Desktop version

Home arrow Philosophy arrow The handy philosophy answer book

What were the main elements of Newton's scientific system and what did they have to do with God?

Newton (1642-1727) used the model of Euclidian geometry to demonstrate the mathematical axioms describing the system of the world. He held that the world consisted of material bodies, or masses made up of solid corpuscles that were either at rest or that moved according to the three laws of motion. Preceding these laws of motion was a "scholium," in which Newton stated the conditions of his entire system, which were: absolute time, absolute space, absolute place, and absolute motion.

For Newton, the universe itself was like one gigantic box that never moved. (These absolutes were to become very important in contrast to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.) According to Newton, God played an active role in his system in several ways: he was the first cause of the whole celestial system; he keeps the stars and planets from crashing into one another; he creates absolute space and time; and he corrects for irregularities in the movements of planets and comets, which might otherwise undermine the entire harmony of the cosmos. That is, for Newton, not only did God exist outside of nature as its immaterial and transcendent soul, but God was the real and practical ruler and regulator of the physical universe. He wrote, "And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearance of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy." (This was religious science in religious times.)

What were Newton's Laws?

Newton (1642-1727) is famous for three laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation, as follows.

1. Every body continues in rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless an external force compels a change. This is the Law of Inertia.

2. A change in motion is proportional to the force impressed and occurs in the direction of the straight line in which the force is impressed. F = MA, or Force equals Mass multiplied by Acceleration.

3. To every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.

Newton's general law of gravity stated that every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle of matter with a force that varies directly as the product of their masses and varies inversely as the square of the distance between the particles.

How was Newton's system received?

Newton's (1642-1727) laws were accepted with intellectual awe, bordering on reverence. Part of this reaction was gratitude for the comprehensive way in which he plausibly united both the atomic theory and the results of the Copernican revolution. Newton was famous for his claim of not going beyond the evidence. His motto was Hypotheses non fingo, or "I frame no hypotheses."

However, this was not literally true, given his scholium that assumed absolute space and time, and his postulation of force as "action at a distance." He also assumed that God existed. But Newton's stance of empiricism—he thought, for example, that with sufficiently powerful microscopes it would be possible to see atoms someday— carried the day on the issue of whether he really was an empiricist.

Newton's work was almost immediately translated into European languages and became the new view of the universe. There were also popularized versions of his ideas, and by the early eighteenth century idealized portraits of him were in wide circulation. Francesco Algarrotti published Newton for the Ladies in 1737, which was reprinted in many editions. (Because girls did not receive the same education as boys, it was widely believed that scientific knowledge had to be simplified and expressed in more "gentle" language for women.)

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics