A Surprising Confusion of Categories: Law and Science

The concept of a “scientific law” or sometimes dubbed “laws of physics” have often been challenged by philosophers.  Their point in short stems from the fact that a “law” has to be universal, while the samples or instances from which the law derives run far too limited in number to prove the point of a “law.”  This problem, the extrapolation of “all of the same kind” from “just a few of this kind,” has sometimes been called the problem of induction.  It forms a kind of mainstay in philosophy classes ever since the publishing of David Hume’s Magnum Opus (1776).

I wish to add a little something  new to the mix, the fallacy of equivocation.  This fallacy, or error in reasoning, ensues when one uses a word or phrases in two distinct ways, while the one employing them pretends the meaning in both instances is the same because the word or phrase is the same. Consider what we mean in ordinary language by the word “law.”  The first point to note is that the legal context seems invoked immediately upon the use of it.  Here, a “law” either functions as a command to perform some action, or else a prohibition (usually it is a prohibition), meaning a command that forbids some action.  When one violates a law, an attending punishment follows, the degree for which ranges from a simple fine at minimum, all the way to the maximum penalty (death).

The use then of the concept of a “law” in the sciences would seem wholly inappropriate, not only for the problem of inductive inferences that overdrive the point, but also because the deterministic features of the world like “gravity,” or “hubble’s law,” do not come with varying degrees of punishment, after due process, for their violation.  The legal context suggested (connoted) by the use of the word “law” has precisely nothing to do with these deterministic features, and thus do in fact form an instance of the fallacy of equivocation.

Recommendation: we should rewrite the use of the word “law” in our science textbooks employing excellent synonyms for the intended point, e.g. Hubble’s induction, or the second RULE of thermodynamics, etc.

Think on these things.  I believe it will become almost “obviously true” upon significant reflection.

Advertisements