Monday, December 11, 2006

Newton and the Enlightenment

Richard Dawkins and the community of scientific atheists hold as a high a view of Newton as they do of Darwin. Newton, they never tire of telling us, was one of the key figures for bringing Western Civilization out of the darkness of ignorance and advancing the project of secular enlightenment.

People have been saying similar things about Newton ever since the 18th century. This is not surprising. When I was studying about materialism and determinism in the 'Enlightenment period,' I was struck by the significant role Newton’s ideas played in advancing such ideas, even though Newton was neither a materialist or a determinist and was a firm believer in a personal God.

Before I say anything more about Newton, I need to define some terms.


Materialism in the philosophical sense does not refer to greedy consumerism. Rather, it refers to the view that “all entities and processes are composed of – or are reducible to – matter, material forces or physical processes. …materialism entails the denial of the reality of spiritual beings, consciousness and mental or psychic states or processes, as ontologically distinct from, or independent of, material changes or processes.”[i] That, at least, is how the dictionary defines materialism. Put more simply, the universe of the materialist is one in which everything, including you and me, is reduced to physics and chemistry. This worldview was summed up by George Wall, a professor of Harvard University, after someone asked him who Shakespeare was. Wall, a thoroughgoing materialist, replied that Shakespeare was a random collection of molecules that existed four hundred years ago.

Not surprisingly, materialism is usually associated with atheism and agnosticism. It is also sometimes called ‘naturalism.’


Another term that needs defining is determinism. Materialism is connected with determinism because the later is the logical result of the former. Determinism is the view that everything, including man’s actions, are pre-determined by physical forces. Determinists believe that free will, in the ordinary sense at least, is an illusion. They say that in everything we do, it is never true that we could have done otherwise. Human beings are like machines that are programmed by the laws of nature. Thus, a consistent determinist has to deny responsibility and the Biblical doctrine of sin.

This deterministic way of viewing of the universe was reflected in Diderot’s ‘skeptic’s prayer.’ After spending an entire book looking squarely at the consequences of the materialist worldview, he closes with the following prayer:

O God, I do not know if you exist….I ask nothing in this world, for the course of events is determined by its own necessity if you do not exist, or by your decree if you do…. Here I stand, as I am, a necessarily organized part of eternal and necessary matter – or perhaps your own creation….[ii]


You don’t have to read very far in the literature of the Enlightenment to see one name esteemed above all others. Voltaire called him “the greatest man who ever lived.”

The man was, of course, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the great scientist who is perhaps best known for discovering the law of gravity. Newton’s work was extremely influential during the Enlightenment, especially where the philosophies of materialism and determinism were concerned.

Before Newton many scientists had made headway towards the goal of understanding the laws by which the universe was ordered. Galileo had shown the laws of terrestrial motion; Kepler had shown the laws of planetary motion while Descartes’ had showed that the universe operated mechanistically. What made Newton stand out above his precursors, however, was the way he effectively integrated all previous knowledge into a single, comprehensive theory.

Newton’s discoveries about the laws of motion allowed people to take a state-description of any system and work out from that description what the future state-descriptions would be and what the past state-descriptions had been. The same descriptions that held true of the universe also held true of the trajectory of a ping pong ball and falling apples. If the position and momentum of every point-particle is given, then a system can be completely described in mechanistic terms. Applied to the universe as a whole, this meant that the universe was rational, intelligible, and operated like a great machine in constant obedience to the laws God had created. Hence, Newton’s joyful exclamation, “O God, I think thy thoughts after thee!” Referring to Newton, Lucas writes,

He gives us a ‘God’s eye’ view of the universe, in which the whole of space at any one time is present immediately to God, who knows all the atoms individually, as it were by name, and knows where they are and what they are doing…. Newton views the world bathed in Absolute light, or better, illuminated by Absolute omniscience, a world of Absolute things in Absolute space, at one particular instant of Absolute time, all immediately present in God’s consciousness, as it were in His sensorium.[iii]

With God playing such an important part in Newton’s thinking, it may seem strange that his ideas played a central role in the development of a materialistic worldview. Before looking at that, however, it is important to understand the basic distinction between a materialistic universe and a mechanistic one. Newton showed that the universe was ‘mechanical’ in the sense that nature had fixed laws and operated like a big machine. But although Newton described the universe in mechanistic terms, he did not describe the universe in materialistic terms. He never believed that his discoveries rendered God unnecessary nor did he advocate determinism.

