SOME PERHAPS PRESUMPTUOUS QUESTIONS ABOUT SIR ISAAC NEWTON

George Anastaplo

We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. To this purpose the philosophers say that Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes

                ―Isaac Newton, Principia

I.

            Isaac Newton is recognized, by leading physicists of our day, as most exceptional, if not even as the principal architech of the remarkable scientific developments of recent centuries. He can be ranked with, if not even as superior to, such luminaries as Galileo (in modern times) and Archimedes (in ancient times).

I heard a giant of our day, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, say, upon studying Newton’s Principia intensively in his old age, that he felt like a little boy who had gone to the zoo and for the first time saw a lion. On another occasion Professor Chandrasekhar could say that he believed he himself might have done the work done in our time by Einstein, Bohr, and the like, but he conceded that he could never have done what Newton did.

Similar assessments can be heard across the centuries since Newton accomplished what he did. Thus, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) could say of him.

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:

God said, Let Newton be! and all was light

 

A century later, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) could speak of Newton as “a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.”

 

II.

            The range of Newton’s accomplishments is remarkable, perhaps even unprecedented in modern times. Thus, he made noteworthy contributions to the study of not only physics but also of optics, light, and mathematics.

What was needed for such achievements in so many fields and at such a high level? John Maynard Keynes offered in 1933 these suggestions in assessing Newton:

His peculiar gift was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen through it…. Anyone who has ever attempted a pure scientific or philosophical thought knows how one can hold a problem momentarily in one’s mind and apply all one’s power of concentration to piercing through it, and how it will dissolve and escape and you find that what you are surveying is a blank.

Newton was himself very much aware of his achievements, so much so that he could even mount fierce offensives against anyone who seemed to be claiming priority with respect to matters that he himself had  already illuminated. Even so, he could at times seem remarkably self-effacing, at least in words such as these attributed to him (in 1855):

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Perhaps some conventional Christian influence contributed to his determined expression, now and then, of humility.

III.

            Newton’s own interest in Christian matters was anything but conventional. He was known by his intimates to have studied the Bible far more than the typical Christian of his day.

Indeed, the efforts he devoted to probing the secrets of texts such as the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation could sometimes seem to rival those devoted by him to scientific pursuits. Related to these Biblical studies was his investigation, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms.

Such substantial efforts by him are not much talked about by professional physicists today. Some can even dismiss these efforts as the product of diminished mental capacities in his old age—but this kind of assessment ignores the fact that these Bible-related inquiries by Newton may be found in extended form well before his old age, and indeed while he was doing some of his best work in physics.  One can even suspect that Newton sensed that he should be able to accomplish in the investigation of spiritual matters what he was widely recognized to have done in the investigation of physical matters.

IV.

            Science and Theology perhaps come together most dramatically for Newton in a late addendum to his most famous book, the Principia. Particularly challenging for us on this occasion is what is said in that attendum, known as the General Scholium, concerning the orbits of planets about a body, and especially concerning the orbits of the planets about the Sun in our solar system.

That addendum includes (in a 1726 English translation of the Latin original) these observations (taken from the complete General Scholium appended to these remarks):

The six primary Planets are revolv’d about the Sun, in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts and almost in the same plan. Ten Moons are revolv’d about the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, in circles concentric with them, with the same direction of motion, and nearly in the planes of the orbits of those Planets. But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions: since the Comets range over all parts of the heavens, in very eccentric orbits. For by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbits of the Planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detain’d the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these, being form’d by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed Stars is of the same nature with the light of the Sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems. And lest the systems of the fixed Stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually. He hath places those Systems at immense distances from one another.

This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God [Pantocrator], or Universal Ruler.

 

Scholars suggest that Newton, here and elsewhere, drew upon traditional Unitarian (that is, the anti-Trinitarian) principles that he considered it prudent not to advertise. Certainly, he was not a fanatic (of whatever persuasion) who was unable to control himself in public. Anti-Trinitarians were politically, and perhaps even legally, vulnerable in his day.

Newton, here as elsewhere, practiced a kind of esotericism, without appreciating (it seems) its full extent and significance.

V.

            Some scholars have wondered, of course, whether Newton was as competent in theology and Biblical studies as he evidently considered himself to be. But the more instructive question may be as to what his “theological” adventures suggest about the limits of his scientific investigations. Does he wonder, for example, how much the things he is supremely confident about (certainly with respect to theological issues) depend on the circumstances in which he finds himself?

In any event, is it truly necessary to invoke, as Newton does, a divine ordering and maintenance of the orbits of planets (and of the comets that come and go)? Does such an invocation impede a sustained thoughtful inquiry—or, at least, does it conceal from the investigator that there indeed remains something that he does not yet understand?

