Stephen David Snobelen is Assistant Professor in the History of Science and Technology at University of King's College, Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is a founder member of the Newton project and author of many fascinating papers on Newton's alchemy and religious thinking. I was privileged to be able to ask him some questions about his work on Newton.
- Interviewed by Paul Newall (2005)
PN: How and why did you first become interested in Newton?
SS: Like most people, I first learned about Newton as a child. Unlike most, I also learned relatively early on from a historical book on radical dissent in the early modern period that Newton was privately a passionate lay theologian and prophetic exegete. Although this book didn’t offer much detail, the information was striking enough that it stayed with me. I read this book several years before I began my undergraduate training. However, it was not until I was well into my undergraduate History degree that I began to study Newton’s religious beliefs for myself.
There were several starting points. First, I wrote an undergraduate honours thesis on Socinianism (an early modern antitrinitarian movement that emerged in Poland) and included a short section on Newton. Second, I wrote two upper-year papers on early modern millenarianism. Again, Newton featured in these studies. Third, I wrote two other undergraduate papers entirely on Newton and the recovery of his religious faith and how this faith related to his natural philosophy (science).
Also very important was my encountering during my undergraduate years of the work of James Force and the recently-deceased Richard H. Popkin. These two scholars (Force being Popkin’s quondam PhD student) wrote a series of wonderful papers on Newton’s theology proper and the relationship between his science and his religion. Popkin and Force (the latter is still busy working on Newton and Newtonianism) showed me just how exciting and intriguing this field could be. I was smitten! Their papers provided a model early on for my own work on Newton. It was a great pleasure to meet both of these fine scholars in 1998 and work with them on publishing projects related to Newton and early modern millenarianism.
Coincidentally, in 1991, while I was partway through my undergraduate degree, Chadwyck-Healey released the majority of Newton’s unpublished papers on microfilm. This microfilm collection included most of Newton’s theological and prophetic papers. This, along with the work of Popkin and Force, helped initiate a flurry of activity in Newton studies — particularly with respect to Newton’s theology. Having just begun to take an academic interest in Newton, I was poised to take advantage of this treasure trove. Timing is everything!
When I went on to study for my MA in History at the University of Victoria, I choose to work on a subject that related to the popularisation of Newtonianism in early eighteenth-century Britain. It was at this time that I formally added to my interests in history the history of science. I owe this in part to my supervisor Paul Wood. Thus when I applied to Cambridge in 1996, I chose the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. It was while at Cambridge (1996-2001), when I completed an MPhil and PhD in HPS and worked as a research fellow in the same field, and during which time I had rich archives at my disposal, including many of Newton’s original manuscripts, that I began to do serious work on Newton’s theology, prophecy and the relationship between his science and religion. It was a matter of making hay while the sun was shining. Although I’m always conducting new research, I still to a certain extent rely on research I did during those years.
While at Cambridge I completed an MPhil thesis on Newton’s heresy and a PhD thesis on William Whiston, one of Newton’s natural philosophical and theological disciples. I worked under Simon Schaffer, who in 1980 completed a PhD thesis on Newton at the same institution. I also began to network with Rob Iliffe (Imperial College, but a former student of Schaffer’s at Cambridge) and Scott Mandelbrote (then of Oxford, now of Cambridge), both of whom had caught the Newton bug a few years before I did and were already producing excellent work on Newton’s theology. In 1997, the year I began my PhD, and with a gentle nudge from Rob Iliffe, I started work on transcribing some of Newton’s theological manuscripts held at King’s College, Cambridge.
PN: Why was Newton a "heretic"?
SS: During his own life time, Newton was a heretic from the perspective of orthodoxy. His study of the Bible and church history had convinced him that the orthodox version of Christianity that emerged in the fourth century A.D., represented in Anglicanism and Calvinism and especially (from his point of view) Roman Catholicism in his own time and context, had strayed from the original purity of first-century Christianity and had become hopelessly corrupt. The chief heresy of the orthodox church was the doctrine of the Trinity (for Newton, it was the orthodox who were heretical, while he saw his own views as orthodox in the sense of original Christianity). To put this in perspective, the doctrine of the Trinity is widely recognised as the central tenet of orthodox Christianity. So Newton wasn’t merely chipping away at the edifice of traditional Christendom; he was destroying its chief cornerstone. Not that Newton’s (mostly private) efforts should be seen primarily as destructive. Newton saw his own biblical and historical researches as part of a recovery of the purity of the primitive faith of Christianity.
