Review: EOSC 116

EOSC 116 (Mesozoic Earth: Time of the Dinosaurs)

Prof: Dr. Louise Longridge

A very shallow search on the Internet might lead you to believe EOSC 116 is a GPA booster… Hahaha, nope. (See here, here, and here.) Actually I guess it can be, but I wouldn’t by any stretch call EOSC 116 “easy”. Like most other courses at UBC, it requires lots of study time and hard work.

Apatosaurs didn’t actually live in the water… (Source: Charles R Knight from the Wikimedia Commons.)

Grade breakdown

Midterm quizzes              48%

Graded discussions           7%

Final exam                       45%

Course content

There were six units in the course:

  1. The nature of science: Key geological concepts.
  2. The history of life on Earth: The path to the dinosaurs.
  3. The Earth machine: Linking the spheres.
  4. The Mesozoic climate system: A dinosaur weather report.
  5. Planetary engineering: Mesozoic tectonics.
  6. Reading the story of Earth’s ancient biosphere.

Midterm quizzes

There was one “midterm quiz” per unit, except for the last one (which was just tested more heavily on the final). One’s worst quiz score was dropped… For me, that was the first one, somewhat ironically. I would pick a favourite, but honestly I thought all of it was fascinating. I learned a lot of applications of concepts I’d studied in other courses and thought about things I had previously not spared any thoughts on (e.g., why storms are somewhat cyclical). Some pretty tricky questions, I will admit, although the content seems very straightforward.

Earth… 237 million years ago or so. (Source: Img Arcade.)

Graded discussions

One of these was easy marks (introduce yourself) and the other was a short paper on a topic of your choosing. I really liked the second assignment! I thought it was a good intro for first-year students to reading and citing research papers. I wrote mine on the morphology and behaviour and such of one type of dinosaur.

Final exam

I thought it was pretty fair. The questions were easier than the ones on the midterm quizzes, and there were some bonus questions. I actually graded my own final exam while I was sitting there, since I KNEW which questions I had gotten wrong (I just didn’t know how to get them right, obviously!) and my final exam score ended up being one point higher than what I predicted. That’ll teach anyone that tries to tell me I can’t possibly have any idea how I did on a final…


No recommendations? Recap of the prof? Honestly I don’t have much to say anymore in terms of recommendations, because they are basically all the same. There’s also no textbook for this course. Louise seemed like a very lovely person, so kudos to her! The TAs were also very active and very helpful.

I really did like this course. It did take a lot of work, and I actually spent about as much time studying for EOSC 116 as I did for BIOC 302 (only for EOSC I regurgitated some of the info we were learning into posts on the blog). I thought it was pretty easy to get enthusiastic about the material, and I really liked the applicability of a lot of concepts to climate change and whatnot. Of course I liked watching the assigned videos about dinosaurs, although at times my scepticism started to get the best of me. (We watched some series of videos called ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’, and there was a lot of story-telling about some of the dinosaurs…)

Sooo I’d recommend the course, but not as an “easy A” course. If you’re taking it to learn about dinosaurs, you might want to reconsider. The course is much more focused on the Earth itself and its systems, and shedding light on what the Earth was like when the dinosaurs were around. If you think you’re going to be studying tyrannosaurs and sauropods only, you are indeed mistaken. They make appearances, but the Earth is the main star of this course.

Review: BIOC 302

BIOC 302 (General Biochemistry)

Profs: Dr. Alice Mui and Dr. Robert Maurus

This is probably one of the last pre-requisites for medical school that pre-meds take. A lot of people find BIOC 302 a complete nightmare, and it is indeed very challenging. Last term’s average was 70%, although I believe a lot of people did pretty well on the midterm (I think its average might have been around 75%).

There is a lot of ground to cover in BIOC 302, and I know people say it can be a bit dry but I honestly liked it a whole lot more than BIOC 202. I didn’t knock it out of the park (I wish!), partially because I had four finals in two days – BIOC 302 being the third – so I really had trouble pacing my studying a month in advance to try to cover all four classes equally well.

Grade breakdown

Midterm        50%

Final              50%

Pretty simple – like BIOC 202.

Course content

The TCA cycle. There are lots of mnemonics on the web if you want to use one to memorise the substrates. (Source: Biochem 4 Life.)

The TCA cycle. There are lots of mnemonics around if you want to use one to memorise the substrates! The first few weeks of the course were centred around nitrogen metabolism (basically). You learn how amino acids (N-containing by definition) are built and broken down, as well as how they’re disposed of. You also look a bit at the sorts of molecules that can be derived from amino acids. This part of the course was covered by Dr. Mui. I don’t have too much to complain about, although there was A LOT to remember. Anyone who hadn’t already memorised the amino acids probably did so for this part of the course, despite constant reassurance that we wouldn’t have to memorise anything for BIOC 302. (LOL. Nope.)

