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Law and order: Pieter van Musschenbroek (1692-1761) on God and the sovereignty of Newtonian methodology

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Abstract

In this paper, I discuss Pieter van Musschenbroek’s (1692-1761) defence of Newton’s experimental philosophy, in relation to his views on natural laws and their dependence on the power and will of God. At the time van Musschenbroek started his academic career, several universities in the Dutch Republic had been plagued by intellectual and institutional struggles between Aristotelians and Cartesians, sometimes even resulting in physical violence (Ruestow 1973, 34-88). In contrast to these philosophies, van Musschenbroek presents experimental philosophy as a study “free from all disputations and controversies [ab omni disputatione & controversia liber[a]]” (van Musschenbroek 1723, 42). I show how for van Musschenbroek, the harmony in experimental philosophy is premised on the order in nature. Natural phenomena are governed by universal and unchanging laws instituted by God. Therefore, as a diligent study of natural phenomena, experimental philosophy cannot but produce agreement (van Musschenbroek 1723, 43-4). Divine law guarantees order in science. I then discuss the role of van Musschenbroek’s theological views in his defence of the method of experimental philosophy. The order in the world is based on a free and arbitrary act of will by God, whose will and power are beyond our comprehension (van Musschenbroek 1723, 9). The sovereign and free will of God is used to ban a priori reasoning from philosophy and guarantee the sovereignty of the method of experimental philosophy. I conclude by situating van Musschenbroek’s insistence on the stabilising nature of Newtonian experimental philosophy, and his invocation of natural law and God’s sovereignty in the broader religious and political landscape of the Dutch Republic. Bibliography Ruestow, Edward G. 1973. Physics at Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Leiden: Philosophy and the New Science in the University. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. van Musschenbroek, Petrus. 1723. Oratio de Certa Methodo Philosophiae Experimentalis. Utrecht: Guilielmum Vande Water.

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