Why did Newton believe the Trinity was unbiblical? There are several reasons. First, he did not find the doctrine in the Bible. Not only was the term “Trinity” invented years after the closing of the New Testament canon, but Newton could find nothing approaching a formal doctrinal declaration of the Trinity in the Bible — something many modern scholars will affirm. Instead, he believed passages such as 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 and 1 Timothy 2:5 taught that only the Father is God in the absolute sense, while Christ is the Son of God, but not “very God of very God”, to use the language of the Nicene Creed. 1 Corinthians 8:6 reads: “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him”. Like other non-Trinitarians of his age and today, Newton took this verse to teach that the One God worshipped by the ancient Israelites is the Father alone, not Father, Son and Holy Spirit as in the Athanasian formulation.
Why did Newton believe the Trinity was a corruption? Concluding that the Trinity could not be found in the Bible (a conclusion he came to in the early 1670s, around the time he turned thirty), Newton also looked in the annals of ecclesiastical history to find out when it was introduced. His research confirmed that Hellenising churchmen introduced Platonic language and “substance talk” to Christianity in the third and fourth centuries. This “substance talk” led to the conception that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are united according to “essence” or “substance”. Newton had astutely observed that the Bible speaks about the Father’s unity with the Son as a unity of will, not substance (see John 10:30 and 17:11, 21-22).
In part, Newton was rediscovering a Hebraic conception of God, in which God is described according to his activities and his relationships with the world and His people. This discomfort with the belief that we can know the essence or substance of things resonates with his science, as does what could be called his phenomenalistic understanding of God and Christ. It was Newton’s firm belief that Christians should avoid speculative extrapolations from biblical doctrine and the introduction of foreign ideas to it, both of which can lead to error, and stick with the descriptive accounts of God and Christ found in the Bible.
But it would be a mistake to characterise Newton’s heresy only in terms of his denial of the Trinity. Newton also rejected the immortality of the soul — another litmus test of orthodoxy — which he similarly found to be unbiblical. Instead of natural immortality, eternal life for Newton was obtained through bodily resurrection. On this point we see another example of Newton rejecting a Hellenised Christian doctrine in favour of a thoroughly Hebraic idea (for the doctrine of natural immortality owes much to the post-biblical superaddition of the conception of the Platonic soul to biblical language). To support his “mortalist” conceptions of the human, Newton turned to passages such as Psalm 6:5, Psalm 115:17 and Ecclesiastes 9:5,10, all of which speak about death as unconscious oblivion.
On top of these “heresies”, Newton came to believe that the Bible does not teach a literal personal devil or literal personal demons (he had no trouble accepting literal angels). His view on Satan is very similar to the teaching of Judaism that Satan is not a personal being, but rather a personification of the evil inclination (yetzer ha-ra) within the human heart. The demons of the Synoptic Gospels, Newton concluded, were not meant to be taken literally; instead, the language of the Bible here is accommodating itself to the sensibilities of the common people, just as Newton believed it does when it describes the apparent motion of the sun. For Newton, the demon-possessed people whom Jesus healed were simply mentally or physically ill. It would be a mistake to see Newton’s rejection of a personal devil and personal demons as an example of incipient rationalism, however. Instead, these conclusions were the result of his biblicism and, likely, his strong monotheism that rendered belief in supernatural evil beings a threat to the unchallenged sovereignty of the One God Whom he worshipped.
PN: What were the difficulties associated with being a Socinian - or antitrinitarian in general - in Newton's day? Can you explain what the two involved?
SS: What Newton was doing was dangerous. Denial of the Trinity was illegal in Britain until 1813. The last person burnt at the stake in England for the denial of the Trinity was in 1612, only three decades before Newton’s birth. Antitrinitarians were seen as arch-heretics by the Anglican establishment. It was partly for this reason that Newton largely kept his antitrinitarianism to himself. Similarly, denial of the immortality of the soul and a personal devil were viewed as extremely radical doctrinal moves in Newton’s day. For many, denial of the Trinity, the immortality of the soul and evil spirits was, ironically, tantamount to atheism — even though these denials are also associated with positive teachings (the Oneness of God, the resurrection and strict monotheism). Because of the civil and ecclesiastical laws against such forms of heresy, Newton would have lost his position as Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge if he had publically revealed his heresies while serving in this capacity. We can be absolutely sure of this because Newton’s successor at the Lucasian Chair, William Whiston, was ousted from Cambridge in 1710 precisely for denying the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. So the stakes were very high indeed.
