The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)

Part III. Into the Light

Chapter 52. In Search of God

A different feature of Newton’s theory of gravitation raised the most troubling question of all: where did God fit into Newton’s universe? For seventeenth-century thinkers in general, and for Newton in particular, no question could have been more important. Today, the talk of God may seem misplaced. The Principia is not a sacred text but a scientific work that makes specific, quantitative predictions about the world. Those predictions are either true or false, regardless of what your religious views happen to be.53 But to judge the Principia by the accuracy of its predictions is to see only part of it. In a similar sense, you can admire Michelangelo’s Pietà as a gorgeous work of art even if you have no religious beliefs whatsoever. But to know what Newton thought he was doing, or Michelangelo, you need to take account of their religious motivation.

Newton had ambitions for his discoveries that stretched far beyond science. He believed that his findings were not merely technical observations but insights that could transform men’s lives. The transformation he had in mind was not the usual sort. He had little interest in flying machines or labor-saving devices. Nor did he share the view, which would take hold later, that a new era of scientific investigation would put an end to superstition and set men’s minds free. Newton’s intent in all his work was to make men more pious and devout, more reverent in the face of God’s creation. His aim was not that men rise to their feet in freedom but that they fall to their knees in awe.

So for Newton himself, the answer to the question where does God fit in the universe? was plain. God sat enthroned at the center of creation. Newton had always known it; he had always seen his work as a hymn to God’s glory, though one written in curves and equations rather than notes on a staff. Now his dazzling success in the Principia provided still further evidence of the magnificence of God’s design.

But the great irony of Newton’s life was that many people looked at his work and drew precisely the opposite moral. Newton had not honored God, they insisted, but had made Him irrelevant. The more the universe followed laws that held everywhere and always, the less room God had to exercise his sovereignty. This critique was seldom directed at Newton personally (except by Leibniz). No one questioned the sincerity of his religious faith. Both his major works, the Principia and the Opticks, concluded with long, heartfelt outpourings of praise for the Creator. “He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient,” Newton wrote in the Principia. “That is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things and knows all things that are or can be done.”

Still, the faithful insisted, Newton had inadvertently given aid and comfort to the enemy. He had bolstered the cause of science, and science had shown itself to be an enterprise devoted to demoting God. Everyone knew that the history of religion was filled with miraculous interventions—floods, burning bushes, the sick healed, the dead returned to life. God did not merely watch his creation. On countless occasions He had stepped in and directly altered the course of events. And now, it seemed, science threatened to push God aside.

This made for a debate over gravity that in some ways anticipated the nineteenth-century battle over evolution. Such fights may seem to turn on arcane issues—planets and mathematical laws, fossils and apes—but in intellectual history, giant wars are fought on narrow battlegrounds. The real issue is always man’s place in the cosmos.

Like evolution, gravity raised questions that tangled up science, politics, and theology. By hemming in God, religious thinkers railed, science promoted atheism. Atheist, in the seventeenth century, was an all-purpose slur that embraced a range of suspicious beliefs, much as commie or pinko would in Cold War America. But the fear it exposed was real, for to challenge religion was to call the entire social order into question. “Is nothing sacred?” was not an empty bit of rhetoric but a howl of anguish. If religion were undermined, sexual license and political anarchy were sure to follow.

Nor did science aim only at toppling age-old beliefs. Even worse, in the eyes of its detractors, the new thinkers meant to replace time-honored doctrines with their own dubious substitutes. “Scientists, like whoring Jerusalem and Babylon, have turned away from God and have put in His stead their own systems and explanations,” writes one modern historian, in summarizing the antiscience case. “And these are the idols they worship: not the world created by God, but the mechanistic representations—like idols, devoid of spirit—that are the works of their own crazed imaginations.”

If the universe was a machine, as science seemed to teach, then humans were just one more form of matter and there was no such thing as the soul, or choice, or responsibility. In such a world, morality would have no meaning, and, everyone would know, as one appalled writer put it, that “they may do any thing that they have a mind to.”

So Newton and Leibniz squared off one last time, this time in an ideological clash over God and gravity. The battleground was the issue of God’s intervention in the world. Each man accused the other of maligning God and attacking Christianity. Newton began by insisting that his theory of gravitation did have an explicit role for God. It was not simply that, at creation, God had set the whole solar system in motion. More than that, He had continued ever since to fine-tune His creation. The planets could not be left to run on their own, Newton’s calculations showed; their ever-changing pulls on one another meant that their orbits were not quite stable. Left unattended, the solar system would fall out of kilter and, eventually, tumble into chaos.

And so the world had not been left unattended. This was, Newton maintained, still further proof of God’s wisdom. If He had designed the universe to run unsupervised, He would have left room for the foolish and skeptical to argue that if God is absent now, perhaps He was absent always. God had known better.

The question of whether God had neglected his creation was so touchy that Newton’s followers produced a second argument to demonstrate His ongoing presence. The miracles recorded in the Bible had taken place long ago. How to show that the age of miracles had not passed?

One way was to update the definition of miracle. God continued to intervene in the world, argued the theologian William Whiston, speaking on Newton’s behalf, though perhaps He had changed His style. Even as familiar a feature of our lives as gravity “depends entirely on the constant and efficacious and, if you will, the supernatural and miraculous Influence of Almighty God.” There was nothing inherent in the nature of rocks that caused them to fall; they fell because God made them fall. If you stopped to think about it, wrote Whiston, it was as miraculous for a stone to drop to the ground as it would be for it to hover in midair.

Leibniz pounced. Newton had committed heresy. Both Leibniz and Newton believed in a clockwork universe, but now Leibniz invoked the familiar image to mock his old enemy. “Sir Isaac Newton, and his followers, have also a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion.”

Newton fired back in fury. He was not the one blaspheming God. To call for a clock that ran forever on its own, as Leibniz had, was to cut God out of the picture. “If God does not concern himself in the Government of the World,” declared Samuel Clarke, another of Newton’s allies, “. . . it will follow that he is not an Omnipresent, All-powerful, Intelligent and Wise Being; and consequently, that he Is not at all.”

Newton and Clarke were far from done. This dangerous doctrine of Leibniz’s posed a threat not only to Christianity but to political stability as well. To hear Leibniz tell it, the king of the universe was a mere figurehead and not a ruler at all. Think what that meant! “If a king had a kingdom wherein all things would continually go on without his government or interposition,” wrote Clarke, then he would not “deserve at all the title of king or governor.” Who would need such a do-nothing king? Leibniz had allied himself with those scoundrels of whom it “may reasonably be suspected that they would like very well to set the king aside.”

Leibniz did not back down. If the cosmos needed constant tinkering, as Newton would have it, then God had not fully understood a design of His own making. This was to malign God, to charge our perfect Creator with imperfection.

Deeply religious though both Newton and Leibniz were, they managed to talk past one another. The problem was that they focused on different aspects of God’s greatness. Newton emphasized God’s will, His ability to act however and whenever He chose. Leibniz focused on God’s wisdom, His ability to see ahead of time exactly how every conceivable event would play itself out, down the furthest corridors of time.

That left both these brilliant, devout men caught in traps of their own making. Each had, in a sense, explained too much. Newton wanted above all else to portray God as a participant in the world, not a spectator. But Newton’s universe seemed to run by itself, despite his protests to the contrary. That made God a kind of absentee landlord. Leibniz, on the other hand, took as his unbreachable principle the notion of God as all-powerful and all-knowing. The catch was that a God with those traits had no choice but to throw a switch that set in motion precisely the world we have.

The problem was that both were guilty as charged, and neither could admit it. Stuck defending indefensible positions, they fought to the death.