I actually kind of enjoyed this part of the course, because I liked the links to real life and such. Of course the obligatory “beans + rice = complete protein, yay vegetarianism!” bit was shoved in somewhere, although I disliked the lack of mention about how differing amounts of amino acids are required. (I.e., it might not just be enough to get “some” of all essential amino acids. Some are needed in greater amounts, and some in lesser amounts.)

Overall, super interesting part of the course. Learning ATP costing was very important here. Dr. Mui provided slides, so basically I just printed everything off, brought them to class, and took notes on the slides. I reviewed them when I got home, and used to textbook to supplement things I didn’t understand entirely. I felt like the greatest focus was on shuttling nitrogen throughout the body (using glutamine and alanine) and how that’s done (transaminases, sometimes). I had a much easier time learning AA breakdown (into the urea cycle and/or TCA cycle). You also learn about WHERE certain reactions occur (e.g., glutamine from extrahepatic tissues is transported into the mitochondria, glutaminated to glutamate, dehydrogenated to a-KG and ammonium which goes to CPS-1 and into the urea cycle). Tracking radiolabelled atoms is apparently also an exam favourite.

The regulation of fatty acid breakdown. (Source: Dept. of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Guelph.)

Next we learned all about fatty acid metabolism. Again, I found learning how fats were broken down into fatty acids and those broken down further easier than learning about fatty acid synthesis. You learn about regulation of the processes, energy costing of fatty acids (ATP yielded from breaking down a fatty acid = usually a lot!), radiolabelling, etc. Cholesterol was also included, and I was happy to see it given some positive attention (in one of our first classes on this topic, we talked about the physiological roles of cholesterol). Someone in class said cholesterol’s physiological role was to clog arteries… Erm, not quite! That is certainly a nasty side effect of oxidised cholesterol, but I definitely wouldn’t call it a ‘physiological role’!

Before our midterm we had a lecture on the integration of metabolism, which for me felt like a refresher of BIOC 202. The midterm itself was very fair. There was nothing on it that someone could earnestly say was a surprise. The TAs prepared everyone pretty well for it.

Thanks to BIOC 302 I now have a new pet peeve: seeing left-handed DNA in magazines when they’re trying to talk about human DNA. DNA in humans is right-handed… unlike in this picture. (Source: The Daily Beast.)

After the midterm we moved onto nucleotide metabolism. Thought you were done learning about DNA replication, transcription, and translation after BIOL 112? Think again! You do it again, but with MUCH MORE DETAIL. You learn about nucleotide metabolism (building and breaking down nucleotides – with more focus on building them, IMO), and more about DNA and genes and stuff. You don’t have to know mechanisms, again, but you have to know some of the enzymes used in the synthesis of nucleotides, as well as how they are created (e.g., purines are built onto PRPP, whereas pyrimidine rings are built and THEN stuck onto PRPP), and how much ATP it costs to make them.

The final was basically all stuff on nucleotide metabolism, DNA, and all that goes along with those things (i.e., it was non-cumulative). Don’t be fooled by it seeming to be ‘one topic’; it felt like there was a lot more to know for the final than for the midterm (but that could just be me). You definitely want to learn what the nucleotides look like as soon as you can, because you MIGHT get a question on your final that asks you to draw adenine, or guanine triphosphate, or deoxyuridine triphosphate. (“dUTP?” you say. “That exists?” Yes! Uridine can appear in DNA…)


Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 1.58.21 PMLehninger: Principles of Biochemistry (6th ed.)

It was okay. It did provide some helpful details that I didn’t get in class, but it has way too much detail in the readings and it’s up to you to pick around what you don’t remember going over in class. The questions at the end of chapters honestly weren’t that helpful, either. I think you could do without the textbook, but then again it certainly did clear up a few misunderstandings that I had… Use your best judgment when deciding to buy. Personally I just used the ones that were on reserve at Woodward Library, and that worked fine for me. I guess you need to be organised to do that, but you can work around buying it (if you’re a desperate cheapskate, like me).


SO USEFUL. SO SO SO SO SO USEFUL. If anything for this course, I recommend that you go to your tutorials. DO NOT SKIP. EVER. DON’T. I’M LOOKING AT YOU. The TAs for this course are truly amazing people, and they KNOW about 80% of what will *definitely* appear on the exams. One of the TAs for the course when I took it held a review session before the midterm, and then my own TA held one before the final. My TA was so amazing that he even answered Facebook questions regularly (we had a FB group for his TA sections) and held a gameshow event two nights before the final where everyone had a chance to put their knowledge to the test… So, even though all the TAs are incredible, I’d say that Leo Ng (the TA for my section!) definitely deserves some credit for some of the success of the students in his sections.


