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The Nature of Laws

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Michael Tooley*
Australian National University


This paper is concerned with the question of the truth conditions of nomological statements. My fundamental thesis is that it is possible to set out an acceptable, non Circular account of the truth conditions of laws and nomological statements if and only if relations among universals — that is, among properties and relations, construed realistically — are taken as the truth-makers for such statements.

My discussion will be restricted to strictly universal, nonstatistical laws. The reason for this limitation is not that I feel there is anything dubious about the concept of a statistical law, nor that I feel that basic laws cannot be statistical. The reason is methodological. The case of strictly universal, nonstatistical laws would seem to be the simplest case. If the problem of the truth conditions of laws can be solved for this simple subcase, one can then investigate whether the solution can be extended to the more complex cases. I believe that the solution I propose here does have that property, though I shall not pursue that question here.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1977

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1 I am indebted to a number of people, especially David Armstrong, David Bennett, Mendel Cohen, Michael Dunn, Richard Routley, and the editors of this Journal, for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.

2 A vacuously true generalization is often characterized as a conditional statement whose antecedent is not satisfied by anything. This formulation is not entirely satisfactory, since it follows that there can be two logically equivalent generalizations, only one of which is vacuously true. A sound account would construe being vacuously true as a property of the content of a generalization, rather than as a property of the form of the sentence expressing the generalization.

3 See, for example, the incisive discussions by Bennett, Jonathan in his article, “Counterfactuals and Possible Worlds,” Canadian journal of Philosophy, 4 (1974), pages 381-402CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and, more recently, by Jackson, Frank in his article, “A Causal Theory of Counterfactuals”, Australasian journal of Philosophy, 55 (1977), pages 3-21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 Ramsey, F. P.General Propositions and Causality,” in The Foundations of Mathematics, edited by Braithwaite, R. B. Paterson, New Jersey, 1960, page 242.Google Scholar The view described in the passage is one which Ramsey had previously held, rather than the view he was setting out in the paper itself. For a sympathetic discussion of Ramsey's earlier position, see pages 72-77 of Lewis's, David Counterfactuals, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973.Google Scholar

5 Journal of Philosophy, 67 (1970), pages 427-446.

6 This problem was pointed out by Scheffler, Israel in his book, The Anatomy of Inquiry,New York, 1963. See section 21 of part II, pages 218ff.Google Scholar

7 This version of the general theory is essentially that set out by David Armstrong in his forthcoming book, Universals and Scientific Realism. In revising the present paper I have profited from discussions with Armstrong about the general theory, and the merits of our competing versions of it.

8 This interpretation of the expressions “nomological statement”and “law” follows that of Hans Reichenbach in his book, Nomological Statements and Admissible Operations, Amsterdam, 1954. It may be that the term “law” is ordinarily used in a less restricted sense. However there is an important distinction to be drawn here, and it seems natural to use the term “law” in perhaps a slightly narrower sense in order to have convenient labels for these two classes of statements.

9 This method of handling the problem was employed by Hans Reichenbach in Nomological Statements and Admissible Operations.

10 Compare Carnap's discussion in the section entitled “Language, Modal Logic, and Semantics,” especially pages 889-905, in The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, edited by Schilpp, Paul A. La Salle, Illinois, 1963.Google Scholar

11 See, for example, Carnap's, Rudolf discussion of the problem of the confirmation of universally quantified statements in section F of the appendix of his book, The Logical Foundations of Probability, 2nd edition, Chicago, 1962, pages 570-1.Google Scholar

12 Chisholm, Roderick M.Law Statements and Counterfactual Inference,” Analysis, 15 (1955), pages 97-105,CrossRefGoogle Scholar reprinted in Causation and Conditionals, edited by Sosa, Ernest London, 1975. See page 149.Google Scholar

13 Rescher, Nicholas Hypothetical Reasoning, Amsterdam, 1964, page 81.Google Scholar

14 Stalnaker, Robert C. and Thomason, Richmond H.A Semantical Analysis of Conditional Logic,” Theoria, 36 (1970), pages 3940.Google Scholar

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