Did Newton’s God Vanish with the “Gaps” in His Science? | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1
Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (ca. 1776), Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, UK. In this famous painting, a man who looks just like Isaac Newton demonstrates a lighted “orrery,” a mechanical model of the Solar System named after Charles Boyle, the 4th Earl of Orrery, for whom the first actual “orrery” was built in 1713. This powerful image may have helped link Newton with the manifestly false view that he invented and endorsed the idea of the clockwork universe—a cold, mechanical world in which God has no role, except to create it in the first place. In fact, Newton explicitly rejected that notion as theologically inappropriate.

In a recent blog at NPR.org, , Dartmouth College physicist Marcello Gleiser uses Isaac Newton to argue that only the ”stubbornly secular modern approach” so characteristic of science today can “further our understanding of the universe.” Along the way, he relates the famous story of an encounter between Napoleon and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, involving Newton’s view that the universe needed God to keep it running smoothly, because otherwise gravitation would eventually cause it to collapse. According to legend, when Napoleon asked Laplace how he fit God into his own view of the universe, the mathematician replied curtly, “Sir, I have no need for that hypothesis.” In other words, Newton was wrong—the universe will do just fine on its own, without God having to intervene to fix things.

Although this fanciful story has been quietly repeated for a long time in scholarly circles, it’s now drawing loud attention from popularizers of science, including some of the most successful—Gleiser, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Richard Dawkins, to name just a few. In their hands, the story comes with a powerful moral for religious believers: keep God at arm’s length when doing science, or you’re going to get burned. Scientific knowledge will inevitably advance, driving God out of the gaps in our understanding and leaving religious people in a bad place. Don’t use God as a substitute for scientific explanations that we don’t presently have, for a “God of the gaps” is bound only to disappear like a puff of smoke.

Generally speaking, this is pretty good advice. Ever since the ancient Greeks, the goal of science has been to explain the “natural” world in terms of “natural” causes, as far as it can be done. Contrary to what is often claimed by opponents of evolution, robust theism is fully consistent with using naturalistic methods to understand the world around us. But, the larger lesson some draw—that the idea of God is never good for science and cannot enhance our understanding of nature—is highly misleading and historically wrong. Ironically, the very work Gleiser’s quotes, the “General Scholium”—a chapter from Newton’s great physics book—offers a prime example of exactly how wrong it can be.

To see why Gleiser and others shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the relevance of God to science, I turn to a leading expert on Newton’s theology, Stephen Snobelen of the University of King’s College, Halifax. Perhaps no one in the world knows as much about the writing of the General Scholium than Snobelen. In a highly detailed, very careful article written a number of years ago, Snobelen delineated some of the ways (there are others of equal importance) in which Newton’s beliefs about God undergirded crucial elements of his science. For example, “his expectations of discovering simplicity and order in creation were based on a belief in a God of order Who made things that way.” Likewise, his belief “in the unity of God ensured for him unity within creation,” leading to his statement in the General Scholium that the stars (and implicitly the rest of the universe) “must all be subject to the dominion of One” (a passage Gleiser quotes). The unity and dominion of God, Snobelen argued, “ensured the unity of His Word and Works, and thus guaranteed that one can infer general principles from specifics—whether scriptural teaching or natural phenomena. In these cases the theological beliefs come first and as presuppositions help to inform and shape the natural philosophy.”

Other Newton experts, including the late Richard Westfall (author of the definitive biography), are convinced that Newton understood the mysterious notion of action at a distance, which was inextricable from his concept of universal gravitation, in terms of direct divine action on matter. As Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins University has recently said, “Newton seems to have thought … that gravitational attraction resulted from the direct and continuous action of God in the world.” Gottfried Leibniz derisively called Newton’s idea of gravitational attraction “a miracle” in an effort to make it go away simply by sneering at it, but without it astrophysics would have been greatly impoverished.

In none of these cases was Newton inserting God into a “gap” into our knowledge that science would someday fill. Rather, his prior belief in God helped him arrive at attitudes and ideas that have unquestionably advanced our understanding of nature. It’s a subtle difference, perhaps, but a vitally important one to grasp in the midst of an ongoing culture war about science, religion, and God.

