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The “Constant” Threat to the Dispositional Essentialist Conception of Laws

Vassilios Livanios
From the journal Metaphysica


According to the dispositional essentialist account of laws of nature, the latter express the dispositional nature of fundamental natural properties. In this paper I discuss the difficulty that the existence of fundamental constants of nature raises for that account. To this end, I examine a relevant argument against the account and describe how an advocate of the dispositionalist conception may try to undermine it by raising objections to its premises. Then I discuss those objections and show that eventually all fail. I finally conclude that the existence of the fundamental constants remains a “constant” threat to the dispositional essentialist conception of laws.


This research has been co-financed by the European Union (European Social Fund – ESF) and Greek national funds through the Operational Program “Education and Lifelong Learning” of the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF) – Research Funding Program: THALIS – UOA-70/3/11604, MIS 375791. I would like to thank the participants of the 2nd Pan-Hellenic Conference of Philosophy of Science (University of Athens 2012) for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.


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  1. 1

    In Livanios (2008) I critically discuss Bird’s attempt to show that spatiotemporal relations have dispositional essences. Whilst, in (2010), I examine the prospects of the dispositionalist view for offering an account for the conservation laws and symmetries.

  2. 2

    Bird also mentions the problem related to the least-action principles and another difficulty concerning properties (such as inertial and gravitational mass) which though seem to be involved in laws in accordance with the dispositional conception are nomically-related by a law that most probably is not an expression of their dispositional natures. For a discussion of the former problem, see Katzav (2004) and Ellis (2005).

  3. 3

    Of course, extremely important is also the discovery of new fundamental constants that always accompany the introduction of novel fundamental theories (for instance, Planck’s constant h in quantum theory and string tension λ in String Theory). Barrow’s list is supplemented with the discovery that the value of one constant is determined by the values of others, the discovery that a physical phenomenon is governed by a new combination of constants, and, finally, the discovery that a quantity believed to be a constant is not really constant. For more details and examples, see Barrow (2002).

  4. 4

    A hidden assumption of the argument is that the laws of the possible world of premise (2) differ from the corresponding actual laws. This assumption, however, is not debatable because if the constants appearing in the laws get different values, then the propositional contents of the laws are surely different and that means (on any plausible account of laws of nature) that laws themselves have changed.

  5. 5

    For a scientifically-informed metaphysician, this association fits nicely to her core belief that the only reliable source for discovering the inventory of the fundamental entities of the world is our best current physical theories. Of course, there are disagreements about the appropriate theoretical frameworks, but what I think is undisputed is that the examination of the case of the fundamental constants within a science-sensitive metaphysical context should be grounded on the findings and practice of the modern physical science.

  6. 6

    We can arrive to the same conclusion following Levy-Leblond’s interesting views about the fate of all dimensional constants. Levy-Leblond (1979) classifies the physical constants into three distinct types: type-A includes properties of particular (types of) physical objects (such as the masses of elementary particles); type-B constants characterise classes of phenomena (such as the coupling constants of the fundamental interactions); and type-C constants characterise the most general theoretical frameworks in the context of which we can describe any physical phenomena (such as ). According to Levy-Leblond, all type-C constants move (as theories evolve) from a dominant conceptual status to an almost invisible one. They are “progressively incorporated into the implicit common background of physical ideas, then play a role of mere unit conversion factors and often finally forgotten altogether by a suitable redefinition of physical units” (1979, 246).

  7. 7

    The multiverse proposal is not a theory but a ground hypothesis (or prediction) of several modern explanatory physical theories in cosmology and high energy physics. The core idea is that our universe is just one of a (possibly infinite) ensemble of “parallel” universes; the latter could differ from ours on various features ranging from different initial conditions (at their Big Bangs) to different fundamental laws and constants. In the cosmological field, there are various views on how the universes of the multiverse might arise. The most popular nowadays is provided by the inflation theory: under the assumptions of spatially infinite universe and uniform distribution of matter at large scales, a consequence of the inflation theory is that our observable universe is part of a “bubble” which underwent an extra-fast expansion phase at some early time. There are many other “bubbles”, each with the same laws but different initial conditions which are most possibly created by quantum fluctuations during the period of inflation (Guth 1981). Another proposal on how new universes may arise is a variant of the above theory, the so-called eternal inflation scenario, according to which each “bubble” universe is continually self-reproducing (Linde 1986; Vilenkin 1983). For other cosmological theories based on varieties of the multiverse hypothesis, see Wheeler (1974), Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler (1973), Ellis (1979) and Smolin (1997). Recently the multiverse hypothesis has been used in high energy physics as a ground assumption of the new version of String Theory, the so-called Landscape Scenario. For a recent volume dedicated to the multiverse hypothesis, see Carr (2007).

  8. 8

    Of course, if one is willing to explain the necessity under consideration with the aid of a Great Designer, she may follow a theistic version of SAP, according to which there exists one possible universe especially designed with the goal of generating and sustaining (human) observers. In that case the claim for the metaphysical necessity of the values of constants is trivially true.

  9. 9

    The logic of anthropic reasoning does not indicate any special preference for human (or intelligent) life. Furthermore, there is disagreement about the scope of the notion of life and the elements which are able to be the building blocks for the type of complex systems that might develop life-like features. Much of the argumentation in this area concerns cosmological and astrophysical features that could make life (broadly conceived) more likely. Typical habitable universes are characterised by big bang nucleosynthesis and large scale structure and allow star formation, long stellar lifetimes and plausible means to produce and disperse heavy chemical elements into the interstellar medium.

  10. 10

    The scientific findings about the actual laws and constants cannot by themselves prove the necessity of any metaphysical truth. As far as the case of fundamental metaphysical truths is concerned, I think that they cannot even suggest their necessity. (I do not, however, want to exclude the possibility that, as Bird (2002) argues, some truths about non-fundamental laws might be proved to be metaphysically necessary on the basis of scientific findings.)

  11. 11

    Note here that, though a specific constant may be involved in the individual essence of the property, the latter may also appear in laws without constants or with different constants.

  12. 12

    For the notion of the reciprocal disposition partners, see Martin (2008).

  13. 13

    Recall (from fn. 6) that type-C constants characterise the most general theoretical frameworks in which we can describe physical phenomena. Since each of these constants is present in most of the laws of the framework that characterises, it should be involved in the individual essence of a large number of fundamental properties. Furthermore, since fundamental properties appear in laws of different theoretical frameworks, they should involve in their individual essences all the type-C constants that characterise the frameworks they appear in.

  14. 14

    The alteration of the constant emerges in this case from its functional dependence on d which, in turn, is due to the geometric origin of the constants under consideration.

  15. 15

    Of course we may arrive to the same conclusion by considering the role of the fundamental constants in non-fundamental laws. For instance, according to Newton’s gravitational law, the strength of the gravitational force depends on the value of the fundamental constant G. So, according to dispositional essentialists, the identity of mass must somehow depend on the value of G.

  16. 16

    In order to be persuasive, the reasoning should have the form of the following argument:

    1. The individual essence of the fundamental properties involves the values of coupling constants.

    2. The individual essence of coupling constants involves the topology/geometry of the compactified dimensions.

    The individual essence of the fundamental properties involves the topology/geometry of the compactified dimensions.

    It is not clear, however, why the determination of the coupling constants by the “topological/geometric” ones implies that the individual essence of the former involves the latter. Furthermore, the conclusion is derivable only provided a controversial principle of transitivity for individual essences.

  17. 17

    Laws such as L@ and L# are functional because the nomically related properties/relations q and r can take an infinity of values. (See, for instance, Armstrong’s (1997, 242) account of such laws as relations between determinables having infinite – probably most of them uninstantiated – determinate values falling under them.) L* is functional law as well, though it has the extra argument d.

  18. 18

    The mode of expression presupposes the common assumption that all natural properties are transworld entities. Anyone who instead believes that they are world-bound must re-express the syllogism in the idiom of the counterpart theory where the de re modal representation is achieved by counterparts of properties rather the properties themselves. Similar remarks hold for the use of the expressions “same properties” and “transworld identity”.

  19. 19

    Strong coupling αs is also energy-dependent but, in contrast to α, decreases at high energies (asymptotic freedom). The difference from the electromagnetic case is due to the nature of gluons (mediators of the strong force) which, unlike photons, are self-interacting.

  20. 20

    That is the case according to the cosmological inflation theory. See also fn. 7.

Published Online: 2014-2-1
Published in Print: 2014-4-1

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