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KRONOS Vol IX, No. 3
NEWTON'S WORLD VIEW
LIVIO C. STECCHINI
Copyright 1984 by Dorothea Stecchini
In the recent past some distinguished historians have pierced part of the veil of secrecy that surrounds Newton by investigating at least the background of the Principia. They have determined that his main interest in life was theology and that he intended to prove that the new science developed from Copernicus and Galileo did not contradict traditional religion. He wanted to return to a medieval conception of the universe. Newton, in effect, intended to undo the work of Galileo who, in his mechanics, had reduced the four Aristotelian causes to two - the material and the efficient. Newton wanted to return to the Aristotelian concept of form, which includes not only the efficient and material, but also the formal and the final cause. According to him the solar system is more than an organization of matter in motion: it has being, truth, goodness, and beauty which rest in God, not only virtually, as the source of creative power, but, as Saint Thomas would have said, formaliter eminenter.
Newton was also concerned with the fact that the heliocentric theory had downgraded the Earth. Galileo had specifically raised the question whether one could say that Divine Providence was particu- larly concerned with the Earth, if this was nothing but a speck lost in infinity. Newton felt that the conclusion of this way of thinking was to cast doubt on the story of Original Sin, Incarnation, and the Second Coming. Therefore, he tried to prove that the solar system is especially organized in order to make the Earth a specially qualified abode for the creation of man, so that the Earth could be again con- ceived as the center of the universe, spiritually, if not materially. This is made clear in the Principia to those who read it carefully, but it is made even clearer for those who would not like to see, in the other works he wrote at the same time. Newton saw that the Renais- sance stress on the contingency of the universe had undermined the argument from design for the existence of God. The method of Newton was to try to prove that modern empirical science does not contradict traditional religious views; it is in this spirit that he spent a great deal of time and energy in order to prove that historical science confirms that the Old Testament contains prophecies of future events.
Prof. I. Bernard Cohen, the foremost authority on Newton in the United States, summed up his interpretation of Newton by declaring: "Of course, Newton had a real secret, and concerning it he did his best to keep the world in ignorance." The secret would be that he intended to uphold the theology and cosmology of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Cohen argued that this medieval synthesis of Biblical religion with the philosophy of Aristotle constituted the ideal of Newton. He kept it a secret because he wanted to influence scientific thought without putting the admirers of the new scientific method on the alert. I am willing to agree with Cohen with one proviso, that the secret was not kept by Newton, who put down his thoughts in voluminous writings, but by those who have not published them.
The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) had tried to reconcile his religion, which commanded him to believe in Creation, with the Aristotelian basic assumption that the Earth with the surrounding seven heavens is uncreated and unchangeable. Maimonides expressly declares that in accepting the story of Creation he disagrees with Aristotle, but that he agrees with Aristotle that, once created, the cosmos is permanent and indestructible. Maimonides maintained that after Creation the world has remained fixed and unchanged. In other words, God created the world in six days and, having rested on the seventh day, has rested ever since. According to Maimonides the world after the seventh day rests in a perpetual Sabbath.
Velikovsky in a conversation, drawing on his knowledge of rabbinical lore, advanced the theory that the fundamental Jewish concern with Sabbath rest is to be explained as sympathetic magic: one does not move on the Sabbath in order to make sure that God and the world keep the Sabbath, too, and do not change the present order with a new act of creation. For Newton, God and the world are in a perpetual Sabbath, except for God's watchful eye against any changes caused by mechanical causes. Velikovsky, too, has recognized in Worlds in Collision that through Newton he is fighting Maimonides. In order to reconcile the cosmology of Aristotle with the text of the Old Testament, Maimonides asserted that all the passages that have been understood as referring to cosmic upheavals and to changes in planetary motions must be understood as metaphors, not as actual accounts.
As Velikovsky pointed out in Worlds in Collision (pp. 220-226), Maimonides re-examined a long series of Biblical texts, establishing thereby a new trend in exegesis. Just before the time of Newton this type of exegesis had been made universally known by Spinoza, who at times follows Maimonides to the letter. If Newton kept a secret, this is not his debt to Maimonides, but the fact that he approached him through the eyes of Spinoza (1632-1677) - for it is recognized that Newton knew well the writings of Spinoza, though he never quoted him. Newton followed the same path, but he had to dispose not only of the evidence for changes in the sky provided by the Old Testament, but also by the body of ancient mythologies - by a new exegesis of Greek and Latin texts and of what was then known of Oriental documents. In his scientific writings Newton tried to prove that natural science does not contradict this exegesis and the corresponding theology.
For Newton it had become essential to prove that there had not been a change in the heavenly motions since the Creation of the present order of the cosmos and the contemporary creation of mankind (or the present mankind). Since, according to him, this had taken place rather recently, this could be proved by historical research.