Pretty standard, as with other courses: study regularly to better retain information (even more important for memorising the TCA cycle, urea cycle, beta-oxidation of fatty acids, nucleotide metabolism, and all the regulatory pathways). Go to tutorials, and go to class. Dr. Mui’s notes can be a bit misleading in and of themselves about what’s on the final, but if you go to class you can tell what things she is emphasising more. Dr. Maurus straight up tells you what to expect. So yeah, GO TO CLASS!

If you don’t score 90%+ in this class, don’t be dismayed. It is a VERY hard class.

The profs

A brief note. I liked Dr. Maurus and Dr. Mui, although Dr. Mui was upset that students preferred not to use the discussion board on Connect. Honestly, it’s so “out of the way” on the Internet (log into Connect, navigate to your course, open the discussion board, try to pick through posts to see what you’re interested in, and posting without the ability to edit, etc.) that I find it a pain to use. I wonder if Piazza would have been more effective (auto-log-in + ability for students to answer and get feedback + ability to edit + more informal)?

I don’t know why Dr. Maurus has bad reviews on I’m assuming some of it is because he is a very harsh grader, and is quite picky about responses on exams (you need to have exactly the right answer to get full marks, not ‘almost the right answer’ or something). He came down pretty hard on us for our final, but I still did decently so I suppose I’m not upset as I could’ve been. I thought he was generally pretty nice, and I didn’t find him hard to understand at all (with his neat accent), although he can sometimes snub you if you give the wrong answer in class (which discouraged some people from attempting to answer). I thought he was really clear in what he expected, even though he was a tough grader. I liked how he led lectures, although I do wish there had been more practice problems (outside of clicker questions (in Dr. Mui’s classes) and tutorial questions and ‘things to think about’). I don’t really have anything bad to say about him though… I’d recommend him. Some of the best profs are tough graders.


This class can probably be an easy A if you are genuinely interested in the material and study religiously and are generally on top of it. I don’t think anyone has the time to be THAT on the ball for BIOC 302, and it certainly has a tonne of content that it can sometimes seem intimidating… Look for patterns and don’t try to memorise things in isolation. Everything is interconnected. Listen in class and participate in lectures (and if not in lectures (because you’re shy), then try to participate in tutorials). If you’re wrong, you get the sting of making a mistake, but it’s better than waiting for the answer and then thinking ‘oh, I would have known that in an exam situation’.

I like this class more in hindsight than when I was taking it… 😉 I think it is an excellent springboard for students hoping to go into medical school, and provides a valuable knowledge base for learning more about the human body and its wonders!

Scientific Explanation – Part 4

Last time I wrote about scientific explanation I was talking about Hempel and his DN and IS models, and how he said explanation and prediction were symmetrical (both are arguments that have the same structure). The conclusion of those posts was that there isn’t really symmetry between predictions and explanations (not all explanations are potential predictions, and not all predictions are potential explanations) and there are problems with irrelevance and asymmetry of causation in his models of explanation.

Others have written about models of explanation, and Philip Kitcher even tries to salvage Hempel’s model. The main problem with Hempel’s model (called the covering law model, broadly, because Hempel invokes laws in the DN and IS models) is that it is too loose and accepts any logically deductive argument as an explanation. Kitcher says that explanation is all about providing a unification to explain a wide range of phenomena.

What makes a theory unifying? A unifying theory is one that allows us to derive a maximum number of consequences from a minimum number of argument patterns. Explanations that employ argument patterns are ones that belong to a unifying theory. The DN and IS explanations don’t filter out explanations that have, say, a minimum number of consequences but a maximum number of argument patterns. If they did that, then maybe we could solve the asymmetrical causation and irrelevance problems.

So we’re saying all this, but what are argument patterns? Where do we get them? To answer the latter question first, we get them from some reserve of argument patterns, called E(K). Hempel basically said that E(K) is any argument that is a valid deductive argument (for the DN model), but in reality E(K) should be limited to a small set of unifying argument patterns.

Argument patterns are schematic sentences that have filling rules and some sort of classification. Because we have these, we can fix the irrelevance problem by eliminating explanations that have the same number of consequences as another explanation but have more argument patterns. Those are explanations that don’t minimise the number of argument patterns, which is what we want our explanations to do. Explanations that maximise the number of consequences and minimise the number of argument patterns are those that have the greatest unifying power.

The problem is… what IS the greatest unifying power? What does that mean? How do we know what is the “maximum number” and what is the “minimum number”? Sure, we can say that one explanation that implies everything and MORE than another explanation is better, and we can reject the “other explanation”. We can also say that of two explanations with the same number of consequences, the one with a set of argument patterns that is a smaller subset of the other explanation’s set of patterns is the better one.

