Three Criticisms of Newton’s Inductive Argument in the Principia

Advances in Historical Studies 3 (1):2-11 (2013)
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In this paper, I discuss how Newton’s inductive argument of the Principia can be defended against criticisms levelled against it by Duhem, Popper and myself. I argue that Duhem’s and Popper’s criticisms can be countered, but mine cannot. It requires that we reconsider, not just Newton’s inductive argument in the Principia, but also the nature of science more generally. The methods of science, whether conceived along inductivist or hypothetico-deductivist lines, make implicit metaphysical presuppositions which rigour requires we make explicit within science so that they can be critically assessed, alternatives being developed and assessed, in the hope that they can be improved. Despite claiming to derive his law of gravitation by induction from phenomena without resource to hypotheses, Newton does nevertheless acknowledge in the Principia that his rules of reasoning make metaphysical presuppositions. To this extent, Newton has a more enlightened view of scientific method than most 20th and 21st century scientists and historians and philosophers of science.

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Nicholas Maxwell
University College London


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