Conflict in the Newtonian Worldview

In the first article of this series I gave a history of the Conflict Thesis and described its origin. In the second I have shown how Galileo’s role in the Copernican controversy is not a good example of conflict between science and religion, any such attempt being an overly simplistic and therefore a wholly inadequate description. This article will briefly sketch – very briefly – the period from Galileo in the seventeenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century in terms of the supposed conflict between science and region.

Stephen Hawking lauds Galileo as the person responsible, perhaps more than any other single person, for the birth of modern science.[1] Galileo’s influence on science was more than a beleaguered theory. Gonzalez explains;

“…Galileo proposed . . . a strictly empirical and mathematical method for the observation of the universe. This was probably his greatest contribution to the development of modern science.”[2]

It was Isaac Newton (1643-1727) who went further than Galileo by applying the same empirical and mathematical method. He managed to show that a broad range of observational data conformed to certain principles. Like the cogs of a clock the universe was a grand machine[3] running according to “laws of nature.” The theological entailments of the “mechanistic” worldview that came to be attributed to Newton were two sided.

First, it cleared the path for Deism, for it was seen that the direct and miraculous intervention of God was no longer needed to explain the universe.[4] Rationalism and skepticism were already a part of the milieu of the age, and Deism was the application of these to religion. There were Deists present before Newton, such as John Locke (1632-1704), but their thought gained in influence when this Newtonian ethos was also imbibed in the culture. The result was thinkers like and David Hume (1711-1776) in Britain, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Voltaire (1694-1778) in France, and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) in America – all famous Desist. Philosophies that were anti-Christian in flavor, such as Scientism and Empiricism found in this new age of scientific discovery a modicum of credibility, which led to an increasing disengagement with ecclesial authority and Christian doctrine; especially on revelation, miracles and the divinity of Jesus. Brook notes;

“In an age when unprecendented confidence was placed in the power of human reason, the methods and achievements of the sciences were a powerful resource for those who, with a variety of motives, launched their assault on established Christianity. But to reduce the relations between science and religion to a polarity between reason and superstition is inadmissible, even for that period when it had such rhetorical force. It was often not the natural philosophers themselves, but thinkers with a social or political ax to grind, who transformed the sciences into a secularizing force.”[5]

Second, it immediately suggested design, and provided a philosophical foundation for the Natural Theology that would blossom in the nineteenth century.[6] William Paley (1743-1805) was one among many who was impressed with Newton’s work and the idea of the universe working as a clock works unaided. Set against the background of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution and people’s interest in machines, Paley rescued the Newtonian clockwork metaphor that was hijacked by Deists and argued that watches require watchmakers. Rather than implying Deism, Paley saw that mechanism implies contrivance: watches require watchmakers: laws need lawgivers. His Natural theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1805) is widely regarded as the most significant contribution to the teleological argument.[7] It had a profound effect on English culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, and was required reading for Cambridge University applicants until the twentieth century.[8] Paley’s arguments and other publications were direct responses to David Hume’s (1711-1776) critiques. These employed observations of the world as demonstrations of divine agency.

There was a mixed response, therefore, to the “mechanistic” worldview. Science was being used by Christians to help prove – or at least demonstrate the plausibility of – the theological thesis of God’s nature and existence. Science was also used being used in conjunction with anti-Christian philosophies accompanying the Enlightenment to disprove theological theses – or at least demonstrate their implausibility. The conflict between science and religion then (if it ever existed) historically was only because science combined with philosophies that were surplus and separate to it.[9] For Newton the notion of a conflict between science and religion was alien, for he viewed both as complimentary interests. The mechanistic worldview that was given the name the “Newtonian” worldview because it was produced by his achievements, was not one held by him.

This is evident in that Newton distinguished himself with more than scientific and mathematical genius; he was also a dedicated theologian who hoped his work in natural philosophy (or scientific studies for the modern ear) would encourage people to believe in a deity. The motivation for his work, it is argued, was to show God’s activity in the world[10] rather than an absentee architect. He was like Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who famously said;

“I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it befits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.”[11]

Moreover, Newton had a profound impact on the philosopher, America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who was no small enthusiast of observing and investigating nature and saw no conflict there. Many Puritans in the New World like Edwards were impacted by Newton, and went on to make significant contributions to science, their Christian faith providing the motivation, conceptual framework, and ethical values required for the scientific endeavor to succeed. This was also true for the culture as a whole, for Christians built the first universities providing higher learning and education for a broad range of people to whom it was previously unavailable.

So it is more the case that science was grown and nurtured by Christians rather than pitted against religious thinkers. Newton and Edwards, among many others intellectuals the Enlightenment, understood that seeking scientific truth was a Christian enterprise that showed not only the beauty and wonder of God’s creation but, by extension, God Himself.[12] Dissenting voices were not entirely absent – there were those who thought science disproved religious claims, but theirs was a science wedded to dispositions and ideologies that were anti-Christian to begin with.

The next installment in this series will be on the great English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1822) and on the response to evolutionary theory.


[1] Stephen Hawking “Galileo and the Birth of Modern Science.” American Heritage’s Invention & Technology, Spring 2009, Vol. 24, No. 1, p. 36

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 3. (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 1987) p. 319-20

[3] “Newton was able to demonstrate that a cast range of observational data could be explained on the basis of a set of universal principles. Newton’s success in explaining terrestrial and celestial mechanics led to the rapid development of the idea that the universe could be thought of as a great machine, acting according to fixed laws.” Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 17

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 3. (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 1987) p. 319-20

[5] John Hedley Brooke. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p. 13

[6] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 18

[7] Ibid. p. 99.

[8] Willaim Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics, Third edition. (Grand Rapids, Ill.; Crossway 2007) p. 256.

[9] Religion, specifically Christianity, also combined with philosophies that were separate and surplus to is as well. For example, in “Conflict for Copernican Controversy” it is explained that the Catholicism made itself the guardian of Aristotelian philosophy and Ptolemaic geocentricism.

[10] Richard L. Gorsuch, Integrating psychology and spirituality? (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002) p. 16.

[11] Alan L. Gillen, The Genesis of Germs: The Origin of Diseases and the Coming Plagues, (New Leaf Publishing Group, 2007)

[12] To work in the sciences, for the Christian, imbibes a spiritual dimension that could be seen as worship. Nature reveals God in a sort-of third testament.

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