EPILOGUE: This isn’t the place to write a full history of the “God of the gaps” concept and the various ways in which it’s been used, at first by Christians in the 19th century and now by many others as well. I note only that the subtle theological point about modes of divine action that it originally conveyed with eloquence is now often entirely forgotten, leaving only a blunt instrument for fending off anyone who thinks that some aspect of nature might make actually more sense if it has a transcendent source. Nor will I devote too much space to correcting the popular myth that Laplace made such a bold statement to Napoleon. Suffice it to say that the great astronomer William Herschel and his sister witnessed that conversation, and their account says only that Napoleon “rather opposed” Laplace’s view “that a chain of natural causes would account for the construction and preservation” of the solar system—and the Herschels probably sympathized with Napoleon. It wasn’t until more than sixty years later that we find the first version of the story Gleiser relates, in a magazine article by British mathematician Augustus de Morgan, who didn’t exactly overhear what Laplace had said. So much for the stuff of legend.

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/did-newtons-god-vanish-with-the-gaps-in-his-science

(Dr. Ted Davis) #3

I’m happy to answer questions about any of this, and to entertain comments.

(Merv Bitikofer) #5

Thanks for this informative article, Ted.

Would it be fair to say that the “God of the gaps” phenomenon of recent centuries could be considered a category mistake? I.e. Secular enthusiasts insist that theism should be considered as just one among a number of competing and otherwise naturalistic hypotheses, rather than a guiding philosophy behind it all?

Your article seems to me to imply that kind of leaning whereas those inclined to position Theism as “just another competing hypothesis” would continue to see in Newton’s appeal just another gap to be filled. So is this simply a contrast of historians calling attention to the philosophically grounding nature of theism vs. recent secular science enthusiasts wanting to concentrate instead on the mechanics of the resulting science, insisting that God be evidenced there instead?

I’m curious to learn more about Leibniz derision towards Newton’s gravitation. Surely he wasn’t rejecting Newton’s theory of gravity entirely? Did he just object to the notion of Newton attributing this mysterious “force at a distance” to direct Divine action, thinking that would too menial for God’s attention?

Your last paragraph (prior to the epilogue) reminding us that Newton was busy filling gaps rather than creating them is a much needed reminder for how science works and has worked in a Theistic context. Thanks for that. And for every gap “filled” …. two more gaps on either side might be created. I.e. learning more about anything will nearly always lead to more questions to be explored; a common theme no matter what context one may happen to be in.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #6

I’d go further, Merv. The overall point I’m making might perhaps be put like this: the “god of the gaps” was originally a rifle, making a precise theological point about immanence and transcendence and modes of divine creation; whereas today, at least when used by skeptics, it’s more like a shotgun that’s trying to hit any and all ways of interpreting the universe in theological terms.

In other words, the skeptics are taking an idea that (perhaps) they don’t fully understand (that is, they don’t know the history of the idea, and they wouldn’t in any case identify with the specific theological point it was making) and are using it as a weapon to make points they want to make, points that are different from its original intent. In their view, informed by an overbearing scientism, any effort to relate God to the universe is a “god of the gaps,” simply b/c (in their view, which I obviously don’t share) God can’t be demonstrated from scientific observations, so an appeal to God to round out our picture of reality is thus an appeal to what we don’t know–that is, what we don’t know from science–and therefore a god of the “gaps” in our knowledge. What’s being begged, of course, is the fact that science has limits to its methods and scope. In their view, only what science shows is genuine “knowledge,” and the rest is “ignorance” or worse, so using God to complement what science shows is just appealing to ignorance.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #7

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, by quoting Leibniz: the free motion of a body in the aether around “a certain fixed centre, without any other creature acting upon it,” is something which “could not be done without a miracle; since it cannot be explained by the nature of bodies.” In his view, a free body would naturally recede from the center along a tangent line, leading him to conclude that “the attraction of bodies, properly so called, is a miraculous thing, since it cannot be explained by the nature of bodies.”

