The Most Beautiful System

Newton by Willia

m Blakebook—but as I researched my story I was constantly reminded of the degree to which each episode in Newton’s life was conformable to the whole: the mind that relentlessly pursued a coiner was the same mind that solved the motions of the planets, that invented the calculus, that invented the reflecting telescope and all the rest. And all of these Newtons—the physicist, the mathematician, the craftsman, the chemist—or rather, the singular Newton that actually thought and felt and worked each day, advanced all of his ambitions within the context of his supreme goal: to know his God.

Newton believed, deeply, absolutely, personally (and heretically) in that God, viewing his life’s work as a quest to understand and advance God’s intentions in space, time, and human affairs. And, as I worked through how that faith informed all of Newton’s doings, even his pursuit of a low-life crook down the mean streets of London, I began to get an insight on at least some of the lines of tension we still see expressed in contemporary faith vs. science arguments.

What I found was that Newton fully understood that traditional ideas of God—including his own, Arian version of belief—faced a threat from the new conception of a mechanical universe. Newton understood the implications of the expanding reach of the natural philosophy, of course—none better. When he first encountered the mechanical worldview in his early twenties, he had concluded that it made no sense to declare that “ye first matter” derived from any prior source, “except God…” and then he crossed out those last two words.

In that statement, even had he let those last words stand, Newton recognized the essential fact that remains at the core of modern science with its material explanations for physical events. In a world composed entirely of a matter in motion, the traditional role of God has to shrink. The author of a mechanical universe could set events in motion—but after that primary impulse, the cosmos could then wind its way forward through time on its own.

It was not just Newton who felt the chill of an increasingly Godless nature. Every careful observer understood the implications of the new approach. In 1643, the year after Newton was born, one of its central proponents, Rene Descartes, had to defend himself against charges of atheism. Martin Schoock, professor of philosophy at the University of Groningen, bitterly condemned Descartes as the “prince of Cretans” (from the old gibe about the man from Crete who assures his hearers that he speaks the truth when he says that all Cretans are liars); for being a “lying biped;” and, worst of all, because “he injects the venom of atheism delicately and secretely into those who, because of their feeble minds, never notice the serpent that hides in the grass.”

To Schoock, the sin lay less with Descartes’ physics and more with his reverence for the power of human reason. He was particularly suspicious of what he saw as the Frenchman’s strangely weak affirmation of the existence of God. (Descartes complained bitterly of the unanswerable nature of the charge to the French ambassador to The Hague, writing that “simply because I demonstrated the existence of God, [Schoock] tried to convince people I secretly teach atheism.”) Descartes himself escaped serious consequences. But the stench of atheism stuck to the new science—and by the time Newton first came into contact with Descartes’ work, the implications of a physics that virtually eliminated the need for God to act in history were obvious even to a youth on the fringes of the educated world just starting to read the basic texts.

Newton ultimately demolished Descartes’ physics, and long before that, he had found a way, satisfying at least himself, to restore God to the center of the action in space and time—most dramatically, perhaps, in his arguments for why the sun and the planets should experience their mutual gravitational attraction. Gravity, he argued, derived from divine action. As he saw it, the book in which he laid out his physics, the Principia, published in 1688, served as testimony to the existence and glory of all-creating divinity: “When I wrote my treatise upon our System, I had an eye on such Principles as might work with considering men fore the beleife of a Deity” he wrote to Richard Bentley, an ambitious young clergyman preparing the first of the series of lectures Robert Boyle had endowed in defense of Christian religion. “Nothing can rejoice me more,” Newton added, than that his work would prove “useful for that purpose.”

Finally, in 1713, Newton expressed his mature conception of divine action in a short essay added to Book Three of the second edition of the Principia. Called the “General Scholium,” it contains an astonishingly passionate account of God triumphant in nature. He wrote, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets could only proceed form the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” How smart? How powerful? “This Being governs all things”—and Newton meant governs—“not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all.” What are his attributes? “the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being…He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient.” Where does this God reside? “He endures forever and is everywhere present…He is omnipresent not virtually but also substantially.”

This was a God to animate the dry bones of mathematical philosophy. Existing everywhere, for all time, he is “all similar, all eye, all ear, all brain, all arm, all power to perceive, to understand, and to act.” All this—within a cosmos that Newton elsewhere called his “boundless, uniform Sensorium,” within which God could “form and reform the Parts of the Universe.”