Newton’s form of antitrinitarianism, while aligned with an array of supporting biblical texts, can be loosely described as Arian. Arianism is a fourth-century Christology in which Christ pre-exists his birth in Bethlehem and is perhaps of “similar” substance to the Father. In my view, Newton gradually moved away from the more overt implications of Arianism in coming to reject any sort of substance talk (at one place in one of his manuscripts he chastises both Athanasian Trinitarianism and Arianism for introducing metaphysics into Christianity) to focus exclusively on a unity of will between God and Christ. Arians, it is true, also talked a lot about this unity of will, but it seems possible that Newton’s apparent interest in seventeenth-century Socinian Christology softened his Arianism in the later decades of his life. The Socinians (some of whose books he owned, and one of whom Newton actually met personally in 1726) believed that Christ began his existence at his birth by Mary and rejected any sort of substantial relationship between Christ and God. A sign that Newton was at least contemplating the Socinians’ slightly more radical (although, to the Socinians, more biblical) Christology comes in his later theological manuscripts, where he implies that Christians who believe in Christ’s pre-existence should find fellowship with those who don’t.
PN: Why do you think there has been an emphasis on Newton's so-called scientific papers to the neglect of his considerable writings on religion and alchemy?
SS: It’s partly Newton’s fault. Newton kept his theological and alchemical papers secret from all but a few of his closest friends. When he died, his relatives, realising the explosive nature of the manuscripts, kept them from public view, despite the fact (and probably partly because of the fact) that antitrinitarians like William Whiston were clamouring for their publication. Add to this the fact that throughout the eighteenth century a series of secular apologists created an image of Newton and his science as iconic of rationalism, and it’s easy to see why the world for years had no idea that Newton was a heretic, a prophetic exegete and a practising alchemist. Until they were sold at Sotheby’s in London in 1936, Newton’s collateral descendants kept the theological and alchemical papers under lock and key, only occasionally allowing historical researchers to examine their contents.
After the 1936 sale, which was in many respects disastrous for Newton scholarship (at least temporarily), most of the manuscripts circulated for years in private hands before the majority of them eventually settled in academic libraries. Nevertheless, until the 1991 release of most of Newton’s scientific, theological, alchemical and administrative papers on microfilm, accessing these manuscripts was difficult and in some cases impossible. The recent accessibility of the manuscripts is the main reason why the study of Newton’s theology and alchemy is only now beginning to flourish. Added excitement is created every so often when some of the few scattered sheets in Newton’s hand remaining in private collections come up for auction. Small though they are, these documents continue to add to our knowledge of Newton’s theology and the relationship between his theology and his science.
PN: What is the relationship between Newton's work in these areas and his scientific studies? What was the extent of their interdependence or can the two be separated in his thinking?
SS: Newton’s theological views related to his natural philosophical work at several levels. In my view, Newton’s theology and his natural philosophy can be distinguished in certain ways, but were never completely separate. First, Newton was stimulated by his religious beliefs to study nature. Like his contemporary the alchemist/chemist Robert Boyle, Newton likely saw himself as a sort of high priest of nature. This religious stimulus to work in natural philosophy, which can be termed an example of a weak relationship between science and religion, did not directly shape the specifics of the content of his natural philosophy. But there are many examples of what can be called a strong relationship between Newton’s science and his religion, namely examples where Newton’s religion helps shape the cognitive content of his natural philosophy.
Newton was an advocate of natural theology and thus saw the study of nature as revealing the creative hand of God. This commitment to natural theology can be found briefly in the first edition of the Principia (1687) and more extensively in the later editions of the Principia and the Opticks. Several specific examples of interaction are worthy of mention. Newton was keen to avoid what he saw as the major pitfall of the Cartesian mechanical philosophy (which he believed was prone to atheistic extrapolations) and in particular the lack of a role for spirit (in the Cartesian system, spirit is non-extended and thus cannot be the subject of natural philosophy). Newton, in a certain sense, went in the opposite direction, attempting to construct a natural philosophy that led inductively to God and conceiving a view of the universe in which God’s spirit is infinitely extended. God’s omnipresence (associated with God’s spirit) for Newton helps to explain the universality of gravity. Newton only hinted at this in his General Scholium to the Principia, while in private he was much more sanguine. Similarly, Newton’s concept of absolute space and time relate to his notions of God’s infinite extension in space and his infinite extension in time. Interestingly, in conceiving of God filling time on the analogy of God filling space, Newton seems to have moved towards a conception of time as a dimension.
There are other examples. There appears to be some sort of relationship between a series of rules of prophetic interpretation Newton penned in the 1670s and the Rules of Reasoning that took shape in the three editions of the Principia. It is certainly the case that Newton often advocated the use of similar empirical methodologies in his interpretation of Scripture and his interpretation of nature. An inductive heuristic method is one way that Newton’s study of the Bible is linked to his study of nature. It is also the case that Newton made distinctions between the absolute and relative in both his theology and his natural philosophy. In the case of the former, he distinguished between absolute and relative meanings of the word “God”, contending that Christ was God only in a relative sense, taking the title God (as he does in a handful of occasions in the New Testament) in an honorific rather than ontological sense. The Father, on the other hand, Newton believed was God in an ontological and absolute sense. In his natural philosophy or science Newton distinguished between absolute and relative, time, space, place and motion.
These examples and others are explored in some of the recent scholarship on Newton, including papers that I have recently published and am about to publish. The profound relationships Newton saw between his theology and his natural philosophy can be explained in part by his commitment to the concept of the Two Books, the idea that God wrote two books, the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. Newton saw both these books as “written” by God. Believing this, he could conceive of no disunity between them.
PN: What were Newton's eschatological and prophetic views? How widely known were these in his day?
SS: Newton was a premillenarian in his eschatology. Simply put, this means that he believed that Christ would return to establish a thousand-year reign with the saints on earth. The “pre” in premillenarian refers to the time of Christ’s second coming (parousia) with respect to the establishment of the Millennium or Kingdom of God on earth. Like other premillenarians, including Joseph Mede of Cambridge (who had almost single-handedly revived premillenarianism in the English-speaking world in the early part of the seventeenth century), Newton found support for his eschatology through a literal but sophisticated interpretation of such prophetic books as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation. Newton believed that the Battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16), the return of the Jews to Israel, the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and the fall of apocalyptic Babylon (the Trinitarian Church, manifested most fully in the Roman Catholic Church), would occur around the time of the second coming of Christ. He also believed that the true Gospel would only begin to be preached successfully shortly before this period. This was one of the reasons why Newton did not actively preach in his own time. He believed the time of the end was still at least two centuries away.
The restoration of primitive Christianity in the place of corrupt, institutional Christianity is but one of several positive visions Newton had for the future. He also believed that Christ would establish a worldwide Kingdom of God on earth and that this Kingdom would bring about peace and prosperity of the world’s inhabitants. Based on his reading of Old Testament and New Testament prophecies, he believed peace would prevail between nations, within the animal kingdom and between wild animals and humans. The Jews would be restored to their land Israel after centuries of captivity. Jerusalem, now a city of contention for the world and the three monotheistic world religions, would become the capital city, as it were, of this worldwide Kingdom. For Newton, Christ is to be King of this Kingdom and the saints (whom Newton would have identified as the righteous) are to reign over this Kingdom with Christ (Revelation 20:4-6). An important prophetic passage that spoke to Newton of this coming Kingdom of peace is Isaiah 2:2-4, where the prophet Isaiah says of the nations that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). This evocative vision of international peace evidently also appealed to the former Soviet Union, which donated to the United Nations in New York a statue of a man beating a sword into a plowshare and bearing this quotation from Isaiah.
Much fanfare has surrounded recently public revelations that Newton predicted the end of the world in 2060. Although this international news story helped bring Newton the prophetic exegete to the attention of the world in a dramatic way, Newton did not predict that the world would end in 2060. The date 2060 represented for him one of the possible dates when the events of the second coming would begin to take place. The date was scribbled on a scrap of paper and was never meant for public eyes. Ironically, although Newton was passionately against setting dates for the time of the end, he himself was opposed to the public setting of dates, principally because he believed it brought ridicule on the Bible when human interpreters failed in their predictions. Newton believed the genuine fulfilment of prophecy would serve as a powerful argument for the existence of God and the inspiration of the Bible. I have elsewhere written in more detail about how Newton came to the 2060 date and how this date fits into his prophetic scheme.
