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Metaphysics and the Origins of Modern Science: Descartes and the Importance of Laws of Nature

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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 mechanical philosophy depend upon the interactions of moving material particles; the laws of nature stipulate precisely how these interact; therefore, such explanations 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 origins of such laws in the medieval period. In the first part of this paper these claims are critically examined, and found at best to reveal important aspects of the background to the later idea, which could be drawn upon for legitimating purposes by the mechanical philosophers. The second part of the paper argues that the modern concept of laws of nature originates in René Descartes's work. It is shown that Descartes took his concept 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 to turn to metaphysics.


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