This article appeared in Dialogue XXVII (1988), pp. 529-532. It is a reply to Michael Ruse's, "Rigorous Regularism: Physical Laws Without Necessity" [Dialogue, XXVII (1988), 523-528], a review of Norman Swartz's The Concept of Physical Law

Reply to Ruse
— NORMAN SWARTZ, Simon Fraser University

In Chapters 10 and 11, I was privileged to act as amanuensis to a visiting Martian and to transcribe his lectures which, the truth be told, embodied views remarkably similar to my own. Ruse, in a playful vein, wonders "why this Martian would go to British Columbia to do philosophy". I must admit that I do not really know the answer. I can only speculate that it might be for the same reasons that so many philosophers in Eastern Canada have applied for teaching positions here in Canada's Sun Belt.

But enough of interprovincial nose tweaking. I would like to turn to two things that Ruse finds hard to accept in The Concept of Physical Law [hereinafter abbreviated CPL ]: (1) my argument that we ourselves create some of the physical laws of this world; and (2) my rejection of any epistemic or pragmatic substitute for ontic necessity.

The usual – traditional – prevailing world-view is that of a world "governed" by "pre-existing" physical (or natural) laws. "Pre-existing" is not, of course, exactly the right word, since physical laws are supposed to be timeless. But we will not pause over this nicety. For, as Ruse correctly reports, I reject this view. I have argued that physical laws are nothing other than (certain kinds of) generalizations which hold true of the world because the world is the way it is. The world does not act in accord with these laws: the relationship is simply that of these propositions taking their truth (like all other true propositions) from the way the world is. The semantic, truth-making, relationship between the universal proposition (physical law) that copper conducts electricity and the states of affairs that account for its truth is identically the same relationship as between the singular proposition that Mulroney succeeded Turner as Prime Minister and the states of affairs which account for its truth.

An immediate consequence of this view is that we – you and I and everybody else – are responsible for "making" some propositions (those describing freely chosen human actions) physical laws. Many persons' intuitions recoil at the suggestion. But is what I am asserting really any more remarkable than the fact that my putting on a blue shirt makes a (singular) proposition – viz., that I am wearing a blue shirt – true? If we each can make some singular propositions true, why not also some universal ones? Having myself once been a necessitarian, I know firsthand how peculiar the regularity theory can appear. And coming from that background I can also report that, in my own case at least, moving from the one theory to another was very much in the nature of a Gestalt switch. But it was not, I might add, anything like a religious conversion.

Continuing his objection, Ruse voices a familiar criticism: "... without a fairly robust sense of necessity for nature's laws, I really fail to see how you can distinguish rational choice from capriciousness".

It is impossible for me to offer a proper reply in the present format. I will have to content myself with just a few remarks.

We can make rational choices because we have learned through experience that the world typically behaves in certain ways and not in others. For example, I have learned that if I were to plunge a knife into someone else's hand, he would bleed, feel considerable pain, probably be intensely angry with me, and take many days to heal. Considering all these consequences, I regard it as a wrong thing to do and abstain from doing it. My choice is perfectly rational and moral. Similarly, in knowing of the effects of hunger, I may donate time and money to famine relief. If I do so, my actions would be praiseworthy. But none of this – the rationality of my actions, their morality, or their praiseworthiness – requires that there be necessity in nature. It is sufficient that nature be regular (to some degree) and that we be able to figure that out (see 167-168, CPL).

Of course one might object that I have mislocated the focus of Ruse's objection. Perhaps the necessity thought to be required for non-capricious choice is supposed to reside within us, the choosers, rather than in the "external world". More specifically, it might be argued, our central nervous systems must be governed by ontic necessity, otherwise our choices could not be rational, i.e., would be capricious.

I reject the alleged implication that non-necessity entails non-rationality or capriciousness. To act capriciously means disregarding evidence and/or discounting the probable consequences of one's actions. Indeed I have argued that it is possible to act capriciously, and by the same token it is possible to act responsibly, only if one's actions are not constrained by necessity. If one's choices are necessitated by one's education, genes, environment, etc., then there seems to me to be no reasonable grounds on which to regard someone's actions as free, responsible, and worthy of moral praise. In short, in complete disagreement with Ruse (and, clearly, a great many others besides), I argue that we cannot be responsible if there is ontic necessity (see chapters 10-11, esp. 129-140, CPL). (I also try to explain in CPL that to deny that events are necessitated is not to imply that they are random. Free, deliberative choices are neither necessitated nor random.)

In the last part of his review, Ruse suggests that some sort of "epistemic necessity" can and must be rehabilitated. He writes, following Mackie, "that perhaps it is of our nature to 'objectify' experience". And,
If we did not think that necessity is "out there" – if common sense were not with causal powers – then our belief systems would not work. They would not work for us as biological beings, for we would no longer think that fire really causes burning and we would no longer fear it.

Of course, this is only Mackie's intuition (and mine) although it is backed by Darwinian evolutionary theory. The being who "objectifies" necessity will be biologically fitter than the being who does not. (528)
First a word of defense, and then a counter-objection.

In denying (as I certainly would) that there is any ontically necessary connection between one thing's burning and another thing's burning, I would hardly want to deny that a fire in one thing on some occasion might cause something else to burn. In denying that the connection between cause and effect is that of ontic necessity, I certainly do not imply that there are no causal connections. Indeed I, just like everybody else, depend on there being causal connections in order to get through my day: from turning on a faucet in the morning (to get water), to lowering the thermostat at night (to allow the house to cool slightly). In short, I deny only the necessity of causal connections, not their existence.

Ruse argues that the desirability of objectifying necessity is "backed by Darwinian evolutionary theory" inasmuch as "the being who 'objectifies' necessity will be biologically fitter than the being who does not." In the clash of intuitions, which we have both alluded to, I find these claims incredible. I do not believe that there is even a scintilla of empirical evidence to warrant the claim that Darwinian evolutionary theory "backs" either the belief in epistemic or the belief in ontic necessity. Nor do I even begin to comprehend how someone's believing, for example, that he must be killed if he steps in front of a fast moving bus, makes him "biologically fitter" than the being who (merely) believes that he will be killed if he steps in front of a fast moving bus. Speaking for myself, my belief that stepping in front of a fast moving bus would kill me has been reason enough for me to refrain from stepping in front of such a vehicle. I have never needed the extra incentive of the modalized version, i.e., thinking that the bus had to kill me.

By way of an update, I might mention that in the time since CPL appeared, some persons have told me that they do not believe that there are any physical laws at all, that physical laws are a myth. These persons do not deny, however, that there are true universal and statistical contingent generalizations all of whose nonlogical terms are purely descriptive. Between such persons and myself there is nothing more than an inconsequential difference in terminology. I have called such generalizations "physical laws"; they prefer to withhold that honorific title. Nothing much, if anything, hangs in the balance. All of us agree that there are no nomologically, etiologically, or ontically necessary truths.