Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's secular "trinity" (2a): Isaac Newton

"Bacon, Locke and Newton, ... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences." - Thomas Jefferson, 1787

As I mentioned in the first Jefferson-Newton post, Martin Gardiner in "Isaac Newton: Alchemist and Fundamentalist" Skeptical Inquirer Sept/Oct 1996, summarized Isaac Newton's accomplishments this way:

For several centuries the best-known Newton has been the great mathematical physicist who in his early twenties invented calculus, discovered the binominal theoren, introduced polar coordinates, proved that white light was a mixture of colors, explained the rainbow, built the first reflecting telescope, and showed that the force causing apples to £all is the same as the force that guides the planets, moons, and comets, and produces tides. His discoveries revolutionized physics. His genius is undisputed.
And, as one might expect from the article's title, Gardiner goes on, "Unknown to most people, even today, are two other Newtons. One is the alchemist who struggled for decades to turn base metals into gold. The other is Newton the Protestant fundamentalist."

Isaac Newton (1642–1727)

The former list of accomplishments includes the things that constituted Newton's influence during most of the time since his death. Including during Thomas Jefferson's lifetime.

The latter aspects are important biographically. And it's not as though his religious writing was unknown. His Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John was published posthumously in 1733.

Newton might have felt pretty comfortable theologicvalloy among today's Christian Right. He wrote extensively on his generally very conservative ideas about Protestant theology, much of which would be considered "fundamentalist" today. In fact, he thought that he would be remembered for those writings more than for his science.

But his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity certainly distinguishes him from today's Christian fundamentalists. And he scarcely can be accused of being anti-science!

Gardiner's article mainly focuses on Newton's religious ideas. But he seems to hold both Newton's religious and alchemical work and writing against him, as some kind of weakness of character. He writes of Newton's religious work, "It is sad to envision the discoveries in mathematics and physics Newton might have made if his great intellect had not been diverted by such bizarre speculations."

Of course, that too is speculation. Not unlike the cliche about how soldiers killed in war might have gone on in life to be Homers or Shakespeares. The real existing Isaac Newton wrote seriously on religion and did serious experiments on alchemy, as well his now more respectable scientific work. Who's to say he would have accomplished the latter had he not also indulged the former?

Newton was a prominent member of the Royal Society, the institution that supposedly was inspired by Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis. He also served as Master of the Mint, in which role he became known for successfully cracking down on currency counterfeiters. Gardiner notes, "He was the first to recommend gold as a monetary standard."

As George Smith reminds us (Isaac Newton, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2007):

Only the public Newton influenced the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, yet any account of Newton himself confined to this material can at best be only fragmentary. Second is the contrast, often shocking, between the actual content of Newton's public writings and the positions attributed to him by others, including most importantly his popularizers. The term “Newtonian” refers to several different intellectual strands unfolding in the eighteenth century, some of them tied more closely to Voltaire, Pemberton, and Maclaurin — or for that matter to those who saw themselves as extending his work, such as Clairaut, Euler, d'Alembert, Lagrange, and Laplace — than to Newton himself.

Wolfgang Bonsiepen, "Die Aktualitat der Hegelschen Naturphilosophie" Philosophische Rundschau 35:3; 1988

Martin Gardiner, "Isaac Newton: Alchemist and Fundamentalist" Skeptical Inquirer Sept/Oct 1996,

G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie (Lectures on the History of Philosophy) Bolland edition; 1908

Antonio Pérez-Ramos, "Bacon's legacy" The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (1996)

George Smith, "Isaac Newton" (2007) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Richard Westfall, "Sir Isaac Newton" (2012) Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite; 2014 Online version: "Sir Isaac Newton"

Tags: , ,

No comments: