Expanding the explanatory limits of science in early modern England
At the risk of oversimplifying matters a little, in early modern England explanations for events that took place in the world generally assumed one of two possible forms. On the one hand were providential explanations, in which it was claimed that God had miraculously caused whatever had taken place. On the other were naturalistic explanations—what today we would call scientific explanations—offered by natural philosophers; according to this kind of explanation, whatever took place could be accounted for by appealing solely to immanent processes involving created entities. In this paper I analyse the relations between these two forms of explanation across a handful of historical scenarios, and suggest a reason why, despite the appearance of competition between them, efforts to expand naturalistic forms of explanation did not—as some historians have claimed—lead to the eventual elimination of providence. The reason for this is that the doctrine of providence was also understood to offer an interpretation of the meaning and the broader significance of what takes place, and thus to account for more than causes alone. Because of this, the doctrine could adjust to changes in the explanatory limits of science, with phenomena able to bear divine meaning regardless of the types of causes involved.