Although Newton showed the ways in which nature’s patterns were determined by nature’s laws, one cannot call this determinism since Newton never applied this to man himself. Newton’s laws of motion might describe the trajectory of a man being fired from a catapult, but not the same man walking round his garden. Above all, such laws cannot explain our thoughts and decisions.

Newton’s discoveries, properly understood, always pointed towards the Creative intelligence behind everything. In magnifying God, man’s role was also elevated. As creatures made in the image of God, Newton believed human beings had an important role to play in discovering the universe’s laws (‘thinking God’s thoughts after Him’). Man could meaningfully study these laws since he is himself more than merely the product of physics. Speaking again of Newton’s ideas, Lucas writes as follows:

…God, the Creator, is Himself uncreate, and not part of the created world. Newton, taking the God’s eye view, always considers the world from outside. He could thus embrace materialism and mechanistic determinism as completely true, because not true of completely everything – oneself, and every thing to do with oneself, was always excepted. Like God, the thinker was not himself subject to the laws he laid down as obeyed by everything else; and awkward problems were thereby avoided. [iv]

How then did Newton’s physics become wrongly associated with a materialistic view of the universe? We shall see the answer to that question in the following lesson. For the moment, however, we need to study a bit more of the background.


John Locke (1632-1704), was a contemporary and friend of Newton, who was also an important precursor of the Enlightenment. Now Locke was a determinist, for he believed that human beings, as well as the universe, are completely governed by deterministic forces. The principles that Newton saw as applying only to the material world Locke saw as applying to mankind. Locke believed that a complete description of the world (and that includes everything, including your and my actions) can be arrived at from mechanical state-descriptions. Thus, if we had enough information, then theoretically the future of the universe could be predicted in every respect, not just in some respects.

Such determinism even applies to our own thoughts. Hume, building on Locke’s theory in the 18th century, wrote about the involuntary association of ideas which our experience has connected together. “All these operations are a species of natural instincts which no reasoning or process of thought and understanding is able either to produce or to prevent.”[v]

Locke, like other philosophers of the 17th century, had been careful to try to fit his ideas into a Christian framework. Locke even wrote a book defending the reasonableness of Christianity. However, this mattered little to the next generation who was prepared to be more consistent with the consequence of his philosophy. In proposing a theory that reduced man to matter, Locke’s philosophy became one of the foundation stones of the Enlightenment’s attack on revealed religion.


Newton’s discoveries, filtered through the philosophy of Locke and then popularised by Enlightenment polemicists, gave impetus to the worldview of deism.

Since materialism maintained that it was possible to explain the universe in purely naturalistic terms, no longer was it necessary for there to be a personal God behind everything. The idea of a God who is interested in the affairs of mankind, a God who gives us an authoratative revelation or performs miracles, was dismissed as the by-product of pre-scientific superstition.

This does not mean the materialists were atheists. In fact, outright atheists were such a rare comodity in the 18th century that Hume was even known to remark he didn’t believe such people existed at all. Like the Epicureans of ancient Greece, the 18th century materialists were quite happy to believe in a kind of ‘God’ – one that was distant and uninvolved in the affairs of men.

The self-appointed task of the 18th century materialists was not to attack the existence of God but, rather, to attack the foundations of revealed religion. Once that was taken care of – that is, once it was no longer credible for a thinking person to believe in such things as authoritative revelation, miracles and a God interested in the details of our personal lives – these philosophers prefered to retain some notion of a Supreme Being rather than face the intellectual difficulties of complete atheism. As Becker puts it,

It seemed safer…to retain God, or some plausable substitute, as a kind of dialectical guarantee that all was well in the most comfortable of commonsense worlds. But, obviously, the Creator as a mere first premise no longer needed those rich and all too human qualities of God the Father. Having performed his essential function of creation, it was proper for him to withdraw from the affairs of men into the shadowy places where absolute being dwells. Thus withdrawn, he ceased to be personal and inconvenient.[vi]

This ‘Supreme Being’ was called by a variety of names, including First Cause, Supreme Architect, Prime Mover, Author of the Universe, or even Benvolent Entity. As long as this Being was unknowable, irrelevent and uninvolved, the philosophers were happy.

