What’s in a name? Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica

Newton PrincipiaThemes from Andrew Cunningham’s 1988 essay were further developed in his “How the Principia Got its Name: Or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously,” published in 1991. Cunningham wants to concentrate on Isaac Newton’s famous Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), particularly the phrase “natural philosophy” in the title.

What is the “natural philosophy” in Newton’s book? Like many others in his day, Newton was a philosopher of nature rather than a scientist. According to Cunningham, Newton derived his natural philosophy from German physician and natural philosopher Johann Magirus (c.1560-96), particularly his Physiologia peripatetica of 1597. What was unique about Newton’s natural philosophy was his introduction of new mathematical principles. Other than that, he continued the traditional role of the natural philosopher. And this is what Cunningham wants to draw our attention to: “that over and above any other defining feature which marks natural philosophy off from modern science…natural philosophy was about God and about God’s universe.”

Cunningham admits that he is doing nothing new by emphasizing Newton’s theology. By the early 1990s, many scholars had already pointed out Newton’s unique and voluminous theological musings. But many historians of science continue to characterize natural philosophers as religious men in a religious age doing “science.” But this is a mistake. The point Cunningham wants to make in this essay is that, by contrast, the projects of natural philosophers were always “about God and His creation, because that is what the point of natural philosophy as a discipline and subject was.” Indeed, “each and every variety of natural philosophy that was put forward was an argument for particular and specific views of God.” Reiterating his point from the previous essay, Cunningham claims that “modern science does not deal with God or with the universe as God’s creation.”

Newton, therefore, cannot be turned into a “scientist.” He was motivated, for example, to create a natural philosophy against the perceived atheism of Rene Descartes’ (1596-1650) natural philosophy. Indeed, Newton had clearly informed Richard Bentley (1662-1742) in 1692 that “When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work wth considering men for the beleife of a Deity & nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it usefull for that purpose.” And, in responding to to Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) condemnation that his own work was atheistical or materialist, Newton published his General Scholium in the second edition of the Principia, where he explicitly claimed that discourse about God “certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.”

Thus, according to Cunningham, Newton’s wasn’t a religious thinker in a religious age doing “science”; rather, “religious attitudes went into constituting each and every variety of natural philosophy, because natural philosophy was itself about God and His universe.”

When natural philosophy and natural philosophers of the seventeenth centuries are taken seriously, certain important consequences follow. First, according to Cunningham, figures such as Newton distinguished between natural philosophy, which deals with God and His universe (the book of nature), and religion, which deals with revelation (the book of scripture). Secondly, natural theology cannot be the same as natural philosophy; rather, natural theology derived its arguments from the findings of natural philosophy. Thirdly, the question now arises: “when and why people stopped looking for God in nature”? Cunningham does not provide an answer. He simply poses the question for future studies. And finally, we need a better understanding of the meaning of scientia, or “science” in the seventeenth century. Since Cunningham’s essay, many scholars have done just this. Most recently, Peter Harrison has traced the history of the concepts of both “science” and “religion” in his The Territories of Science and Religion (2015).

Sixteenth and seventeenth-century natural philosophers were not merely concerned with God and His creation. “The ‘scientific’ work of particular natural philosophers,” Cunningham writes, was not merely “theologically or religious concerned or informed.” Rather, natural philosophy as such was “a discipline and subject-area whose role and point was the study of God’s creation and God’s attributes.” Anyone who took up the practice of natural philosophy had “God in mind.”

What is Natural Philosophy?

Andrew CunninghamOver the weekend I came across Andrew Cunningham’s collection of essays in The Identity of the History of Science and Medicine (2012). I had briefly mentioned Cunningham in an older post, but for heuristic purposes I thought it would be useful to reflect on some of his arguments here.

