism and Platonism-as well as dualism and nominalism. My contention is that the three categories are actually not well-defined, so that traditional ontology is asking improperly formed questions-which means that the standard doctrines of metaphysics are also not well-defined.
In addition to these philosophical disquisitions, I’ll occasionally discuss other things that interest me-particularly sport. Since I just started stand-up paddle-boarding, they’ll be a certain amount on that-how it compares to kayaking and surfing, say. This is a new sport that is currently sweeping the planet and I predict a strong future for it. The board is usually about twelve feet long and thirty inches wide; you stand on it and propel yourself forward with a canoe-style paddle (the kind with a blade at one end and T-grip at the other). It’s easy enough in flat water, but the difficulty increases exponentially in rough water, which makes stand-up paddle surfing pretty challenging-there’s a lot of falling off the board. As it happens, I just finished writing a book about sport, its mechanics, aesthetics, ethics and psychology; so this subject is very much on my mind.
I also intend to weigh in on various questions of ethics and politics, and cultural matters generally-especially if they have any philosophical ramifications. I might even tell you what I’m finding funny these days, on TV and elsewhere. So it won’t all be dry serious stuff. Last night, say, I found 30 Rock and The Office especially amusing: but I won’t try to repeat the jokes here. In fact, I might even play the role of TV critic once in a while. I’ll be ranging from the intellectual to the athletic to the facetious.
My plan now is to write this blog in a diary-like form, with regular postings of weightier pieces-like the PM I’m kicking off with. And, of course, I welcome feedback and comments.