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Entropy and Time February 20, 2009

Posted by mcw5247 in Metaphysics, Philosophy of physics.
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The Second law of Thermodynamics states that a closed system will never decrease in entropy. That is to say, that the energy of a given system will never spontaniously increase. Ludwig Bolzmann worked with this idea as well as developing a statistical approach to describing how gas molecules interact within a closed container. From his work with this Boltzmann began developing his view on the arrow of time.

His ideas began with watching the gasses interact, and seeing that they always move to the highest entropy state given enough time. He stated that he believed time could only move in one direction, forward. His evidence for this was to give examples of what he called irreversible events, which are things such as air leaking from a baloon or a hot liquid cooling off at room temperature. These are events that always happen in one direction and never the other, and he claimed that this was a proof of how time could only flow forward.

From this idea, one can pose the question of how the universe can be sustaining an increase in entropy over a very long period of time. One response to this is the low entropy early universe, which is to say that shortly after the universe formed all of the matter within it was evenly distributed. This would have been a very low entropy state for the universe to be in and would thus allow for entropy to increase over a long period of time.

Through argument, Boltzmann later refined his ideas, and finally came to his entropy curve discussion. Here he said that it was possible for entropy to be a constant when looked at over a long enough period, and that we could merely be on a fluctuation of this where it appears to us that entropy always increases. This idea is disturbing however as many of our laws depend on how we currently view entropy.


Are Mental Illnesses Natural Kinds or are they Socially Constructed? February 18, 2009

Posted by daw0157 in Medicine, Science & society, Social science.
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This post is coming a bit late after my presentation on mental illnesses way back on 18 Dec 2008.  With the rather large gap between presentation and post, I think it will be worthwhile to recap both the material presented and the flow of the lively discussion we had.

The question that I tried to explore and explain was the notion of mental illnesses, and whether or not they would be considered natural kinds (they happen because they happen) or socially constructed (as a society, they were created to fill some role or need).  This question is important because as we define and categorize mental illness in the United States right now, about 1/4 of the population(*1) over 18 years old suffers from a diagnosable mental illness.  Having a better understanding of these mental illnesses is beneficial to many different aspects of our life, from how we understand them, to how we treat the illness, to how we treat the person afflicted with the illness.

I started the presentation by asking the class if anyone had ever heard of depression.  The unanimous decision was that the class had heard of it, and was under the assumption it was truly a natural kind of mental illness.  Next I asked if the class had heard of Drapetomania, and of course no one had, because Drapetomania is no more than Louisiana’s attempt at scientific racism.

The example is a little ridiculous and in the debate of mental illnesses and their validity as natural kinds, depression is very well understood to be natural and something like Drapetomania could not be any more socially constructed. I used this example for the sole reason of drawing two lines in the sand to show the great range between illnesses that would be discussed.

There are a few unique positions that have been well researched and documented. These “sides” of the argument have proven to encapsulate the general opinions of people who have attempted to propose solutions to the problem.

The first opinion would be that of Thomas Szasz. According to Szasz the mainstream view in the West is that the changes in our description and treatment of mental illnesses are a result of our increasing knowledge and greater conceptual sophistication. On this view, we have conquered our former ignorance and now know that mental illness exists, even though there is a great deal of further research to be done on the causes and treatment of mental illnesses.

The strongest opposing view of mental illnesses being natural kinds is led by the philosopher Dominic Murphy. According to Murphy mental illness is a concept like pest, weed, and vermin. Weeds and vermin are not natural kinds, but they are made up of natural kinds that can be explained empirically. Furthermore, whether something counts as a weed or a vermin depends on human interests in a way that allows the class to grow over time, or vary across projects. Concepts that are sensitive to human interests in this way are open-ended — things may fall into them (or drop out of them) as human interests change over time. Folk thinking does not determine in advance whether a species is a pest, nor does it make scientific investigation of a species of pest into a normative endeavor. (*2)

Classifying mental illness has proved a continued problem, because of the vague understanding we have of their affects on a person. There are certain controversial disorders that have proven to be difficult to classify such as: homosexuality, psychopathy, personality disorders, and attention deficit disorder. Currently we diagnose mental illnesses by their symptoms rather than their causes. This led to some questions for discussion:

– Is it possible for any classification scheme of mental illness to be purely scientific?
– Do our classification schemes in psychiatry always rest on some non-scientific conception of what should count as a normal life?
– Why aren’t neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s classified as mental illness?

