Newton on Science and Religion
Newton, Science & Religion
Like other Christian natural philosophers, Newton was particularly interested in their complex relationship between the study of the Bible and the study of the natural world. The vast bulk of his theological work, especially his vast analyses of prophetic images, fourth century skullduggery in falsifying doctrine, and the meaning of Solomon's Temple, has at best a tangential relationship to his scientific work. However, he made a number of statements on natural theology that were cited on numerous occasions by followers who wanted to show that natural philosophy was an intrinsically religious activity. Clearly Newton believed that a number of remarkable features of the cosmos, and of human existence within it, could be inferred from the analysis of the universe.
Newton's most famous pronouncement on natural theology came in the second third editions of his Principia Mathematica (1713 and 1726), where he added a 'General Scholium' to the end of the work that summarized his views on the religious purpose of science. He argued that the fact that the six planets that were then known (i.e. as far as Saturn) orbited in the same direction and in virtually the same plane indicated the existence of a creator. Newton wrote eloquently about this system in the early 1690s to his Trinity colleague Richard Bentley, and the letters were extremely influential when they were published in the middle of the following century:
- Letters from Isaac Newton to Richard Bentley
- as well as Bentley's response to, and the relevant part of Bentley's 1692 Boyle Lectures, The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism (London: 1693) that resulted from his exchange with Newton.
This extraordinary system, along with the existence of comets, which played a special role in Newton's cosmos, 'could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being'. As he indicated in all editions of his Principia, comets' tails [towards end of Bk 3] played a key role in the cosmos — special elements in the long whisp that visibly extended from the comet being responsible for strengthening and revivifying life on Earth when the planet passed through them. Much of the cosmos retained the potential for life, and he mentioned in the General Scholium that the Sun was a star, an identification that made it extremely probable that there was life on other planets.
In fact, like his views on the nature of Christ, Newton's ideas on the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe were extremely radical. To the mathematician David Gregory in 1694 he suggested that the satellites of Jupiter were substitute earths being 'held in reserve' for a new creation when this one came to an end. In a private conversation with John Conduitt in early 1725, he 'conjectured (he would affirm nothing)' that comets came about as a result of materials emitted by the Sun coalescing by gravity into a planet, which then became a comet. After a number of revolutions this would gradually fall into the Sun, after which the latter would increase its heat so much that nothing on this Earth could survive. Newton thought that this was what Tycho Brahe and Kepler had seen when they saw their respective supernovas in 1572 and 1604. He told Conduitt that there were probably beings of superior intelligence who directed the motions in the cosmos, and that the Earth had been 'repeopled' before by means of divine intervention. When Conduitt asked him if he thought this would happen again soon, Newton agreed — in one of the few recorded moments when he is known to have laughed — that a passage in the Principia referring to the return of the Great Comet of 1680 was an obscure reference to the End of the World.
In other writings Newton made comments that by implication linked the roles of priest and scientist associated with the pursuit of natural philosophy and religion. In 'The Original of Religions', a draft of which is known to have been written in the 1680s, he argued that all religions in the ancient world practised a 'rational' religion that embedded knowledge of a solar system in its rituals. Extraordinarily, he reckoned that Stonehenge and other similar monuments took the concentric shape they did because their builders were referencing the true system of the heavens. At the centre of all these shrines was a perpetual fire, which represented the Sun.
As well as inferring God's existence and nature from the composition of the solar system, Newton can be placed firmly in the tradition of natural theology in which God's being was obvious from the order of nature. This is best seen the short section 'Of Atheism' in an essay entitled a 'Short Scheme of the True Religion'. Written towards the end of his life, he condemned atheistic accounts which claimed that the order and beauty in the world arose by chance. A more expansive account appeared in the 28th and 31st 'Queries' appended to the second (1706, in Latin) and third (1717/18) editions of Opticks, his great work on light and colours.
By far his most influential analysis of God's essence can be found in the General Scholium. Here Newton argued that despite the fact that humans should not anthropomorphise (i.e. liken to human features) God's attributes, there were various things that could be known about him, such as his omnipotence (absolute power). We see evidence of him in nature and in the Bible, and we know from the latter that 'in him are all things contained and moved', but we do not know what he is really like. Nevertheless, Newton concluded, 'to discourse' of God 'from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to natural philosophy'.
Perhaps the most remarkable of Newton's analyses concerned his view that our own power to freely move our bodies by our will, gave us insights into the nature of God's relationship with creation. This was a perennial interest for him, dating back to experimental and metaphysical researches in the 1670s and 1680s, and in the 28th Query of his 1717/18 edition of Opticks he argued that the universe had a similar relationship to God as the 'sensorium' (the part of the brain where sensing occurs) had to humans — that is, God perceived and understood things in the universe 'by their immediate presence to himself'. A number of critics, including Gottfried Leibniz, were highly critical of Newton's notion of the sensorium and in the 31st Query he cautioned that this did not mean that the world was the body of God, which was a heresy, and he stressed that God had no need of organs. In the same Query he noted that that God 'is more able by his Will to move the Bodies within his boundless uniform sensorium, and thereby to form and reform the Parts of the Universe, than we are by our Will to move our own Bodies'.
Finally Newton wrote on the best way to interpret the Bible (exegesis). In a letter of 1681 written to the scholar Thomas Burnet (in connection with the latter's forthcoming Sacred History of the Earth, he argues that various mundane chemical phenomena can shed light on how God created order out of chaos. Newton also tells Burnet that Moses's account of Creation should be taken as true, despite the fact that Moses had to dumb down ('artificially adapt to the sense of the vulgar') his language to ordinary people and describe the creation as they saw it.
Watch Rob Iliffe's account of Newton's own particular religious convictions, and how they worked alongside his natural philosophical aims and ideas.