Isaac Newton’s General Scholium to the Principia Mathematica (hereafter Scholium) gives us great insight into the nature of religion and science in the early eighteenth century. The place of God, his definition and status, within these new mechanical philosophies was a point of contention that Newton attempts to, at least partially, resolve.
Newton sees that the natural world, being a work of God, can give insight into the nature of God himself. This reflects a general move away from examining God via particular providence, direct action, to general providence, action as reflected by natural laws. He is however very particular to point that a full understanding of the divine cannot result from the study of nature; as being corporeal beings we can no more know of God than a blind man can know of colour. Furthermore, Newton recognizes that previous works attempting to demonstrate the existence of God have relied on faulty logic. He sees his work as having ‘framed no hypothesis … [f]or whatever is not deduc’d from the phænomena is to be called a hypothesis … and has no place in experimental philosophy.’
Natural philosophy was sought to be used to bolster the case for Providence in an increasingly mechanistic worldview. Newton in particular was to show that study of nature through inductive reasoning could provide evidence of providence rather than being used against it. He argues that the system he has described could not exist without constant intervention, and that the source of this intervention must be God, ‘eternal and infinite’. In the most overt sense then the Scholium is a justification of the existence of a God resembling that of Christianity and other Abrahamic monotheisms.
He uses very specific language to make his definition of God clear to the reader and assert that other explanations are less reasonable. The potential for the law of gravity to be used by non-Christians was clearly of concern to Newton. God ‘must govern all things not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all’. He is very precise on the point that God is both continuously intervening in the existence of the universe, whilst not himself being part of said universe; in this he is attempting to preclude pantheism, among others, as an explanation of the system. The addition of the Scholium in the second edition can be seen as a response to the use of Newton’s writing for non-Christian agendas.
An issue contentious to his contemporaries is the unitarian nature of the conception of God portrayed by Newton. Though more overt in his private writings, Newton states his ‘God is the same God, always and everywhere’ being ‘utterly void of all body [and ought not] to be worshipped under the representation of any corporeal thing.’ These, among numerous other statements, and the lack of any reference to Christ and his divinity, clearly indicate the unitarian view of God found in his other writings. That the unitarian view is more obscured in the Scholium, than his private writings, is evidence of the strictly enforced belief in the trinity in the early eighteenth century.
The General Scholium shows the connections between, and nature of, religion and science in the early eighteenth century. The Scholium shows the diversity of religion and the concern regarding conformity. Moving in the face of alternative explanations, Newton set to prove that his philosophy could be used to the advantage of a Christian God. Newton proved through the Scholium that religion could still have a place in a mechanistic world.
- Newton, I., The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, vol. 2 (London: 1729), pp. 387-93.
- Snobelen, S.D., ‘“God of Gods, and Lord of Lords”: The Theology of Isaac Newton’s General Scholium to the Principia’, Osiris, 16 (2001), pp.169-208.
- Brooke, J.H., Science and Religion: some historical perspectives (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 117-151.
- From his perspective.
- Isaac Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, vol. 2 (London: 1729), p. 391. Esp. ‘We know [God] only be the most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes … thus much concerning God … does certainly belong to natural philosophy.’
- Ibid, p. 391.
- Ibid, pp. 392-3.
- John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: some historical perspectives (Cambridge, 1991), pp.: 117-118.
- Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, pp. 389-392.
- Ibid, p. 390.
- Ibid, pp. 388-390.
- Ibid, pp. 389-390.
- In this, I mean to express pantheists, atheists, deists and others.
- Ibid, p. 389.
- Mechanistic philosophies leant themselves to being used to exclude God from continued existence in the universe, as in deism, or potentially excluding God all together, as in atheism.
- Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,389-391.
- Stephen D. Snobelen, ‘“God of Gods, and Lord of Lords”: The Theology of Isaac Newton’s General Scholium to the Principia’, Osiris, 16 (2001), pp. 171, 174.
- Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, p. 390.
- Ibid, p. 391.
- Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, pp. 390-391.
- Snobelen, ‘“God of Gods, Lord of Lords”’, pp. 177-178.