Some interesting websites and readings that I found are listed below. They are rather impartial and more concerned with delivering information.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Dominic Murphy’s book “Psychiatry in the Scientific Image” reviewed
The Social Construction of Mental Illness and its Implications for the Recovery Model


*1 – Cool Nurse is Cool
*2 – pp. 98-99, Psychiatry in the Scientific Image

The Large Hadron Collider and its Relation to Cosmic Rays February 18, 2009

Posted by bmwcarey in Philosophy of physics, Science & society.
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The Large Hadron Collider is considered an impending catastrophe by some people.  While it is a milestone of scientific achievement and a portrayal of humankind’s resolute endeavor to compose ourselves of a greater knowledge and understanding of the nature of the universe, the LHC experiment is neither new nor infrequent in nature.

The concept behind this immense experiment is to provide an adequate replication of the nature of matter shortly after the Big Bang, a time in which particles propagated and collided at astonishing kinetic energies and, consequently, considerable velocities.  The scientists behind CERN mean to collide two high-energy particles and observe the underlying mechanisms.  Speculations pertaining to the possible materialization of microscopic black holes and other disastrous scenarios instill fear in some people.  Though matter already behaved in this fashion 13.7 billion years ago, we require more compelling and currently observable evidence to justify the safety of the LHC.  Adrian Kent explains that counterarguments of catastrophic mechanisms, “show that the existence of the catastrophe mechanism is highly improbable, either because closer analysis shows that the proposed mechanism does in fact contradict well established physical principles, or because its existence would imply effects which we should almost certainly have observed but have not.”

Betelgeuse, a star of approximately 20 solar masses.  Image courtesy of NASA/ESA.  Image found through Wikipedia.

Betelgeuse, a star of approximately 20 solar masses. Imaged in ultraviolet. Image courtesy of NASA/ESA. Image found through Wikipedia.

Consider a massive star of more than eight solar masses.  Stars spend most of their lifetime in the main sequence, a period in which hydrogen fusion is active in the star core.  Massive stars are also capable of fusing heavier nuclei, such as helium into carbon, carbon into oxygen, and so on.  However, once these stars develop an iron core, they are incapable of conducting further core fusion; iron does not generate nuclear energy.  The degeneracy pressure of the core cannot sustain itself against the gravitational force of the star’s outer layers.  The inert iron core eventually collapses, releasing an overwhelming amount of energy and disseminating the outer layers in a supernova.

The Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant.  Courtesy of NASA/ESA.  Image found through Wikipedia.

The Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant. Courtesy of NASA/ESA. Image found through Wikipedia.

Within the hot remnants of supernova explosions, particles collide with each other until they escape at relativistic speeds.  These particles, identified as cosmic rays, may have kinetic energies greater than 10^20 eV, a figure of much greater magnitude than the maximum energy of LHC particles, 7 x 10^12 eV.  Earth’s atmosphere is bombarded by cosmic rays on a regular basis; occasionally, they even penetrate the atmosphere and reach the surface.  Despite this frequent occurrence, we have yet to witness the destruction of Earth, or other astronomical bodies, by means of microscopic black holes emerging from collisions between cosmic rays and other particles.  However, this does not undermine the LHC; it is a feat to be able to observe high-energy particle collisions in controlled experiments.

It is worth mentioning that the scientists behind CERN are also ordinary people.  They too have families, friends, and other attachments to the world around us.  While they are not immune to conducting mistakes, it would be erroneous to think they disregard the safety of others.

Through the LHC, scientists hope to uncover the elusive Higgs Boson, a theoretical particle recognized as the origin of mass.  Other aspirations include breakthroughs for String Theory and a more concrete understanding of dark matter.  CERN suffered a setback when an incident befell the LHC on September 19, but they currently intend to see the collider operational by late spring or early summer.

