Kant's deep interest in Newtonian science is evident in his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755), a work whose subtitle is Essay on the Constitution and Mechanical Origin of the Entire Universe, Treated in Accordance with Newtonian Principles. The plan of this work is to show how "general laws of motion" and "the accepted law of attraction" can be used to explain the development of the universe out of an original chaos (1:246). In this way, he seeks "to discover the systematic factor which ties together the great members of the created realm in the whole extent of infinity" (1:221).

I investigate the philosophical significance of the Universal Natural History. I discuss how Kant's interest in Newtonian forces leads him to affirm a peculiar version of the physical influx theory. It is particularly significant that Kant appeals to God's agency to explain how substances can interact. What emerges is a view of Newtonian science according to which the Newtonian laws of motion are understandable only if we posit them as the content of God's 'divine schema' for our world. Had God's divine schema been different, our world would have been vastly different. For example, under a different schema, our world might have contained fewer or more than three dimensions, objects could interact by exerting a universal attractive force which varies by the cube of distance, or intersubstantial interaction might have been impossible altogether.

Kant argues that divine agency is needed to explain the possibility of interaction between any two substances. God acts to ground the physical laws governing intersubstantial interaction. In an important passage, he writes:

...[I]n so far as each individual substance has an existence which is independent of other substances, no reciprocal connection occurs between them; and since it certainly does not fall to finite beings to be the cause of other substances, and since, nonetheless, all the things in the universe are found to be reciprocally connected with one another – since all this is the case, it has to be admitted that this relation depends on a communality of cause, namely on God, the universal principle of beings. (1:413)

If this is right, then metaphysicians and scientists make a mistake if they merely examine objects in the world when they investigate objects’ capacities to interact with each other. Explaining why objects can interact with each other, Kant insists, requires appealing to substances’ common dependence on their divine creator.

I explore several ways in which Kant's theological grounding of Newtonian physics allows him to go further than Newton did himself, for example by providing a "Newtonian" account of the origin and development of the cosmos.

Copyright © Andrew N. Carpenter