The History and Philosophy of the Concepts of Scientific Law and Probability
- CEU SUN & John Templeton Foundation
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The history and metaphysics of the concepts of laws of nature and objective probabilities are closely connected with one another and with main topics in the philosophy and history of science. Fundamental laws of physics, particularly quantum theory and statistical mechanics, posit objective probabilities and it has been debated whether all objective probabilities are ultimately grounded in such laws. Laws and probabilities also figure prominently in the special sciences (e.g. biology, psychology, economics) Understanding the metaphysics of scientific laws and objective probabilities are central concerns of philosophy of science. Understanding begins with the history of both concepts. The idea that it is a goal, perhaps the primary goal, of the sciences to discover laws arose in the 17th century. Descartes (and various of his contemporaries) conceived of laws as principles that describe how God makes material bodies move. Subsequently some (e.g. Newton) came to think of laws as themselves governing physical events while others (especially David Hume) came to think of laws not as governing but rather as describing patterns and regularities among events. These two views have developed into the two main philosophical accounts of the metaphysics of laws which are usually called anti-Humean and Humean accounts.
The idea that some events are chancy also arose in the 17th century first to describe the behavior of gambling devices (e.g. Pascal) and later to deal with patterns of events that were either too complicated to account for in terms of laws or were not subject to laws at all. However, in the 20th century probability was incorporated into the laws of statistical mechanics, evolutionary and genetic theory and quantum mechanics. The main views concerning the metaphysics of probability mirrors the views about laws. Anti-Humean views construe probability as a measure of the propensity of a situation to produce an effect (e.g. the propensity of a lump of radium to emit an alpha particle in a given time period) while Humean views construe probability as describing patterns of events (e.g. the frequency of a lump of radium to emit an alpha particle in a given time period or the probability implied by the Best System).
The first week of the summer school will concern the history and metaphysics of the concept of laws and the second will concern the history and metaphysics of the concept of probability and how objective probability is connected to laws.