Christians Deists And The Views Of Isaac


Christians, Deists And The Views Of Isaac Newton Essay, Research Paper

Newton, pure Intelligence, whom God `To Mortals lent, to trace his boundless Works From laws sublimely simple. `The Seasons: Summer, 1727 `The words of Scottish poet, James Thomson are a small sample of the myriad lines of praise bestowed on the most eulogized figure in scientific history. Thomson is being far from inaccurate in identifying Sir Isaac Newton as a figure often linked more closely with God than man. Indeed, a Whiggish view of history may well place Newton (sitting beneath an apple tree) among the elite of historical ‘heroes’, he has, after all, like Charles Dickens and George Stephenson, found near immortality in appearing on our paper currency. `More respected historians, while not wishing to detract from Newton’s undoubted historical contribution, have been wary of adopting such a straightforward view of his significance. While Thomson may describe his laws as ’simple’, this is certainly an inappropriate epithet for Newton himself. Historical figures rarely fit into the simplistic ‘black and white’ Whiggish framework. Isaac Newton is a man surrounded by ambiguity and paradox, inhabiting neither a black nor white but a grey area in history. `In recent years historians studying Newton have placed a greater emphasis on considering his personal religious beliefs. Newton was without doubt a pious Christian, identifying God not just as a Creator and Preserver of His universe but as an Observer. A God that saw him swim in a tub on the Sabbath, heard him lie about a louse to a fellow scholar at Cambridge and could even perceive his unclean thoughts.1 Newton’s commitment to Biblical scripture was always a theme underpinning his scientific writings. Throughout Newton’s work his scientific assertions are given support by Biblical references. Newton suggests, for example, that the ‘days’ of the Creation may have been longer than the twenty-four hour period people are accustomed to, because the world may have been rotating more slowly. Thus a part of scripture that came under attack from natural philosophers is given scientific support by Newton. Similarly, comets are reinvested with religious significance: Newton sees comets as agents of God, used to maintain balance in the density of stars. `Amos Funkenstein has identified Newton as a key character in the ‘unprecedented fusion’2 between science and religion and Brooke highlights how Newton brought the two spheres together: ‘When Newton wrote in the Principia that “in Him are all things contained and moved”, the supporting references included eight from scripture.’3 Few historians would challenge the notion that Newton himself felt that one of the chief goals of his scientific investigation was to prove the omnipotence of God. Even Robert Westfall, a historian who argues that ‘following the birth of modern science the age of unshaken faith was lost to Western man’,4 is still agreed on Newton’s motives, if not the consequences of his work: ‘Newton stated that the primary goal of scientific investigation is to reveal the ultimate cause of creation’.5 `Many aspects of Newton’s work were to provide a great basis for future intellectuals wishing to harmonize Christianity with natural philosophy. Nowhere is this synthesis more clearly illustrated than in the Boyle lectures. Margaret Jacob, identifies the main aim of the lectures: ` `The primary purpose of the Boyle lectures, as conceived by their benefactor, Robert Boyle, had been to attack deism, atheism and other heresies that threatened the Christian religion.6 `For many Newton was the man who had found in the system of the universe evidence of God’s intelligent design. In explaining planetary motion Newton was able to present a system in which the whole material universe was governed by one universal set of laws. To present this constancy in the universe was to attribute all Creation to the product of a single mind. `Newton was acutely aware of the dangers of pantheism. He must assert that the order in nature was not merely an inherent property, rather a quality invested in the material world by God: ` `The physical order explicated by Newton proclaims order and stability, but this order comes not from matter or nature but directly from God, whose will operates in the universe either directly or through active principles.7 `Newton’s Christian followers used his writing to proclaim a providential and interventionist God whose ordered universe operated according to laws of nature.8 Newton sought to construct a paradigm in which this all-powerful God could be combined with inert matter. Stephen Shapin sees his attempt as successful: ‘In the Newtonian schema brute matter and God’s providential will were complementary concepts.’9 It was essential to Newton that matter had no inherent powers, for it was God’s ability to operate directly or through natural causes on the material world that underlined his providential powers. This mentality is exemplified by Newton’s writings on the gravitational force. Gravity was not a mechanical force but a manifestation of divine activity. `Isaac Newton put forward a brand of natural philosophy that he felt was not only compatible with his religious belief, he considered the main function of his science to be the confirmation of the truths of the Christian faith. As he wrote in a letter to the Reverend Richard Bentley: ` `I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a deity; and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose.10 `How then, is it possible, that a man who put forward the most comprehensive of philosophical systems underpinned by Christianity would come, in the course of the next