In order to maintain the theory of the crystalline spheres, Aristotle had argued that comets are an atmospheric phenomenon; but once the Aristotelian cosmology was discredited, there was revived the view of the ancient opponents of Aristotle that comets return periodically, moving like the planets, but in eccentric orbits. Since 1665, when it was definitely established that comets move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, the study of comets has been based on historical records.
As soon as the Aristotelian view of the solar system collapsed, astronomers began to compile and organize bodies of quotations from ancient texts mentioning comets.* No science of comets is possible without the use of these records. It must be observed that many of the critics of Velikovsky have claimed that historical data are irrelevant to astronomical science, but even today every study on comets is based on a collation of the available historical data. In fact, specialists of the theory of comets give particular importance to the Chinese historical records** which began to be scrutinized for these very purposes in the age of Newton. Once one started to examine the ancient records one began to pay attention to the texts that mention that catastrophes on Earth were caused by the impact of a comet.
This possibility of a catastrophic impact by a comet on the Earth was a matter of general debate when Newton was a young man. Scholars were discussing whether the conflagration of Phaethon, the flood of Deucalion or Ogyges, or the plagues of Egypt had been caused by a comet. They observed that the ancient texts mention the impact of the comet Typhon as having caused the flood of Ogyges and the contemporary fire of Phaethon. One began to discuss in relation to this problem the issue of Biblical chronology, since the chronologists of Roman times had placed the plagues of Egypt at the time of the flood of Ogyges. It was discussed whether the flood of Noah, the flood of Ogyges, and the flood of Deucalion were one and the same event. Astronomers became particularly concerned with studies of ancient chronology, since it was essential to determine what was the exact date of these events in order to link them with the periods of various comets. Ancient chronology was used to determine the periods of comets and, conversely, the cometary periods were used to decide chronological problems.
The famous Cometographia ( 1668) of Johannes Hevelius, a work with which Newton was well conversant, discusses in this context even the mentioned ancient accounts that at the time of the flood of Ogyges the planet Venus changed its course and appearance, and submits several tentative hypotheses that could explain this fact by the action of a comet. One of the hypotheses that is submitted is that a comet could have been mistaken for Venus.
The obvious fact that the probability of a comet hitting the Earth is quite considerable resulted in a great fear of comets, which reached its peak on the occasion of the appearance of the comet of 1680 A.D. Newton was one of those aware of this fear and he followed the track of this comet with great attention. His calculations, together with those of Flamsteed and Halley, who further refined the figure obtained by Newton, established that this comet had a period of 575 1/2 years. It was concluded that this must have been the comet that appeared at the time of Caesar's death, in 44 B.C. By retrojecting its path even further, William Whiston ( 1667-1752) concluded that it was this comet that had caused the Universal Flood.*
In the Latin dedication to Newton of the second edition of The New Theory of the Earth, William Whiston states that his ideas must be in large part credited to Newton:
Following the publication of this book in 1708, Newton broke with Whiston. After this date Newton seems to have reached a new solution for the theological and scientific problem that had been faced by Maimonides. Newton seems to have concluded that by Creation we must understand the creation of the human race and of a cosmos fit to be its abode. God has shown His providential hand by preventing any shift in the movement of the heavenly bodies. Since Newton had originally accepted the possibility that a comet may hit the Earth, he now used the very fact that a comet had not hit the Earth after the creation of (present) mankind as evidence for providential order. This explains why he turned so bitterly against Whiston. Those who like to psychoanalyze Newton would say that such a violent hatred is typical of one who turns against the image of a former self.
Because most of Newton's writings remain unpublished, we remain in the dark on the question of when and how he reached the conviction that religion can be preserved only if it is assumed that the system of heavenly motions is absolutely unchangeable. The relation between his scientific ideas and his religious ideas remains an unexplored area.
In order to understand the thought of Newton, we have to turn to the treatise An Account of Sir Isaac Newton 's Philosophical Discoveries published by his pupil and collaborator Colin MacLaunin. The last chapter of this thesis is entitled "Of the Supreme Author and Creator of the Universe, the True and Living God"; this chapter forms one line of argument with the preceding chapter which is dedicated to the topic of comets. The line of argument of these two chapters begins by presenting data about comets from which it is argued that they prove that the universe has not existed for eternity. The Sun is kept at a constant level of energy by the supply provided by comets; since the comets are bound to exhaust themselves in a relatively short period of time, the world cannot have existed in the present state for eternity. Next, it is argued that comets "would produce the greatest disorders" except for the providential "precaution" that the comets move in orbits that are "in very different planes" and when not near the Sun they are made to move as much as possible at a great distance from each other. About comets one must conclude: "Thus we always find that what has, at first sight, the appearance of irregularity and confusion in nature is discovered, on further inquiry, to be the best contrivance and the most wise conduct." Hence, the fact that comets do not cause "the greatest disorders" is the proof of the existence of One Almighty and All-Wise Being.
In the Conclusion, Colin MacLaunin - always speaking in the name of Newton - deals with those who have quoted geological evidence for the impact of comets. He does not question it directly, but implies that, if there were catastrophes, they took place at very ancient times, before the Creation of Man. In the very last statements he disposes of the possibility that the human race could be destroyed by a comet. He quotes as evidence against it "the desires and passions of men, which appear greatly superior to their present objects". Man has been made to develop views much higher than the present ones, which will take a very long time. Hence, human nature would be frustrated "if we should suppose man to perish, without ever arriving at a more complete knowledge of nature".
John Conduit, Newton's nephew, reports that two years before his death his uncle expressed similar thoughts to him. Conduit's report of the conversation, the last known general statement by Newton about his cosmology, indicates that Newton did not deny Whiston's hypothesis that the Flood had been caused by a comet. However, he believed that this encounter was the last and would not be repeated for a very long time because of Providence. Newton was caught between the physical fact that the impact of a comet was possible and his belief that God in His Providence would not allow such an event to happen. Newton continued the conversation by indicating that comets, far from disrupting the cosmic order, were performing a stabilizing function "because the Sun was replenished and recruited by comets dropping into it". He did not put this opinion into print, but he had put into print the opinion that the level of the seas on Earth was kept at a constant level by the exhalations of comets, as I have mentioned earlier [see The Velikovsky Affair, p. 96 - LMG] .
The main concern of Newton seems to have been that of proving that mankind had become numerous and had developed a civilization quite recently, after the last catastrophe. The reported conversation with Conduit indicates that he did not contradict Whiston's theory that the Deluge was caused by the comet of 1680 A.D. However, he tried to reconcile science with theology by assuming that the Earth had been thinly populated at the time of the Flood and that civilization had developed well after that date. Hence if God did not allow a destruction of civilization by a comet in the past (a destruction that Laplace later considered most likely to have occurred) it is credible that He would prevent the repetition of a similar event "for many ages", as it is said in the quoted passage of Opticks.
In a letter to Bentley, Newton assumed that the Earth had been spared the impact of the comet of 1680 because of Divine Providence. In conclusion, what Newton seems to have assumed is that God would keep away comets from the Earth long enough to let the human drama of Original Sin, Redemption, and Final Judgement have its course; this was St. Augustine's concept of history, to which Newton remained faithful. If one were to believe with Laplace that most of the human race and an advanced civilization had once been destroyed by a comet, how could one have confidence in a Providence looking over the destiny of mankind? Newton did not argue that mechanically the comets could not have catastrophic effects, but believed that the Earth would be protected from them long enough to allow the Christian drama of mankind to have its full development, from Creation to Final Judgement.
Newton was concerned with reconciling the danger of a comet's impact with Providence. He tried to solve it by an historical argument which I shall discuss in more detail later. The peculiar genius of Newton was such that again and again he formulated hypotheses for theological reasons and these hypotheses proved to be a valid basis for the construction of valuable scientific theories.
It must never be forgotten that in the last words of the General Scholium of the Principia (in the very section that his admirers quote as evidence that he is the founder of modern scientific positivism), Newton claims that the theory of gravitation may give support to an animistic conception of the universe:
Now we can understand why scholars have been determined to conceal the true thought of Newton and to call him, at least partially, insane. It must be concealed that without Providence, under our present conceptions, we are in perpetual danger of annihilation by a visitor from outer space. All the furor against Velikovsky springs from the same source that has compelled scientists to claim that the Newtonian system is predicated on the existence of a benevolent heavenly Father. It is significant that the leadership in the fight against Velikovsky's ideas was taken by Harlow Shapley who has put into print his belief that this is a benevolent universe in which catastrophes will not happen to the Earth.
Newton has been called insane when he dealt with the non-scientific reasons for clinging to such a belief, whereas our contemporary scientists consider themselves sane when they cling to such a belief without advancing any reason, scientific or not. Newton, having reached a conclusion for theological reasons, tried to make it acceptable scientifically by reducing it to a question of empirical evidence. It is the method that he used in order to prove that prophecy can be accepted scientifically. He reduced the entire problem to a question of chronology.
It is most significant that Whiston reports that he and Newton came to a conflict not on questions of astronomy, but on questions of chronology. This explains why the last twenty years of Newton's life, the period that followed his break with Whiston, were taken mostly with historical and chronological research.
. . . to be continued.