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.”

Visions of Science: Humphry Davy

Secord - Visions of ScienceMy Christmas gift this year was James A. Secord’s recent Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age (2014). After reading Secord’s magisterial Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (2000) earlier in the year, I have looked forward to Secord’s next big book. And Visions is a big book, not so much in page number (a mere 306, including endnotes, whereas Victorian Sensation was a massive 624) as in topic. Secord focuses on a series of remarkable books published in the early decades of nineteenth-century Britain. He discusses seven in total: Humphry Davy’s (1778-1829) Consolations in Travel (1830), Charles Babbage’s (1791-1871) Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), John Herschel’s (1792-1871) Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), Mary Somerville’s (1780-1872) On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Charles Lyell’s (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (1830-33), George Combe’s (1788-1858) Constitution of Man (1828), and Thomas Carlye’s (1795-1881) Sartor Resartus (1836). I have read all but Somerville’s On the Connexion this past year in my research, so Secord’s insights on these works is a much welcomed aid.

Initially, the selection may appear odd. But Secord is interested in the great transformation of the sciences during this period. “Science,” he says, “was changing from a relatively esoteric pursuit into one known to have profound consequences for the everyday life of all men and women.” Each of the above authors, in this respect, had something profound to say about the future of science. Each author, in his and her own way, had stressed the need of science “as a remedy for the country’s social, political, and religious malaise.” More importantly, each author “projected a vision of the future.”

Secord sets up his project with a short introduction. Modern science emerged in Britain within a Christian atmosphere of apocalyptic and millennial ideas and hopes. But at the same time, Secord writes, “there was a sense of limitless possibility through projections of the future economy based on machines.” These utopian hopes were of course embodied within the new science. There was a danger in the new science, however. As Secord notes, “Paris was the scientific capital of the world in the 1820s.” But in the British mind, French science was associated with the naturalism or materialism of the philosophes. More importantly, concerns over the new science was directly associated with the shock of the French Revolution. Science had to be domesticated and disassociated from anything that smacked of the French, both from its “godless libertarianism” and its guillotines.

This was achieved by some of the authors that Secord discusses. They constructed an image of science as offering a way forward, as mending the current political tensions between the Tories, Ultras, and Whigs. This was a push toward reform, but not simply a reform in politics. It was an attempt to reform all aspects of society, knowledge, science, and religion. And this could only be achieved with what Secord calls “the mechanisms of intellect”; that is, the transformation of the production and availability of knowledge. The steam-powered printing press played a central role in the diffusion of the new knowledge. But so did the creation of new institutions, clubs, and societies, such as the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) in 1826. According to Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham (1778-1867), one of the founding members of the SDUK, the new science could be used as a route to political reform. In his short 1825 tract, Practical Observations upon the Education of the People trumpeted the new science as “nothing less than the complete reformation of society through knowledge.” Obstacles to self-improvement, says Brougham, are chiefly “want of money, and want of time.” He therefore promoted “cheap publications.” But more than that, he called for the publication of “our best authors upon ethics, politics, and history, and promote cheap editions of them in Numbers, without waiting until the demand was such as to make the sale a matter of perfect certainty.” To this end, new ambitious publishers emerged with the goal of diffusing the new knowledge to all classes of society, such as Archibald Constable, John Murry, the well-known Longman company, and most recently the enterprising brothers William and Robert Chambers. In short, these new books popularized science by using philosophy, religion, and history, thus rousing “metascientific” discourse. For “happily the time is past and gone,” writes Brougham in his Practical Observations, “when bigots could persuade mankind that the lights of philosophy were to be extinguished as dangerous to religion; when tyrants could proscribe the instructors of the people as enemies to their power.” Indeed, “it is preposterous to imagine that the enlargement of our acquaintance with the laws which regulate the universe, can dispose to unbelief.”

Humphry Davy
A young Humphry Davy (1778-1829)

Secord’s first chapter deals with Davy’s interesting Consolations in Travel. Davy was a well-known and well-regarded Cornish chemist, inventor, and president of the Royal Society. Davy’s book is constructed as a dialogue between Onuphrio (a liberal aristocrat), Ambrosio (a liberal Roman Catholic), Eubathes (a physiologist and naturalist), Philaethes (the narrator), and a “Unknown” stranger. The dialogue partners discuss the laws of history, divine progression, happiness, and the enlightenment of society.

