Willem Jacob 's Gravesande, Physices elementa mathematica, tab LXXIV
Willem Jacob 's Gravesande, Physices elementa mathematica, tab LXXIV

Check point: observation and experiment

Let’s see what we have discussed so far.

In Week 1 you learned about the new corpuscularian matter theory, which replaced the Aristotelian distinction between matter and form. As you also saw in the example of a burning fire, Aristotle and Descartes have very different accounts of what happens during a natural process.

In the early modern period, natural philosophers started to consider that natural phenomena cannot be understood though mere observation of those processes because what causes them is not perceivable by senses. Francis Bacon is considered to be the first philosopher who systematically wrote on the necessity of using experiments in the investigation of nature. Bacon argued that

  1. experiments supply information when senses are not able to do that because they are weak and imperfect; and
  2. intervening into nature we can ask particular questions which can lead to the knowledge the causes of natural processes. Read more about Bacon and his theory of experimentation here.

Further, we analysed Bacon’s advice on how to construct an experiment which is designed to verify a story found in an ancient text. After identifying the possible cause of the process described, he considered that the story is true if one can reproduce that process artificially. The experiment was built to verify Bacon’s assumption regarding the processes of condensation and rarefaction and their causes. However, in order to do that, instruments and specific substances were needed, because Bacon did not have access to a setting identical to the one described in the story. Finally, you learned that experimentation implied the use of mathematics in the investigation of nature.

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The Scientific Revolution: Understanding the Roots of Modern Science

University of Groningen

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