In other words, for Leibniz it was literally unthinkable that bodies attract one another. That would be a miraculous phenomenon. His rationalism–his sheer confidence that he could know what God can and cannot do, in making the universe–led him to reject the possibility that God would cause matter to attract. Newton’s theology was “voluntaristic,” meaning that God was free to do what God wants to do, whether or not we understand it. This made him open to things that Leibniz couldn’t allow.

(Lou Jost) #8

Ted, I am not sure why we should be skeptical about Laplace’s pithy response to Napoleon. Laplace’s mathematics really did show that there was no need for a god’s intervention to keep the planetary orbits stable (that was one of its main acheivements), so his alleged response to Napoleon would have been correct, and is perfectly consistent with Laplace’s published beliefs and Herschels’ account of the conversation. I’ve just checked and I see that Herschel’s son and De Morgan corresponded with each other on multiple occasions (some of these letters are held by the Royal Society), so there is even a plausible chain of transmission of the original story.

I think it is odd that you would be skeptical of this unsurprising response that is consistent with everything we know, yet not about certain other 60-year old second-hand stories about things that contradict everything we know about the world…

(sy_garte) #9

Thanks for this Ted, I enjoyed it, and have been thinking about this issue for a while. I wonder if a basic problem with anti theistic thinking related to the Gap scenario might be a confusion of religion with magic. During my own atheist days, I learned that magic was based on all sorts of irrational and non evidence based ideas. When we hear Dawkins and Co. use the phrase “Goddidit” as their interpretation of God of the Gaps, this is, I believe what they are referring to. What they fail to understand, and which you elegantly demonstrate in the article is that theism is not magic and does not involve magical thinking. This is certainly clearly shown in Newton’s case. I think it would be fair to say (and I wonder if you would agree) that Christianity’s rejection of magic helped with the painful birth of rational science out of the magical stew of alchemy, astrology and practical magic of the middle ages.

(Lou Jost) #10

Sy, for a non-religious person there is no difference between religion and magic. Belief in magic words or spells is just the same as belief in the efficacy of prayer or in the ability to suspend the laws of nature when convenient.
As for Christianity helping rational scientists like Newton escape the stew of alchemy and such, you probably know that Newton spent much of his time and much of his writing on alchemy, so I don’t think that is the case. Keynes, who has examined many of Newton’s alchemy writings, said “Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.” However, in Newton’s defense, alchemy was not obviously irrational in those days, and nowadays we can do much of what alchemists once dreamed of, through nuclear reactions.

(Jon Garvey) #11

Hi Ted

Isn’t Laplace’s scorn accountable on the basis that the rejection of action at a distance had become the very basis of physics - the corpuscular theory - for a century before? It would appear to him (and did to many others, I understand) that Newton was dredging up Aristotelian scholastic ideas from the superstitious past that flew in the face of “what we now knew” about all physics being the result of the collisions of particles. So, at least, Kuhn expresses the situation.

Sy’s point about magic below is well-made: it was rejection of those very occult forces acting at a distance that led to the corpuscular theory’s ousting the Renaissance emphasis on magic. Wasn’t it part of Boyle’s original motivation, for example, that the attribution of independent or sympathetic action to mere creatures detracted from God’s sovereignty?

Newton, on your account, seems to have avoided that trap by a firm placing of the hidden action of gravity in God’s hands, rather than in intermediate agencies. And in the event, Newton’s work was eventually accepted not by explaining away the occult forces acting at a distance, by simply by shrugging in the face of the evidence that they must exist.

In other words, physics diluted its theoretical basis with a fudge that, at the time, implied either magic or miracle. It’s worth remembering that the present relativistic view of gravity still, in effect, simply labels an occult force as “natural” in order to tame it.

(Lou Jost) #12

Jon, your assessment of Laplace is wrong. Laplace was a brilliant mathematician whose major work, Mécanique Céleste, is a masterful extention of Newton’s own calculus to Newton’s own gravitational force equations. He proved mathematically, using Newton’s own theory, that planetary orbits were broadly stable to third order and that there was no need for tinkering. Hence his alleged comment to Napoleon.

