One of the great difficulties in reading history is that we always bring a tremendous amount of cultural baggage to the task. We tend to interpret the past in light of the present moment, a habit which undermines our understanding of both the past and present. For the present moment is a creation of the past, and if we merely project backwards our current understandings, we will misunderstand both past and present.
These observations come to mind when watching the PBS science show, Nova, which did an excellent program on “Newton's Dark Secret.” And what is this “dark secret” of the great genius, Issac Newton, the father of modern science? Simply this: the bulk of Issac Newton's writings and work were in theology and alchemy. From a modern standpoint, this is shocking, and the producers of the program were duly shocked. Newton is considered to be the man who single-handedly overturned all the superstitions of religion, alchemy, and astrology. So how could such a scientific genius (which he certainly was) become so mired in such “medieval” superstitions? The show went to great lengths to explain away the bulk of Newton's work. They needn't have troubled themselves. What they did need to do was to jettison their modern prejudices and look at the world from Newton's point of view and from the point of view of most people in the 18th Century. We erect huge barriers around theology and science, placing each in their respective ghettos. But this is a modern phenomenon. For Newton and his age, what we call “science” was a branch of philosophy, natural philosophy. Indeed, his greatest work is Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.”
Newton was, for most of his life, a reclusive who labored in self-imposed obscurity. By the age of 22, he had invented a new mathematics, calculus, but didn't tell anyone of it. Using this new calculus, he was able to work out the problems of planetary motion which had vexed European astronomers for 200 years, and which had led to the infamous Galileo affair. A professor of mathematics at Cambridge, he was not popular, had few students, and often lectured to an empty classroom. Early in his career, he published a revolutionary paper on optics, which correctly identified white light as a combination of all the colors of light. Along with the praise for the paper, and a membership in the Royal Academy, he also received a great deal of criticism. He was so sensitive to this that he withdrew into his private world, and for decades did not publish any of the brilliant work that he was doing. Along with breakthroughs in mathematics, optics, and astronomy, and the invention of a new and more powerful telescope, he searched ancient myths for alchemical formulas, worked out a chronology for the Bible (the world was created in 980 B.C. and will end in 2060 A. D.) His researches into early Christian literature made him doubt the divinity of Christ.
It was not until he was in his 40's that the reclusive Newton was visited by the famous astronomer Edmund Halley, who posed to him the question of planetary motion. The astronomers had discovered that planets move in elliptical orbits, and they suspected the operation of an “inverse square-law,” which states that the force moving the planets was inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the sun. However, they could not make it work mathematically. Newton told an astounded Halley that he had worked that problem out many years ago and gave him his unpublished paper on the problem. At a stroke, the problems of planetary motion melted away and formed themselves into neat, mathematical formulas.
The producers of the show regard Newton as a genius despite his theological and alchemical preoccupations. But in truth, he was a genius because of them. The first thing we must understand is that alchemy and astrology were not superstitions, but two opposed views of science, views that still are at the center of scientific inquiry. Astrology represented the view of what is now called determinism, the idea that all things are already determined, that the past and future are already encoded in the position and momentum of all the particles. In this view, if one could only know with precision the current state of the universe, it would be an easy matter to figure out the past and future of everything. In scientific determinism, all of our actions were already encoded into the universe at the moment of the big bang; even the content of this blog is the result of irresistible and irreversible forces unleashed by the primordial explosion. Therefore, to understand the motion of the stars was to understand everything, past and present. Alchemy, on the other hand, is the opposite idea, the idea that we can indeed intervene in the motions of the natural order. If we can change these natural motions, then we should be able to change the nature of things dictated by those motions, for example, changing lead into gold, or anything into anything else. Newton came down hard on the side of alchemy, and in doing so solved all the problems of astronomy.
Far from overturning the idea of religion, Newton believed that he was making God an absolute necessity. Further, his God was not the “god of the gaps,” a god invoked only for those things that science couldn't explain. Rather, it was the very order of the universe that necessitated an ordering god. For Newton, since there was, obviously, an intelligent design to the universe, there must be an intelligent designer. Whoops! That brings us to another controversy, one which we won't address now, except to say that the father of modern science would be perplexed by some of the arguments about what constitutes “science.” For Newton, theology and science were parts of a single whole. Nor was his work taken by his contemporaries as a refutation of religion. On the contrary, they saw in his work the same confirmation of the divine that Newton himself did. As the Catholic poet Alexander Pope put it,
Nature, and nature's laws lay hid in night
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.
Newton's Principia was criticized because he could not tell us exactly what gravity was. But that is precisely where his training in alchemy equipped him to handle the problem. Alchemy resolved the world down to “active principles” of nature, which could not themselves be explained. They were simply occult forces, and this was Newton's understanding of gravity; he provided no explanation because there was none. In this regard, physics has gone no further than Newton; we still do not have a coherent explanation for gravity. As the physicist Richard Feynman put it, Men used to believe that the stars moved because each one had an angel to push it. We no longer believe in angels; but we still don't know why the stars move.
We tend to interpret Newton as making a radical break with the past, but that was not Newton's understanding of his work. Rather, he emphasized its continuity with the past. He described himself as a pygmy standing on the shoulders of giants. He could see further than they but only because he could build on the work they had done. We have made of Newton an icon of the religion of scientism, a religion he rejected, and hence we are surprised when we actually meet the man. But we cannot understand either the man or ourselves unless we meet him as he was, unless we allow him to speak for himself.