Standing on the shoulders of giants



When the economist John Maynard Keynes purchased old boxes of Isaac Newton’s unpublished papers at auction in 1936, he didn’t know what he’d find.

For over two centuries, Newton had been hailed as the model of the modern scientist – an enlightenment rationalist who had freed scientific enquiry from the quagmire of religious superstition, and established it firmly on a non-sectarian basis. But the papers Keynes bought at auction painted a very different picture. Newton, the scientist, was also a man obsessed by the bible, alchemy and religion.

Word for word, it transpires, Newton wrote more on religion than he ever did on science. Most of it was unpublished in his own lifetime, and much of it deliberately excluded from previous attempts to produce his ‘Complete Works’. Some, remarkably, still remains unpublished today. It is only now, almost three hundred years after his death, as Newton’s papers are made available in digital form on the internet, that we are getting a full understanding of his religious views.

In religion, as in science, Newton was a speculative and unorthodox thinker. He read deeply in the church fathers, and wrote commentaries on Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel, and on the Book of Revelation. He believed that King Solomon’s Temple held the key to understanding world history, and was still revising his biblical calculations on the end of the world when he died in 1727.

Like Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo before him, Newton held religion and science together, arguing that there are two great books – the Book of Nature, and the Book of the Scriptures – both of which reveal God’s truth. In deciphering the Book of Nature through science, we are, as Kepler put it, ‘merely thinking God’s thoughts after him’.

For Newton, belief in God was fundamental to the practice of science. If there are orderly, rational laws of nature, according to Newton, it is because there is an orderly, rational divine Law-giver. And if humans have the intellectual capacity to understand the laws God has inscribed on the universe, this is because humans are made in the image of God, and share God’s rational nature. Newton’s religious convictions regarding the existence of God and of humanity made in God’s image were not a stumbling block for his scientific work, but its intellectual foundation.

For modern critics who argue religion and science are incompatible, Newton provides an uncomfortable example to the contrary. As Newton showed, the pursuit of science requires the scientist to believe in advance – to have faith, one might say – that the universe is orderly and rational, and that the human mind is capable of understanding this rationality. Without these assumptions, scientific enquiry can’t even get under way.

But for Newton, these assumptions rested in turn on particular convictions about God, humanity and creation. It was this religious framework which enabled the emergence of science in western Europe. Understand this, and we understand the challenge that Newton presents to the modern sceptic: without religion, would we have had science?


2 thoughts on “Standing on the shoulders of giants

  1. david broad says:

    What a fascinating buy for Keynes – there seems to have been no stopping him.

    I only came round to reading Charles’ intriguing piece this week and my recall of Dawkins’ ‘God Delusion’ book , the most popular current ‘debunker ‘ of religion , is now hazy .

    Being a representative of the very last cohort allowed to study no science at school – either at primary or secondary school – but nonetheless a keen student of the history of science , I am not that surprised that Newton was equally interested in scientific and religious enquiry. It is a bit surprising though that this aspect should have been ignored .

    My approach to the presumed dilemma is on the lines that part of the essence of being human is to seek to understand and explain .While legitimate for a ‘scientist’ to opt out of religious speculation on the grounds that its assertions are empirically unverifiable , this still leaves the field open for others to seek structures of thought that do offer understanding and explanations . It is not as though ‘science’ per se can or likely on past experience ever to do this . Scientists who refuse to entertain such frameworks erode and disqualify an essential rational human requirement. And lots of scientists do embrace forms of religious belief.

    Dawkins must find Newton a disappointment and a puzzle. Tant pis for him. For us others the search for meaning and explanation goes on.

  2. Roderick Smith says:

    For anyone interested in Newton’s religious views and the importance they had for him I can recommend the recently published book “Priest of Nature – The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton” by Rob Iliffe (OUP, 2017). Iliffe is a professor of history at Oxford. This is no easy read – it runs to 400 pages. Newton’s religious views seem distinctly weird to modern minds (whether secular or religious). He was a Unitarian, Arian and viscerally anti-Catholic – not so strange in the Puritan world he inhabited but very odd to us.

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