One way of establishing that this Supreme Being was irrelevant and non-personal was to show that the universe, and particularly man, was the impersonal result of matter and necessity. If man was not made in the image of God but was merely a system of pre-determined physical particulars, then even if you want to say that God started the ball rolling at the beginning, the overall conclusion remains crystal clear: God has nothing to do with our lives and, if He exists at all, is completely irrelevant to the closed pre-determined system in which we are trapped.

Another name for this philosophy is deism. It is contrasted with theism (belief in a personal God) and with atheism (belief in no God).

Newtonian Philosophy?

Although Newton was no more a deist than a materialist or determinist, his discoveries were used, or rather misused, to bolster up these secular worldviews.

Becker notes the names of six different 18th century books that popularized “Newtonian philosophy”, as it came to be called. The emalgamation of Newton’s discoveries into a ‘philosophy’ was significant. What was this new philosophy? It was certainly not that for every action there is an equal and oposite reaction. In fact, if you wanted to learn the principles of Newtonian ‘philosophy’, the last place you would want to turn would be Newton’s own writings. Better turn to such books as Martin’s A Plain and Familiar Introduction to the Newtonian Philosophy or, better still, Voltaire’s Elements of Newtonian Philosophy.

Though Voltaire’s book on Newton made clear that “The whole philosophy of Newton leads of necessity to the knowledge of a Supreme Being”[vii], the overall thrust of the, so called, ‘Newtonian philosophy’ was towards an impersonal and materialistic way of viewing things. Anyone who wanted to could start with the premise that the universe was governed by a set of rational laws (Newton had established that) and then leap to the conclusion that the universe and its laws were all there was, or at least, all that can be known (materialism). Similarly, one could start from the premise that the universe followed determined laws (Newton) and then leap to the premise that man’s decisions were likewise pre-determined - that the human being is really no different from lines, planes, and bodies (determinism). In taking this leap from the mechanistic science of Newton to the materialistic philosophy of the Enlightenment deists, you could feel that science was entirely on your side. Furthermore, since Newton’s discoveries were thought to have banished mystery from the world[viii] by showing that everything was rationally explicable on a purely scientific basis, it was again an easy step for those who wished to dismiss all aspects of the unseen world that had been central to Christian dogma.

In actuality, the new philosophy was not so monochrom as my brief discussion implies. The relationship between Newtonian physics and Enlightenment materialism remained complex and sometimes extremely vague. It was vague precisely because the new philosophy was rarely worked out from a systematized train of thought. Rather, the new philosophy revolved around an incholate notion that such ideas were somehow implicated by recent advances in science.

The closest parallel today would be the way some people have a vague (perhaps even unconscious) notion that science has disproved miracles or that evolution establishes atheism. Ask a person exactly how the non-existence of God is proved by evolution, or which scientist disproved miracles in which laboratory, and they hardly know what to say. This is similar to the general assumption in the 18th century that Newton’s ordered universe removed the need to believe in the supernatural.

In future posts I will be exploring some of the practical consequences of the worldview forged in the fires of Enlightenment.

[i] Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), p. 535.
[ii] From Diderot’s Interpr├ętation de la nature (1754), cited by Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment: An evaluation of its assumptions, attitudes and values (Penguin Books, 1968), p. 95-96.
[iii] J. R. Lucas, The Freedom of the Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 105.
[iv] Ibid,, p. 105.
[v] Cited by Hampson, op. cit., p. 120.
[vi] Carl L Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1932), pp. 49-50.
[vii] From the first chapter of Voltaire’s Elements of Newtonian Philosophy, called ‘Of God’, cited by Hampson, op. cit., p. 79.
[viii] This is reflected in Pope’s famous epitaph “Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night/God said, Let Newton be! And All was Light.”
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