Contrary to what Kitcher might say, this doesn’t really help with the cases of asymmetry and irrelevance. In the case of asymmetry, we may have two explanations that have the same number of argument patterns and consequences, each, but which explain in different directions. We could predict the height of the flagpole from the shadow, or the length of the shadow from the height. Kitcher says that the latter has more consequences, so wouldn’t have the one involving predicting the flagpole’s height. This could work, but at any given time they would have the same number of consequences and it wouldn’t be clear why one is better than the other. Of course, intuitively we prefer predicting the length of the shadow from the flagpole, but we can’t always fall back on intuition to explain things…

Kitcher would reject the male pregnancy example, too, because an explanation of the prevention of male pregnancy involves a larger number of argument patterns if it talks about birth control pills than an explanation that doesn’t mention BCP. While you could say he “solves” the problem, it’s more like it’s being avoided because he’s rejecting the argument pattern for the wrong reason… We should reject that explanation because mentioning birth control pills in that context is completely irrelevant, not because it’s an extra argument pattern.

Sooo, what can we say after all this? Well, Hempel’s models weren’t the best and neither, it seems, is Kitcher’s model of unification… I have no satisfying conclusion. D;

Laws in the Social Sciences – Part 2

Did you know? People are physical objects! #mindblown (Source: Wikigag blog.)
Did you know? People are physical entities! #mindblown (Source: Wikigag blog.)

So we ended yesterday on the note that there are no laws in the social sciences, according to Roberts, because hedged laws aren’t really laws. Thankfully, Harold Kincaid disagrees. He says there ARE laws in the social science, because social sciences study societies which are made up of human beings which are physical entities. Physical entities are governed by laws that physics describes, therefore… there must be laws that govern societies (and not just ones that we make up in legislature).

Kincaid also asks, “what is a law?” He answers it first by saying that they’re exceptionless generalisations. Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good for social science… Kincaid says yeah, there has been a lot of debate, but laws are actually statements that identify a causal factor. This does seem to set the bar for lawhood pretty low, if anything that identifies a causal force has met the sufficiency criterion for being a law.

To the first objection, which says that laws are exceptionless generalisations, Kincaid points out that no regularity is exceptionless. Pretty fair. The inverse square law identifies a causal force (gravity), but ignores all other forces, so it clearly does have exceptions. We call it a law, but we seem to forget that it’s kind of a hedged law.

Second, there is the argument that laws aren’t just accidental generalisations, and some accidental generalisations may pick out causal factors. Additionally, laws are supposed to tell us what would happen if things are different (i.e., support counterfactuals). Statements that just identify causal factors don’t do this. Laws also allow us to make predictions, and supposedly causal factor’s don’t. In fact, causal factors don’t seem to support counterfactuals, either. Right?

Harold Kincaid. (Source: CIECE.)
Harold Kincaid. (Source: CIECE.)

Wrong! There isn’t really a division between laws and other types of causal claims, Kincaid says. Every causal statement given has a degree of necessity, and they also always have some counterfactual implications. What differs is their scope or breadth; generalisations in the social sciences that involve picking out causal factors may have smaller scopes than other laws, but they still have some modal breadth. Causal claims can also support some predictions, so this objection fails.

Another objection is that laws describe very fundamental causal claims – ones that aren’t the result of much deeper forces. This is kind of a bad objection, though, because even within the physical sciences there are derivative laws that still count as laws because they explain and predict stuff.

Yet another objection is that laws don’t need to have causal claims, to which Kincaid says fine. Not all laws have causal statements, but causal claims are a type of law nevertheless. Objections that try to separate causal statements from laws will fail.

In the end Kincaid says that laws cite causal factors that help us explain and predict – but not all laws have causal factors, and that’s fine.

“The key question thus is whether the social sciences provide causal claims that provide relatively extensive explanations and predictions.”

If they can do that, then the social sciences have laws and are legit sciences. How are causal claims established? By “tak[ing] background knowledge of causes, observ[ing] various changes in factors of interest, and infer[ring] what causes what.” If we can show similar effects in repetitions, “[s]uch knowledge is strengthened and deepened.”

Paeleontology... one science that (Source: AMNH.)
Paeleontology… one science that doesn’t rely on scientific experimentation. (Source: AMNH.)

Do social sciences meet this requirement? Social sciences often employ experiments that are qualitative in nature, and they also make background assumptions that are patently false, so it seems like they don’t meet this requirement. Kincaid knocks this down by saying that we don’t necessarily have to measure how much one factor changes when we alter an independent variable. We can attribute results to the manipulation of some factor when we hold everything else constant, and we also clearly have many sciences that don’t rely on strict scientific experimentation (e.g., astronomy, paeleontology, geology, evolutionary biology).

