Why Newton Matters?

In previous posts/articles, I have argued that the fundamental problems at heart of economics lie in a hopeless methodology which is systematically incapable of reaching the truth; see How Economic Models Became Substitutes for Reality and The WHY of Crazy Models. This is also aligned with views of Tony Lawson and others who offer critical realism as a suitable methodological alternative. This post explains how the spectacular discovery of the Law of Universal Gravitation by Newton created controversies about scientific methodology which have not been resolved to this day. Newton is thought of (anachronistically) as a physicist, but his impact on philosophy is equally profound and less recognized. This post/video simply LISTS the philosophical problems created by Newton’s discoveries, without offering any solutions. In later posts, we will show how study of the development of cognitive abilities in infants and toddlers offers an unusual and effective resolution to many of these deep philosophical conundrums.

Newton’s discoveries launched philosophical controversies which have lasted centuries. Our purpose here is to recapitulate these briefly. Newton noted that the observed elliptical orbits of the planets could be explained if we assumed that planets attracted each other according to the law of universal gravitation. Making this assumption, all three of Kepler’s observations about orbits of planets could be explained. In addition, a large number of other phenomena could also explained. All of this empirical evidence points towards a hypothesis about matter: there exists a gravitational force which particles exert upon each other. The force is proportional to the masses of both and inversely proportion to the square of the distance. The video lecture explains how Newton’s Laws raise the following nine questions, which are central to modern philosophy:

Nine questions which emerge from Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation:

  1. Does this indirect evidence allow us to conclude that there is such a thing as “the force of gravity”? That this is an inherent and essential property of all matter? Realist science asserts that the answer is yes. Nominalist science says that the inference is not warranted, and not necessary. We can do science without taking a stand on this question. The debate rages, unresolved, to this day.
  2. The cosmological argument says that the amazingly precise and intricate design of the universe is indirect evidence for the existence of a designer. This is especially important because Newton explicitly makes such arguments for the existence of God in his writings.
  3. Can we extend and generalize this inference from what we have observed to all particles in the universe, whether or not we have observed them? Is this projection, from what we can observe to the unobservable, valid across space and time?
  4. Does the force of gravity “cause” the planets to move? To explain this causal effect, do we need to find a mechanism by which this effect operates? Alternatively: How can a planet exert a force on another planet millions of miles away, through the vacuum of space?
  5. Do we learn something from saying that the force of gravity explains the observed elliptical orbits? In what sense does ascribing “Virtus dormitiva” to opium explain the fact that it creates a tendency to sleep?
  6. Given that we have observed the elliptical orbits of the planets for the past few centuries, can we conclude that these orbits will continue to be elliptical for the next few centuries?
  7. Newton’s law of universal gravitation shows that there is a remarkable conformity – a perfect correlation – between the solutions of a mathematical equation and the observed planetary orbits. This correlation, and other indirect evidence, lead us to the belief that Newton’s laws are “true”. Is this belief warranted? What is the nature of the inference from the observation of elliptical orbits to the conclusion that the laws of gravity hold? What is the level of confidence that we can have in knowledge generated by such inferences?
  8. If all particles in the universe follow a deterministic law of motion, then given current configuration of particles and their velocities, we can in principle forecast everything which will happen from here to eternity. Assuming that the universe consists purely of matter, it follows that we then live in a deterministic universe. Is this conclusion warranted?
  9. Do human beings have non-material souls, and if so, can we affect what happens, disrupting the laws of physics which allow us to perfectly predict the past from the future? This leads to a fork, both branches of which are unpalatable. If it is so, it following that all human beings are little miracle makers – we can disrupt the laws of physics. BUT if not, it follows that all our future actions are completely determined by the past. Is our feeling that we can make choices, and that our choices make a difference to the future, just an illusion?

Controversies over these questions have raged for centuries, without any resolution. In later lectures, we will show that this is because philosophers have set an impossibly high bar for “knowledge” – they want to demonstrate the truth or falsehood of answers to above philosophical questions with the certainty of a proof in Euclidean geometry. The most amazing learners in the universe known to us are little children. If we adopt their modest epistemological goals, we can make substantial progress towards resolving these nine riddles, as well as many other less central issues in philosophy. This path forward will be discussed in later lectures.

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