Beginning in 1988, Cunningham published an essay on “Getting the Game Right: Some Plain Words on the Identity and Invention of Science.” In this essay he asks whether the historian of science is “studying the right subject?” That is, when the historian sets out to study the history of science, is she or he properly equipped to identify science in the past? The short answer Cunningham posits is no: historians of science have failed to properly identify the nature of science. As such, we also fail to properly understand its history. “It follows,” he writes, “that if we get it wrong—if we are identifying the wrong thing as science—we will be writing myths, hallucinations and romances which can only purport to be a history of science: we will be writing accounts of events which may not have happened, and of the adventures of a something which may well not have existed.” In other words, understanding the nature of this thing we call “science” is absolutely essential—otherwise we are just creating myths.

The source of this error, Cunningham claims, is “that we are actually taking to our investigation a ready-prepared set of finding guides to identify past science.” These guides or assumptions determines (i.e. dictates) what we consider “science” in the past—indeed, it determines all the history that we write. But this is clearly arbitrary, if not entirely mistaken. In short, our conception of “what science is” is absolutely critical.

When we take our modern criteria for “what counts as science” and apply it to the past, we ignore a host of historical complexities and contingencies. Cunningham and others have labeled this attitude as “present-centredness,” when we “look at the past with both eyes in the present.” This is a projection of present concepts back onto intellectuals of the past. Cunningham argues that historians of science need to “get out of the present.”

To overcome our “present-centredness,” historians of science need to remove certain obstacles hindering our view of the past. The first, Cunningham tells us, is our belief in the inherent “specialness of science.” This is difficult, no doubt,  as “science, its claims and achievements, totally dominate our modern outlook. The world we live in, the physical, the technological, and the intellectual world, id deeply pervaded and affected by the presence of science and scientists.” Although I disagree with Cunningham’s claim here (it seems to me that our modern outlook is pervaded by the belief in science rather than science), for the sake of the argument we will assume he is correct. Now, because science has become so pervasive, we take for granted certain claims about the nature of science. The most obvious example, that it is “objective.” But according to Cunningham, this commitment to “objectivity” in science prevents us from raising a “single question about the nature of science, or about the appropriate shape of a valid history of science.” Thus our “present-centredness” has already settled its history, shaping “the past of science to our own preconceptions about the nature and importance of science—preconceptions which are derived from the present”!

This is quite the dilemma. What do we as historians of science do? First we need to realize that the very “specialness of science” needs to be investigated. That is, why do we put so much faith in science? Secondly, we need to put this “specialness” completely aside. If we do not do this, Cunningham says, “we will simply be writing self-serving and self-confirming history, from which all properly historical questions have been refused application.” Indeed, our commitment to the “specialness of science” has prevented us from “treating the history of science historically” (my emphasis).

Cunningham purposes some solutions. First, science must be viewed as a “human activity, a human practice.” Science, in other words, is an invented institution. “Everything about the doing of science, everything about its practice, is a human activity, wholly a human activity, and nothing but a human activity.” Secondly, we must resist the urge to make science a “non-human-activity,” to make it, in other words, about “ideas” or “knowledge.” By making it about “ideas” or “knowledge,” we reify “science,” or, even more radically, deify it. But this of course is entirely an abstraction. Instead, the history of science is “centrally about people, about people engaged (or not) in that activity, about how and why they started that activity for themselves to engage in, about how they pursued, changed or abandoned that activity over time, [and] about how their pursuit of that activity affected the way they pursued other activities.”

Cunningham then compares the human activity of science to a game. Like games, science is intentional, structured and disciplined; it has a point and has rules; you either participate in it or you do not; it is indiscriminate, no matter who plays it; the experts are the only skilled players; and it is invented. Comparing science to a game, Cunningham admits, sounds almost sacrilegious. And there is actually a good, historical reason for this.

If the practice of science is an intentional activity, then those who engage in science must have had a “concept of science as an activity they could engage in.” This seems obvious, but many miss what follows: “if a given person in the past did not have or could no have had the concept of science as something to engage in, then he could not possibly have been doing science.” In short, we must let past actors speak for themselves, we must “see things their way.” What was their description of their own activity? In short, we must reconstruct their activity “with the extension, boundaries, aims, typical products that that activity had for its practitioners.”

