Certainty and Explanation in Descartes’s Philosophy of Science

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Abstract
This paper presents a new approach to resolving an apparent tension in Descartes’ discussion of scientific theories and explanations in the Principles of Philosophy. On the one hand, Descartes repeatedly claims that any theories presented in science must be certain and indubitable. On the other hand, Descartes himself presents an astonishing number of speculative explanations of various scientific phenomena. In response to this tension, commentators have suggested that Descartes changed his mind about scientific theories having to be certain and indubitable, that he lacked the conceptual resources to describe the appropriate epistemic attitude towards speculative theories, or that the presence of geometrical principles in these explanations guarantee their certainty. I argue that none of these responses is satisfactory and suggest a different resolution to the tension by examining Descartes’ notion of explanation. On Descartes’ view, providing an adequate explanation does not require being certain of the theories that constitute the explanans. Relatedly, the purpose of Cartesian explanations is not to discover the truth about the various underlying mechanisms that such explanations appeal to, but to support his general philosophical thesis that all natural phenomena can be explained by appealing to the extension of matter.
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DELCAE-5
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Archival date: 2016-08-23
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References found in this work BETA
The Scientific Image.Van Fraassen, Bas C.
Scientific Explanation.Kitcher, Philip & Salmon, Wesley (eds.)
Humes Reason.Owen, David
Studies in the Logic of Explanation.Hempel, Carl G. & Oppenheim, Paul

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2016-08-23

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