The Range of Natural Laws

Banin D. Sukmono

Director and Head of Metaphysics and Science
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on facebook

A review of Nancy Cartwright’s The Dappled World: a Study of Boundaries of Science.

For fundamentalists, arguably a position held by most naturalists, the world is nomologically tidy and structured. They might still disagree with each other about the nature of the array and the relationship among domains, which can be either simple hierarchal or complex, but they barely quarrel about the fundamental and universal role of the law of physics, and, at some point, in the social sphere, economics. It makes sense a seemingly never-ending philosophical struggle of non-reductive physicalism to assert the independence of non-fundamental domains without failing the causal exclusion problem of physical domains. The reason is that the advocates are nevertheless fundamentalists. They still believe that in virtue of the well-designed universe, the more fundamental law of nature, the more universal and unconditional the scopes.

By contrast, in the Dappled World (1999), Nancy Cartwright proposed a different framework from the fundamentalist project, which if it works as intended, may not only secure the autonomy of laws in special sciences, and the relationship between metaphysics and methodology, but also enrich political consideration in seeing scientific discovery and progress. Cartwright argued, in opposition to fundamentalism, the world may be messy, unruly, and piecemeal. The relationships among scientific fields are unclear, overlap, and flexible, and, indeed, most of the scientific natural law is limited, and even some situations “may not be subject to the law at all (Cartwright, 2002b, p. 241).” However, different from quotidian social constructivists, her argument in constraining some scientific laws does not rely on remote and non-specialist scientific jargon nor pervasiveness of political and linguistic interference in scientific decisions. Instead, she formulated her thesis from the current scientific practices and success. Cartwright claimed that disorder of nature, a world similar to patchwork, is probably the most consistent view with the most admirable scientific achievements, and therefore, if she is right, a more productive scientific methodology can be adopted. How does it make sense? Is it possible that natural laws not be universal?

Understanding the condition of laws is crucial here. For Cartwright, a law only holds ceteris paribus, or that law is efficacious if nothing impedes the process of the law to take place. It has two consequences; first, a law only works in a very controlled environment, and, second, a law is potent solely in its domain. It does not say that law is wrong but beyond the constrain, their services are limited and even can be depleted. While they are probably true, they are nowhere from universal. Universality, or validity of laws outwith the contrived circumstances, is a fundamentalist assumption. Consider Neurath’s bill as an example. No mechanics can provide a full-fledged model for the location of a hundred dollars’ bill after swept away by the wind at Saint Stephen Square. Although there may be a complaint from fluid dynamics that a practical model may be formed, providing a well-defined situation is available, it begs the question since what is at stake here is the ill-defined situation outside ceteris paribus limitation. Even though it somehow works, it will be so complicated that Newton’s law nor even microscopic treatment is obviated (Cartwright, 1999, p. 27).

Regularity, therefore, as what is expressed by law, is not fundamental. Regularity is fabricated through a stable arrangement of factors and an environment called a nomological machine. This stable arrangement of factors produces the law of nature. The problem is that this machine is rarely found in a typical situation. Sometimes, nature provides us with a natural nomological machine, such as heavenly bodies, but almost always, the scientist should engineer and curb the machine, as well as hunting the components, cautiously in strict laboratory rules before finding and formulating laws. Without curbing, or in Cartwright’s term, shielding, the factors studied, the regularity sufficient for a law will not express. Besides Neurath’s example for Newton’s second law of motion, Coulomb’s law is Cartwright favorite example:

Consider Coulomb’s law, F= – q1 q2/4πεₒr2, for two particles of charges q1 and q2 separated by a distance r… for here let us just consider what Coulomb’s law tell us about the motions of the particle pair. It tells us absolutely nothing. Before any motion at all is fixed, the particles must be placed in a special kind of environment; just the kind of environment that I have described as a nomological machine. Without a specific environment, no motion at all is determined. (Cartwright, 1999, p. 59)

What is constitutive of a nomological machine is the capability of the components. An object may have an individual capability, but the manifested behavior of the capability is manifold or, using Menzies’s interpretation (2002, p. 264), multi-track, depending on the arrangement with other capabilities in the nomological machines. Capacity is essential in Cartwright’s philosophy since she argued that it is the multi-track capacities that are described by a scientific law and hunted by science, not the regularity. It is capabilities that enable scientists to stop the undetermined number of inductions, formulate the nature of a property, and with high confidence, apply the formulation to different environments. Regularity, in this vein, is merely a by-product of an arrangement of the capacity of components (nomological machine) in a controlled environment.