century, to be held by some to be the root cause of challenges to the established faith? `One of the key factors in considering the works of Isaac Newton is that, as historians, we appreciate the crucial difference between Newton himself and what Buchdahl has called the ‘image’ of Newton. Buchdahl attaches importance not so much to the details of Newton’s achievements ‘but rather the “image” that the eighteenth century was making for itself of this figure’.11 In considering the authority of Newton, invariably it is Newton’s legacy, the Newtonianism that grew out of his work to which future thinkers would appeal. Jacob stresses the importance of the Boyle lectures, without which, the new Newtonian philosophy would not have existed by the early eighteenth century as a coherent system to be understood by anyone outside the rather small circle of Newton scientifically trained followers.12 `It is more to the authority of these lecturers, than the often abstruse writings of the Principia and the Optics, that future thinkers would turn. Already, in only the generation that followed Newton, as historians we have ‘access only to visible cultural products and not to the inventions of those who produced them.’13 `It is essential to view Newtonianism, not as a rigid system able to function as its initiator intended but a powerful tool that could be put to varied and sometimes conflicting uses. The Newtonian building bricks which constructed this philosophical pantheon were originally combined in order to meet a Christian design. However, later freethinkers would use similar raw materials to build a monument that fitted deistic specifications. Newton’s work was to provide ammunition for both sides in the battle that raged between Christians and their deist adversaries. Brooke takes one aspect of Newton’s philosophy, the gravitational force, to illustrate how ambiguity in his writings could result in his authority being put to such diverse ends. While William Whiston, an early Boyle lecturer ‘identified the gravitational force with the interposition of God’s “general, immechanical, immediate power”‘, the deist Anthony Collins ‘invoked Newton’s authority to declare that gravity proved the activity of matter.’14 Newton becomes less an objective authority than a dynamic subjective device. Peter Gay, writing in his anthology of Deism, emphasises the tendency among French free-thinkers to interpret figures of authority in a specific way. What becomes relevant is not the original intentions of a ground-breaking individual but the ends to which the authority of that individual is then put: `Pope’s civilized religiosity, Locke’s cautious metaphysical guesses and Newton’s earnest Christian inquiries were grouped with Collins’ open radicalism to supply fuel for French deists.15 `Historians are in general agreement that Newton himself never entertained the thought of a deistic universe, but this does not mean his work was not called upon by those working to impose on Newtonianism a non-Christian interpretation. While Newton might be free from charges of heresy, the brand of Christianity associated with Newtonianism came under attack from those wishing to defend the Christian faith: ‘The charge most commonly levelled against this Christianity of the eighteenth century was, and is, that it quickly degenerated into deism.’16 There is a general feeling that the science-based Protestantism that emerged as the eighteenth century progressed, drawing heavily upon Newton’s work, would have been deemed less than Christian by many seventeenth century Christian thinkers and perhaps even by Newton himself. `Margaret Jacob stresses the need to appreciate the time-lag involved between the publication of Newton’s work and their subsequent re-interpretation by non-Christian freethinkers. The deist threat did not draw heavily upon Newton’s work in his own time, nor so much in the first generation of Newtonians such as Whiston and Clarke. It was not until the ’scientists and idealogues’17 of the 1720’s came to prominence that Newton’s writings became instruments put to deistic purposes. Jacob argues that the philosophical systems ‘bear little resemblance to the Christianity in which Newton, or Whiston and Clarke for that matter, personally believed.’18 `Though it may be inaccurate to draw any close parallels between Newton’s religious beliefs and those of the deists who were to draw upon his work, it is true that ambiguity in Newton’s scientific work without doubt opened the door for deists to use Newton as a resource as much as Anglican clerics. In studying his writings we can observe in them an ambivalence, the dangers of which Newton could not have foreseen: ` `Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial I have left to the considerations of my readers.19 `Little did Newton realize the diversity of ‘considerations’ his future readership would give to this principle. In leaving the gravitational issue unclear, Newton was inadvertently offering an invitation to future thinkers to exploit his arguments for their own ends. Jacob affirms, ‘In the hands of the unorthodox almost any philosophical system could be made ungodly.’20 `Some of the fundamental weaknesses in Newton’s work were highlighted during the much cited Clarke-Leibniz dispute. In attacking Newton’s use of the clockwork analogy to describe the universe, Leibniz revealed an inescapable flaw of Newton’s science. To avoid the deist threat, and prevent God becoming little more than an ‘Initiator’ who sets the clockwork universe in motion and then leaves it to tick by itself, Newton emphasises God’s role as ‘Intervenor’, perpetually acting on the universe to maintain harmony and order. Though this removes the challenge of a God