And now, the LHC rap!


Bennett, Jeffrey O., Megan Donahue, Nicholas Schneider, and Mark Voit. Cosmic Perspective: Stars, Galaxies and Cosmology. San Fransisco: Benjamin Cummings, 2007.

Adrian Kent. “A Critical look at risk assessments for global catastrophes” (pdf). 

CERN – The Large Hadron Collider.” CERN – European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Crab Nebula.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 

Betelgeuse.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Time Travel February 17, 2009

Posted by phillymb in Metaphysics, Philosophy of physics.
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Going along with Greg’s post on the topography of time, specifically the portion on Time Dilation, I will explore the mathematical possibility and philosophical implications of time travel in physics.

Who wouldn’t want to travel back to the past to see what life was like or peek into the future?  What sort of implications would this have?  The idea of time travel has entertained us for years from black and white TV shows like the Twilight Zone until now with shows like Lost.  However, from a physical perspective how would time travel be possible?

There are two ways to travel into another person’s future:

  1. Traveling at speeds >10% of the speed of light (https://planetparadigm.wordpress.com/2009/02/12/topography-of-time/)
  2. Taking advantage of an intense gravitational field (more…)

At What Point in Development do Humans Become Conscious?, Part 2: Differing Definitions of Consciousness February 16, 2009

Posted by ews8704 in Metaphysics, Philosophy of biology, Philosophy of mind.
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It’s been a while since my last post, and since then I’ve gotten some interesting comments (Yay!).Reaching

Tony mentioned that,  even if we are indeed conscious in the later stages of prenatal development, we aren’t  necessarily so in the earlier stages.  I agree; I don’t think anyone could argue that zygotes are conscious.  U.S. law, too,  differentiates between earlier and  later term abortions, with lawmakers and activists seeing 3rd trimester abortions as the most controversial.

Greg and Kyle suggested that consciousness doesn’t depend on memory. I also think they have a point-

One of my older relatives had a medical procedure done where the doctors stuck a tube with a small camera attached to it down his throat. The procedure was supposed to be horrifically uncomfortable, but the doctors needed him awake (conscious?),  in order to tell them if it was going down okay. So the doctors gave him a pill to make him completely forget the procedure. So my relative, to this day, has no idea what the surgery was like, although the doctors report he was very cooperative and helpful throughout.

I think our association of consciousness with memory comes from our experiences with passing out and falling asleep, when we truly do not remember what we were doing and what was happening around us.  Memory can also be helpful for us when we question when humans develop consciousness: If I can remember thinking, feeling, acting, and having a sense of self when I was, say, 5, at least I know  I was conscious by the age of 5, even if I wasn’t before then.

Dr. Brister pointed out that consciousness is sometimes defined as self-awareness, a trait that sets humans apart from other animals. Babies could be conscious of their surroundings, like many animals,  but not yet self-aware, unlike grown humans.  I want to include this in my discussion of differing definitions of consciousness.

Thanks everyone! Now here’s where my post gets weird…


Are There Laws in the Physical Sciences? February 14, 2009

Posted by jts3034 in Philosophy of physics.
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What is a Law?

What does it mean to be a physical law? One simple definition is to say that laws are generalizations that describe the world around us. This seems to be a little overly simple though. For example, it would be accurate to say something like, ‘there are no spheres of gold greater than a mile in diameter’. While this statement is a generalization of the state of nature, it doesn’t seem to be what we would consider a law. There is nothing about the nature of gold that prevents the formation of a gold sphere of this size. It simply just doesn’t exist. On the other hand, we could make the generalization that there are no spheres of uranium one mile in diameter. Uranium does have something in its nature that prevents this though. Using the concepts of radioactive decay and critical mass, there is no physical way to construct this object. In this case, the generalization about uranium spheres seems to be a law, or at least lawlike. Thus a stricter definition of law is needed.

