Early Modern Arguments For Scientific Knowledge Of Nature As A Moral Duty

Veronica Muriel, University of Pennsylvania


In my dissertation, I argue that there is a single idea underlying otherwise very dissimilar early modern philosophical systems: the idea that scientific knowledge of nature is a moral duty. Based on Samuel Pufendorf's categorization of moral duties, I study three arguments based on his view that there are three possible subjects to whom we are morally indebted: God, oneself, and humanity as a whole. Using Pufendorf's framework, I choose a paradigmatic author for each of these subjects respectively: Christian Wolff, for scientific knowledge as a duty towards God; Baruch de Spinoza, for knowledge as a duty towards oneself; Immanuel Kant, for scientific knowledge as a duty towards humanity. Preceding these analyses, an introductory chapter on René Descartes and Francis Bacon provides evidence for the incipient presence of these arguments in both of their works and, thus, for the presence of this underlying moral conviction independently of an author's particular epistemological stance.

The dissertation records how, depending on whom an author thinks we are morally indebted to, more emphasis is placed on a particular aspect of scientific knowledge. Wolff's view emphasizes the importance of content and truth: it takes the laws of nature to be absolutely true descriptions of a world that mirrors God's essence. Spinoza and Kant value the truth and content of scientific knowledge as well, but they place more emphasis on its method, its attitude, and its structure.

Through this analysis, I underscore important aspects of these authors' systems. For Bacon and Descartes, I show the common moral ground from which their views start, and how their work contains the seeds of future arguments. Regarding Christian Wolff, I explore the relationship between his view of God's intellect and his claims about the connection between metaphysics, morality, and the physical sciences. For both him and Spinoza, I provide an account of how their deductive systems accommodate observation and experience. In the case of Kant, finally, I explore and confirm the necessary connection between what we owe others and what we owe ourselves.