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The role and development of the concept of 'laws of nature' in the work of Petrus Van Musschenbroek (1692-1761)

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Abstract

In this paper, I will discuss the development of the concept of ‘laws of nature’ in the work of Petrus Van Musschenbroek (1692-1761) in relation to his methodological and theological views. In Van Musschenbroek’s works, the discussion of his conception of ‘laws of nature’ is mostly accompanied by a criticism of Cartesian natural philosophy. As these laws depend on the free will of the creator, which cannot be accessed by our reason, we cannot discover them through a priori reasoning, but must trace them out through diligent and painstaking empirical research. To this is added an emphasis on there being numerous laws in nature, which can only be discovered through the collection and investigation of a lot of data. Although Van Musschenbroek also refers to Newton’s laws of motion as examples of laws of nature, the examples he himself gives of ‘laws of nature’ refer mostly to phenomena from the realm of living beings, e.g. the fact that from seeds plants and animals of the same nature as their parents always arise. In the several editions of his textbooks, both the appeal to what we could call ‘species-laws’ and the emphasis on the variety of laws in nature become more and more outspoken. In his later textbooks, the apparent tension between the more general laws like Newton’s laws of motion and the ‘species-laws’ that Van Musschenbroek gives as exemplars of laws of nature, is resolved by the introduction of the concepts of ‘general’ (‘algemeene’) and ‘special’ (‘byzondere’) laws. (Van Musschenbroek 1739, 19). I will provide an overview of the development of Van Musschenbroek’s conception of ‘laws of nature’, and sketch the influence of Van Musschenbroek’s methodological, theological, and metaphysical views on the development of the concept in his oeuvre. An attempt will be made to trace out possible influences which have helped shape Van Musschenbroek’s conception of ‘laws of nature’.
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