Robert Boyle and the heuristic value of mechanism

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 33 (1):157-170 (2002)
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This paper argues that, contrary to the claims of Alan Chalmers, Boyle understood his experimental work to be intimately related to his mechanical philosophy. Its central claim is that the mechanical philosophy has a heuristic structure that motivates and gives direction to Boyle's experimental programme. Boyle was able to delimit the scope of possible explanations of any phenomenon by positing both that all qualities are ultimately reducible to a select group of mechanical qualities and that all explanations of natural phenomena are to be in terms of the operations of machines and are to appeal only to qualities that are already familiar. This is illustrated by his investigations into the Torricellian experiment. Boyle's explanation of the elevation of the mercurial cylinder by appeal to the spring of the air was an intermediate mechanical explanation. Boyle was convinced that the spring of the air was ultimately reducible to the mechanical qualities. This in turn had implications for his research into the cause of respiration. In a move that was both parsimonious and consistent with the broad requirements of the mechanical philosophy, Boyle was able to solve the problem of the cause of the inflow of air into the lungs by appeal to his research in pneumatics. This application of a mechanical explanation in pneumatics to physiology is just what one would expect if the mechanical philosophy was as universal as Boyle claimed it to be. Therefore, far from Boyle's experiments having a life of their own, they were clearly directed by and understood in terms of the mechanical philosophy.Keywords: Air-pump; Boyle; Chalmers; Experiment; Explanation; Mechanism



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Peter R. Anstey
University of Sydney

Citations of this work

Boyle and the origins of modern chemistry: Newman tried in the fire.Alan F. Chalmers - 2010 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 41 (1):1-10.
How not to integrate the history and philosophy of science: a reply to Chalmers.William R. Newman - 2010 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 41 (2):203-213.
Atomism from the 17th to the 20th century.Alan Chalmers - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Understanding science through its history: a response to Newman.Alan Chalmers - 2011 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 42 (1):150-153.

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References found in this work

Explanation and scientific understanding.Michael Friedman - 1974 - Journal of Philosophy 71 (1):5-19.
The lack of excellency of Boyle's mechanical philosophy.Alan Chalmers - 1993 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 24 (4):541-564.
Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes.Lakatos Imre - 1970 - In Imre Lakatos & Alan Musgrave (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press. pp. 91-195.
Mechanics and the Royal Society, 1668-70.A. Rupert Hall - 1966 - British Journal for the History of Science 3 (1):24-38.

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