A dappled world?

The philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright has rejected the idea of law in nature. Instead she has proposed that we live in a ‘dappled world’. Philosopher and theologian Lydia Jaeger spent her PhD investigating how far certain philosophers of science were influenced by their personal worldviews. In reading Cartwright’s work Lydia was intrigued by the theological metaphors that she often used. A stray comment in an obscure book review suggested Cartwright thought that law like behaviour in the world would imply the existence of a creator.

On meeting Cartwright and putting the question to her directly Lydia discovered that she did indeed think that the existence of law like behaviour in nature would point towards the existence of a creator. Because she did not believe in a creator Cartwright rejected the idea of scientific laws. Since those meetings Cartwright has become more explicit about her motivation for rejection of law in science.

Wouldn’t we all like to live in a dappled world? Despite her beautifully coined phrase, Cartwright’s claim that the laws of nature only apply in certain circumstances has not contributed to the ongoing development of modern science.

Certain areas of science – biology for example – are not apparently law like in behaviour. The world does not always appear to operate in regular ways, and it took faith for the first scientists to start investigating using the tools of science. The early scientists believed that the universe would reveal its secrets on a deeper investigation, and it did.

5 thoughts on “A dappled world?

  1. Richard Hosking June 10, 2011 / 9:00 am

    Hi Ruth,

    Just wondered what Nancy Cartwright makes of the Mandelbrot set and fractal geometry?

    In your book*, Eugene Wigner (a Nobel prize-winning Jewish Hungarian refugee physicist) says that the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ is ‘a gift we neither understand nor deserve’.

    Benoit Mandelbrot – who was also Jewish – managed to survive the Nazi occupation of France and went on to have an extraordinary mathematical career (he died in 2010). The ‘Mandelbrot set’ which (from my limited understanding) is based on repeated ‘iterations’ of an incredibly simple equation (Z = Z squared + C) actually generates patterns of infinite complexity. These are best appreciated with animations such as these: http://www.pond5.com/artist/lightscribe

    Amazingly, he went on to show that fractal geometry underlies all sorts of ‘rough’ or ‘irregular’ natural phenomena from trees (pictured above) to their roots (pictured below). In fact, fractals – repeated structures which display self-similarity at various scales – are everywhere from clouds, mountains and rivers to lungs, livers and nerve cells.

    Unfortunately, Nancy seems to mistake ‘dappledness’ – the lack of universal laws – for the extraordinary complexity which arises when essentially simple universal laws interact.

    Introduction to a documentary about Mandelbrot’s life and work:

    Explanation of the Mandelbrot set:

    *Quoted by Ard Louis in ‘Spiritual Journeys with Scientists’ (2009) p.74


  2. Richard Hosking June 13, 2011 / 4:14 pm

    Great piece of visual art based on the Mandelbrot set (not as risque as the title suggests).


  3. Hannah June 27, 2011 / 12:27 am

    The wording of this article is incredibly weak. Its just fluff with no substance when you take it apart. I ditto the posts above.


  4. Richard Hosking August 12, 2011 / 1:29 pm

    An interesting BBC documentary (link below – available in the UK until 17.08.11) explains the underlying mathematical order of nature. It’s presented by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy – who succeeded Richard Dawkins as Oxford professor for the public understanding of science – and includes a great link between Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry, abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock and Pixar Animation Studios (39.40-57.27)

    Incidentally, a recently released film about the arrest and deportation of French Jews in 1942 (Sarah’s Key) gives an idea of what Benoit Mandelbrot managed to avoid.



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