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    The Complexity of Newton

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    • 06/19/2007

    By Steve Nakoneshny (2007)

    In the most simplistic of terms, religion is an attempt to discuss the nature of the universe with thoughts of a Deity being central. Science is an attempt to describe the nature of the universe simply as the physical, expressed characteristics of brute matter. As different as these two belief structures may appear to be, they are both essentially nothing more than alternative assays at explaining the ‘true’ nature of the universe. The works of “so important a scientific luminary as [sir] Isaac Newton,”[1] which encompasses a diverse variety of topics such as science, theology, and alchemy, were all written with the same design in mind: to explain the ‘true’ nature of the universe as it was created by God.

    This viewpoint is challenging to the modern day skeptic scientist, to say the least, but it is a common thread that pervades all aspects of Newton’s work. In fact, he himself has stated that “the primary goal of scientific investigation is to reveal the ultimate cause of creation.”[2] Logically, the ultimate cause of anything can only be the First Cause. For Newton (and his contemporaries), the First Cause is equivalent to God. Therefore, all science is an attempt to better understand God. This is consistent with the Natural Philosophy view that the study of the Book of God’s works is as much an act of worship as the study of the Book of God’s word.[3] For these people, little distinction could be made between theology and science as one would frequently lead to the other and both would lead to God.

    Scholarly endeavors into this realm of late appear to have accepted this inter-relationship as fact, for in “having divided up the scholarly work of studying Newton into areas congruent with modern academic interests, we had inadvertently divided up Newton.”[4] Westfall understood that “the relationship within Newton’s own mind between his scientific work and his religious work was a complex network of mutual influence.”[5] Thus, it is necessary to study all aspects of Newton’s works in order to (hopefully) be able to best understand the underlying theme that pervades it all. This writer is of the firm opinion that the underlying theme is none other than God.

    The main problem when studying the body of Newton’s work is to mistakenly view it through a modern bias. He was a seventeenth century natural philosopher who was a deeply devout man to whom questions of religion and theology truly mattered in the most profound of ways. In as much as we are all products of our environment, it is necessary to recognize Newton’s indigenous environment lest we expect to understand his intentions. Very little mainstream knowledge of Newton’s theological works exists. “That he would not publish these writings in his own time, because they showed that his thoughts were sometimes different from those which are commonly received, which would engage him in dispute.”[6] In fact, when sent for posthumous publication, the vast majority of his manuscripts were deemed unfit for printing. Otherwise, we may have ended up with a distinctly different conception of the man that was Newton.

    Much of his theological investigations focused upon a search for the ‘true’ religion. His research in this endeavor lead him to read many ancient texts including alchemical manuscripts. The latter he read mainly “for the purpose of drawing out its religious content and thereby obtaining insights into ancient religion or into primitive Christianity.”[7] He sought out these ancient insights in order to be better able to comprehend man’s relationship to God, and by extension, his own relationship with God. Possibly, he even sought them out I order too determine if they held the key to a less corrupted version of the ‘true’ religion.

    Whether it was his research that led to his unorthodox views or if his unorthodox views fueled his need to search for the ‘true’ religion is not the purpose of this paper.[8] Suffice it to say that the conclusions that Newton reaches are the result of meticulous and arduous study of both scripture and texts of antiquity. In his manuscript entitled “A Short Scheme of the True Religion,”[9] Newton declares that the true religion is based upon the adherence to two basic tenets: (1) our duty to God; we must love him, fear him, honour him, trust in him, pray to him, give him thanks, praise him, hallow his name, obey his commandments, and set times apart for his service, as we are directed in the third and fourth commandments.[10] (2) our duty to man; “we must be righteous, and do to all men as we would that they should do to us.”[11] Of this religion, he suggests that it is corrupted by man over time, and that the prophets are sent to us from God in order to remove the corruption and restore us to the original, true faith. Influenced by this belief in the importance of prophets and prophecy (which is central to Christian theology), Newton penned a substantial (also unpublished) manuscript entitled “The First Book Concerning the Language of the Prophets.”[12] In it, he discusses the results of his study of prophetic writings, which is a more arduous task than I care to contemplate. Without delving into the minutiae of that manuscript, it is readily apparent that this subject was of great concern to Newton. This concern likely formed out of the standard Christian view that the first coming of Christ was actualized by the fulfillment of prophecy by Jesus and that the second coming of Christ has been prophesized as well. By studying prophecy, an adept may better be able to interpret the signs that foretell the second coming of Christ. Unfortunately, the second coming also heralds Armageddon, but I guess that you can’t have it all.