Though Laplace at one point in his life did experiment with a theory of gravity that was not instantaneous (and he was right to do so, as we now know that gravity is not transmitted instantaneously but at the speed of light), he abandoned this when it did not help solve celestial problems.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #13


It seems to me that there is a huge difference in saying that God did something and saying how God did something. Non-believers want to think that if they can understand and describe through science how God did something, then God did not do it, Nature did it. But of course God made the universe and nature, so God did it.

Christians know that humans are created by God in God’s Image. Thus it is logical that humans created in God’s Image are able to understand God’s works. On the other hand non-believers who ridicule the idea the humans are created in God’s Image are really unable to explain how it is possible that the universe was created in a rational, integrated, comprehensible manner. (See Einstein’s statement on this, although I would not say that Einstein was a non-believer.)

Newton was mistaken to believe in attraction at a distance. Einstein corrected that mistake. We now have a fuller understanding of God’s universe as interdependent and relational. I hope we have a fuller understanding of God the Father Who according to the Bible is relational and interdependent with the other Members of the Trinity, God’s Creation, and humans.

With evolution atheists claim that Darwin’s Theory explains the evolution of humanity through a random unguided process that refutes the Christian understanding of God. Christians of all sorts dispute this with some measure of success. The task however for scientifically minded Christians is to demonstrate how God created humans through a process that does not violate our faith, i.e. though a process which is both guided and organic. In other words we need to show that God is not the God of the gaps, but of the whole process of Creation which is an on-going process.

God is still creating through ecology. Humans are choosing to work against God through polluting God’s Creation for our own self centered purposes. Until humans and that includes Christians integrate our understanding of evolution with our understanding of ecology we are doomed live in a dying world that we have created and we are responsible for.

God is the God of the gaps in this sense. There is a huge gap at the beginning of time and a huge gap at the end of time. Only God can fill that gap. If the universe were infinite, that would not be a problem, the universe would be God, but the basis of science is that the universe is not infinite.

Only God is infinite, but this does not mean that God is not definite. God is Love and God is Good, thus the universe and God have meaning and purpose. That is the way it is, not just the way we think it is or the way we want it to be.

(Lou Jost) #14

Ted, I think Newton is a good example showing that the effects of religious beliefs (Christian or otherwise) on scientists are really a mixed bag, and they hurt at least as often as they help. Newton’s religious beliefs led him to spend a vast amount of time and energy on alchemy and rather silly prophecy analysis and end-times numerology.

(Merv Bitikofer) #15

Lou, any enterprise or philosophical systems humans are involved in will be a “mixed bag”. You seem to be somewhat fair-minded in acknowledging that, which seems closer to some standard of objectivity than what most popular-culture anti-theists put forward.

Perhaps, despite all its undisputed faults, there is a lot more good --and even essential underpinnings to be found in historical/cultural Christendom for birthing and cultivating the current philosophies of science which you take so much for granted. I think Ted is doing a good job reminding us of some of these.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #16


My skepticism pertains only to the specific quotation attributed to him, not to what it conveys about Laplace or his scientific achievement. Indeed, the idea conveyed by the quotation is highly consistent with what we know about Laplace. And, if I were shown evidence that such a chain of transmission (as you quite properly suggest here) actually happened–or, that another chain of transmission existed, such as Laplace telling Lagrange (I remember seeing that idea once) or Count Rumford (who was present with William Herschel for the conversation) giving an account of it, or … (you fill in the blanks).

To the best of my knowledge, the hard spadework to track this down has not been done. To the best of my knowledge–which is always a conditional to be understood when reading my work. Like you, I want to know the truth, and if my knowledge changes b/c of evidence I am all the happier.

If that work has been fully carried out somewhere, I’d love to have the reference. Otherwise I suspect it’s an embellishment of the conversation, however appropriate to Laplace its content might be.

I might be able to tap a few veins for more information on certain points, but I don’t plan to write the full story myself. I’ve done that for Newton’s alleged belief in the “clockwork universe,” but there are only so many stories one can tackle properly in one lifetime.

(Lou Jost) #17

Thanks for the reply, Ted.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #18

i don’t think that’s what Laplace was driving at, Jon—he was simply against the idea that God needed to intervene in order to fix things. Let me inquire into your reference to Kuhn here: do you perhaps have in mind pp. 105-106 in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions?