Critical to Newton’s recourse in the General Scholium (and elsewhere, as well) to a constantly active Pantocrator is that sufficient respect may not be shown for the possibility that the Universe is without a Beginning. Newton may seem to be supported here by someone such as Moses Maimonides, who reported (in effect) that the differences may be irreconcilable between those who consider the world to have had a beginning and those who do not so consider it. But, we can suspect, Newton did not have the “spiritual” discipline of a Maimonides whose personal position here we are left to wonder about.

VI.

            Consider, again, the tremendous efforts devoted by Newton to deciphering the prophecies incorporated in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. The history of one regime after another, in Europe and West Asia for almost two thousand years, is “shown” by him to have been anticipated by Biblical authors.

What is revealed here about Newton’s mathematics-grounded reasoning, whether in science or in theology? Do we see here that even the most gifted mathematician needs to be guided, in dealing with serious matters outside his immediate expertise, by someone with a reliable Sense of Proportion?

Newton, in working out Biblical prophecies, presumes to rearrange the then-known history of the world. Is not his assurance (expressed by him through decades of investigation) remarkably fanciful, so much so as to be downright silly? And how much of this threatens the integrity of even his scientific accomplishments?

VII.

            We may be moved to wonder how much it was a matter of chance that someone with Newton’s spectacular intellectual talents and curious psychic limitations appeared at a time and place he could accomplish the remarkable things he did in the physical sciences.

Indeed, we may also be moved to wonder whether Newton’s accomplishments and his limitations are intimately related. Did he himself ever sense how dubious his Biblical speculations were, speculations that were so critical to his Sense of the Whole (of which the subject of Physics may have been considered by him a minor part)?

We may be moved to wonder as well what would have happened to someone with Newton’s intelligence and psychic tendencies in a much earlier age? Might he not even have become a celebrated mystic? One recalls that Homer has Odysseus reporting that Tiresias was the wisest among those he met in Hades.

VIII.

            Even more of a challenge may have us wondering not only about a remarkably-gifted Newton’s limitations but also about the limitations of the physical sciences (if not of the mathematics as well) to which he so spectacularly contributed. It is well to be cautious here, considering the remarkable technology that keeps exploiting the steady flow of scientific discoveries.

We can suspect that there may even be underlying problems here because of the considerable reliance by modern science upon mathematics. A caution is provided us by a noted mathematician (Bertrand Russell) who observed,

Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.

One problem to be expected, when mathematics is indeed critical to an inquiry, is that only those things may be examined, and hence accounted for, which can be measured. All other findings are left to artists and anyone else who may even he expected to have useful intuitions about them, but not “solid” knowledge. Thus, it can be wondered in some circles what may truly be known about things (including relations) not susceptible to mathematical analysis.

IX.

            It must be wondered, on the other hand, whether the most serious (as well as the most interesting) questions about nature and the universe require genuine thoughtfulness. How truly thoughtful, it may be wondered, is any cosmological system which insists that the universe “began” (with “the Big Bang”) some thirteen billion years ago? What is understood (or, at least, believed) to have been the cause of such a beginning?

Or is it only meant that the magnitude of “the Big Bang” was such as to wipe out all ascertainable traces of activities in the Universe prior to that cataclysm? Indeed, should we not suspect that the Big Bang performs, in the “psychology” of contemporary physicists, the role assigned by Newton to the Pantocrator? That is, may not the more “gifted” among the scientists of our day even yearn, in effect, for a Big Banger?

Among those contemporaries who recognized the genius of Newton must have been John Locke, who is said to have been on intimate terms with Newton. One may suspect that Locke, another intellect of a very high rank, could recognize both the celebrated talent and the curious limitations of Sir Isaac Newton. One may suspect, as well, that John Locke (a remarkably prudent thinker) noticed and kept to himself whatever is of merit in the reservations about his exceptionally volatile friend of genius that I have ventured to suggest in our far more permissive circumstances.

 

Appendix

General Scholium, Isaac Newton’s Principia

The six primary Planets are revolv’d about the Sun, in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts and almost in the same plan. Ten Moons are revolv’d about the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, in circles concentric with them, with the same direction of motion, and nearly in the planes of the orbits of those Planets. But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions: since the Comets range over all parts of the heavens, in very eccentric orbits. For by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbits of the Planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detain’d the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these, being form’d by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed Stars is of the same nature with the light of the Sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems. And lest the systems of the fixed Stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually. He hath places those Systems at immense distances from one another.