Only Newton’s closest followers knew about his prophetic and millenarian views during his lifetime. Some idea of his interest in prophecy was made available to the public when a small portion of his prophetic writings were released in the Observations upon the prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John in 1733. But the writings published in this work are mostly bland and insipid when compared with some of his early prophetic writings, some of which are laced with his heretical theology. Nevertheless, within some Protestant circles some of Newton’s prophetic ideas were known through this book. It is still respected and quoted by certain Protestant prophetic exegetes today. Most of these, however, are either unaware of Newton’s theological heresy or carefully choose to ignore it. Notwithstanding this, Newton through this book played a minor role in the rise of literal prophetic interpretation in Protestant fundamentalism — an interesting irony considering the use to which Newton was put by Enlightenment thinkers.
PN: Why did Newton conclude his Principia Mathematica with the General Scholium? Why was he concerned to attack monotheism at the close of a work that we tend to think of as starting or playing a vital role in the so-called Scientific Revolution?
SS: The first edition of the Principia published in 1687 contained only one reference to God (in a statement of natural theology) and one mention of the Bible. Newton, for various reasons (some of which are obvious and others that haven’t yet been fully worked out), wanted a much more robust statement of natural theology in his second edition of 1713. This came in the General Scholium, a sort of appendix that he added to the conclusion of the Principia. With his editor Roger Cotes’s new preface, which contained vigorous appeals to the natural theological utility of the Principia, Newton’s greatest work was now positioned as a work that supported natural theology. This isn’t particularly surprising, given the popularity of natural theology in Newton’s lifetime and his evident devotion to it.
What is more surprising to those unfamiliar with Newton’s thought, and even to some who are, is that Newton would want to “encode”, as it were, a polemic against the Trinity in the General Scholium. But this he did. It was crucial that he present this polemic indirectly, since open denials of the Trinity were illegal and because he didn’t believe in casting his pearls before swine, to use the biblical expression. Thus, the General Scholium is constructed a bit like a Russian doll, with outer layers that are accessible to all (these include the natural theology and the biblical descriptions of God), and inner layers that can be penetrated only by the elite amongst his enemies and supporters (this includes the implicit attack on Trinitarian scriptural hermeneutics).
Newton attacks the Trinity in the General Scholium in several ways. First, he argues that the term “God” is a relative word like “Lord”. By this he means that “God” as a term does not automatically denote divine essence or substance, but that the term primarily derives its meaning from its relations, as in “God of Israel”. For Newton, the term denotes dominion and power, not essence and might. The unmentioned but implied heretical corollary to this is that when Christ is called God, as he occasionally is in the New Testament, this does not mean that Christ is God in substance, only that he takes on the title of God as his representative. To support this implied conclusion, Newton cites John 10:35 and Psalm 82:6, which refer to Israelite magistrates being referred to as “God” or “gods” because they represented God on earth. Elsewhere in the General Scholium, Newton deftly suggests that God is unipersonal (a heretical conclusion, since in the Trinity God is tripersonal). He also boldly states that we don’t have any idea of the substance of God. Not only does this resonate with Locke’s phenomenalism, but it is a swipe against Trinitarians, who claim they know enough about the substance of God to conclude that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are consubstantial beings. In rejecting substance talk when applied to God, we see a biblical phenomenalism that parallels his phenomenalism in physics.
Why attack the Trinity in a work of natural philosophy? Apart from the likelihood that Newton derived a sense of satisfaction in countering the Trinity in a public text and getting away with it, it is likely that Newton wanted to lend his support to other antitrinitarians, who had published much more explicit arguments against the Trinity. Chief among these was Samuel Clarke, who published his antitrinitarian Scripture-doctrine of the Trinity only a year before the General Scholium was released. It also seems likely that Newton equated the feigning of hypotheses in natural philosophy (such as Descartes’ fluid vortices, attacked in the very first line of the General Scholium) and hypotheses in theology (such as the doctrine of three consubstantial persons). In fact, it appears that Newton saw himself as working to effect two reformations: one in natural philosophy and one in theology. The two reformations come together in the General Scholium. How can we be certain that Newton wrote a coded attack on the Trinity in the General Scholium? We can be sure because when the language of the General Scholium is compared with identical language in his private manuscripts, the more explicit private manuscripts can be used to interpret the meaning of the public text. And so it is that what many consider to be the single most important book in the history of science ends with a theological attack on the central doctrine of orthodox Christianity. Who would have thought?
PN: Newton is often considered one of the instigators of the Age of Reason. Why is this view mistaken?
SS: It’s not entirely mistaken; but it is very misleading. Newton’s mathematics, physics and optics, along with his scientific method, were used by the apologists of the Enlightenment (particularly those in France) to help found the so-called Age of Reason. But to use Newton in this way there was much they had to leave out of the picture. In part, this wasn’t their fault, since so little was known about Newton’s theology and how this theology underpinned his science. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the French philosophes created Newton in their own image as a icon of rationality. Newton’s firm belief that his natural philosophy would ultimately lead to a knowledge of the God of Israel would have been scandalous to these thinkers. In some cases where these image-makers knew about Newton’s theology they contended that Newton turned to theology only with old age and after a mental breakdown, thus preserving the “sanctity” of the Principia. But this contention doesn’t wash. Newton’s manuscripts (most of which we can date fairly accurately) demonstrate that Newton was up to his eyeballs in theology and alchemy for a decade or more before his began to work on his revolutionary Principia. What’s more, it is now clear that some of Newton’s preexisting theological and alchemical ideas actually helped inform some aspects of his natural philosophy or science. I’m sure that if some of the more atheistic philosophes had know what we know today, there would have been more than a little weeping and gnashing of teeth.
PN: In your writings on Newton you have made a distinction between the exoteric and esoteric meanings in his work. Why did he make such a demarcation and how did he achieve it?
SS: In his theology, Newton liked to distinguish between open and closed levels of knowledge. When discussing biblical doctrine, he spoke in terms of a distinction between “milk for babes” (simple aspects of doctrine understandable by all) and “meat for elders” (the weightier matters of doctrine, accessible only to the theologically astute). He had similar ideas about mathematics and natural philosophy, commenting at one point in his life that he wrote his Principia only for able mathematicians rather than “little smatterers in mathematics”. One can call this a form of intellectual elitism and in part it is. But it is also similar to, and perhaps related to, similar forms of epistemological dualism in the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and in alchemy. As with some other advocates of epistemological dualism, there was for Newton a social corollary in that he believed that the esoteric layers of knowledge could only be penetrated by the adepts. In his religion and in his natural philosophy, Newton saw himself as a member of a small remnant class who possessed the truth.
PN: What is the Newton Project and what is your involvement with it?
SS: The Newton Project was formed in England in 1998 as an effort to transcribe and make available the literary output of the “other” Newton, Newton the theologian and alchemist. Harvey Shoolman, Rob Iliffe and Scott Mandelbrote laid the early groundwork. I was also involved from the very beginning since I was working on Newton’s manuscripts and already networking with these gentlemen. I remain active in the Project and serve on the Editorial Board. Many of my transcriptions can be found on the Project website. The Project obtained funding in 1999 and after that the work began in earnest. Rob Iliffe is the driving force of the Project, which is based at his institution, Imperial College, London. Our original goal was to put the theological manuscripts online to make them available freely to scholars and the rest of the world. Since the original inception of the Project, the scope has broadened to include the scientific work of Newton as well. In 2003 I founded the much humbler Newton Project Canada to serve as a focus for Newton transcription work in Canada. The NPC is a sister organisation to the NP-UK, and most of the transcriptions carried out under the aegis of the NPC will ultimately end up on the NP-UK website.
PN: What other projects are you working on?
SS: Despite my enthusiasm for Newton and my passion for unravelling his complex thought world, I am engaged in other research projects. I work on early modern religious heresy, including antitrinitarian doctrine and biblical scholarship. Early modern millenarianism and prophetic interpretation is another interest of mine. I have carried out research on the popularisation of science in the early modern period. I do some work on science and religion in the nineteenth century and, partly because I teach two courses on science and religion at King’s College and Dalhousie University, I have begun to explore the current relationship between science and religion. I am interested in issues relating to the presentation of science in the contemporary media (and teach a course on this subject). Although it doesn’t directly relate as much to my current academic work, I also maintain an interest in biblical hermeneutics.