That is: Newton’s God literally existed everywhere, “substantially”—really, materially there, able to impinge on matter instantly, through all of space on time. The fact (as he saw it) of cosmic order combined with Newton’s demonstration that human mathematical reason could penetrate that order, implied (necessarily, to Newton) the existence of that perfect being from whom both order and intelligence derived. Newton’s natural philosophy was thus, as he had told Bentley, explicitly an inquiry into what could be discovered through the properties of nature about the divine source of all material existence.

Newton was convinced. Nonetheless, some uncharitable louts remained unpersuaded, disdainful. Leibniz, for one, ridiculed the notion of a divine sensorium and what he saw as Newton’s flight to an occult explanation for gravity. What was wanted, what Newton sought, was an eyewitness demonstration of divine action in nature.

Hence, Newton’s famously private passion for alchemy. Newton pursued alchemical research intensively (if episodically) between 1669 and 1693. Throughout those years, alchemy seemed to offer a way for to rescue God from the threat of irrelevance through the ancient alchemical idea of a vital agent or spirit. This vital spirit, Newton wrote, had all the attributes of God. It was omnipresent—“diffused through everything in the earth.” It was enormously powerful, destroying and creating throughout nature: “when it is introduced into a mass of substances its first action is to putrefy and confound into chaos; then it proceeds to generation.” In the conventional language of alchemy, this cycle of decay and growth was called vegetation. “Nature’s actions,” Newton wrote, “are either vegetable…or purely mechanicall.” In contrast to mere mechanics, vegetation animated matter, as the vital spirit served as “her fire, her soule, her life.”

Pared down to its essence, Newton’s years of alchemical experimentation—parts of three decades—served as his attempt to demonstrate how God actually worked in the world. He said so explicitly in a note written in the 1680s: “Just as the world was created from dark Chaos through the bringing forth of the light and through the separation of the aery firmament and of the waters from the earth,” Newton wrote, checking off the boxes of the first chapter of Genesis, one by one. “So our work brings forth the beginning out of black chaos and its first matter through the separation of the elements and the illumination of matter.”

His work? Human hands, his own hands and eyes and brain, to bring beginnings out of impenetrable chaos? No one should ever say that Isaac Newton was passionless: This is the cry of an ecstatic, as extravagant in his dreams of communion as any desert-maddened hermit. But strip away what borders on hubris, too close an imitation of God, and what remains is Newton’s essential ambition: to replicate divine action closely enough to provide incontrovertible, material proof of the fact of God’s work in creation and ever after.

If only… but he could not. Newton’s last serious attempt to pursue alchemy came in the spring of 1693. Briefly, he persuaded himself that he had created a sample of the famous philosopher’s stone, with which it would be possible to multiply gold “to infinity.” Then, almost immediately, he realized he had deceived himself. What followed was a period of depression and paranoia so deep that he dropped from view for several months.

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Newton by William Blake

Newton’s own faith did not waver in the wake of that failure, and in fact he spent most of his creative energies in the last thirty years of his life pursuing religious history and investigations of the timing of the second coming.

But what struck me most in this account of Newton’s attempt to stand witness to God is trap within the challenge he set for himself and his successors. He set out to find unequivocal evidence for God within the book of nature—of creation, to believers. From his failure his successors, if not Newton himself, drew the obvious conclusion, captured in the great French mathematician, Pierre-Simon Laplace famous reply to Napoleon’s question of where God lay within his celestial mechanics: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Hence the pathos, the danger that I think Newton himself glimpsed. There is a serious discussion to be had on the meaning of faith in the context of modern science. But from the beginning, even in the hands of the perhaps the greatest believing scientist in history, it was already clear where the peril lies in the attempt to recruit science in defense of God. Once you admit the authority of scientific accounts of nature, you must live with the consequences of what you do and do not discover in such investigations. Newton was able to persuade himself that the fault with his alchemy lay with his powers of inquiry and not with the overwhelming God to whose service he had dedicated himself. It did not take long for those in the Newtonian tradition to entertain the alternative hypothesis.

This essay was adapted from Thomas Levenson’s new book, Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist.

Martin Schoock, Admironda Methodus Novae Philosphiae Renati Descartes (1643) p. 13, quoted in Desmond Clarke Descartes, p. 235. See also Michael Heyd, “Be Sober and Reasonable” pp. 123-4.

Thomas Levenson is Professor of Science Writing and the Director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and author of Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist.