(HOBBES, LOCKE and NEWTON – continued)

home | 16-17th centuries index



Isaac Newton and the New Physics versus God's Magic

Among other progressives in England was William Harvey, who lived to 1657 and demonstrated the function of the heart and the circulation of blood. There was also Robert Boyle, another natural philosopher. Boyle, with careful observation and experimentation, elevated chemistry above the alchemy popular in his time. And another progressive was Isaac Newton, who revolutionized how the universe was viewed.

Isaac Newton entered Cambridge in 1661 and in his undergraduate years had to work his way through the writings of Aristotle. Like some other progressives he was influenced by the development of mechanical devices in Europe. As a child he was interested in mechanisms, and halfway through his undergraduate years he adopted a mechanistic view of the workings of nature, joining Hobbes, Boyle and the French philosopher René Descartes against the rival notion of divine magic. Newton adopted what was known as the corpuscular theory of matter, a belief that matter was made up of tiny particles – an atomic theory similar to that of Democritus of ancient Greece.

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton. He applied mathematics while riding the new wave of empirical inquiry. The result: a theory of gravity.

Newton was also a mathematician, and he applied mathematics to his study of light, working on this from around 1666. He countered Descartes' notion of the mechanics of light as a succession of pressures or bumps – like the bumps that a blind man receives as sensations at his hand as he taps his stick while walking. Newton saw light as a continuous ray that moved with speed, and his expressions of this view were met with disbelief.

Newton's explanation why things corpuscular do not fly away in all directions met with greater success. Newton pondered the question why the moon does not fly out of orbit. He found a mathematical formula that kept in balance two forces: a gravitational pull of the moon toward the earth and inertia, which would have the moon moving in a straight line. Newton concluded that the force of gravity between two bodies was relative to the differences in mass of those bodies reduced by the square of the distance between those two bodies.

Newton would be known as having discovered gravity – in the popular mind simplified to Newton having been struck on the head with an apple.

Newton's theory about the universe included an explanation about objects moving with inertia and objects striking each other with equal force. To a few interested in physics the secrets of the universe appeared to have been unlocked. A contemporary poet, Alexander Pope, wrote of "nature's laws hid by night, God said Let Newton be! and All was light!"

Newton and Religion

Newton had another interest: human history, which he had been working on for decades – much more complex and significant, he thought, than physics. The Bible was his source of human history and biblical chronology the center of his study. Like some other Protestants, he was searching for a pure Christianity, and his effort was welcomed by other biblical scholars, who hoped that he create a breakthrough with his Bible study as he had with the mechanics of the universe. Newton pondered Hebrew chronology from Adam to Noah and beyond, adding up all the begetting. He studied biblical prophesies, Greek and Roman historians and what little was known of the Assyrians and Egyptians. He held to the traditional view that the primary actors appearing on the earthly stage were the ancient Hebrews, and he held to the standard Protestant view that every sentence in the Bible was literally true. He found writing to have been invented by the Ishmaelites around the time of Moses. He believed that the Creation had taken place somewhere around 4,000 years before Christ, and he hoped to be able to predict the future and the date of the Second Coming.

Some looked at Newton's theory of a mechanistic universe and accused him of trying to supplant the workings of God. But some took from Newton what was to be the point of view of the Deists. They saw God as prime mover and not intervening in events, similar to winding up a clock and letting the universe and human history tick away.

Many Christians continued with traditional Christianity, believing that Newton had only established laws as to how the physical world worked. Like Newton, they believed that above Newton's laws of nature was God working his miracles.


Wisdom of the West, by Bertrand Russell, 1959

A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion, Chapter 3, "The Newtonian Epoch." by Sir William Dampier, 1948

The Origins of Political Order, Chapter 5, "The Coming of the Leviathan'" by Francis Fukuyama, 2011

"Thomas Hobbes," Wikipedia

Copyright © 2009-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.