Descartes on physical vacuum: rationalism in natural-philosophical debate
Descartes is notorious for holding a strong anti-vacuist position. On his view, according to the standard reading, empty space not only does not exist in nature, but it is logically impossible. The very notion of a void or vacuum is an incoherent one. Recently Eric Palmer has proposed a revisionist reading of Descartes on empty space, arguing that he is more sanguine about its possibility. Palmer makes use of Descartes’ early correspondence with Marin Mersenne, including his commentary on Galileo’s Two New Sciences. I argue that Palmer’s reading is mistaken, and that it relies on an understandable but faulty inference—i.e., that if Descartes considers the implications of an opposing view, he must find it at least coherent. Descartes, as I show from his correspondence and other texts, uses a variety of persuasive strategies, and levels charges of different logical strength, against positions which he takes to be incoherent. Thus we cannot infer from the fact that Descartes argues, e.g., that something is a superfluous theoretical entity, that he admits that entity’s coherence. He often chooses to argue a weaker thesis against an opponent so that he can use an argument to which the opponent is more likely to agree.
Keywords: Descartes, space, matter, vacuum, dialogue, Galileo Galilei, Marin Mersenne