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


While I do not find a discussion on “gaps” interesting, I note that often discussions that include the term “alchemy” degenerate this activity as some type of witchcraft, superstition, and what have you. A simple search of the web will bring up the following (typical) comments:

“Alchemists contributed to an incredible diversity of what would later be recognized as chemical industries: basic metallurgy, metalworking, the production of inks, dyes, paints, and cosmetics, leather-tanning, and the preparation of extracts and liquors. It was a fourth-century Indian alchemist who first described the process of zinc production by distillation, a 17th- century German alchemist who isolated phosphorus, and another German alchemist of the same period who developed a porcelain material that broke China’s centuries-old monopoly on one of the world’s most valuable commodities. These contributions proved valuable to the societies in which alchemists lived and to the advancement of civilization.”

A lot of what we know about alchemy seems to involve a purification of things – but it also includes a great deal of mysticism, greed (making gold from base metals), and mixtures of Greek and Egyptian outlooks. It had a hold on many thinkers well before Newton, and it also spawned many con-men and frauds. Nonetheless, it was also the activity that ultimately developed into chemistry, which is often regarded as the central science since it connects the other disciplines, physics, metallurgy (material sciences) and bio-sciences.

When we develop a balanced view of alchemy, I would not ask why Newton took an interest in it, but rather, I would say how such an intellect would not be interested in such central activities. It is hubris on a massive scale that motivates the odd comments against alchemy – and as a parting shot to Darwinians, I add, “look at the progress made by Chemistry since the days of Newton and others such as Dalton, and think on the lack of similar progress displayed by those who are fixated on Darwinian thinking!”

This Laplace/Newton case actually illustrates very well my contention that religious motivations are a mixed bag, harming or helping at random. Newton’s theism led him to the wrong answer about the need to periodically tweak planetary orbits. It was Laplace’s deism and prejudice against Christianity that motivated him to look deeper, eventually proving that Newton was wrong about this.

I agree with you about alchemy, as I said above. Regarding the “lack of progress” ascribable to Darwinism, Darwinian thinking (particularly the central insight of Darwin regarding common descent) has led to immense progress in understanding the genome and the between-species patterns contained in it (among many other things).

I substantially agree with you here, Lou. We agree that “each scientist” has “unavoidable prejudices,” including views about God, nature, and humanity. We also agree that—at least for many cases—“the effect seems idiosyncratic and fortuitous, not something that argues for the overall validity of any particular religion,” including the overall validity of atheism (pace Dawkins and Coyne). Again, this is something I could write buckets about, under ideal circumstances, but here I can only nod in the general direction of the buckets. Let me then nod.

B/c we are in the midst of an ongoing culture war, in which science is often used as a weapon by combatants from various sides, my views on this can easily be misunderstood. My view is not that science somehow “proves” the truth of Christianity or theism more generally. (You know this, Lou, b/c I’ve sent you some publications in which I make that clear, so I write this for most other readers who know only what they’ve seen here on BL.) That might surprise some readers, so I’ll elaborate in a moment. At the same time, it should be obvious to all that I wholly reject the polar opposite claim as well, namely,
that science either “disproves” belief in God, or that it makes Christianity incredible. I don’t need to elaborate on that one…

My view is partly (not entirely) captured by the following statements. (1) Christian beliefs are conducive to doing good science. I state this in the present tense, but since I’m an historian no one will be surprised if
I were to expand the verb to “have been and still are…” I will come back to this in a separate response to you shortly, Lou. (2) Both nature and the science of nature [i.e., the fact that science is possible at all, and that science as we actually do it is so successful] make more sense in light of theism than they do otherwise. I don’t see either (1) or (2) or the combination of (1) and (2) as a “proof” that Christianity is true, but I do see them as a credible response to Dawkins and Coyne, who want to drive Christianity out of
existence and shame public Christian scientists into silence. (The shame is actually on them, but let’s leave that for another day.) In other words, my approach is more modest and more subtle than that of many prominent “culture warriors.” Indeed, I believe that one of the first casualties in culture wars is the
truth, and I’m a lover of truth. I don’t mean to imply that you aren’t a lover of truth, Lou—you are, judging from your many contributions to the conversation here—but I am not convinced that all others are.

Those interested in what such a response might look like, are invited to view this: Google Workspace Updates: New community features for Google Chat and an update on Currents

Having said this, I now return to the first paragraph of this comment, which would be good to read again now. The third paragraph indicates why I included the phrase, “at least for many cases,” as an editorial
change to your statement, before I agreed with it. I am convinced that there are some general themes that one can draw, along the lines of paragraph three, out of the individual cases, which are often quite messy when taken in isolation. This isn’t the place to write that book. I responded to Gleiser’s
column with one of my own, however, b/c he was taking a standard historical case—Newton’s invocation of divine action to plug a whole in his mathematics—and extrapolating it inappropriately into a general rule that only a highly secular attitude toward the world is conducive to doing good science—such that we need to stop thinking about God when we think about nature. I think that’s what he means to imply at the end of his editorial, and I don’t want such a takeaway message to go unchallenged, as if it were an obvious conclusion from the history of science (a topic in which Gleiser has much interest but no actual expertise).

It’s possible that Laplace was motivated in just that way, Lou; I don’t know his story well enough to comment either way. However I do know the story of Fred Hoyle well enough to point out that it was his atheism (not deism or even agnosticism) that motivated him to reject what he himself was the first to call the “big bang” theory, precisely b/c he could not tolerate the apparent implication that the universe was not eternal.

