Aristotle's natural philosophy was an inquiry into the causal principles of nature. He famously proposed the notions of formal, material, efficient and final causes. At the dawn of modernity, figures such as Galileo and even Newton continued to consider the "causal principles of nature" as the proper subjects of inquiry. Newton said he was interested in the forces of nature (which 'cause' motion), and that he his main goal was "to argue from Phaenomena without feigning Hypotheses, and to deduce Causes from Effects."

At the dawn of modernity, the concept of 'laws of nature' also appears. Descartes was the first to introduce the notion - Newton also appropriated it. However, the concept did not yet have the priority it has today, and traditional Aristotelean causal explanations seem to linger on.

My question is: When in the history of science did 'laws of nature' become the primary/highest form of explanation? When does it become "mainstream" in physics?

  • $\begingroup$ I believe that this happened at the time of Francis Bacon. Perhaps he introduced the term "laws of nature" in his book New Organon. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2015 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ For sure, you have to see Descartes, Newton and Hume. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2015 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ I doubt that it's possible to pin down a specific point in history when the notion of a law of nature was first recognized. As Rory Daulton's answer shows, the notion is vague and fuzzy. What is much more clear is the point at which the notion of a universal law of nature was first recognized. This was Newton's Principia, which applied the same laws of motion and law of gravity to both heaven and earth. $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Jan 9, 2015 at 1:09

3 Answers 3


It seems to the that has been a "porcess", but a quite fast one.

In Galileo Galilei we have few occurrences of this term :

E questo sarà co ’l ridurci inanzi gli occhi quello, che in ogni altra operazione meccanica s’è veduto accadere: cioè che la forza, la resistenza ed il spazio, per lo quale si fa il moto, si vanno alternamente con tal proporzione seguendo, e con legge tale rispondendo, che resistenza eguale alla forza sarà da essa forza mossa per egual spazio e con egual velocità di quella che essa si muova.

The term is fundamental in Descartes :

Prima lex naturae [...] Altera lex natura

Isaac Newton, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1686 - latin text) :

Axiomata sive Leges Motus [...]

De Mundi Systemate - Liber Tertius [...] Hæc sunt motuum & virium leges & conditiones, quæ ad Philosophiam maxime spectant.

After Newton, the diffusion of the term seems impressive :

Expono igitur Capitae promo generales motus proprietates [...] atque demonstro leges naturae universales [...].

[...] si le loix de la Statique et de la Méchanique sont de vérité nécessaire ou contingente

  • $\begingroup$ thanks a lot for good answer (cannot upvote yet, though) $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2015 at 20:39

The early scientists, from Francis Bacon on, were practically all Christians, and they knew the Bible fairly well. I believe they took the concept of "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" (to quote the Declaration of Independence) from several famous passages of the Bible. Here are just two examples.

Genesis 8:22 (NASB):

"While the earth remains,

Seedtime and harvest,

And cold and heat,

And summer and winter,

And day and night

Shall not cease."


Jeremiah 33:25 (NASB): "Thus says the LORD, 'If My covenant for day and night stand not, and the fixed patterns of heaven and earth I have not established, ..."

Therefore, it appears that the concept of the "law of nature" was there from the very beginning of modern science.

I have read several books that make that point, but I do not now own them. One of them is on my wish list, but I haven't gotten it yet. Therefore I cannot give a good citation here.

  • $\begingroup$ Where exactly does the term "law of nature" appear in the Bible? $\endgroup$
    – fdb
    Jan 7, 2015 at 0:11
  • $\begingroup$ It doesn't. The title and the question asked about the concept, not the phrase. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2015 at 0:32
  • $\begingroup$ So where is the "concept" of law of nature, as opposed to god-given law? $\endgroup$
    – fdb
    Jan 7, 2015 at 0:38
  • $\begingroup$ You imply a contradiction where none exists. The two verses I quoted, along with others, talk about laws of nature that exist because they were promised by God. Nature is regular and follows laws. Therefore we can study those laws as scientists. Those laws were put into nature by a Lawgiver who is Himself regular. These are "laws of nature." Many other religions and cultures did not have this concept, so one cannot state that this idea is obvious. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2015 at 0:43
  • $\begingroup$ So what about miracles? $\endgroup$
    – fdb
    Jan 7, 2015 at 0:44

Plato, Timaeus 83e, speaks explicitly of the “laws of nature” (παρὰ τοὺς τῆς φύσεως νόμους). The early modern authors cited by Mauro are presumably alluding intentionally to this famous passage. The basic idea is that nature has its own intrinsic laws, not legislated by god(s).


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