University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

Friday, September 18th 2015
Speaker: Mary Domski, University of New Mexico
Subject: Descartes and Newton on Deducing True Laws of Nature
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy (1644) and Newton’s Principia mathematica (1687) are two of the most important works of seventeenth century natural philosophy. Yet, when put side by side, it is far easier to identify differences between the texts than it is to pin-point similarities. Their laws of nature are a case in point. Descartes deduces his three laws from our knowledge of God and claims these laws are true insofar as they capture the world as God actually created it. Newton, in contrast, “deduces” his laws of motion “from the phenomena,” which suggests that these laws are true of the world as it is presented to our senses. In this paper, I first clarify the epistemic significance of Descartes’s and Newton’s competing “deductions” and competing notions of truth. Based on that treatment, I then highlight a significant and frequently overlooked point of agreement: Both Descartes and Newton adopt methods for establishing true laws of nature that allow us to know that bodies obey particular laws without a complete understanding of why they do, i.e., without requiring that we identify the natural processes and properties that explain the behaviors that the laws describe.

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