According to Secord, Davy’s Consolations in Travel was modeled off of Boethius’ classic Consolation of Philosophy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (a close friend of Davy) Consolations and Comforts from the Exercise of and Right Application of the Reason, the Imagination, and the Moral Feelings, and, perhaps more covertly, French philosopher Comte de Volney’s The Ruins: A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires. Boethius and Coleridge were safe, but Volney was dangerous grounds. Davy thus takes Volney’s narrative and transforms it for English conservatism. Whereas Volney sees “kingcraft and priestcraft” as passing away, “to be replaced by a faith unified around a God known not through Scripture or dogma, but the laws of nature,” Davy has each character in his dialogue acknowledge the value in religion, including Christianity. The skeptical aristocrat Onuphrio, for example, declares: “I consider religion as essential to man, and belonging to the human mind in the same manner as instincts belong to the brute creation, a light, if you please, of revelation to guide him through the darkness of this life, and to keep alive his undying hope of immortality.” But this is a new kind of Christianity. Onuphrio, for example, does not see Christianity as occupying a more privileged place than other religious traditions. Even Ambrosio, the Catholic in the dialogue, envisions a “creed fitted for the most enlightened state of the human mind and equally adapted to every climate and every people.”

After the men retire, Philaethes, the narrator, experiences a vision. In the vision Philaethes is guided by “Genius” through a journey on the history of humanity. Genius explains to him how civilization has progressed from the barbarous to higher states of being. This has been achieved in two ways. First, and most recently, by the invention of the printing press. “I looked, and saw,” says Philaethes, “that in the place of the rolls of papyrus libraries were no filled with books. ‘Behold,’ the Genius said, ‘the printing press; by the invention of Faust the productions of genius are, as it were, made imperishable, capable of indefinite multiplication, and rendered an inalienable heritage of the human mind. By this art, apparently so humble, the progress of society is secured.” Second, the progress of civilization has been accomplished by great men. “It sometimes happens,” Genius discloses to Philaethes, “that a gigantic mind possess supreme power and rises superior to the age in which he is born…but such instances are very rare; and, in general, it is neither amongst sovereigns nor the higher classes of society, that the great improvers or benefactors of mankind are to be found.” Davy than adumbrates a list of such men: “Anaxagoras, Archimedes, Roger Bacon, Galileo Gallilei, in their deaths or their imprisonments, offer instances of this kind, and nothing can be more striking than what appears to have been the ingratitude of men towards their greatest benefactors.” Genius goes on to reveal the laws of history, society, and spiritual natures to Philaethes.

In another dialogue, while the characters are exploring the ruins of the temples of Paestum, they encounter an “Unknown” stranger who introduces the topic of geology to their discussions, a touchy subject for both British scientists and religious believers at the time. Ambrosio believes in a single creation, but is not a scriptural literalist. Onuphrio promotes the cyclical geological theory of James Hutton. What all speakers agree on, however, is that there is no evidence for the transmutation of species, a position advocated by more radical thinkers Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Philalethes argues that “all philosophy must begin from a foundation of faith, and that this can be validated not only by studying God’s works, but also by drawing parallels between the infinite mind of the divine and the mind of man.” It is interesting how the revelation of Scripture is replaced by a revelation of nature, or natural theology, in Davy’s dialogue.

Secord notes how some early reviews of Davy’s Consolations in Travel were highly critical. In general, however, Davy’s short book was well received. And what these more charitable reviewers focused on, from the Literary Gazette to La Belle Assemblée, was Davy’s spirit of progress. What is interesting about Davy, however, is that he was not at all enthusiastic about the spread or diffusion of scientific knowledge. In a letter to his wife, for example, he wrote:

I become, however, every day more sceptical as to the use of making or endeavoring to make the people philosophers. Happiness is the great object of existence, and knowledge is a good only so far as it promotes happiness; few persons ever attain the Socratic degree of knowledge to know their entire ignorance, and scepticism and discontent are the usual unripe fruits of this tree—the only fruits which the people can gather; but I will say no more, knowing how unpopular my arguments will be; yet I could say much.

According to Secord, Davy’s vision of universal history and the progress of European civilization “become a commonplace, moving from speculation to assumption as the century progressed.” The scientific sage of the philosophes had become a “scientific, Christian philosopher” in Davy. But this philosopher was not a philosophy of the people. Rather, he was the provincial, aristocratic gentlemen of science. According to Davy, with the help of “great men in history and in science” civilization will be reborn, “rising towards infinite wisdom.”

The New Theodicy of the Scientific Naturalists

I have come across several references to Frank Turner’s “The Secularization of the Social Vision of British Natural Theology” recently, so I decided to read it myself. The essay is part of the collection of essays under the heading “Shifting Boundaries” in his Contesting Cultural Authority (1993).

In this essay Turner traces the “demise” of classical British natural theology and how it was replaced by a “secular” theodicy. Classical British natural theology was always circumscribed and supported by a vision of commercial society. According to Turner, “British natural theology had addressed itself to both nature and society.” John Ray’s The Wisdom of God in the Creation (1691), for example, had a strongly supported economic expansion. The material world was indeed governed by God; but more importantly, it was “created intentionally for human uses.” “God placed humans beings on the earth,” Turner summarizes, “to realize or exploit the potentialities that inhered in the rest of the creation.” Thus Ray justified trade, commercial transactions, and the “dominion” of the earth for the benefit of mankind. This argument is also found in Lynn White Jr.’s “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” (1967), who maintained that orthodox Christian belief led western civilization to exploit the natural resources of the world.

In addition to Ray, William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) and the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-40) similarly used natural theology to support the emerging industrial order. Paley’s “Divine Watchmaker” analogy “reflected the eighteenth-century fascination with machinery,” transforming God into “a skilled and ingenious English engineer.” Moreover, the authors of the Bridgewater treatises “presented natural theology as confirming the general superiority of humankind over the rest of the creation and as pointing toward modern European civilization as the end and natural state of humankind.”

But the “civilizing” effect of industrialization in early nineteenth-century Britain was becoming a problem for natural theologians. The writings of Dickens, Carlyle, Mayhew and others revealed how industrialization had brought on the conflagration of the earth. In Bleak House (1853), for example, Dickens depicted the hellish results of the industrial age—an earth engulfed with fog, mud, darkness, squalor, poverty, and disease. In short, a nightmare. England had become Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” Mayhew’s contributions to the Morning Chronicle between 1849 and 1850 revealed the consequences of rampant industrialization, and Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) adds the spiritual dimension:

British individual existence [he writes] seems fast to become one huge poison-swamp of reeking pestilence physical and moral; a hideous living Golgotha of souls and bodies buried alive…These scenes, which the Morning Chronicle is bringing home to all minds of men…ought to excite unspeakable reflections.

To many of these writers, industrialization only reveled a “reign of death.” The world, as Hardy put it, was “God-forgotten.”

To deal with commercial society, British natural theologians had to develop a theodicy. According to Turner, Paley justified the evils and suffering caused by industry on utilitarian grounds. In the grand scheme of things, Paley seems to say “It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water, teem with delighted existence.” The hierarchical character of English society encouraged competition, which was good, and poverty only further induced one to work. What ultimately gave Paley comfort in the face of such social ills was human immortality. Turner writes, “lives of individuals on earth must be regarded as probationary for a life to come in which rewards and punishments would be meted out.” Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) argued similarly. The disparity between food production and population was a terrible injustice, but “actual justice lay in the hereafter.” The authors of the Bridgewater treatises likewise concurred.

Turner then turns to the rising authority of the scientific naturalists. To gain a hearing, the scientific naturalists had to dissociate themselves from the more radical opinions of a group of London medical men, who wholly rejected religion of any kind. Thus scientific naturalists such as Darwin, for instance, had used natural theology—particularly the kind the authors of the Bridgewater treatises had provided—to underpin his understanding of the natural world. It was only much later, in his The Descent of Man (1871), according to Turner, that Darwin began attacking classic British natural theology, and specifically its philosophical anthropology. By stripping away all of the unique qualities of humankind, Darwin “portrayed a brutish human past and a materialistic interpretation of human historical development.” But in doing so Darwin merely provided a new social vision that, in the final analysis, “paralleled the social argument of the traditional natural theology.”

Thus, at the end of the day, the scientific naturalists continued the “whiggish” analysis of the natural theologians, supporting “the fundamental character of contemporary British and European society.” What was truly unique about the scientific naturalist approach, however, is how they interpreted Baconianism. As Turner writes, “Although Francis Bacon had pointed to the double revelation of divine knowledge through both nature and the scriptures, he had also urged natural philosophers to resist the temptation to pose unanswerable questions and questions that had no practical import on the human condition” (my emphasis). On the one hand, natural theologians embraced Bacon’s first precept, but ignored his second. The scientific naturalists, on the other hand, ignored his first but embraced his second. Huxley’s “new nature,” for example, “accomplished Bacon’s goal of abandoning the pursuit of literally useless questions.”

But in placing the “God question” completely outside the natural realm, “humankind emerged as the creator.” This was the new theodicy of the scientific naturalists. In his Romanes Lecture of 1893, Huxley rejected the suffering in nature:

Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.

The suffering caused by the “cosmic process” must be opposed. We must fight against nature. This fight was the “new” ethical order, a new societal cooperation that would replace competition and eventually end human suffering.