What about the assumptions bit? We know these assumptions are either idealisations or abstractions, but if they are false why does an experiment based on them make any difference? Well, for one thing, the natural sciences often freely employ false idealisations and abstractions. The ideal gas law is so-named because it works under the assumption that a gas behaves in an ideal fashion, EVEN THOUGH we know that gases do not always behave ideally (i.e., we have certain circumstances under which we know gases do not behave ideally). We still know that the causes mentioned in the theory are what are responsible for data, and not the falsity of the assumptions. Nonexperimental natural sciences show this, and social sciences do as well.

Kincaid uses the law of supply and demand to demonstrate this, and points out that the law has a causal factor identified (price). So it’s pretty law-like. In fact it’s a law. It’s hedged, but it’s still a law. It does not say that price is the ONLY causal factor, because there are certainly other events that are going on that will affect demand or supply, but the crucial thing is that it identified a causal factor. Multiple lines of observational evidence seems to strengthen the law, also, so there we go. Economics is a social science and it’s got a law… so there are laws in the social sciences.

Any objections relating to the ceteris paribus clause associated with the law of supply and demand seem to have no water given previous points mentioned about this. Laws in the physical and natural sciences also have ceteris paribus clauses, but we still consider them laws. Most sciences deal with complex phenomena, yet still produce causal knowledge that help explain and reliably predict stuff.

There’s an objection that if there are laws in the social sciences then we have reduced human beings to automatons devoid of free will. Again, this is not true; social sciences may have laws, but they do not solely use laws to explain phenomena. Only the libertarian’s notion of free will is problematic in this case, because the compatibilist does not claim that free will and causal influences can’t coexist. (Only the libertarian says that choice is 100% uncaused by anything else aside from the person making the choice.)

Do babies make themselves? ... Please don't consider that a serious question. (Source: Christina Rutz on Flickr.)
Do babies make themselves? … Please don’t consider that a serious question. (Source: Christina Rutz on Flickr.)

Kincaid finds the libertarian notion of freedom troublesome, because it would seem to imply that if we are the only cause of our actions that we must have created ourselves. Obviously this isn’t what happens… Self-creation is not possible for humans. You can make something of yourself, but you do not literally make yourself (especially not from scratch!).

Kincaid further says that the objection fails because it “presupposes that the social sciences are only about individual behaviour”, which they are not. The social sciences may also be about collective behaviour, because in reality no man is really an island and we act differently in groups than we do alone (oftentimes).

In the end (I left out one objection that Kincaid also takes down, but I’m tired of writing and this is so long already), I think Kincaid’s argument is pretty convincing. Of course, it’s a little difficult to say that he or Roberts are actually debating the same thing… After all, they are working with different definitions of what is it for something to be a ‘law’. There is also a question of whether one needs advance knowledge of what counts as interference if one is the have a law, but Kincaid says you don’t (but even if you did you could supposedly identify interference for the law of supply and demand).

While reading Kincaid’s paper I did keep wondering if he was relying too much on the law of supply and demand as an example. Is he pushing the analogy a bit too far? Even if gravity is a nicer law than the law of S+D, it doesn’t defeat the idea that there are laws where there isn’t vector addition, so it’s not a huge problem that he pushes the analogy in his argument.

Probably the biggest problem for Kincaid is whether he sets the bar too low for laws and what it means to be a ‘law’. Where exactly is the line between laws and non-laws anyway? We can have a law that has causal factors and a broad scope, but when we narrow the scope down but it maintains its causal factors does it become a non-law? What about when we eliminate the causal factors?

Questions, questions. Philosophy is so complex…

Laws in the Social Sciences – Part 1

Are there laws in the social sciences? Some say yay, some say nay. John Roberts says nay.

I guess that first off we need to ask why this even matters.

First, we should care because if there are laws in the social sciences then THERE IS NO FREE WILL… according to some people. Clearly this doesn’t really hold much ground and there isn’t much of a connection. We can have laws in the social sciences and still say that human beings have free will. The non-existence of laws in the social sciences would also be compatible with the concept of determinism, so anyone who says that the presence of social scientific laws means there is no free will is WRONG. D<

Everyone knows that only people in white coats are scientists. DUH. (Source: The Pickled Hedgehog blog.)
Everyone knows that only people in white coats are scientists. DUH. (Source: The Pickled Hedgehog blog.)

Second, we should care because we have to have laws in the social sciences if we’re going to say they’re actual science. Without laws, they’re not real science. Obviously many people would be familiar with this reason. For a long time people thought that social sciences weren’t really sciences at all because they don’t have laws, they’re not as quantitative as “actual” sciences, etc. etc. The thing is, though, that explanation and prediction don’t need to invoke laws. WE’VE MOVED ON FROM HEMPEL, PEOPLE.

