Last night’s third installment of Cosmos was, on the surface, less evangelizing in its materialism than were the first two installments. The best, truest segments of the episode were those that stick closely to the evidence. I enjoyed the discussion of the Oort cloud, and the narrative thread about Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, and Edmund Halley.
Unfortunately, host Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Cosmos producers have enshrouded this basic science with the same materialist narrative we’ve come to expect. Pre-modern peoples universally see false patterns and portents in the heavens, and invariably see the irregular specter of comets as portents of doom. We get the stereotypical contrast between a “prescientific world ruled by fear” — signaled by a cartoon drawing of a malevolent figure wearing a bishop’s miter — and the emergence of modern science, which finally delivered us from such obscurantism.
This way of framing the history of science, however, requires a great deal of distortion and misrepresentation, especially when it comes to the figure of Isaac Newton. With Newton, the Cosmos writers encountered a dilemma: Either ignore his frankly religious and theistic view of reality, or misrepresent and compartmentalize it. They chose the latter course.
Newton, says Tyson, was a “a God-loving man, he was also a genius.” The very construction of the sentence subtly suggests a contrast between “God-loving” and “genius.” One wonders whether an earlier draft of the script said “a God loving man, but also a genius.”
In any case, Newton’s religious ideas, along with his abiding interest in alchemy, are safely quarantined from his scientific work. Newton, we learn, was “obsessed with finding hidden messages in the Bible,” and apparently spent a great deal of time with this obsession. Nevertheless, his lifelong research in “alchemy and biblical chronology never led anywhere.”
Contrast that with his great scientific work in the Optics and the Principia. When Newton was born, Tyson explains, people thought the Solar System had been created by God. In the Principia, which Tyson describes as the “opening pages of modern science,” Newton succeeds in replacing God, that master clockmaker, with … gravity.
This would have been surprising to Newton. And it would be surprising to any literate reader of the Principia, and especially the section known as the General Scholium. There, Newton argued from the very clockwork of the Solar System to the activity and existence of a transcendent God.
It’s true that Newton’s “teleo-mechanistic” view of the universe differed from the Aristotelian understanding that had dominated the pre-Copernican cosmology. Explaining this, however, would have been required philosophical acumen far beyond what we’ve seen so far in Cosmos. Still — and here’s the main point — Newton’s actual view, and his actual argument in the Principia, are so blatantly theistic that only the most willful blindness could miss it.
Here’s how Newton explains the orderly movement of the planets around the sun in the General Scholium:
But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions: since the Comets range over all parts of the heavens, in very eccentric orbits. For by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the Planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detain’d the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these being form’d by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed Stars is of the same nature with the light of the Sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems.
In other words, the intricate clockwork of our Solar System and any other star systems that may exist required a master clockmaker. Indeed, Newton goes much farther than modern intelligent design arguments. He argues that the astronomical evidence points inexorably to the transcendent and all-powerful God of theistic belief.
At the time, Newton’s appeal to a gravitational force — which implied that objects influence other objects instantaneously from a distance — seemed like occultism to the followers of Descartes whose intuitions were more decidedly materialistic. If, like the Cartesians, you view reality as a bunch of little sticky balls bouncing around in the void, then Newton’s idea of gravity — instantaneous action at a distance — seems downright spooky. It was just too anti-materialist.
One need not defend the details of Newton’s argument to see the obvious: in “the opening pages of modern science,” one of the greatest geniuses of the scientific revolution made an argument for intelligent design. That’s pretty good company.