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Rosalind W. Picard, Sc.D., FIEEE
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MIT Media Lab, E14-348A
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Newton -- Rationalizing Christianity, or Not?
This is an edited transcript of a talk presented by Prof. R. W. Picard during the Independent Activities Period at MIT, for The Faith of Great Scientists, a series that also included presentations by colleagues on Faraday and Kepler in 1997, and on Boyle, Maxwell and Pascal in 1998.}
I begin with a disclaimer: I am not a historian of science, and I am about to talk on a topic for which I have done only a relatively small amount of layman's research. As I've conducted this research, I've realized that there are many accomplished Newton scholars today, people who have devoted their life to studying the prolific writings and life of Isaac Newton. In contrast, most of my life has been spent studying science and engineering, with a negligible amount of time on historical matters. I am presently the NEC Development Professor of Computers and Communications at the MIT Media Lab. My expertise is on things that barely existed as dreams in Newton's day. I therefore beg the patience of the expert historians with my layman's presentation of Sir Isaac Newton. I proceed in the spirit of January's Independent Activities Period at MIT, which encourages exploration into things outside one's area of expertise. As a Christian and a Scientist, I will try to present things I have learned about Newton and his Christian faith.
Dangers arise when taking a rather cursory peek into the life of such a great man whose life is so well-studied by scholars. Let me begin with a short story about the title of this talk, which illuminates the main points I will discuss about Newton.
I originally picked the title ``Rationalizing Christianity'' because Newton was a physicist, a mathematician, and a Christian, and from the few biographies I had scanned, I reasoned that Newton must have been a rational man. Besides, what a great way to work a little harmless mathematical reference into the title.
No sooner had Ian Hutchinson, the organizer of this series, publicized my talk's title, when historian Ted Davis emailed Ian to say, ``The Newton title suggests that your colleague will be taking Richard Westfall's interpretation of Newton's religion, in which Newton is cast as a proto-Deist, as the correct one: rationalism redefines faith, if you will. Westfall was the premier Newton scholar until his death in August 1996; he was a splendid person and my thesis advisor. He was right about nearly everything concerning Newton, but probably not this particular issue....'' Davis continued: ``I should add that almost all other leading Newton scholars -- John Brooke, Richard Popkin, Jim Force, the late Betty Jo Dobbs, but not Bernie Cohen -- would share the interpretation I argue for.''
From nothing more than a two-word talk title, I aroused a controversy about which I had much to learn. We scientists must be careful as we venture into the study of history and biography; there are many viewpoints, and even the experts out there do not agree on what Newton believed, although as I have looked, I find Davis's arguments more compelling, and have consequently added the words "or Not?" to my title.
As I exchanged email with Davis, I learned intriguing bits about what the scholars have discovered, bits directly related to our goals in this talk series: "How did the Christian faith, which so many great scientists professed, influence their scientific thinking, and how did their science affect their faith?"
Davis replied to me, ``As for the late Dr. [Sam] Westfall, who was a splendid person (also a Christian, though not outspoken about it) and certainly the greatest Newton scholar thus far, he took two positions on Newton's religion that (I think it fair to say) most other Newton scholars don't accept. (1) He believed that Newton's theology did NOT influence his natural philosophy in any important way... (2) Sam also believed that Newton questioned doctrines like the Trinity (Newton was an Arian) because he couldn't reconcile them with reason; i.e., Newton was an enlightenment man who applied reason to faith in ways that led him to reject traditional doctrine. In fact, I believe, Newton rejected the Trinity for a very fideistic type of reason: it isn't found in the Bible! (or so he thought) Newton believed that reason, rather than leading to true doctrine, actually had led to heresies such as the Trinity and the Papacy: turning Sam's view on its head. The plain meaning of the biblical text could be trusted, but not the deductions of reason.... (Davis also cited support for the refutations of these views.)
The controversy about whether Newton's faith was rational (to Newton) or not has already given us a preview of what is to come. This talk, after a little background, will focus specifically on this great scientist's faith. In particular: (1) How did Newton's theology influence his science? and (2) What did Newton think about the role of reason when it came to faith?
Let us begin with a quick overview of Newton's life. Sir Isaac Newton is considered by many to be the greatest scientist that ever lived. He was born in 1643 and died in 1727 at age 84. An Englishman, he was a mathematician and natural philosopher (i.e., physicist) who served as professor of mathematics at Cambridge University from 1669 - 1701.
His most important scientific discoveries were made in a two year period, from 1664-1666, when the university was closed because of the plague. At that time he discovered the law of universal gravitation, began to develop calculus, and discovered that white light is composed of a full spectrum of colors. He summarized his discoveries when he was 44 years old, in his (1687) Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica [Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy] or the Principia as commonly referred to.
Many consider the Principia to be the greatest scientific book ever written. The first part of this book contains his famous three laws of motion; the second part is concerned primarily with fluid motion; and the third part unifies terrestrial and celestial mechanics via the principle of gravitation and Kepler's laws of planetary motion.
Newton's Age, Year (N.S.)
A note about the dates in the table above: Newton was born Dec 25, 1642 O.S., old style/Julian calendar, which England was on at the time. Newton thought of his birthday as being on Christmas Day. The same date on the Continent was Jan 4, 1643, in the new style N.S./Gregorian calendar. England was 10 days behind the Continent until 1700, which was observed as a leap year in England, and 11 days behind after Feb 28, 1700. That is, March 1 in England was March 11 on the Continent. Great Britain and the American colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. (The Julian calendar, named after Gaius Julius Caesar, was adopted in 46 B.C. It established the 12-month year of 365 days, with 366 every 4 yrs, w/all months having 31 or 30 days except Feb which has 28 except in a leap year when it has 29.)
My timeline above says essentially nothing about Newton's faith. In two encyclopedias I checked (The New Columbia Encyclopedia and the Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia), there was also no mention about his faith other than ``in later years he considered mathematics and physics a recreation, and turned much of his interest to alchemy, theology, and history -- particularly problems of chronology.'' Note that the latter statement is a typical view, but not among Newton scholars. The scholars recognize that Newton's greatest period of sustained theological interest, as evidenced by his theological writings, was the fifteen years before publishing the Principia.
And yet Newton's faith is what I wish to focus on -- not his great scientific accomplishments, but the basic question of this series: How did the Christian faith, which Newton professed, influence his scientific thinking, and how did his science affect his faith?
Some may marvel at hearing that Newton had an active Christian faith, one that might influence everything he did. Newton would certainly not side with those who think science and religion to be incompatible. History indicates Newton was not just a Christian in name, not just a pew-warmer or a name on a church roster because of society's Christian influence or some external university requirements. Although these ideas might all appear to be reasonable if all we knew was Newton's scientific side, they are entirely false based on the volumes of manscripts, letters, and records in existence today, which reveal Newton's own thinking about religion and science. Several scholars have indicated that Newton's writings about theology, especially Biblical prophecy and church history, are larger in number than his writings on mathematics and physics. His private writings contained over a million words devoted to theological matters, especially prophecy, church history, and doctrine (Davis, 1991). Even so, the number of writings only begins to point to the crucial role of Newton's faith.
Let's take a look at some of Newton's beliefs and how they influenced his science, and vice versa. In what follows, I lean heavily on three references: Frank E. Manuel's book, The Religion of Isaac Newton (Manuel, 1974), Richard S. Westfall's biography of Newton, Never at Rest (Westfall, 1980), and Edward B. Davis's article in Science and Christian Belief , ``Newton's rejection of the `Newtonian World View:' The Role of Divine Will in Newton's Natural Philosophy'' (Davis, 1991). These should be consulted for original sources of the quotes I use below.