Philosophers have tried to build a more explicit way to define law. One way is by equating the universe with a deductive system of logic. Deductive systems can have two qualities associated with them: strength and simplicity. A strong system will take many things into consideration. A simple system will require a minimum number of axioms. In the systems view, a law is any axiom of the system that has the best combination of strength and simplicity. The sphere of gold would add complexity while not adding strength and thus it is excluded as a law. The sphere of uranium adds needed strength and thus is a called a law. Critics of this system argue that this way of thinking causes laws to be mind dependent. What counts as simple or necessary is determined by those who are doing physics. However, laws should be independent of human consciousness.

Another way to view laws is as relationships between universals. For example, if I were to say ‘All F’s are G’s’, then the universals in this case would be F and G and the law would be the relation. Critics of this theory will argue that the relationship is very vague and is not necessarily the best way of describing the law. In the case of the uranium sphere, the law isn’t really that there are no uranium spheres of a mile diameter. That relation is a byproduct of the actual laws of critical mass and radioactive decay.

One other way philosophers talk about laws is to say that they don’t really exist. This is an anti-realist perspective. They will argue that the universe does not have to follow any certain rules. There is no exact way to describe the way things work and every law we have is just really an approximation. Looking back on almost all previous laws shows that much of what we have determined to be laws turned out to be false. The realist would argue that even though previous laws have been shown to only approximate reality, scientists are clearly getting better at describing the universe and we will eventually have some sort of complete understanding.

There is then the issue of what Physicists are actually trying to discover. There is a distinction between strict generalizations and ceteris paribus generalizations. Strict generalizations are those that exactly describe the world. Ceteris paribus generalizations that are only valid under certain circumstances. Ceteris paribus is Latin for other things equal. An example of a ceteris paribus generalization would be Newton’s Laws. These ‘laws’ only hold under the condition that gravity is not extremely large and objects are moving at low relativistic speeds. Some philosophers, such as Nancy Cartwright, argue that physicists only try to discover ceteris paribus generalizations and that there really are no strict generalizations to be found.

The Problem of Induction


It is the case that our Laws, considered as generalizations strict or ceteris paribus, must be derived from observations – a process we call induction. Ignoring any epistemological issues with assuming that what we sense accurately represents the universe, the need for induction in forming our Laws, by the nature of induction, precludes logically thinking that they will hold true universally. Explicitly stated, it need not be true that future events will follow the trends we observe, and there is no way to prove whether they will or will not before they occur. The only manner in which one can prove a statement drawn from induction is to perform an infinite number of tests – a task that is clearly impossible. A classic example is that of the “Law of Gravity.” In our experience, in the absence of other forces, objects fall down (or toward the Earth, if you must). Claiming that we can prove the Law by observing it many times – or even claiming that because we have observed it many times, it is likely to hold true universally – is illogical.

A further disadvantage of induction is the uncertainty it breeds. For a given set of observations, a number of conclusions can often be drawn, depending on the drawer’s past observations, experiences, etc. How is one to judge the quality of differing inductive claims? Surely those that are absurd – not following in a recognizable way from observations – can be discounted, as can those that are disprovable by a conflicting observation. Aside from similarly easy cases, judgment seems difficult – this is likely a useful area in which to apply Occam’s razor.

Is it rational to believe that inductively inferred Laws hold throughout the universe? According to the Skeptic’s Field Guide, it is. The author, defining a rational belief as one that is well reasoned and does not contradict itself, makes the following argument. Using an idea from Daniel Dennett, it is both physically and logically possible that the universe is described by a set of laws. According to the author, such an explanation is the simplest one, so by Occam’s razor we should accept the truth of Laws (or at least the ability of Laws to describe the universe). Obviously, this is not a logical argument, as it requires us to accept Occam’s razor. But by his standards, which seem reasonable to me, it is rational.

The truly important question is whether we can accept using inductively inferred laws to complete everyday (and not so everyday) tasks. If we cannot be certain that the aerodynamics principles we’ve established will always hold true, how can we feel safe riding in a plane? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims that we can simply because that is what we are used to. Everything we’ve observed has lead us to believe that induction is a good way to analyze the world, so in everyday life, we do. And as long as the planes keep flying, that’s alright with me.