So, how did people of the past practice “science”? Well, they described this practice not as “science” but as “philosophy” or “natural philosophy.” Whether it was “anatomy” or “chemistry,” each “science” was a sub-discipline of Natural Philosophy. In fact, according to Cunningham, no one called such activities “science” until as late as the 1800s. By the late eighteenth century, however, the intentional human activity of natural philosophy was beginning to be displaced by another human activity, and this activity is “science” as we know it today. So at one point in history, we had two activities, with some overlap: natural philosophy and science. And as Cunningham perceptively points out, “in the games of Natural Philosophy and Science, although both deal with the natural world, and both produce a ‘product’ (i.e. findings or statements about Nature), yet what counts as an appropriate product in the one may well differ from what counts as an appropriate product in the other.”

But what, then, was natural philosophy? How did our historical figures describe and understood their own intentional activity? Whatever their answer, we must take seriously. This is what it means to “get out of the present.” When we do this, we discover that the “single greatest difference between Natural Philosophy and Science is that Natural Philosophy was an enterprise which was about God; Science by contrast is an enterprise which (virtually by definition) is not about God.” According to the natural philosophers, Cunningham argues, nature was the book of God’s works. Thus natural philosophy was the “exploration of God’s creation and an admiration of His wisdom and foresight”; it was the “attempt to discover God’s laws, or an attempt to penetrate the mind of God.” Natural philosophy, in short, was “about God’s achievements, God’s intentions, God’s purposes, [and] God’s messages to man.”

It is important to stress that Cunningham’s argument is about human practices and their intentionality. As we shall see later, many of Cunningham’s critics miss this very crucial point in his argument.

In the final section of his essay, Cunningham draws our attention to the period c.1780-c.1850, when our modern conception of “science” was first invented. By using the term “invented,” Cunningham simply means the fact that science is a practice and creation of men. The invention of “science,” Cunningham argues, was causally inter-related to the massive political, social, intellectual, and economic changes of the period. The discipline of the history of science was also invented during this same period, in the early nineteenth century. “The inventors of science and their immediate successors,” he claims, “unselfconsciously rewrote the past in a way which showed themselves to be the heirs to a grand tradition.” When historians of science began writing histories of the “inductive” sciences, or histories of “biology,” “geology,” “chemistry,” or “physics,”  such historians “gave science itself a new identity.” They separated the human practice from the concept. That is, “they separated the thought—the ‘idea’—from the thinker.” Ideas, in others words, became autonomous concepts, detached from the lives and practices of their creators. This is of course is what has often been called “whiggish” history.

But there is more. According to Cunningham, science was “invented at the very same time and places in which the bourgeoisie triumphed politically and where industrial capitalism first became the dominant mode of economic production.” Just as capitalism separates the product of man’s labor from the human process, nineteenth-century histories of science separated ideas from their human producers. Cunningham claims this was no mere coincidence. The “scientist” became a “genius,” an “intellectual entrepreneur, engaged in a risky enterprise against great odds; we are in his debt, and hence his ‘originality’ deserves the proper credit.”

But “as long as we write the history of science as the history of discrete ‘ideas,'” Cunningham concludes, “we not only continue to misrepresent the identity of the subject whose history we claim to be studying, but we are also perpetuating the illusions and values that were built into the invention of science itself.”

De-centring the Scientific Revolution, Paley’s Natural Theology, Mobilizing a Prophetic Newton, and Maxwell’s Design Argument

I still have several articles open on my pdf reader that are worth mentioning before I officially end my reading of The British Journal for the History of Science, and before tackling other articles from other journals and books.

In discussions over the historiography of the “Scientific Revolution,” almost all the authors I have recently read have mentioned Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams’ “De-centring the ‘big picture’: The Origins of Modern Science and the Modern Origins of Science” (1993). They argue that a big picture of the history of science cannot be avoided, and that “big pictures are both necessary and desirable.” Indeed, the “big picture” is crucial, if not necessary, for giving any localized, “small picture” meaning. But in saying this, Cunningham and Williams also want to expose and reconstruct the aims of the founders of the “old big picture” of the history of science (Herbert Butterfield and his followers), which maintained that “science…[is as] old as humanity itself.” This was a single, grand, and sweeping history of science.