Several scholars give us intimate peeks into Newton's personal religion where we learn, for example, that at age 20 Newton examined the state of his conscience and drew up a list of his sins (Manuel, 1974 p. 15; Westfall, 1980 pp. 77-78). Newton's list included forty-nine sins before Whitsunday (Pentecost) and nine afterwards, such as: "Having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamese." He had not kept the Lord's day as he ought: "Making pies on Sunday night"; "Squirting water on Thy day"; "Swimming in a kimnel [a tub] on Thy day"; "Idle discourse on Thy day and at other-times"; "Carlessly hearing and committing many sermons." ...mostly silly things like surreptitiously using his roomate's bath towel. But several sins describe his fear of alienation from God in poignant phrases: ``Not turning nearer to Thee for my affections"; "Not living according to my belief"; "Not loving Thee for Thy self"; ``Not loving Thee for Thy goodness to us.'' "Not desiring Thy ordinances"; ``Not longing for Thee..."Not fearing Thee so as not to offend Thee"; "Fearing man above Thee"...
Manuel adds that ``By the turn of the century, the prevailing spirit in the Anglican Church was far less austere and demanding than Newton's personal religion'' (Manuel 1974 p. 16). Apparently, Newton practiced higher standards than many around him when it came to both religion and science.
Manuel emphasizes that Newton's scrutiny of nature was directed almost exclusively to the knowledge of God, as opposed to the development of new technological products or other things that might increase pleasure or comfort. Science was pursued for what it could teach men about God, not for easement or commodiousness....and, to some extent, not for application to weapons of warfare. Manuel also emphasized a somewhat Freudian interpretation of Newton's search for knowledge of God as a kind of replacement for the father Newton never got to know. It is hard to determine if this interpretation really was accurate or not. Certainly there are many people who have knowledge of their fathers on earth, and who still search passionately for knowledge of God.
Personally, I find it remarkable that Newton developed such strong Christian faith given that his step-father, who was a Christian minister, effectively took Newton's mother away from him, leaving Newton to live with his grandmother. Newton was three when this happened, and didn't live with his mother again until ten years later. One might imagine that such an act could breed bitterness toward the step-father and toward the faith he professed. Today we hear of many people who shun the church because of the unloving and otherwise incongruous behavior they occasionally observe or hear about church-goers and evangelists. Nevertheless, we find that Newton is able to move beyond this, to dig deeply into scripture, and to emerge with not only great theological knowledge, but also with great faith.
Newton bound religion and science in many ways, believing that whatever knowledge of God was revealed in ``the Book of Nature'' was harmonious with what was unfolded in ``the Book of Scripture.'' Newton thought that science had nothing to say about the dogmatic content of religion, and that Scripture was not to be quoted in a Royal Society communication (Manuel, 1974, p. 48), but these were small separations compared with his faith that God's work was behind both ``Books.''
``A quest for simplicity and unity'' underlay Newton's research into both the Book of God and the Book of Nature. (Manuel, 1974, pp. 48-49). Here is what Newton wrote in one of his reflections in a manuscript on rules for interpreting prophecy:
Manuel (1974) points out that Newton, instead of trying to highlight differences, highlighted a divine simplicity that permeates Nature and Scripture, as would befit the works of one Master Creator.
Newton also applied scientific criteria to interpretation of the books of prophecy in the Bible -- He claimed to show not only that every notable political and religious occurrence conformed EXACTLY to some vision in prophecy, but that his set of equivalents had totally exhausted the possible meanings of each of the objects and images appearing in any prophetic verse. He saw his ``methodising of prophecy'' as an ideal scientific structure, exhibiting the greatest possible simplicity and harmony (Manuel 1974, pp. 97-98).
Davis argues that Newton indicated that he believed true religion to be reasonable, but that Newton never sought rationalism in religion (Davis, 1991). Newton wrote that it was ``contrary to God's purposes that the truth of his religion should be as obvious and perspicuous to all men as a mathematical demonstration.''