Another issue with laws are that they have the possibility to be too simple to describe reality.  Sometimes there are other factors in reality that change how things work that differ from what the laws state.  One of those is the example of gravity and how two particles interact.  There is a law of gravity that states that the attraction between two bodies is directly related to the size of those particles and distance between those two.  The trouble is sometimes those particles are charged and this adds additional attraction or repulsion.  The question came up that if you say this then are forces just a human construct and not even reality so can say that these formulas don’t even try to describe reality?





Nancy Cartwright. How the Laws of Physics Lie. Oxford University Press, USA . 1983

Living in a Hologram February 13, 2009

Posted by ebrister in Philosophy of physics.
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It sounds weird to say that our universe might be a hologram, and to be honest, reading this article in New Scientist didn’t make it seem any less weird.

Topography of Time February 12, 2009

Posted by greghrinda in Philosophy of physics.
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Much of our life is directly related to the concept of time.   Whether it be  what time class starts or the deadline for an application, we make ourselves slaves to  the clock.   With so much dependent on the notion of time, it is important to dissect our knowledge of it in a scientific manner.

Aristotelian Spacetime

Everyday accounts of time use Aristotelian Spacetime.  In this sense, time is an infinite continuum and an instant in time is defined by the preceding and future time.  This description does not allow for a beginning of time or an end of time because that instant of time cannot be defined.  Aristotle uses a frame independent spacetime that requires the continuous progression of time.

Einstein’s Relativity

Relativity as defined by Einstein has different ramifications to the notion of time.  Each reference body has an individual time, meaning a standard “time” is useless without knowing the reference frame.   Relativity becomes more important as the speed of a reference frame increaes to relativistic speeds (>10% the speed of light).

Time dialtion is the culmination of time difference between reference frames.  Imagine a train passing through the desert.  Michael is centered on the train while Bruce is a distance to the side of the track.  Just as Michael and Bruce are aligned by a line perpindicular to the train track, lightning strikes both the engine and the caboose of the train.  Since both the front and back of the train are equidistant to Bruce and he is stationary, the light from the lightning will reach him at the same time, to Bruce the lightning strikes were simultaneous.   Micheal, on the other hand, travels toward the engine because he is traveling on the train, so he first recieves the light from the frontal lightning strike.  To Michael the two lightning strikes are events seperated by time.

Check out this video for a more detailed analysis of this Train Experiment of Time Dilation.  Here is another video on Time Dilation.  Another thought experiment showing differences in reference frame time is the Twin Paradox.  It is difficult to explain in text, so I am trying to find a good video for it.  Here are some pictures for the twins Pam and Jim.

Twin Paradox

Pam leaves Jim on Earth and travels away from Earth and back in a space ship.  They send each other greetings once a year using light messages.  Even going 60% the speed of light, Pam is eight years older while Jim is 10 years older.

Twin Paradox 2

Consequences of the Big Bang

Our understanding of the universe brings more debate about time.  Through the work of Edwin Hubble in the early 1900s, the universe is predicted to be roughly 13.7 billion years old.  Does this mean that there was a beginning of time?  Not really. The only thing that the current model shows is that time is infinite because the universe is expanding.  As we get closer to the time of the Big Bang, the physics that we use begins to break down, in particular, the Plank Era was the first 10-43 seconds after the big bang and it was not until after this time that the four fundamental forces were formed (Gravity, Electromagnetism, Weak Interaction, and Strong Interaction).  Even Stephen Hawking has noted the quandry of defing time

Time has a finite amount of past, but no beginning.

One new emerging theory relating to time and the Big Bang is the Quantization of Time.  This theory holds that time is comprised of unique quanta of time having a duration of 10-43 seconds.  This theory rebukes the continuum of time, trading in the analog style for a binary code of time related information.  The fact that we are currently incapable of measuring such precise gaps in time is a plus for the theory, but more ground work needs to be done before it is of widespread knowledge throughtout academia.

As was discussed in class, the Big Bang is our universe’s origin, but could we just be the branching of a greater entity above our universe?  This leads to the idea of multiverses.  Our universe could have been forged from the singularity of a black hole in another universe, ripping space and time to start our universe. Likewise, black holes in our universe may be portals to new multiverses.  In this case it would be unclear as to the function of time or the unification of time between multiverses as it is not required that each multiverse follow the same physical principles our universe expresses.



