Nominalism and Laws of Nature

July 12, 2006 at 12:27 am Leave a comment

Try as I might, I cannot understand nominalism. I realize that it is popular among certain kinds of naturalists, but it makes very little sense.Whether I am a naturalist or not, I do not know but it seems to me that nominalism is at least prima facie inconsistent with physicalism, or the belief that there are such things as physical laws.

It is commonly thought to be the other way ’round: naturalism and physicalism being closely related to nominalism. However, it seems when we consider the belief in physical laws, it is quite the opposite–that naturalism and physicalism seems inconsistent with nominalism.

To begin, it is important that we make a few distinctions. We should start by stating that a universal is itself a non-metaparticular. x1, x2, and x3 are share in a similar property p, so much so that we would put x1, x2, and x3 in the same set, call it set s. Granting this, it does not follow that s is itself an instance of s. In other words set s is not another particular to which the property p belongs, but rather a universal something which cannot be particularized. It does not follow that just because s refers to that it is a meta-particular: a particular sharing p with the rest of s but at a meta level, but that it is much different, not only in degree but in kind. (By doing this, we can avoid the ‘third-man’ argument which was so fatal to Plato’s conception of universals as meta-particular Forms).

It is important to physicalism that there exist certain physical laws that govern physical things, such as matter and those things which are metaphysically dependent on matter–perhaps minds, for example. Given that there are physical laws, it also follows that there are certain instances of these laws. (It is important to note that whether physical laws are seen as hypothesis to the best explanation, empirical generalizations or a kind of dispositional account is irrelevant to the argument).

Given that there are instances of these physical laws, for example gravity, it is obvious that there are particulars, on nominalism or realism. For a law l, there are physical particulars pp of l. In other words, what allows us to account for pp is a l.

It would be a mistake to think that what could account for pp and l would be a meta-particular since l is not another instance of pp–that is not what a physical law means. In other words, irregardless of whether L is a disposition of the behavior of physical objects, an empirical generalization or a hypothesis to the best explanation it is not a meta-particular.

Given that physical laws are essential to physicalism, AND that a universal is a non-metaparticular, nominalism is inconsistent with physicalism and as a result may forms of naturalism. (Of course any physicalism that claims it is a family of resemblances is not worthy of the name, and guilty of advocating a whopping coincidence).

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Entry filed under: metaphysics.

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