This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God [Pantocrator], or Universal Ruler. For God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God, not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect; but a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be Lord God; for we say, my God, your God, the God of Israel, the God of Gods, and Lord of Lords; but we do not say, my Eternal, your Eternal, the Eternal of Israel, the Eternal of Gods; we do not say, my Infinite, or my Perfect: These are titles which have no respect to servants. The word God usually [a] signifies Lord; but every lord is not a God. It is the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God, a true, supreme, or imaginary dominion makes a true, supreme or imaginary God. And from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a Living, Intelligent, and Powerful Being; and, from his other perfections, that he is Supreme or most Perfect. He is Eternal and Infinite, Omnipotent and Omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from Eternity to Eternity; his presence from Infinity to Infinity; he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done. He is not Eternity and Infinity, but Eternal and Infinite; he is not Duration and Space, but he endures and is present. He endures forever, and is every where present; and, by existing always and every where, he constitutes Duration and Space. Since every particle of Space is always, and every indivisible moment of Duration is every where, certainly the Maker and Lord of all things cannot be never and no where. Every soul that has perception is, though in different times and in difference organs of sense and motion, still the same indivisible person. There are given successive parts in duration, co-existent parts in space, but neither the one nor the other in the person of a man, or his thinking principle; and much less can they be found in the thinking substance of God. Every man, so far as he is a thing that has perception, is one and the same man during his whole life, in all and each of his organs of sense. God is the same God, always and everywhere. He is omnipresent, not virtually only, but also substantially; for virtue cannot subsist without substance. In him [b] are all things contained and moved; yet neither affects the other: God suffers nothing from the motion of bodies; bodies find no resistance from the omnipresence of God. ‘Tis allowed by all that surpreme God exists necessarily; and by the same necessity he exists always and every where. Whence also he is all similar, all eye, all ear, all brain, all arm, all power to perceive, to understand, and to act; but in a manner not at all human, in a manner not at all corporeal, in a manner utterly unknown to us. As a blind man has no idea of colours, so have we no idea of the manner by which the all-wise God perceives and understands all things. He is utterly void of all body and bodily figure, and can therefore neither be seen, nor heard, not touched; nor ought he to be worshipped under the representation of any corporeal thing. We have ideas of his attributes, but what the real substance of anything is we know not. In bodies, we see only their figures and colours, we hear only the sounds, we touch only their outward surfaces, we small only the smells, and taste the savours; but their inward substances are not to be known, either by our senses, or by any reflex act of our minds; much less then have we any idea of the substance of God. We know him only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes; we admire him for his perfections; but we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion. For we adore him as his servants and a God without dominion, providence, and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature. Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and every where, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of natural things which we find, suited to different times and places, could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of Being necessarily existing. But, by way of allegory, God is said to see, to speak, to laugh, to love, to hate, to desire, to give, to receive, to rejoice, to be angry, to fight, to frame, to work, to build. For all our notions of God are taken from the ways of mankind, by a certain similitude which, though not perfect, has some likeness, however. And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy [1713 edition: Experimental Philosophy].

[Newton’s note a: Dr. Pocock derives the Latin word Deus from the Arabic du (in the oblique case di,) which signifies Lord. And in this sense Princes are called Gods, Psal. lxxxii. ver. 6; and John x. ver. 35. And Moses is called a God to his brother Aaron and a God to Pharaoh (Exod. iv. ver. 16; and vii. ver. 1 [correction for the 1729 edition: 8]). And in the same sense the souls of dead princes were formerly, by the Heathens, called gods, but falsely, because of their want of dominion. [This note was added in the 3rd, 1726 edition].

Newton’s note b: This was the opinion of the Ancients. So Pythagoras in Cicer. de Nat. Deor. lib. i. Thales, Anaxagoras, Virgil, Georg. lib. iv. ver. 220. and Aeneid. lib. vi. ver.  721. Philo Allegor. at the beginning of lib. i. Aratus in his Phaenom. at the beginning. So also the sacred Writers, as St. Paul, Acts xvii. ver. 27, 28. St. John’s Gosp. chap. xiv. ver. 2. Moses in Deut. iv. ver.39; and x. ver. 1A. David Psal cxxxix, ver. 7, 8, 9. Solomon, 1 Kings viii, ver. 27. Job xxii, ver. 12, 13, 14. Jeremiah xxiii. ver. 23, 24. The Idolaters supposed the Sun, Moon, and Stars, and Souls of Men, and other parts of the world, to be parts of the supreme God, and therefore to be worshiped; but erroneously.]

 

                                            

*These remarks were prepared for the Hyde Park Women’s Society, Chicago, Illinois, May 5, 2011.

 

 

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