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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsIn the previous step you read the report of an early modern experiment as it appears described by Robert Boyle. As you can see from the three texts, different people interpreted the same experiment in different ways. They did not deny the experimental report itself, namely the fact that when air is extracted from the air pump, the two pieces of marble remain conjoined in the air. The problematic part was the assumption Boyle made. For him, the two pieces of marble did not separate one from another due to the fact that the pressure of the air was different on the top and on the bottom of the two marbles. This was Boyle's theory on the spring or elasticity of the air.

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 secondsHowever, other people, because of their theological or metaphysical commitments, did not accept the theory and explained what happened in the air pump in different ways. Francis Linus did not accept the theory of the elasticity of the air, and assumed that some rarefied air was occupying the entire space in the air pump while something like a thread was keeping the two pieces of marble conjoined in the air. Henry Moore, on the other hand, argued against Boyle's claim that if air is sucked from the air pump, there is a tendency of nature to refill it as soon as there is no force to impede it.

Skip to 1 minute and 19 secondsHe considered that this had an underlying assumption that matter has will, in this case, to refill the empty space, and that mechanical philosophy alone, Boyle's elasticity theory, cannot explain the phenomena. He considered that an immaterial being was necessary in order to explain the phenomena manipulated with the air pump. In this example, we can see how the assumptions one has can influence the way in which the same phenomenon is described. This is not a feature of modern science only, but of science in general. The relation between theory and practise is one of the most complex issues of the scientific approach. For a little while, it has been considered that early modern experiments were used only to test hypotheses and theories.

Skip to 2 minutes and 2 secondsThis would mean that they were specifically designed to confirm or deny a theoretical claim, as we have already seen in the example of experimenting with the bladder to confirm the hypothesis that air transforms into water due to cold. Lately, it has been argued that experiments had, even in the early modern period, more functions than that of testing hypotheses. Experiments were often used to answer open ended questions. Put it differently, they were specifically designed to provide information about a phenomenon, information which was not contained in the initial question and which was truly new for the scientist. This is not to say, however, that the experiments are completely independent of theory.

Skip to 2 minutes and 43 secondsThey are still designed to answer a particular question, which makes them, to a certain extent, theory laden. In the next step, you will encounter two positions regarding hypothesis in the early modern period, that of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Boyle accepted the use of hypotheses if they are provisional. And considered that in the end, experiments will provide enough information to elaborate the theoretical knowledge which is not conjectural. Newton, on the other hand, was against the use of hypotheses in natural philosophy, which should investigate nature without any theoretical commitments. However, his own investigations were informed by some underlying hypotheses. As for example, the corpuscularian theory of matter.

Theory and experiment

In this video Doina-Cristina Rusu discusses the relationship between hypotheses and experimentation. How do metaphysical or theological assumptions influence experimental philosophy, both in designing experiments and in explaining the produced phenomena?

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The Scientific Revolution: Understanding the Roots of Modern Science

University of Groningen

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