Third, and similar to the second reason, we should care because any field that counts as science has to have laws so that it looks more like physics, which is the ~classical~ example of true science. Yeah this is also clearly wrong. “If It has laws it looks more science-y”? No. This is outdated. Social sciences count as science, and “having laws” is not an a priori requirement for “being a science”.

Fourth, the last reason we should care is because some would claim that we don’t need any laws for anything to be a science, so it doesn’t matter if there aren’t laws in the social sciences. In fact, if the social sciences are genuine sciences, then the existence of laws clearly isn’t a hallmark of science… because the social sciences don’t have laws.

Okay, so now that we care why it matters whether or not the SS have laws, we have to ask what a law is. Well, they seem to imply regularities or universal regularities – but they are more than that. Roberts says there are three kinds of regularities that can be implied: strict, statistical, or hedged regularities. Strict regularities just say “all x do/are y”. Statistical ones say “all x has probability z of being/doing y”. Hedged ones say “ceteris parisbus, all x are/do y”. Laws that imply hedged regularities are hedged laws, which are what Roberts says would exist in the social sciences… except hedged laws aren’t really laws.

Laws are supposed to have modal character and tell you what could have happened or what is possible, and laws are supposed to be robust in that they aren’t accidental. So hedged laws aren’t laws, because they kind of fail since they can’t really tell you what could have happened in a complex situation and they aren’t very robust.

In his paper, Roberts asks three questions and answers those questions:

  1. Have social scientists discovered laws? No.
  2. Are there laws in any social scientific principles? No.
  3. Do success theories in social sciences posit laws? No.

If we replaced “SS” with “physics” in the third question, Roberts says, the answer is yes. But then, physics is a different beast than any type of social science.

The metal bar example made me think of this… (Source: Jess Jar Test Blog.)

The reason why Roberts thinks there are no laws in the social sciences is pretty clear. Laws like the law of supply and demand can’t be strict or statistical laws because, in the former case, there are MANY exceptions to the law of supply and demand (e.g., rent control, Giffen goods, commodities, necessary goods, Veblen goods) and in the latter… Well, we’re not describing probabilities when we talk about supply and demand. We don’t say that when the price goes up by x that there’s a z likelihood of the demand going down by y. In physics, however, you can characterise the exceptions much more easily… right? Some of the objections to Roberts stem from the fact that there do seem to be cases in physics where characterising the exceptions also seems endless (e.g., metal bars expand when heated unless you’re beating them with a hammer and trying to make a sword).

So why aren’t hedged laws actual laws, again? Because they entail hedged regularities, and hedged regularities are not a coherent concept. That is Roberts’s basic argument. Ceteris paribus, A causes B. This isn’t useful unless we can exhaustively characterise the exceptions captured by ‘ceteris paribus‘.

We have two ways to characterise the exceptions or interferences that Roberts says are blocked by ceteris paribus. First, we can say that an interference is anything that prevents B from happening. That’s not very helpful, because then there are too many hedged regularities. (Every sphere is magnetic… unless its not.) Can we characterise ‘interference’ more specifically?

Silly economists… Laws are for REAL science. (Source: Pawel Zdziarski on the Wikimedia Commons.)

Second, we can say that we can’t characterise ‘interference’ but we CAN understand the context in which something is interference. With the metal rods example, we can clearly tell that hitting the rod with a sledgehammer would be interference. The thing is, though, that social scientists should be able to do the same thing with hedged laws in the social sciences, then… For whatever reason, Roberts says this doesn’t happen because of the multiple realisability of complex physical systems (i.e., social systems). But why not??

So in a way I think Roberts fails. You can’t say that hedged laws aren’t laws because ceteris paribus rules out more exceptions that can be named. Also, if the metal expanding thing is supposed to be a strict law, then it seems to imply that even strict (or statistical) laws are hedged to some extent. If that’s so, then they’re not exactly “robust” as Roberts said they should be… Seems like his objection to laws in the social sciences relies on some interesting intuitions about fragility.

Worry not… There are other philosophers who argue that there ARE laws in the social sciences, although they are hedged laws. (Hedged laws are still laws.)

Laws are False or Useless

Usually we’d say that laws of nature that we accept are laws that describe the phenomena we observe around us, such as any of the laws in physics that seem to explain stuff. Nancy Cartwright is one philosopher who argues against this, and says that ultimately the laws of physics as they are typically used are false.

Useless? (Source: Tech, Travel, and Talks blog.)

What’s going on here? Well, the laws of physics – and many laws for that matter – contain the assumption that the law will work under a certain set of conditions. This is a ceteris paribus assumption, and one that is also used in economics. It’s used to restrict a law, and Cartwright argues that although you can make a law true if you restrict it in this fashion, it becomes useless in terms of explanation because most observations we make are affected or effected (i.e., elicited) by complex phenomena. That is to say, never in real life do we have a situation where ceteris paribus is true.