The Newton Project Canada under my direction is producing electronic editions of Newton’s Chronology (1728), Newton’s Observations (1733) and the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence (1717). As for my current writing projects, I am continuing to research and publish papers on aspects of Newton’s theology, as well as the interaction between his theology and his natural philosophy. The largest project is a book I’m writing for Icon Books that is tentatively called Isaac Newton, heretic: alchemy, the Apocalypse and the making of modern science. I am also involved in the organisation of a major Newton conference slated for Israel in late 2006. This conference will bring together scholars who work on Newton’s theology, alchemy and natural philosophy for the first time.
PN: What can studying Newton teach us about contemporary issues?
SS: I’m a historian; I never think about the present! But seriously, there is much contemporary value in the recent scholarship on Newton’s theology. To begin with, for the first time ever the wider world is beginning to gain an appreciation for the full spectrum of Newton’s career. This is important partly because it helps correct a problem that has plagued the history of science for decades. Until recently, historians of science have tried to recover modern scientists in historical figures such as Aristotle, Roger Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. But these men weren’t scientists and would not have been called scientists by their contemporaries. As for Newton, he was a natural philosopher and natural philosophy included in many cases the discovery of God in nature as well as elements we today would associate with the Arts. In other words, the precursor of science was broader in scope than modern science.
Religious believers and religious scientists today might take comfort in the knowledge that one of the greatest figures in the history of science was not only a believer, but also a believer in the interconnectedness of theology and natural philosophy. But there is something here for non-religious people as well. Newton was convinced that natural philosophy should have a moral dimension. Many observers of science, as well as many scientists themselves, have argued that science has for too long lacked a moral compass. In this regard, the results of the work of the Manhattan Project come to mind. On another note, Newton’s passionate belief that natural philosophers and theologians must humbly submit to the empirical method is something from which those who study Nature and Scripture can learn a great deal.
At its most fundamental level the new research on Newton is about presenting a more accurate and a more holistic picture of the man. He wasn’t simply a rational “scientist” coldly working through his calculations. He was a man engaged in a range of activities, embracing both of C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”, the Sciences and the Arts. Today science and the humanities often seem far removed from each other. When we examine the career of Isaac Newton, we examine the career of a thinker who represents a time before these two fields of human endeavour drifted apart. Since Newton is a central figure in the emergence of modern science, understanding Newton better helps us understand the roots of modern science better.
PN: What has investigating Newton's thought taught you about history and its methods?
SS: The study of Newton and his historical context has taught me a lot about the importance of empiricism in historical research. One must not go to the historical sources with a preconceived idea of finding, for example, a modern scientist in the early modern period. Such preconceptions distort the historian’s data collection and his or her conclusions. It is impossible to avoid beginning with a present-centred perspective, because we all live in the present. But as much as possible we must avoid historical anachronism and attempt to extract the past from the sources in an inductive manner. When we do this with Newton it becomes immediately apparent that earlier depictions of Newton as a sort of positivistic scientist are widely off the mark, even to the point of silliness. We must drawn our lessons from history, not impose them on it. At the same time, historians have to be aware of a host of other types of bias and be willing to submit the conclusions of our research to the critical review of our scholarly peers. Finally, we must never lose sight of the possibility — or likelihood — that in the decades to come our own research may appear incomplete. This awareness should inject a degree of humility to our work.
PN: Imre Lakatos wrote that "Philosophy of science without history of science is empty; history of science without philosophy of science is blind." What is your view of the relationship between the two?
SS: One must not study the philosophy of science in a vacuum, just as one should not study philosophy or the history of ideas without a firm sense of the historical context. Similarly, the sophisticated methods available in philosophy of science and philosophy provide aids to the study of the history of science and other aspects of history. Thus, a scientist might want to study Newton’s scientific method without regard to the historical context that helped shape this method, but philosophers of science and historians of science are keen to examine such things as Newton’s scientific method in the various contexts in which it was situated. My own research has pointed to the importance, inter alia, of the theological context, even for the methodological and cognitive aspects of Newton’s natural philosophy or science.