Newton's Christ was ``the Christ of unadorned scripture, the Christ whom God revealed to men, not the Christ of reason'' (Davis, 1991). Newton, commenting on the scripture 2 Tim 1:13, "Hold fast to the form of sound words,.." indicated that it was not sufficient that a component of one's faith could be deduced from scripture, but said, ``It must be exprest in the very form of sound words in which it was delivered by the Apostles,'' for men were apt to ``run into partings about deductions. All the old Heresies lay in deductions; the true faith was in the text'' (Manuel 1974 pp. 54-55).
Newton's view on Christ is often refered to as Arian, since he did not believe that the Son is ``of the same substance'' as the Father, but noted that that wording is not found in scripture. Newton censored both Athanasius and Arius, arguing that they had introduced metaphysical subtleties that corrupted the plain language of scripture (Manuel 1974, pp 57-61).
Let me recite several findings from (Manuel 1974, pp 57-61). Here we learn that Newton went to a lot of trouble to distinguish his private beliefs about the nature of Christ from the beliefs of both orthodox Trinitarians and those who believed Christ had been a mere man. Regarding the trinity, Newton contended that the name God was never used in Scripture to denote more than one of the three persons of the Trinity at the same time, and that when it appeared without particular reference to the Son or the Holy Ghost, it always signified the Father. Newton argued that the distinction of the Son from the Father was further evidenced by the Son's confession of His dependence upon the will of the Father, by His acknowledgment that the Father was greater, and that prescience of all future things was in the Father alone. ``But Christ was not a mere man,'' Manuel continues. ``He was the Son of God, not just a human soul who was sent into the world... Though this did not limit the power of the Son, it meant that Christ's power was derived from the Father and that of Himself He could do nothing. In all things the Son submitted His will to the Father, which would altogether be unreasonable if He were His equal. The union of Father and Son was ... an agreement of wills. The same attributes could be applied to the Father and to the Son, but they were different in nature since the Son's attributes were a grant from the Father.'' In Newton's words:
Newton believed that Christ was the Messiah and the Son of God. ``The Holy Ghost was simply the spirit of Prophecy... and although Christ was the Lamb of God, prayers were to be directed `to God in the name of the Lamb, but not to the Lamb in the name of God''' (Manuel 1974, p. 61).
There would come a time, Newton told John Conduitt (p. 63 Manuel 1974), when Trinitarian doctrines hallowed by the Church would be considered as outlandish as Catholic transubstantiation. However, Newton didn't want to fight this battle ; he also had irenical convictions. He believed that these things would pass. He recognized that the punishments in his day for publishing antitrinitarian views could be harsh.
Manuel tells us that Newton believed within an ideal Christian polity, anyone who subscribed to the primitive apostolic creed was not to be excluded from the communion or in any way persecuted, no matter what other religious opinions the person might hold. Newton wrote that the creed ``contains not mere theories ...but all of its Articles are practical truths on which the whole practise of religion depends'' (Manuel 1974, p. 55).
But, there is a bigger surprise regarding Newton's beliefs. Here, I will draw mostly on the presentation of Davis (1991).
The typical picture of Newton is as ``the grand synthesizer of terrestrial and celestial motion whose reduction of the physical universe to a concise set of mathematical laws set the stage for Enlightenment philosophy to remove God wholly out of the present order of things'' (Davis, 1991). As we can see from the title of Ted Davis's 1991 paper: ``Newton's rejection of the `Newtonian World View:'...'' there is a paradox regarding what has come to be called the ``Newtonian View.''
A picture of Newton as endorsing a remote divine clockmaker and endorsing the separation of science from religion is badly mistaken, says Davis (1991). Davis writes that Newton rejected both the clockwork metaphor and the idea of a cold mechanical universe upon which it is based, and that Newton's view of God did not include the 'rational' restrictions that Descartes and Leibniz placed on God. This stands in contrast to the deists' adoption of these restrictions. Deism advocates natural religion based on human reason rather than revelation, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century, it denied the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe. It is therefore ironic that the Deists later held up Newton as a paragon of Enlightenment deism. Davis gives many reasons to believe that Newton, himself, would have objected to being labeled a deist or even a ``Newtonian'' (Davis, 1991).
