What’s the Difference between Scientific Explanation and Natural Law?

by Max Andrews

Universal-laws-NatureIn the eighteenth century David Hume held that the relation of cause and effect obtains only when one or more laws subsume the related events—that is, cover them as cases or instances of the operation of the law.[1]  This method and criticism of causality deprived science of any valid foundation in necessary connections obtaining between actual events and of leaving it with nothing more reliable than habits of mind rooted in association.  Hume’s mode of inquiry was one in which questions yield results that are not entirely new, giving rise to knowledge that can only be derived by an inferential process from what was already known.  Humean regularities and constant connections cannot be reduced to scientific explanations. If scientific explanation is causal explanation, and causation is law-governed sequence, then it follows that scientific explanations require laws.  However, a problem with this (i.e. the ideal gas law: PV=nRT) is that instead of making things clearer, it threatens to involve the analysis of scientific explanation in a thicket of “metaphysical” issues that several philosophers and positivists sought to avoid.[2]   Scientific explanation requires a causal explanation, which requires a law-governed explanation.

Natural law describes but does not explain natural phenomena.  Newton’s law of universal gravitation described, but did not explain, what caused gravitational attraction.  Newton claimed that he invented no hypotheses but deduced them from observations produced by rationalistic positivism, which engulfed contemporary European science.  Even though Newton’s law does not explain the data, it is still scientific but offers no scientific explanation.  Many scientific theories do not offer an explanation by natural law.  Instead, they postulate past regularities to explain presently observed phenomena, which also, in turn, allow for predictive capabilities…


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