Without usurping this “old big picture,” Cunningham and Williams want to promote a different account, one that emphasizes the idea that our world is fragmented into a plurality of local, autonomous discourses, and based on principles of postmodernism and poststructualism. They then rehearse the problems which have arisen with the concept of the “Scientific Revolution” since Butterfield. Modern notions of the scientific revolution derive from conceptions of science in the early and mid-twentieth century, including positivist definition of “science as a particular method of enquiry” that produces “knowledge in the form of general causal laws”; as essentially moral, “as the embodiment of basic values of freedom and rationality, truth and goodness”; and as a “universal human enterprise,” which emanates from some innate, human curiosity. In the 1940s, historians of science incorporated these characterizations of science as they developed the concept of the scientific revolution. In short, they projected their own contemporary definitions of science onto past.

According to Cunningham and Williams, such a view of the “Scientific Revolution” is no longer tenable. The “new big picture,” they argue, should view science as a contingent enterprise reflecting the aims and morals of a particular social group in a particular historical time; one among a plurality of ways of knowing the world, it must be seen as limited, bounded in time and space and culture. In their estimation, the origins of science “can be located in Western Europe in the period sometimes known as the Age of Revolutions—approximately 1760-1848.” “Every feature which is regarded as essential and definitional of the enterprise of science,” they write, is identifiable during the Age of Revolutions: “its name, its aim, its values, and its history.” On this view, “the history of science becomes a relatively short and local matter.” This realization, they maintain, is “de-centring,” in the sense that we realize “that external objects have permanence, that other people can have different knowledge, interests, feelings, and so on.” It is a shedding of egotism. “To see science as a contingent and recently-invented activity is to make such a de-centring, and to acknowledge that things about our primary way-of-knowing which we once thought were universal are actually specific to our modern capitalistic, industrial world.”

For those interested in the history of the publication, teaching, reception, and use of natural theology in the nineteenth century, Aileen Fyfe’s essay “The Reception of William Paley’s Natural Theology in the University of Cambridge” (1997) is essential reading. Studying the examination papers of the University of Cambridge, contemporary memoirs, autobiographies and correspondences, reveals, Fyfe argues, that Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) was not a set text at the university in the early nineteenth century. “Theology proves to have been a relatively minor part of the formal curriculum, and natural theology played only a small role within that.”

Writing in his dedication page in Natural Theology, William Paley (1743-1805) maintained that three of his books contained “the evidences of Natural Religion, the evidences of Revealed Religion, and an account of the duties that result from both.” The most recent was his Natural Theology (1802), preceded by his A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794) and the Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785). By all measures, Natural Theology was a great success, going to “through fifteen editions in as many years, and while the print runs are not known, this suggests sales of around 15,000 copies.” Reviews from Edinburgh Review, Monthly Review, Monthly Magazine, and Churchman’s Magazine found it most agreeable, and some even “mentioned its educational potential.” Some reviewers from the Evangelical Magazine, however, worried that Natural Theology would lead readers to “dangerously conclude that no other religion [that is Scripture] is necessary to their eternal salvation.” English politician, philanthropist, and leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade, William Wilberforce (1759-1833) wrote in the Christian Observer that Paley’s assertions were “both untenable and unsafe…We are the more suspicious of the sentiment…because we recollect that it was made the ground of the theological system of [the noted deist and radical] Thomas Paine.” As Fyfe write, some “Evangelicals associated Paley’s work with deism…[and] with [the] radicalism after the French Revolution.”

