Tooley on Laws of Nature and Counterfactual Support

January 25, 2009

So I was looking over Dan’s reconstruction of Tooley’s argument below, and I’m still somewhat worried about its validity.

Dan mentioned that I thought there might be some funny business with premises (3) and (10) (on his first reconstruction):

(3) It is a nomological truth that all salt, when in water, dissolves.

(10) It is true that if this piece of salt were in water and were not dissolving, it would not be in the vicinity of a piece of gold.

Dan’s certainly right that there’s no straight-up contradiction here (like there would be if (10) was stating a material conditional).  However, something still feels very odd about the line of argumentation being taken.  What originally bothered me was the fact that, in (10), we are using a putative law to support a counterfactual about what would happen in a situation in which that law (or, rather, the law from which it is derived) is violated.  And I’m not convinced that any law can support a counterfactual like this.

This is a problem because Tooley is trying to draw a distinction between two classes of nomological truths (the laws proper and the logical consequences of laws).  He is arguing that the second class cannot support certain counterfactuals which the first class can – and that, therefore, they must be treated differently.  However, if he demonstrates this by pointing to a certain class of counterfactuals which are not only problematic for the second class, but for the first class as well, then he’s failed to draw the distinction.

So, I’ve been convinced by Dan that Tooley’s argument demonstrates that nomological truths like (L) all salt, when in water and near gold, dissolves in water. have difficulty supporting certain counterfactuals.  However, I haven’t been convinced that laws proper don’t face the very same difficulty.  On my understanding of things, if I can show that a plain jane law faces similar difficulties with the same kind of counterfactual, then I will have undermined Tooley’s distinction.

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Tooley’s Laws of Nature and Counterfactual Support

January 17, 2009

In “The Nature of Laws”, Michael Tooley argues that some proper subclass of the nomological truths are laws of nature, since laws should support counterfactuals and not all nomological truths do that.

He says, “If one says that all nomological statements support counterfactuals, and that it is a nomological truth that all salt when both in water and near gold dissolves, one will be forced to accept [that if this piece of salt were in water and were not dissolving, it would not be in the vicinity of a piece of gold], whereas it is clear that there is good reason not to accept [that].”  (Last line in first paragraph of section 3.)

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Tiebreaker Reasons

January 14, 2009

The beginning of the term affords opportunities to think about things I normally don’t think about, so here is a topic brought by reading discussions of hiring practices: tiebreaker reasons.

What are tiebreaker reasons? They are the reasons that determines an agent’s decision or judgment when all other reasons are equal. For the intuitive notion, consider the following example. When one says, “Our final two candidates, First and Second, are as good as each other with respect to their research, teaching, and service, but we should hire First because she is from Winnipeg,” one is offering being from Winnipeg as a tiebreaker reason for hiring First over Second. As the name indicates, intuitively tiebreaker reasons should only matter when there is a tie.

Tiebreaker reasons like that one are, I think, often offered in casual conversations. But I worry: are there really tiebreaker reasons? how should tiebreaker reasons be modeled? and ultimately, are tiebreaker reasons epistemically rational to have?

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