    In a line of thinking tangentially related to his interest in prophecy, is his interest in Christ and his denial of the Trinity. For in his manuscript entitled “Twelve Articles,” he states that there is “one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.”[13] Implicit in this statement is the belief that Christ Jesus is distinct from both man and God. Jesus was “a true man born of a woman”[14] and “Christ [who] came not to diminish the worship of his Father.”[15] Newton felt that Jesus was an intermediary between man and God and that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy, and Jesus is the Word or prophet of God.”[16] This and his other anti-trinitarian views arise from his study of the works of church fathers. In the two manuscripts, “Queries regarding the Word Homoousios” and “Paradoxical Questions,”[17] Newton discusses the source of corruption to the true religion and the cause of its introduction. His argument is long and tedious, and I will content myself to say that he proved to himself (if no one else) that the corrupt doctrine was the doctrine of the Trinity. His argument is more forceful because of its thoroughness; the same attention to the slightest detail, and rigorous methodology that is so characteristic of his scientific endeavors is equally visible here. Thus, by no means can his theological works be dismissed as anything less than a serious scholarly body of work. They are integral (no pun intended) to an understanding of Newton beyond the scope of preeminent scientist.

    The crown jewel of Isaac Newton’s academic career was the publication of The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The Principia was a mechanistic philosophy of nature by which all objects within the universe are subject to certain immutable laws. This much is known to all whom have studied classical physics. For us, a self-perpetuating universe is acceptable, unfortunately, that was not Newton’s intention. His correspondence with Richard Bentley upon the subject begins with the sentence: "When I wrote my Treatise about our System, 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."[18] It is this part of Newton’s science that is frequently overlooked; he had written it with one eye upon the earth and the other to the heavens. It should be noted that he admitted that he did not have the answers to all of the workings of the world. He attributes the cause of these phenomena to God: the idea of reducing the world to “meer natural Causes”[19] is clearly abhorrent to him.[20] According to Newton, planetary motion and the motion of comets through the universe can only have been derived by “the Effect of Counsel.”[21] His argument to this effect is not so much deriving the conclusion from the evidence presented, as it is deriving the evidence that supports the conclusion. For Newton though, the workings of God as creator of the universe is a fait accompli; he sees no need to debate about the verity of a subject that is, to him, patently obvious.

    Central to his theory of the universe is the concept of gravity. The inverse square law of gravity revolutionized the manner in which people perceived how the world operated. He waffles a bit on the subject though, for while he says that “the Cause of Gravity is what I do not pretend to know, and therefore would take more time to consider of it,”[22] he does not hesitate to speculate that the Cause is none other than God. He denies that gravity is an inherent property of matter. If it were an inherent quality, then there would be no need for an externally imposed Cause. It would self-regulate itself irrespective of a God. But since there necessarily needs be a God ordering the actions of the universe, He cannot do so with a universe populated with autonomous matter. Therefore, gravity is not inherent to matter, it has an external cause, and that cause can be none other than God. This is a perfect example of how Newton’s theological suppositions guide the direction and strength of his scientific inquiries.

    In the Scholium Generale of the Principia, Newton attempts to explain the interaction of God and the universe: "This Being rules all things not as the soul of the world (for he has no body). . . He is Eternal and infinite. He endures for ever and is everywhere present: for what is never and nowhere is nothing. Can God be nowhere when the moment of time is everywhere? Certainly. He is omnipresent not only virtually but substantially, for virtue cannot subsist without substance, the substance is already imagined. In him are all things contained and moved, yet God and matter do not interfere. God suffers nothing from the motions of bodies, and these suffer no resistance from the omnipresence of God."[23] For Newton, the existence of God does not interfere with the workings of the universe, and the existence of the universe in no way interferes with the workings of God. Certainly he believed that matter could be affected by God directly, if He so chose, but matter was not affected simply by the existence of God. In this manner, Newton allows for both the existence of a mechanically ordered universe and for the means by which Divine Providence can operate within the world (for who are we to tell God what He may or may not do?).

    With respect to miracles, Newton says that they "… are not so called because they are the works of God, but because they happen seldom, and for that reason create wonder. If they should happen constantly according to certain laws impressed upon the nature of things, they would be no longer wonders or miracles, but might be considered in philosophy as a part of the phenomena of nature notwithstanding that the cause of their causes might be unknown to us."[24] It appears as though Newton is hedging his bets. Miracles come not from God and aren’t natural in origin, but at the same time we know not their cause. It seems as though he is taking an intermediary position here. Miracles are infrequent, but may be affected by natural laws exclusive to themselves and it may also be possible that their occurrence is affected by the will of God (albeit indirectly). Certainly unorthodox, and somewhat cryptic, this statement nevertheless supports Newton’s desire to explain all things in the world with respect to either his natural philosophy or to God.