Cartwright actually likes laws in sciences other than physics better than she does the laws of physics, because at least laws in biology, for example, actually describe real objects more or less truthfully. The laws of physics, on the other hand, aren’t about objects or how they behave. In essence, she’s arguing the opposite of Dretske, who likes relations between objects rather than objects themselves. They both reach the same conclusion, though.

So what should we do about laws then? Cartwright says that because the world is made up of complex phenomena, which are made up of multiple forces, we can only describe fundamental laws. Fundamental las describe only the simplest component processes and not the actual phenomena because fundamental laws are only about how phenomena would occur in isolation from other forces. Actual explanation is accomplished by combining a number of causes. This raises the question, though, of why we can’t just say outright that one law provides one component of the bigger picture…

Building off of that, in physics forces are often added vectorially. In this way, the laws aren’t false, because the forces described by laws can be added to give a resultant force. We say that the laws describe reality, but they produce components of the resultant force. Problem solved?

Nope! Cartwright says that there is no such thing as component forces. I think this would throw any physicist into a tailspin. Cartwright says that there’s only a single force, and components are just a convenient fiction and vector addition is purely metaphorical. If you’re walking northeast you’re not actually walking both north and east simultaneously. When people are playing tug-of-war, the mark in the middle of the rope isn’t actually moving both left and right at the same time.

Instead, Cartwright says that laws are factive about causal powers and not actual objects:

“[T]he laws we use talk not about what bodies do, but about what powers they possess.”

And then she says that we don’t actually know how causal powers figure into explanation and prediction.

She moves on to give an example of a case where vector forces can’t add, involving the orbitals of carbon (1s, 2s, 2p). Kind of interesting, because we cannot say that the Coulomb factor and electron spin are additive, although we have separate laws that could describe what would happen if only one of the two factors were there. I suppose orbital hybridisation has no role here.

Her last takedown is of super-laws, which are combinations of single covering laws into one big law. They should be true when both of the forces they explain are there, right? Right, but Cartwright points out that these types of laws aren’t necessary to explain something. Additionally, you might have a superlaw that doesn’t provide any insight into what you’re trying to explain.

(Source: Burlington Edison High School website.)

The rope in tug-of-war is not moving because there’s zero net force? Okay, but why is there zero net force? Our superlaw doesn’t explain that. We would have to add that there are two equal and opposite causal powers (two different teams with equal collective strength… magically).

Sooo in the end, true laws only help in the simplest cases which basically never happen. There are no true laws for describing complex cases, which are perhaps the only ones that actually exist. So they’re kind of pointless because we don’t have any laws to explain complex cases.

Back to where we started? On Cartwright’s account, both the regularist and the necessitarian (e.g., Dretske) are wrong because laws of nature don’t actually describe facts about reality, although they are fantastic explanations. If we wanted them to be true, we’d have to strip them basically of all explanatory power.

It’s probably useful to suggest that there is a price to pay if one wants to be a realist about the laws of physics. We have laws that describe individual forces, but individual forces cannot tell us about how a body is actually behaving. I think she is wrong, though, to say that a rope that is being pulled in two different directions but not actually moving is not being acted upon by any force (because it’s not moving). Component forces are real, even if they’re not individually producing an action or behaviour.

Laws of Nature

So if there’s one subject I’m not too familiar with in PHIL 460, it’s laws of nature. It’s not that they’re actually that hard to understand, but Dretske is just so darn confusing. ;_;

So, what’s the problem with laws of nature? It’s in the definition — what is a law of nature? Is it just a true generalisation, as a regularist would say, that holds across all time and all places? Is the ideal gas law an actual law? What about the law of supply and demand? Or  the Law of the Conservation of Energy? What about mathematical laws? So many questions!

The empiricist response would be that laws are actually a sub-class of true generalisations. So laws may imply true generalisations, but true generalisations don’t necessarily imply laws (i.e., the regularists are wrong).

Fred Dretske is one guy who tackled this problem by appealing to universals to distinguish laws from no-laws. He says we should make a singular statement about properties and quantities and use that as a law. If you look at pV = nRT, this makes sense. That law is all about the relationships between properties and quantities. Dretske puts his kind of law in the form: F-ness –> G-ness (because all F’s are G’s). The law implies the universal generalisation (x)(Fx entails Gx), but the generalisation on its own doesn’t imply that F-ness necessitates G-ness. But WHY? Why is F-ness –> G-ness so special? How does it relate to the universal generalisation?

He writes a lot that takes down opposing views, but I’m still not really sure why he thinks his is necessarily true. This is why I’m really confused about this topic. But anyway…

This example originally involved mammals and hairy creatures, but dolphins are mammals and they're not hairy so... (Source: Diego Dacal on Flickr.)
This example originally involved mammals and hairy creatures, but dolphins are mammals and they’re not hairy so… (Source: Diego Dacal on Flickr.)