Davis argues that Newton's theological views were neither incidental to his science, nor in contradiction to it. Newton's emphasis on the dominion of a free and powerful God led him to reject the rationalistic approach to natural philosophy advocated by Descartes and Leibniz. Newton wrote in the famous General Scholium to the second edition of the Principia (1713), that God ``is wont to be called `Lord God' PANTOKPRATOR, or `Universal Ruler' ...'' ``The Supreme God,'' Newton continued, ``is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect, but a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be `Lord God' ...'' For Newton, God's divine perfection was tantamount with God's dominion. The God that Newton believed in was a God that not only created the world, but remained in dominion over the world, and had a ``propensity to action'' within the world. Newton's scientific writings, as well as his theological writings, reflected these beliefs.
Newton wrote in a private manuscript (source given in Davis 1991; translated from the Latin):
As Newton wrote in another manuscript: ``The wisest of beings required of us to be celebrated not so much for his essence as for his ACTIONS, the creating, preserving, and governing of all things according to his good will and pleasure'' (Davis 1991 p.106, Manuel 1974, pp. 21-22). (Capitalization is my emphasis.)
Newton's understanding of God's dominion shaped the perspective and content of the science he conducted. He rejected Descartes' and Leibniz's materialism since their views did not allow for God to exercise dominion over creation. Arguing against Descartes, Newton claimed that matter ``does not exist except by divine will'' and that ``it is hardly given to us to know the limits of the divine power, that is to say whether matter could be created in one way only, or whether there are several ways by which different beings similar to bodies could be produced'' (Davis, 1991). Newton thought it was an error to assume that mechanical explanation exhausts the range of natural phenomena. A universe created by the will of God, who governs the world however he wishes, certainly need not be bound by the mechanical explanations of which our human minds conceive.
I would like to interject a few comments, proposing that Newton's arguments are highly relevant to science today. On multiple occasions, I have heard people claim that because they have a mechanistic explanation of something, therefore they have the explanation of how it came to be. If they have a mathematical model of how something works, then they think they know how it works. I have even heard some commit an egregious error, and declare that this mechanism therefore obviates the need for God. Newton saw the fallacy in this thinking. To Newton, and to basic Christian thinking, the existence of simple orderly mechanisms are not only consistent with God's nature, they are a reflection of it. In fact, I've heard it explained that the founding of many great universities (such as our own local Harvard) was done by Christians because of Christianity's beliefs in a God of order and because of its emphasis on obtaining knowledge and wisdom. But, that's straying from my topic of the mechanisms. Not only can mechanisms not be the first causes (for the philosophical problem of ``what mechanism produced the first mechanism?'') but they remain under God's dominion. In a world under God's dominion, who are we to say that mechanisms are ultimate or singular causes?
Today we find incredible scientific short-sightedness in attributing ultimate causes where all we have is mere explanatory mechanisms. Although Newton contributed greatly to modeling natural phenomena, he never mistook models as original causes.
The question of original causes was one that Newton evidently struggled with in his scientific writings. Newton wrote, ``Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial is a question I have left to ye consideration of my readers.'' ``Readers'' here refers to readers of the Principia, where he had refrained from discussing the actual cause of gravitation, focusing instead on its reality as demonstrated from phenomena.
It is fascinating to see how strongly Newton's theology underwrote even the way in which he chose to go about his science. Newton's philosophy was in essence to adhere to an EXPERIMENTAL philosophy, reducing phenomena to general rules and deciding that rules are general when they hold generally in phenomena.
