Isaac Newton

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Newton, Isaac [Sir] (4 January 1643 - 31 March 1727)

Newton was born prematurely to Hannah Ayscough and Isaac Newton at Woolsthorpe Manor, in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, a hamlet in the English county of Lincolnshire. His father had died three months prior to Newton's birth. When Newton was two, his mother remarried and left her son in the care of his maternal grandmother, Margery Ayscough.

Called by some the greatest scientist of all time, Newton was President of the Royal Society from 1703 until his death. In addition to discovering the universal law of gravitation and developing the calculus, he built the first reflecting telescope.

His Accomplishments

Various sources document his life, his accomplishments, and his critics, but the most complete is that found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Religion and Philosophy

Along with Voltaire in France, Lessing in Germany, and Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine in America, Newton was a deist, one who had no interest in pantheism.

Pierre Maréchal’s 1799 Dictionnaire des athés anciens et modernes listed Newton as one who seems an atheist from the standpoint of the strictest religious orthodoxy. J. M. Robertson, however, finds Newton “was always pathologically prepossessed on the side of his religion, and subordinated his science to his theology even in the Principia. The economist John Maynard Keynes, speaking in 1947 at the Royal Society’s Newton Tercentenary Celebration, said he had gone through some million of Newton’s words on alchemy and found them “wholly devoid of scientific value.”

A non-trinitarian, Newton expressly formulates the propositions:

(a) that “there is one God the father . . . and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus”;
(b) that “the Father is the invisible God whom no eye hath seen or can see. All other beings are sometimes visible”; and
(c) that “the Father hath life in himself, and hath given the Son to have life in himself.” He believed that God was somehow behind the influence of gravitation, keeping stars from collapsing into one mass.

From time to time, Newton felt, although supplying no documentation, God stepped in to adjust the orbits of planets. Basically, his discovery of the universal law of gravitation did not directly undermine religious faith - Newton regarded his discovery, according to The Economist (16 March 1996) as being “not merely consistent with God’s existence, but tantamount to proof of it.” The power of his work was “that it demonstrated (or appeared to demonstrate) the staggering power of science and the susceptibility of the physical world to human understanding. In that way, Newton inspired later thinkers to demand ever more of reason. If the intellect could comprehend the universe, in its seemingly limitless complexity, then surely it could also comprehend justice, authority, right and wrong. It was in the face of these new demands, rather than in response to Newton’s discoveries in their own right, that faith retreated.” Had such thoughts been published, Newton under the Act of 1697 could have been liable to loss of office and all civil rights.

Newton also wrote,

  • Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors. Can it be by accident that all birds, beats, and men have their right side and left side alike shaped (except in their bowels), and just two eyes, and no more, on either side of the face?

For J. M. Robertson, Newton was “some kind of Unitarian.”

Michael White’s Isaac Newton: the Last Sorcerer (1997) describes his Arianism and how, between 1672 and 1675 he set out twelve points of faith that formed the foundations of Arianism. Newton in 1669 had promised to take holy orders as a requirement of the Lucasian professorship. When his friend Aston applied for an exemption from taking holy orders, the request was seen as setting a precedent that would destroy Trinity College’s reputation. In 1675 when he visited London to apply for a special dispensation, His Majesty granted the Lucasian professor and all subsequent holders of the chair exemption from holy orders and was willing “to give all just encouragement to learned men who are & shall be elected” to it.

Martin Gardner, pointing out Newton’s belief in alchemy, terms Newton a fundamentalist. “Newton’s passion for alchemy,” he wrote, “was exceeded only by his passion for Biblical prophecy. Incredible amounts of intellectual energy were spent trying to interpret the prophecies of Daniel in the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelation in the New. He left more than a million words on these subjects, seeing himself as one who for the first time was correctly judging both books. Having been so successful in solving some of the riddles of God’s universe, he turned his talents toward trying to answer riddles posed by God’s Holy Word.”

But Newton, as described by John Updike,

  • spent hours poring over the Bible, compiling charts and dictionaries . . . of his own, dangerously anti-Trinitarian views, and for the prisca sapientia - the wisdom that he, with the Rosicrucians, believed the ancients possessed and had secreted in their documents. The Middle Ages had, in truth, erased some ancient knowledge. The Greek astronomer Eratosthenes, in the third century B.C., calculated the circumference of the round earth to be twenty-four thousand miles (less than a thousand miles off the true value) and the distance to the sun to be ninety-two million miles, a stunningly close estimation. But the Old and New Testaments did not hold such mathematical wisdom; Newton researched the prophetic utterances of Daniel and St. John for a chronology of the future, and carefully concluded that Satan’s spell over the world would be broken in the year 1867. He did not know that his own science had excused God from running the universe, allowing Him merely the initial push - a push, astronomers recently concluded, that will carry everything infinitely outward, into darkness and heat death.

Various critics of Newton's views on religion and his works' effect on religious thought have been written - some theists are against his thinking altogether, whereas others find his intellectual approach is entirely rational.

Much of his life was spent in conflict with other scientists, particularly Hooke, Leibniz, and Flamstead. He sought revenge for slights real or imagined by deleting references to their help from his work. Many thought he took criticism badly, responding furiously - an anxiety which has been explained in terms of his abandonment as a child - and showed signs throughout his life of having a persecution mania. The calculous controversy with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a major one.

His Personal Life

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As for his personal life, “Newton had little interest in music or art, once dismissing poetry as "ingenious fiddle-faddle." He never exercised, had no recreational hobbies, no interest in games, and was so preoccupied with his work that he frequently forgot to eat or would eat standing up to save time. He had few friends, and even to them he was often quarrelsome and vindictive."

--His Works==

Method of Fluxions (1671)
De Motu Corporum in Gyrum (1684)
Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687)
Opticks (1704)
Reports as Master of the Mint (1701-1725)
Arithmetica Universalis' (1707)
An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture (1754)
Short Chronicle, The System of the World, Optical Lectures, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, Amended and De mundi systemate were published posthumously in 1728.

The Final Years

Newton's Death Mask

Following the publication of Principia, Newton suffered a massive mental breakdown marked by severe insomnia, deep depression, amnesia, loss of mental ability, and paranoid delusions of persecution.

Gardner speculates that Newton may have suffered from mercurial and other toxic metal poisoning caused by his alchemical experiments. Or, he adds, “Others have conjectured that throughout his life he was a manic-depressive with alternating moods of melancholy and happy activity. His breakdown was only the worst of such episodes.”

(See entry for E. O. Wilson and for Gay Philosophers.)

{CE; CL; ER; Martin Gardner, Skeptical Inquirer, September-October 1996; JMR; JMRH; John Updike, “Immortal Isaac,” The New Yorker, 30 March 1998}