He goes on to say a lot of things about what laws are, including that they are opaque statements. Well, what does that mean? Opaque statements are special statements that don’t maintain their truthfulness if you substitute their coextensive properties. So “it is the case that all hairy creatures have hair” is transparent but “necessarily, all hairy creatures have hair” is opaque. WHAT. This somehow proves that laws can’t just be universal truths. I have no idea what’s going on with this argument, but basically universal truths are transparent and laws are opaque, therefore universal truths don’t imply laws.

Everyone gets this argument except me, clearly, because the regularists respond to it by saying that laws ARE universal truths… only with an extra somethin’ somethin’ that explains the opacity. So by a regularist account, a law = universal truth + X, where X is a magical factor that accounts for opacity. X is often said to be some pragmatic or epistemic virtue, like having a high degree of confirmation (epistemic) or predictive use (pragmatic).

Dretske says NOPE, X can’t be epistemic or pragmatic, because laws don’t begin to be laws when we become aware of them. I think this is actually his best argument (maybe because it’s one that I actually understand). He quite rightly says:

“We discover laws, we do not invent them — although, of course, some invention may be involved in our manner of expressing or codifying these laws.”

He goes on to say that laws can be confirmed by instances, whereas universal generalisations cannot receive confirmation for next-case induction if you phrase them as (x)(Fx entails Gx). He says that for F-ness –> G-ness, though, you can have positive instances that raise the probability that the next F will be G. I thought I understood this but turns out it’s actually kind of confusing.

Heads or tails? (Source:

There’s a coin-toss example where you assume a fair coin, but when you flip it 9 times you find it lands heads all 9 times. What’s the probability that the next flip will result in heads? It’s the same as before you started – 50%. The flipping trials did not increase the next case probability.

What if you made a mini-law that the coin was asymmetrical in some aspect, resulting in a heads bias? Then there could be next-case confirmation, and you could say the chance that the 10th flip would result in heads is greater than 50%. This is supposed to demonstrate that positive instances can raise the probability of the law but not of a universal generalisation.

He also says that laws explain and universal generalisations don’t. It might be a universal truth that all ravens are black, but it doesn’t tell you WHY all ravens are black. Universal generalisations just summarise instances, and don’t tell you anything about them. Laws supposedly explain stuff. He moves on really quickly from this point so I haven’t got much to say.

I really want a dog. (Source: Tom Bjornstad on the Wikimedia Commons.)

His next point, which is also pretty strong, is that universal generalisations can’t support counterfactuals and laws can. The example given is about all dogs being born at sea being cocker spaniels.

Universal generalisation: All dogs ever born at sea have been and will be cocker spaniels.

Law: It is a law that dogs born at sea are cocker spaniels.

In the first case, we can think of cases where we bring other dogs out to sea and breed them. Would we get cocker spaniel pups if we bred two Dalmatians at sea? Why would anyone say this unless they thought that this person knew some crazy law that prevents other types of dogs from being born at sea, so it is the law that is presumed to ensure the “continuance of a past regularity” and that supports the counterfactual. Lolwhat. No idea what’s gong on, but sure. The law supports the counterfactual and the universal generalisation doesn’t because it’s based on some sort of law. I like cocker spaniels?

FINALLY, he says that laws have modal import and universal generalisations don’t. Laws say what MUST happen (like actual laws in the field of law) and generalisations just describe what happens.

There are a lot of objections to Dretske, including the question of how we can confirm and know laws in the first place. Also, we still don’t know why the abstract relation between universal F-ness and G-ness implies the universal generalisation. What makes it so special? As has been pointed out by C. S. Lewis (and quoted elsewhere):

“[L]abelling the relevant relation a ‘necessitation relation’ cannot by itself create a necessary link between the related things, anymore than calling someone ‘Armstrong’ can give them mighty biceps…”

I.e., just ’cause Dretske says that the N-relation (the relation between F-ness and G-ness) implies a universal generalisation, doesn’t make it true.

There’s also an objection related to counterlegals, and the idea that laws could be different and we can imagine them being different. This is difficult to represent if laws are relations between abstract properties, and difficult to explain if laws that exist in our world don’t exist elsewhere. If F-ness –> G-ness is only true on Earth, it’s not a law because it doesn’t support counterfactuals. If F-ness –> G-ness is true EVERYWHERE, then laws are the same in other worlds and everywhere. If F-ness –> G-ness if true in some places but not others, then why should we prefer that over (x)(Fx entails Gx)?

So in the end, what is a law of nature? I don’t know. Maybe Nancy Cartwright has some answers?