One of the writings I think interestingly articulates Newton's views is found in Roger Cotes's preface to the second edition of the Principia . Although the words weren't written by Newton, they closely parallel words he wrote elsewhere, and it is believed that Cotes's preface was read by a friend of Newton's---Samuel Clarke---who knew his beliefs well, and who often assisted in Newton's correspondence (Davis, 1991). Cotes wrote that the whole world, with all its diversity, ``could arise from nothing but the perfectly free will of God directing and presiding over all.'' The laws of nature show ``many traces indeed of the most wise contrivance, but NOT THE LEAST SHADOW OF NECESSITY. These, therefore we must not seek from uncertain conjectures, but learn them from observations and experiments.'' (Sources in this paragraph are provided in (Davis, 1991). Capitalization for emphasis is mine.)
Newton, like Cotes, argued against the belief that the laws of nature could be learned from pure reason. ``Anyone which such beliefs `must either suppose that the world exists by necessity, and by the same necessity follows the laws proposed; or if the order of Nature was established by the will of God, that himself, a miserable reptile, can tell what was fittest to be done''' (Quoted from Davis (1991).)
The belief that it was by divine will and not by some shadow of necessity that matter existed and possessed its properties, had a direct impact on Newton's science. It was necessary to discover laws and properties by experimental means, and not by rational deduction. As Newton wrote in another unpublished manuscript, ``The world might have been otherwise then it is [because there may be worlds otherwise framed than this] Twas therefore noe necessary but a voluntary & free determination yt it should bee thus.'' Newton argued at the close of Opticks, God is able ``to vary the laws of nature and make worlds of several sorts in several parts of the universe.'' (See Davis, 1991)
Let me say a little about what Newton thought about miracles, as this also reveals his underlying theology. Newton's writing about miracles revealed more of his faith that God is active in ordinary events. In one of his unpublished manuscripts he writes: ``For miracles are so called not because they are the works of God but because they happen seldom & for that reason create wonder. If they should happen constantly according to certain laws imprest upon the nature of things, they would no longer be wonders or miracles, but might be considerd in Philosophy as part of the Phenomena of Nature notwithstanding that the cause of their causes might be unknown to us'' (Davis, 1991)
The word ``miracle'' derives from the Latin verb ``mirari'' to create wonder or astonishment. My understanding (from Davis, 1991) is that Newton believed that God does ALL things in nature, whether usual or unusual. The ones done by God's established laws tend to be usual, and we consider these natural. The ones done seldom, without laws, tend to arouse wonder in us, and thus are termed ``miracles.''
It is hopefully clear, even with these short excerpts, that the famous scientist Sir Isaac Newton was a man of great faith. He was not only learned in science, but, according to John Locke, Newton had few equals in Bible knowledge. Newton was also known to be charitable with his money, even as he became fairly wealthy in his old age. Towards the end of his life, he wrote some lines that I have heard often repeated---very inspiring lines---that illustrate an attitude I admire, his humble recognition of the limits of his vast knowledge (Westfall 1980, p.863):
This scientist, whom some say is the greatest that ever lived, invested tremendous effort in acquiring deep theological and scientific knowledge; nonetheless, he saw that all his knowledge was like a small pebble in comparison to the great ocean of truth.
I will close by reading from Newton's own religious credo, so that you might hear his own words of faith:
I would like to acknowledge the helpful comments of Ted Davis on a draft of this manuscript. Please see his original work, "Newton's Rejection of the `Newtonian World View': The Role of Divine Will in Newton's Natural Philosophy." Fides et Historia 22 (Summer 1990), 6-20. [Reprinted in Science & Christian Belief 3 (1991), 103-117. Reprinted with some additional material, in Facets of Faith and Science. Volume 3: The Role of Beliefs in the Natural Sciences, ed. Jitse M. van der Meer (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996), 75-96.] Named an Exemplary Essay in Humility Theology, 1997, by The John M. Templeton Foundation; click here for an abstract.
The following relevant site was brought to my attention many years after preparing this talk: http://www.isaac-newton.org/