Compare this with the more modest attitude of George Lemaitre, who was not driven to oppose the evidence for a moment of origin, but who at the same time advised his own boss–the Pope–not to rely to strongly on his theory to bolster belief in God.

As always, Lou, I really enjoy interacting with you, but I don’t have the time to keep this going. At least in our new format here we all have to take a rest after 7 days. Almost biblical, that. :wink:

Ted, I notice in these Youtube clips here and here (second one being Fr. Robert Barron --part of a lecture about Scientism) that a perhaps less staunch atheist than Hoyle, Einstein, also opposed LeMaitre’s theory of origins on the strength of intuited beliefs. That example may be less to-the-point since Einstein might more properly fit into some agnosticism (but wouldn’t be confused with traditional theists or Christian believers in any case), but nevertheless Einstein seems to fit as one more example where somebody’s lack of traditional theism wasn’t necessarily a boon towards ensuring their “correct” choices. --at least I get that on the strength of these clips, but would welcome any clarification that may be needed.

That is not to disagree with you all that it is a very mixed bag. I just think it important to be aware of these kinds of examples too since we tend to be inundated with a mythologized version of the opposite sort --namely Galileo.


Your detailed, carefully considered comments on the larger question here (Christianity and the history of science) are very much appreciated. Thank you for taking time to share them. You are obviously a trained scholar, for your citations are spot on and your analyses quite carefully stated. I doubt I could have said any of this more clearly myself.

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Quite right, Merv, Einstein’s opposition to Big Bang Cosmology–and also to the Copenhagen interpretation of QM–is an excellent and pertinent example. I was about to use it myself, in one of my replies to Lou, but I ran out of time at that moment and left it out. His opposition to both ideas was not quite religious, at least not in the traditional sense, but it was certainly metaphysical. It absolutely shaped his science–it led him to alter his own theory of General Relativity, and led him to propose some heavy duty thought experiments (remember that this was a person who did a lot of his science via thought experiments) against Bohr and the Copenhagen view. To which Bohr, who wasn’t a theist of any sort, replied, “Stop telling God what to do.”

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Just a short follow-up on Lou’s suggestion about a possible reference to the Laplace-Napoleon exchange in the correspondence between Augustus de Morgan and John Herschel, a suggestion I regard as potentially fruitful.

Herschel’s correspondence is not published as yet, but there is a search engine covering what historians call the “calendar” of the correspondence—namely, the descriptions accompanying the chronological
listing of each letter. These were written by the historians who’ve been working with it. I used the engine ( at John Herschel Correspondence) to get these results; a result means that a specific word is keyed with a specific letter to or from John Herschel:

Napoleon =6 letters

Laplace = 65 letters, including a few letters to and from

de Morgan = 440 letters, a large percentage of which are to
or from de Morgan

Specifically, letter 7237, from de Morgan, is described thus: “Sending various tracts and a miscellaneous collection of lives. Would [John Herschel] look at the life of William Herschel and make any alterations
or corrections as he sees fit.” This at first strikes me as a possible place for the information sought, but letter 7237 is not referenced for Laplace or for Napoleon. However, the “life of William Herschel” apparently written (at what length I cannot say) by de Morgan could perhaps mention the anecdote. If I had these sources at arm’s length I would certainly take a look, but I don’t. Nor do I know whether the MS life of W Herschel still exists, so that could easily be a dead end. In addition, I consulted with some experts on Herschel’s correspondence, and they cannot recall any references to the anecdote in the correspondence.

The principal biographer of Laplace was the late Roger Hahn. I haven’t read that biography fully, but I’ve skimmed it carefully using the index. He mentions the incident only briefly, concluding as I have that “the oft-repeated phrase may not have been spoken verbatim, but Hershel’s diary records an event that reports the gist of the exchange.” (p. 172) Hahn actually said a little more (not much more) in the chapter he contributed to this excellent book ( http://www.amazon.com/God-Nature-Historical-Encounter-Christianity/dp/0520056922) published many years ago. In a footnote, he gives de Morgan as the original print source of the story, in an article from The Athanaeum (1864) that I have never seen.

However, as this source ( http://www.eoht.info/page/Napoleon+Laplace+anecdote) documents, there is an earlier reference to the anecdote, from an American writer in 1839, so Hahn’s information about de Morgan is incorrect. I was relying on Hahn in my column. The original source given is given as The New-York Review - Google Books. So, we can trace the story further back than de Morgan, perhaps making the content of his life of William Herschel moot, for our purposes. The mystery of the origin remains.

The rest, as my college physics texts used to say (with apparent smiles from their authors), is left as an exercise for the reader. :relaxed:

Very interesting Ted, nice work. The de Morgan letter you cite strongly suggests that Herschel’s son — who would surely have heard his father talk about his encounter with Napoleon and Laplace — had vetted de Morgan’s account of Herschel’s life. If de Morgan had mentioned the encounter in that account, then, it would carry quite a lot of weight.

That 1839 reference you gave is also interesting for the lines that follow Laplace’s quote. It claims that any fool can see that God has been tinkering with America’s destiny, controlling it and guiding it and protecting it in order to make it some sort of divine showcase of democracy. Take that, you Brits!

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