In consequence, it is challenging for a law to be universal because what works is not the same cause that is followed by the same effect. In a different nomological machine, the outcome of law can be reversed outright.  In her book, Cartwright showed two examples of this claim. First, two similar charges, which ideally repel each other, can be environmentally forged so that those particles move closer together. Second, imposing a tax, which typically increases the price, can also decrease or stable prices. It demonstrates that the manifestation of the same capacities can vary under different construction of environment and arrangement, or nomological machine. In light of this, Cartwright is relatively confident that the current evidence of scientific success has not buttressed fundamentalism faith. By contrast, the world may be dappled and reflects the patchwork of laws. The implication of the conclusion, for Cartwright, is methodological and political. It is methodological since the next project of science and philosophy is to model a messy reality by hunting multifarious causes and possible effects and focus on creating a controlled environment. It is political since funding consideration often assumed fundamentalist yearning. If Cartwright is correct, holistic scrutiny in a dappled system is vital before bestowing grant to theories that have fundamentalist tendencies like gene programs in terms of controlling the number of breast cancers, all-encompassing economic theories in terms of deciding monetary policies to the third world countries, and the theory of everything. For Cartwright, coupled with game theory and evolutionary psychology, those subjects obtain “disproportionate attention and funding just because of their promise to be universal (Cartwright, 2002a, p. 273).”

Cartwright’s position gives rise to numerous criticism, undeniably. Mostly, they complain about the inference of the limited scope of the law to the dappled world. It is expressed in different forms by Anderson (2001), Hoefer (2008), and Esfeld (2008). While Hoefer and Esfeld emphasized the importance of microphysics and argued that hydrogen does not behave like the world is patched and quantum entanglement does not imply the dappled world, Anderson corrected Cartwright position of BCS Hamiltonian. This debate leads to quantum mechanics interpretations that will not be addressed here. However, Cartwright (2002a, 2008a, 2008b) did disagree with the arguments transferring quantum behavior since the facts invoke no evidence for the fundamentalist faith. Like other branches of science, the boundary of quantum mechanics is also limited in its scope in the laboratory. In chapters 8 and 9, Cartwright argued for the insufficiency of quantum nor mechanics alone to provide an accurate account of superconductivity.

Cartwright appears to use inference to the best explanation (IBE) arguments to repudiate fundamentalism’s argument, that our scientific success only works well in a controlled environment. Beyond that, the evidence is not compelling. However, as observed by Lipton (2002), this type of argument is also vulnerable to the same objection, that it is not necessarily impossible for the world to not be dappled. The primary reason is that Cartwright’s position relies strongly on what Lipton calls non-additive combination and agnostic dappled. The non-additive stated that a combination of capacities could produce an effect that may be different from the sum of the capabilities in a healthy state. However, while it is relatively sufficient for saying that fundamentalism is problematic, it does not strongly imply its futileness, since some weak version of fundamentalism can also adopt non-additive rules. Esfeld and Sachse (2011) can be seen as one of them. On the other hand, the agnostic dappled is also inconclusive. Lipton explained:

Taken alone, the fact that we have good models in certain regions hardly compels the conclusion that such models exist for all regions; but the failure to find models seems similarly inconclusive, since the fault is as plausibly explained by our cognitive weaknesses as by an anomalous world. Fundamentalists seem to face no particular difficulty in accounting for scientific failures: the Lord may be very subtle without being nomologically malicious. (Lipton, 2002, p. 258)

This objection is accurate, and in (2002a), Cartwright admitted this accuracy. Her enterprise has not been a knock-down argument against fundamentalism.  However, she must believe that believing in the dappled world bears more advantages at the practical level because this metaphysical view, apart from being consistent with current scientific discoveries, urges the future research and scientific policy to be assessed solely on the actual efficacy and productivity in resolving problems than to satisfy and fit a speculative view of the world. Granted, looking from this perspective, the fundamentalist point of view seems somewhat burdensome and may tend to lose some non-reductive sights.

