Did Newton’s God Vanish with the “Gaps” in His Science?
While it's true that we should avoid God-of-the-gaps thinking, as Newton's work shows, this does not mean that belief in God is unhelpful, toxic, or irrelevant to science.
In a recent blog at NPR.org, Dartmouth College physicist Marcelo 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 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 actually make 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.
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