    Finally, there are the Queries with which Newton concludes the Opticks. For the most part, they deal with the physics associated with Newton’s discoveries in the field of optics. However, towards the end, they begin to show his interest in chemistry, and also contain some reflections upon God and the creation of the universe. He claims that "it is unphilosophical to seek for any other origin of the world or to pretend that it might arise out of a chaos by the mere laws of nature, though being once formed it may continue by those laws for many ages."[25] For Newton, the elegance with which the universe presents itself is argument enough for the existence of a Deity. For him, the formation of the universe must have been guided by the hand of an omnipotent God, else it would not have formed in the manner that it had. This argument derives its conclusions through circular reasoning, and is thereby flawed, but it is not so in Newton’s mind. He believed that by expanding the boundaries of natural philosophy, “the bounds of moral philosophy will be also enlarged.”[26] In so doing, mankind will be able to ascend to a greater religious truth than what has ever existed. This in turn will result in a more accurate representation of the ‘true’ religion, and therefore render our worship of God greater. Ultimately, all of Newton’s works aim to create a closer relationship between mankind and their God.

    - By Steve Nakoneshny (2007)


    [1] Lindberg, D.C. The Beginnings of Western Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. p.4

    [2] Westfall, R.S. science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England. David Horne, ed. Miscellany 67; New Haven: Yale University Press. 1968.,p.194

    [3] Brooke, J.H. Science and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. p.22

    [4] Dobbs, B.J.T. the Janus Face of Genius. Cambridge University Press.,1991. p.251

    [5] Westfall , p.194

    [6] McLaughlan, H. Sir Isaac Newton’s Theological Manuscripts. Liverpool: University Press, 1950. p. 2. The above quote is from Newton’s friend John Craig shortly after his death.

    [7] Dobbs, B.J.T. The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, or “The Hunting of the Greene Lyon”. Cambridge University Press, 1975. The context of this full statement is an interpretation and refutation of the opinions of one Mary S. Churchill. A position which Dobbs repudiates in the Epilogue of “Janus Face of Genius.”

    [8] This particular line of questioning is further developed in the introduction of McLaughlan’s “Sir Isaac Newton’s Theological Manuscripts” and in McGuire and Tamny’s “Certain Philosophical Questions: Newton’s Trinity Notebook.”

    [9] McLaughlan, p.48-53. This same argument takes form in the “Irenicum”, p.28-35.

    [10] Ibid. p.51.

    [11] Ibid. p.52.

    [12] Ibid. p.119.

    [13] Ibid. p. 56.

    [14] Ibid. “our religion to Jesus Christ,” p.54.

    [15] Ibid. “Articles,” p.56.

    [16] Ibid. p.56.

    [17] Ibid. former, p.44-47; latter, p.61-118.

    [18] Cohen, I.B. Isaac Newton’s Papers & Letters on Natural Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978. p.280. Also, for a ‘modern’ English translation of these same letters, see Thayer’s Newton’s Philosophy of Nature. p.46-58.

    [19] Ibid. p.282.

    [20] McLaughlan, “A Short Scheme of the True Religion,” p.48.

    [21] Cohen, p.282.

    [22] Ibid. p. 298.

    [23] Hall, A.R. & Hall, M.B., Eds. Unpublished Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: University Press, 1962. p.359-360. This quote was taken from one of the unpublished manuscript versions of the Scholium (ms. C, to be precise).

    [24] McLaughlan, p. 17-18.

    [25] Thayer, p. 177.

    [26] Ibid. p. 179.


    Bibliography and Works Cited

    • Brooke, J.H. Science and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
    • Cohen, I.B. Isaac Newton’s Papers & Letters on Natural Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.
    • Dobbs, B.J.T. The Foundation of Newton’s Alchemy, or The Hunting of the Greene Lyon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
    • Dobbs, B.J.T. The Janus Face of Genius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
    • Hall, A.R. & Hall, M.B., eds. Unpublished Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
    • Lindberg, D.C. The Beginnings of Western Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
    • McGuire, J.E. & Tamny, M. Certain Philosophical Questions: Newton’s Trinity Notebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
    • McLaughlan, H. Sir Isaac Newton’s Theological Manuscripts. Liverpool: University Press, 1950.
    • Thayer, H. S. Newton’s Philosophy of Nature: Selections from his Writings. New York: Hafner Press, 1953.
    • Westfall, R.S. Science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England. David Horne, ed. Miscellany 67; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958.

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