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2002 Workshop on Nancy Cartwright's Philosophy

Nancy Cartwright

How the laws of physics lie

Most scientists are satisfied if the laws they use agree reasonably well with experiments, but philosophers look at the trickier questions of whether those laws are true in any sense. Nancy Cartwright takes the intruiging position that the theoretical models which are used in physics describe something real, but the fundamental laws which supposedly underlie those models do not. The book is aimed at philosophers of science, but it has plenty of concrete examples and so will also be of interest to scientists who want to look deeper into what underlies their subject, especially chapters 5 on phenomological laws and chapter 9 on the measurement problem of quantum theory.

The book is a collection of essays written by the author at different times, and I have to say that this reduced its appeal to me. I would have preferred a more straightforward development of the argument as the book progressed. Also I didn't find Cartwright's argument particularly convincing. She notes that physicists may use several different, sometimes contradictory, models in describing the same phenomenon. I would have said that this points to their being a more realistic underlying theory rather than the opposite. For instance in the final chapter Cartwright suggests that the quantum measurement problem might be overcome by considering what quantum statistical mechanics says about a system, rather than separating unitary evolution and non-unitary collapse. But this seems to be replacing two conflicting accounts with one more fundamental one, which goes against the main claim of the book.

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Paperback 232 pages  
ISBN: 0198247044
Salesrank: 1070349
Weight:0.8 lbs
Published: 1983 Oxford University Press
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Paperback 232 pages  
ISBN: 0198247044
Salesrank: 883385
Weight:0.8 lbs
Published: 1983 Oxford University Press, USA
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Paperback 230 pages  
ISBN: 0198247044
Salesrank: 810382
Weight:0.8 lbs
Published: 1994 Oxford University Press
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Product Description
In this sequence of philosophical essays about natural science, the author argues that fundamental explanatory laws, the deepest and most admired successes of modern physics, do not in fact describe regularities that exist in nature. Cartwright draws from many real-life examples to propound a novel distinction: that theoretical entities, and the complex and localized laws that describe them, can be interpreted realistically, but the simple unifying laws of basic theory cannot.