Another crucial critique targets Cartwright’s conception of capacity. Paul’s (2002) and Menzies’s (2002) criticism can be the epitome. They shared reservations that Cartwright’s conception of capacity is unclear in front of the discourse of property and object. For example, while Paul asked the meaning of Cartwright’s claim that properties are “conglomerates of capacity, i.e., ” does it mean that object is just a bundle of property or substrate-attribute complex?, Menzies asked the modal status of properties arrangement. This opaque impacts how the metaphysics of the dappled world should be seen, e.g., a question regarding a situation that is not subject to the law. Providing that the world is full of capability, why is there a situation where a specific capacity, which appears wide-ranging, is not expressed, such as mass and charge? Paul argued that the conclusion should not have been the dappled world. Rather, something that is weaker where the world may be messy but ‘all the world is law-governed, even if no law governs all the world (Paul, 2002, p. 252).”

Cartwright seems to anticipate the first objection. As regards the nature of capability, although Cartwright admitted that her account might be disappointing metaphysically, she insisted that the nature of either property or object is irrelevant in the discourse of law. In this case, metaphysical questions about science can stop at capacity. This is because to argue against fundamentalists, the features of capability is sufficient to show that regularity theory does not reflect how laws work. Cartwright demonstrated this in detail in chapters 3 and 4, where she reveals that scientific practices, ranging from planning and testing models, including induction, to formulating laws cannot work with the conception of occurrent properties of regularity theory that deny the multi-manifestation of capability. Afterward, it can go with any accounts of semantics and ontology.

However, the second objection is serious. Cartwright, in her reply (2002a, p. 273), answered the question by employing the argument from trigger. According to the argument, a capacity requires a trigger to manifest, often exceptional circumstances, and sometimes even though the previous conditions obtain, it is still probabilistic. It is the reason that in a particular situation, the capacity is not exercised. The question is that what does happen before the trigger? Here, Cartwright acknowledged that, despite operating, it does not always exercise its canonical effect. While it is consistent with its view on the dappled world, since any capability can refrain from being capability depending on the circumstance, for example, in an extreme case, mass for being mass, but it is relatively weak to vindicate a non-law situation. In light of the argument from trigger, a non-law situation is not a situation where modeling the reality is complicated; as Lipton explained, this possibility may be attempted despite merely a faith. Instead, it would be a situation where all capabilities do not work or not stable enough to be laws. As such, it calls for robust empirical research to prove the existence, making the discussion reverting to Lipton’s objection on IBE. It makes the weaker version of the dappled world looks compelling.

Is the world really dappled, and the scope of natural law limited? The problem of weak fundamentalism and, if correct, non-law situation signals that the project of the dappled world has not been conclusive. Two plausible projects are needed to perfect the metaphysical view, namely, ensuring that the features of capability and discoveries of the limited domain of facts do imply locality of laws, and fleshing out the nature of capability so that a situation in which a law is fully depleted is not only a possibility but experimentable. Providing that if it works, political consideration can be more holistic in deciding scientific policies and aware of metaphysical notions, proceeding this project is clearly worthwhile for securing the practical side of metaphysics.


Anderson, P. W. (2001). Science: A “Dappled World” or a “Seamless Web”? Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, 32(3), 487–494.

Cartwright, N. (1999). The dappled world: A study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge University Press.

Cartwright, N. (2002a). Reply. Analytic Philosophy, 43(4), 271–278.

Cartwright, N. (2002b). Summary. Analytic Philosophy, 43(4), 241–243.

Cartwright, N. (2008a). Reply to Carl Hoefer. In C. Hoefer, S. Hartmann, & L. Bovens (Eds.), Nancy Cartwright’s philosophy of science (pp. 322–323). Routledge.

Cartwright, N. (2008b). Reply to Michael Esfeld. In C. Hoefer, S. Hartmann, & L. Bovens (Eds.), Nancy Cartwright’s philosophy of science (pp. 337–338).

Esfeld, M. (2008). Cartwright on Wholism. In C. Bovens, L. Hoefer, & S. Hartmann (Eds.), Nancy Cartwright’s philosophy of science (pp. 324–336).

Esfeld, M., & Sachse, C. (2011). Conservative Reductionism. Routledge.

Hoefer, C. (2008). For Fundamentalism. In L. Bovens, C. Hoefer, & S. Hartmann (Eds.), Nancy Cartwright’s philosophy of science (pp. 307–321). Routledge.

Lipton, P. (2002). The Reach of the Law. Analytic Philosophy, 43(4), 254–260.

Menzies, P. (2002). Capacities, Natures, and Pluralism: a New Metaphysics for Science? Analytic Philosophy, 43(4), 261–270.

Paul, L. A. (2002). Limited Realism: Cartwright on Natures and Laws. Analytic Philosophy, 43(4), 244–253.