Welcome to this week’s Friday Philosophy post. Today, we’ll be looking at the English scientist Sir Isaac Newton, whose approach to natural philosophy created a revolution, the effects of which are still being felt today. I will offer a brief snapshot of Newton’s life and thought, followed by some personal reflections on his contribution to the history of thought.
Who Was He?
Isaac Newton was born in 1642 in the county of Lincolnshire in the East Midlands of England. Newton learned Latin and Greek at the age of about twelve, and went on to study at Cambridge University, where teachings at the time leant heavily on the work of Aristotle. Newton, however, became particularly interested in the more recent work of the philosopher Descartes, and astronomers such as Thomas Street and Galileo.
After completing his studies at Cambridge, Newton studied privately for two years, and during this time developed his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation. Newton’s most famous book, published in 1687, is known as the ‘Principia’ (an abbreviation of a much longer Latin title which when translated is Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy).
What’s the Big Idea?
Newton’s work lent great weight to the idea that the universe could be understood as having a mathematical basis, an insight first developed by Pythagoras in the 6th century BC in Ancient Greece. The mathematical laws developed by Newton birthed the idea that events are predictable. Given a complete description of the present state of a physical system at any one time, one would be able to accurately predict the state of that system at a future time.
The name given to explorations of the natural world, such as those undertaken by Newton, was ‘natural philosophy’. It wasn’t until the 18th century, that the term ‘science’ was used to describe this revolution in thinking.
The confidence that the new type of philosophy birthed by Newton gave to scientists is still evident today, in the new atheism movement, for instance, where we see scientific philosophers such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, speaking with great confidence (some would say arrogance) about the superiority of science as a way of understanding reality, when compared to religion.
There is no denying that the scientific laws developed by Newton and others have impacted the world in a substantial and wonderful way. We only have to look at the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, which leant heavily on the work of Newton, to see that. But I would argue that while scientific laws are very useful in answering the how questions of existence, they do little to answer the why questions (such as: Why are we here? Why does the universe exist? Why do mathematical laws seem to work?).
I have a rather radical understanding of the way the physical universe operates, which is somewhat in conflict with the scientific understanding. I believe that events will only happen on a particular occasion if God wills them to happen, rather than those events being caused by preceding events. My understanding is that God can alter the so-called ‘laws of nature’ at any time, as God’s role in existence is that He is sustainer and animator of the cosmos, a belief that naturally follows from a literal understanding of God’s attribute of omnipresence.
The fact that many people witness miraculous events is evidence that God is above the laws of nature. I believe that the reason why not everyone experiences miracles all the time is because God enjoys creating regularity, but this doesn’t mean such regularity is absolute. God could mix-up the laws of nature at any time, a truth which is evident, for instance, in the dreams we sometimes experience, where the laws of nature can be completely different and yet still feel just as ‘real’ as our experience in the waking world.
In next week’s philosophy post I’ll present a snapshot of the life and work Niccolo Machiavelli, who was the first philosopher to study politics and government with a scientific attitude. If you’d like to follow this series, please considering subscribing to this blog. What are your thoughts on this week’s post? Feel free to leave a comment below.