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Henry. Metaphysics and the Origins of Modern Science Descartes and the Importance of Laws of Nature

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Henry. Metaphysics and the Origins of Modern Science Descartes and the Importance of Laws of Nature
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  metaphysics and the srcins of modern science 73 ©  Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2004Early Science and Medicine 9, 2 Also available online – www.brill.nl METAPHYSICS AND THE ORIGINS OF MODERNSCIENCE: DESCARTES AND THE IMPORTANCE OFLAWS OF NATURE *  JOHN HENRY  University of Edinburgh  Abstract  This paper draws attention to the crucial importance of a new kind of precisely defined law of nature in the Scientific Revolution. All explanations in the me-chanical philosophy depend upon the interactions of moving material particles;the laws of nature stipulate precisely how these interact; therefore, such explana-tions rely on the laws of nature. While this is obvious, the radically innovatory nature of these laws is not fully acknowledged in the historical literature. Indeed,a number of scholars have tried to locate the srcins of such laws in the medievalperiod. In the first part of this paper these claims are critically examined, andfound at best to reveal important aspects of the background to the later idea, which could be drawn upon for legitimating purposes by the mechanical philoso-phers. The second part of the paper argues that the modern concept of laws of nature srcinates in René Descartes’s work. It is shown that Descartes took hisconcept of laws of nature from the mathematical tradition, but recognized that he could not export it to the domain of physico-mathematics, to play a causal role,unless he could show that these laws were underwritten by God. It is argued that this is why, at an early stage of his philosophical development, Descartes had toturn to metaphysics. In a paper published in the USA in 1942, the émigré GermanMarxist historian, Edgar Zilsel, first drew attention to the fact that the concept of the law of nature, which had been only very occa-sionally explicit in theological discussion throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, suddenly became so frequently invokedin seventeenth-century natural philosophy that, by the end of the * Earlier (barely recognizable) versions of this paper were read at the History Department, University of Durham (1999), and the History and Philosophy of Science Departments at the Universities of Melbourne and Leeds (2002). I amgrateful to all those present who tried to help me make sense of the topic, espe-cially Helmut Heit, Jonathan Hodge, Keith Hutchison, Martin Leckey, and Ho- ward Sankey. I am also grateful to two anonymous referees who helped me toimprove this paper. I must also apologise to them, however, for not being able tocarry out all their suggestions. Would that I had the knowledge, and the skills asan historian, philosopher, and writer to have done so.   john henry 74century, it had become a commonplace in scientific discussion(and has remained so, ever since). 1  Indeed, since the end of theseventeenth century it seems true to say that a major aspect of thescientific enterprise has precisely been to discover those observedregularities in nature which are assumed to reflect an underlyingcausal necessity and which are then designated as laws of nature.The discovery and understanding of “Laws of Nature” is, as Zilselnoted, the basic task of science. It might even be said to be its de-fining characteristic: “Where there is no law,” wrote Émile Meyer-son, “there is no science.” 2  So, this presents us with an historicalproblem. Why was it that the concept of laws of nature came to beseen as an essential element of natural philosophy in the seven-teenth century, while previously, for centuries past, this way of understanding natural phenomena had attracted little or no atten-tion?Given the importance of the concept of laws of nature in mod-ern science, it might be expected that the literature on this topicin the history of science would be extensive. Remarkably, this is not the case. In spite of a number of attempts to understand the his-torical development and importance of the concept of laws of nature, it remains true to say that “the full historical novelty, con-text, and extent of this general idea has not yet received its due.” 3 It is almost as though the idea of laws of nature is so prominent in 1  Edgar Zilsel, “The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law,”  Philosophical Re- view  51 (1942), 245-79. Now reprinted in Diederick Raven, Wolfgang Krohn, andRobert S. Cohen (eds.),  Edgar Zilsel: The Social Origins of Modern Science   (Dor-drecht, 2000), 96-122. Throughout this paper I use the phrase “law(s) of nature”rather than the more succinct “natural law(s),” to avoid any confusion with thelegal and ethical notion of “natural law,” i.e. moral laws which, generally speak-ing, are held to be either intuitively obvious to everyone, or capable of beingarrived at by reasoning from obvious and undeniable premises. So far the historio-graphy of these two concepts of laws in nature have been largely separate, but there may well be much to be learned on both sides by considering the two no-tions together. I have not attempted to enter this comparatively unbroken groundhere, however. Our concern is entirely with laws of nature in the scientific sense.For a discussion which does bring the two concepts together see, for example,Thomas Ahnert, “  De Sympathia et Antipathia Rerum  : Natural Law, Religion and theRejection of Mechanistic Science in the Works of Christian Thomasius,” in T. J.Hochstrasser and P. Schröder (eds.),  Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contextsand Strategies in the Early Enlightenment   (Dordrecht, 2003), 257-77. 