Grounding and the Laws of Nature

UoM administered thesis: Phd


This thesis is an investigation into the implications of the introduction of grounding into established debates on the laws of nature, focussing mainly on the implications for David Lewis’s Humean account, and David Armstrong’s universals account. In chapter 2, I flesh out the notion of grounding that I use throughout the thesis. Grounding is intended to capture the notion of metaphysical dependence. Previously, metaphysical dependence was thought of as being the relation of supervenience. I explain the reasons for the rejection of supervenience in favour of the primitive notion of grounding. Having done so, I then explore grounding’s formal features, how best to regiment grounding talk, what the relata of grounding might be, and the relation’s connection to explanation. I then move on to discuss how universal generalisations are grounded, whether grounding is ontologically innocent (whether we pay an ontological price for grounded entities, beyond that paid for their grounds) and lastly, argue that ontological dependence should be understood as a species of grounding. In chapter 3, I then employ the notion of grounding to assess Armstrong’s theory (1978) of universals. I explain how grounding might be employed to solve the problem of unity (the problem of how particulars and universals are held together in states of affairs), and how doing so provides significant theoretical benefits. Having argued that employing grounding is beneficial for Armstrong’s account, I then use grounding to demonstrate an underlying tension in Armstrong’s account that is visible once the account is stated in terms of grounding. Armstrong requires, to solve the problem of unity, that states of affairs ground their constituents. The consequence of this, however, is that his account of laws says that laws are constituents of states of affairs. As such, it appears instances of laws (being states of affairs) ground laws themselves. This is particularly problematic for Armstrong, given that he accords laws a governing role; if laws are grounded by their instances, what mechanism remains for them to govern those same instances? In chapter 4, I explore the implications for Lewis’s (1973) Humean account of the laws of nature. I explain the motivations for the contemporary Humean’s famous denial of necessary connections, concluding that contemporary Humeans would be reluctant to commit to an irreducibly modal notion like grounding as a result of the denial. I then argue, however, that without a notion like grounding, Humeanism collapses into an interminably expensive position, ontologically. Furthermore, shorn of any notion of dependence other than supervenience, I demonstrate the counterintuitiveness of the resulting position, in so far as it requires that we sacrifice any notion of fundamentality, and offers no account of how laws explain their instances. I finally highlight a separate problem for Humeanism, in that, despite the frequency with which one hears the claim, Humean laws don’t actually appear to supervene on their instances.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Aug 2020