who becomes redundant after the creation Newton is then open to attack from Leibniz who will argue that ‘if God had to remedy the defects of His creation, this was surely to demean His craftsmenship.’21 Even before the deistic movements of the eighteenth century had gained momentum it had become apparent that Newton’s work was susceptible to accusations that it presented a form of science that was not always compatible with established Christianity. `Robert Westfall, writing in Science and Religion on Seventeenth Century England, expounds this view that Newtonianism and Christianity were not always reconcilable. Westfall implies that because Newton was so keen to produce a scientific system that would not just conform with Christianity but also help strengthen religious claims, that his work was somewhat artificially geared towards this goal. In using science to defend Christianity, Newton takes something of an apologetic standpoint and is open to the accusation that he manipulates his scientific work to fit in with his faith. If Newton is only willing to go so far, in order to protect his faith, saying ‘that his system of the universe raised the fundamental question of its origin’ is it not likely that the future thinkers, less concerned about treading on the toes of clerics, will take the argument a step further and conclude ‘that the mechanics of nature explain everything’22 `Westfall argues strongly of Newton and his contemporaries, that, despite their intentions, ‘their worshipful frame of mind, there were aspects of their work that challenged received doctrines of religion.’23 The notion of a cosmic machine leaves little room for Providence and the unexplained gravitational forces is too easily reduced to a physical explanation that leaves no place for God. Christianity becomes saturated in rationalism and drained of mystery. Religion becomes subject to reason and Westfall even makes the claim that ‘Newton’s God was a distant, removed Being Whom men could acknowledge but scarcely enjoy.’24 ` `Historical studies of Isaac Newton reveal him as not only one of the most celebrated historical figures but also one of the most paradoxical. The same man whose intentions Funkenstein so clearly identified as the fusion of the realms of science and religion was less than half a century later held to be responsible for undermining Christianity with his science. Jacob illustrates the scale of this volte-face: ` `Tory thinkers became increasingly convinced that the Newtonians, possibly even Newton himself……, had, by their avowal of the new mechanical philosophy as the foundations of natural religion, effectively undermined all religion.25 `What must always be remembered is Buchdahl’s idea of the ‘image’ of Newton. While Newton could be employed as a vehement defender of the Christian faith with a philosophy that supported this intention, the ‘image’ of Newton subsequently projected could be invoked for quite contrasting purposes. Out of Newton grew a multitude of Newtonianisms that could be employed to defend both Christianity and deism alike. Newton might be regarded as essentially Christian but their were undoubtedly brands of Newtonianism which: ` `prepared the ground for the deists of the Enlightenment – the mechanical universe run by immutable natural laws, the transcendent God removed and separated from His creation, the moral law which took the place of spiritual worship, the rational men able to discover true religion without the aid of special revelation.26 ` `REFERENCES `1. Science and Religion, J.H.Brooke, p.138 `2.”The God of Isaac Newton” by J.H.Brooke in Let Newton Be!, ed. by J.Fauvel et al.,p.169 `3. Ibid., p.173 `4. Science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England, R. Westfall, p.220 `5. Ibid., p.194 `6. The Newtonians and the English Revolution 1689-1720, M.Jacob, p.196 `7.”Christianity and the Newtonian Worldview” by M.Jacob in God and Nature `ed. by D.C. Lindberg & R.L. Numbers, p.245 `8. Ibid., p.246 `9.”Of Gods and Kings: Natural Philosophy and Politics in the Leibniz-Clarke Disputes” `by S. Shapin pp.187-215 in Isis no.72, 1981 `10. Westfall, p.193 `11.The Image of Newton and Locke in the Age of Reason, G. Buchdahl, p.2 `12. Jacob, The Newtonians, p.146 `13. Shapin, p.189 `14. Brooke, Science and Religion, p.146 `15. Deism: An Anthology, P.Gay, p.382 `16. Jacob, God and Nature, p.243 `17. Ibid., p.247 `18. Ibid., p.247 `19. Brooke, Science and Religion, p.143 `20. Jacob, The Newtonians, p.205 `21. Brooke, Science and Religion, p.147 `22. Westfall, p.199 `23. Ibid., p.198 `24. Ibid., p.214 `25. Jacob, God and Nature, p.250 `26. Westfall, p.219 `BIBLIOGRAPHY `Brooke, J.H. Science and Religion Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge,1991) `Brooke, J.H. “The God of Isaac Newton” in Let Newton Be! ed. J. Fauvel et al `Oxford University Press, (Oxford, 1988) `Buchdahl, G. The Image of Newton and Locke in the Age of Reason `Sheed and Ward, (London, 1961) `Gay, P. Deism: An Anthology `D.V. Nostrand Comp. Inc., (London, 1968) `Gay, P. The Enlightenment `Alfred A. Knopf Inc., (New York, 1976) `Jacob, M. The Newtonians and the English Revolution 1689-1720 `Cornell University Press, (New York, 1976) `Jacob, M. “Christianity and the Newtonian Worldview” in God and Nature `ed. by Lindberg, C.D. & R.L. Numbers `Koyre, A. From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe `John Hopkins University Press,(London, 1976) `Shapin, S. “Of Gods and Kings: Natural Philosophy and Politics in the `Leibniz-Clarke Disputes” pp. 187-215 in Isis no.72, 1981 `Westfall, R. Science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England `Yale University Press (Yale, 1973)

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