Despite these criticism, Paley’s Natural Theology was immensely popular. Moreover, when Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) emerged, “natural theology did not suddenly end in 1859,” a point Jon H. Roberts cogently confirms in his entry in Ron Numbers’ (ed.) Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009). But as far as being a set text at Cambridge, Paley’s Natural Theology was not used. Natural theological questions “rarely occurred in university or college examination,” and thus natural theology never quite achieved “equality with revealed theology.” As Fyfe concludes, “natural theology did not have very much formal recognition in the mathematical University of Cambridge at a time when Evangelicalism was spreading and deism was threatening. It could have been recognized only as a defense for theology or as an implicit background assumption for the natural sciences.”

Those curious about “geographies of reading”—I stand convicted—may turn to David N. Livingstone’s corpus, particularly (but not most importantly) his “Science, Religion, and the Geography of Reading: Sir William Whitla and the Editorial Staging of Isaac Newton’s Writing on Biblical Prophecy” (2003). “Writings of eminent scientists,” Livingstone claims, “can be mobilized in the cause of local cultural wars.” And indeed they have.

Isaac Newton’s insistence that nature follows  mathematical laws, for example, was marshalled by seventeenth-century churchmen both to mount assaults on atheism and to curb radical inclinations towards religious enthusiasm. At the same time, the Newtonian system was also enlisted in contemporary debates about the role of the monarchy, the nature of the state and the constitution of the social order. In more recent times, American creationists have called upon the doctrines of earlier scientists as self-justification  for their own credo, while those inclined towards theistic evolution have likewise sought reinforcement from earlier advocates of a Christianized Darwinism.

These are tactics in the “attempt to create a suite of canonical scientific texts to serve the needs of some particular sensibilities.” In this way Livingstone wants to draw our attention “to the consumption sector of the scientific knowledge circuit, to the different ways texts were received in different localities and to the spaces in which theories were encountered and textual meaning made.” From Robert Chambers, Alexander von Humboldt, to Charles Darwin’s corpus, “the meaning of texts…shifts from place to place, and at a variety of different scales.”

Six years after his death, Isaac Newton’s commentary on the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation was published in 1733 as Observations upon Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John. In Two Parts. Nearly two hundred years after this first appearance, William Whitla, professor of Materia Medica at the Queen’s University of Belfast, in 1922 made Newton’s text available again to the reading public, under the title Sir Isaac Newton’s Daniel and the Apocalypse with an Introductory Study of the Nature and the Cause of Unbelief, of Miracles and Prophecy.

Whitla was fascinated with the prophetic writings of the Jewish prophets. He was also good friends with William Bramwell Booth, General of the Salvation Army, and dedicated the new book to him. Whitla wanted to use the book against those who were undermining the authority of the sacred text. Newton, who “in strong and childlike faith lent his mighty intellect to the study of this fascinating record.” As Livingstone puts it, “the aim was to muster biblical prophecy Newtonian-style in the conduct of current culture wars.” With the outbreak of the First World War, W.B. Yeats fearing the “reversal of Christian values,” and the 1920s “heresy trail of J. Ernest Davy in Northern Ireland, Whitla saw all these “ominous signs” as “an unmistakable mark of the ‘latter days’ which are to terminate the present dispensation.” Moreover, the “moral leprosy” of biblical critics was spreading “into the heart of the Church itself.” Whitla would use Newton to counter this European crisis.

Ironically Whitla did not “broadcast the fact that Newton had come to doubt the accuracy of the textus receptus of the New Testament”; and neither did he mention that Newton had rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Whitla also used Newton for anti-Catholic propaganda, re-staging Newton’s own anti-Catholicism, equating the Papacy with the “autocracy of the most satanic character.” Whitla thus valorized Newton’s text as a Protestant polemic. “All of this serves,” Livingstone concludes, “to underscore the salience of textual performance, spaces of reading and sites of reception in elucidating the dynamic geographies of scientific knowledge and religious belief.”

