Newton's Philosophy of Nature: Selections from His Writings

By H. S. Thayer; Isaac Newton | Go to book overview
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Notes
The quotation from Newton preceding the text of the selections is from a manuscript entitled, "A Scheme for Establishing the Royal Society." Quoted in Brewster, Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton, Vol. I, p. 102.In order to retain their seventeenth-century flavor, quotations in these Notes have been rendered in their original form, except for indiscriminate capitalization. Any other changes in the wording have been indicated by brackets.
This letter to Oldenburg, then secretary of the Royal Society, was a reply by Newton to certain objections raised against his first scientific paper, The New Theory about Light and Colors, by Gaston Pardies. Like Robert Hooke, who also criticized this paper, Pardies called Newton's findings on the refrangibility of light a "hypothesis." Newton consequently, here and throughout his later writings, took pains to distinguish for his readers between experimental findings and results on the one hand, and speculative conjectures lacking experimental proof on the other. These latter he calls 'hypotheses.' It is a mistake to think that because his writings are full of scattered remarks to the effect that hypotheses are to be avoided whenever possible, or that because he does not rely upon hypotheses, Newton did not fully appreciate the experimental spirit or the role of hypothetical proposals in scientific inquiries. Newton cannot be accused of overemphasizing the function of mathematics and deduction in science on this point. For he makes it clear that 'hypotheses,' in his sense of the word, may aid in suggesting--they may "furnish" --experiments. Explanations, however, are to be based on experiments, not on conjectures; and when and if we can produce nothing more than experimentally unsupported suppositions, or 'hypotheses' in his sense, we have neither truth about the subject in question nor scientific knowledge. Thus, for example, Newton begins his Optics with the words:

My design in this book is not to explain the properties of light by hypotheses, but to propose and prove them by reason and experiments.

While he insists that hypotheses should not be preferred to experimental results, where such results may not be available or accessible to deciding a question, Newton does not altogether

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