The Newton Papers and the Drive Behind Scientific Investigation

Sir Issac Newton was one of the greatest scientists and quite possibly the smartest man to ever walk the planet. (I am not the only one to think such. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson said so in his lecture at the Beyond Belief Conference.) He was also seriously and devoutly Christian. This can be seen in the General Scolium of Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy where Newton commented:
This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems: and lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those systems at immense distances one from another.

This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God παυτοκρατωρ, or Universal Ruler; for God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect . . . .

Now, it appears that some other writings by Newton have surfaced wherein he delves more deeply into matters related to Christianity. According to Newton Papers Reveal Apocalypse Calculation -- Documents Shed Light on Scientist's Religious Beliefs, Newton's private papers show that he affixed his very scientific mind to showing that the second coming would not be happening in the near future (for him), but the earliest it could happen would be 2060.

Three-century-old manuscripts by Isaac Newton calculating the exact date of the apocalypse, detailing the precise dimensions of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and interpreting passages of the Bible - exhibited this week for the first time - lay bare the little-known religious intensity of a man many consider history's greatest scientist.

Newton, who died 280 years ago, is known for laying much of the groundwork for modern physics, astronomy, math and optics. But in a new Jerusalem exhibit, he appears as a scholar of deep faith who also found time to write on Jewish law - even penning a few phrases in careful Hebrew letters - and combing the Old Testament's Book of Daniel for clues about the world's end.

The documents, purchased by a Jewish scholar at a Sotheby's auction in London in 1936, have been kept in safes at Israel's national library in Jerusalem since 1969. Available for decades only to a small number of scholars, they have never before been shown to the public.

In one manuscript from the early 1700s, Newton used the cryptic Book of Daniel to calculate the date for the Apocalypse, reaching the conclusion that the world would end no earlier than 2060.

"It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner," Newton wrote. However, he added, "This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."

I personally hope that someone will publish the texts of his writings and the basis for these calculations. Ordinarily, I would put aside writings like this because lots of people have tried to use the Books of Daniel and the Revelation of St. John to try to calculate the world's end. I am aware of none who have successfully done so. Newton, however, was a bit smarter than the average person. I would be interested to see his reasoning.

But I really like what the article said about Newton's faith and its relationship to science:

The Newton papers, Ben-Menahem said, also complicate the idea that science is diametrically opposed to religion. "These documents show a scientist guided by religious fervor, by a desire to see God's actions in the world," she said.

Exactly! Far from being opposed by science, religion is the brother of scientific endeavor. Granted, they are brothers that have seen a huge rift formed in their relationship due to the hijacking of science by people who believe in naturalism, materialism and positivism. These underlying philosophies are at loggerheads with Christianity because they start with the assumption that there is no such thing as a world beyond the natural and material world -- regardless of whether it can or cannot be measured by observation. To the followers of these philosophies any scientific theory that would point to or suggest that there exists an extra-natural world is discounted by today's scientific elite as engaging the work that is definitionally outside the realm of science. More likely, if one accepts that there may be such a extra-natural world out there in the course of working on science, that person is singled out as a nutcase.

Newton, however, was no nutcase. He was a devout Christian who understood that both science and religion were compatible. One can be a scientist -- a great scientist, even -- and have a deep and abiding faith in God. In fact, a right understanding of the relationship between science and nature will drive people who desire to know God more fully to seek to study the world that God has made.

Issac Newton understood this. I only pray that more of today's scientists come to that understanding.

(HT: Weekend Fisher)


Anonymous said…
Amen! That's about all I have to say about that:)
Weekend Fisher said…
I particularly liked the "science has been hijacked" bit -- true, but not usually put so well.

Take care & God bless
Jason Pratt said…
Someone will very probably (and correctly) pop up to add that Newton, though devoutly Christian, was also just as specifically unorthodox. It won't change the main point at stake here, but I figured it would be better for an ally to mention it first instead of an opponent trying to redirect the force by rhetorical dodge. {g}

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