Skip to main content. Log In Sign Up. Laws of nature in seventeenth-century England: Eric Watkins New York: Oxford University Press,pp.
Final version in Eric Watkins ed. Historical Perspectives New York: Surely, this World—so beautifully diversified in all its forms and motions—could not have arisen except from the perfectly free will of God, who provides and governs all things.
From this source, then, have all the laws that are called laws of nature come, in which many traces of the highest wisdom and counsel certainly appear, but no traces of necessity. Accordingly we should not seek these laws by using untrustworthy conjectures, but learn them by observing and experimenting.
A brilliant mathematician and the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge, Cotes had collaborated with Newton to produce the revised manuscript, and his preface addresses a number of reactions to the first edition. Cotes also helpfully locates the Newtonian approach in relation to two competing conceptions of the order of nature, identified in the opening lines of the work. However, these principles are Mechanic in nature s garb assumed at the outset, but are derived from experiment and observation.
Once derived from the observation of discrete phenomena, they are then extended to the whole constitution of nature. Yet as Cotes also suggests, the laws are derived in different ways and play a different role in each system. The Cartesian Romance There is general agreement amongst historians of science that a new Mechanic in nature s garb distinctive understanding of laws of nature emerges in the seventeenth century.
While some scholars have suggested that various conceptions of laws of nature may be found in antiquity and the Middle Ages, the specific terminology of physical laws of nature became prominent only in the seventeenth century, and the new conception played a fundamental role in the pursuit of natural philosophy in an unprecedented way. Accordingly, it had been traditionally held that irrational and inanimate features of the creation would not be able to conform themselves to imperatives imagined to be analogous to promulgated laws.
This is certainly how laws operate in the systems of Descartes and Newton, and it is to the former that credit goes for pioneering the modern understanding of laws of nature.
Descartes first introduced the notion of laws of nature in The World, a treatise that he completed inbut chose not to publish owing to the Condemnation of Galileo in that same year. In this book Descartes asks the reader to imagine a hypothetical scenario in which God first creates matter, divides it into minute particles, and then imposes laws upon it that determine all of its subsequent motions. These laws alone are sufficient to produce a perfect world much like the one Mechanic in nature s garb presently inhabit along with its ongoing operations.
Descartes identifies three basic laws that operate in this world. The first is that individual parts of matter Mechanic in nature s garb in the same state in which they were created, unless acted on by other particles; the second, that the total amount of motion is conserved in a collision between two bodies; the third, that the individual parts of bodies always tend to move in straight lines, even though the body itself may be moving in a curved line. For what more firm and solid foundation could one find for establishing a truth, even if one wished to choose it at will, than the very firmness and immutability which is in God?
So it is that these two rules follow manifestly from the mere fact that God is immutable and that, acting always in the same way, he always produces the same effect. For, supposing that God placed a certain quantity of motion in all matter in general at the first instant he created it, we must either admit that he always preserves the same amount of Mechanic in nature s garb in it, or not believe that he always acts in the same way.
I do not wish to suppose any others but those which follow inevitably from the eternal truths on which mathematicians have usually based their most certain and most evident demonstrations—the Mechanic in nature s garb, I say, according to which God himself has taught us that he has arranged all things in number, weight and measure. The knowledge of these truths is so natural to our souls that we cannot but judge them infallible when we conceive them distinctly, nor doubt that if God had created many worlds, they would be as true in each of them as in this one.
At first, undifferentiated particles of a single kind jostle with each other and generate three kinds of matter: The heavens are filled with fine aether, the circular motions of which carry around the planets and comets.