(Dr. Ted Davis) #19

Yes, indeed, Newton spent a great deal of time and energy on alchemy (which was basically chemistry and/or matter theory and was mostly not nonsense) and theological topics (quite a bit of it not nonsense either, though I doubt you will agree). He actually wrote far more about either of them then he did about physics and mathematics. Sometimes I hear scientists say that Newton was a physicist and mathematician who “dabbled” in alchemy and theology (I am actually quoting a famous physicist here, but I will leave that person anonymous so as not to drag them into this), when it might be better to reverse those categories. True, he held a chair of mathematics for about 3 decades, making him quite properly a mathematician who focused on natural philosophy; but, he worked far more consistently over time in the other fields.

There are two larger questions implicit in your assessment of his career, Lou. I won’t try to answer them here, only b/c they can’t be answered in a few sentences and I don’t have time to write a few papers about them at the moment; but, I will formulate the two questions here:

(1) Given that his work in both alchemy and theology inspired and/or lay behind some of his key scientific ideas (gravitational attraction is one of them), what calculus can we use to conclude that all of that work on alchemy and theology was wasted?

(2) Given that various philosophical, religious (here I include the denial of religion also as religious), political, and personal factors are part of the historical mix in understanding the discoveries of so many important scientists, what calculus can we use to conclude that religious beliefs (Christian, atheist, or otherwise) “hurt at least as often as they help”?

Since we haven’t even broached (2) so far, I’ll offer just one example of a non-Christian belief that was pretty important in shaping some science in the 19th century: Lyell’s conviction (coming out of his Unitarian conception of God) that this is the best of all possible worlds, which led him to hold to a strict uniformitarianism in geology, according to which the history of the Earth was a “steady state,” with no major changes over time in the kinds of forces acting on the planet or the kinds of life forms living on the planet–except for human beings (he held us out of the whole process, or we would not “supervene” the rest. Darwin held to Lyell’s strict uniformitarianism in geology, leading him to reject glaciers as major shapers of the Earth’s surface; a pertinent example is his erroneous theory of the formation of the parallel roads of Glen Roy. He rejected Lyell’s view of the history of life, however; instead, he accepted the view coming from the “catastrophist” school, namely that God had created organisms progressively–indeed, the term “progressive creation” comes right out of this period.

This just shows how hard it can be to throw religious views under the bus, when assessing their role in the history of science.

(Jon Garvey) #20

Thanks for reply, Ted.

You cite the very place, and especially:

By the mid eighteenth century that interpretation had been almost universally accepted, and the result was a genuine reversion (which is not the same as a retrogression) to a scholastic standard. Innate attractions and repulsions joined size, shape, position, and motion as physically irreducible primary properties of matter.

On reflection, Laplace comes well after the end of that process, so was presumably brought up in that “scholastic standard” so that action at a distance no longer seemed unscientific… just God.

(sy_garte) #21

I wonder if its fair to say that Newton’s life could serve as an examplar of the evolution of magic into both science and religion. Alchemy was originally a magical tool (Magic is long on technique and short on theory) that evolved into the science of chemistry when its practitioners observed regularity and order in what they were seeing in their laboratories. At the same time, alchemy was becoming a spiritual discipline involving meditation and self purification, with a recognition of the divine spark at work in each human being. So modern religious mystics and modern analytical chemists share an ancient heritage of magic, which neither would acknowledge plays any role in their current views of reality. The confusion of magic with religion by most atheists (as Lou admits to) is a barrier to understanding how a religious scientist like Newton (and many others) perceive the world, and make great discoveries (see Ted’s earlier pieces on Boyle for more on this).

(Lou Jost) #22

Ted, I think your example of Lyell is another good one illustrating my point. These religious beliefs are part of the unavoidable prejudices each scientist has when he approaches his investigation. Sometimes they help, sometimes they hurt, sometimes both (as in Lyell), but in each case the effect seems idiosyncratic and fortuitous, not something that argues for the overall validity of any particular religion.