And finally, an intimate and complex relationship between religion and scientific practice is demonstrated in Matthew Stanley’s recent “By Design: James Clerk Maxwell and the Evangelical Unification of Science” (2012). Stanley argues that Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), known for his formulation of a set of equations that united electricity, magnetism, and optics into a consistent theory, “saw a deep theological significance in the unification of physical laws.” This search for unification was connected to Maxwell’s “particular evangelical religious views.”

Stanley also wants to compare and contrast Maxwell’s own design argument with Paley and those of the modern Intelligent Design (ID) theory. According to Stanley, “both Paley and [Michael] Behe [known for his molecular arguments of “irreducible complexity”] argue that a certain level of complexity could never be explained by naturalistic science, and thus the search for such explanations must stop.” Although Maxwell embraced claims of natural theology, “his evangelical religiosity gave him a rather different perspective.”

Maxwell believed that nature was like a book, with each element a manifestation of a deeper unifying principle. The connections between laws were a sign from above: “…the laws of nature are not mere arbitrary and unconnected decisions of Supreme Power, but that they form essential parts of one universal system, in which infinite Power serves only to reveal unsearchable Wisdom and eternal Truth.” The interrelationship of natural laws “was a way that God communicated His existence, and it was the unity of laws that revealed this communication.” Indeed, the “unity of nature was…guaranteed by theology.” Thus whereas “Paley emphasized complexity as the indicator of God’s hand, Maxwell emphasized unity.”

Stanley notes that Paley, Behe, and Maxwell would all agree that Darwinian evolution was not a reliable scientific theory. For his part, however, Maxwell argued that “Darwinian evolution relied on pre-existing variation, and thus perfectly uniform molecules could never have evolved.” His rejection of Darwinian evolution thus relied on his understanding of unity in nature, not complexity.

As a conservative evangelical Christian, Maxwell had specific notions about the nature of God. Victorian evangelicalism, Stanley tells us, was a “‘religion of the heart,’ with an emphasis on conversion, sin and grace, and moving away from the rationalizism of the Enlightenment in an attempt to resurrect the lost, primitive Church uncontaminated by human failings.” In the summer of 1853, Maxwell gained a newfound evangelical outlook. Maxwell wrote:

I maintain that all the evil influences that I can trace have been internal and not external, you know what I mean—that I have the capacity of being more wicked than any example that man could set me, and that if I escape, it is only by God’s grace helping me to get rid of myself, partially in science, more completely in society,—but not perfectly except by committing myself to God as the instrument of His will, not doubtfully, but in the certain hope that that Will will be plain enough at the proper time.

Divine grace, submission to God, Christology, and Scripture were constantly upon his mind, as his letters to friends and relatives show. From this evangelical perspective, Maxwell saw humanity as “fallen, sinful and fallible.” But “God gave humans the ability to see his actions,” if they would only “embrace Him fully.” Revelation was ultimately mysterious, but so was nature, according to Maxwell: “I have endeavoured to show that it is the peculiar function of physical science to lead us to the confines of the incomprehensible, and to bid us behold and receive it in faith, till such time as the mystery shall open.” In his inaugural lecture at Aberdeen in 1856, Maxwell clearly shows how his theology of nature was manifested in his physical science:

Is it not wonderful that man’s reason should be made a judge over God’s works, and should measure, and weigh, and calculate, and say at last ‘I understand I have discovered—It is right and true’…we see before us distinct physical truths to be discovered, and we are confident that these mysteries are an inheritance of knowledge, not revealed at once, lest we should become proud in knowledge, and despise patient inquiry, but so arranged that, as each new truth is unravelled it becomes a clear, well-established addition to science, quite free from the mystery which must still remain, to show that every atom of creation is unfathomable in its perfection. While we look down with awe into these unsearchable depths and treasure up with care what with our little line and plummet we can reach, we ought to admire the wisdom of Him who has arranged these mysteries that we find first that which we can understand at first and the rest in order so that it is possible for us to have an ever increasing stock of known truth concerning things whose nature is absolutely incomprehensible.

Stanley writes, “Maxwell’s God was a teacher who wanted his students to learn all the details of the world, which He organized in such a way as to help them in their studies.”