Electron-Positron Annihilation

The last interesting note on the Topography of Time that I will discuss is retrocausality.  Many people have heard of antimatter, and some have heard of particle annihilation.  In the case of electron-positron annihilation, the preceding matter-antimatter pair meet and are destroyed to produce a gamma photon (ignore the right half of the photo, that depicts information to another phenomena).  In this situation, the only difference between the electron and positron is their charge.  However, if time is not a straight arrow, the suppossed positron particle could just be an electron moving backwards through time.  This is based of the assumption of the right hand rule used to determine direction of charge.  If antimatter is just matter moving backwards through time, what are the ramifications to the physical theories of today?


Markosian, Ned. “Time.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time/#TopTim

Dowden, Bradely. “Time.” http://www.iep.utm.edu/t/time.htm#H8

Hitchcock, Christopher.  Contemporary debates in the philosophy of science. Maldon, MA: Blackwell publishing, 2004.

Salgado, Rob. “Aristotle’s Spacetime” http://www.phy.syr.edu/courses/modules/LIGHTCONE/aristotle.html

Ethical Issues Surrounding Human Cloning February 11, 2009

Posted by bmielenhausen in Medicine, Science & society.
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Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned back in 1996, cloning became a hot button issue with many people concerned about what we can do with new scientific advancements. Many of the fears people have from cloning come from a lack of knowledge about the process.

When human cloning first became a concern, Hollywood made many movies about armies of Hitler’s and the like coming to get normal Americans, when the truth is not only would that be the most expensive army on the planet, the clones would be unlikely to trained in time before they die, not even mentioning the fact that clones do not possess the same mind as the donor, that is a product of setting and circumstance. There are, however, many issues with human cloning that do pose ethical and physical questions that need to be answered if we are ever to conduct human cloning.

Technical and medical safety: This is the prime, number one reason trials of human cloning have never taken place. The success rate of an implanted egg coming to age is less than 1,000 to 1. At these rates no clone would be worth the hefty price tag that would come with it. Also, in clones of other types of animals (Sheep, cats, etc) birth defects are much higher than that of natural birth. LOS or Large Offspring Syndrome causes the clone to grow too large inside the womb of the host, causing birthing difficulties or death. Along with the increased risk of birth defects, clones would also suffer from “old age”, meaning symptoms normally associated with the elderly like hip and joint problems and even senility, much earlier in their lives. Some scientists estimate a human clone would have to have their hips replaced in their mid teens. Even Dolly died early at 4 years old, most sheep live to at least 10 years.

Undermining the concept of reproduction and family: These issues become more of a problem in a physiological sense, disrupting the normal family unit to include clone “children”. Some people believe that clones will disrupt the normal human mating process because everyone will want an exact copy of themselves, not just passing on half their genetic information.

Ambiguous relations of a cloned child with the progenitor: Again this has more to deal with the relationships that would occur between the clone and the progenitor, or genetic donor. In my mind I cannot think of any reason, other than perhaps medical benefits of having a genetic copy lying around, why anyone would clone themselves just to have, and if the clone was made for medical purpose, is that truly fair for the clone, should they have a say as to if they even want to donate whatever they were created for.

Confusing personal identity and harming the psychological development of a clone: Most people seem to think that clones would be all messed up, both physically and mentally. I could only Imagine if the only reason I was created was not because my parents loved me and wanted to raise me, but because somebody needed a new organ or other donor part. And if you were a clone that was made to be raised as a normal child, knowing that you are the exact same as another human could be damaging. Every aspect of life would be compared to your donor, and chances are you would be nothing like your donor, at least as far as your mind and what you think.

Concerns about eugenics; Promoting trends towards designer babies and human enhancement: As soon as you start talking about cloning, people bring up genetic testing and super babies. I doubt we will ever clone a human being, even if we eventually have the technology to make it a viable option for most people because it would open a huge can of worms. If we eventually have the technology to pick out exactly what we want our kids to look like, exactly what traits we want to hand down to our children, we would create a caste system where you would have these “super babies” competing for the same jobs as “regular” people. I believe that we will get to a point where we eradicate the chance of all potentially harmful genes (cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc) just like we have for other such medical problems like polio.