2  Émile Meyerson,  Identity and Reality  (London, 1930), 25. See p. 19 for sam-ple quotations showing the importance of the notion of laws of nature to variousscientists. 3  Eugene M. Klaaren,  Religious Origins of Modern Science: Belief in Creation inSeventeenth-Century Thought (Grand Rapids, 1977), 164.  metaphysics and the srcins of modern science 75our modern understanding of the world that its presence in thehistorical record is taken for granted and scarcely examined. 4  Theaim of this paper is to draw attention to this lacuna, and to begin,perhaps, to fill it. Accordingly, the paper begins with a survey of the recent literature which has specifically dealt with the concept of laws of nature, in order to show, firstly, that writers on the topichave failed to provide a satisfactory historical understanding of its srcins, and secondly, to indicate the fundamental importanceof the concept for the Scientific Revolution. I pursue this latterpoint further in the second half of the paper, by arguing for theabsolutely crucial importance of the laws of nature in Cartesiannatural philosophy, and in the mechanical philosophy more gen-erally. The Laws of Nature: A Survey of Recent Historiography  There have been a number of attempts to sketch out a history of the concept of laws of nature, and although such accounts differfrom one another, they all seem to point to one of three generalconclusions. What I want to do here is to assess these differingapproaches, and to see if we can decide between these rival claimsabout the srcins and significance of the concept of laws of nature.Following Zilsel’s lead, scholars who have tried to account forthe rise of the concept of laws of nature have offered brief surveysof the use of the concept of laws of nature in pre-modern thought. 5 4  This feeling is based upon my extensive reading of the secondary literatureon early modern science. Indeed this paper arises out of my own frustration about the lack of extensive treatments of the topic which I noticed while writing a short text-book on the Scientific Revolution which incorporated a detailed literaturesurvey: John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science   (Ba-singstoke, 1997, revised 2002). I felt unable to refer students to a good guide tothe topic, and consequently could not give the emphasis to it in my own discus-sion that I felt it deserved. It was at this point that I determined to write thispaper. For confirmation of the lack of focus on laws of nature in the literaturesee H. Floris Cohen, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry  (Chicago,1994), which, quite justifiably, offers no specific discussion of this topic (althoughthe laws of nature are often mentioned in passing, e.g. 453-5). Cohen did regardZilsel’s recognition of the historical problem as his “most perceptive contributionto the history of science,” 453. All the more reason, in my view, to consider it more fully. 5  See Zilsel, “Genesis of the Concept,” 247-67. See also Joseph Needham, “Hu-man Law and the Laws of Nature,” in idem, The Grand Titration: Science and Societyin East and West (London, 1969), 299-331 (first published in  Journal of the Historyof Ideas  12, 1951) especially 299-311; idem, Science and Civilization in China  , vol. 2   john henry 76 A look at any one of these surveys is enough to convince us that the concept of laws of nature played at best a very minor role innatural philosophy before   the seventeenth century, and it was a farcry from the kind of concept we see in Descartes, Newton andsubsequent science. If we look at all   of the surveys, however, some-thing else becomes clear. The significance of pre-Cartesian in-stances where laws of nature seemed to be invoked is, perhapsinevitably, judged in accordance with each scholar’s preconceivedexplanation of the srcins of the concept.So, for example, Zilsel, who wants to explain the srcin of lawsof nature in terms of social and economic changes in the sixteenthand seventeenth centuries, is able to dismiss all pre-modern no-tions of laws of nature as irrelevant to our historical understand-ing. One of the worst cases of special pleading here is Zilsel’s claimthat Augustine’s and Thomas Aquinas’s discussions of God’s eter-nal law as it is imposed on all creatures, not just humankind, canbe dismissed on the grounds that they are “identical with the im-penetrable providence of God” and are considerably distant fromthe modern concept of physical law. 6  Needham, who believed that Zilsel’s explanation “must surely be in principle the right one,”similarly emphasizes the evidence that suggests the newness of theidea of laws of nature in the early modern period. 7 By contrast, Francis Oakley and John R. Milton, who both wishto explain the rise of the concept of laws of nature in terms of medieval nominalist philosophy, voluntarist theology and,  pace  Zilsel, other aspects of “the idea of divine providence,” concentrateupon what they see as the richness of discussions about natural law and laws of nature in the Middle Ages. So, although Milton is will-ing to agree with Zilsel that the ancient references to laws of na-ture were so few in number that they could be disregarded, herefuses to agree with Zilsel’s dismissal of the medieval referenceson the same grounds. Milton insists that the medieval referencesare sufficiently numerous that they cannot be “brushed aside,”even though the number of medieval authors he cites is no greaterthan the number of ancient authors cited by Zilsel or Needham. 8 (Cambridge, 1956), 518-83; Francis Oakley, “Christian Theology and the New-tonian Science: The Rise of the Concept of the Laws of Nature,” Church History 30 (1961), 433-57, see 433-37; John R. Milton, “The Origin and Development of the Concept of the Laws of Nature,”  Archives Européennes de Sociologie   22 (1981),173-95, see 173-77. 6  Zilsel, “Genesis of the Concept,” 256-7. 7  Needham, “Human Law,” 309, see also Science and Civilisation , 2: 542. 8  Milton, “Origin and Development,” 183.

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