Thanks for reading,

-Ben Mielenhausen

Are There Laws in the Social Sciences? February 11, 2009

Posted by Tony Perrone in Metaphysics, Social science.
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Forget God, I wanted to play Popper for a bit. That’s right, I wanted to denounce any claim of Marx or Freud being scientists in the name of pure, beautiful physics.

Surely to question the existence of laws in the social sciences is to dredge up the demarcation issue, for is it not the presence of laws that makes physics so elegant and clean? But in my zealous fervor I hit the stopping block that has ever been the bane of philosophers and logicians attempting to find universality: Language.

Just because I was being selfish and closed minded, doesn’t mean I was going to slack in my diligence. I started at the beginning, where any good thought-experiment lab rat should; I asked, “Well, what is a law anyway?” It seems a simple question – we toss the word around daily the way sailors swear – but as is so often the case, a common and well “understood” term seems elusive in a strict definition. Try and consider it in a philosophical sense and, well, I go through a lot of aspirin.

Wiser men than I have approached this subject. I recall quoting Harold Kincaid and John T. Roberts, who made good arguments for and against (respectively) laws in the social sciences. Fantastic as both of their writing was, why not loosen things up a bit here. This is a blog, not a classroom, and I’m certain that if I bore you all to hell you’re just going to give up and surf Facebook anyway (and that is a social law), so let’s shoot from the hip, shall we?

Here’s definition looser than Jared’s old jeans: laws are generalities. Great, but that won’t even get you a sandwich. So, let’s narrow it further, shall we? One might say that laws have explanatory and predictive value. This is fantastic because it gives laws utility, without which many of you won’t give a hoot about the avalanche of words to follow. This tastefully ambiguous definition seems to stand up to most of the available scrutiny out there, and makes for a good basis to continue.

Consider the following: what if laws have to be universal and robust? Crap. This is the mater over which talkative folk start to polarize. We might say that the social sciences fail in these respects, what with their unrelenting string of exceptions and purposefully non-universal explanations. It would seem that the so-called social “scientists” can’t quite get their theories to play nicely together, or even keep them alive for more than a century or so.

Conversely, one might say that our ugly social laws just don’t seem universal or robust because we are having a hard time getting all of the data and accounting for all of the relevant variables. In fact, as long as we’re finger-pointing here, this school of thought could actually drag out a host of examples of “natural” science falling short in robustness and universality. That’s right, stick it to Newton and then go hang out with your global warming buddies; their data sucks, too, they’ll understand your pain.

Adding confusion to the mix, Roberts said that explanatory and predictive value doesn’t stem from universality and robustness. Thus, though social science might not have laws, it doesn’t need laws. Take that, laws! Elitist jerks.

When it comes down to it, though, calling something a law is just a social construction. I don’t particularly believe that theories or ideas can be put into discreet categories, nor should they. I would as readily use Newton’s Rad Idea About Inertia as I would his “Second Law”. The title of law only brings weight when scientists are talking about science, not when they’re doing science. Perhaps it would be more useful, then, to call things more-or-less lawlike than one another, since everything’s being put into relativistic terms anyway.

Getting back to social sciences, though, I pose the question of how well they can predict phenomena. Is society and humanity as predictable as the path of a projectile? (Chaos Theorists: Shut up, I asked if it was as predictable, not perfectly predictable.) If so, does this finally put a stomping end to the determinism question posed by our snooty friends the metaphysicians? Is free will that last, most unpredictable variable in the social scientific model, accountable only in terms of statistical probabilities? Are quantum states a reflection of the free will of sub-atomic particles? Will I ever end this grueling and unnecessarily snarky blog post?






Roberts, John T. “There are no Laws of the Social Sciences” Contemporary debates in philosophy of science. 2004, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 151 – 167

Kincaid, Harold “There are Laws in the Social Sciences” Contemporary debates in philosophy of science. 2004, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 168 – 185 

Special thanks to Wikipedia, the sole source of New Media in this writing.